If Dragon’s Mass Eve Be Cold And Clear

If Dragon’s Mass Eve Be Cold And Clear

illustration by gregory manchess

Muscles tire. Words fail. Faith fades. Fear falls. In the Sixteenth Year of the Sixteen Princes the world came to an end when the dragon’s back gave out. Poetry died first followed by faith. One by one the world-strands burst and bled until ash snowed down on huddled masses whimpering in the cold.

The Santaman came reeking of love into this place and we did not know him.

This is his story.

This is our story, too.

Prelude
The Santaman Cycle, Authorized Standard Version
Verity Press, 2453 YD

I buried my father on Dragon’s Mass Eve. I dug the grave myself, there on the hill overlooking our homestead, beside the grave he dug for my mother some thirty-five years earlier.

As I worked the shovel, I tried not to cry. I failed. And I recited the Cycle, just the way he taught me, as I cut the sod and turned the dirt out into a pile.

Muscles tire. It was as if he stood with me. I could hear his voice grumbling on the wind that rose as the sun dropped and the air cooled. “Pause, Melody Constance,” he said. “Feel what the writer intended with the words.”

I felt my foot upon the shovel, my shoulders as I bent and lifted dirt. I felt the hollow empty place inside that tried to swallow me whenever my eyes wandered to the wagon and the red-wrapped body laying there.

Words fail. Again, a hesitation, a waiting. Silence to honor the moments no words can carry.

Like this one.

Only, it didn’t feel like a moment — it felt like a year, in the cold, working the shovel. Alone. Orphanhood settled onto my back and shoulders with a weight I’d never felt before. I had no memory of my mother; she’d died the morning I was born. So it was a loss I assumed and grew into, never really knowing what I’d missed out on, other than those times I stayed with neighboring families when my father needed to travel. But even then, it was only the slightest taste of someone else’s life. Working the mine and farm with my father was my life. And so was Dragon’s Mass Eve — his favorite and only holiday — spent quietly at home in our red paper hats with our fruit salad and rice stew while the faithful gathered at church.

Faith fades. Fear falls.

My mind blurred with my eyes as the tears overpowered me. The questions began to rise even as the fear fell upon me. What will I do now? Where will I go? How will I ever learn to live around this vast hole in my heart?

They were all things we’d talked about in passing when he talked in the midst of his illness about not getting better. And I knew that I would find the desk in his office perfectly organized with carefully written instructions for everything that needed to be done and everyone that had to be contacted. He’d learned to be meticulous during forty years working in the Bureaucracy’s supply chain, and he’d instilled it into me. I think I was six when he put the first of many carefully scripted lists into my hands and sent me off to do my chores.

But having a plan and executing said plan were not the same thing.

My eye wandered to the wagon again and I tried to tell myself it was because I was measuring how much further I had to dig. But I knew better. It was because I was close to finished. And when I was done digging, when I eased my father into that hole, he would be gone. I would only ever see him again in memory and dreams, in the half-dozen photographs tucked into our leatherbound copy of the Cycle.

This would be our last Dragon’s Mass Eve together. My last time reciting the words with him. Our conversation earlier that morning would be the last we ever had, and it broke my heart open even further.

I went through the Cycle three times before I finished digging, from muscles tire to upon his back, a world, quoting from the Authorized Standard Version that my father had studied during the single year he spent in seminary. It was the version he’d memorized as a part of his training, and though he’d set aside his faith years before, he still felt it had enough merit that his daughter should know it. So now I said the words, felt none of them, and gentled my father into his grave.

The night was clear and cold but I paid it no mind. The hymn might’ve promised that the Santaman’s grace would find us here, but the reality was I’d already seen at least a half-dozen clear and cold Dragon’s Mass Eves and the Santaman had yet to come back, reeking of anything, much less love. There had been, according to my father, over two hundred and thirty-seven cold, clear Dragon’s Mass Eves to be exact, to the great consternation of the few remaining theologians.

We were on our own.

I was on my own.

I shoveled the earth over him and went through the Cycle another three times for good measure. But even as I did, I knew it wouldn’t be enough. It was my first lesson in grief — that there never, ever was enough when it came to those we lost.

On my last Dragon’s Mass Eve with Father, the rice stew grew cold upon the stove and I did not kneel and pray to the north. Instead, I cried myself to sleep, still covered in the dirt and drying sweat of digging my father’s grave.

 

If Dragon’s Mass Eve be cold and clear
The Santaman’s grace may find us here.
But if Dragon’s Mass Eve be clouded sky
The Santaman’s grace may pass us by.

Hymn #475, “If Dragon’s Mass Eve Be Cold and Clear”
Hymns of the Dragon and his Avenger, Contemporary Edition
Verity Music, 2623 YD

 

“Like this,” my father told me, unfolding the red paper and then folding it again in a different place, pressing the new crease into it with his massive thumb.

I watched, then took it from him and folded it again. It was my tenth Dragon’s Mass Eve and it had gone like all of the others I could remember. First, he pulled out the jars and cans he’d collected over the year, separating the fruit from the vegetables and the cans of potted meat. The fruit came to me along with a notation on my morning chores list and I mixed it into a fruit salad. His own list called for preparing the rice stew, and while it simmered, we moved on to the hats.

“I can never get it right,” I said.

He chuckled, and it was a low rumble in the brightly lit kitchen. “Getting it right isn’t always required.”

I watched his hands as they moved over his own sheet of paper, a fold here and a fold there, followed by a dab of paste and a cotton ball. I looked at mine and sighed. “Yours is better.”

Lifting the hat, he placed it on my head and then pushed up his glasses. Then, he swept my paper and cottonball away with a giant hand and started over with them. “Mine is a wreck,” he said with a toothy grin. He nodded to the hat I wore. “Yours looks pretty good, actually.”

We laughed and after, he put the battered hat onto his head. “Now,” he said, “we are ready.”

We stood and went outside into the night. We climbed the hill out behind the homestead and faced north, kneeling at my mother’s grave. The stone that marked it was plain, dark granite.

Harmony Angelique Sheffleton-Farrelly, it read. Then, after the date of her birth and the date of her death: Public servant, beloved wife and mother.

My knees were cold. “I don’t understand why we do this,” I said. Ten was the year that I mastered the art of the subtle complaint.

“We do this,” he said, “because it’s important to remember where we come from.”

Of course, I’d heard the story of how he and mother had met, and about their first Dragon’s Mass Eve together in the supply basement of the Bureaucracy. He’d been one of a small number of trolls in public service to the Bureaucracy, his trollishness coming in handy for safeguarding their supplies. My mother had been his replacement after thirty years in the supply chain, but meeting her had caught some part of him on fire and he’d decided to forgo retirement. They spent another decade improving efficiencies, easing the government back to some semblance of functionality. Then they’d ridden west with some of the world’s last hope lining the bottom of an old coffee can to seed a mine that had long before gone dry. They raised a litter of love, selling off each pup that survived, and made do on their pensions.

Somewhere in the midst of it, they decided to have me, and that choice changed everything.

I put my hand on the stone. “But we don’t believe in the Santaman,” I said.

“No,” he said, and winked. “We don’t have to.”

We said our prayer quickly as the wind rose to threaten our hats. When we finished, I looked up. “Clouded sky,” I said.

Father chuckled again. “Yes.”

“Last year was clear, though.”

“Yes,” he said again. “There have been quite a few clear, cold Dragon’s Mass Eves.”

I kicked the dirt. “The song got it wrong.”

I felt his hand settle onto my shoulder. “Getting it right,” he said again, “isn’t required.” We went back into the house and I pulled the door closed. He went to the stove and ladled the rice stew into simple wooden bowls that came out each year just for this tradition. He didn’t speak again until we were seated at the table, the fire crackling nearby.

“Besides,” he said as he tucked his napkin into his open-collared shirt, “they changed the song a long time ago. While I was in seminary there were a lot of people wanting to update the Cycle and the Hymnal. The song used to say ’will,’ which implied a guarantee that the clergy couldn’t afford to underwrite once the cold, clear nights started showing up again.”

I’d heard this one before and I nodded. “So they changed it to ’may.’”

He grinned, his broad face lighting up. “Yes.”

I tried to imitate his deep, gruff voice. “So when we sing it, we sing it as it was written — ”

He joined in and we finished in unison. “— just as the writer intended it to be sung.”

I paused, my spoon paused above the rim of the bowl. “But it isn’t true.”

He paused, too. “No, it doesn’t appear to be.”

“So aren’t the new words more...accurate?”

He took a bite, swallowed, and thought for a moment. “Only if the underlying premise is accurate. I can sing about flying fish that might bring little girls vast wealth for Dragon’s Mass Eve, but if there are no flying fish....” Here, he shrugged.

I smiled and mimicked his shrug. “And so we return to my initial question. Why do we do it?”

My father sighed. “Someday, when you have a child, you’ll understand it better, I think.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think I will.” Then, I wrinkled my nose. “And I don’t want a child.”

“Ah,” he said, “but do you want your present?”

I nodded. “But let me get yours first.”

That was the year that I’d written him a story about the two of us fighting Black Drawlers in the north while we searched for the Santaman’s fabled sword. I’d written it out in my best penmanship, and Miss Marplesbee, the sole teacher at the small one-room school in town, helped me bind it between pieces of cardboard with bright red yarn. I was particularly pleased with the cover — one of my better drawings of Father lopping the head off a Black Drawler, with me poised carefully on his back, a dagger clenched in my teeth.

And it was the year that he gave me the picture of Mother, wearing the dress she wore when she met my father, leaning against a desk in the drab cubicle wasteland of the Bureaucracy’s fifth floor. He’d build the frame himself.

I was pulling the paper aside when I woke up. I lay in bed for a minute and blinked the dream away. It was a good Dragon’s Mass Eve. But it was twenty-five years behind me now, and the truth I swallowed made my stomach hurt.

I looked up to the picture of my mother that had hung above my bed since the night he’d first given it to me.

I forced myself up and drew a bath. When I walked past my father’s open door I did not let myself look in upon his empty bed, upon the spectacles that lay on his nightstand, folded closed and never to be opened again by his large, clumsy fingers.

 

Muscles tire. It’s all we really knew. The dragon’s back held up the world. The poetry and faith of the Singing Literocrats held up the dragon by the will of the Sixteen Princes. One Literocrat fell to the sword, another to plague, a third to famine. Halved in this way, the choir faltered in its song and the dragon caved in on its spindly legs. The Sixteen Princes had no time to act, to change the course of this sudden, sweeping end. They drank wine and spoke of lemon trees instead.

We sat in the cold until the Santaman came.

The Breaking of the Dragon’s Back
The Santaman Cycle, Authorized Standard Version
Verity Press, 2453 YD

 

The first week crept by with varied weather. Storms of sorrow blew in at the slightest provocation—the smell of him on his clothes, his pen laid carefully to left side of his desk blotter, the notes he’d written and organized for me. And on the heels of the sadness, a calm and foreboding hollowness that I didn’t know I could feel. Followed suddenly by inconsolable rage that had no place to go but inward, or else it might burn down the world.

I went through the pile of papers, mailing what needed mailed and making the calls on Father’s list. I loaded the granite marker he’d kept in the mine all these years onto the wagon and drove it into town. He’d had his name and birthdate carved onto it when he had mother’s made. The rest is up to you, his note told me. And so I dropped it with Anderson, Bauer and Sons’ Stonework, picked it up a week later, and planted it at the head of the fresh grave.

Drummond Angus Farrelly, it said, along with his dates of birth and death. Public servant, cherished father, beloved husband.

The government men showed up about a month after, briefcases in hands.

“Miss Farrelly?” the man in the suit asked when I opened the door.

“Ms. Sheffleton-Farrelly,” I corrected him. “Melody. Call me Mel.”

The man looked uncomfortable and his partner looked away, clearing his throat. Their pinstriped trousers and jackets looked out of place here on the edge of the world and I wasn’t sure how they kept their shoes so shiny. “Is there someplace we can talk?”

I nodded toward my father’s office—a shack near the gated entrance of the mine. I dried my hands and laid my dish towel over a wooden chair. “Across the way,” I said.

I led us across the hard-packed yard and used the key to open the door. There had been little to do in the office, and I’d spent most of my time here arranging and rearranging the items on his desk.

I sat behind it now, still feeling dwarfed by its size, and waited until my guests sat. They each placed their cases across their knees and opened them. “First,” the spokesman said as he lifted out an accordion file of papers, “let me say how sorry we all were to hear about Drum’s — your father’s — passing. I worked with him on several procurements and had a lot of respect for him.”

“Thank you.” My father, in addition to his contract for the mine, had also entered into consulting contracts with the Bureaucracy from time to time, leaving me with either the Gustavsons or the Graves — sometimes for months at a time — to ride east and do his part to help put the world right. I’d always hoped to go with him, but for one reason or another, we never made it happen. But I’d write my stories as if I’d gone, weaving tales of our derring-do and heroics on secret missions for the Bureaucracy.

“That said,” the government man continued, “there are uncomfortable matters to discuss.”

I nodded. I knew of at least one matter — the pension. Father thought he’d found a loophole that would allow it to pass to me — something about a Board Order from the past century regarding widows and orphans. But I’d read the order and didn’t think it was likely to work in my case. “The pension, right?”

He nodded. “Yes. I’m afraid you do not meet the age requirements for survivorship to apply.”

“Understood,” I said.

“And then there is the matter of the mining contract.”

My eyes came up to his. “The mining contract?”

His smile was apologetic as he drew a letter out of the file. “Unfortunately, amendment six removed the assignment clause from the Bureaucracy’s standard terms and conditions. Which means that with the passing of your father — the contractor in this regard — this contract is null and void. I’ve a letter of cancellation for you, notarized by the Board clerk.”

I felt anger rising in my face. “Amendment six?” I rolled my chair to the file cabinet to my left and pulled open the second drawer. “When was this amendment issued? I don’t recall seeing it. Do you have an executed copy?”

He shook his head. “It’s just been issued in the last fortnight. But unfortunately, Mr. Farrelly is no longer in a position to....” Here he cleared his voice and looked away. “To sign it.”

Red tape. My father had created his share of it in the Bureaucracy’s basement.

I smiled. “Surely you can re-compete it.” The first ten years, father had operated the mine on a no-bid contract. It was the only operating hope mine in the western provinces and that made it eligible for a sole source exemption. But the last two and a half decades, he’d competed for it. No one else had, so of course he was awarded the contract.

Red tape.

The government man shook his head. “We are not going to re-procure in this case, Ms. Sheffleton-Farrelly. As you know, the Drawler threat in the north is taking more and more resources. The Bureaucracy is cutting expenses wherever it can.”

I leaned forward. “Are you giving up on hope altogether then?”

“No,” he said. “We’ll fund mining efforts elsewhere—certainly where it makes sense.”

“Just not here.”

“Not here,” he agreed. Then, he leaned forward. “Ms. Sheffleton-Farrelly, do you have any idea when the last time was that this mine produced a single flake of hope?”

I rolled back to the file cabinet, this time opening the top drawer to pull out the production journals. “Late autumn,” I said. “Twenty-six-fifty-three, Year of the Dragon.”

It was the same year my father had gone to seminary.

“Eighty years,” the man said. “And thirty-five of them subsidized by tax dollars with nothing to show for it.”

There was little to say after that. They left me with a stack of papers less than an hour later, climbing into their jeep and driving back to the town’s single inn.

I went over those papers that afternoon, filing them carefully like he would have, and afterward, I adjusted father’s financial projections less his ongoing pension payments and the contract revenue. I checked his notations in the savings ledger one last time before folding it up and tucking it back into the file cabinet. If I were frugal, I had maybe two years left here. And after that?

There was a form in the paperwork from the Bureaucracy — an application for the civil service exam with a box already marked and initialed on it, authorizing me to take the test in any satellite branch where it was offered and extending bonus points based on my relationship to one Drummond Angus Farrelly, a decorated procurement officer.

I filed it separately from the other papers and snuffed out the lamp. I looked over everything, neatly in its place, before locking the office door. After today, I really wasn’t sure when I’d be back.

Then I went up to father’s grave for the first time since digging it. I sat heavily upon the ground and leaned against his marker. “You were wrong about the pension,” I told him. “The mining contract, too.”

And in that moment, I was certain I heard his voice. First, he chuckled. Then, he told me what he’d told me so many times before.

“Being right,” my father reminded me “is not always required.”

 

Myth became life. No one really believed in the Santaman until he came with his tattered red robe and his dripping red sword. No one really believed in his undying love until he burst into our direst need to carve us a new home from the bones of the world.

We looked up at the whistle of his wolf-stallion. “Why do you weep and whimper?” the Santaman asked from the back of his mount.

“We whimper for the end of our world,” one of us said. “We weep for the fall of the Singing Literocrats and the breaking of the Dragon’s Back.”

The Santaman grinned and shook his sword. Blood rained down from it, mixing with the ashes. “Weep also for the Sixteen Princes who have failed you.”

“Why, Lord?” someone asked.

The Santaman spun his mount. “For I have avenged you in the Name Above All, and they are no more.”

We did not waver in our weeping. There was no lull in our lament.

The Coming of the Santaman
The Santaman Cycle, Authorized Standard Version
Verity Press, 2453 YD

 

In grief, time moves at inconsistent pace and the bereaved adjust and shuffle forward accordingly. I did not return to my father’s grave again for nearly two years, though I watched it often from the kitchen window or from the yard.

Each month, I hitched the wagon and went into town to resupply. And on each trip, I endured the sympathy of the closest thing we had to a community, so far removed from the rest of the world.

“What will you do now?” was the most popular question, and I never had a real answer. I took their offered condolences and tucked them away. And I watched the numbers on the savings ledger shrink.

I pulled the pictures from the Cycle and tucked the book away out of sight, moving the photographs into the treasure box I kept beneath my bed. But after that, I left the box where it lay for a long time and let it find its dust.

I wouldn’t have known the season but for news of the fighting in the north: more Black Drawlers leaking into the world through the ether, moving further south in their hunger. When I knew the day approached, I went into town to collect what jars and cans I could.

The mercantile even had red paper, and I bought a sheet.

But as Dragon’s Mass Eve drew near, the knot in my stomach grew tighter and my eyes went more often to the hill. Finally, I surrendered and found the best dress that still fit me and rode into town.

Father had never taken me to the church for Dragon’s Mass Eve, but we’d visited one Dragonsday for weekly services. On the ride in, I sat beside him on the bench and we talked about what we were going to see.

“There won’t be many, I’ll wager,” he said. “But there will be some. Parson Brown will pray and Emily Hopewell will play a few hymns on the organ that we will all sing too. Then the parson will preach about the Santaman and take a collection.”

When we arrived, the parson’s eyes lit up. “Drum Farrelly,” he said, “you’re just about the last person I expected to show up this morning.”

I remember my father’s strained smile as he shook the parson’s hand. “Melody was curious,” he said.

I’d seen Parson Brown around town, but never in the dark robes of his priesthood. It made the short, round man look almost comical. He’d shaken my hand, looking up at me with a smile. “Welcome,” he said.

We took our seat on the back row.

Then, just as father said, we prayed and sang and listened and sang again, and as we did, father slipped a small wad of the most recently authorized currency into the plate that passed up and down the pews of scattered faithful.

On the ride home, we’d had our discussion, and father dissected the components of the service.

“At the end,” I told him, “they prayed for the Santaman’s return. Do they do it every Dragonsday?”

He nodded. “Some of them do it every day.”

“Not just on Dragon’s Mass Eve?”

“No.”

“But they believe one day it will work?”

“Yes.”

“They really really believe?”

He nodded again. “They really really believe. And I used to, too. Even your mother, in some ways, believed. Only she believed that if there was a Santaman, he expected us to work while we waited and make things as good as we could.” He looked thoughtful for a moment.

“But we don’t believe now,” I said.

He smiled at me. “I don’t believe now. Do you?”

I smiled back. “No, I really don’t. I think...” I tried to find something to hitch my thought to. I remembered the growing stack of bound cardboard covers he kept in the drawer beside his bed, each containing my carefully written pages of our fictional misadventures spread out over a half-dozen Dragon’s Mass Eves. “I think it’s a good story but I don’t think it’s true.” Then, I said what I knew he was going to say next. “But I suppose being true isn’t always required.”

He smiled. “Exactly so.”

I blinked tears away at the memory as I turned the corner onto Main Street and saw the brightly lit building that waited.

Parson Brown stood at the door and smiled at me. “Mel Farrelly,” he said. “You’re just about the last person I expected to show up tonight.”

I climbed down and hitched my horse. “Happy Dragon’s Mass Eve, Parson,” I said as I took his hand.

“And to you,” he said.

The church was full, with men and women crowded onto the pews in their Dragonsday best. I spotted the Gustavsons and the Graces near the middle of the overflowing congregation, and though both families waved me over, I took a spot in the last row in the back corner. My nervous hands picked up the worn hymnal and thumbed through the pages until the parson took to the pulpit and offered the invocation.

After, there was a small choir that sang a medley of hymns. The room joined in and it was nothing like the scattered voices I’d heard in this very room as a child — it was one voice made of many, booming out into the night in a cry for help that I could nearly give myself over to. But I did not want help from some mysterious red-cloaked and red-bladed avenger. I wanted my father, and the power of that longing flooded my eyes with tears. Still, when we reached “If Dragon’s Mass Eve Be Cold and Clear,” I sang the original words — the writer’s words — and not the softer maybe his hymn had been neutered into.

“Now tonight,” Parson Brown intoned after the singing, “we have a special treat.”

My first thought was that he meant to introduce me, point me out to the crowd, and I found myself suddenly wanting to flee. But it didn’t happen. Instead, he nodded to a young man who sat to the side. “Tonight,” Parson Brown said, “Brother Simon will bring the homily. His first sermon, I might add.”

A wave of murmurs rolled over the congregation and I pressed my mouth together, studying the young man.

His robes were ill-fitting and his eyebrows and cheekbones bore a hint of the fey. He took the pulpit, thumbing through the leather-bound copy of the Cycle that he carried to it, and he smiled out at us. “Good evening,” he said as Parson Brown took a seat behind him. “Tonight’s message is taken from the Coming of the Santaman, verses one through three.”

As he read the scripture, I mouthed the words with him. “Myth became life,” he read. “No one really believed in the Santaman until he came with his tattered red robe and his dripping red sword. No one really believed in his undying love until he burst into our direst need to carve us a new home from the bones of the world.”

Brother Simon closed the book and looked upon us all. When his eyes moved over the back pew, they met mine and I felt the measurement in his level gaze. “I submit to you, brothers and sisters, that like those before us, we do not really believe in the Santaman.”

From there, he launched into his sermon and I found his words fading and blurring, taking a seat behind him like the parson, as he filled the room with his presence. His hands moved like a magician, illustrating this or that point, indicating this or that observation, as he moved across the platform. His voice was hypnotic, rising and falling in passion and pitch and his eyes continued wandering the crowded room, finding mine on more than one occasion. Those eyes, I knew, were unsafe. They held too many contradicting views — hope and fear, anger and grace, and something more I’d never been comfortable with: conviction.

When he finished, he sat down abruptly and Parson Brown took over. After singing “The Santman Shall Rise Again” as the plate migrated up and down the rows, he dismissed us to the fellowship hall for cookies and tea.

I was moving toward the door when Brother Simon caught up to me and shook my hand. The hand was rough and calloused; it caught me off guard. “You’re not leaving are you?”

I blushed and stammered but didn’t know why. “I have...things to do.”

“Come have a cookie at least.” Then, as an afterthought: “I’m Simon by the way.” And somehow, the voice compelled me and I let him guide me by the elbow into the fellowship hall before he vanished into the crowd.

A cup of tea was pushed into one of my hands, a molasses cookie into the other, and I blessed both because it meant I need not shake any more hands.

I stood quietly in the corner and suffered the kindness and curiosity of a town that had seen little of me and little of my father before me.

I’d finished the tea and moved for the door when the parson came by with the young man in tow. “And this,” he said, “is Melody Farrelly. She owns the old hope mine out past the Gustavson’s farm.”

“We’ve met,” I said and forced a smile. But I shook his offered hand again, noticing once more how rough it was.

“Brother Simon is our new acolyte. He’s in his last year at the Middleton Seminary. I expect he’ll be taking my place when I retire next year.” He turned to the young man. “Melody’s father, Drummond, spent a year at Middleton.”

His face lit up. “Is he here with you?”

I looked away. “He passed away last Dragon’s Mass Eve.”

The light dimmed and his smile faded. “I’m sorry.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” the Parson said. “Do you know what you will do now? Will you sell the mine?”

I shrugged. “It hasn’t produced in over eighty years. Not much demand for a hope mine without hope.”

And then, the conversation folded in on itself and the two of them moved on. I excused myself and slipped out under a cloudy night to find my horse.

I rode home and tried to eat at least some of the fruit salad I’d made earlier that day. It tasted empty without my father. And I knew better than to recite the Cycle. Instead, I braved his room — something I rarely brought myself to do — and curled up on his large bed. Then, I pulled open the drawer and pulled out the stack of stories I’d written for him through the years.

As I read them, I found myself laughing and crying and when I felt sleep pulling at me, I gathered them up and took them to my own room. I pulled out the cardboard box beneath my bed and laid them carefully in it.

My eyes caught the wadded up piece of paper I’d also tucked into the box and I forced them away. That ball of paper was the first to go into my treasure box though I couldn’t bring myself to open it up and smooth it out. It made me too angry and too afraid.

But now, a strange fancy struck me and I lifted it carefully as a butterfly from a flower. I sat on my bed and held it, remembering my last conversation with my father. Then, I smoothed it out upon my lap.

It was a requisition slip, filled out and in triplicate. He’d completed most of it, leaving the order date blank along with the boxes used to select gender.

Then, I remembered the words I’d said to him — off and on for years — and the quiet way he smiled when I said them.

“I don’t want a child,” I told the empty room.

Then, I placed the smoothed-out form in the box and lowered the lid over it like a casket before laying it to rest again in the dusty grave beneath my bed.

 

Dust rose from the West as the Santaman approached. The wolf-stallion growled and tore sod, and the last of the Literocrats laid down their lyres by the Murmuring Stream as the dragon’s eye faltered above them.

“Take up your tools and lift your song,” the Santaman cried.

“We are halved,” the Fourth Literocrat said. “Our song is lost. The world ends. The dragon’s back is already broken.”

The sword licked out, then pointed North. The Murmuring Stream ran pink. “Sing a new home,” the Santaman cried again. “Beyond the ether at the Edge of the World.”

Two voices rose and fell in song. A third burbled in the stream. Scooping the golden-haired head from the water, the Santaman came seeking us to tell us of our new-carved home.

The Last of the Literocrats
The Santaman Cycle, Authorized Standard Version
Verity Press, 2453 YD

 

The next year moved faster. I learned that loss is like a hole in the middle of your living room floor. Your rearrange the furniture around it and you visit it once in a while, but less and less often with every month. Eventually, you grow accustomed to walking around the hole, living around it as it just becomes a part of your life.

I started writing again though I’d long ago outgrown the adventure stories I used to tell. Instead, I wrote about my father and about my memories of him. I tended the garden and stretched the savings as far as I could. And in the weeks before Dragon’s Mass Eve, as the news turned somber in the north, I didn’t even try to find the canned fruits and vegetables and meat. But I did slip into his office to fill out the civil service exam application. I put it into an envelope and took it into the house.

I still wasn’t certain if I would mail it.

When Dragon’s Mass Eve arrived, I rode into town again and like the year before, I slipped onto the back pew. The church was less crowded this year, and when Parson Brown’s invocation included a blessing upon the men and women serving in the local militia, I made the connection with why.

The singing was more subdued, and when Brother Simon took the pulpit, there was something quiet about him that felt disconnected from the young man I’d seen prowling the platform a year before. “Tonight’s message,” he said, “is taken from the Last of the Literocrats, verses one through five.”

We made eye contact as he read and the light I’d seen before was dark now. There was something of sorrow or anger in them now that resonated with me and I couldn’t look away.

“Take up your tools and lift your song,” he said. “That is what I want to talk about with you tonight.”

What followed were brief but heartfelt comments but nothing like the lively performance I knew he was capable of. When we shook hands later, in the fellowship hall, I could even feel the difference in his grip. And the hands were less rough here in the second year of his apprenticeship.

“I enjoyed your message,” I told him, even more uncomfortable with his eyes in such close proximity. “My mother used to believe that the Santaman wouldn’t return until we’d done our very best with our own hands.”

He nodded and smiled, but I saw the falseness in it. “Yes,” he said. There were clouds behind those eyes now, too.

I leaned close to him and lowered my voice. “Are you okay, Brother Simon?”

He looked at me and I think he was surprised that I noticed though it was as obvious as his nose to me. His cheeks grew red and he looked around, panic on his face.

Finally, he pulled me aside and his words were fast and jumbled together. “We lost Fallowston and Reinburg this morning,” he said. “The diocese sent a rider. The crier will be announcing it tomorrow. Parson Brown didn’t want to dampen spirits tonight with the news.”

I knew the towns though I’d never visited them. “Did you have people there?”

He shook his head. “No. But our militia is engaged at Candletoss.” I imagined the points on the map, saw how close it all was.

Simon looked out the window and I saw the firmness in his jawline and the anger in his eyes. Outside, it was a clear night and I understood his anger better.

“Something,” he said, “has to happen soon.”

I nodded but didn’t know what to say. Finally, I found my voice. “Maybe,” I said, “it’s like you said earlier — maybe we’re called upon to take up our tools and lift our song. Especially when we’re faced with the end of our world...just like the Last of the Literocrats.”

“Yes. Maybe.”

Then he was moving off into the crowd, shaking hands and patting shoulders. I slipped out beneath a star-scattered sky and rode home in the light of the moons.

When I reached the homestead, I stabled my horse and slipped into the house. I found the envelope first and then, I went to the box beneath my head and pulled out the wadded-up requisition slip. Taking both, I let myself back out into the night and climbed the hill behind the house.

I sat quietly for a while, prayerless and facing north. “I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do,” I told my father, “but I’m going to do it. I know you were right about most things — all the important things, really — and I think you were right about this. But I’m still afraid.”

I paused in that moment and knew I would have given everything I owned to have this one final conversation with him, to hear his words and see his eyes as he formed them. But in thirty-five years with the old troll, I knew what he would ask next and I blushed.

“No,” I said. “I don’t know who yet.” Still, I knew who I’d thought about the few times I’d let myself imagine it. “Regardless of who, I’m going to do it and I wanted you to know. But I’m going to have to leave you to make it happen. Because I’m also going to take the test.”

I reached out then to touch the gravestone. The granite felt wrong to my fingertips and I rubbed them into the stone, feeling something powdery flaking off as I did.

My first thought was that it was ash or dust. But my second thought was the one that brought my fingers tentatively to my mouth. I’d never tasted hope before but my father had described it many times before.

Bitter and sweet at the same time.

I looked above me at the clear night and stood on shaking legs. I went into the house and lit the lantern, grabbed my knife, and lifted the keys to the mine off the hook where my father had last hung them.

I walked down into the mine and I hadn’t gone very far when the dark walls started to glisten white. I paused along the way to scrape here or there, each time coming away with a handful of white flaky residue.

I went all the way to the bottom and when I reached it, I sat down and laughed until my sides hurt and then I cried until my eyes had no more tears in them.

Two days later, I phoned in my requisition at the town’s single phone, dialing the number my father gave me. And when I finished with central stores, I had the operator transfer me to the contracts division.

 

“North of the faraway beyond the ether at the Edge of the World” the head sang and died. The Santaman cast it aside.

“The way is too hard,” we told the Santaman. “And we are afraid.”

He sheathed his sword and climbed down among us. He cast open his arms, his red robes hung like bleeding meat. “Do not be afraid. I walk with you.”

North, he walked his wolf-stallion and we followed after. In twilight, we walked and as the ruined cities fell behind us, others joined our ragged band.

Lost also behind us, the last of the literocrats sang sunrise and sunset, sang muscles and sinew, sang bones and teeth.

Death crabs scuttled and scavenged. Snick-snack went the sword.

Black Drawlers shrieked and savaged. Snick-snack went the sword.

Some of us fell. Some of us faltered. All of us hoped.

The faraway wrapped us and the ash snows fell away.

Sunlight bathed us and we swam out into the ether at the Edge of the World.

Swam towards our new-carved home.

—The Ether at the Edge of the World
The Santaman Cycle, Authorized Standard Version
Verity Press, 2453 YD

 

The Bureaucracy was faster this time. Within two weeks, the suits were back. They offered twenty years but I declined, much to their surprise. “One year is about as far ahead as I can see for now,” I said.

They looked nervous when I said that. “Do you have other plans for the mine?”

I shrugged. “I might sell it. And I would certainly want to entertain a bid from the Bureaucracy if it comes to that.”

My reassurance helped and when they left, I went to my father’s savings ledger and readjusted the figures to account for the contract income. Tomorrow, I’d ride into town and hire a small crew.

A knock at the office door brought my head up. Brother Simon stood framed in the late morning light. “Miss Farrelly,” he said with a nod.

“Ms. Sheffleton-Farrelly,” I corrected him. “Call me Mel.”

“Mel,” he said. “May I come in?”

I nodded. “Please,” I said pointing to a chair. “Sit. I didn’t know parsons still made house calls.”

He blushed. “I’m not a parson.”

“You will be soon enough.”

Simon shook his head. “No, I’ve stepped down. I don’t think I’m made for the priesthood.”

I’d seen him just two weeks before and even in that short time, whatever crisis he’d been working through seemed more settled and calm. I knew it was none of my business, and it was a question that I hated but I asked it anyway. “Then what will do you now?”

He looked around the room and then our eyes met. “What I used to do. I was apprenticed to a blacksmith before.”

I nodded and looked at his hands. “So you’re traveling the parish and letting everyone know?”

He shook his head. “No. Just you for now.”

My breath caught and for a moment, I wondered if he somehow knew about some of the thoughts I’d thought about him on cold nights beneath my quilt. But I quickly kicked my imagination back to quiet; it was an awkward quiet.

Simon filled it. “I heard you struck hope.”

I laughed. “I didn’t strike it; it struck me. My father seeded this place for three seasons and got nothing. Then, decades later....” I snapped my fingers in the air. “Hope.”

“Hope,” he said. “I need some, actually.”

I studied him. “I have some. How much do you need?”

“A pound,” he said. “I...I don’t have any money.”

A pound was a lot. Not for me at the moment, but a pound of hope in a world that had for too long gone without...its value was staggering. “What are you going to do with it?”

“I’m borrowing Jansen’s shop at night,” he said. His face went red again and he looked around the empty room as if to make sure no one could hear him. “I’m re-forging the Santaman’s sword.”

I sat back, surprised. “You’re what?”

He nodded. “I’m re-forging the sword based on its description in the Doctrines and Affirmations. I’m going to take it north.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Why would you do that?”

“Because maybe if he sees we’ve tried...really tried...maybe then he’ll hear.”

I shook my head. “Simon,” I said, “I don’t think the Santaman’s listening.”

But when our eyes met this time, I knew it didn’t matter. His conviction was back and now it bent him away from words and motions, moved him toward deeds and demonstrations now, but it was still the same drive for miracles and wonders to flow into and out of his life. “Please,” he said. “I can’t do it without hope.”

I sighed and measured him. “Okay. But I want something for it.”

“Anything I have that I can give you,” he said.

I smiled. “Come back tonight for dinner, Simon, and we’ll talk about it. I’ll have the hope ready for you.”

After he left, I weighed out two pounds from the hope I’d scraped these past two weeks. I filled a small sack with it and locked up. Then, I went inside to get ready.

I put a chicken on to roast and took a long bath. I brushed out my hair and when none of my dresses fit right, I put on trousers and a cotton button-up shirt. I smiled at myself in the tiny mirror, grateful that I couldn’t see my entire body in its reflection. I’d gotten many of my mother’s features but I had my father’s broad shoulders and thickness along with his towering height.

When Simon knocked at the door, the house smelled of chicken and fresh baked bread. Clouds had wandered in and blotted out the starlight but the temperature was still down and he was shivering. I let him in and took his coat. “Did you walk?”

He nodded. “I don’t have a horse.”

I hefted the bag of hope. “I’ll just put this with your coat.”

“Thank you.”

Nothing I did felt right and my father’s words — right was not required — brought little comfort. I wasn’t sure what to say or what to do and it was obvious to me that I was the only one who comprehended the potential of this night. I set the table while we made small talk and then I opened the bottle of bumbleberry wine I’d kept for such a night as this. I poured out small glassfuls and dished up our plates.

We ate quickly and I watched him. He talked throughout and I finished easily ahead of him because of it. I think somewhere in the midst of it he must’ve noticed how I looked at him and it made him talk all the more, his nervous words bumping into each other in their rush to get out.

Finally, I took his plate to the sink along with my own. We moved to the battered old sofa in the living room and sat before the fire. I refilled our wine glasses.

“So you wanted to talk about price,” he said.

I sipped the wine, set it down and nodded. “I do. And it’s okay to say no. You can have the hope either way.”

His brow furrowed. “Say no to what?”

I held my breath and leaned my face toward him. “This.”

Then, I kissed him.

At first, he did nothing. Then, he kissed me back. And after a moment, he broke away. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know...I can’t — ”

I withdrew and felt the sting of the panic on his face. “No,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I stood, feeling small for the first time in my life. “Like I said — it’s okay to say no.”

He stood, too, his face and ears bright red. “No, that’s not what I mean.” He swallowed, stepped closer to me and stretched up on tippy-toes to kiss my mouth. “It’s just that I’ve never done this before.”

Relief flooded me. “Oh,” I said. Now it was my turn to blush. “I haven’t either.”

“Really?”

I nodded. “Really.” Then, I bent down and kissed him back.

Taking his hand, I led him to my fresh-made bed and we spent the night teaching each other how.

I never told him why. I couldn’t see how it would help him at all and I could count a dozen ways that it might hurt him. Instead, I just enjoyed him and helped him to enjoy me.

In the morning, after breakfast, he walked back into town with a smile on his face and a bag of hope slung over his shoulder.

 

And in the north, he’ll hear our cry
Ride forth in wrath, his sword raised high
To carve our home in violent grace
And lead us to that promised place

Hymn #316, “The Santaman Shall Rise Again”
Hymns of the Dragon and his Avenger, Contemporary Edition
Verity Music, 2623 YD

 

It was only after that night with Simon that I allowed myself to think about my last conversation with Father. I’m not sure why but I don’t need the whys nearly as much as I used to when I was younger.

It was morning when he called me to his room. He’d soiled himself again and after nearly a month in bed, I was just beginning to realize that I might not have even another year with him.

I pretended I wasn’t angry and tried to find my patience but it waned. He knew me well enough to know I was frustrated and I suspected he even knew why — it wasn’t the mess in his bed. It was the mess my life would become when he left it and I couldn’t bear to face that.

I spent the morning cleaning him up and then cleaning his sheets. When I went into the kitchen and saw the cans and jars laid out, preparing for Dragon’s Mass Eve was the last thing I wanted to be doing.

“Come in here, Mel,” my father rumbled from his bedroom.

I sighed and felt my pulse rising. “What do you need, Dad?”

His laugh was more of a bark. “I need you.”

I wanted to snap at him but I didn’t. Instead, I closed my eyes, counted to five and then went to his doorway. “Yes?”

He sat up in bed, his lap covered with open books — not real books but bits of cardboard bound together with yarn. “You should write more of these someday,” he said. “They’re good.”

I shrugged. “Is that what you needed?”

He shook his head. “No. Come here.” He patted the bed beside him.

I went to the side of the bed but didn’t sit. “I have a meal to cook,” I said.

Our eyes met. “Sit,” he said. “I’m not hungry.”

“It’s Dragon’s Mass Eve and — ”

“Sit down, Mel.” He looked old there but truth be told, I couldn’t remember a time when my father didn’t. He was in his sixties when I was born.

I sat and felt the bed creak beneath our combined weight. “What?”

He smiled. “I wanted to give you your Dragon’s Mass Eve present.”

“Let’s wait until tonight,” I said. “I don’t have yours ready yet.”

Father shook his head and a fit of coughing took his words for a minute. “I don’t want to wait,” he said. “As tired as I’ve been, I’m likely to sleep through Dragon’s Mass Eve anyway.”

I forced a smile. “Okay. But you get yours tomorrow if you fall asleep.”

He shrugged, then leaned over to dig around within the deep drawer in the nightstand. He pulled out a form — in triplicate — and handed it to me. “This,” he said, “is for you.”

I looked at it. I rubbed my eyes and looked at it again. “What’s this?”

He cleared his voice. “It’s...urm...a requisition slip. I’ve been saving it for you. Your mother and I brought two with us when we rode west.”

I read it, my eyes naturally drawn to the places where he’d taken the liberty of filling it out. As I realized what it was, I felt the anger burning hot in me and by instinct, I crumpled the requisition into as tight a ball as my white knuckled fist could make it. “I don’t want a child,” I said. “I don’t ever want a child.”

I tried to stand but his gnarled hand caught my arm and I turned on him. I nearly said something, nearly let the feelings that savaged me slip past my careful control. But I kept quiet. Still, he saw everything in my eyes and his own filled up with tears at the sight of my anger.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

He blinked. “Why am I sorry?”

I shook my head. “No,” I said. “Why do you think I should have a child?” Seeing his tears made my own fight harder to get out.

He patted my arm. “I thought when I met your mother that I knew what love was. But meeting you opened up a vast continent of love I never imagined could exist. How could I not want that for you?” His voice lowered and then my father said the last words that he would ever say to me. “Melody Constance Sheffleton-Farrelly, don’t you know that you are the best gift anyone ever gave to me, Dragon’s Mass Eve or not?”

I stood and bent to kiss his brow. Then, I left so he wouldn’t see me crying. I tossed the ball of paper into my room and went outside into the yard to walk off the feelings that ambushed me. When I went back inside, I saw my father had gone to sleep amid the stories I’d written him over a lifetime of Dragon’s Mass Eves together. And when I checked on him even later, I found he’d slipped away.

I gathered up the books, closed them, and stacked them neatly in his nightstand drawer. I carefully removed his spectacles and folded them up to lay them beside his bed.

Then I went to find something to wrap him in and wondered if the coming night would be cloudy or clear.

 

Motes swim. Light diffuses. Home rises.

We see it through a smoky glass. We watch it twitch and meep with each note of the framing song.

The Santaman laughs and beats his sword against his thigh: “Ho, ho, ho.”

We few remaining weep and set our feet on emerald grass. We smell the reek of love upon the wind. We wipe our eyes. We wipe our eyes and look again.

Ahead a dragon.

Upon his back a world.

Our New Carved Home
The Santaman Cycle, Authorized Standard Version
Verity Press, 2453 YD

 

You arrived in Autumn amid the buzz of change.

But before that, while I waited for you, I started wrapping things up at our homestead on the edge of the world. I went through my father’s papers and organized them, separating out his working notes from his personal notes. Most, I kept. But some I left for the mine’s new owners.

I felt you kick for the first time while I was taking the civil service exam, and after I finished, the test proctor sought me out in the waiting room after everyone else had gone to let me know he’d not seen a score so high in well over twenty years.

I wasn’t surprised at all when the offer came through, and once it did, I started negotiating the sale of the mine. I knew going in that whatever I sold it for would be vastly more than I could make in a lifetime on government salary, working in the cubicle maze of the Bureaucracy. But a clean start seemed somehow right to me, especially as your arrival drew closer and closer.

Still, I’m glad we had these three months together on the homestead where we both were born. Wandering the yard, it’s been a strange, new mourning as I accept the reality that I’ll likely not come back here again. You may when you’re older. You might want to see where your grandmother and grandfather lay buried. You may want to see the house where you were born. And I’m sure folks around here will be curious to meet you, too.

There is a knock at the door on the morning of Dragon’s Mass Eve and it startles you. I go to answer and find Parson Brown on the porch. He sees the truck the Bureaucracy has provided me, shoved full of everything we’ll take with us when we leave. I’ve only left out enough to celebrate tonight and tomorrow, we start our weeks-long drive east and south.

“So,” he says, “you really are going?”

I nod. “Tomorrow,” I say. “Come in, Parson.”

I brew him some tea while he plays with you and I can tell you’re as uncomfortable with him as he is with you. When the tea is ready, I hold you while he drinks it, mindful of his shaking hands. I want to ask him about your father, but I don’t. Last I heard, he’d ridden north with his sword and not long after, bits of gossip drifted back. I don’t know who exactly wields it, but there are rumors of a young man in red with a terrible blade and he’s earning quite a name for himself. I’m pretty sure it’s him. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe someone further north heard the cry of his heart. I doubt it, but it would be a fine story.

Drawler season didn’t really subside this year — they pushed south all the way through summer — but the militias are holding them at Harrowfield and Lumner, and in a few weeks, I’ll be working supply chain for the headquarters of a new standing army.

I don’t ask about your father. And I don’t tell Parson Brown your middle name is Simon, either. I know people are wondering and I’m okay with letting them wonder.

I look into your eyes and I find I could fall into them. They are brown like mine and like your grandfather’s. The parson has to ask a second time before I realize he’s speaking. “I’m sorry?”

“I was asking if you’d be joining us tonight,” he says as he drains the last of his tea. “I’ve a new acolyte. Brother Timothy. He’ll be giving the sermon.” Parson Brown leans forward and tickles your chin. “I’m sure everyone is dying to meet little Drummond.”

I smile. “Maybe,” I tell him. “We’ll see.”

But I already know we won’t be attending. Tonight, I’ll make our hats and after I’ve nursed you, I’ll eat rice stew and fruit salad. Then, we’ll walk up the hill and I will hold you close as I recite words that don’t need to be right or true to have their meaning for me. For us.

I think I understand my father’s last Dragon’s Mass Eve gift to me now when I see his face in yours. His attachment to his old, discarded religion makes sense to me now, too, though I had to meet you before I could fully comprehend the truest object of his faith.

Clear or cloudy, the only grace I’ll ever need has already found me.

And the only home I’ll ever want is you.

 

“If Dragon’s Mass Eve Be Cold And Clear” copyright © 2011 Ken Scholes

Art copyright © 2011 Gregory Manchess

27 comments
Jeanne Berry
4. JBeez
It's so beautiful. And believable. From the profound sincerity in the segments about the loss, I suspect the author has experienced this loss as I have, and it rang so true for me. I saw a bit of my own story within, and I was moved. Thank you for writing this.
Shannon Ratliff
5. shanrat
I am still processing this story from yesterday; such a powerful idea... thank you so much for sharing it!
Michelle Dupree
6. EarthChild67
A well writtin testimonial to the fact that life moves on whether we choose to do so or not. Thank you!
KenScholes
9. KenScholes
Thanks all. I'm glad the story is resonating! Big thanks to Greg for the amazing art.
KenScholes
10. Sparsey
Wonderfully undefineable, and undefineably wonderful!
KenScholes
11. ChrisC
I found it sad and depressing.
KenScholes
12. Dani Bingham
Stunningly crafted, beautifully presented. I want MORE!!!
mitch keith
13. saganmov
Beautiful. Sad, elegant, some pretty scare imagery, but uplifting, hopeful and thoroughly enjoyable. It's been awhile since I've ready anything that made me cry. Probably the best story I've read all year.
KenScholes
14. mike-ptda
“...meeting you opened up a vast continent of love I never imagined could exist..."

Sums up having a child wonderfully.

A very Good story, thank you.

Mike
Jason Gramley
16. CadfanGwaed
Great story! Thank you so much for posting. Would you possible be writing more? That would be great!
KenScholes
17. Angela Devlin
Beautiful and sad, this really moved me and struck home in several ways. Thank you for sharing this with us.
John Quinn
19. jq3
A fantastic and rich story. Great work!
KenScholes
20. Mouette
Brought me to tears - the damn-that-was-good kind. :)
KenScholes
21. chromanga
its over already
N. Swain
23. Jabberwocky
I read this without commenting on it a few days ago, but it was so enjoyable I find myself coming back to say exactly that.
KenScholes
27. AriMiller01234
That was very well written. I loved it.
Joe Iriarte
28. JoeIriarte
Oh . . . my. That was weird and wonderful and astonishing. I'm sitting here holding back tears.

And preparing to call my father.

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