Now To Conclude Our Christmas Mirth . . .

The tree has been taken down, ornaments stored, wreaths changed out for another year. A few Christmas cookies remain to be eaten, and some lebkuchen, but with the feast of the Epiphany, Christmas has ended for another year (unless you are Orthodox Christian, in which case, Merry Christmas! Or if you follow the tradition that Christmastide lasts until Candlemas and the feast of the Purification.)

January 6th is Twelfth Night. The Three Kings visit in some places, leaving gifts for children. Or perhaps La Befana comes to call, she who was too busy to go with the kings and so trails after them, seeking the Christ Child. It ended the official feasting and parties of Christmas, and the Solemnities of Christmas as well. It was time to return to work and the long nights of winter. The days are growing longer, but also colder in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Winter has a way to go yet.

“Three great wonders fell on this day: a star brought kings where an infant lay/

Water made wine in Galilee, and Christ baptized in Jordan.”

Three feasts fall on January 6, only one of which do I remember noticing as a child. My current place of singing does two – Epiphany and the baptism.


Goth Possum, an Abandoned Pie, and a Snowman Pat

Monday was odd. Or at least, on Monday morning I observed three odd things. Makes me wonder what would have happened if I’d gotten up earlier and gone wren hunting* . . . I might not want to know.

I finished a story, then went to the gym. On the way, I saw something lying in the road. Dark, furry, a dead animal lay in the road. As I slowed and detoured around it, it proved to be a melenistic possum. The late critter had a black coat shading to dark brown at the bottom of the flanks. The head looked normal grey possum color, but the tail seemed darker than standard. How odd. I’ve never seen one like that before, but it explains why it got hit in the wee hours of the morning.

The parking lot at the gym was full. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who wanted to get in a little exercise. I ended up parking in the unofficial overflow lot across the way. Technically, the lot belongs to a church, but they don’t mind us taking up some space, since we are well away from the office and the school door. Something round sat in a parking space beside a smaller car. I shrugged and parked, then hurried over and did my thing. The weight section was crowded with young men, all college age or so. A few older men and women worked out as well, but the average age had dropped by easily 20 years. I found an empty bench and lifted. I cut my workout short because of all the people coming and going. Many were not paying much attention to their surroundings, and I’ve almost gotten hurt before when a careless person distracted me during a big lift.**

I did cardio after my weights, then went back to the truck. The round thing proved to be an intact pumpkin pie. Someone had left a perfectly good pumpkin pie in the parking space. It looked store bought. That, or the baker is much better with crimping crusts than I am. Had it been dropped and abandoned? Had it been a spare that someone set down after a church function, got distracted, and left? No idea. Something would eat it, so I didn’t try moving it to one of the distant dumpsters.

Back home, I hopped out of the truck and noticed a disk of ice, like a cowpat, beside the truck in the garden. It sat right above one of the soaker heads for the irrigation system. Oh no. Had Dad and I forgotten to turn off both parts of the system? Oh dear. Not good. I looked for others, but didn’t find evidence of hose activation or other frozen material. What could have done it? As I turned toward the house, I saw that the bowl of water for the outdoor critters had been emptied of ice. Mystery solved!

Some Mondays are just strange.

*In Ireland and parts of England, it is traditional to hunt the wren on St. Stephen’s Day. According to legend, the wren betrayed Jesus. The wren is sometimes also associated with the darker side of magic and winter.

**As in almost brushed me as I lifted the weights over my head in a shoulder press. Please don’t be that person.

(I set new personal best weights in all categories this year – 85 lb bench, 50 lb shoulder press, 60 lb deadlift. Given my chronological maturity and mileage, this is a Good Thing. Also keep in mind I don’t have a spotter or trainer, so I progress very slowly and carefully.)

Christmas Rose Part Five

After the concert . . .

His and Lucy’s vehicles were the only ones left in the parking area. Jude relaxed even more, lowering his shields and reading the night. What was that? He turned toward south by west, tasting the flavor of the magic.

Craaaaan— Whrrr— Silence. He turned back to the pickup. Lucy undid the hood latch and got out. “Can you help me, please?”

“Ah, yes.” He hefted the heavy steel hood as she put the support in place. She had a little flashlight and peered into the engine. “That’s not good.” The alternator belt had failed.

“No. There’s a spare in the tool box, but I didn’t think to grab the key.” Irritation filled her voice. “And I left my phone on the kitchen table. I remembered it just as I got here.”

He started to reach into the rucksack on the seat of Martha’s car, then stopped. “And mine is at Aunt Martha’s, charging.”

She opened her mouth to say something, then froze, eyes wide. “Oh shit. What’s that? Bad magic!”

Without thinking he turned again. “Yes. In the state forest land on Hunter’s Road.”

“You’re that sensitive?” she breathed.

“I was warned. I need to go, now.” Except that meant leaving her here, in the cold. He hesitated.

“I’m coming with you. I can shield, and if it’s pattern magic, I can help.”

Jude shook his head. “No. If whoever it is summons something, Pasaru and I can’t fight it and protect you.”

Lucy planted her fists on her hips. “Jude Tainuit, I am not staying here. And I’m not helpless, remember?”

Defender, what do I do? The stench of wrongness grew worse, stronger and deeper. “I—”

“I’m not waiting here, she repeated.

Jude thought several unkind things, then nodded. “Come. Pasaru will meet us there. He tracks the scent of the magic.” He unlocked the car door. Lucy ducked in and had the seat belt fastened almost before he could close the door. Jude moved the rucksack to the back, then got in.

He started the engine, and split his senses, seeing both magic and the road. He drove west, toward Hunter Road and the state nature area. As they got closer, the sour feeling grew in intensity. Lucy made a face. He nodded again, then turned onto a long farm driveway. “We stop here. Don’t alert them. No panic,” Jude explained.

Lucy covered her eyes for a moment, then nodded and got out. She closed the door very quietly. “Panic means doing something stupid.” Her eyes unfocused for a few heartbeats. “More stupid. I sense strong intention but weak power right now. Close to coven magic but off center.”

“Yes,” a harsh voice said from above. Jude pulled on the right gauntlet and spun a tiny bit of magic into his right hand. Shoim landed. “Half a dozen, boys, don’t recognize the pattern. Good news—they cleared the leaves away from the fires.”

“Thanks be for small miracles,” Jude said under his breath in the clan’s speech. Lucy twitched. She stared at him with new intensity, then relaxed. Aloud he said, “Pasaru and I will track to the magic and deal with the boys. Shield, please, and be ready to grab overspill.”

She nodded as fast as possible. “Shield, and deal with overspill. Backlash is yours?”

“Yes, if it comes to that.” He’d hurt if it came to that. She could get help if that happens. Lady of Night, please may we not need that. Defender guide my blade if the Great God wills. And please may I not lose my temper. Pasaru did that.

They walked into the woods. “Cut fence,” Jude warned, gesturing toward the strands curling back onto the fencepost. A sound of acknowledgement came from behind him. Shoim hissed something unflattering. The snow-damp leaves made no sound. I don’t hear her steps. He turned his attention back to the magic ahead of them. The flavor grew still more sour and “dirty,” like laundry left too long unwashed in a plastic bag, or spoiled milk on a summer evening. Jude drew magic from Pasaru and from the night.

“Elemental, left side, by the stump” Lucy murmured. He stopped and turned. She turned as well and approached the knee-high, dark shape. She went to one knee and spoke quietly. The shape gestured then disappeared into the soil once more. She stood and returned. “The pattern directs magic down, into the ground. It’s worse down there than up here.” She stuck out her tongue. Blegh.

Without thinking he made the hand-sign for “proceed” and returned to the Hunt. Now he could see glimpses of light, flickers where none should be. Magic swirled ahead, some land power but more raw, untrained, and badly-directed personal power. By the Defender’s blade, what do they think to do? Aside from burn down the forest, that was. He stopped and observed as he drew more power from the flows around them.

Seven shirtless teenaged boys stood around a pattern scratched in the dirt and snow.  Five green and silver candles burned in cheap brass candlesticks. A weak shield surrounded the teens, so they had done one thing properly. Perhaps. As Jude watched, the magic in the outer shield faded, diverted to the primary spell.

Should he reach under and push the magic out of the soil, forcing it back in a way that would startle and disrupt the boys’ work? Or interrupt, break the pattern, and let Pasaru rip them apart with his tongue? The magic shimmered, grey and black overwhelming green.

“That’s not smart,” Pasaru whispered.

“No,” Lucy breathed. “They seek to summon money. They attract something else. The glyph miwali needs a limit mark.” The faint whiff of fear around her decided Jude.

“I end this. Shield and be ready,” he ordered. He cast a heavy shadow illusion around himself and Shoim, and stepped into the clearing. As he did, he punched through the remains of the outer shield and broke the summoning part of the spell. “What do you?”

Six of the seven jumped and stared. The spell wavered. The seventh boy chanted, “Almost there, almost there, I feel it moving to us!”

Jude undercut whatever answered. The magic recoiled and snapped back. Three boys yelped. He grabbed the backlash before it more than stung the fools. Pasaru hissed, “You know nothing of proper magic, fools and thieves the lot of you.”

“But, but,” one of the smaller boys said, eyes wide. “It’s not theft if you summon the money. It comes from a different plane.”

Lucy stomped up beside Jude, arms folded. “That’s pure bullshit,” she declared. “Everything returns three-fold, good and ill. You steal. And if you are trying to use a spell from Wizard of the West, you steal twice over as well as being dumber than a flock of spooked sheep.” Contempt oozed from her words. “And you didn’t read to the end of the book, where it clearly says that none of the spells will work. Where are your shields?” He felt her sending magic out as a shield around the pattern spell.

The most powerful magic worker, a redhead almost as tall as Jude, spluttered, “We had one, and there’s nothing that bad out here! Who the hell are you, anyway?”

Jude bared his teeth and stepped closer. He cast a small illusion, making Pasaru’s eyes and talons glow crimson and silver against the shadow behind them. “We are land workers sworn to the light. You profane this season with your greed.” He sent power into the pattern, then down, cupping his left hand as he caught the sour and twisting magic. He lifted it, making it visible as writhing red-eyed worms and vipers.

“Enough of this.” Jude shattered and cleansed the remains. Lucy shielded the boys from any overspill, smoothing it then passing it to Jude.

“We also know better than to attract creatures that eat magic users,” Pasaru snarled. “There bad things out here. Things that will make you piss yourself with terror. Then the beasts will play with you before consuming you. Slowly. Things like that,” he gestured with one wingtip.

Jude cast a third illusion, this one in the shape of one of the abyssal slime beasts he’d dealt with. A black spot turned into a maw as the green-purple foulness oozed over the forest floor, scorching the ground with its evil presence.

One of the boys swayed, then sat hard, about to faint. Jude dismissed the spell. “Douse the flames, take your candles, and go. Now.”

“And put on your shirts. That’s not how you do skyclad, and what you’re flashing won’t impress anyone.” Lucy snorted. “Trey, do your parents know that you’re out of the house tonight?”

The redhead smelled of panic and building fear. “Uh, uh, don’t tell them please! I promise I won’t do this again if you don’t tell them. I’ll be grounded for life.”

“If you’re lucky,” she replied. “Geh weg.” Scram.

The teens did as commanded. Lucy checked each candle in turn, making completely certain that the wicks stayed cold. The redhead found a stick and tore up the pattern as Jude glared at him. “Who cut the fence?”

Four boys pointed at the smallest teen, who shook his head. “Wasn’t me! And anyway, only two strands were still good when we—”

Shoim hissed.

“Taking after your Strohfus cousins, I see,” Lucy said. The temperature around them dropped several degrees from the ice in her voice. “Who will be in the county jail for six more months, might I remind you?”

“And whose father may spend several years in the state prison for cattle theft,” Jude added. “Find a better role model.”

Lucy and Shoim both pointed back to the east. The boys slunk away. Jude shadowed them far enough to make certain that they got to the edge of the woods, then returned. Lucy had scraped away the last bits of pattern. “The earth Elementals say thank you.” She glowered at the dirt, grumbling, “And they used oil pastel instead of proper chalk. Donnerwetter, what do they teach them in school?”

Jude reached out, seeking any hint of rot left in the soil. “Not common sense, that I am sure of.” Not rot, but something else bubbled up behind them. Lucy gasped. He spun around.

Ave Doamni Noxi,” Shoim whispered. Hail, oh Lady of Night.

“Jude?” Lucy held one trembling hand out ahead of her, not quite pointing. A soft red glow appeared on the ground, then grew taller, supported by green the color of all good and growing things. Magic flowed around them, wild and strong, heavy with mystery. The flower, now almost knee high, shimmered and began unfolding. He dropped to one knee. Beside him, Lucy did the same. “Es ist ein Rose entsprungen,” she breathed. Lo how a rose er’ blooming.

O Rose Mystica,” Shoim whispered. Oh, flower of mystery. The red bud opened, revealing a crimson heart shading to deepest pink with outer petals of purest white and blood red. The emerald green stem and leaves moved back and forth as if touched by a soft breeze, but no air moved in the darkness of the woodlot. Only ancient magic swirled, good, powerful, and fierce.

A second bud appeared beside the first, dark blue dotted with white. Jude’s breath caught as the bud opened, revealing petals the blue of the Lady’s robe, the statue in the clan’s chapel. The white spots shimmered like stars or silver beads for a handful of heartbeats, then deepened to the same beautiful azure as the rest of the petals. Thank You, oh thank You.

The flowers swayed. The scent of finest perfume, warm with spices, filled the hard winter air, then faded. The flowers too faded, disappearing into the darkness. Jude hung his head, eyes closed, locking the memory away in his heart. Then he stood and offered Lucy his free hand.

She accepted it, and he helped her to her feet. Instead of letting go, she moved closer, still holding his hand. “You saw—?” Wonder and hope filled her eyes.

He nodded, as did Shoim. “I did. We did. A true Christmas rose.” He tightened his grip the slightest bit. She leaned toward him.

“Ahem.” Shoim’s cough cut the cold air. “And you are going to see stars, if you are fortunate, when Mr. Hoffman catches you out in the woods at midnight with his daughter.”

Lucy blushed as she let go of Jude’s hand. “Hawk,” Jude began, teeth clenched, “your words are neither needed nor welcome.”

“And it’s not midnight yet, and I don’t have a curfew, Shoim.” Lucy shook one finger at the raptor. “Dad’s not that bad.”

If Shoim had possessed eyebrows, they would have risen with disbelief. “Really.”

Jude looked up at the bare branches and stars. Familiars! “We do need to get back to the car. I told Aunt Martha that the concert would be over at eight, and she’ll start worrying if her vehicle does not return on time.” He gestured toward the road. Lucy nodded and led the way along the deer path.

As they came in sight of the road, Shoim spread his wings a few inches. “You need to recharge, both of you. And it’s not just her vehicle that she’ll worry about, Jude. It’s you.” He began flapping. Jude extended his arm just in time as the harrier took off. “Meet you in town,” he called, then disappeared.

And just how is he going to land, pray tell? Some questions should not be asked aloud. With a grumble about Familiars and manners, Jude opened the car and offered Lucy her choice of snacks. She took the chewy dried fruit bar and a sausage kolache. He had the last kolache and some trail mix. Once they finished, Jude opened the door for Lucy, then checked the car as he walked around to the driver’s side. The teenagers had not done any damage that he saw. The car started as it should, and he drove to the Hoffman’s farm and specialty dairy.

As he turned off the road onto the Hoffman’s drive, Lucy shifted in the seat. “Your Familiar’s not exactly normal, is he? For Familiars, I mean.”

Jude took a long breath. “I would like to say that he’s the unhappy exception, but the other Familiars I’ve met share some of his, um, quirks?” Before she could panic, he added, “I’ve only met two others, so it might be just bad luck on my part.”

As he hoped, she giggled as she opened the door and got out. He followed her to the three-story wood and stone farmhouse. He waited at the foot of the front porch steps as she climbed them. The front door opened, and a large paternal figure loomed in the light of the doorway.

“Dad, the pickup died. Jude brought me home when we couldn’t get it started again. Straight home,” she added quickly. “I think it was the alternator, and I don’t have a toolbox key.”

“And your phone is here, on the kitchen table,” her father said, looking over Lucy to Jude. “And your phone?”

“I left it with Aunt Martha, sir.” He does not look pleased with either of us.

Mr. Hoffman glowered. “Hmm. I’ll get the key and see to the pickup. You will take me to town, yes, Jude?”

There is only one safe answer, I do believe. “Yes, sir.”

[Snip. The pickup is mended]

Mr. Hoffman returned everything to the tool box. Jude got well clear as the farmer climbed into the pickup’s cab and cranked the engine. The engine caught on the second try. Mr. Hoffman rolled down the window. Jude handed him the flashlight back. The older man studied him once more. “I see why Lucy likes you. You’ll do. Have a Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, sir.” Jude backed away, then moved the sedan. The pickup pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. Jude parked once more and went to where Shoim perched. “That was interesting.”

“I’ll say. See you at Martha’s house.” Shoim departed, leaving his mage shaking his head. As usual.

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

In Hoc Anno Domini

Every year, the Wall Street Journal publishes this editorial in the issue closest to, or on, Christmas Eve. I have a copy, carefully cut out and put away. Christian or no, the warning about other Caesars and the return of darkness still holds.

The opening of the editorial is below:

“When Saul of Tarsus set out on his journey to Damascus the whole of the known world lay in bondage. There was one state, and it was Rome. There was one master for it all, and he was Tiberius Caesar.

Everywhere there was civil order, for the arm of the Roman law was long. Everywhere there was stability, in government and in society, for the centurions saw that it was so.

But everywhere there was something else, too. There was oppression—for those who were not the friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people. There was the impressor to find recruits for the circuses. There were executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar?

There was the persecution of men who dared think differently, who heard strange voices or read strange manuscripts. There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life. What, to the strong, was one man more or less in a crowded world?

Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.

And the voice from Galilee, which would defy Caesar, offered a new Kingdom in which each man could walk upright and bow to none but his God. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. And he sent this gospel of the Kingdom of Man into the uttermost ends of the earth.

So the light came into the world and the men who lived in darkness were afraid, and they tried to lower a curtain so that man would still believe salvation lay with the leaders.”

For the rest of the editorial:

Christmas Rose Part Four

Something hides in the weeds . . .

The next morning, Jude pulled on a pair of very heavy work gloves and marched into Martha’s woodlot. He carried a brush-cutting blade, one he’d found in the “odds-n-ends clearance” at the hardware store. It went with the heavy leather arm guards strapped over his jacket. He made his way past the apple and pear orchard and glanced at a few cherry trees he’d discovered recently. The snow had amounted to a bare dusting that already melted from the county blacktop and bare fields. The sun felt almost warm on his shoulders as he picked his way over tree roots and around a stone-lined well. “You need to cover that,” Shoim informed him from overhead.

“Yes, but not today.” First he’d need to clear away the leaves and other things, then see what sort of well it might be. If it were worth cleaning out, then he’d tell Martha so she could add it to the plat maps and they’d use a different sort of cover. He continued on until he reached the southern end of the woodlot, where the nettles and scrub grew thickest. He studied the tangle. “I feel tired already.”

Shoim flapped past. He soared up onto a branch where he could watch. “Don’t push things too hard, Tenebriu. You need physical strength this time of year as well as magical.”

“Agreed.” Jude found what appeared to be the end of the mound of blackberry canes and other brush. “And I’ve not used one of these in my off-side hand for a while.” The brush-cutter was not his sword. He pushed some canes aside with his left arm and set to work. A short time later, he removed his jacket.

The sun reached noon. Jude stopped and eased his back, then shook out both hands. He’d made a path several feet wide through the tangle. In the process he found the remains of a stone wall of some kind. A number of mice flushed from cover as he worked, along with a ground squirrel. Shoim had dined well. “Defender be thanked,” Jude breathed as he stared at what hid behind the tangle and the now-dormant nettles.

Two small stone structures huddled in a brush-choked clearing. Jude eased closer, sniffing hard. “I don’t smell any larger animals.” Someone had made the larger building of fitted dark-grey stone blocks, or so it looked from outside. The door had long rotted away. He pulled a penlight from one of his belt pouches and shone it inside. The builder had included stone shelves. “Oh, a milk house of sorts.” He walked around the outside. No windows interrupted the walls. He nodded. When he leaned in and looked up, he only saw a few little pinpricks of light.

The other building perched over a cellar. This one, made of fist-sized chunks of rock cemented together, had suffered more from the years. It had once boasted a wooden floor. More holes than wood now covered the cellar. “Not today.” Nothing good would come of falling through rotten steps. Thank you, Lady of Night, who guides Her servants to safety. These were not as close to the house as the half-cellar, but looked far more weather-safe.

He switched to seeing magic. Nothing untoward appeared around him. Except . . . “What—?” A faint shimmer, not the warning color of twisted magic, but silvery and emerald green, flowed to the west. He traced it as far as the edge of the property. It vanished deep into the ground. “Pasaru, what see you?” he asked in his own tongue.

“Magic of the light, but different? Not land magic exactly, and not healing magic, but like both?” He sounded as puzzled as his mage. “I do not remember sensing that before. Where does it start?”

Jude pointed with the blade. “Under that ferocious heap of thorns and wickedness. Which I am not venturing to trim right now.” His shoulders ached, as did his back. “Now I remember why my uncles pooled their silver and bought a machine to fight vines and bushes.” Were this not so far from the road, I’d rent one and deal with that. But not today. And the stone wall might cause problems for a machine, should it eat one of the rocks.

“Might not be a bad idea. Oh, and I need some of the flat wooden things you use to mount trophies on.” Shoim took to the air, climbing out of calling range before his mage could do more than blink.

Jude shrugged and returned to where he’d left the sheath for the brush cutter and his jacket. Half a dozen mouse heads in a tidy row stared up at him from beside his jacket sleeve. Familiars.

The moment he returned to the house, Martha ordered him to take her car to the concert. “Lucinda is picking me up and bringing me home,” she told him. “No one knows when we’ll finish, so this is better for both of us.” As he opened his mouth to argue, she added, “And you will take the car to work tomorrow, and pick up my grocery order. And put gas in the car.”

Bauxite wandered into the kitchen.”Mrow?” She brushed Martha’s leg with her tail.

“And get cat treats, please. I forgot to add those to the list last week.” Martha leaned over and petted the cat.

I lost this fight before it began. “Cat treats. Yes, ma’am.” He retreated to the guest room to take a shower. Truly, the hot water heater was one of the Great God’s blessings to mankind! Hot water cured many of the world’s ills, at least for a short while. Dinner waited when he emerged, along with hot cocoa. “I’m working on Thursday, but in the afternoon.”

Martha slid a pan of something into the oven. “Good to know.” She straightened up and set the timer. “Oh, and I have an order with Mr. Heinz to pick up on Friday.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He dug into the last of the potato soup from Sunday. A toasted cheese sandwich waited as well. She’d used up the last of the loaf and some cheese of Uncertain Age. It had been something pale and tart, more tart than she preferred. He liked it, but couldn’t recall the name.

She sat across from him, a glass of water in her hand. “I’m sorry I can’t come to your concert.”

He blinked. “Ah, thank you. I know the quilting party has been scheduled for several months.” And if you don’t go, the other ladies will be very worried about you. For a week or so, it seemed as if every time he turned around, someone inquired about her health and if she needed anything. He’d been surprised and a little uncomfortable. His people did not discuss illness so much.

“Still, I want to hear you. Sean sang a little, mostly Irish songs and some military things.” She sounded wistful as she gazed past him, eyes unfocused. “And hymns at church, of course.”

“Of course.” He ate more, filling the empty space inside.

She drank half her water, then leaned over and pulled the To Do list pad closer. “So, cake done, sausage thawing, beans put on to soak, cheese grated,” she checked the items off. “Willa’s husband will drop something off at the bakery tomorrow, she called to tell me.”

“Apple butter?” he teased.

She smiled back, shaking the pen at him.

“I’m going to wait near the state forest land,” Shoim said as Jude got ready to depart. “I’ll meet you back here. I’m— I don’t quite know what.”

One of them needed to watch, if the Elemental’s concerns bore out. “Fr. Antonio knows I might have to leave.” He hesitated, then said, “I’ll keep my shields lower, so I can sense things more easily.”

The harrier made a noncommittal sound. “Be careful. Things are prowling.” He stared into the darkness. “Nothing for us to touch, yet, but . . .” His voice faded.

“Anno.” There was a reason why the Hunters remained alert and wary during the darkest days of the year.

He found a place well away from the main doors of the Verein building that evening. He parked beside Lucy’s farm pickup, backing as she had so that he could leave quickly if he had to. Lights shone gold and white from the three rows of windows. A swag of evergreen and holly framed the gleaming wood and brass doors. The stone and brick building dated to the 1880s, when a new wave of Germans arrived in the area, chased out of their homes by Bismarck’s persecution of Catholics. The sturdy brick building had hosted music events, dancing, a Turnverein gymnastics and fitness club, and more social and political gatherings than anyone could remember. Well, he admitted as he tugged his jacket straighter, Mrs. Katarina Schmidt probably knew. One of the ladies at the library had whispered to a colleague that Lucy’s great aunt had led the county heritage society since just after the Flood. He smiled at the idea, then took a deep breath and went into the building.

Jude followed the sound of voices to the smaller of the two ground-floor meeting spaces. Kyle, Lucy, Fr. Antonio, and Barbara stood off to the side. He hesitated, counting doors. One on each side of the room, the main door, and two of the windows appeared low enough to allow a safe departure, if they could be opened. He relaxed a feather’s thickness. He stayed close to the wall, skirting the rows of padded metal chairs set out for the listeners.

The others seemed to be studying a phone with varying expressions of dismay and amusement. “All I can say is that it is a highly skilled execution of a truly tasteless idea,” Fr. Antonio stated. He straightened up. “I keep thinking that the ugly holiday sweaters have reached their low point, and every year someone proves me wrong.” He nodded to Jude. “Snacks are in the room there.”

“At least it’s not sacrilegious this year, sir,” Barbara said. “Maybe. What do you think, Jude?”

He came closer and peered at Kyle’s phone. “Ah, that it’s ecumenical?” Someone had hand-knitted and embroidered a sweater showing the Maccabees pelting dying Greek soldiers with dreidels. What seemed to be alternating menorahs and pancakes framed the scene. Large, sequin-studded oil jars made up the sleeve patterns. He straightened up. “I hope no one makes a quilt pattern of that.”

Groans and chuckles greeted his words. Lucy hid her mouth as she giggled, then smiled. “Aren’t you glad that Mrs. O’Neil doesn’t do art quilts?”

“Very much so!” He smiled back.

As more choir members crowded around the proffered phone, Jude and Lucy helped Fr. Antonio hand out the music folders. Soon everyone had arrived. They warmed up, then got out of the way of arriving guests. Jude made himself relax. So many people in one space disagreed with him. Four carried shields, and one toward the back should have been shielded. Lucy started to say something, then stared, blinking hard. “Ah, now I understand Fr. Antonio’s concern.”

Jude tried not to stare. Two ladies wearing flashing Christmas-light necklaces sat side-by-side. Neither necklace blinked in sync with the other. “Yes.” He averted his eyes.

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

The Longest Night of the Year

“Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long,

Wood from the burning/stone out of song,

Fire from the candle-ring/water from the thaw.

Six signs the circle, and the grail gone before.”

The very first time I read the novel The Dark is Rising, I memorized the poem that comes from. I can still see in my mind’s eye the Walker, the rook’s feather that fell in through the roof hatch/skylight, the Dark Rider, and hear oh so faintly the aching sound of a tune played on an antique flute as a door between times opens and closes. Set in the Thames Valley in England, the book, and the others in the series by the same name, taps English, Cornish, and Welsh folklore in ways I’d never encountered before. They are urban fantasy before such a genre existed. Although officially classed as YA today, they are so rich that adults read and enjoy them today.

Today is the Winter Solstice. If Sommerwende is a day for parties and savoring the warmth and bounty of summer, the winter turning is a time of dread and fear. Will the sun return? Will there be enough to get through the hard, lean times ahead? The return of the sun was cause for rejoicing and wild celebration, even as people still looked over their shoulders. The weeks around the solstice held power. The veil between the worlds thinned, and the Wild Hunt rode. Ghosts walked, and the price for denying hospitality might be severe indeed. It was the time to bless the fruit trees and share the joy of the season with them (wassailing the orchards). War was supposed to stop, at least in Christendom. Since only fools, the mad, or Teutonic Knights actually wanted to fight during midwinter, the rule was generally upheld.

I’ll be out after dark, looking at stars, admiring Christmas lights, and watching Orion rise above the trees. Storms are due overnight, bringing hard cold and screaming winds. Winter does not go easily, even as days slowly lengthen.

When light from the lost land shall return, Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,

And where the midsummer tree grows tall, By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.

Tuesday Tidbit: Christmas Rose 2

A gift casserole brings back memories. Martha’s recovering from pneumonia . . .

“Yes, ma’am.” Once he made sure that she climbed the three steps from the back stoop to the mudroom door safely, that was. Not until Martha had gone indoors did Jude finish collecting the arm-load of wood and carry it through the mud room into the garage. He stepped back outside and fetched more from the main pile, then emptied the cold ash can by the back door into the ash hopper in the shed. He also glanced into the bird bath to make sure it was full. Martha met him as he returned to the back door. “Please?” she handed him the mailbox key.

“Yes, ma’am.” She’s pushing too hard. Jude fetched the mail from the box by the road. Only then did he clean off his boots and come into the house. He closed the back door and tucked the draft-stopper into place along the base of the door. As he set the mail in the basket and removed his boots, he heard quiet coughing, then the kettle whistling. And if I dare say anything to her about working less, I’ll be spending the rest of the winter on the run! He’d gotten blistered ears twice already. He pulled the heavy coat from the rucksack. He shook out the coat, then hung it in the proper place.

“Tea’s ready,” Martha announced. He peered around the corner into the kitchen. “What? I’m not going to throw anything at you.” She glared down at the jar of local honey in her hand, then back up at him. “Unless you are going to start scolding me for moving wood closer to the door.”

He shook his head. “No, ma’am. I was going to ask if you needed to special order anything from the bakery, since they are closing the order list on Thursday.” He ventured into the kitchen and poured himself some tea. She’d made it as black as Shoim’s eyes, so he added a bit of cream, then some of the honey now that she’d finished with the sweetener. Even so, he could feel the end of his ponytail curling as he tasted the first sip. Hyssop. That’s what she’s added. Good for her, and I’ll survive. In truth, it was a bit of a miracle that he’d avoided catching anything yet this year, as much of Devon County seemed to be coughing, wheezing, or sneezing! He glanced at the sink. She’d gotten half the dishes done. No, she’s not regaining strength as fast as she wants.

Martha retreated to the living room to work on her current quilt project. Jude finished his tea. He washed the dishes and glanced at the list of supper options. “Pork stew with peppers” had come up on the schedule.  Since nothing cooked on the stove or in the oven at the moment, he turned on the oven and then ventured into the garage.

The coven members had given him half a dozen casseroles when they learned about “Aunt Martha’s” illness. He’d been saving them until now. He opened the lid of the big chest freezer and found where he’d tucked the packages. He closed his eyes, pointed, and took the one he felt under his fingers. He also grabbed a two-pound pack of cubed pork shoulder. Once back in the kitchen, he puzzled at the label taped to the casserole. “Lucy. Pork Musaca with garlic and basil.” That’s different. Garlic is good. He turned the oven up to the recommended 400 degrees, and slid the dish in to bake. He also added water to the teapot and turned the heat up one notch on the dial.

Tea refilled, Jude ventured into the living room. Martha’s latest project combined a dozen shades of blue. She’d pinned a portion of the quilt top, and now stitched the pieces together by hand. He admired her dexterity and patience. Bauxite, Martha’s small black cat, dozed in her preferred spot in front of the wood stove. The stove had gone out. “Aunt Martha, do you want me to clean out the stove and re-light it?”

“Yes, please, after you sit and rest.” She took a long, slow breath, held it for three seconds, then exhaled. She didn’t cough. “I got busy with cleaning and plum forgot to get supper started. I did remember to let the stove die. How’s Molly?”

“She’s well, and says that you’re in her prayers. If you need anything, she’d like you to call her.” If that should come to pass, Shoim will be joining Fr. Antonio’s singing group, because a miracle will have happened. Or he and I will be summoned to fight the Last Battle beside the other Hunters and shadow mages. The latter being more likely, based on Jude’s observations over the past eight years. He drank more tea, letting the heat soak into his left hand. Gentle warmth eased the cold weather ache.

A snort greeted the message. “I appreciate the prayers. Is Scharbauer’s mincemeat canned or local made?”

Jude blinked and tried to recall. “Ah, last year it was local made. Yes, because Mr. Weinberg complained that it didn’t have enough of the proper kind of raisins, and Mrs. Benbow informed him that it tasted just like what her grandmother had made back in England.” It had sounded like a religious argument to him, so he’d refilled the bread loaves and kept his mouth firmly closed. His people’s mincemeat tasted nothing like Christmas mincemeat, either the English or the American versions.

“Hmm.” She stitched until she ran out of thread for the moment, then said, “I want a mincemeat pie, ten inch, and two stollen, one orange and one plain.” Martha leaned around the edge of her chair’s high back and glared. “And I will pay for them.”

“Yes, ma’am. Two stollen, one orange and one plain, and a ten-inch mincemeat pie.” He didn’t move until she reached into her sewing basket and pulled out a bobbin of blue thread the soft shade of a spring sky. He let his eyes half close and shifted to seeing magic. Martha’s shields personal shields shimmered the faintest pale green, much weaker than in October. She’s not as young as she once was. Can I impose shields on her? Yes, but should he? Not around the house, no. He needed the energy, and the defenses around the house and yard should be enough until she recovered fully.

He finished his tea, then stood and got more, now that it had weakened a little. He stirred in cream and honey. Beer would be very good, heavy dark beer with thick flavors. He also missed wine, but this was beer weather, or mulled spiced wine. Neither of which he drank anymore. Martha’s church frowned on alcohol, although she did not object to his keeping wine here for his own use. And if I get drunk, Shoim will give me unending grief during the hangover, if something doesn’t eat me while I’m incapacitated. The stories about what liked to snack on drunk or stoned magic users . . . He shook his head and excavated the meat thermometer out of the “Everything Else” drawer before returning to the living room.

An hour later, once the casserole reached the recommended 170 degrees in the middle, Jude dug a serving spoon into the musaca. His breath caught in his throat at the scent and sight of the layered pork and potato casserole. It had more garlic than his mother’s recipe, but the cheese pulled the same way, and for a moment he stood in the big farmhouse kitchen, not in Martha’s kitchen. He wrenched himself back to the present and served Martha’s plate, then his own. He covered the baking pan again and slid it back into the still-warm oven to keep hot. He would want a second helping, he already knew.

“What’s this?” Martha inquired after saying grace.

A memory. “Lucy Hoffman made it. It’s called ‘musaca,’ and it’s like the Greek kind, but with pork instead of lamb. And potatoes instead of eggplant.” He also saw some mushrooms hiding among the cheese, ground meat, boiled potatoes, and tomato sauce. He took a bite of the steaming mixture and closed his eyes. She’d sliced the potatoes thicker than his mother did, and the mushrooms added a darker tone to the taste. A hint of basil flowed through the garlic and other flavors. Lady of Night, I want to go home, I so want to go home.

“Jude?” Martha’s voice, not his aunts’ or mother’s, broke the memories. He opened his eyes. She watched him, concern in her eyes and voice. “Is something wrong?” He heard care and sympathy.

“I—” He took a settling breath. “This tastes very much like my mother’s recipe. Lucy used more garlic, but that’s personal preference. Mother added cinnamon and clove sometimes. Father teased her about stealing from the Turks. Only Middle-Easterners use those spices with meat dishes.” He stopped himself and took another bite before he spoke more of his heart.

She ate several more bites, then asked in a soft, gentle voice, “Are the memories good ones?”

“Yes.” He couldn’t say more. A lump blocked his throat and tears filled his eyes. He closed them, fighting to regain proper composure. Before he could stop himself, he said in his own speech, “I want to go home.”

Martha’s chair scraped on the floor. A warm arm wrapped around his shoulders and pulled him against her side. “Jude, you’re safe. Let the tears come.”

He couldn’t stop them. Hot tears flowed down his cheeks. The memories, the sorrow, his heart hurt terribly. “I’m sorry,” he managed at last.

“Here.” She gave him a handkerchief, arm still around his shoulders. He wiped his eyes and returned the soft square of cloth. “There’s nothing to be sorry about young man.” She hugged him a little then let go and returned to her chair. “We’ll talk later, if you want to. And if you left any of this.” She pointed to the scraps on her plate with her fork. “If there’s not more, well, . .” She didn’t need to finish the threat.

Jude fetched the pan from the oven and served her a second helping, and got another spoon full for himself as well. How did Lucy know the recipe? That made twice that she’d baked something from his people’s traditions. Were the Hoffmans Saxon miners from Siebenbergen? That would explain why the dishes are close but different. Perhaps not the entire family, but a branch? Recipes traveled farther than people, especially now. That would explain a lot, and made sense—good sense.

[Snip. Jude cleans the woodstove]

He stood with a creak. “I said stop that,” he told his knee. It listened as well as did the cat, or his Familiar. Which reminded him . . . I need to get more of those toffee bits for the Elemental, since it likes them. Now that Martha owned the woodlot beside the house, staying on good terms with the neighbor made even more sense. I wonder what troubled the other Elemental? Something that caused problems with the land, but what? He shrugged. He’d find out soon enough, probably sooner than he cared to. He sighed, quietly.

Martha still heard him. “Jude? What troubles you?” She came into the living room.

“For one, an earth Elemental in the state forest land on Hunter Road asked for help with a possible problem, ma’am. It bothers me that the Elementals stay awake so late in the year.”

She frowned and ran one hand over her greying golden brown hair. “That is strange.” She sat. “What did it want you and Shoim to do?”

“Cleanse the land if something polluted or corrupted it, magical pollution.” Removing dumped car parts and garbage was not his task, thanks be.

Martha tilted her head to the side, watching him. “Is that what you do, those nights you go out and come back exhausted and thinner?”

He hesitated. The Hunters never talked with outsiders. No, you owe her the truth. He took a very long, settling breath. “Yes, ma’am. Shoim and I clean rotten magic out of the land, and deal with the sort of creatures that are attracted to that rot.” He took another deep breath. “My family—extended family—do that in other places, both here in America and back in Europe.”

She smiled a little. “I’d wondered. You are very good with the shotgun, and that sword, and knives too. And you sometimes use words that are not Pennsylvania English, or the local German, either.”

He studied the floor. The words he’d used were probably not the ones he was supposed to say around ladies. “Yes, ma’am.” Lady of Night, help me find the words, please? He looked up and met her eyes again. “A few years ago, I was stupid. I made a joke that was taken wrong. Very, very wrong. I knew better than to say things like that when my cousin was tense, but . . .” He shrugged. “He tried to kill me. And now I can’t go home, because he might try again.”

Red darkened Martha’s cheeks, and anger snapped in her green-brown eyes. “Well daymn. An’ no sheriff wants to get caught in kin-fights.” Her birth accent grew thick indeed. “Not sayin’ I blame ’em, the way some folks act. Don’ take kindly t’ outsiders nosin’ int’ family business even when someone should.”

He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” No family ever calls for outside law unless an outsider starts it. And for good reason. The German and Bohemian neighbors tended to be the same.

“Now you’re here. Doin’ more than your fair share of work for me and for Scharbauer,” she wagged a slightly-crooked finger at him. “An’ don’ tell me that it’s only three or four days a week. I’ve heard tell how much you’re doin’. Come Christmas you and Shoim are goin’ to rest, as much as you can.”

Could he challenge the “or else” he heard in her words? You can’t get away as fast as Shoim can. You’re a larger target. She thinks Shoim’s cute. Which made him wonder about how people defined “cute,” but didn’t change the fact that Martha let Shoim get away with almost everything short of murder. “Yes, ma’am. I promise I’ll try.”

“Good.” She inhaled to say more, then coughed. Jude left the living room, fixed tea with a dollop of honey, then returned. “Thank you,” she said, voice rough from the coughing spell. He made sure she wouldn’t drop the very full mug, then sat in the other chair.

(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Winter Gothic

At some point, while looking for something else most likely, I found Erasure’s video of “Gaudete.” I started watching, blinked, and said, “It’s Caspar David Friedrich!” Because everyone borrows imagery from him when they want to do “ancient church in snow at night mildly creepy but maybe not” settings.

Gothic? Check, check. Eerie but not truly scary? Probably check. Winter? Check! Article about CDF:

This one tells a story:


Not all of C.D.F.’s paintings are “moody, brooding, cold,” but some of the most famous are, or at least the most often reproduced and borrowed from.

“Oaks in the Snow with Domlan.” A dolman is a prehistoric marker or burial mound, common (formerly) in parts of the northern German-speaking lands.

So, the video that borrows so heavily from C. D. F and a few others? Note that the video has some creepy and possibly sacrilegious elements, notable the burning candle.

The hard contrasts of dark, bare trees and stones against white snow have been noted by artists and poets for a very long time. Northern Europe tends to be misty and dark this time of year, especially the far northern areas where C. D. F. visited. The sun rises around eight-thirty and sets around three-thirty. That is, if you can see the sun for the heavy clouds. When I was in Vienna over Christmas, heavy skies, snow, and then hard cold reminded everyone that yes, winter had arrived. It was one of the few times that I ate everything in sight and lost weight, because I was converting so much of the snacks and treats into heat. The importance of light, and the turning of the year, was firmly reinforced on that trip. The true cold of winter usually arrives a little later than December, but not always.

One thing I like about so many of C. D. F.’s paintings is that they catch the mystery of things. Christmas and Advent are often too shiny, up-front, and bright for my taste. There’s a Mystery in the familiar story, a hushed and intent waiting for . . . something. Something wonderful, but something also deep and more than a little scary. “He is good, but he’s not safe,” as C. S. Lewis describes Aslan. “Gaudete” calls us to rejoice, but in a minor key, often arranged with slightly discordant harmonies. The turning of the year, the Winter Solstice, brings light but also deeper cold in many places. There’s a mystery, something hidden in the night, in the winter mist and clouds.

The Tree of Jesse

The idea of the tree of life is found in lots and lots of traditions, be they “organized religion,” animist, environmentalism-as-religion, neopagan, or just people who see certain trees as having special personal, spiritual significance.

The concept of the Jesse Tree comes from the book of Isaiah. In 11:1, it says, “But there shall come a rod forth of the stock of Jesse, and a grass shall grow out of his roots.” (Geneva Translation) More common is “and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Either way, medieval artists depicted this literally, showing the sleeping figure of Jesse, father of David, with a tree growing from him. This ties back into the Genesis account of the Tree of Life vs the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of Life comes from Jesse.

The above was the only Jesse Tree I found in Scotland. It is in the National Museum, on a panel from woodwork associated with Mary Queen of Scots. Since the reformers in Scotland took a dim view on “idol worship” as they described it, a lot of the visual imagery from the medieval period in lowland Scotland vanished in the 1500s-1600s. It remains in the German lands, however.

From Limburg, Germany. This and the above photo from Swabisch Hall are author photos.

Ceilings are also a tad unusual.

This is another tree of life, the only one I’ve seen thus far on the ceiling of a church. It is inverted, so you can follow the order. Adam and Eve are on the bottom, then Jesse, David, and on to Jesus.

The cross on which Jesus was crucified was called the Holy Tree, or Holy Rood (rod) in Anglo-Saxon and Old English. One of the first surviving hymns in “English” is the Dream of the Rood, where the tree that became the cross talks about what happened. A modern depiction from York Minster that takes the idea literally is below.

Modern art seems to have gotten away from the idea, although I have seen some attempts to reclaim the neopagan tree of life images for Catholicism in particular. That one . . . doesn’t quite work for me, although I can’t pin down quite why. The Latter-day Saints use the image of the Tree of Life, taken from the vision of Nephi, in their faith, sometimes literally as in the case of Mack Wilburg’s song “O Tree of Life” and the dance setting that used it during Christmas a few years ago.

Most Protestants hear the text once a year, during Advent, but don’t see it depicted. We might, rarely, get to hear the song, “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” Although not directly about the Tree of Jesse*, it is often done around Christmas.

*Oddly enough, what I think of with the Jesse Tree is “Behold a star from Jacob shining” by Mendelssohn.