The Cursed Noel
By Tim Pratt & Heather Shaw
It was supposed to be a Very Zoom Christmas, but the internet went out on Christmas Eve, and out here, it usually took a couple of days to get going again. Travis didn’t expect things to happen any faster during the holiday. He could get a bar on his cell phone if he stood in the right spot in the cabin, but that wasn’t enough for a video call. He could always drive into town tomorrow where the service was better, but sitting in some parking lot in the cold, looking at the thumbprint-sized faces of his mother and sisters and cousins on his phone, all broadcasting from their own places of pandemic isolation, didn’t exactly sound festive.
Travis went to the window in the kitchen and looked out at the whitened evergreens. Loneliness settled onto him, like the weight of all that snow on those branches. The smell of his morning coffee was already dissipating in the chill air. The original plan, back when everyone thought the pandemic would surely be under control by the end of the year, was to fly to Chicago for the traditional giant gathering, but the Midwest was even more ravaged by the virus than everywhere else. So he was staying here instead, wintering for the first time in the cabin in the North Carolina mountains he’d inherited from his grandfather, and only used as a summer place before. The isolation hadn’t bothered him much so far, but like the snow in the song, the pandemic didn’t show signs of stopping, and it had all become a bit wearying.
He was on sabbatical, working on his next book, which was mostly about epistemological nihilism. His editor wanted to call it Knowing and Nothingness; he preferred Cogito, Ergo So What? Since he wasn’t teaching at the moment, Travis had been spared the necessity of navigating the whole remote-learning thing, though it looked like he’d have to come to grips with it next year, at this rate; he couldn’t imagine teaching a Philosophy 101 class or even a senior seminar through a screen. The whole point was engaging with other thinkers, and doing that remotely would spoil the flow of conversation he cherished so much when teaching. But, he supposed, life was about making adjustments.
Not seeing his family for Christmas wasn’t an adjustment he’d wanted to make, though. The life of the mind was all well and good, but he also wanted the life of the eggnog, and Christmas carols, and spiked apple cider, and twinkling lights, and presents he could actually present in person.
Looking out at the trees, he smiled. Adjustments. Okay, so, he couldn’t join his people for the holidays. That didn’t mean he couldn’t be a little more festive himself. The junk his grandfather had left in the back room included strings of Christmas lights and the most unloved family heirloom ornaments and the metallic tang of out-of-fashion tinsel. He had an axe. He owned two acres, positively infested with pines of all sizes. He would by God go out and cut himself a Christmas tree, decorate it, get a fire going, pour some rum into something (maybe just into a glass), and be as merry as he could be under the circumstances. He couldn’t stream holiday movies with no internet, but he had a book of Charles Dickens, and that Connie Willis collection of Christmas stories, and re-reading those would do just as well. He even had packages to put under the tree, so at least that would look cheerful—he’d wrapped up gifts for his family, hoping until the last minute that he’d get to deliver them in person. He should have mailed them already, really, but that could be an errand for Boxing Day.
He bundled up, his winter gear consisting of a hoodie with a leather jacket on top, which together almost approximated a winter coat. He’d only planned to be here through the Fall, but by then infection rates in his hometown were spiking because of an ill-thought-out and ill-fated attempt to bring students to campus for the fall semester, and the local authorities were pleading for people to stay away. This little mountain town, in the meantime, had experienced a grand total of two cases, both tourists from Florida who’d decided a little thing like a worldwide virus outbreak wouldn’t stop them from driving up to see the leaves change. People weren’t great about wearing masks out here in the country, it was true, but the grocery store required them to get in, and otherwise he never really saw anyone anyway. Hunkering down here until there was a vaccine, or at least until the inevitable winter outbreak spike abated, seemed sensible. The change in plans meant he didn’t have a proper winter coat here, or long underwear, and his hiking boots weren’t as waterproof as he’d like, but better cold than coughing to death, or on a ventilator in an overcrowded ICU.
He wrapped a woolly scarf that had belonged to his granddad (and still smelled faintly, and not unpleasantly, of his pipe smoke) around his throat and chin, pulled a knit cap low onto his ears, and stepped out onto the porch. The day was clear and bright, the snow glittering like diamond dust, and the air was more brisk and crisp than annihilating. December was cold, but it was worse in January and February, or so he’d been assured by the locals.
Travis found his axe out by the tarp-covered woodpile, which was probably high enough to get him through winter. If not, there were neighbors who’d be happy to sell him a cord or two at well above market rate, he was sure. He crunched through the snow, which was mostly ankle deep and knee-deep at worst, since he was on the lee side of a hill. He followed his best recollection of the trail through the trees, his breath puffing out, the muscles in his legs warming up as a cold ache settled into his arms. He didn’t want some monster pine it would take forever to chop down. Something five or six feet high would do, and he could nail a couple of planks together to make a stand. The smell of evergreens in the house would do wonders for his mood, reminding him of those childhood holidays, when he’d tromp out with his dad or granddad or both to chop down a tree and take it home, just like this—
There were footprints in the snow. Travis was no tracker — he knew semiotics, not trail sign — but the snow was fresh and the marks were clear. They belonged to a person, more specifically a small person, and were made by a shoe with a substantial heel. Lady’s boots? He lifted his head, looked around, and saw a flash of red off to the right. “Hello?” he called.
The red vanished behind a crowd of trees, but, well: there were tracks. It wouldn’t be hard to follow them. Travis couldn’t think of any logical reason—good or nefarious—for someone to be on his land on Christmas Eve, so maybe it was a lost hiker or someone whose car had broken down on the other side of the hill. He followed the tracks, pausing occasionally to call out, to no response. When the tracks curved behind a thick stand of pines he paused. Sometimes there was illogical nefariousness, wasn’t there? But he had an axe, the intruder was alone and clearly not a hulking behemoth, and by the standards of middle-aged philosophy professors, he was in good shape. He was probably okay. He lifted the axe and went around the trees.
A woman was sitting on a tree stump, her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands. A bob of chestnut curls, dusted with snow, hid her face. “Are you all right?” Travis said.
She looked up. She was pretty, Travis supposed; maybe even hot, as the straights judged things. She wore a shiny red dress embroidered with intricate beading, including a fringe that did nothing to warm her poor legs. The dress was a bit old-fashioned and flapper-y, and way too light for this weather, and the beaded, ivy-embroidered shawl couldn’t have helped much. She was indeed wearing lady’s boots, but thin ones made of kid leather — better for looking good at a party than walking around the forest. An out-of-place odor of old leather, fresh tobacco, and rose wafted from her. “I’m freezing, thanks for asking,” she said. “But, as always, it’s my own fault.” She sounded like she had a cold, and Travis automatically kept six feet between them. Neither one was wearing a mask, though his scarf probably halfway counted. “Where am I this time?”
“Sorry?” he said.
She waved her hand around vaguely; he noticed her other hand held an ivory cigarette holder, though there was no cigarette in it. “This place. Where am I? Last time, I was back in New York. I hadn’t been there in ages. They have a big Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. I met Rockefeller once, at a party — a girl I knew was some kind of distant cousin or something to his wife Abby. After a while it gets so even seeing a familiar name is something, you know?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know,” Travis said. She didn’t have an obvious head injury. “Have you had an accident, or something?”
She threw her head back and laughed uproariously; if most of the birds hadn’t flown south already, the noise would have startled them out of the trees. Travis just thought of droplets spraying. “I didn’t really have an accident, no. I had an on purpose. This was done to me intentionally. I was walking with some friends, on our way to a dance, and talking about how much I was looking forward to Christmas. I was going out to my uncle’s estate. He always threw the best rubs, and he was a Big Cheese banker, but he had a great tolerance for new fads and young people, and never even blinked when I rolled my stockings or smoked. The whole town came in for his parties, people danced till dawn, it was positively the tops. This old woman was shuffling along, dressed in rags, she smelled like cabbage and worse things, and she plucked at my sleeve and said, I’ll never forget it — ‘Young miss,’ she said, ‘young miss, could I come to your party? Only I’m ever so hungry and lonely and cold.’ I shook her off me and didn’t answer her at all.” The woman sighed. “Not showing much Christmas spirit, I know. Maybe if I’d given her two bits, or something, this wouldn’t have happened. I guess I’ll never know. Anyway.” The woman’s shoulders went up, and then came down. “She was something. I don’t know what. An angel in disguise. A bad fairy, or a fairy godmother. She tested, me and I failed. Right before she touched me, I remember this, too, right before, I said, ‘I wish that every day could be Christmas Eve.’ It’s even better than Christmas, because that’s all church and cooking, but Christmas Eve, that’s dancing and gin and someone banging on the piano, that’s all the presents still wrapped and shining, that’s all the anticipation, you know?” She looked up at Travis, and her eyes were as green as the pines. “That’s the time when you can still imagine everything will be just perfect, before it has a chance to disappoint you.” She stood up and brushed snow from her dress. “That’s how she punished me. Every day is Christmas Eve for me, now. I wake up, and I’m cold and lonely and hungry, for the most part, and then I fall asleep, and when I open my eyes, it’s a year later, or sometimes two. I don’t even ask what year it is now, when I run into someone. It’s been a century, more or less, I guess. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. I am curious where I am, though.”
Travis let that extraordinary speech sit for a moment, then said, “You’re in the mountains of North Carolina. I could give you a ride to, ah . . .” Maybe not a hospital. Nobody wanted to go to a hospital in a pandemic, and it wasn’t like the local county facility was famed for its mental health services. Mostly they treated accidental gunshot wounds, car accidents, truck accidents, ATV accidents, sundry broken bones, and complications from doing too much meth. “Into town? Maybe someone can help you.”
“No, thanks. I spent a day at some kind of shelter once, and I’ve been on enough locked wards in my life, if you can call it a life. What is that axe for? Did you come out here to get a Christmas tree?” She looked around. “I saw a good one, where I woke up. Come on.”
Travis followed her as she retraced her own tracks. She hadn’t asked him for money or any other kind of help, and if this was a scam, it was a really weird pitch. He figured she was either mentally ill or having a laugh, but he couldn’t tell which. He’d go along with things for now until he figured out the best way to help her.
“There.” She pointed to a small, perfectly formed evergreen, no more than six feet high, standing all on its own in a little clearing.
Travis wasn’t looking at that, though. He was looking at an indentation in the white powder nearby, like a snow angel without the wings, where a person had clearly been stretched out. The woman’s bootprints led away from that spot . . . but no prints led to the place. It was like she’d been lowered to the middle of the clearing from a helicopter, or simply . . . “Materialized on the spot,” he said aloud. He walked to the indentation and looked carefully at the snow around it for some sign that she’d hidden her tracks. The crust was unbroken. It had snowed yesterday afternoon, but then the clouds had cleared, and had stayed clear all night — he’d gone out to look at the moon shining in the dark sky. Had she, what, walked out here yesterday and just slept in the snow for a full day, waiting for fresh snow to eradicate her incoming tracks? Wearing that dress? She would have died of exposure. Maybe she’d had a blanket . . . but where was the blanket? He’d walked the entire length of her tracks, and seen no sign of any warmth or shelter. “That’s not possible,” he said.
“That’s what I said,” she replied. “For the first dozen or so times. Here, look, I got these in New York right before I went poof, and they’re still a little warm. Cost me my last few coins.” She reached into her purse with its gold fringe and pulled out a rolled paper bag, and when she opened it, the scent of roasted nuts wafted out. She offered the bag, and he reached in, and the chestnuts were still warm.
More things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, he thought. He knew curses weren’t real; he knew time-travel was impossible; he knew women didn’t materialize in the snow. But people had known all sorts of things throughout history, hadn’t they? They’d known floods were the punishments of angry gods. They’d known the stars were candles lit by angels. They’d known there were dragons in the caves and leviathans in the seas. They’d known if you wore your clothes turned inside out, the fairies couldn’t see you. They’d been wrong, of course, everybody knew that . . . but maybe some of them had been right.
Travis pulled his scarf down and uncovered his nose and mouth. “Well. I guess you can’t be infected, then.”
She took a step back. “Infected? With what? I’d rather not be cold, hungry, lonely, and sick, thank you.”
He shook his head. “I’m fine. I haven’t left my cabin in two weeks. But there’s a pandemic, worldwide, it’s pretty bad.”
“Like the Spanish Flu?”
Right. She was some kind of flapper, so 1918 would be fresh in her mind. “Like that,” he agreed.
“Everyone wearing masks and everything again, then.” She sighed. “I got the worst blemishes on my chin from wearing a mask all the time.”
“Some people are wearing masks,” he said. “Not enough. It’s getting worse, too. The scientists asked people not to travel or gather in groups for the holidays.”
“Cold and lonely for a lot of people, this year,” she said. “That doesn’t make me feel any better, oddly.”
Travis took off his leather jacket and held it out to her. After a moment’s hesitation, she took it and pulled it on; it was so big on her, she swam in it. She wrapped her shawl around her neck like a scarf and gave a sigh. “Thank you.”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Travis.” He held up his axe. “Shall we get ourselves a Christmas tree, Joscelyn?”
Travis did most of the chopping, while she stood back and complimented his prowess. He’d been cold in just his hoodie, but working the axe soon had him warm and sweating. After what felt like a thousand swings from all directions, the tree tottered and fell, and Joscelyn cheered. Travis dragged the tree behind him, and Joscelyn followed along with the axe. “I don’t have much,” he said. “But you’re welcome to spend Christmas Eve with me.”
“I’ve had a few invitations like that over the years, on the rare occasions when I wake up around people who speak my language.” Her voice was colder than before. “Usually the men who invite me have certain intentions.”
How did flappers feel about gay people? Travis had no idea, but he supposed he was about to find out. “I . . . prefer the company of men, Joscelyn. I hope that’s all right.”
“Of course it is,” she said. “My favorite cousin Bobby was a nance. He always knew the best speaks. I’d be happy to accept your invitation, Trav. Usually a man alone on Christmas Eve has something wrong with him, but there’s not usually a new Spanish Flu going around, so you’re all right by me.”
Joscelyn chattered merrily as they walked back to his cabin, exclaiming over its rustic charm and going on about how it reminded her of the chalet where she did cocaine for the first time. He hammered together a base and they carried the tree inside, setting it up in a corner. He made sure the fireplace was roaring, then poured them both brandies. “To a Christmas Eve less lonely than either of us anticipated,” he said.
“Hotsy-totsy toast, Trav. Hear hear and chin-chin.” They clinked mugs and drank.
She helped him fish out the old ornaments (glitter-covered pine cones, glass Santas with cracked sacks, a stunned-looking toy mouse wearing skis) and strands of lights. They decorated the tree, and when they plugged it in, Joscelyn sighed happily. “Better than Rockefeller Center. I remember when they started selling these in stores.” She fingered the twinkling bulbs. “You only saw electric lights on trees in the hoity-toity houses before that.” Her stomach audibly rumbled, and she grimaced. “Sorry about that.”
“You must be starving!”
She shrugged. “Hungry, anyway. I always wake up hungry. I had a good meal, oh, four or five years ago, must have been, when I finally woke up in a place that took American money. Didn’t have enough to afford more than that bag of nuts last year though.”
Travis went to the kitchen and rummaged through the cupboards. “What sort of things did you used to have for Christmas dinner?”
“Oh, plum pudding, oyster dressing, codfish balls, roast duck, currant jelly, parsley potato balls. The usual things, like everyone has.”
Travis grinned. “I can’t manage all that, but I’ve got chocolate pudding mix, clam chowder, frozen meatballs, chicken breasts, marmalade, Yukon gold potatoes we can roast . . .”
“You’re sending me to heaven, Trav.”
They cooked together — she was terrible at cooking, and he was only competent, but they had a wonderful time. He told her stories of academic cocktail parties gone wrong, and she told him about the Jazz Age social scene, and then they swapped pandemic stories; they both had lots, mostly about how selfish people ruined things for everyone else. They ate dinner on a blanket on the floor, sharing treats back and forth, until they were both stuffed.
He had some Christmas music downloaded on his phone, and he played it through his bluetooth speaker. She knew “Silent Night” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” but not “Let It Snow” or “Silver Bells,” and the Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” made her literally roll on the floor with laughter by the end.
It turned out she knew how to make real eggnog, sugar and yolks and all, and she whipped up a batch with brandy and rum so potent that it made his eyes water. They sat by the fire and talked, and she told him the places she’d awakened over the years: Paris, London, Rome, Melbourne. She turned sad, her face softening in the firelight. “But mostly I’m just in the trees, or in a field, or a prairie or a plain, maybe sometimes a little nothing-special town but they don’t speak English, so I don’t know where I am. Two years in the States in a row is a strange rare treat.”
Outside, it was dark, and the only light inside was the fire. Things were turning sad, and Travis wanted to fight that, but knew he couldn’t. “I’m glad I met you, Joscelyn.”
“This is the nicest Christmas Eve I’ve had since all this started,” she said. “I can’t thank you enough for taking me in. I don’t know how much longer I have here, but I’m enjoying every minute. Tomorrow will be a new year, cold and lonely and hungry and all, but memories of tonight will keep me warm.”
“Keep my jacket too,” he said. “Wait. I have some other things for you.” He hunted up his wallet, which only had about fifty dollars in it, but he opened her purse and popped the cash in. “That will he helpful sometime, I hope.”
“Trav, you’re the best, really—”
“Here.” He sorted through the wrapped presents until he found the one he’d gotten for his niece who’d just turned thirteen, a very special gift acquired with her mother’s permission. He passed the box to Joscelyn. “Open that.”
She smiled at him, all twinkles, and tore off the candy-cane patterned paper. The shining white box in her hand made her raise an eyebrow. “This is one of those portable telephones that’s also a camera and all that, right?”
“I’ll show you how it works.” He helped her open the box (shrink-wrapped items were strange to her) and went through the setup process, showed her how the charger worked and how to activate the device. “I’ll pay to get it working, and for an international calling plan. If you end up in the wilderness somewhere, there might not be service — there’s barely even service here — but if you wake up in civilization somewhere . . .” He programmed his own number into the phone. “There. Call me if you can. I probably won’t be close enough to see you, but at least you’ll hear a friendly voice.”
Joscelyn sniffled, tears in her eyes, then leaned forward and wrapped her arms around him. “I haven’t hugged anyone in about a hundred years,” she said.
He thought back. “It’s been around five months for me.”
She squeezed him tighter. “It only feels like three months for me, though, so you might even have it worse.”
“Maybe next year will be better,” he said.
“Maybe this year isn’t so bad,” she replied.
She put the phone and charger in her purse. They sat in front of the fire, holding hands companionably, and listened to Bing Crosby sing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and Montgomery Gentry sing “Merry Christmas from the Family” until she said, “Oh, it’s starting.”
He looked at her, and she twinkled, shimmering, like moonlight seen through falling snow. “Oh, Joscelyn, oh no,” he said.
“It’s okay. I’m not so cold tonight.” She leaned forward to kiss his cheek. It felt like being brushed lightly by the needles of a pine tree, and then she was gone.
“Not so lonely,” Travis said, and sat and watched the fire until the night before turned into the morning of.
About the Authors
Heather Shaw is a writer, editor, bookkeeper, sewist, and lindy hopper living in Berkeley, CA with her husband and 13-year-old son, River. She’s had short fiction published in Strange Horizons, The Year’s Best Fantasy, Escape Pod, PodCastle, and other nice places. She has been the fiction editor at the erotica zine Fishnet, the speculative fiction zine Flytrap, and the pro-SF zine, Persistent Visions. She is currently working on a one-act modern feminist adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, which will have a staged reading in San Francisco in November of 2021. She can be found online at https://www.facebook.com/hlshaw.
Tim Pratt is the author of more than 20 novels, most recently the Axiom space opera trilogy. His multiverse adventure novel Doors of Sleep, beginning a new series, is out in January 2021. He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction, and has been a finalist for Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards. He tweets incessantly (@timpratt) and publishes a new story every month for patrons at www.patreon.com/timpratt.
About the Narrators
Dominik Parisien is a writer, editor, and poet. His most recent projects are the Hugo Award–winning Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction with Elsa Sjunneson and The Mythic Dream with Navah Wolfe. His debut poetry collection Side Effects May Include Strangers was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2020. Dominik lives in Toronto.
Jen Albert is an editor, writer, and former entomologist. She works full-time as an editor at ECW Press, an independent publishing house based in Toronto, where she enjoys working on books of all kinds, including speculative fiction, popular science, and LGBTQ fiction and non-fiction. She became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction podcast in 2016; she now wonders if she still allowed to call it her favorite. Along with her co-editors, Jen has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award for her work on PodCastle.