f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The passing of years without updates made this blog irrelevant and deeply out of touch. I'm not sure I even still believe much of what I wrote back then about writing/publishing. I'm not a huge fan of leaving stuff out there, even as a historic record of what Christian publishing was like from 2004-2010, so rather than screen everything, I just deleted it all.

Except for the three posts below, which I continue to believe in.

One is a tribute to a writer who passed too young.
The second is a fine short story by Don Hoesel.
The other one is a short story by me that I still like.

faith*in*fiction was a blast. Glad I was part of it.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Amy Krouse Rosenthal Is Wonderful

How do you say Thank you! to an author? The usual suspects—pithy card, fine chocolates, elegant Moleskine—suffice. But most authors silently wish you’d put aside the gifts and, if you want to really show your gratitude, publicize their book.

And so I want to say my thank you to author Amy Krouse Rosenthal here. For going above and beyond what’s required of an author to make a reader (not me, btw) happy. I hope she’s okay without the chocolates, but this is more fitting. After all, it was a bit of Wonkian-author promotion that started this whole business in the first place.

About three years ago, Lisa Samson read and recommended Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Sounded interesting, so I read it and enjoyed it. It even made my “favorites” list of 2005. A few months into 2006, Mark Bertrand and I met up at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, and, having an evening free, browsed the aisles of a local Barnes and Noble. We alternated, as often happens on such trips, between pointing out favorites (covers, authors, books) and scoffing haughtily at things. At some point, we passed by Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life in trade paper and I picked one up to show Mark. (To praise, not scoff.) And like that Dahlian-hero Charlie Bucket, I found myself holding a Golden Ticket. (It was actually a postcard. And not overly golden.)

But it was one of a hundred out there in the world. It entitled me to a prize. It had a password. And it was signed AKR—Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

I’m forever on the lookout for clever author promotion ideas we can “borrow” here at BHP and this one seemed easy enough. I brought the postcard back to the office, showed our assistant marketing manager and then logged on to Amy’s website to peruse the “prizes.”

I’m not a big fan of butterscotch. I figured I wasn’t quick enough to be one of the first 10 people to get my own entry. The flower thing wasn’t my style, nor the soundtrack, I guess.
Which left me with the phone call. A cell phone coffee date with the author.

And I almost cashed in the golden ticket for a chance to grill Ms. Rosenthal about author publicity. Because it seemed, at least from my viewpoint, that she had some pretty creative ideas and managed a fair amount of “buzz” for her book.

It never happened. I stalled at first, not really knowing how the conversation would go, and then stalling soon passed into forgetting fitfully, and then eventually into forgetting completely.

Fast-forward two years.

My youngest daughter now has favorite books of her own, rather than just sitting through whatever her older sisters are being read for evening. And one of her favorites is a book her mom and I like (because it’s short and clever) called Little Pea. She loves the book. She loves the character of Little Pea.

Plot summary: Little Pea lives, plays, loves life with Mom and Dad. Not so big on dinner. Must eat dinner to get dessert. There’s a twist in there that the girls, particularly Youngest, just finds hilarious.

We read this book for months before the hamster in Dad’s brain rouses from its slumber and gets the wheel spinning. Amy Krouse Rosenthal…Amy Krouse Rosenthal…where have I heard that name before. Check author bio…oh!

Long story short (Too late!—a Clue: the Movie reference for you.), Dad goes back into work, finds the Golden Ticket, logs onto the website, and asks a favor.

Years after the fact.

A favor that really involves illustration more than writing.

And the author, who now deserves enshrinement in the Terrific Author Hall of Fame, delivers.

So, thank you to Amy. I want my girls to love reading and let me tell you, getting a letter from a character you love...that's the kind of thing that can make a little girl read for the rest of her life.

UPDATE:  Amy passed away on March 13, 2017.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

"The Deal" by Don Hoesel

“You remember any of this?”

My father’s voice startles me after an hour of navigating the winding mountain roads without a word between us. Since the stop for gas in Chelsea, when he asked if I wanted a cup of coffee, the rumbling of the V-8 has filled the aural vacuum. Maybe what made me jump, beyond the fact that the timbre of my father’s voice could wake Lazarus, is that I’d been considering the same thing – how none of this seemed familiar until the last turn, when I could see the red outline of the cider mill through the pine trees some two-hundred feet below us.

As a boy I would watch for that mill, playing a game with my father to see who could spot it first. I can’t remember a time when he won that contest and I am certain now that he derived the greater pleasure from my small triumphs. He took me to see the mill once, when I was eight or nine. We walked through the place, watching the coring, peeling and pressing of the apples. He’d told me that before the mill was ushered into the twentieth century, migrant workers, mostly black families, would show up at harvest time to pick and process the fruit.

For a few of those seasons my father had worked alongside them, sweating beneath the sun, learning the work songs of a different people. He’d lost the tip of his finger in the press during his last harvest and the mill foreman had burned the wound with lye to stop the bleeding. They had loaded him into the back of the man’s car and driven him twenty miles to Randle, where the doctor had given my father a shot for the pain, telling him there was little he could do that the lye had not already done. That same afternoon my father was back working at the press.

“I remember the mill,” I say.

My father nods but does not take his eyes from the road. His large hands, tough and brown like leather, rest on the wheel, guiding the Ford around curves and up inclines that must be as familiar to him as the halls of the hospital are to me. I do not know how often he has taken this trip since my mom passed; maybe this is the first time. But he grew up in these mountains, on land owned by his people for generations; this place is a part of him in a way that my suburban childhood home could never be for me.

“You win again,” he says.

I do not answer but turn away to look out the window. It is strange that I am back in this place, sitting alongside this man, as if the intervening twenty years have been erased. How many times as a child did I take this trip with him, sitting in the silence of a different cab and sharing the lost and simple pleasure of just being together?

“So how’s that doctor thing working out?”

Like most children, I once thought my father the wisest man in the world. He seldom spoke and when he did his words were reasoned, filled with the wisdom of a people for whom both logic and superstition held sway. By the time I took my first breath in the world he was educated, in the top five percent of his class at the University of Virginia, but more than ever convinced that people spoke too much. It is this that makes my father’s question seem out of place – the fact that it is idle chatter and unlike him.

“Everything’s great, dad. My residency will be over next month. Then I’ll probably take that job out in California. I think I told you about it.”

He nods but does not answer and when I look, his eyes are dark. His hands have tightened on the wheel, draining the color from his knuckles. It takes me a fraction of a second before I, too, feel the palpable unsettlement that has crept into the cab. As I refocus my attention on the green outside of the truck, I know without knowing how that we are very near the place. Call it a psychic scar or some other metaphysical crap but I do not think a person can live through something traumatic without elements of the event searing themselves into the unconscious.

What’s funny to me is that, for an event that has wrought such grave consequences, I don’t remember much of the accident, only turning at the sound of my mother’s gasp, watching her look down on me with an expression that only later I identified as an apology. The rest of it I can relive only as images: lights flashing, someone in black and yellow reaching for me, a window with spider web cracks. Then nothing until the hospital: a physical therapy session. I sometimes wonder what happened to the other memories, for surely I must have some that cover the period between my first awakening in the hospital to the painful stretching of damaged bones and muscles in the PT room. Among my clearest recollections is that my father had not been there; I remember looking around the room as I held the padded bars, like someone just waking to a knowledge of himself. I cried then, asking about my mother and my father, and the therapist set me in a wheelchair and took me back to my room.

I’m watching now – looking for the tree, wondering if we left a mark on it as identifiable as the one it left on our family. Perhaps a mile goes by and I see nothing; I know we must have passed it.

“It was back a ways,” my father says. I can see his face in profile, the suggestion of a sad smile that alights on his craggy skin, and I am pleased that he could feel my need.

In a way, that tree ended two things for me: my happy childhood and my relationship with my father. When he buried my mother, with me still in the hospital, he buried a part of himself – the part that told jokes, that smiled, that hugged. I think I missed his touch the most: a hand on my shoulder while I struggled to reel in a trout, the rough play on the floor of the family room, how he would tousle my hair when he put me to bed.

“You remember that fish you caught up in Randle?” he asks me. I’m starting to wonder if my memories are that transparent or if, more likely, our thoughts are running along similar veins.

“It weighed seventeen pounds,” I answer. “I still have that picture; it’s on the wall of my office.”

He looks at me for a moment and I see a warmth in his eyes that I have not seen in twenty years, and maybe a hint of sadness. It makes me wonder, again, about the invitation to make this trip with him – and my eagerness to accept such a journey down a path littered with emotional and physical scars.

Maybe one of the things that I picked up from my daddy’s people, the mountain folk whose blood courses though my veins, is a sort of fatalism – the knowledge that things happen, that no one but God almighty can say why, and that it does no use to dwell on the acts of this mysterious, sometimes vengeful being. It is a stoicism of the simple folk, which makes me wonder if this trip means anything at all. Maybe the baggage I’ve carried over the last twenty years is a suspect gift from my mother’s side, and my father has been over this thing for a long time. Maybe.

The Ford is navigating a steeper stretch of rutted road and I anticipate a half-remembered level out. When we hit it, it is like the sky opening before us –like nothing else exists in the world except for the blue canopy and us. It strikes me almost the same as it did when I was young, even through the years of schooling that have worked so hard to teach me that God does not exist. It is romanticism of the worst kind and, despite the view, I laugh. My father’s kin would never have been affected by a view in this way; everything they did, everything they were, was bound up in nature in a way that people who rely on machinery and supply chains cannot fathom. To them, to my father, God is something else entirely – not a beauty-invoked catharsis, but a being to be respected and appeased and feared.

“What’s so funny?”

I allow the mirth to recede and meet his eyes.

“I guess I’m just nervous. It’s been a long time.”

We exit the truck and I feel the crisp air on my skin. It feels good in my lungs, free of the antiseptic odors of the hospital, the smell of subdivision fertilizer and the scent of cigars in my office. Beneath my feet the leaves crunch with a fierceness amplified by the silence of this remote place.
My father is at the back of the truck and he lowers the tailgate. He reaches beneath the canvas cover and pulls out two orange vests, two canteens and our jacketed guns. I unzip the bag and remove my Remington. This is the first my dad has seen of it and he admires it with a practiced eye.

“That an 870?” he says in a way that tells me he already knows the answer. I doubt there is a gun in existence that my father does not recognize.

“It is.” I like the gun, the way it feels in my hands, the slight recoil into my shoulder, the accuracy – even as I know that it is something that my father would never own. My father’s guns get used; by the end of a hunt, mud will coat the stock, the barrel might have another ding and the trigger will be imperceptibly worn by the caress of his finger. The 870 looks new, expensive – it’s all styling.

When he pulls his gun from its case I am not surprised to see that he is still using the Winchester Model 70. It is a classic firearm and carries with it the marks of a thousand expeditions. When I was younger, I watched him buy and sell any number of guns, never attaching any maudlin sentiment to any of them. Can it be a coincidence that this one that he has kept is the first that he let me shoot?

We don the orange vests and set off, my father taking the lead. I always walked behind him when I was young, following in his steps, mimicking the way he held his gun, how his head would turn as he watched the forest. In a few steps we are off the road and entering the cover of the trees, browning leaves crunching beneath our waterproof boots. There is a familiarity to this, even through the marked differences – the foremost being the length of my stride. The last time I hunted with my father I was only nine and had to work to keep up with his steps. Now I find myself slowing to match his gait, wondering if his step has slowed a bit over the years.

We pass a mile in comfortable silence, scanning the woods for movement, for hoof prints preserved in soft earth, for rut marks gouged in tree bark; this last is most important as it would signify the passage of a buck. Mockingbirds provide the only sound beyond our steps and the wind and I am lulled into a sense of peace that I can only get when I am hunting. When we break through into a clearing I instantly know the place, vivid even after two decades. I locate the tree stand on the other side of the empty space that covers maybe twenty yards. The wood has worn to gray beneath the assault of the elements. I shot my first and only buck from that stand, then dressed the carcass under my father’s patient tutelage.

If the sight means anything to the older man, he does not show it in his steady stride. He looks ready to pass through and out of the clearing, his path taking him due west, but all I remember past this spot is a steep drop off, something I doubt a goat would attempt to navigate. In a low voice I call after him.

“Dad, why don’t we try the tree stand?”

He stops and half turns to wait while I come alongside him. When I do, he nods and starts off again, an unspoken invitation to remain at his shoulder. The clearing and the tree stand disappear behind us; I wonder if my initials could have still been seen in one of the boards or if, like so many other things, time has erased its existence.

“I made a deal, you know.”

I look at my father but his eyes are on the path. When some time passes without an answer from me, he meets my gaze.

“When you and your mom were lying in that hospital, I made a deal.”

I am caught off guard by the statement, by this admission of something; the only thing that I can think to do is nod.

He goes quiet then and casts a practiced eye over the forest. For a while nothing passes between us but shared labor until, after several moments, each one of which I count to myself, he starts again.

“Do you know what it was like sitting next to her?”

As a doctor I have watched family gather in a terminal patient’s room, saying their goodbyes, making their peace with whomever they needed to. But no, I do not know what it’s like detached from clinical distance.

“I bet I argued with God for two days over your mom’s bed. I begged Him to let her live.” He snorts and shifts his gun to the other hand. “I know I cursed Him some.”

If my father is waiting for some sort of response from me, I am in no position to give it. I have never heard him talk like this and I am wholly unprepared to process it, much less answer. I think he knows because his pauses seem to be for his own sake, as if the words need to be said, regardless of whether or not I am here to bear witness to their speaking.

“I asked God to spare her because I couldn’t take the thought of living alone.”

He looks at me then, as if making sure that he has my attention, as if I could be focused on anything else but his face, his words.

“I guessed that He had to take one of you.”

He does not look away, even as he continues to walk; his eyes bore into mine with a weight of emotion of which I would not have imagined him capable. And then I am given clarity. I can see a man at his wife’s side, begging a God he can not understand to let her live, offering the life of his son in exchange. A deal that God rejected.

After he sees the knowledge take hold he looks away, his eyes red. I have never once seen my father cry, not even in the aftermath of my mother’s loss. It shakes me to see him like this – a tremor through the things I have held most solid.

Almost unnoticed, the forest ends and we come out of the trees to stand at the edge of a cliff. Below us are rocks and mountain sediment. And a view that rivals anything I have ever seen. Still, I can hardly look away from my father’s face.

He sets the butt of his Winchester on the rock and turns into the wind, his eyes closed as if the air offers some kind of absolution.

“Do you have any idea how it feels to offer something that important, only to see her die anyway?”

His eyes are still shut but I answer.

“I don’t, dad.”

He gives a smile that is filled with pain but does not acknowledge my admission. I, who have seen men and women fighting for their very lives, can see that my dad is engaged in something similar – some kind of silent war that I am incapable of understanding.

“I added myself to the deal, too,” he says finally. “I said I would give myself to God. Whatever that meant.”

I reach for him now, wrapping my hand around his arm, my fingers pressing into flesh that feels bony and thin.

“You wanted Him to take me and leave her. I would have done the same thing. I understand, dad.” I want to pull him away from the edge, to talk to him, to empty the vessel through this emotional sieve, to keep him from doing what I think he may have come here for.

He turns and grasps my shoulder in his large hand, holding it fiercely.

“You can’t understand, son; it took me twenty years to do that.” Love and sorrow fill his voice in equal measure. “After seeing the man you’ve become, I finally know that God made the right choice. He let my angel die but gave the world a man who heals – a man with so much to give.”

I am caught in this strange and beautiful moment, but also puzzled.

“Then why are we here, dad?”

With his hand still on my shoulder he looks out over the valley below, and there is something in his eyes that I have never seen: a brightness, a peace.

“Because I had to fulfill my end of the deal.”

Thursday, December 23, 2004

My Christmas Story - 2004

This stems directly from immersing myself too deeply in Dickens this Christmas. Still, I hope you enjoy. Lots more stories coming soon. Merry Christmas!

"Good Neighbors"

-- He's drunk, Agatha. Off his gourd.

-- Bide your tongue, Edwin. T'is Christmas Eve.

Edwin spoke nothing further. But neither did he move from the leaded window where he stood watch however, swabbing now and then at the gathering frost and steam with the soiled hem of his apron. The night was beastly cold and it pained him to see the old codger--all sinew and venom--bearing the chill to stare at that gargantuan door knocker as though it had spoken to him.

-- Edwin... the Rafferty top. C'mon now.

The chime at the church just around the corner chimed quarter to ten, and its mournful, frigid greeting seemed to rouse their "esteemed" neighbor. He unlocked the great door's bolts, swung the irons open, and disappeared into the dark. Edwin waited for the door to swing shut.

-- Edwin!

Clang. It did, but a second later than he'd have expected. Things round these parts worked like clockwork--Edwin counted on it--and tonight, everything, even the smallest bits were amiss. The footsteps, sure, were the same scraping up the cobbled path...but they'd come an hour later. And they'd been slow and tedious, not the precise and measured beat of heel upon stone. Then there'd been that interminable silence that had driven Edwin to the window in the first place. Why wasn't he opening the door? Sound resounded through their shared building like a rector's words through St. Paul's and Edwin had waited, waited for the sound of the keys to find the lock, but it'd only been silence. He'd had to see what was happening.

-- He's in now.

-- Well thankee for small mercies. Wouldn't want a corpse, icicles about the nose, to greet us Christmas morning. Never a way to ring the Yule. If we're not still working by the break of morning in the first place.

Edwin heard the sharpening of her tone and stepped from the window. Agatha put up with most of his "curiousities" as she called them--his counting and recounting of shillings and pence, the way he touched her cheek five times before sleeping, that he measured six times, cut once--but never would she allow it to linger too long. Especially when they had orders to fill.

Millinery is fine work. In all senses of the word, at least for Edwin Hanover. The retting and mulling and even that final leuring with a supple velvetine pad to polish the felt to a fine gloss…it all required patience, precision, and what most souls would think of only as mind-numbing repetition. Edwin Hanover found it the only place his hands seemed to do what they should instead of needing to brush that yet again or count this one more time. The living they earned rarely left them with a pudding to take out of the copper--barely a copper to put one in at all, in fact--but Agatha rarely complained and Edwin felt himself more blessed than any man he knew. He remembered what it'd been like before the work.

They had six hats to finish that evening for delivery as Christmas presents throughout the whole of London and were into their fourth--a square biretta--when Edwin's attention had been diverted the first time. Agatha's coaxing soon started him in again but only for a single toll of the clock before a bell chimed incessantly from the building's highest tower. Agatha glanced at him over the beaver pelt she was trimming with shears.

-- Steady on, Edwin.

He tried, he really did, to put his mind to the biretta--Reverend Blaxton needed it by the stroke of ten tomorrow--but his hands were already slowing at his lathe.

-- Who could be visiting? At this hour? This weather? And not sounding a single footstep up the street?

-- We'll have no Christmas, Eddie-love. At this rate, we're likely to have no New Year's either.

But the thirst--and that's what it always felt like to Edwin, a unslaked thirst--had fell on him and he paced the room to their shop door, placing an ear to the cold iron, and closing his eyes. His hands, he knew, were counting the bolts in the door, counting the bricks in the wall next to it. Next door, he swore he heard the echoing din of loud conversation.

-- I know that voice. I know that voice.

Agatha said nothing.

-- I just can't remember.

-- Love. Dearest.

-- Lands, it sounds as if all the wharfers of the Thames brought their shackles up their tonight. Do you hear that, Aggie?

-- Edwin.

He opened his eyes and looked at her.

-- Edwin, I don't hear a thing.

For a long moment they looked at each other. He knew she wanted him from the door. His hands kept searching it though. He couldn't step from it.

-- Just a minute more.

Agatha finished her trimming and set about lining the inside of a top-hat.

The voices, the rattling, it all continued--until it didn't. There was nothing but the hiss of damp wood in the stove behind them and the rasp of Agatha's breathing.

-- He's gone.

Edwin stepped from the door to his work again. His wife did not look up, but from the angle of her shoulders he knew she was glad it was over.

-- Did you ever place him?

-- Yes. But...

-- What?

-- Well, it couldn't be who I thought. He's gone seven years now.

Again they shared a look. And then to the hats.

The night, if possible, grew darker and colder. Fog seemed to fill the street like ash, not cloud, and all Edwin could see in the window now was his own poor reflection. His hair slicked in the middle, like his father's always was. Pins stuck about his collar for easy purchase. Razor scar above his chin. Nothing in the image stayed with him in the least, nothing brought the thirst, and so he returned to his work, his fingers finding extravagant exercise in its dance towards completion and soon the biretta was off his block and on to Agatha to finish. He tackled a homburg next. Their rolled brims always made him merry somehow.

And so it was with this hat, too, until the tolling of one.

-- Hear that?

Agatha said nothing. Only scuttled a chip or three of coal into the fire. The night was bound to get them yet.

Edwin, meanwhile, found the door again. Twenty-seven bolts. Sixteen bricks. Twenty-seven bolts. Sixteen bricks. This time though as he closed his eyes and strained himself toward the voices sifting down from above, he felt not thirst but aching longing.

A single shimmering memory came to him, as though raised from silver and acetone, and he saw himself, a boy of twelve, staring up at his mother and the local vicar as they said prayers over him. His wrists were bound and tied to the ends of a pallet and each hand was raw, oozing, and scalded nearly beyond repair. Back then nothing but burning took the thirst away no matter how many incantations were spoken over him, how many commands were given for demons he couldn't loose to spring from his body. They never did and the thirst seemed insatiable.

In the night, the sound of shutters being flung open roused Edwin, and within the passing of a second he was back.

-- Love?

Edwin found he had no breath. He coughed. Coughed again and finally took in air.

-- You're giving me a start, Edwin. It's like you heard a ghost.

-- Just a memory. Though they're a ghost of a kind, I suppose. I hadn't thought of it in years.

-- Take your dinner, dearest. It'll warm you and I know the cold is never good for your hands.

Edwin ate, but quick. Two eggs, hard-boiled. Cold ham. Two drafts of tea. The homburg waited and when he finally returned to it, it took him nearly the rest of the hour to finish. Ms. Graveston's toque was next.

This time, though, he never even started it

A chill swept at his stockinged ankles. His hands throbbed once more, as though remembering, and then went still and numb. Edwin looked at his wife. She was sewing a hood of quarter-wool to sell at the market on Tuesday to the grocer's wives and baker's daughters who wanted the look of a lady but had not the shillings to offer for it. From deep on the other side of the door, filtered the sound of a new voice. He whistled for his wife.

-- Aggie?

The look she returned him reminded him of a childhood's worth of glances from his mother. The worry and fear and anger and desperation all mingled about the brow, flickering like starlight on water.

-- You really don't hear it at all, then?

-- Edwin Hanover, you've always had an ear and eye for things the rest of us can't be bothered with. It's just that we're so very busy this evening and, if you could work on the toque.

He glanced at the door.

-- But, no. Go have a listen. I know ye won't be any good without it. I hope it's quick as last time.

And it was. Again. Twenty-seven bolts. Sixteen bricks.

This time when his fingers stilled he heard and saw not his childhood but himself as he lived and breathed that very day. Or it seemed to be that very day. He was in front of a baker's apparently waiting for Agatha to drop off their goose for that evening's dinner. One hand was jammed in his pocket sorting coins but the other was out, twirling and fingering a chain of gleaming platinum with a locket on it. Edwin had never seen the locket before but when Agatha came from the baker, he watched himself slip it into his vest pocket in a blink and catch his wife's fingers with his newly freed hand.

One-hundred-seventy-five-links on the chain, he said to himself.

-- What chain, love?

And again, his eyes were open, his hands on the door, and his wife looking at him with peculiar distrust. This time though he had no need for air.

-- Just thinking of a bit of jewelry, a shiny bauble I thought you might like, Aggie.

She snorted. Without contempt, but making her point as clear as though she said, And will we be starving to be buy me finery, then?

Edwin put his head down, thought no more of the chain and worked on the toque. It went quickly, as any brimless hat will for a skilled milliner, and soon Edwin finished and set to work on the last, a codwool smoking cap Lady Marlsbury ordered for her husband so that, as the tart-tongued woman put it, "the old goat would stop coming home smelling of colony smoke and weed." He was making fine progress, too, until, at the stroke of three, Edwin felt the nape of his neck go cold and heard the snap of a gas lamp going off down the street. All the air seemed infected with dread and even Agatha shivered.

-- Even I don't hear a thing this time.

But still he moved to the great door. His fingers stayed by his side, leaving the bolts and the bricks to worry themselves.

He could hardly bear to see what might come...but come it did.

And it was sad and wonderful and terrifying and gorgeous all at once. In a flash he saw himself, hands stilled like they'd never been before and the black lace of a veil his wife would soon be putting on. He saw the others coming into the room, others he did not know yet. Two men and a woman who looked both like him and yet not. And children who were the only ones that dared to approach the bed, to touch his still hands. He saw a neat hole in warm grass and thought, despite how much he hated dirt, that it might not be a bad place after all. And then, only for an instant, he saw light, light, light, LIGHT, and a steady, sure hand that took his own and, somehow, without words, said that here, there would be no unslaked thirst.

It disappeared in the gonging of a bell and when he next knew the world the hand that held his own was Agatha's.

-- I finished the smoking hat in time. Lady Marlsbury, I'm sure will never see one finer.

-- What's the hour?

-- On seven now.

-- I saw...

-- You slept. Poor thing. But never so well, I wonder. And on a stone floor. Perhaps that's the answer. If this be the case, I'll take the bedtick to myself and leave you the hearth.

-- Aggie.

-- Love. Christmas, Love. Merry Christmas.

From above, scuffling and shouting and windows thrown open. Even Agatha looked.

-- That, I hear. It's the old man. Is he calling out 'Merry Christmas' and not 'Humbug'? Perhaps he still is drunk?

-- Not a lick, I doubt.

-- Do you want to go see what the fuss is about?

-- Aye. And I think the old man may very well even have something for us this morning.

-- For us?

-- For being good tenants. Quiet tenants who mind our own business and let others get on with their own lives and stories.

-- Not bloody likely.

-- Then perhaps to just say 'Merry Christmas.'

Agatha squinted. Hard.

-- Edwin Hanover. Are you priming me for a surprise?

-- Very likely, Aggie. Quite likely indeed.

The end.