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), “Reflection,” (a retelling of “The Snow Queen”), “The Five Crowns and Colonel’s Sabre,” (a retelling of “The Nutcracker and Mouse King,”) and “The Doors of Penlyon” (a retelling of “The Christmas Hirelings”).
This year, I was really waffling. Partly it’s because I feel like I’m running out of Christmas stories I know, and partly it’s because of my whole injured-arm thing. But at the last minute (which always seems to be the way, no?) the idea I was already working on—”Jolly Old Saint Nicholas”—just stopped working, and I thought I was throwing in the towel. Then an idea hit about “Jingle Bells,” with all the original stanzas, which I learned in my childhood, and ran away with me.
So. Here we go after all. “A Day (or Two) Ago.” If you’ve read my original story, “Dolph,” you’ll note this one has a crossover (which I think I also did in “Reflection,” come to think of it). What can I say? I’m all about linking up short fiction.
I hope you enjoy.
A Day (or Two) Ago
When I was a quite young, I lived a day twice. The first Christmas I remember, I woke to find a beautiful carved wooden horse in the stocking hung at the end of my little bed. I was still in the nursery at this point, rather than a bedroom of my own, though both my brothers had moved on and it was mine in its entirety. Beneath the carved horse were the usual: an orange, a handkerchief, the typical delights, but that horse had a glow to it. It wasn’t something seen as much as felt, golden in a way one remembered more than experienced. I picked it up, and even though I needed to use the privy, I held myself back and sat with the toy in my bed, and looked at the horse and the way I swore it contained a light of its own.
The rest of that Christmas was poor. My father and mother and elder brothers woke shortly after, and when we gathered for our morning meal, my brothers declared their stockings had been empty, and I saw a look of something like fear in the eyes of my parents, so I tucked the carved wooden horse into the pocket of my robe and said nothing at all.
Something had gone very wrong, and though I was young, I was not so young to not know when to stay quiet. I said nothing about my own stocking, and clutched the horse all the tighter when I saw our family tree stood solemn and alone in the corner of the great room. It remained colorful and decorated, but beneath it lay but one parcel.
I dashed away to the nursery, and was quick enough to hide the small bounty from my stocking, and that beautiful horse, which I hid in a dollhouse never used by any of my brothers nor myself. I remained still short of breath from my efforts when the door opened and my mother appeared with the single parcel from beneath the tree.
“It’s for you,” she said.
We opened it alone together, while downstairs I heard my father’s rising angry voice speaking with the servants, and my brothers, too, echoing his tone.
The toy inside contained in the package was a beautiful sleigh, and it, too seemed to have a glow about it. I picked it up, delighted, and my mother gasped. When I looked at her, I could see a reflection of myself in her eyes, one far brighter than should be possible given the low lamplight in the room.
As though I, too, glowed, and she could see it.
I spent that strange Christmas in the nursery. My mother closed the door, denied even my brothers from entering the room, and told me she’d bring me my lunch and my dinner. The rest of that day is hazy. At times, people yelled outside, though it was a faint sound given the distance between our manor and the village. I played with my horse and the sleigh, which was exquisite in detail, and ate my orange. I wiped my chin with the fresh handkerchief, feeling quite the man.
And I looked in the small round mirror in the nursery, and marveled at the soft glow.
When the dim sun had crossed the sky and it snowed once again, I crawled back into my bed, and pulled the covers up to my chin, and just as I drifted off, I heard the faint ringing of tiny bells.
When I was a quite young, I lived a day twice. The second first Christmas I remember, I woke to find the same beautiful carved wooden horse, in the stocking someone had rehung at the end of my little bed, though I’d not heard anyone come into the nursery. More, beneath the carved horse were the same presents as before: another orange, an identical handkerchief, all the typical delights repeated. I regarded the horse, which had the same glow, then turned to the little table beside my bed where I had left it the night before, but it was not there. I picked it up, and even though once again I needed to use the privy, I held myself back and sat with the toy in my bed in my little room beside the stairs, stared at the horse, and wondered.
The rest of that Christmas was festive. My father and mother and elder brothers woke shortly after, and while we gathered for our morning meal, my brothers exclaimed over what they’d found in their stockings, and my parents indulged their excitement as though the boys were younger than their years. I had tucked the carved wooden horse into the pocket of my robe, but when this morning, this same morning, unfolded so differently, I pulled it free. Everyone at the table agreed it was quite the fine horse, except for my mother, who frowned at me as though there were something she couldn’t quite recall. She said nothing at all, though she smiled a smile that seemed real enough to my young eyes.
Years later, she’d mention in passing as we put the horse on a high shelf in the nursery that the first time she’d seen the toy, she’d had the strongest moment of déjà vu of her life.
But that morning, all I knew for certain was something strange was happening, and though I was young, I was not so young to not know when to stay quiet. I said nothing about the oddly barren Christmas I’d already enjoyed, and clutched the horse all the tighter when I saw our family tree stood brightly in the corner of the great room, colorful and decorated, and the space beneath full of parcels.
Again, I saw a shadow of something pass across my mother’s face, and as was custom in my family, she was the first to pull a present from beneath the tree. She looked at it, read the tag, and turned to me.
“It’s for you,” she said, handing it over with the smallest hesitation.
The toy inside was the same beautiful sleigh, and it, too seemed to have a glow about it. I hesitated, not wanting to pick it up while my mother watched, but her attention was fixed on the sleigh itself, not me. Again, her face seemed clouded by some feeling I was too young to understand. I picked up the sleigh, and met her gaze. My reflection in her eyes was as it always had been, though I knew I had not imagined the glow in the sleigh or the horse.
More importantly, this time my mother hadn’t noticed.
Around us, my brothers opened packages and cheered, my father as well. He handed something to my mother, and the moment between us was released.
I spent that second Christmas with my family, as always. The servants were there for our meals, but my father let them to their own devices for the rest of the day, and even taught my brothers and I how to set a proper fire. In truth, the rest of that day is hazy. Mostly, I played with my horse and the sleigh, which was exquisite in detail, and when I ate my orange, I was aware of how every curl of the skin would unpeel. When I wiped my chin with the fresh handkerchief, this time I did not feel like a man, but rather marveled the shape the juices left on the cloth, entirely the same.
That night, when I looked in the small round mirror in the nursery, there was no glow, but I put a hand to my chest, and knew the light wasn’t gone. I checked the end of my nursery bed, but the stocking had been pulled down. I put the horse and the sleigh on the bedside table with care, noting exactly where they stood.
When the dim sun had crossed the sky and it snowed once again, I crawled back into my bed, and pulled the covers up to my chin, I drifted off still waiting for the faint ringing of tiny bells.
But this time, the night remained silent.
Two decades later, on a first morning of the year’s return of the sleighs, after a breakfast with my parents, my brothers, my eldest brother’s wife, and my niece, my family scattered and went about their business and I considered my latest tale.
Most of the village looked forward to the arrival of the quartet of open sleighs, and every year my father offered space in our stables for the care and keeping of the horses, as we only kept a trio of horses for ourselves (four if you counted Bob, which only I did), and there was ample room remaining.
Every year, I tried to take the time to visit Old Mr. Pierpont, who already seemed to have been getting on in years back when I’d first toddled around unsteadily. By the time I was grown, I delighted in sneaking him some brandy from my father’s best stock. He’d tell me silly stories of his horse breeding business, especially the often truly astounding quirks of people who hired him—most of which I assumed were entirely nonfictional, as they made too little sense to be anything but real—and I would read to him from whatever my latest work might be. He had a penchant for my holiday tales, which were always a favorite of my own, and so we got along famously.
His loss the previous summer had left me feeling bereft on this most recent yuletide, and I’d yet to go to the stables to meet his replacement when they’d arrived the evening before. Someone had told my mother the new hand was an orphan Old Mr. Pierpont had both trained and to whom he had left his business, being unwed and having no sons of his own.
While growing up, my elder brothers failed to see the allure of the old man, though they enjoyed the sleigh rides. My eldest brother, John, now married and living in the city, brought his wife Mary back on their first Christmas together, and I honestly believe the majority of the reason had been to take her on such a sleigh ride. She had come back breathless and pink-cheeked and all the more in love with him than he deserved (it is possible I had a low opinion of the man, given my access as his youngest brother to the man’s casual cruelties and sharp criticisms both of my manliness and my craft), but if one cared to do the math, the birth of my first niece in September seemed a sincere enough review of their enjoying their time together.
That particular detail did not make it to “September’s Child,” the children’s story I penned the season after with a character named for my niece, but my publisher loved it nonetheless and the story sold better than could be expected.
My middle brother, James, wasn’t kinder so much as ambivalent to my existence, but once my eldest brother had moved out and moved on, it seemed to occur to him were I somehow to manage to marry and leave the Manor before him, that he would end up inheriting the worst aspects of the place. It would be he left with the duties and “privileges” of making appearances and guiding our small town. This began his attempts in earnest to find someone suitable for the position of his wife.
I mention this, because once it became clear in this village this was his goal, something rather astounding began to happen to me, in that women began speaking to me, especially while he was away finishing his most recent round of schooling. I don’t mean matrons with children who wished to tell me how much little Mary enjoyed “A Gift of Music” or my first collected volume of holiday fables, but rather daughters of prominent town men who were, as yet, unmatched.
I couldn’t say it was unwelcome—one can’t say these things, but one can feel them—but of the most relentless—and, to my mind, the more clever and therefore woefully overqualified to be with my middle brother—was Miss Fanny Bright, who had the social standing of being both daughter of the village banker, and the niece of Parson Brown. She was also a nurse, which my mother had pointed out as shockingly self-determinative, but at least that would pass once she had a child of her own.
Again, I must stress how much I felt Miss Fanny Bright would only be the worse for pairing with James. Her self-determinative nature being one of her highest qualities, to my mind.
It didn’t, however, make for particularly enjoyable company. On a morning walk along the manor grounds, I saw Miss Fanny Bright approaching, thus I took it upon myself to step into the stables, in high hopes that she had not yet seen me.
This was how I met the new handler of the sleigh rides, as he happened to be putting a harness onto a particularly beautiful bay. The harness itself was also a thing of beauty, finely tooled and festooned with a series of bells, which jingled as he affixed them to the horse.
“Hello,” he said.
For my part, the words I had no trouble putting on paper and selling in no less than a dozen countries around the globe availed of that moment to flee my mind completely. He was taller than I, which granted is no feat in and of itself, and broader, for which the same caveat must be applied, but where I had the near-black hair and eyes of my grandfather’s South Europe lineage, this new stableman had the kind of russet hair that could appear browner or redder depending on the light and was most welcome in the best of novels.
“I’ll be right with you,” he said, and then led the horse outside to where the last two sleighs remained. A couple I’d not noticed given the prompt nature of my decision to enter the stables exclaimed over the bay, which the stableman took no time at all in setting to place. Presently, the couple were under a blanket, the man took the reins, and the bay took them off at a good clip.
Fortunately, my mind had rediscovered words by then.
“You are Mr. Pierpont’s protégé,” I said, once the man returned. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Henry Wilson.” He dipped his head for a brief moment. “Thank you. You’re the youngest master?” He nodded toward the Manor proper. “The author?”
“Samuel Brunswick. And, I am. At your service,” I said, wondering if I was about to be summarily dismissed as so many did. Instead, we regarded each other in a silence quite comfortable.
Until Miss Fanny Bright broke it.
“There you are, Samuel!”
I turned, and it was with greatly schooled countenance I managed a simple, “Miss Bright.”
“Just the man I wished to find,” she said, displaying her usual ability to read between my few words, which is to say, understanding fully but possessing a complete lack of willingness to be dismissed. Truly, she was a force of nature, and one I would admire if she were not so adamant to use me to get to James.
“Well,” I said, toneless. “I am found.”
“And a sleigh, too. Such a kindness of you to entertain me.”
“To…?” Despite seeking a polite method of egress, I came up empty. “I suppose it is.” I turned to the stableman, then eyed the remaining horses the man had brought, to a beast suitably majestic and creatures I could never, ever ride. I liked to hire cabs if I needed to travel nearby, and for my infrequent meetings in the city I took the train.
“I could harness Bob,” Henry the stableman said, showing far more consideration for hearing what I wasn’t saying than Miss Fanny Bright had ever done.
Bob was technically my horse, poor thing. Lean, perhaps a bit lank, and yet my favorite of the stable precisely because he wasn’t the broadest beast. More woeful than willful, whatever misfortune had brought him to my mother’s attention had likely saved him from a short and unhappy life elsewhere and graced him with the easiest of careers in the annals of horsedom: my personal steed.
“That would be wonderful. Thank you,” I said, quite concerned that Bob would be able to budge the sleigh at all.
“So,” Miss Fanny Bright said, not even bothering to wait until we were in the sleigh in question. “How is your brother doing? Is James back from school?”
She knew he was, I assumed, but I spoke of my brother’s studies while the stableman pulled out the last of his sleigh harnesses and set Bob to rights. Bedecked in the belled straps, Bob nearly cut a fine figure, and I swear he seemed a hair’s breadth from chipper as he was led to the final sleigh. I helped Miss Bright settle herself, and climbed in beside her, trying to leave as significant space between us as possible in the open sleigh. She drew a blanket across us both, sliding closer to me and making another inquiry as to my brother’s plans: had he decided upon a career? Whatever I answered—I must confess something about the bells on the harness had caught my attention, reminding me of a particularly odd Christmas, years ago—seemed to placate her, and it wasn’t until Henry the stableman handed me the reins that I remembered my deep miscalculation.
“Ah,” I said, holding the reins as one might hold a rare python from another continent. I did not ride, and while this was not riding, it was not dissimilar, either.
“Shall we?” Miss Bright said.
I conjured as much cheer as possible, tipped my head to the stableman, and gave the reins a good shake.
Bob snorted, shook his head, and then grudgingly began to move. Progress best described as glacial made our leaving something of a non-event, but upon realizing that this was not, in fact, a joke, Bob seemed to put more leg into it. The manor fell behind us, and while I tried my best to concentrate both on Miss Bright’s detailed inquest and puzzling out the appropriate methods of guiding Bob, it was a losing battle. I tried to imitate what I’d seen others do in both regards, but I knew I wasn’t providing enough charm for Miss Bright, and Bob decided to drift from the wide-open field toward the more passable road despite my urgings.
The sound of the bells, however, was lovely.
A glimmer of something golden caught my eye, and I turned, allowing my attention to vacate from Miss Bright and Bob both. It was the bells, I imagined, as it was often laughter or music that brought these glimpses of spirits to me, and it struck me then that the sleigh bells were a sound the equal of laughter and music entwined.
I should say I call them spirits, though I’m not sure of their nature at all. They move as spirits might, figures that seem unfettered by such banalities as gravity or wind, but they are often delightfully more or less than human. This time, I could just barely discern the trio of spritely figures dancing with each other, the palest of gold against the snowy field. Each seemed to spin the next in an ongoing tradeoff, and, as always, these tiny glimpses of merry and bright creatures ignited a muse.
Three fairies in the snow, dancing. It could be a tale of the little twists of snow that the wind cast about like dust devils. And three was such a magical notion, really, in so many tales of folklore and faith alike.
They were beautiful, and they made the whole distressing pattern of the morning so worthwhile. Honestly, they were delightful.
At least, they were, right up until Bob pulled the sleigh rather directly against a large drift, and I learned that Miss Fanny Bright’s relentless calculations of patience and cheer were not, it turned out, endless. Being tipped onto the snow snuffed both rather deftly, as it happened.
I walked Bob back to the stables, once I’d managed to disentangle him from the now-sideways sleigh. Miss Price opted to escort herself back to the village, and I opted to show concern and make appropriate noises of apology, both of which I hoped enough to avoid too much damage to our family name.
“Honestly, Bob, the sooner my brother picks a bride, the better,” I said. “Though I still maintain Miss Fanny Bright deserves someone capable of matching her wit.” I considered. “Although, I imagine those such men are few and far between. Perhaps she has decided to settle for a man with a square jaw?”
Bob nickered his noncommittal reply, but followed along amiably enough, seemingly having made his point with the drift. In truth, despite the cold and wet remaining from my tumble, I didn’t much mind his company nor the walk. He’d at least had the grace to tip us into soft snow, and he had never been going at much more than a trot. It could have been worse.
Also, my discussion of square jaws had reminded me of a particular jaw that waited at the end of this walk, one covered with a short beard of hair that might be brown in some settings, but definitely seemed red by the light of day.
The bells on his harness continued to chime as we made our way back, and though there were no more spirits, it was such a pure, clear sound I found myself closing my eyes at times just to listen, trusting Bob to stay the course. When we finally made it back to the Manor stables, and I held best onto my shreds of dignity while explaining the situation to the bearded Henry, I stroked Bob along and beneath the harness and was surprised when a single bell came loose in my hand.
Henry the stableman took a different horse to go collect the sleigh, while the Manor’s man gave Bob a brush down and put him back in his stall. It did not escape my notice Henry felt himself the match of tipping the sleigh back on its runners by himself.
Truthfully, I shared in his confidence, and was enjoying imagining it playing out.
That night in my bed I held up the bell I’d palmed. Still cold to the touch, like it had been trapped in a winter’s moment, I might have sworn it reflected more light than was present in the room. I shook it, and the issued ring was crystalline and distant.
My eyes grew heavy, and I closed them.
At breakfast, my eldest brother and his wife declared they would continue their tradition of being the first to rent a sleigh, and as no one else corrected them, I said nothing. I’d woken with an odd sense about me, but a familiar one: today, it seemed, was a day I should strive for the least notice I might garner. A lightness of my spirit, this kind of awareness of myself was both wonderous and unsettling. My middle brother spoke of his plans next, and by the time the breakfast was over, I had barely stopped myself from speaking their every word with them. I only interrupted when things were drawing to a close.
“Say,” I said, with a mild clearing of throat. “Did you have plans with Miss Fanny Bright today?” This I asked of my middle brother.
The noise he made was less than a word but rather eloquent in its own way. My parents reminded my brother of her breeding and standing, and my brother aimed malice my way, and I decided to return to my attempts to vanish.
Though I knew it would by no means settle my nerves, once my family scattered and went about their business, I went straight to my study and regarded my notes for my latest tale. Sure enough, everything was as it had been the prior morning, which was—it seemed—this morning as well.
For a moment, I considered rescribing the words I’d lost in a sense, but as I recalled the events of the day both ahead and behind me, I remembered what was to come, and decided discretion would be the better of valor, and made it my mission to avoid Miss Fanny Bright completely.
As such, I was there to see both my eldest brother, his wife, and my niece glide away with the first sleigh, and my middle brother climb onto the next. The couple who would come to take the third were as yet unseen, so I knew I had time, and I slipped into the stables.
“Hello,” Henry said.
Given I knew what to expect, one would suppose that I would find myself suitably girded and prepared for the impact of the russet-haired handler and his gentle eyes.
One would be incorrect.
My mind had lost language completely. Again. Luckily, I had the words I’d already used at hand.
“You are Mr. Pierpont’s protégé,” I said, clearing my throat. “Henry, is it not? I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” he said, and to my ears his tone was different than I recalled from the previous today. Perhaps it was because we were alone? But no, we’d been alone before, too, had we not?
“You’re the young master?” He said, pointing toward the Manor proper. “The author?”
“Samuel Brunswick. And, I am. At your service,” I said, this time more confidently, knowing I wouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as so many men tended to do. Instead, I knew a comfortable interlude of silence would follow, and one would not be misguided to say I reveled in it.
In fact, I let the companionable quiet draw out longer than perhaps I should, for I noticed a familiar couple walking through the Manor gates and realized the clock was running forward as always, and it wouldn’t be long before Miss Fanny Bright made her appearance. I turned, and clearly telegraphed my anxieties to Henry.
“Did you wish to take a sleigh-ride?” the russet-haired Henry asked.
I wanted nothing of the sort.
“Yes,” I said, and he pulled the bay from its stable. But instead of the finely tooled harness I’d seen him place on the horse in the last version of this day, he chose the fourth harness again, which wasn’t quite so fine, but still lovely. I wondered at this, but there being little time to inquire, as the other couple had arrived, and I was eager to make my escape.
Under the blanket, reins in hand, I took a deep breath, shook the straps and tutted, and the bay had us dashing through the snow at a pace I will admit stole my breath away from me.
The bells were once again the sound of laughter and music both, which meant at least one of us was having a delightful time. By the time I passed through the Manor gates—wholly not in command of either our destination nor the speed at which we were approaching whatever that destination might eventually be—I was quite sure the Bay had decided this was his solitary chance at freedom forever, and I’d never been seen nor heard from again.
Likely my publisher would even choose to print dreadfully non-illustrated versions for my stories for folios, and claim it my last request, the villains.
Even the hills weren’t slowing the beast down. And while the bells were conjuring pale golden whimsies to either side of me, I had no time nor inclination to look at them, as no muse was worth this terror nor my imminent demise.
Finally, I realized that I had but one option to me, and that was to make it perfectly clear to this beast who was in charge. I braced myself, rose to a slight crouch from which I imagined it might be easier to recover, and with as mighty a pull as I could manage on the reins, intoned the deepest “woah!” my throat would issue.
The bay stopped dead and threw me from the sleigh, where I landed on my back and stared up at the sky for a few long moments of sheer joy in no longer being at the horse’s mercy before the dampness reminded me I lay in snow.
Just as I’d decided I would begin to rise at any moment now—perhaps once I’d caught my breath—the shadow of James loomed over me and I saw him bring his own sleigh and horse blithely alongside me just long enough to laugh.
It was in that moment I decided a life under Miss Fanny Bright’s order might be the best thing to ever happen to my middle brother.
I rose, eyed the sleigh, and decided I’d rather lead the bay back on foot than climb back aboard. The bay seemed well content to be led, though, and while it was a good long trudge back to the Manor yard, we came to an understanding and had a rather heated debate about the merits of showing kindness to those who are not as strong as oneself in which I think I was rather clearly the victor.
I even stroked the large bay, which was when a single bell came free from his harness.
Henry the stableman was dealing with James’s horse when I returned, so I left the bay tied up to take his turn, thanked him briefly and from out of direct view (the evidence of my adventure was all too obvious) and then went inside to request a hot bath and to change. By the time the long evening was done, I’d recovered the words I’d lost from the morning before, received notice that I’d missed Miss Fanny Bright’s visit by mere minutes that morning—such a pity—and as I lay back in my bed, I once again drew out the bell. There was no light but what little of the moon snuck around my bedcurtains, but even this seemed magnified by the small silver thing.
I shook it, and closed my eyes.
At breakfast, I waited for my eldest brother and his wife to declare they would continue their tradition of being the first to rent a sleigh, and no sooner than the word’s spoken than I leaned forward and drew the attention of all at the table.
All eyes turned to me, a panoply of confusion, worry, interest, and hope from my blood-kin and in-laws, as my asking for their attention had a tendency to run counter to what they considered the smooth operation of our standing.
“Miss Fanny Bright will be dropping by this morning,” I said, applying a jam to toast to keep my hands busy and provide me with a place to aim a confidence I didn’t wear easily. “Knowing you were back, James, I asked if she might drop by. You two should take a sleigh as well.”
All eyes turned to James next, especially those of my mother. He opened his mouth, but then took note of our mother’s gaze and—more importantly—the rather willful turn of her lips and instead of whatever invective he might have considered, my middle brother replied, simply, with “Thank you.”
That the intonation would have been better suited to a different variety of imperative, no one seemed fit to notice.
That settled, I reclaimed the lightness of my spirit I’d felt the previous today, and this time, as the conversations unfolded around me, I took a light joy in polite interjections that matched wits what the various men of the table had intended to say. For the women—my mother and my sister-in-law both—I offered only an interested ear, drawing out questions and having, all told, one of the most delightful breakfasts of my life.
“Do enjoy your ride,” I said, offering it to my brother with all sincerely as I left the table.
The noise he made was less than a word, and spurred my mother to remind my brother of Miss Fanny Bright’s breeding and standing.
Freed from the need to flee the Manor, I went back to my papers and found them as unfinished as they’d been the prior two todays, but when I picked up my pencil, I found I didn’t want to restore the words for a third (and, one hoped, final) time.
I tapped a finger against the papers, then gave in to a particularly russet shade of temptation.
“Hello,” he said, the moment I crossed the threshold of the stables. I had just enough time to watch my brother and Miss Fanny Price and the powerful bay leave ahead of my arrival, and then he was there, the same amiable smile and remarkable jaw as always.
Having had two prior attempts to live up to my nature as a worker of words, I faced the impact of the russet-haired handler and his gentle eyes with eloquence befitting my station.
“Ah. Yes. Hello. To you. Good.”
Perhaps I could have Bob stave in my skull with a well-timed kick. But no. I went back to the tried and true.
“You are Mr. Pierpont’s protégé,” I said, curling my hands in the pockets of my greatcoat. “Henry, correct? I’m sorry for your loss. I enjoyed Mr. Pierpont’s stories immensely.”
“Thank you,” he said, and this time I was sure his voice gentler than before. “You’re the young master?” He said, a warm smile adding all the more to his charm. “The author?”
“Samuel Brunswick. And, I am. At your service,” I said, and leaned into what I knew would be a comfortable silence. It did repeat, but even the most comfortable silence must end, and after I found myself meeting his gaze one too many times, I glanced through at the final remaining sleigh.
“Did you want to ride?”
The laugh that escaped me restored his smile. “I think I’ve had enough of sleigh-rides of late.”
“You have?” He put a hand to his chest, as though I’d wounded him, then colored slightly when he saw my delight in the gesture. A ruddy blush on a russet-haired gentleman was a particularly winning combination, and I stored away the note for a future line or two.
“I am, as they say, ill-suited for it. I have it on experience.”
“But when was that?”
“A day or two ago,” I said. “Or both. It didn’t end well. I think, perhaps, I’m not made for sleighing.”
“Ah.” It was clear he knew full well I’d not been hitched up to any sleigh rides yesterday or the day before, but he seemed content enough to allow me my folly. Still, the delight it brought to his face was worth him thinking me playing at the fool. Perhaps he thought this of all my family, and who would blame him, really?
We laughed, and I opened my mouth to continue in jest, but lost all words upon turning back to him and seeing—or, rather, it was once more of a sense of feeling rather than sight—a certain tell-tale golden glow.
Our laughter, of course, but I couldn’t catch where the light had come from before it was gone.
“Are you all right?” he said. As always, he spoke amiably, but this time, I had enough sense to really look at him. What he said could be assumed politeness, yes, but the cast of his shoulders, the tilt of his head…
Had he been looking, too? Was that possible?
“I know you likely have more than enough to keep your time spoken for,” I said, unsure of the words I was going to say even while I said them. “But is there any chance I could borrow not just this last sleigh, but your skill in the use of it?”
“If we say I am teaching you,” Henry said, “it would even be within my role.”
I considered that. “As long as we only say it. Between you and me, I have no desire to learn, and even less skill to work with.”
He dipped his head, but it didn’t hide the amused twist of his lips in time. He drew the fourth harness out, and I almost suggested Bob until my horse stuck his head out of his stall in a way that made it clear he was more than content to be exactly where he was. I scratched him while Henry harnessed up the last of the horses he’d brought with him, and led it outside to the sleigh.
“Your brothers seem to enjoy their riding,” Henry said, fastening some buckle or other. I climbed onto the sleigh and made room, quite aware of just how little of it there was, really.
“My brothers enjoy taking the lead in all things,” I said.
“I think the lady who left with Master James might be more likely to have the lead there,” Henry said, and though I’d already decided upon a ruddy, russet hero for my next tale, at that point I decided a series was more in order.
“If I were to write a tale with a horse breeder,” I said. “Would you be willing to rise to my endless ignorance of the subject?”
Having settled the last of the buckles, he tilted his head up to reply. “I’m not sure there’s much story there, but I’d be happy to try.”
Unable to both flush and speak at the same time, I fell silent while he climbed aboard the sleigh. I pulled the lap blanket over both of us with hands determined to be anything but steady, and he took the reins in hand. “Ready?”
“Seems best to go it while we’re young.”
That made him laugh again. “You’re a funny one, Master Samuel.”
He whistled before I could reply, and what had been a terrifying speed the today before at my own lack of control was instead breathtaking in a delightful way. The Manor gate fell behind us in a moment, and then we were dashing, the snow spraying it behind us, the bells ringing in time with the hoofbeats of the horse.
Gold appeared among the white of the snowy fields.
I turned, watching the pale twists—birdlike, this time—as they danced and wove ahead of us, as though caught in a gravity of the horse itself, sparkling as they flitted just out of reach. I took in a deep breath, thinking of a tale of birds in winter. Robins, perhaps. I turned to ask Henry if he had a favorite bird, and saw him looking up and ahead, a similar smile on his face, delight in his eyes, and golden light reflecting there.
He saw. He actually saw.
When he turned my way, I was still staring, and that flush returned to his face.
“Penny for your thoughts?” he said, voice just shy of a low rumble.
“I am remembering something,” I said. “Something odd that happened to me as a boy.”
“One of your stories?” he asked, and when I tilted my head, he shrugged as though I’d caught him out. “Mr. Pierpont had them all. I read them to him.”
“Oh,” I said. “No. This isn’t a fiction. Or, at least, when I was young, I was convinced of it. I lived a day twice. It was the first Christmas I remember.”
His eyes widened, and in them, I caught my own reflection in his gentle eyes. The golden glow, though, now came not from the merry spirits still glittering around us, but from around me.
“It’s not a story I’ve written down,” I said. “So if you know the tale, it’s not because you’ve read it.”
Henry returned his gaze forward, and with his guidance, the horse seemed content to let us glide behind him, crossing the field toward the hills. The bells jingled, and all around us, merry spirits bloomed, much brighter than I’d ever seen them before.
“It wasn’t the first Christmas I remember,” Henry said. His own spirit grew bright. A golden light around him, reddening his russet beard. “But then, I think I’m a few years older than you. It’s the only Christmas that happened to me twice, though.”
We took turns with our tales, surrounded by those bright, merry spirits, then spoke of other things less grand and important. We circled all the hills, crossed the fields, and paused twice by the river, in comfortable silences, and then a silence of a different sort.
That evening, when my brother James and Miss Fanny Bright announced their engagement, it drew all the attention in the room, which was fine, as I didn’t need anyone to note my breathlessness nor my pink cheeks.
That night, there was no bell in my hand, but when I closed my eyes I had never been happier of a day.