What better way to spread the Christmas joy than to share a delightful collection of Christmas stories from Sunday Writers’ Club members Tamara Raidt, Brigitta Serbán, Connie Phlipot, Jennifer Cornick, Sandra Völker, and Stephen Hewitt. These enthusiastic SWC members (and more) participated in our Secret Santa Story Share – writing a Christmas story and sending it by mail to another member. They could choose from one of two writing prompts:
- “The Boy/Girl Who Collected Snowflakes” (chosen by Tamara Raidt, Brigitta Serbán, and Connie Phlipot)
- “Write a story about the unwrapping of a gift.” (chosen by Jennifer Cornick, Sandra Völker, and Stephen Hewitt)
The resulting stories were enchanting, as you will discover below. Wherever you may be reading from, we hope these Christmas stories bring you plenty of festive cheer and inspiration. Please do share your thoughts about these stories with the authors by commenting at the end of this blog post. We would love to hear from you.
Merry Christmas to you all from the Sunday Writers’ Club team.
The Boy Who Collected Snowflakes
By Tamara Raidt
there once was a boy
who collected snowflakes
on his tongue,
waiting for them to melt
one day he began collecting fog
trying to seize it like one seizes the moment, when it lingers
and he spent his life running after smoke and mirrors
after things that always slipped through his fingers
the boy became a man
who collected girls
falling from grace
and melting on his tongue
he used fine words,
he did them wrong
then the boy became an old man
who collected memories
in invisible jars on his mantelpiece
who collected pieces of people
who broke his heart
of the ones who fixed him
but never made him whole again
one day this man became ashes,
he became rotten leaves, became a snowflake,
carried by the wind, that took him straight to heaven
where he was forgiven every mistake.
on a winter day
a little boy came by and mistook for snowflakes
those frozen bubbles holding
all the man’s past thoughts and reveries
so he tilted his head back
stuck out his tongue,
and absorbed a lifetime
The Boy Who Collected Snowflakes
By Brigitta Serbán
It was a peculiar morning, as the garden looked strange. Everything was white. Tiny humps marked the places where the old bucket used to be, where the straw piles were, next to the old, empty and rusty birdcage; he adored so much for its oriental appearance. The bushes and trees grew old overnight, for they looked like the grandfather of themselves.
All was covered with something soft and white: the shed, the garage, the fingertip-sized top of each and every bayonet-like rod of the fence. The world turned out to be a set of marzipan figurines with cream and sugar, and Jacob felt the urge to bite as he used to do with his birthday cake. He unconsciously opened his wondering child lips, which moment was a hunger driven reflex to inhale this rare wonder with all of his senses of body and mind.
Jacob has been born four summers ago in Malaysia and arrived here as the early spring entered the hearts and flowerbeds of Britain. It was not even a year ago that he took an eternal long, scary flight, after even longer times of despair at a place he deleted from his memory. He remembered the day when strangers came, told him things to do, gave him things to eat, to wear, and he obeyed without asking back. Instead, he has withdrawn to his own undefined sphere of timeless loneliness, this foggy, white lake, where he has always been floating.
Jacob, as 12 other rescued underaged victim of illegal child trafficking, sought refuge in the arms of democracy and a childless couple. Things that Jacob and the other small pilgrims, the holy innocents of our times, inevitable lost and the old continent could provide.
He was staring at the garden through the window, as he was standing there in his slightly big, green pyjama, with rainbows. This little breathing symbol of acceptance and humanity remained hidden under the heavy curtain, the embankment of reality. No matter how short his story on this earth was, Jacob has lived already much more and sank much deeper as many would do through an entire century. There was hardly anything he did not see before. And yet, Jacob was paralysed and struck by the unexpected beauty of that magnificent winter scenery. It recalled a warm memory of his second life: his new birthday, the day he arrived home for the first time. It was the day when his caregivers brought him here, the house they all call home now. He remembered the feeling of the sweet smells of the rooms, the soft cracks of the parquet, the tickling threads of the fluffy carpet in the living room, the soft tones of the white sun on the walls as the light entered through the entrance door as if it was his own glorious shine.
He recalled the homemade, creamy birthday cake prepared for him with such motherly love he has never known before. It was gold and silver for his soar eyes, an immaculate foamy heap of pure love, milk and vanilla, dotted with white chocolate flocks and lip red slices of strawberry, served on a fragile crystal tray with a slender leg. It stood in the middle of the kitchen table. The cake captured his attention immediately without having the slightest idea about what that could be. It was the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.
As the new family gathered around the table, as the cake was sliced and appeared its creamy layers of pastry – each came with colour, and looked like a cake with a rainbow in his belly, Jacob became excited, and slowly started to float towards the edge of his inner, silent sphere, which he was ready to leave with no regret.
He felt what colours of a rainbow mean and he understood all the inexplicable whites: papers and walls, the sun and the distant, foggy waters, the glittering porcelain and the dusty gravel, the flawless embroidered napkin and the greyed out underwear, the pearl earring, and the faded spots on his own nail, the soap and the sweet milk, cream and vanilla.
It was all on his forehead and on the tip of his tongue when he took his jacket and boot, and in his pyjama rushed out to the white.
As the snow crunched under his little feet, and he sank into it with every step, this cheerful cold beauty found its way into his boots and slid towards his ankle which made him scream and laugh with joy. He filled his pockets with the white, threw it to the air with his red plastic shovel, he dug up from the old bucket, where his sandbox tools waited for better times to come, observed tiny bits of it in his shivering palm through his magnifying glass, his summer companion he used to play with, to observe leaves, bugs and all the tiny wonders only a child can value.
Jacob on the coldest day of his life, which purple lips and hands, soak clothes and wet boots found the true warmth of home, family and a Christmas he has not known then.
And he laughed as someone grateful for everything life may bring.
The sound he made woke up his parents, who looked at him through the window and smiled as they watch their beloved miracle, their long-awaited and found son from afar:
The Boy Who Collected Snowflakes.
Merry Christmas to us all.
Uniqueness and Lake-Effect Snow
By Connie Phlipot
“Every snowflake is different.” One of those silly things supposedly reasonable adults tell you as a child. How do they know? Zillions and zillions of snowflakes in the world. Even if 10% were the same you probably never ever saw two identical ones. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
A snowflake twirled through the cold dry air, catching the light, sparkling in its crystalline beauty, then landing on Luisa’s nose. It tickled, then melted before she could examine its uniqueness. Another problem with the axiom, she whispered to the squirrel chastising her from the pine branch. The tree had become transformed by a silvery sheen of icy snow. How many of these flakes melt before you can see them. And what constitutes a “flake?” Those granules of iciness that pelt you when the layers of atmosphere are at differing temperatures? Or that slushy mixture of sow and rain at the beginning and end of winter? Or should we only consider one of those with distinctive structural elements, tips and points of crystals, like the cut-outs we made in grade school. Did those occur only at a certain air temperature, humidity, barometric pressure? Luisa didn’t know.
And why was all this important enough to pass down from generation to generation of toddlers looking out the window at the first dance of flakes of the year? There had to be something behind this, some motivation based in mythology or psychology.
Luisa would test the theory. Of course, she couldn’t look at every snowflake, but she knew enough scientific methodology to know that she only needed to disprove the theory by finding two identical in a statistical representative sample of flakes. She defined the parameters of her experiment beginning with the definition of a snowflake: no pellets, no slush, only those that the crystal structure could be clearly discerned. Timing: next January, the coldest month in the northern hemisphere. Method of capture: Given the extreme vulnerability of snowflakes, she would have to use a camera. (First expenditure item: upgrading her photography equipment.) Geographic area: This was difficult. To do a thorough research she would need to test snowflakes across the Northern part of the hemisphere (and ideally in the southern hemisphere in July). She hadn’t enough funds for travel, as a junior librarian her salary was just adequate for a simple lifestyle. There were institutes devoted to the study of snow, but without scientific credentials she was unlikely to get a grant. And she didn’t have time. In another few years, or however long it took to receive a research grant, she would have moved onto some other fascination. She knew that about herself.
Luckily or unluckily, she lived Ashtabula, Ohio, in the so-called snow belt, an area stretching from the eastern suburbs of Cleveland to south of Buffalo, New York. The winds from Canada carrying cold Arctic air and dampness cut across Lake Erie at an angle that left the western half of Ohio, and the northern part of upstate New York, dry, while deluging the parts in between. Lake Effect Snow. A phrase associated as closely with Cleveland as the Cleveland Indians and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Belt inhabitants took a curious pride in digging out their cars, while their friends in Lorain or Lewiston went about their normal winter routines.
Lake effect snow, however, posed one difficulty for Luisa. It was unpredictable. If the forecast said snow, that could be a typical snow pattern caused by the prevailing winds, which meant it would most likely peter out by the time it reached the Cuyahauga River. Usually, the most dramatic snowfalls came when unexpected. She prepared her tools — camera, thermos, boots, woolen hat, flashlight, for a sudden storm.
The first two weeks of the new year passed without a single snowflake. Luisa’s next-door neighbor pruned his rosebushes and Jeremy down the street played tennis — in shorts. The Weather channel predicted snow for the middle of the month, but the front was moving in from Chicago, which meant scant snow in the east. The Lake effect was failing her. Should she take a bus to Toledo? The thought of a Greyhound ride under a metal grey sky past the tarnished yellow fields of remnant corn stalks and soybean plants was unbearable. She would wait it out, extend the period of research into February.
“It’s coming,” the woman next to her at the laundromat said. “Thought I better an’ wash up all my winter things, ‘for we get good and snowed in.” Luisa looked out the window at the sun glinting off the car windows in the parking lot and then back at the woman. She was wearing a sleeveless tank top and too tight shorts as she stuffed woolen socks, sweater, and corduroy pants into the machine.
“Yeh, you think?”
“Yep. I can feel it. A sort of clammy dampness like the clothes comin’ out of a cold wash. And the smell. You know how it smells when you open up the freezer that badly needs defrosting. Kinda stale cold. That’s it. Coming right off the lake from Canada.”
Luisa could only smell the honeysuckle that had blossomed several months too early. But some people did have a special knack for sensing the weather. Just in case, she checked her gear. She was ready.
Around 6 p.m. it started to rain. By the time, she got into bed the trees were shimmering, and the street lamp illuminated a thick white shower. Clumps of snow. Wet and formless. Luisa expected it to melt when the sun rose.
Scraping and grinding of a snow plow followed by an absence of sound. All noises muffled. She didn’t have to look out the window — Lake Effect Snow. Luisa dressed and got her camera. A few flakes floated lazily — she snapped their photos — the sky was otherwise cloudless and dizzily blue. She shook a pine branch, releasing a ballet of flakes. Click, click, click. She walked for hours in the deserted town; photographing flakes against windows, plastered against the stop sign, skating across the puddles that had frozen overnight. She felt a tight band across her forehead and remembered she hadn’t taken time for coffee. Across the street a barista was opening up the Starbucks.
“Damn took us all for a surprise, didn’t it, though?” Luisa nodded, her face was too cold to form words. She looked down at the pictures she had taken through the view finder while she waited for her coffee. Alike or not? She couldn’t say. She would have to enlarge and study them. She needed a few thousand more, she figured, to get a representative sample. But first, she had to warm up. She ordered a muffin.
No one else was in the coffee shop. “Mind if I sit down with you a minute? I mean, if you’d rather I not, I’ll go back to my work.” The barrister was not the usual college kid, but middle-aged or older. Probably working just for something to do.
Luisa moved her hat from the table and motioned for him to sit down.
“Looks like you been taking some photos of this squall. Really is something, huh? Can I see?”
She showed him a few of the more elaborate flakes.
“That’s all you been taking? Just snowflakes?”
“Yes, I like them.”
“You know that old saw about all snowflakes being different?” The man looked out of the window and then back at her. “You think it’s true?”
Luisa was silent for a moment, unsure whether to reveal herself. “Maybe. I thought I test it myself.”
The barista smiled. “You know, it’s not really about snowflakes.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, think about being the first person in the world to see a snowflake. It comes dancing in front of your cave, or dugout, or tree. Wherever people lived. It’s intricate. It’s beautiful, like nothing you have ever seen before. And then there is another, and another, each one as delicate as a tear. And different in a way that the caveman who didn’t know chemistry or physics could not possibly conceive. So he says to his friend. Look at these things, they come from the sky, like magic and every one is different.” He got up from the seat.
“You want another coffee? On the house?”
“No, thank you. Please continue.”
“Well, there isn’t much more to tell. The story goes around and after some hundred years it’s pretty much taken for granted that each snowflake is unique.”
“Why didn’t anyone try to prove it?”
“You’ve missed the point.” The barista frowned. “It would destroy the magic. This old phrase was the pedestrian way the caveman and then everyone who wasn’t a poet had to express their awe of something they appreciated but didn’t understand. And even when they could understand the physics and chemistry, they chose not to. To keep that sense of wonder that the first person who saw a snowflake must have felt.”
Luisa thanked him and paid. She trudged back through the snow that was now slushy where people had trod and cars had dug grooves in the unplowed streets. She transferred the photos to her computer so she could see them more clearly, chose her three favorites and printed them. In the morning she would take them to the barista.
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Connie draws upon her experiences as a former U.S. diplomat in her short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction. Her novel-in-progress is loosely based on her grandparents’ lives as Belarusan immigrants in the coal mining community of early 20th century America.
The Unexpected Gift: A Christmas Story
By Jennifer Cornick
In a hundred years of receiving misdirected post, not a single letter was for him. Ever. For the first fifty years, or so, he reposted it. He once had used Krampus to ensure its safe delivery to the rotund and rotting relic in the north; inadvertently igniting a long-lasting friendship which saw them careening and gambolling in the Alps every Yuletide season. And, it left him with one less demon. So, now, he just fed the letters to the fire.
It helped heat the room in this frigid and festering place. The floors were always cold. The wind and sinners howled outside his frosted windows. Inside, the candles guttered and the fire flared, sending the shadows dancing. Lucifer sat his desk, a heavy wooden thing pulled from a sunken prison hulk. He extended his feet towards the cheery blaze in the carved marble fireplace, it was white with faces of cherubs wreathed in flowers. He passed the time writing an absurdly difficult contract for the sale of a soul. He always ensured there were at least two extremely simple and easily identifiable loopholes. His fountain pen scratched across the page, the blood in the ink drying a dull rusted red, as Astaroth fueled the fire with incorrectly addressed letters.
The shadows and flame did nothing to enhance Astaroth’s features. Where Lucifer’s beauty caused women to ache Astaroth made people’s eyes hurt. The jumble of his over large features on such a small canvas was uncomfortable. He opened each letter with a long, fat finger, his hands too large for his arms. He looked like a greedy, grasping, gobbling homunculus hunched over a hoard of papers. He read each letter before consigning it to the little inferno in the grate. The flames sparked and sputtered as each bit of paper curled, turned to ash, and floated high, up and over the City of Dis.
Astaroth stroked his hand over a letter. His long nail caressed the paper as he read each line as slowly as the child wrote it. Each letter was always the same: small eager humans outlined why toys should be delivered to them. Outrageously expensive playthings traded for cleaning a room or not having punched a sibling for a whole day. The motivations in the letters were simple. They all thought they were good enough for the demanded boon.
“This one wished for a calculator, surely I should be allowed to go?” Astaroth said, holding the letter out. His long arm extending almost to the desk from his seat on the floor at the side of the fireplace. A quaint cherub with curls gazed down at him. Lucifer reached forward and plucked the letter from the duke’s fingers. The demon commanded forty legions and he wanted to teach mathematics to children. He should want to be feared and all he wanted was to let statistical methodologies flourish. Lucifer supposed it could be considered a kind of evil on earth, where no one wanted to understand epidemiology or risk based actuarial statements.
He read the letter, amidst a profusion of glittery stickers and glue. The paper felt cheap and insubstantial in his hands. He felt the desire behind the words, the urge which drove every stroke of the pencil on the page. “If the letter had been addressed to you, I would let you go in a trice,” Lucifer said, his voice as smooth as his skin. The softness in his tone was as comforting as a cup of tea. “I would send you to be his teacher. You would mould him into the most brilliant mathematician since Erdös.” He folded the letter and passed it back to his faithful fireside friend. He looked at Astaroth, watching the disappointment settle indelibly cross his features. “It wasn’t addressed to you. It was a mistake. A lazy parent who didn’t check the spelling of their child’s letter. In any case, he just wants to use it to write boobs and penis. He wants to be liked and his classmate Kevin thinks this is funny.”
Lucifer moved back in his chair and leaned over his contract once more. Writing more lines in the blood freely gifted to him by needless slaughter, cult sacrifices, and the cuts and scrapes caused by double dares. Astaroth flung the letter into the flames, sighing heavily. His shoulders slumped forward, curving his spine into a widow’s hunch. Lucifer knew it wasn’t the desire to escape but the need to do the thing he loved most. Lucifer wrote onwards, making sure an esoteric escape clause was included in this convoluted contract. He really did give humanity every chance to escape his clutches.
Astaroth’s wings flapped desultorily, fanning the flames higher as they consumed the letter which exploded into the room in a perfusion of glitter. His serpent tail, complete with rattle, beat a gloomy rhythm on the stone floor. It was a macabre disco as each small spangles caught and refracted the firelight. Lucifer attempted to brush the sparkling plastic off his desk, he only succeeded in smearing it everywhere. “Herpes of craft supplies. Who let their child use this?” he balled up the contract and threw it across the small expanse, directly into the grate. These had to be perfect in form and function. His rules and he was not exempt. He would start again.
The slow clicking of claws across the flagstone had Lucifer and Astaroth turning towards the door. They knew who it was but had not expected Stolas back from the post office so soon. He must have been able to charm the cantankerous succubus spawn who managed the counter. This time of year, the haranguing demon ran the poor souls who delivered the mail and worked the cash register more ragged than their rotting shrouds.
Stolas glided into the room, his plate sized eyes reflecting the light. His small feathered body was weighed down by the heavy black velvet sack he carried, letters bulged from the top, spilling from the opening as he glided on legs longer and thinner than a heron’s.
The fallen envelopes whispered across the floor as they slid into the shadows. He would collect them later, chasing each scrap of paper from corners and into the flames. The bag landed heavily on the floor and Stolas folded his legs beneath him and settled onto the flagstone, like a bird about to nest. He riffled his feathers up, puffing them out, insulating himself against the damnable cold.
He plucked letters from the bag delicately. His head bobbed as he looked at each miswritten address before placing it in the fire. His twitchy movements reminiscent of the way a song bird follows an insect.
Stolas reverently stroked a new letter, brushing silver lines traced across the envelope. Lucifer could see the silver dots connected into Ursa Major and Draco. Stolas’ eyes widened an impossible degree as he turned to hand the missive to Lucifer. There was such hope in the steady gaze. Lucifer wanted to nurture it, the beautiful commodity in short supply in Dis, the ecstasy of it transforming faces as much as faith. But he would dash it. Better than to suffer.
He took the proffered letter from the feathered prince. He opened it, carefully, preserving the envelope, just in case. “He wants a telescope,” Lucifer said, perusing a few lines before touching his fingers to the red ink on fine paper. Stolas’ chest puffed forward like a courting frigatebird. “It still isn’t addressed to you but to the self-centered saint in the arctic circle. If the constellations on this envelope had been cygnus, corvus, apus, grus, pavo … even Pegasus would have been acceptable … I would have let you go. I would present him with the telescope myself so you could teach him the mysteries of the stars. But I cannot stretch that far for a misdirected missive with a bear and a dragon.” He did not want to deliver the final message from the ink. The true nature of the desire. He knew he must and he hated himself for it. “Besides, he just wants it to spy on his neighbours. He thought drawing the stars on it might make it seem more like he wanted it for good reasons.”
Stolas sighed, his feathers falling from the disappointment and hope shattered in his eyes. He wiped a tear away with the softest of his wing feathers. Lucifer looked away, pulling out a fresh sheet of paper from one of the water-warped drawers in his desk to start the contract anew. He focused on the words he must write rather than his friend’s sorrow. His pen scratched across the vellum. More letters were fed to the flames as Astaroth and Stolas sought to distract themselves. The fire crackled and popped, burning paper crinkled and powdered. Time passed in the room, measured by the waning pile of letters and the waxing of the fire.
Few letters remained. The heavy, over full bags virtually empty. Stolas dug into the folds of the deflated velvet, looking any shred of paper. The last letter was a thick, misshapen lump. The child made the envelope from black construction paper. Satan on the front in silver ink. There were no arbitrary holiday colours; no drawings of candy canes. It looked purposeful. Lucifer felt hope bloom painfully in his chest, it lacerated his heart with its thorny tendrils. It was an unbidden and unwanted feeling. Hope was always the harbinger of heartbreak.
Stolas handed him the package, the paper felt rough in his hands. He turned it over and pried open the heavily glued flap. The whole construction opened, revealing a something wrapped in black tissue. Not the kind purchased in a shop but the stuff used to wrap clothing, coloured with black marker. There was a letter. The paper was cotton vellum; the kind used for only the most official documents which were written to last. Like the contract he was writing. He opened the paper, those thorns digging in deeper, trying to find a permanent home. The writing was small and lacked confidence.
The letter started as they all did, “Dear Satan”. He did not want to touch those small, painstakingly formed letters. Later, they would become elegant script, demanding from the reader, then as now, more than just basic comprehension but fundamental understanding. But now, he didn’t want to know the feelings behind the letter. “Yesterday I was sent to my aunt’s because my mother spent too much on Christmas presents and I was hungry. My mother said ‘even the devil deserves a gift at Christmas’ before my aunt took me away.” Lucifer looked at the lumpy package in his lap, deciding to save it for later.
“I realize you probably don’t celebrate Christmas but I don’t know when else to send you a present. Do you have a birthday?” Stolas cocked his head, looking more like an owl than he should and the shadows played across Astaroth’s face, softening his ugliness. He hadn’t realized he was reading aloud until they turned to listen. “My aunt said it is monstrously cold where you are because it is freezing over from the center. She said to say the yarn was from her own black goats and they were rescued from a petting zoo. She said this might be important to you because you only ever gave us the tools of destruction but you didn’t require us to use them.” Lucifer found himself nodding in agreement, an unconscious action, as he traced his finger along the line of text.
“I thank you for that my dear woman, I would have worried elsewise,” he said, his voice dropping lower.
“I hope the mittens we made keep you warm. I am well at my aunt’s. She is my favourite. She reads me stories. She makes sure I eat all my vegetables and do all my homework. She tells me to clean my room so Perchta can’t disembowel me and stuff me with straw on Twelfth Night,” the letter continued. His hand shook as he touched the ink. There was nothing more behind it than wishing the devil himself a happy holiday. The confusion and hurt caused by an irresponsible caregiver. The independence which came far too early. The honest desire for someone else’s wellbeing and the joy of a girl spending time with a favourite aunt. The promise that one day she would grow into a well-adjusted and generous adult. He picked up the package from his lap and unfolded the tissue, purposefully made for him. Inside was the warmest and softest pair of mittens he had ever seen. Really, it was the only pair of mittens he ever held. He pulled them on, the warmth of the wool immediately sinking into his skin. And the warmth of the sentiment wended its way to the coldest parts of his soul, those he thought long frozen over from the millennia spent surrounded by ice and sin.
He picked up the letter once more, his hand unwieldy and painful from the sudden diffusion of blood in his fingers. It was on purpose and the gift was meant for him. It wasn’t a spelling mistake. It hadn’t been redirected. It was all for him, as small a gesture as it was, it felt monumental. And he would respond with gifts in kind. They would teach her. Every scrap of knowledge they possessed from the smallest bacterium to the expanse of the cosmos, she would have it all. She would become great.
A Magical Christmas Story
By Sandra Völker
It was an unusual Christmas after an unusual year and Agatha suspected there was one more surprise in store for her. She knelt on her soft living room rug in front of the small fir tree she had gotten for herself. The Christmas lights sparkled and chased away the late morning gloom. On her lap Agatha held a small package, which was wrapped in red and green Christmas paper and featured a dramatic glittering golden ribbon.
Was she going mad? Where had this gift come from? She had not put it under the tree and no one had been in her apartment since before the Corona lockdown.
Agatha brushed some of her chestnut-colored hair out of her face and did not let her suspicion rise to the surface just yet. This was ridiculous, for her to even consider it was a really bad sign. She had read about prisoners who after being kept in solitary confinement for a long time showed symptoms of trauma and madness. People were social creatures, she was a social creature and having been isolated for months on end started to feel like torture. Maybe she had lost her mind. How she hated the coronavirus pandemic!
And yet – here she was holding this gift in her hand. She felt the smooth paper and silky ribbon under her fingers and traced along the perfectly shaped bow. She was sure she had not seen this parcel the night before. Christmas Eve had been awful. She had felt so lonely and miserable. Her parents and her had decided against celebrating together as they did not want to take any risk and her brother and his wife had moved abroad last year. When they could not connect on Zoom as planned because of congested network connection, Agatha had done the only sensible thing she could think of. She had drowned in self-pity while downing a bottle of wine which had made her even more miserable and depressed. She had put on cheesy Christmas music and sung along loudly to Wham’s Last Christmas. Then she had poured herself a glass of brandy and cried her heart out. Here she was – a 33-year old single woman all alone at Christmas during this cursed coronavirus pandemic. The world had stopped and everything that made life worthwhile was on pause. She felt increasingly disconnected and hungered for company, for a hug, for laughter and for love. She wanted to travel again, experience the thrill and inspiration of being in a new place. She sometimes felt she could not breathe anymore. She hated her four walls that had become her prison bars, she hated her lonely bed, she hated COVID, she hated everything including herself. Before she could pour herself yet another glass, she had decided she had enough drama for the day and gone to bed.
Agatha’s sleep was full of troubled dreams. In one of them someone was in her bedroom. She sensed a presence standing in front of her bed, looking down at her. Agatha knew she should feel afraid, be horrified but she was not. This was no malevolent creature, it had another purpose. Curious, she opened her eyes and looked at a tall and slender figure. In the grey darkness of her bedroom she could not make out if it was a man or a woman and the few features that were highlighted by the moonlight coming in through the windows displayed an androgynous beauty.
“Hello Agatha,” the visitor said in a husky voice. “I won’t keep you awake for long. You don’t need to be afraid. I am here to save your Christmas.”
Was she supposed to respond?
“I left behind a gift for you. I heard you crying and I can see your pain. You think you are alone but you are not and the world has not stopped. I am happy to have the privilege to offer you relief if you can accept it. Just open the package tomorrow.”
“What?” Agatha mumbled, trying to wake up. This was strange.
“Who are …,” she began.
“You have everything you need to get through this difficult time,” the visitor interrupted her. “I promise you this shall be your most exciting Christmas ever. Enjoy the ride. And don’t forget to pull the ribbon!”
The visitor looked at her benevolently. Then, with a mischievous smile, he continued, “Be brave and make the phone call! Merry Christmas, Agatha!”
Completely confused Agatha wanted to ask the stranger a thousand questions but could not clear her mind to formulate them. Instead she nodded numbly and drifted back to sleep.
The next morning she woke up late and hungover. She felt childish and stupid for having indulged in useless self-pity. When she saw the empty bottles she felt even worse. She decided to make this a better day and start with a proper cleaning. She would call her family and friends afterwards. She looked for a classical playlist on Spotify, turned on the tree lights and started tidying the living room. When she vacuumed around the Christmas tree she discovered a small package.
Agatha turned off the vacuum. What was that? Dim memories of a shadowy, tall figure in front of her bed and a promise emerged. She knelt down on the rug and took the package. All kinds of thoughts and something akin to anticipation raced through her mind.
O bloody hell, no one could see her! It did not matter if nothing happened. And if nothing happened she would pretend this never happened.
Realizing that her reasoning did not make any sense at all and before she could change her mind she pulled apart the ribbon. The world around her became grey and misty and started to rotate. Agatha gasped and her stomach lurched. Just before she thought she was about to faint the spinning stopped. Agatha blinked, once, twice – she was not in her living room anymore.
She was still kneeling and held the gift but the ground underneath her had changed from a soft rug to warm, sandy rock. She felt nauseous for a moment, drew in a slow breath and raised her eyes. She immediately recognized her surroundings as she had been here a few years ago. She was in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana not far from her favorite lodge. She had fallen in love with the vast expanse of the unique landscape and its endless horizons and semi-arid savannah. There she had found an inner calm and sense of connectedness with the world that eluded her in the overcrowded spaces of Europe. Her favorite spot had been a rock formation not far from the lodge that overlooked an immense sand plain. For a long time after her trip she had recalled these images and the feeling of peacefulness when she tried to meditate or calm herself. Over the course of the long corona year the images had faded and she hardly ever felt in the mood to meditate. Agatha shifted to a cross-legged position, drank in the view and deeply enjoyed the early morning freshness and the sounds of wakening wildlife around her. She did not wonder how she had come here or why and just was. Then her attention went back to the parcel in her lap. She felt it was time to move on.
“Thank you,” she said quietly and thought about the visitor in her bedroom from last night.
Then Agatha removed the loose ribbon and carefully loosened the wrapping paper along the margins. She threw a last glance across the wide Kalahari and pulled apart the paper. The savannah started to spin and the savannah colors turned grey.
Agatha found herself traveling through weightless space and could not have said if time moved slow or fast. She could make out laughter in the distance that grew louder. Then she heard voices and the clatter of dishes and before she could finish another thought she was sitting on a chair at a table in the company of her three best friends. They were at their favorite Italian restaurant where they usually had their pre-Christmas dinner. Elisabeth just seemed to have finished one of her funny stories and Tom and Lea shook with laughter.
“You really did that?” Lea asked and wiped some tears from her cheek. “Well, of course you did. You have never been a shy character.”
Elisabeth grinned and reached across to take Agatha’s hand.
“No, I am not but you should have been there to see what Agatha did next.”
The table became quiet. Agatha, still not having quite arrived in her mind, realized that three expectant faces were looking at her.
“What?!” she asked.
“We want the story,” Tom replied.
“What day is today?” Agatha asked. Was she traveling in time or in space? She wished the nightly stranger had explained in more detail what was to come.
“What do you mean? It’s Tuesday before Christmas,” Lea retorted.
“Well, until our dear Agatha gathers her brain cells together for a decent conversation, I will hand out my gingerbread men and women to you.”
Lea handed a lovingly made cookie to everybody as she did every year. And, as every year, they would taste terrible – Lea could not cook anything to save her life. Agatha did not say anything but savored the moment. This was what she had missed so much. The warmth of friendship and carefree company and friendship enveloped her. Yet she felt it was time to move on again. The partly opened gift was still in her lap and Agatha removed the paper with a quick move. Immediately, the by-now familiar spinning started again.
A moment later she was in a bed and after another befuddled moment realized she was not alone and, to add insult to injury, almost naked. She lay in the embrace of a man who held her gently. Agatha was horrified. Was this a bad joke the nightly visitor was playing on her? Who was this man? He was talking quietly to her and while she liked the cadence of his voice she wished she would be wearing more than a T-Shirt and her underpants. She dared not move lest he wanted more than talking. Where was the gift? She had removed the last wrapping paper and found a small cardboard box. If there were any rules to this time or space traveling she would need the package to return home. And that she now wanted to accomplish rather sooner than later.
“Agatha? … Agatha!” his voice interrupted her frantic thoughts. “Have you heard a thing I said?”
Agatha made a non-committal sound. This was not one of her ex-boyfriends. She and Patrick had broken up over two years ago and after a string of disappointing online dating experiences she had decided to take a break from dating and accepted there might just not be a partner for her out there. The strange man was still talking to her and finally she managed to pay attention to his words.
“… and have this friend in Stockholm and we could have his house for a week. What do you think? Would you like to go? My friend would like to meet you, I have told him so much about you.”
Had this man just asked her to go on a trip with him? She managed to make another sound and wondered again where the cardboard box was.
“Agatha, did you realize next week is the anniversary of our first date? Let’s do something special. And maybe you can finally tell me how you got my e-mail address and phone number. I am so glad you asked me out on a blind date back then.”
Agatha felt disoriented. Blind date? She had asked him out? This was not from her past, she had absolutely no recollection of this place or this man.
Agatha cleared her throat and asked, “Back then? What?”
The man chuckled and said, “It seems you are not fully awake yet, my love. The year after Corona. Our first date. Remember? Me, you, the unfriendly waiter?”
Agatha gasped inwardly. Was this the future? How could that be? Well how could any of these last few hours, the last day be? She wanted to leave before the situation could get really, really awkward. But where was the package?
The strange man beside her interrupted her thoughts again.
“Are you alright, dear? You seem a bit dazed this morning.”
He sat up straighter and pushed her gently to the side. She could see his face now. He was handsome, with dark curly hair and hazel eyes.
“I found this box on the bed when I woke up before and was not sure where it came from,” he said while he reached over to the bedside table and took the cardboard box that Agatha had unwrapped recently.
“Is it for me?”
“No!” Agatha exclaimed, trying not to panic. “It’s for me. It was a gift from a friend.”
She sat up, leaned over and grabbed the box. Before her handsome bedfellow could say another word she opened the lid and, this time, welcomed the spinning sensation.
A moment later she was back in her apartment, on her rug in front of the Christmas tree, fully clothed. Her head still spinning she looked around. Yes, this seemed to be the place she had left some time ago.
What had happened?
Agatha looked at the gift. The ribbon and wrapping paper were gone and the lid of the cardboard box was open. Inside were three objects. Agatha took out the first one. It was a small hourglass filled with red sand. Agatha was sure it was sand from the Kalahari. She smiled and could feel herself relax. The second object she took out was a smiling gingerbread man, without doubt one of Lea’s creations. One more object was left in the box. It was a small rolled-up parchment paper held together with a string. It fit into the palm of her hand. Agatha unrolled the small piece of paper and an e-mail address, phone number and the name David appeared. She looked into the box to make sure nothing was left and saw a small inscription on the bottom. The handwritten and elegant script displayed superb penmanship. It read: “The world has not stopped. You are not alone. The first two journeys were my boss’ idea. The last stop was my special treat – just because it’s Christmas. Merry Christmas Agatha!
Agatha grinned – so the nightly visitor had a sense of humor. Although her head was still throbbing she felt more peaceful and at ease than she had in long time. Yes, she had enough resources to sustain her in these difficult times. New experiences were waiting down the line and she would not loose this phone number.
She shook her head. Her mind had not fully caught up with her body and her thinking was still slow. Reality’s grasp had not yet dispersed the magical journey the nightly visitor had gifted her.
“Merry Christmas dear Cece,” she said all of a sudden and wondered why she had said it.
Author and Sunday Writers' Club Member
Sandra was born and raised in Austria. She studied and worked in the US for a number of years and writes in English and German.
She mostly writes short stories and other fictional texts and has taken various writing courses over the years, f.ex. at the Faber Academy in London. Sandra currently attends a 5-months creative writing programme and participates in some writing competitions. Her declared goal is to publish some texts until the new year. In her other life she has worked for an number of international organizations and presently works for an environmental NGO in Vienna.
By Stephen Hewitt
As soon as the table was cleared we moved into the living room, just like old times, and arranged ourselves in a semicircle around the tree. It was just the four of us this year. Keith couldn’t make it because of the pandemic, but Eric and I drove up from Deerlake and picked up Paul along the way in River of Ponds.
Eric, being the youngest, was first up. His present was book-shaped and wrapped neatly in blue and white paper dotted with cheerful images of polar bears sporting Santa hats, perched atop growlers. I could sense Eric’s unease as he peeled back the paper. Was this to be another Bathroom Reader destined for the donation bin? To both our surprise, it was a copy of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Mother beamed as a look of genuine satisfaction washed over Eric’s face.
Next, mother handed me my present, wrapped in the same paper as Eric’s,
but twice as big and with a surprising heft to it. As I hooked my finger under the edge of the paper I made a flip remark about my feet being cold and no sooner were the words out of my mouth than Mother said, “Hold on, I got just the thing,” and she disappeared up the stairs.
I had forgotten how tuned in she can be to my every word, my every movement. It’s always like this when we visit.
If I look bored, she worries.
“Do you want to go for a walk? We could pop down to Nellie’s for a visit.”
If I’m quiet, she worries.
“You don’t seem yerself. Something on your mind?”
If I don’t take a drink, she worries.
“You’re not having’ either drink, are ya? What’s wrong? Not feeling well? I’ll mix you a drink if you wants me to.”
I try and tell myself it’s because she loves me and that she simply wants me to enjoy my visit. I see her loneliness and her fear and I try to convince myself to accept her charity and let her tend on me, but it never works. I inevitably become annoyed with her hypervigilance and snap at her, and then we both feel bad.
A moment later she’s back with a pair of purple vamps. “I knit them just for you,” she said.
The colour was truly hideous. Not a soothing lilac or periwinkle, but rather an obnoxious Barney purple, and I once again felt regret for announcing, when I was five, that purple was my favorite colour.
I turned the vamps over in my hand to inspect them. The stitching was impeccable, I had to give her that. The heels were expertly gusseted. The toes sublimely stitched. I slipped the vamps on over my socks. They fit perfectly and, despite the Barney flashbacks, I was happy to have them.
But she couldn’t leave well enough alone.
“If you’re cold, sure, why don’t you sit by the wood stove?” she said. “You’re always going around with them thin socks on ya. They’re no good to ya, sure.”
I could feel the anger welling up inside me. I wanted to tell her that I’m old enough to wear whatever goddamn socks I want, thank-you-very-much, and by the way those polar bears are not happy. Their ice is melting! Haven’t you even heard of climate change!
But I held my tongue, lifted my present onto my lap, and scooched across the floor toward the wood stove. I sat with my back against the arm of the loveseat and stretched my feet out toward the warmth of the fire. It felt good. My feet were happy. Why can’t I be happy?
I traced my finger along the edge of the box and found the corner that I had started on earlier. The paper fell away with ease and I lifted off the lid. Inside was a sea of white tissue paper. I reached into the abyss with both hands and pulled out the largest, tackiest snow globe I have ever seen in my life. Trapped inside, atop a tiny iceberg, was a smiling polar bear.
I gave the globe a good shake and watched the glittery white flakes dance around the bear’s head. He seemed so peaceful and happy, and somehow, as I watched those flakes settle back down, I felt happy too.
I looked at my mother, tears welling up in my eyes.
“Thanks mom, I love it. I really do.”