A Christmas Story – draft 1 – opening.
The fabric of the night sky is poked through with the inverted peaks of mountains hanging above the firmament that rises above our world. That upside-down land, blue-cloud-mountain-land is where the Others live. Tonight they will come and it will be for the first time – at least for me, for this is the first Yuletide I remember.
Shadows and light are my memories from before this time – though I remember my mother telling me we must prepare the way, prepare for Him to come. We call him the Lord of Years, the God of the Axle-wheel.
It is not only our cabin bustling with anticipation at his coming. The whole tribe is excited. It has always been so at this time of year, they say, for generations.
“First things first, little one,” my mother smiles.
She has brown hair, long, braided. Winter flowers tied in to the braids and across the top of her head. Hedgerow blooms that grow by winter-iced fields. My mother. I look hard at her. I want to remember her like this, this beauty and kindness forever.
She wears the traditional dress of the season, long robe: blues and whites, shades of night and glacier, frozen air, night shadows, white teeth of forest wolves. It all shimmers like the shiver-furred field creatures.
I look at her again with wide eyes, and to the bowl of oil before us. With this we prepare.
Because there will be a procession, first there is the binding of the torches. “Like this,” she pulls a long strip of Cambric from the oil and breathes a blessing.
The wrapping of the cloth has a song that goes with it. My mother fixes her steady eyes on me and explains: “To bind the power of the light, we invoke the mistress of the fire, the goddess Syumak, who also creates the heat for the oven where bread rises.” She sees my blank look as I try to make sense of her words. She explains: “The bread grows and takes shape in the oven as a baby in the mother, and this is how life and bread are one and the same. From the belly of the oven, life flows to the bellies of the family, so the old saying goes.” Now she straightens and looks to my father, standing to one side as she imparts the ancient knowledge.
He adds his own thoughts, in the way he does, ramming the point home, words like stones falling.
“We worship the bread. And the cutting down of the corn. Its sacrifice gives new life to all.”
My mother nods and then adds her explanatory gloss to his words. “Syumak also is the goddess who presides over the cutting of the loaf. So, she is called The Knife.”
I see a light inside me: a glimmer of understanding. Circles, the world is circles and more circles, something in me says
Just so with the wrapping of the cloths. My mother chants the song in a simple tune that rises and falls in unison with the movement of her hands:
“Syumak says round the brand once
And light will come as sun shall shine
Syumak cries round the brand twice
And rain shall feed the corn and vine
Syumak laughs: round the brand thrice
And Barley browns to cut and grind
Syumak shouts four times and more
Now feel the heat of the oven’s roar!
Light shall raise the dead to life
and shadows run from shining Knife”
Once the cloth is wrapped, she says:
“Like this, too,” and we put the wooden guard plate in place to protect small hands from sizzling drips.
Fire. The golden power that eats the gods of night, sends away the Shadow Wolves who steal behind walls waiting to pounce, never willing to attack so long as the brand is held high. This battle against the darkness is as it has always been, from the Beginning.
We strike the brands into life with sparkstone, and blue flames leap from the tips as the oil takes, while Unseen Syumak breathes her life into them. The brands are the shining knives we lift above our heads as we step out, myself, mother and father into the frozen night. It feels like a dream. I have the impression of almost floating down the steps to join the river of villagers ahead of us. Each of those we join have their own brands held high, casting dark shadows beneath us while around us with breath and light we create a halo glow. So we mingle our individual selves together – sound and light and heat and breath, as a slow chant begins. A murmur of hymns rising to the sky in a cloud of vapour voices hanging and echoing against the frozen trees, until the sound dissipates, and is replaced by the next cloud of sound, rich, intense, earnest – rising once more in a steam of exhalation and light.
“Sing, my son. Sing louder.” My father looks down at me, his eyes agleam with wild excitement as the light plays on his face. “Sing so the Lord of Years can hear us and the great Axle-wheel will turn and turn again, bearing our world upon it.” – My father’s voice is deep in his chest and powerful. Like the roaring of the stormwind and the rumble of thunder.
So I join in the old slow hymn as we take our steps together – villagers old and young, elder and loafmaker, seer and hunter, spinner and storymaker, farmer and carpenter – all together in one long snake that sings one by one the seasonal songs.
Child of the years
Father of time
Two faced god
See the world
Through your eyes
Round the circle of darkness and light
Make the world afresh in your sight
Sleep and rise again
A world beyond our pain.
Hymn rising and echoing through snowladen trees, we make our procession to the House of Divided Paths that stands in the Shifting Glade. I have been told of it, but at first sight of the building I pull back, a growing sense of fear at the vision playing before my eyes. The brand shakes in my hand: there is magic here, and it both attracts my young mind and fills it with fear.
My father lays his hand on my shoulder and asks in an amused voice.
“Isn’t it a wonder, son?”
I turn my face up to him, but he himself is looking on in wonder. My mother’s eyes meet mine, and she explains in her light, sing-song voice:
“This is a Wishmaker’s House, one of the Winter Mysteries – existing through difference, unstable, coming into being anew again and again between all those things that might be.”
I look on, trying to fit this explanation with what I see. My father is right, I decide, it is a wonder. One moment a lowly hovel, the next a castle the next a ruin, a cottage prim and proper surrounded by apple trees and moss and golden light. In this form it settles as we approach – a line of expectant children, our eyes popping out in excitement and fear. The younger ones ahead of me look as afraid as I am, the older children almost embarrassed at wanting to come back here, as if the knowledge it offers is for a younger version of themselves, or as if they are in on a secret they know they must not share.
I step forward under the torch light as one child after another disappears through the doorway. Its smell is spice and sweetness in some moments, but not for long, for it is never stable, sometimes it is the smell of the earth, or campfires, or animals, sometimes honey-scented winter treats. And the line of children moves forward, entering it one by one, in long, slow procession.
So we wait, our blazing brands filling the air with black guttering smoke that sits heavily in our lungs causing a lazy cough in some of us. Somehow, a stupor settles on me as I breathe it in – lethargy falling through my limbs, weighing them down as if they are made of lead or gold. I see my arms shining, reflecting, metallic, and see the metal of the knife in the brand I hold above me – the gold that is the source of the sun, forever, unchanging, and think I can see Revered Syumak smiling down upon me.
The chanting and singing goes on. We stand under the night. The stars that are the ice-bound peaks of the inverted otherworld twinkle in reflection of our brandlight just as they did before. The night becomes a whirl of shadows and faces and light and stars. And the heavy black-brand-smoke fills my nose and mouth.
My mother is looking intently at my face, then exchanges a glance with my father, then looks back to me. She says:
“The world of surfaces is just that. There is also the world below the surfaces.”
As she says it, I become aware of how the spirits of the woods have gathered, twisted and tall, leafy and lithe, heavy and light, to watch this procession. And with them are the spirits of the tribe of the dead, who haunt the barrows in the Silent Fields and Towers of Death. Chill deathghosts of children stand before us. No-one else can see them, but I can.
They are there, beneath the surface of the air, just as mother said.
She knows, and she tells me, unprompted:
“A few times a year they venture forth to see their children’s children are performing the rites correctly. These spirits always appear as children. They stand on the forest eaves a moment in the distance, and then they are gone.”
And it is as she says. Gone.
But the next moment I see them again, growing from the breaths we exhale, breaths heavy with the black-smoke-brand-light. I see them though no-one else can. They are young like us – forever young – as if dying is to be born anew and never to age. And this time my mother is not aware of them, either.
One after another, the living children are consumed by the Wishmaker’s House, accompanied sometimes by one of the dead who hovers near them, attached to them via a cord of breath. The doorway seems now to be the mouth of a great worm breathing reeking fumes into the Shifting Glade. The fumes lie heavy on my lungs and the vision of the dead children grows stronger still. One stands with me, growing out of my breath, its eyes searching me. I jump as I recognise it, for it is me as I have seen myself reflected in polished knife and lakewater and the glassware that costs so much and is so fragile, that my parents only own in sparse quantity and keep in a wooden cabinet for rare use. How is it possible to be alive and dead – for here we are! A miracle as of air made solid, just so with this apparition beside me. It looks at me intensely and makes no expression at all. It just is there, beside me.
And in this way, with it for company, the line steps up toward the door and we arrive at the dark opening.
My father pushes me roughly forward and tells me “Just go. Go forward. You will see,” and my mother nods and smiles. And so I prepare to go inside and my double makes a sign in the air with his right hand and is gone, and though they did not see it, my parents also make the same sign each with their right hand – a symbol in the air representing the eye that wards off ill-luck. They look to each other as I turn from them and step forward.
I am confused, dazed by the swirling, unstable nature of the Shifting House, by its flickering quality, not sure what the building was when I entered the doorway. Inside though, it is a low hut, and I see a shape in the darkness that beckons me forward.
“Come to the mirror” says an old crone surveying me from lined face, dark crack for a mouth. She is seated on the floor. In the next instant the old woman is gone and a red-headed girl is standing by me. She smiles kindly and says,
“Look and I shall know you.”
I look at her a moment longer. Perhaps it is the smoke, perhaps it is something else, but as I stand there and feel the earth shifting beneath my feet and the great infinite network that is attached – the roots and soil and sky and stars – I know the world to be different from what I have always imagined, less safe away from my parents, and colder, and stranger, and crueller.
Now the red haired girl has shifted out of reality, and the old crone is looking at me from further in the hut. I go to her. She raises her palms to my face, tracing her thumbs around my eyes and finishes in an act of blessing that ends with both thumbs coming together on the tip of my nose while her hands cradle either side of my face.
“Taste this,” she says, and proffers something, one second a gem-studded goblet, the next a crude beaker, then a drinking horn, a glass, an earthenware cup. I hesitate with a question in my eyes. She nods, smiles, says in an encouraging tone: “Come, come. We are seeking the Root of Eternity, which is only to be found in forgetting.”
So I take it, a strange slimy brew, a smell as of cinnamon and sweetness, of spices and laughter, and I gulp it down as she watches me.
I glance at her again and she is a shrunken thing, younger than me, a baby who looks to me with unfocussed eyes. She directs me to look into the depths of the flat surface she holds before me.
I look in the mirror, and I feel lonely then, as I see the swirling darkness of the Old Gods take shape in its depths. A movement there in its shadows, the first fumblings of matter into shape, directed by my consciousness – though I can not know that, not now, for I am a child and do not understand how we make our worlds. And yet I do understand, and this troubles me. In its depths I begin to see a face appear that is not my face – an older man, bearded, white haired.
“What – ?”
She smiles, pulls the mirror away, and laughs. She is a woman in her prime now, sapphire-hard eyes framed with black, black hair the colour of the darkest night, of forest sighs, of the deep web of growth that lives below the tree roots.
She stands, an impossibly tall robed figure, kohl around her eyes, ancient and timeless. Magnificent, her skin is the colour of sunlight, her robes shimmering gold and green.
“And here he is. The Christmas Child!” she shouts with delight and claps her hands. The mirror is gone, and in its place is a mass of malleable sunshine that she twists into a shape between her glowing fingers. She says:
“You are a rare one. Here is your wish – ” and hands it to me.
It is a piece of gold wire, shaped in a twisted loop – uroboros – the elders call it. It means more than the circle it creates. I look at it and do not understand.
“How can this be a wish?”
“You will see.”