I am taking the rest of the year off to have fun for the holidays. When I return after the first of January I’ll start serializing a new novella A Night in a Bell Tower/ A Life in the Country. It’s my version of Hunchback of Notre Dame with special emphasis on how we treat people because of their appearance. In the meantime, you may go through the archives to catch up on my other writing. Since this is the season of giving, I’d appreciated any donations to defray the costs of maintaining my blog. Thank you to my loyal readers, and I wish you happiness in the new year.
Mary Louise could hardly contain herself as she sat by candlelight, sitting as still as a child on Christmas Eve could sit while her mother brushed out her hair. It was the middle of the Civil War and their plantation home in South Carolina was in ruins, but Mary Louise just knew Santa Claus would answer the letter she wrote.
“Now, don’t you go wishin’ for the moon, young lady,” her mother lectured her as she began to tie pink ribbons in Mary Louise’s brown hair, making two, perfectly divided pigtails.
“But if Santy got my letter….”
“I didn’t send Santy’s letter,” her mother said abruptly. “He couldn’t run the blockade anyway if I had sent the letter.” She finished tying the second ribbon. “Blame the Yankees if you don’t get no Christmas this year. It’s their fault.”
Mary Louise knew not to argue with her mother when she got into one of those moods, and she seemed to be in one of those moods all the time recently. After her mother left the bedroom, she scrambled to her desk and pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil and proceeded to write the very same letter over to Santa Claus. She had but one wish.
“Please, Santy, let me see my daddy one more time.”
Folding the letter neatly, Mary Louise went to the window, opened it and tossed it out in the cold night air. Her mother always told her Santa Claus was magical so she knew her letter would reach him on the winter wind of Christmas Eve. Content she had done all she could do to ensure a merry Christmas, Mary Louise closed the window and ran to her bed where she buried deep underneath the many layers of down-filled quilts. No time had passed since she closed her eyes, it seemed, when she felt a cold blast, a gentle ho ho ho and the familiar baritone chuckle of her father.
“Daddy! Santy!” Mary Louise whispered excitedly.
Jumping from bed she ran to give her father a big hug. She knew it had to be her father because no one could hug as well as he did. She sniffed. Yes, it was the smell of his sweat and a slight hint of his favorite Cuban tobacco. But Mary Louise detected another scent, unfamiliar, acrid, almost taking her breath away.
“I can’t stay long, darlin’,” her father said. He pulled her away. “Let me look at you. You’ve grown an inch since I last seen you. And still got that purty smile.” He hugged her again. “Always keep that purty smile, darlin’.”
“Oh, Daddy, I just have to give you a Christmas present!” She turned to Santa Claus. “Isn’t that right, Santy?”
“Yes, Mary Louise, that’s right,” Santa replied.
“And I know just what to give!” Mary Louise stuck out her hand. “Give me your tobacco pouch, Daddy.”
Her father pulled a leather pouch from his tattered, soiled gray trousers and handed it to her. Mary Louise ran downstairs to the parlor and opened a drawer in a large old desk. She gently lifted the lid off a humidor and carefully scooped out the last of the fragrant Cuban tobacco into her father’s pouch. She quickly returned and proudly presented it to him.
“It’s the last, Daddy. I knew you would want it.”
“That’s mighty kind of you darlin’. I’ll never forget it.”
“It’s time to leave,” Santa said.
“But I have to give my little darlin’ something.”
“Oh, Daddy,” Mary Louise said in a soft voice, “just you being here is all the Christmas I need.”
She watched her father’s eyes fill with tears as he pushed his long dark hair from his forehead. Her nose crinkled as she noticed his hair had begun to turn just a touch of gray. Mary Louise’s head cocked when he pulled his pocket knife out and opened it.
“I know. This will be from me to you for all the Christmases in your rest of your life.”
The next morning Mary Louise jumped from her bed and flew down the stairs to the kitchen. She felt one side of her neatly parted hair fly free of the pink ribbon, but she did not care. She had to share with her mother the happiness of her visit with her father, all thanks to Santa Claus.
“Oh Mommy, Mommy! It was wonderful last night! He came! He came! Santy came and he brought Daddy with him!”
Her mother looked up from her cup of coffee as she sat at the table. Her hands covered a letter.
“What on earth are you talking about, Mary Louise?”
“After you left me last night, I wrote another letter to Santy and threw it out the window. And he got it. He woke me up with his ho ho ho and when I opened my eyes I saw Daddy!”
“You were dreaming, child.”
“No, I wasn’t dreaming! It was real!”
“That’s foolishness! Now sit down and eat your breakfast.”
“No! I’ll prove it!” Mary Louise ran to the parlor, brought back the humidor to the kitchen table and put it down. “See, all the tobacco is gone.”
“That was the last of your father’s favorite tobacco. Very expensive tobacco from Cuba. What did you do with it?”
“I gave it to Daddy. I put it in his pouch. I wanted him to have it,” Mary Louise said softly.
“You dreadful child! You threw away your father’s tobacco as part of this cruel joke that he was here last night!”
“But it’s not a joke, Mommy. Daddy was really here. Santy brought him.”
She watched her mother sink into the chair, dissolve into tears and hold up the letter on the table.
“Because this letter says the Yankees killed your father at a place in Maryland called Antietam. I got this letter three weeks ago, so there’s no way your father could have been in this house last night! And why would he have come home and not….” Her voice choked. “…and not visited me?”
“Maybe,” Mary Louise whispered, “because you didn’t write a letter to Santy.”
Her mother arose abruptly and shook Mary Louise’s shoulders.
“You terrible child! How can you be so mean to me, especially here at Christmas?” She stopped and reached out to touch the loose strands of hair on the side of Mary Louise’s head. “And you lost one of the ribbons from your hair. Do you know how expensive ribbon is now?”
“I’m sorry, Mommy.”
“I’m so angry I can’t stand the sight of you! Go to your room and stay there all day!” She stepped away, picked up the letter and folded it. “I shall spend the day in prayer, asking God to give me the strength to forgive you. Perhaps all will be better tomorrow.”
Mary Louise turned and without another word went to her room. There she decided she would never write another letter to Santa Claus again. It was not that she no longer believed in Santa; no, it was because she decided there was no use in asking Santa to give her something if no one believed her when it happened. She pulled out a lock of dark hair streaked with gray tied with a pink ribbon. It was her present from her father. Mary Louise was afraid to show it to her mother because she might throw it away, and Mary Louise wanted to keep it forever.
Her mother forgave her the next morning and gave her extra jam to go on her biscuits. Her mother never celebrated Christmas as long as she lived. This is not to say Mary Louise never had a merry Christmas again. She had a life-long love affair with Christmas, starting with her eighteenth year when she relented and wrote another letter to Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, folded it and tossed it out in the winter wind.
“Dear Santy, Since Mommy hates Yankees so much, please bring me a nice Yankee boy to marry.”
On Christmas Day, a school friend, who knew Mary Louise’s mother never celebrated the holiday, invited her over for dinner. In the parlor was a tall, willowy young man with long straight dark hair and soulful eyes.
“Mary Louise, I want you to meet my father’s new assistant, Thomas. He’s from Ohio.”
Mary Louise was impressed with Thomas’s strong but gentle handshake. By that evening they were sitting close to each other by the parlor fireplace. Instinctively she leaned into him and he placed his arm around her shoulder. With her head on his chest she sniffed. His sweat smelled like her father’s. She sniffed again.
“Do you smoke a pipe?”
“Yes,” Thomas said. “It’s my only vice. I buy the tobacco from Cuba.”
Mary Louise and Thomas were married by the next Christmas. On Christmas Eve she pulled out the strand of hair tied with the pink ribbon and told him the story of her Civil War visit from her father. She also told him about her letter asking for a nice Yankee boy. He believed her. They had five boys and three girls, each carefully taught to write letters to Santa Claus, fold them neatly and throw them out the window onto the winter wind of Christmas Eve.
Previously: England awaits the Spanish invasion. Elizabeth orders two of her young heroes to Spain on a mission. Each one has a beautiful but jealous lover.
The Queen turned to smile at Clarence and Rodney. “But you two valiant young men shall be knighted and glorified for your selfless duty to your Monarch!”
Clarence bowed with extreme drama. “Thank you, your Majesty. Your generosity is unparalleled.”
“No thanks is needed.” Rodney bowed without elegance. “We did it for England. This other Eden, demi-paradise, this royal throne of kings, this sculptured isle—“
“Sceptered! Sceptered!” Clarence interrupted with severe irritation.
“Are you sure?” Rodney shot back.
Alice smiled with embarrassment as she approached Maria. “So your lover was a spy for Elizabeth after all.”
“And your fiancé as well,” she replied with a proper English clip.
“So we weren’t in love with the same man,” Alice said.
“We were both mistaken, it seems.”
Alice laughed. “I don’t understand how we could have been so foolish.”
“When you spoke of a valiant warrior, I only thought of Rodney.” A patronizing smile flickered across Maria’s lips. “Clarence is sweet, but he is only a boy.”
“I beg your pardon.” A distinct edge entered Alice’s voice. “Clarence is the hero of many naval battles.”
“Do you want to compare biceps?” Maria glanced over at her lover. “Rodney, put up your arms.”
“Ladies! Ladies!” Elizabeth announced in her most regal manner. “Why the silly bickering? In the eyes of his lover, every man becomes a hero.”
“You are correct, your Majesty.” Maria extended her hand to Alice. “I’m sorry. Clarence is a true hero. And I assure you, he was always a gentleman when he was under my dress.”
“And Rodney was always well behaved as we traveled in cognito as Gypsies.”
“I’m terribly sorry for calling you a twit.”
“And I’m sorry I made those snide comments about your name.”
Maria hugged Alice. “You’re so sweet. I feel so guilty.”
“There, there.” Alice patted her back. “Don’t fret. All is forgiven.”
They pulled apart and held hands.
“I’ve a marvelous idea!” Maria squealed in delight. “Why don’t we have a double wedding!”
The girls jumped up and down and giggled.
“How marvelous!” Alice gasped. “And we could wear matching gowns! I know the most meticulous seamstress!”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said at full volume in an attempt to regain all the attention. “Love will conquer all, even the fleet of King Phillip, which will be approaching soon.”
“Yes! The invasion!” Rodney smacked his forehead with his beefy palm. “There’s no time for weddings while the Spanish fleet is at our door!”
Clarence lifted his epee in salute to Rodney. “We’ll joined our swords to repel the evil that threatens our shores!”
“Well said, young men!” Robin boomed.
“Let this Armada come!” Elizabeth joined in the saber-rattling.
“What’s Armada?” Rodney asked.
“I don’t know,” Robin replied. “What’s Armada with you?”
Elizabeth bonked him again with her scepter. “We are ready! With the ardor and passion of our young people, we shall overcome all obstacles and when the foe is vanquished, there will be time for wedded bliss.”
“Yes.” Clarence took Alice in his arms. “It is a bliss I long for.”
Rodney followed suit with Maria. “I’ll count the hours until I can say I do, and we do.”
Both couples engage in unhinged ardent smooching.
“Ah, young love,” Elizabeth sighed in contentment.
Robin hugged his Queen. “Old love ain’t so bad either, Bessie.”
They hopped back on the throne and resumed their previous session of lovemaking. Steppingstone and Boniface observed at all the preoccupation with romance, then glanced at each other and shrugged.
“To Spain?” Steppingstone asked in a whisper.
“To Spain!” Boniface agreed sotto voce.
They linked arms and tiptoed out.
Previously: England awaits the Spanish invasion. Elizabeth orders two of her young heroes to Spain on a mission. Each one has a beautiful but jealous lover.
Several hours later the passenger ship docked in England. As the gangplank lowered, tiny Alice Wrenn edged closer to the brink so when the board finally hit the mooring she was positioned to alight first and run to wave down an open carriage. Again she sat in front while Clarence and Boniface bounced into the back seat still fencing.
The driver turned to wag a finger at them. “No fighting! This is a proper Puritan transportation business!”
Alice threw herself into the driver’s arms and kissed him with shameless vulgarity. When she pulled away, the driver had a silly smile on his face.
“Actually, my wife is the Puritan of our family. She insists I run my business the way her father ran his. Personally, I don’t give a bloody damn.”
Pouting her pretty lips, Alice promised, “If you get us to Hampton Court quickly, I’ll kiss you again.”
The driver cracked his whip, and off they flew, knocking Clarence and Boniface on their asses but just for a moment. As the carriage zoomed out of sight, Maria raced down the plank and tried to whistle for another carriage. However, the only form of conveyance available was a donkey cart. Maria crawled into the seat next to a driver who smelled of his own animals. Rodney and Steppingstone climbed into the back and fenced as they tried to keep their balance in the hay pile.
Meantime, in the Hampton Court throne room, Queen Elizabeth sat in her huge, ornate chair holding her bonky sounding scepter. Robin stood two steps behind the throne in deference to the Queen. A small group of courtiers stood in front of her, shifting their balance from foot to foot in anxiety.
“Gentlemen,” she announced in a grave tone, “we have received no word from our valiant heroes in Spain. Until we hear from them, we can only wait with prudence and eagerness to protect our shores from the impeding Spanish invasion.”
They bowed and backed out of the room.
“Good.” Robin’s eyes twinkled. “We’re alone.”
The Queen extended her arms. “Come to Bessie, baby!”
Robin wriggled onto the throne and hugged Elizabeth with a verve created only by the release of sexual tension. They kissed with appalling slurping and smacking. This display of passion gone awry continued for several minutes until interrupted by the doors being slung open. Alice ran to the throne as Clarence and Boniface continued their fencing–although the elder courtier was showing signs of flagging vitality.
“Your Majesty!” Alice announced as loud as her tiny voice would allow. “We’ve discovered the identity of the traitor!”
“Not now!” She waved her scepter over her head. “Can’t you see I’m busy!” She returned to attacking Robin’s tonsils with her tongue.
Maria ran in and approached the throne with bold determination, announcing in her most patriotic English accent, “Your Highness! We have the traitor!”
“It’s no use,” Alice confided with a sigh. The Virgin Queen is occupied.”
Robin pulled away for an instant. “Hah!”
After bonking him with her scepter, Elizabeth pulled him back into her clutches. “Oh, shut up and kiss me!”
Rodney and Steppingstone arrived in their own good time, still fencing. They started circling around in the throne room, coming close enough to Clarence and Boniface to inflict minor damage. Maria scurried over to Steppingstone to smack his bottom with her strong hands.
“Look, your Majesty!” she repeated, “we have the traitor!”
“I said don’t bother me!”
The daring escapade dissolved into unmanageable madness until Alice screamed and swooned in the middle of the room. As was to be expected, her fit captured everyone’s attention, ending the royal canoodling fest and both fencing matches. Clarence dashed to lift Alice from the cold marble floor.
In his arms, Alice, eyes aflutter, smiled. “Oh, Clarence.”
“Can’t I get any privacy around here?” the Queen harrumphed.
“But, your Highness,” Rodney pleaded, “there’s a traitor here!”
“Traitor!” Robin echoed in shock as he stood, dumping Elizabeth on the floor. He wasted no time in helping her to her feet.
“All right, all right,” the Queen grumbled. I won’t get anything important done until this traitor business is cleared up. Tell us. Who is the traitor?”
“Lord Boniface!” Clarence declared as he placed Alice in an upright position.
“Lord Steppingstone!” Rodney announced in triumph.
Clarence and Rodney looked at each other, their faces twisted with confusion.
Clarence pursed his lips. “Who are you?”
“Rodney Broadshoulders. Who are you?”
“Clarence Flippertigibbit.” He smiled and extended his hand. “So nice to meet you.”
“I’m so glad you didn’t go down with the Aquamarine Pigeon.” Rodney pumped Clarence’s hand.
Steppingstone and Boniface traded perplexed glances.
“You mean you were working for Phillip?” Boniface asked.
“Yes.” Steppingstone added in a childish tone, “I was going to get Wales.”
“But he was going to give me Wales!” Boniface stuck out his lip.
“That’s what you get for not being loyal to Queen Elizabeth!” Robin lectured them.
“Yes, for placing your own greed before the well-being of England, you are hereby doomed to ignominy!” the Queen announced.
One morning a steamer trunk appeared on the loading dock of a small town depot. This was particularly odd because a train has not pulled into that station for almost fifty years. In fact, the loading dock was now an enclosed room of the Train Depot Museum.
Upon closer examination, the train museum staff found a tag on the truck that simply read:
For Jessie May.
Do not open until Christmas Eve.
This added mystery upon mystery because Jessie May had been dead for more than a century. Rumors around town had it that she still roamed the halls of her plantation home, which also had been turned into a museum.
Not knowing what else could be done, the depot staff loaded the trunk onto a pickup and took it a couple of miles down the road to the May-Stringer House Museum. The curator did not know what to with it, so he put it in the corner of a spare room. One of the docents wanted to open it right then.
“No,” the curator replied firmly. “The tag said wait until Christmas Eve.”
In the meantime, the museum’s docents found themselves under attack from some new spirit inhabiting the old plantation house. A push, shove or smack usually came after a docent make some unflattering comment about how the little girl ghost Jessie May always moved things. She took her play tea set out of a locked closet and set it up on a small table in the parlor. Jessie rearranged the order of her dolls displayed on the fireplace. Any mention of how mischievous she was brought on mild but decisive rebuke.
The curator and his staff tried to figure the problem out logically.
“What had changed right before the spectral harassment began?” he asked.
“The arrival of the Christmas trunk,” a docent replied.
“I say ignore the note on the trunk,” another docent blurted out. “Why obey directions from someone who obviously died years ago?”
“When you’ve been working in museums as long as I have,” the curator informed them, “you learn to respect the dead.”
That fateful day finally arrived, Christmas Eve. The staff gathered around the trunk as the curator carefully broke the lock and opened the lid. They saw all kinds of makeup, powder puffs, brushes, charcoal pencils and even a fake mustache and beard.
“You mean all this trouble is being made by an actor?” a docent asked with insolence. “Figures.”
Just then she was slapped across the back of her head.
The curator shook his head. “I told you. Never speak ill of the dead.”
Recovering quickly, the docent said, “Lift the top tray. Let’s see what’s under it.”
Lifting the tray, they saw an antique Santa Claus costume. Other than the red velvet having faded, the old white fur trim turning yellow and the black leather boots crackling, it appeared to be in good shape. Its fashion even matched the Thomas Nast drawings of a long coat in the European tradition of Sinter Klaus.
“That’s great!” another staff member exclaimed. “We’ve got an old mannequin in the attic. We can hang the suit on it.”
Frowning, the curator replied, “No, I think we ought to leave it in the trunk for a while, until we figure out what all this means.”
The museum closed its doors, and the staff members went home to begin their family festivities. Hardly anyone drove by the museum right on the stroke of midnight. But if they had, and if they looked up on the balcony, they would not have believed what they saw. Little Jessie May danced a proper waltz with a spectral Santa Claus in the antique suit from the Christmas trunk.
This is so much fun! How did you know I wanted to dance with Santa on Christmas Eve?
You do realize you realize you’re dead, don’t you?
Of course, silly.
Well, ho ho ho, after you die, anything is possible.
Previously: England awaits the Spanish invasion. Elizabeth orders two of her young heroes to Spain on a mission. Each one has a beautiful but jealous lover.
Alice ran down the Alhambra steps with Clarence and Boniface fencing their way behind her. Putting two petite fingers in her mouth, Alice whistled for a carriage which pulled up with typical British efficiency. Courtiers often beat a hasty retreat from events hosted by King Phillip which did not go unnoticed by the carriage trade.
“To the port and the fastest ship headed for England!” she ordered as she hopped in the front, which left room for Clarence and Boniface to continue fencing in the back seat as the carriage sped away.
They had only just left the confines of the Spanish palace before Rodney and Steppingstone fenced their way down the steps where Maria rode up on a large white stallion. Rodney didn’t miss a swing of the sword as he leapt upon the back of the horse. An efficient guard promptly arrived with a black stallion for Steppingstone to mount. They both rode off, side by side, so the duel could continue.
Within a few minutes the carriage arrived at the port, and Alice jumped from her seat and rushed to the ticket window. A clerk looked up and smiled. Since Clarence and Boniface insisted on fencing no matter what, they lagged behind a few steps.
“Si, senorita. May I help you?”
“Two tickets on the boat to England.”
“First class or tourist?”
“Smoking or nonsmoking?”
“That will be one hundred and fifty pesetas.”
Alice looked through her purse and pulled out the money for the clerk.
“It’s boarding now.” The clerk smiled again. “Have a nice day.”
Taking Clarence’s free hand, Alice dragged him away from his duel, which, by the way, he was winning quite without difficulty. It was just as well there was a break in the action because Boniface had to buy his ticket.
“I want one ticket on the ship they’re taking!”
“That will be seventy-five pesetas.”
Boniface grabbed a handful of coins from his pocket and threw them into the clerk’s window.
“Now boarding. Have a nice day.”
Alice ran up the gangplank. Clarence pulled his hand away so he could resume his match with Boniface. In the meantime, Maria and Rodney arrived on their white stallion, dismounted and ran for the clerk’s window, which left the poor horse pawing at the ground in confusion. He had never been mounted like that before and left without so much of a “Had a good time, see you later.”
Maria paused at the window to hunt for coins in her purse. Rodney, seeing Steppingstone leap from his steed and bound toward them, thrust his hand into his pocket and produced more than enough coins to satisfy the ticket requirement.
“Keep the change!” Rodney shouted as he and Maria ran up the gangplank just as it began to pull away.
Steppingstone did not even pause at the ticket window but continued straightway to the gangplank, which irritated the clerk to no end. He had to pay out of his own wages any short falls in the daily financial report. Unfortunately when the clerk sprang forward to catch Steppingstone by the leg, he fell into the water. Steppingstone somehow managed to land on the ship’s deck.
By this time Alice, Clarence and Boniface had scurried down the steps to the tourist section, a rather dank area filled with roughhewn benches on which sat respectable but poor passengers. A sign overhead read, “Smoking.” Clarence and Boniface had to take a respite to catch their breath. Boniface spied a traveler with a large cigar clenched between his teeth. The English lord leaned over, snatched it away puffed on the stogie.
“Hey!” the man shouted.
But before he could protest too much the young lady and two fencers moved on to the section marked “Non Smoking.” (Author’s note: Now one must consider the wisdom of an older gentleman, such as Boniface, to take on the added activity of smoking when his lungs must have been taxed to the extreme by the fencing. Perhaps the nicotine enhanced his physical stamina.) He took a broad swipe at Clarence who ducked, and Boniface cut the feather off the bonnet of one of the passengers. An older couple shook their heads in disapproval.
“Can you believe that?” the woman said to her husband.
“Some people have no manners,” he replied.
“Puffing on that cigar in a no smoking section,” she exclaimed.
On deck Rodney and Steppingstone fenced as they bumped against the mast. Rodney climbed the pole followed by his adversary. They balanced precariously on a cross mast as they continued swinging their epees. The captain ran up waving his hands and stopped next to Maria who stared skyward as she wrung her hands.
“Stop! Stop!” the captain shouted. “I don’t have insurance to cover fencing on the mast!”
Meanwhile in the throne room Phillip sat, slumped over and looking dejected as he pondered if he had the energy to retire to his bedchambers and change out of his wet royal duds. Boniface, still huffing like the old gray mare, ran in and bowed as though every muscle in his body ached.
“Your Majesty! I haven’t been able to catch Flippertigibbit or Broadshoulders!”
The King sighed. “You and my elite guard.”
Clarence and Alice rushed through another door and stopped long enough to gape and moan over their unfortunate turn. Boniface drew his sword.
“Stop, you spy!”
Being especially spry and agile, Clarence rushed Boniface and grabbed the sword out of the old man’s hand.
“You traitor!” Clarence said in his best hero’s voice.
Boniface hopped backwards, trying to place the throne between him and his young opponent. “I prefer opportunist!”
Clarence took a fencing position. “So it comes to this.”
“Not really.” By now Boniface was fully ensconced behind Phillip. “You took my sword!” Sticking his tongue out, he added, “Thief!”
By coincidence, a troop of guards entered from another door.
“Oh!” Alice gasped. “I think I’m going to faint!”
Grabbing her tiny waist, Clarence set her aright and slapped her face with love. “Sorry, darling! We don’t have time for that!”
Phillip held his head in his thin fingers. “Throw your sword to the idiot.”
One of the guards tossed his epee to Clarence.
“Not that idiot. The one standing behind me.” The King was ready for his afternoon nap.
Being an Englishman of the highest moral rectitude, Clarence lobbed back to Boniface his sword. Thus equipped, Elizabeth’s courtier jumped in front of the guards, creating a phalanx of sorts.
“En garde!” Boniface’s voice quavered.
“En garde!” Clarence returned to his fencing pose.
Alice ran for the door. “To England!”
Boniface lunged toward Clarence who was quick to counter. The old courtier looked behind him at the guards. “Aren’t you going to help me?”
They looked at the King who shrugged and said, “I say let them kill each other.”
Clarence and Boniface began fencing out the door following Alice’s path. They had barely disappeared down one of the corridors when Lord Steppingstone bounded in from another door. (Author’s note: Steppingstone was a few years younger than Boniface and therefore had a tad more stamina. Steppingstone’s family attributed their enhanced athletic conditioning to a steady diet of goat livers sautéed in ewe’s milk.)
“Your Majesty! I haven’t been able to find them! I’ve looked high and low! Over things! Under things!”
“Obviously not under the right things,” Phillip replied with a sad sigh.
Before Steppingstone could say a word, Rodney and Maria dashed in from yet another direction.
“All these corridors look the same,” Rodney muttered.
Maria stopped and gasped in English tones, “Uh oh! There’s King Phillip!”
“Didn’t you know,” his Majesty said with a smirk, “all corridors lead to me.”
“And Lord Steppingstone!” Rodney pointed at him. “You’re the traitor!”
Phillip looked over at his guards. “You know what I said about the last group that came through here?”
The head guard frowned. “I think so, my Lord.”
“Same principle applies here. Toss them both swords and let them fight it out.”
Before they realized what was going on, Rodney and Steppingstone found epees being thrown at them. However, neither missed a beat and took a fencing stance.
“This farce has gone on long enough.” Steppingstone growled.
“I agree,” Rodney replied, clinching his muscled jaw.
Maria was unimpressed by the display of gallantry and ran to the nearest door. “We don’t have time for chivalry, darling. To England!”
Rodney retreated, following his beloved, yet he still maintained an outstanding show of fencing repartee. Steppingstone tracked them out into the corridor. Entering from the same door, Vacacabeza looked behind him, waving a shaking hand.
“Stop! Halt. It’s …futile…to…run….” He would have said more but he collapsed in a faint on the marble floor.
Phillip shook his head. “On days like this, I seriously consider retiring and leaving the kingdom to my crazy son.”
On Christmas Eve Mother Spider paused a moment after delivering her babies, looked through the branches of the small fir tree to watch the sun set over the Austrian snow drifts. She sensed she would not live to see Christmas morning. She did not mind so much—for spiders only had a brief span on this earth—but she wanted to leave her darling little children a special memory of their mother before she went away.
A heavy thud interrupted her thoughts. Running to the tip of the branch she saw a woman, wrapped in rags, chopping away. Mother Spider had heard legends of humans putting evergreen trees in their houses on Christmas Eve, hoping that an angel—one of those who heralded the birth of the Christ Child centuries ago—would visit every home. The tree which symbolized best of love and peace merited the granting of the family’s wish for the New Year, whatever that wish might be.
Mother Spider consoled her children who became frightened by the jostling and thumping as the woman dragged the tree from the forest into her small cottage. Two little girls and a boy ran to the door and, with giggles galore, helped their mama set the tree in the corner by the fireplace.
“My dears,” the woman told them, “we won’t be decorating the tree this year because I didn’t have time to gather nuts and holly. We have no fruit to adorn the branches.”
“Don’t worry, Mother,” the older girl replied as she patted her mother’s shoulders. “We remember how pretty the tree looked before father died last year. That’s enough.”
“We’ll decorate the tree with our Christmas memories,” the boy joined in. “It shall be the prettiest tree we’ve ever seen.”
The woman put her face in her hands and cried.
“Don’t cry, Mother,” the other girl cooed. “It’s Christmas. We’re together. What more shall we want?”
“You don’t understand, children.” She wiped her face with a cloth. “If we can’t pay the landlord at the first of the month, we’ll be cast out in the snow.”
“We always have the Christmas angel.” The boy hugged her. “Surely she’ll see this is the best tree in all the kingdom and grant our wish.”
After kissing and hugging each of her children, the woman gave them bowls of porridge for their supper. Then the family settled on an old feather mattress, snuggling under worn quilts, and fell asleep.
Even as she felt the life slowly slip from her body, Mother Spider decided she would decorate the family’s tree with the last of her web. She told her little spiders what she was doing and that they should stay nestled among the branches for they had had a long, busy day and needed their rest. When she was sure they were all in a deep slumber, Mother Spider began her task, beginning at the bottom of the tree and working her way to the top, spreading her silvery fragile tinsel.
At first she didn’t think she had the strength to finish her job, but she paused to consider the poor woman and her three loving children who needed the angel to grant their Christmas wish. When she finally reached the top of the fir tree, Mother Spider turned because she thought she heard the flapping of gossamer wings.
There before her was the Christmas Angel, emanating her soft heavenly light. The spider breathed deeply, trying to stay alive for a few moments more. The angel glided to the tree.
“My dear little spider,” the angel whispered in a loving lilt. “What have you done?” She smiled. “You don’t have to speak. I can read your heart. Rest, tender spider, for your labor has won your wish for this desperate family. Behold, your web is now silver spangles and when you depart your body, I shall make it into a brooch of rubies and diamonds.”
Mother Spider looked down to see her baby spiders scampering across the branches.
“Your children are here to say their farewell. Go now. What a gift you have given them.”
The next morning the woman and her daughters and son awoke to the sun coming through the window, making the silver tinsel shine. They danced and sang around the tree. Then the mother noticed the ornament at the top and screamed for joy when she saw the rubies and diamonds. The family never wanted for anything again, and shared its good fortune with the destitute of the village.
In the years to come, the spiders who witnessed their mother’s transformation into the grandest Christmas gift ever, told their children who in turn told their children of the miracle. Each one wished that one wintry night they would be fortunate enough to live in a fir tree chosen to be blessed by the Christmas Angel.
(Author‘s note: This is a new interpretation of the Christmas spider legend.)
Like a tiny bird escaping a hungry cat, Alice ran through a heavy wooden door on the lowest level of the Alhambra, only to find herself in the kitchen. Scullery maids mopped the rough stone floor, and frumpy old women were busy chopping vegetables and peeling fruit for the evening royal dinner. She stopped, not quite sure where to turn next. She did know she had to exit soon because the aroma of soapy water mixed with freshly sliced orange made her nauseous. At first Alice decided to exit through the same door she entered, but a pair of brutish guards burst into the kitchen through that door. She could have uttered an obscenity involving fecal material but instead scrammed in the opposite direction, not knowing where it would lead. Along the way she knocked a large wooden bowl filled with oranges onto the floor. Phillip’s thugs, trained to be inflict physical pain but lacking grace and agility, tripped on the bruised fruit and sprawled across the floor. One of the cooks walloped them on their heads.
“How can we prepare the King’s supper with you dolts stumbling through the kitchen?”
Although quite aerobically fit, Clarence was running out of breath trying to elude the King’s men. He slipped in a side chamber in order to catch his second wind. He became aware other huffing and gasping other than his own. It was deeper and faster. Looking around, Clarence found himself face to face with Lord Boniface. Because of his youth and great military training, he recovered post haste and dashed back through the door and down another corridor.
Quite by happenstance, Clarence and Alice encountered each other down another one of those confounded hallways. After a quick embrace and kiss, Clarence beamed at her.
“My darling! I’m so glad we’re together again!” He grabbed her hand. “I won’t ever let go of you. We’ll escape this madhouse together!”
Clarence tried to move, but Alice would not budge. “Clarence, tell me honestly. Is there another woman?”
“No time for chitchat, Alice dear.” He tugged hard on her arm to dislodge her. “We have to return to England!”
As they resumed their sprint, Alice added, “Very well. But when we’re in London, you’re gonna catch hell!
Meanwhile, Maria decided the quickest way to go from the second floor to the courtyard would be to slide down the granite staircase bannister. She whipped one leg over the railing and let out a whoop as she slid downwards. The speed at which she was moving caused Maria to worry she might crack her hip if she landed too hard on the courtyard. Luckily for her, Senior Vacacabeza happened to be standing in just the right spot to break her fall. Without even a la-di-da, she stood and ran off who knows where. By the time Vacacabeza could stand, two more guards ran down the steps and knocked him on his ass again.
Rodney found himself cornered in the royal dining room by several guards coming from all directions. Looking up, he spied the chandelier, jumped on a table and leapt on the fancy swag lamp, swinging back and forth until he could fly through a tall window. Unfortunately, by doing so, Rodney landed on King Phillip, still sitting on the edge of the fountain. The impact knocked both him and the King into the water. It also put Rodney dangerously close to being captured. He pulled himself out of the pool, shook a bit like a dog retrieving a water fowl on a hunt. Then he ran through the yard, still not knowing how to get the hell out of that damned palace. Phillip struggled out of the pool, only to be knocked back into it by two guards barreling through after Rodney.
Vacacabeza followed Maria back into the banquet hall. (Author’s note: Yes, I know. They’ve gone back up the stairs somehow. Just remember these people lived in the fifteenth century and did not have the benefit of an education in twenty-first century America.) Maria slid under a banquet table. Her guardian tried to follow her but his aching knees gave out and he landed face first on the floor. Rodney ran in from another door. He stopped.
“Oh damn! Why am I back in here?”
Before he could answer himself, Rodney heard guards clanking down the hall and about to enter the banquet hall. He had to hide under one of the long oaken tables. He kept crawling along until he bumped into Maria’s backside. She turned to see him.
The lovers cocked their heads as they heard the guards bang into Vacacabeza. The couple could tell the Spaniards all fell down and went boom. While Vacacabeza and the guards grumbled, Rodney and Maria shuffled in the opposite direction on their knees.
“Why are you dripping wet?” Maria asked in astonishment. Shaking her head, she added, “More importantly, I think I should be mad at you.” Her French jealousy was showing again.
“No time for anger, love. We have to get back to England!”
“And why should I go to England with you?”
“Why, to marry me, of course.”
“Oh goody! I accept!” She paused. “Kiss me!”
“Escape first, kissing later!”
And then they vamoosed.
Flummoxed, Phillip stopped in the middle of the courtyard and watched the young ladies disappear among the labyrinthine corridors. Before he could reprimand his guards for moving too slow to catch the maidens, he saw Rodney scamper down a set of steps followed by a huffing Vacacabeza. When clip clopping on the other staircase drew his attention, Phillip turned to see Clarence.“Stop! Stop!” the monarch bellowed. “Aha! We’ve got them trapped! We’ve got them trapped!”
Rodney straightway reversed his course and went up the steps, knocking Vacacabeza over, causing the ambassador to tumble.
Clarence, on the other hand, being lighter and therefore more fleet of foot, had made it to the bottom of his staircase before realizing he had come face to face with the royal guards. He wasted no time in backtracking up the steps with the two guards in pursuit. Three-fourths of the way up Clarence jumped to the bannister and leaped up to the balustrade. Flinging himself over it, he disappeared down another hallway. By the time the guards lumbered to the second landing, Clarence was nowhere to be seen.
Vacacabeza doddered across the courtyard and by unlucky happenstance knocked the King on his ass. Phillip stood as quickly as any old man in similar circumstances could recover from a fall.
“You fool! Watch out where you’re going!”
“I’m sorry, your Majesty!” The ambassador bowed. He looked about at the four corners of the Alhambra. “Which one do you want me to chase?”
Phillip sat on the edge of the central fountain. “Neither. I’m getting too old for this.”
Maria, clearly confused by the conflagration of corridors ran back into the courtyard but stopped on a peseta when she saw the King and her guardian.
“Mon dieu!” she sputtered in a French accent.
King Phillip pointed at her with great authority. “Stop right there!”
Vacacabeza placed his boney hands on his ward’s shoulders. “That’s right! We’ve got you now!”
“And if my hunch is correct, we also have one of your confederates!” An evil look of satisfaction crossed his wrinkled, bewhiskered face.
“What—what do you mean?” A Spanish fear clouded her voice.
“You know what we mean,” the King replied, motioning to his ambassador to go behind Maria. Each old man went on his knees, lifted her skirt and reached under. “Now we shall see who you are hiding.”
“What are you doing?” Maria asked with incredulity.
(Author’s note: Actually, it was quite clear to Maria what they were doing. What Maria probably meant was how could they be so crass to be doing it. We can forgive her momentary lapse of cogency because of the extreme awkwardness of her situation.)
“We’re looking for spies!” Phillip replied.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Vacacabeza ordered in a sing-song voice. His hand went between her legs and grabbed Phillip’s nose. “Aha! I think I’ve found him! I’ve got you now! You won’t get away! You’re doomed! “
The King bit the ambassador’s fingers. Vacacabeza pulled his arm away. “Ouch! That scoundrel bit me!”
Phillip withdrew his arm also and clambered to his feet. “That was no scoundrel! That was me!”
Maria reverted to righteous English indignation. “I agree with him. You are a scoundrel!” Recovering her senses, she tiptoed between the two old men and scurried out of the courtyard.
“How could Spain become a world power with such incompetent people running it?” Phillip sputtered.
The ambassador stood, dusting off his coat. “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself, your Majesty—“
“I’m talking about you, you idiot!”
Rodney, who must have had a terrible sense of direction, ran back into the courtyard. “Uh oh. Wrong way!” He disappeared before the King and his minion could react.
“Do you want to chase him, or should I?”
Phillip sank on the fountain’s edge again. “Oh, you go after him. I’m worn out.”
“As you wish, Sire.” He bowed before running after Rodney. “Come back here, you spy! Escape is impossible!
Phillip watched as Vacacabeza went into the wrong corridor. After huffing a bit, the King muttered, “I hope the invasion goes better than this.”