Every year for the past few years, I’ve re-written a holiday story through a queer lens, retelling it as a way to retroactively tell stories to my younger self that include people like me. The first year, I wrote “Dolph,” (a retelling of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). Then I wrote “Frost,” (a retelling of Frosty the Snow-Man). Last year, I wrote “Reflection,” (a retelling of “The Snow Queen.”) This year I present “The Five Crowns and Colonel’s Sabre,” (a retelling of “The Nutcracker and Mouse King.”)
I hope you enjoy.
The Five Crowns and Colonel’s Sabre
“As a good soldier, he ought to know the wounded are not expected to take their places in the ranks.”
My father’s words were a cold comfort, spoken years before and of a toy and yet could have been said now, were my father still alive, with just as much merit.
Now, as then, I couldn’t help but feel some shame.
A good soldier. I had been that, in duty and effort and action if perhaps not always in heart. And now I rode a train back to a place I scarcely remembered from when I’d been a boy until the day I’d told my father I would not be joining his practice, but would instead be taking my skills to aid in war.
Ahead, I saw the city, lit in the failing light of the early winter afternoon.
The wounded are not expected to take their places in the ranks.
I exhaled, putting my father’s words out of my mind as best I could.
“I need a sword.” Marie sounded positively terrified. My gaze caught on the bandage on her arm, and I tried to have patience with her, for she’d had a few rough days, and though our godfather had meant to entertain her, I think we’d both found his story more terrible and mean than anything else.
You’ll be turned away if you are different, that story said. Even if you bring a magical nut, restore a princess, and fulfil a prophecy.
“Fritz?” Marie asked again.
“My nutcracker. He needs a sword. I can’t… I can’t protect him, and…” Tears filled her eyes.
I thought of my father and mother and our godfather—all of whom had been very, very clear that Marie’s flights of fancy needed to stop, and indulging them was childish. Her story of the battle between the dolls and the mice—my own soldiers doing abysmally—had been a dream, of course, it had to have been, but…
I looked at her tears again.
“Did my hussars really perform so poorly?”
She sniffed, and truly, she was always such a considerate girl. “I’m sure they were just unprepared. It was a frightful thing, the battle.”
“Well,” I said. “Soldiers should be brave, not unprepared.” I eyed the cabinet. “I may have just the thing.”
She hugged me, and I hugged her back. Surely it wasn’t an unkindness to set my younger sister’s mind to ease?
I tried not to think of what my father might say. He didn’t need to know, I thought.
He didn’t need to know.
The walk from the train station to my home—so strange to think of it as my home—was done without fanfare, for which I was grateful. My leg kept me at a certain lacklustre pace, but pained only a little, and as I carried my bag in one hand to free the other for my cane, it was a welcome piece of rare luck.
I had my key, and my eldest sister Luise had arranged for someone to come by the house and ensure it prepared well enough for my arrival, in as much as it would be stocked enough for me to spend a day or two acclimating before having to see to anything of a grand effort.
I lit a lamp left at the entrance, and eyed the spare entranceway. With the door closed behind me, the worst of the cold and snow had retreated, though surely it would also be cold inside, once I had not the contrast to consider.
I eyed the great staircase, but the weariness of that particular trek was too much. So, I pinned my hopes on my father’s penchant for resisting all change carrying him to his end and made my way to a room on the ground floor.
It was, indeed, unchanged enough for my purposes. The clock—still now, unwound—in the corner and the tall cabinet with glass doors were still the most striking pieces in the simple room, but it was the daybed to which my eyes wandered with true relief.
It was probable that upstairs I might have cleaned myself, washing away the lengthy journey before sleep, but instead I went to the hearth, lit the waiting tinder, and barely took the time to change into a sleeping shirt before I fell into the little bed, pulling the blankets up around me, and resting my head with a sigh equal parts relief and worry.
There was much going on in my head, more in my heart, and still more in my soul, but a good soldier learns young how to sleep no matter the noise, whether internal or external.
I closed my eyes, the last sight of the evening a cabinet and a clock by firelight, and the last thought uneasily of both.
I woke to the sound of a cry, of a voice unfamiliar. Bolting upright in my bed, the shadows of night all around me, I peered into the darkness and waited.
A bad dream? Damn godfather’s story, I thought, he has put such awful ideas in my head.
Another cry. And another. Different voices. And… a whinny?
I crept out of my bed, a skill I’d had long practice with when waking in the night in need of something sweet, and crept out of my bedroom.
The sounds came from below. And they were, if anything, growing louder not quieter. Did the others not hear? I eyed the doors to their rooms, wondering if at any moment Luise or Marie or mother or father would come into the hall and demand to know what was making a din, but…
I crept down the great staircase, skipping the spots that squeaked or groaned, though it seemed to me if those above slept through what was growing all the noisier below, they’d not hear a misstep.
In truth, it was frightening, but I kept thinking of what Marie had said about my hussars, and as such, bravery was at the forefront of my mind.
The noise, once traced to its source, was at once both clear and impossible.
A battle was being fought in our home. My soldiers and cannons and—yes, the hussars—were leaping from the cabinet now, despite being inanimate, simple things. And leading the fray, holding a colonel’s sabre in the air was the Nutcracker.
Across the room, tiny lights glittered in the darkness, and it took me a fair few seconds to understand I saw eyes.
So many eyes.
I took a step forward, unsure, and caught sight of my retired colonel in the cabinet, watching from his shelf. He reached out a hand to me, a hand that should not have moved, let alone on its own, and I took it.
My world shifted, a sensation of falling, almost, but not quite that. It was sudden, and so near to immediate I scarcely had time to cry out.
But after, I wore the colonel’s uniform, and he was nowhere in sight, and I looked down and saw a battle where soldiers were outnumbered by those glittering eyes, and despite that, the Nutcracker held his blade high, and cried out.
“For Marie!” he said. “For her sacrifice!”
And so, I ran into battle beside him.
Setting the manor to rights filled days, and Luise was invaluable. Sheets were removed from the furniture that remained, curtains opened, and what few updated amenities my father had allowed were put to rights and, with my blessing, plans were made for further changes as well. I visited the graves of my parents to pay respects, found an institution in need of a tried surgeon, and tried to adjust to the thought of a life outside the military.
“Dear Fritz,” Luise said, touching my arm. “You do hold yourself so tight.”
I tried to relax my posture, but it only made her laugh, bringing colour to her cheeks.
“Never mind,” she said. “Never mind.” She invited me to eat with her husband and family that evening, and it was a good evening. When I came back to my own home—for another habit I intended was to think of the manor as such—it felt all the emptier, and once again I retired to the smaller room.
The clock ticked now, and the announcement of the hour was a comfort of noise, if not melody. I opened the tall glass cabinet and pulled free a particular clockwork castle, winding it and watching as the figures moved about their slotted paths, endlessly performing their routines, the clicking of the clockwork piece almost a kind of heartbeat.
I smiled now, as I hadn’t much smiled then. It was a clever piece of work, from a clever godfather’s hands. With perspective, I saw now the effort and care and intellect required to make such a beautiful thing, where in my youth I saw only repetition and a lack of whimsy.
I sipped a brandy, stoked the fire, and my eyes traveled the rest of the cabinet. A few hussars remained, though most of the other pieces had been long passed on to Luise or Marie’s children. Tucked in a far corner, a colonel stood.
“Retired, with full honour,” I said to the small soldier. “And pension. I thank you for your duty.”
My hand shook with the next sip.
The colonel did not wear his sabre.
We fought mice, which would seem so simple, so unthreatening, but was neither. Their teeth flashed so quickly, and they leapt to deadly effect. The hussars struggled to outmanoeuvre them, and failed so quickly my own heart leapt into my throat as they were to a man surrounded with speed.
I had the benefit of my own agility, and though distorted, a notion of the layout of the battlefield such as it was. Beneath footstools and between the legs of the cabinet and the shadow of the clock I wove my way through the battle, trying to reach the Nutcracker, though I scarce knew what I would accomplish once I arrived.
The cries of the soldiers were terrifying. The Nutcracker could only repeat his weak call to action again and again, but a reason to fight was not enough.
“Form a rank!” I found myself crying, giving away my position in the shadow by standing upright in what little light there was. I pointed. “You are better than this! Have you learned nothing from our drills?”
My soldiers started, twisting free from sharp teeth and furry bodies, and over time, with much effort and fear plain in their painted and molded eyes, did as I said.
Soon, we had a simple, basic line.
“Advance!” I cried.
All too soon it became clear to the mice this new influence on their foes must be me, and I was soon dodging attacks of my own.
Those teeth. I was not made of tin, I was not carved of wood. One good bite could end me here on the floor of this little room…
They leapt for me, and I tumbled as best I could away from their reach. It was harder and harder to keep the battle clear, to remember the layout of the land, to keep sight of the goal—or, since I’d joined this sortie so late, my assumed goal of the far end from whence the mice came—and hold the ranks of soldiers to tenuously formed.
I was so very afraid.
“Hussars!” I pointed, and they sprang to action.
“Cannons!” I pointed, and instead of the “pop!” I knew, there were deep, chest-shaking booms.
Mice screamed. They were enemies, yes, and they wanted me dead, but oh… Oh how they screamed.
Marie asked me to dinner next. We hugged carefully—each convinced the other more fragile than we were—and broke apart to smiles just shy of laughter. It was good to see her. Her husband had worked with my father, and had inherited his practice, and was quick to offer me a position if I so wanted one, but I assured him I had plans to teach, and would be doing so come the spring.
As though conjured by our amiability, my leg set forth to ache in such a manner that no amount of my best training could hide, and so it was Marie tasked her husband to take me home early.
“I’m fine,” I demurred.
“You are not, and so I dismiss you,” Marie said, imperious, and in that moment, we shared a glance of knowing.
I maintained my pride well enough to thank them both and cane in hand accepted the offer. I would need to arrange my own transport, but as yet it was another thing on a long list growing ever longer each day.
“She orders you around like a princess holding court,” my brother-in-law said, though only once we were alone together in the carriage.
“More of a queen, I would say.”
He laughed, and I joined him.
I imagined he didn’t know.
And then I was beside him. The Nutcracker, tall and strangely built, with his short white beard and large eyes and a colonel’s sabre in his hand, now wet with mouse blood.
“You are with me?” he said, sparing a glance.
His voice seemed to reach inside me, to find something there and hold it tight.
“I am with you,” I said. I wished I had a sabre of my own. Then, over my shoulder, “Grant cover! Sortie! You, to the right!”
The final stretch was a fury of screams on all sides, mice, teeth, sabre, cannon… We ran, and dodged, and slipped, and more than once fell and rose with the aid of the other. I had never been more afraid in my life, but I learned that fear and bravery were companions, and how the fellowship of someone else tipped the scales to bravery’s side every time.
Our goal should not have surprised me, and yet, when I saw the foul creature rise, I was struck dumb at the sight of him.
Seven faces loomed above us, each one bearing a crown, each one with sharp teeth and glittering eyes.
“I won’t let him terrorize her again,” Nutcracker said.
“Agreed,” I said, the only word I could force past lips otherwise failing at the sight of the beastly king.
“You are with me?” he said again.
“I am with you,” I said again.
And we charged.
When it was done, and seven crowns lay at our feet, and the remaining mice were scattering back to their holes, and the colonel’s sabre was finally still inside the beast that lay at our feet, I stood shaking from effort and the echo of fear.
Strong arms wrapped around me, holding me tight.
“Dear Fritz, you were with me, and you gave me that blade, and now, now I am as a free as I dare hope to be.”
If he saw I was crying, he didn’t mention it. Soldiers aren’t supposed to cry, I thought, but I was a boy, too. And I was being held, and it had been so very long since I’d been held like this.
“Are you really his nephew?” I said, once my voice returned. My godfather’s terrible story had lived up to its horror in so many other ways, it now seemed simple enough to believe. As Marie always had.
“Here, I am this,” the Nutcracker said. It wasn’t quite an answer.
“You are brave,” I said. “And if it were up to me…”
He waited, watching.
“You are so brave,” I repeated. “And I am lucky to have fought with you.”
The Nutcracker held me again, and this time, I was not the only one with tears in his eyes.
He held my hand while we walked back across the battlefield, and the hussars and soldiers and cannons bowed as we passed, then followed. They formed their rows and ranks back on the shelf, and I watched each pass by, commending their courage in turn.
Finally, the Nutcracker and I were the only ones left.
“You are quite fine, Nutcracker,” I said. “You are quite fine as you are.”
His short white beard tickled my ear as he leaned in.
“Those are good words to remember.”
After that, I swooned, falling and rising both, and come morning, I had no idea how I was restored to my bed, but I had aches, and bruises, and was much fatigued, as though from battle itself.
Even in a city this large, there is only so much time one hope to have without certain company. There is solitude to be had, of course, but more it is of a specific company to which I speak. In my case—and how suitable—it was on Christmas Eve my path crossed with my godfather’s nephew.
Walking home from Luise’s house to my own, my attention had been on my cane and my gait, and of the pleasure of waking up tomorrow morning to my own small tree and the few small things beneath it gifted me by what remained of my family. I was not unhappy, I had realized with a start, pausing to look up at the sky and watch snow falling around me.
I am not unhappy, I thought again.
I lowered my head, and there he was. He looked smart in his jacket and coat and scarf, and his eyes—those cunning green eyes—knocked my attention from my step so completely I nearly fell.
He caught me with some effort, and I remained upright as much by luck as by the strength in his arms. He had always been slighter of build than I was, and the years had not broadened him much beyond his youthful frame. The beard though, was new, and it suited him.
“Fritz,” he said, and then what had been a lunge to keep me upright changed into a tight embrace. “Fritz,” he said again.
For half a breath, I returned the embrace, then managed a half-step retreat.
His gaze wandered over me, cataloging me with his quick intellect and leaving me feeling bare and broken before him.
I was neither, I reminded myself. I was neither.
“Theodor,” I said, and it was not without warmth.
“You’re back,” he said.
The mockery and disdain of the adults only paused when Marie returned to the room with the seven tiny crowns on her open palm.
“See?” She said. “My valiant Nutcracker defeated the Mouse King, and here are his seven crowns!”
My breath caught in my throat, and I had to clutch the wall not to swoon, but no one noticed. All eyes were on Marie, and the tiny crowns in her hand.
“Where did you get these?” my father asked, his voice quite cross.
“But I’ve told you!”
My mother picked one up and eyed it carefully. “It’s so finely made…”
“Watch chain,” our godfather spoke suddenly. “From my watch chain. Do you not remember me gifting it to the children?” He spins a story of a gift from years ago, and once again tells Marie not to be so childish.
I open my mouth. I want to yell. You never gifted us these crowns! I will say. Marie is right! But instead, I close my mouth again. My mother, and father, and godfather all took to Marie now, telling her to be an adult, to not be so fanciful, to admit it was a dream.
She catches my eye then, and I think she sees. She knows.
I shake my head, and I think I see something break between us, but I don’t know another way. I don’t think we can win this battle.
I’m not sure any child ever has.
It is another afternoon, only weeks later, that we sit together in the room as a family, and almost out of nowhere, Marie declares that were she royalty, she would never reject someone brave and true just because of how they looked.
I’m not sure either of my parents realize quite what she was saying, but no sooner has she declared it than there is a both a crash, and a knock at the door.
The crash is from inside the cabinet, where a shelf has inexplicably given way, and scattered most of the soldiers and dolls. Marie and I set them to rights while my parents answer the door.
“He’s gone,” she says, her voice barely above a whisper.
I look, for there’s only one toy she could mean. And she’s right. There is no sign of our—no, her—Nutcracker.
I look at my colonel.
His sabre is gone, too.
“Children,” my father’s voice is, as always, a command. “Godfather Drosselmeier’s nephew has come to the city. Come say hello.”
We both recognize him, of course, though he is much changed and so handsome. He grins at Marie, and they hug as though they’ve known each other for years and are close as family, much to my father’s surprise and consternation. My mother jokes they hug like betrothed—and the adults laugh at the notion of children so young marrying.
All I can do is be polite, to offer and shake a hand now trembling.
“Fritz Stahlbaum,” I say, and to my credit, my voice doesn’t shake as my hand did.
“Theodor Drosselmeier,” he says.
In the room, Theodor smiles first at the clock, and then at the cabinet. I hand him a glass, and we toast the season, then fall silent into an awkwardness that feels as much shame as habit.
“I’m sorry—” I say, just as Theodor says, “I wish—”
We regard each other, grown men amused by our mutual cowardice. “Please,” I say. “Let me.”
He looks as if to argue for a brief moment, then nods.
“I’m sorry,” I say again. “For how I left. For how I… refused.” It’s not quite the right word, but it’s the best I have. “I didn’t dare. I wasn’t brave enough, I think. I couldn’t have done what she did. I couldn’t have had, and not had.” I look at him, and every part of me wishes I could gather him into my arms again and let him know with touch, instead of useless, weak words.
“I still have the sword,” he says.
We sit, and after a sip, he pauses. “I can fashion a brace, if you’d let me. I’d like to.”
“The watchmaker’s nephew is as clever as he was, then?” I say, because I can’t quite bring myself to accept plainly.
He smiles. “I’m told. Out here, I do well enough.”
“So you still..?” I say. It’s as much as I dare. My chest tightens.
He nods, and I wonder what he was going to say originally. “I wish—” what, exactly?
“Queen Marie comes and goes as she pleases.” His smile is a genuine one. “And she brings her children, too. They were delighted.”
I can well imagine.
Finally, I can hold my tongue no more. “What do you wish?”
Theodor turns his handsome face to me. “That I’d shown you then. That you knew it could be more than battles. That you would let me show you now.”
“But we can go there whenever we want, Fritz! Theodor said he will take us.” Marie’s delight is clear. “When he comes back. He promised to come back. I’ll be a queen there.”
It stings. If she is queen, then what could I be to Theodor? It’s unfair. It’s all so unfair. Every moment we spent together in that little room is a kind of torture.
“You have to let this silly fantasy go,” I say, though I’m not speaking to her. Not really. I hug myself and squeeze, though those aren’t the arms I’m thinking of.
“I know you’re his friend,” she says. “I know it.”
“It’s dreams and childish and father says—”
“You know it isn’t. You know.” Her tears are no easier to ignore this time than before, but I can still hear my father and my mother and my godfather. They will throw her toys from the windows if she keeps this up. If I join in, it will only make things worse.
And if the toy is thrown, what would become of the boy? Because after Theodor left, there it was: the Nutcracker on the shelf again.
I can’t allow that. I will be brave. If the only way for him to be okay is to turn my back, then isn’t that my duty? A soldier protects. A soldier is brave.
“It’s just a dream, silly goose,” I say, meeting her gaze and speaking so carefully, hoping she will hear what I daren’t say. I can’t have this. I can’t. But you can, if you’re careful.
Marie’s eyes spill over, but she nods.
We don’t speak of it again, and when Theodor returns to the city, sometimes I see them sneak into the small room with the cabinet late at night. I count to ten before I follow, finding only an empty room.
Marie is always back in the morning, and night by night, she becomes more. Calmer. Assured.
I don’t dare speak to Theodor, and I don’t chance being alone with him. Our parents joke that perhaps one day he and Marie will marry, given how sweet they are together, and I have to smile along with them.
After a few visits, Theodor realizes I am avoiding him, and though I sometimes catch him looking, he defers. I tell myself it is best that Marie have something special for herself, that I will have great things of my own as an officer someday, but for her, with her whimsy and imagination and great heart, life will never offer anything like this.
I tell myself it’s not that I’m afraid.
When it’s time to be sent away to school, it is a relief that aches like shame, but it is a relief nonetheless.
And after school comes war.
I do my duty, take my place, until…
The wounded are not expected to take their places in the ranks.
We go as far as the castle, and up a tower so I can see out over a land of spun sugar and deep brown ginger and powdered snow. There are dancers and swans and this world is full of bright, warm things. My heart is pounding in my chest, and I fear my cane will crack the floor with every step, but it doesn’t.
We are welcomed by faces both familiar and unknown—some ageless, faces I remember seeing as a boy on the battlefield—some I did not meet in that terrifying night, but who have heard of me.
He has told them of me.
Theodor holds my hand while I look out over this whole other world.
There have been moments like this, I think. Snatched seconds between battles. Kindnesses, touches, but always with the understanding of their nature always being so: found, impermanent moments. But here—Inside? Elsewhere? Wherever we are?—time, I think, will allow us much more than a moment.
“It’s wonderful,” I say, though I’m looking right at him.
“I still have five more crowns,” Theodor says.
I glance away, remembering the seven crowns he’d taken from the mouse king’s lifeless body. One he wears now, himself. One, I assume, is on my sweet Marie’s head whenever she is here. Theodor has pointed to her kingdom, barely visible on the horizon.
I wonder if we will visit her there.
“I’m no prince,” I say, knowing what he’s offering, feeling it in the way his hand squeezes. “But I am with you.”
“That settles it,” He says, and kisses me. “My soldier king.”