A crone in black wool dark in the doorway. Zoom in on her hands, knuckles thick with long work and the skin lined as dense as pile knit. She holds antlers worn smooth by years of worry and clicks them together for the bony and rhythmic score as we open, panning slow over the coarse cloth to her face like a severe woodcut in pale driftwood. Yellow-green eyes that might glow lurid in the dark. Carefully, in an angular accent that lives in the throat: “Merry Christmas.”

Click. Click. Click. 

The aurora borealis like the night sky giving birth. A warp of lysergic green out past the pines lit low red by the ritual fire. 

A fire reflected in the eyes of ten-year-old Charlie, watching the Christmas tree well after dark. Trinkets and tinsel and oblong lights burn in many colors. He sits wrapped and hooded with blankets like some mountain hermit, breathing hard, studying the star radiant atop the tree. He folds his hands into a tense little prayer because there’s something he wants more than anyone has ever wanted. Click. Click. And then a final click as the lights of the tree begin to vibrate and their trails stretch slow. The star as though it might explode.

Black an instant. A woman’s voice singing in foreign words a high and ethereal folk invocation, beneath it low tones like ships at sea. And on this goes both sylphic and heavy. A woman’s tired voice comes in over the image. She’s calm, the accent vaguely English but with something else too:

[“Charlie…You will have to grow up much faster than you should have.”] 

A train rolling into a snow-charmed station, its black coal-smoke an edifice and stormcloud. This is London between the wars. There are wreaths with red ribbons on the wrought-iron lightpoles and strings of bulbs waiting for nightfall. There are men in felt hats with armloads of gifts waiting on the platform and there are ruddy children in mittens and scarves who shove and laugh at each other as though they will live forever.

[“And you’ll have to work very hard to be happy. But you must remember that’s what I want most for you. To be happy.”] 

Charlie very serious with his woolen driver’s cap and a backpack for school and an ink-black cloth tied around his arm. Ahead, children swarm where the park meets the street. They lob wads of snow at each other and cavort and slide on the slippery stone. Charlie forces an expectant smile warm onto his winter-reddened face, tries to join in and lobs his own and this splashes across the bared neck of a boy who feels twice his size. A boy who flashes teeth and rounds up his goons with a shout, the pack of them now giving chase.  

The singing voice of the score calls in dark and feminine energies. 

The crone a dark woolen outcrop on snowpack white as eyes, as knuckles, as seafoam. Gray and trees and mountains in the space unfilled far behind her. Unfillable. [“A past you don’t remember is still alive in you. I would have taught you one day. Look for it. Don’t forget to look inside for it.”] She stands athwart a reindeer split from its herd. Their eyes are like our eyes if you look close. And when the crone reaches out her ungloved hand, steaming in the far north cold, the reindeer kneels in grateful submission to her will. 

[“Your father is a good man who may do some bad things after I go.”] 

The camera sneaks through the proscenium of a door that should have been closed. A hulk of a man crestfallen at the rough wood table under the set’s only light. Alcohol and the glass for it and he may be sobbing but this he hides in his hands, coal-smeared and battered. In shirt-sleeves coal-smeared. Exasperated. And when he hears the creak of the door, Charlie peering in on him, he turns like a cornered animal—the look between them as if watching a coin as it falls into the darkness of a well. “Your grandmother is coming. Down from the north country. We must be kind to her, Charlie. Their ways are much different from ours.”

“Will we still have Christmas?”

“Of course. Though it might be very different from the Christmas you know.”

From overhead, Charlie pursued across the snow by a dozen children, a hundred children all in the same gray-brown coat and Charlie out ahead of them capless, the black band on his arm like ink on marble. Eyes as open as they have ever been. [“And you’ll be very alone. I’m sorry for that. You’ll be alone for a long time but it will make you stronger, Charlie.”] He’s out onto a frozen river the color of iron and the boys who hunt him stop at shore. They call after him to come back and it’s not virulence now but fear. A fracture across the nacreous gray ice like a white laserbeam. It splits into a galaxy of cracks. Charlies plunges through—into a womb of color, nebulous and warm, orange and purple. Now he flies—face first, like a shark or a torpedo through viscous air that can hardly contain him. 

Her gray hair whipped about her skull like battered old flags at lost monasteries, like tentacles starved lean. She does not feel the wind. The wind may be a part of her, something she carries under that wool—now in blue, a colorful placket, a hood that peaks draped off the back of it. Her enormous finger, lined and eroded like a jag of the White Cliffs, points to, insists upon, a load of split wood bundled together with twine. “Pick up,” she says. “Yes. Up.” But it’s nearly the size of him and when he tugs at the rope it hardly budges. That great temple of a finger again, insisting that he move this bundle of wood from where it lies there to the house. And he pulls again, her mouth open in a fury—he pulls until strain-tears dampen his eyes and he has the bundle up against his legs when the binding-twine breaks. The wood falls and him over it. 

From the window, in the dark, Charlie’s father watches carolers on the street, in their overcoats, their Sunday best. “Her celebration,” he tells Charlie. “Her Christmas is how we did it long before the christ-child came along.” Pan over the carolers slow, their slush-splotched trousers and galoshes. Pan over their hats and shoulders. And we cut to men—bare-headed in shirt-sleeves—crowded together in the dim of a cellar. They chant, their chests swelling and then exhausting in perfect sync. Forcing their breath fast. Eyes squinted closed and before we cut a single-frame glimpse of Charlie’s grandmother gesturing to the above with bony hands. And the ethereal singing that has carried us is drawing closed with a final call for the singer’s heart to be healed. 

[“This time of the year means so much to our people. Can’t you feel it in your blood?”] 

The gnarled hands raising a jar of yellowish fluid to the wind-scraped winter sky. She is singing now. A hum to resonate with the stone and snow. 

Charlie holding in his hands a little boulder field of broken coal. It begins to writhe and sizzle.

A time-lapse of a great red-capped mushroom, white dots about its head, pushing up through a mat of pine needles.

Roses red as arterial blood on green-thorned stalks. Falling in a bunch on the wooden casket. 

From above and drifting slow to the street like ash, we see Charlie’s street late at night, ensconced in snow as if stored up for warmer days. Streetlamps and quiet and all the windows dark save those displaying Christmas trees. And one that we are falling toward, a basement window that flickers as if candle-lit. We pass through the smoky glass. 

A dozen men in sputtering light like tallow-lamps of old. Charlie’s father with them. Some of them bare-chested, their workaday beards twisted up with sweat. Some squatting or sitting on the packed clay floor, all of them. One man seizes another by the shoulders and shakes him “can’t you see it? Can’t you see?” And another facedown with his arms outstretched beside him like wings of a hawk as he navigates the treetops. 

[“Promise me, Charlie. Will you promise me?”]

A figure steps out from the fireplace—impossible, tall as the holiday tree. Ash lays as thick on him as robes and his beard is its own forest and there is a sleepless intensity in his eyes like men in the trench. He slings an old burlap sack off his shoulder as little Charlie trembles and gapes. He shakes the dust from himself, his red jacket underneath embellished with patches of stars and moons and snowflakes. He reaches in for a gift. He puts a small box in Charlie’s hands.

[“You’ll believe when it’s shown to you? Won’t you, my boy? You won’t forget?”]

Charlie flies across the solar system. He wobbles and tumbles, is hypnotized and panicked, elfin creatures pull at his clothes, climb across his back, bite his elbows. He tries to shake them loose. The stars trail off ahead of themselves and it is not black emptiness—a very old lie told even by one’s vision now. It is all colors, in smears and eddies and whorls. He brushes some of the demons aside, off they flail into the void, but others cling to him: by their teeth on his buttons, by his shoelace, one rides holding his hair like reins. He levels himself, he faces the direction he’s heading. It is not easy but he is wresting control. He grits his teeth and accelerates until the pesky goblins peel off one by one as he rockets out toward Mars. 

A man’s god-like voice: {“This Christmas… it’s about tradition.”} 

Charlie punches a much larger boy in the stomach. Out on the iced-over cobblestones. And the boy’s hat falls into the slop, he slips to a knee and tries to grab at Charlie but Charlie is too fast and punches him again, in the face. And now Charlie is a kind of demon swinging wild and mostly connecting with this boy who seems nowhere near so large now, bleeding from his nose on the gray snow. 

{“And family.”}

Charlie stands shirtless in the tallow-lit basement and his father kneels before him as if begging for forgiveness, his hands fisted up under his chin. Charlie reaches out a shaky hand, in benediction. Grandmother stands behind him, her face arched to the ceiling, her hands outstretched as though pulling in unseen forces slow like heavy rope. 

{“And it’s about remembering the way things once were.”}

And a shaky hand reaches out to a cave wall aflicker with torch-light. Draws a line in rich ochre and we shift out serpentine and slow to see that it is young Charlie drawing. He is dirty and his hair is wild and he wears fur about his shoulders. He dips his fingers again into the pot and brings them to the wall where he is drawing a tree. A tree with many branches and within the branches many small shapes—circles and, near the top, what a forgiving eye might call a star. 

Brad Kelly is a fiction writer and co-host of the Art of Darkness podcast. He has recently published HOUSE OF SLEEP, a work of literary psy-fi, and is currently developing a novel entitled THAT WHICH IS WITHIN and an experimental text spelunking the Tarot card-by-card. He is a former Michener Fellow and has been widely published in literary magazines.