“I’m so glad you could visit us for the weekend, Zona!” Her mother clanked around in the kitchen, digging for a muffin tray. “It’s nice enough that you call every week—such a lovely girl!—but it’s just not the same without you around here.”
Zona finished petting their cat, Pasha, and moved to the doorway of the kitchen. “I miss you guys too. I just got lucky, getting all my finals done in the first three days. More time to spend at home!” She grinned, hugged her mother from behind, and started rooting around in the fridge.
Her mother batted at her forearms with a wooden spoon. “Snacking, snacking, snacking! I bet you’re just eating because you’re bored.” Very little escaped her mother’s sharp eyes and years of experience. “If you’re looking for something to do, why don’t you help your father?”
“What, splitting wood?” She barked a laugh and snatched at some string cheese before her mother could object. “I’m all for gender equity, but that’s man’s work. Always will be.”
Scooping out a cup of flour, her mother sighed and asked her daughter for some eggs. “You could get to the decorations, you know. Still plenty left to do there.”
“Dad and I finished the tree last night. There’s nothing to do.”
Her mom cast one skeptical eye over her shoulder. “Nothing? There’s an awfully large bald spot under the tree, still.”
Zona’s face lit up. She yelped and rushed out to the garage, her mother yelling at her back, “The ladder’s on the right now, behind the fridge! Look in the loft over the rocking chair!” In a minute, the young woman danced back into the warmth of the kitchen, hauling a large brown moving box, many times retaped on top and relabeled on the sides. She rested her head briefly on her mother’s shoulder with a sing-songy but entirely sincere “thank you” and hustled as best she could back into the living room.
In this box was her parents’s Victorian Christmas Village collection. Over the course of Zona’s childhood, her mother hounded their local convenience store for the latest release of each ceramic replica building, and her father meticulously painted and decorated each one by hand. Twenty-four buildings in all, the last ones being the hardest to obtain as the collection grew in popularity, cherished by collectors. In fact, the final house—the cookie and pastry bakery—was sold out before her mother could pick it up, despite being on the waiting list and a loyal customer for over two decades. The store owner had passed away with no family to hand management over to, and the new owner had big ideas about correcting all the mistakes and short-sightedness of the previous administration, so Zona’s mother lost her place in line. Zona and her father pooled their funds, however, and only barely made the top bid on an online market to attain the final building to the village. Years later, her mother still broke out into tears every time she told this story.
The culmination of family effort, this Victorian Christmas Village was Zona’s absolute fixation, something she looked forward to more than presents and candy, nearly anything. Her job, once she was old enough, was to arrange the village under the tree, setting it all up on the cotton batting and fluffy synthetic snow, raising them in tiers with the storage boxes, fixing the colored lights that locked in the back of each structure. She took tremendous pride in this, taking a basic electronics course to repair the vintage cords and sockets that came with the houses.
Her arrangement was different every year, but there was always a logic to it. The grain mill and the train depot always had to go on the outside of town; the fire station had to be near the center, along with Town Hall and the post office. After that, the skating pond could go anywhere; the perfumerie, tea shop, chocolatier, and stationery store were interchangeable. And certain buildings always had to have certain lights: the apothecary had to be blue or green, the colors of chemicals and science, the barn was always yellow and the government buildings could take frosted white bulbs, but anything to do with baking or fireplaces had to have the warm orange or red bulbs. Zona was quite rigid on this: no one would want a nice loaf of bostock from a green-lit bakery. And if the barn were glowing red, why, people might think it was on fire.
Along with the lights, Zona also drew up a story in her head with each arrangement. New relationships were formed with buildings beside each other, businesses sharing a block or separated by avenues. And when the buildings were in place, she unwrapped the peripheral figurines, the extras that came out once in a while. There was the drunk wrapped around a light post, the young child selling newspapers, the mother and daughter out wind0w-shopping with their hands buried in plush and fuzzy muffs, the various couples out for an evening of ice skating, the draft horses pulling a wagon heavily laden with barrels. Then came the oddly curvy mirror that served as the frozen pond, the bristly pine trees, the fragile white picket fencing that required repair every year. All of these had to be nestled in the glittery fake snow that billowed around the houses and shops.
Her family always admired her handiwork. Each Christmas Eve, they’d shut off the TV, put on some music, boil up some cocoa, and Zona’s parents would listen to her recitation of the saga and drama of each year’s village. This was their tradition, and it meant the world to Zona.
“Oh, you’re already at work on the village!” Her father stomped his boots on the back porch, calling in through the sliding glass doors. “I won’t bother you, then, I’ll go around the front. I know you need all your concentration for this.” He winked at her and she blew him a kiss, looking for the perfect place for the raccoons in the trash bins.
One-hundred-and-seventy-something years earlier, in the large and prosperous town of Pucklechurch, a young man named Albinus Defiance Taylor bade his parents a good day and stepped out into a plush and snowy winter street. The morning sun shone boldly on the drifts, blinding him slightly, and he grinned into this, picking his way steadily up the boulevard.
“Good morning, Disraelina,” he called out to the pretty maid in the cheese shop. She hopped on her toes and waved back.
He doffed his coachman’s hat to Pleasant Ann Harris, unlocking the door to her stationery store. She simpered modestly, unable to find the words.
He clapped an old man in black on the shoulder. “Best to you, Parson. Got’cher sermon written up for tomorrow?”
Parson Brown chuckled around his pipe. “Two more revisions tonight, and then surely I’ll have the last of the fence-sitters firmly in our camp.”
“Steady as she goes, Parson!” He trotted out of the way of the brewery horses, scared off two bold raccoons from a trash bin, and opened up his family’s cookie and pastry bakery for business. The ovens were cold but would be up and running in an hour, and then his section of the village would smell like magic.
There was a yelp behind him, and a man’s voice muttered, “What on earth…”
One foot in the door, young Albinus Defiance turned to see the editor-in-chief of the Gazette and his daughter standing in the middle of the street, gaping up at the sky. Following their gaze, he squinted up near the bold sun, only catching a fleeting glimpse of a vague shadow passing over its countenance.
It could not be what it looked like, because for a second, he thought it looked like a thumb and a forefinger, sliding across the sky. It was gone now, and there was no trace of anything having been up there, but he nonetheless invited the girl and her father inside the bakery for a day-old gingerbread man, on the house, and a little conversation.
“…And there isn’t a lot of news to share, on a daily basis,” Zona said, staring at the glowing lights of the village, “but the entire town subscribes to his paper out of friendliness and loyalty.”
“He should give some of the children in town a chance to get published,” her mother said.
Zona grinned. “He does. Around each holiday, he invites the students of Pucklechurch Elementary to write an essay about what the holiday means to them, or else a short creative work. The whole town looks forward to seeing what their own children produce.” She looked down at her cocoa. It was slightly above room temperature. The marshmallows had dissolved into a quilt of white sugary foam across the surface.
Her father chuckled to himself. Her mother clucked her tongue and said, “I don’t know how you come up with this stuff, Zona. You really have a talent. Some kind of gift.”
“That’s what I’m going to school for,” she chirped, slurping down her cocoa.
Her parents hauled themselves laboriously off the couch, grunting and moaning, then toddled off to the kitchen with their dishes. Zona watched them waddling down the carpeted hallway. None of us are getting any younger, she thought. Though her parents still called her “little girl” and “young ‘un,” something about the college experience smacked her in the face with impending adulthood, and she noted nervously how quickly time began to sift away. Was she only one semester away from her bachelor’s? Really?
“We’re gonna call it a night,” her father rumbled. “You need anything, punkin?”
Zona grinned at the big old man. “I’m good, thanks. I’m all unpacked in my room. I’m going to stay up a bit.”
“Why don’t you go unpack your stuff, dear?” her mother called out from the kitchen. “Your room’s just the way you left it. Don’t mind my sewing supplies in the corner, I’m making some quilts for a church raffle.”
Zona and her father rolled their eyes and grinned at each other. She swirled the last of her cocoa to get all the murky, chocolately, sludgy goodness out of the bottom, and tossed it back in a satisfied gulp. Was her mom making cookies? She smelled cookies. Shrugging, she listened to the floorboards creaking systematically upstairs, tracking her folks’s progress: taking turns in the bathroom, then nestling down in the bedroom. She grinned and slid off the couch to examine her handiwork.
Her parents had been impressed, like they were every year, with the attention she paid to every detail of the village. Where’d she come up with the name, they wanted to know; it just came to her, she insisted, as did the same of all the store owners and citizens of Pucklechurch. Was there even a real Pucklechurch? She’d have to look it up later. As for now, she slithered on her belly right up to the edge of the cotton batting, propped her elbows and rested her chin in her palms, grinning lazily at all the little houses. No one in her family suspected her father had such talent in painting until he did the first one, a moderately wealthy Victorian home. He painted in the shading under all the trim, the faults in the siding, a light dusting of glitter on every snowdrift, always in the same direction to suggest a wind pattern…
Zona’s eyes shot to the side, where she saw some movement. Did she knock a tree over? Did she tug at the batting and upend the man reading the Gazette on a bench? No, everything seemed to be in place.
But the man on the bench closed the newspaper, turned a page, and opened it again.
Her eyes swept over the village. The skaters on the lake were gliding in very slow circles, elbows laced, rosy cheeks pulled in huge grins. A little boy carefully picked his way up a snowy street, his arms laden with kindling, a little brown Scottie dog nipping at his boots. A middle-aged man with a push-broom mustache climbed a little ladder and extinguished the oil lantern on a street pole. The buildings glowed with interior light, but the street itself seemed brilliant with daylight.
Two little people gaped up at her with round little eyes, a man and a young woman. Behind them, a young man froze in a doorway, staring up at her, and hustled the people inside.
Zona cried out, arms flailing, jerking herself backward. She collided with an ottoman and sprawled on her butt. Her heels skidded over the carpet as she tried to push away from the Victorian Christmas Village, ceasing only once she realized the couch behind her would not budge an inch.
“Everything okay down there?” Her mother’s voice was surprisingly alert, as it bounced down the upstairs hall.
Bug-eyed, heart pounding, Zona took a moment to control her breathing before calling back up that everything was fine. “Just, uh… almost dropped a dish.”
“Quit your snacking down there,” her mother concluded tiredly.
She stared at the village from halfway across the living room. The daylight was gone, the streets were dark, and all the little figurines were motionless. Her huge pupils picked out all the details: yes, everything was exactly where she placed it. No skating, no rumbling carts, no dogs barking.
But when she crept back toward the village, on hands and knees, holding her breath… when her face glowed in the colored lights and her hair spooled down to the roofs of the houses… the snow began to glow with sunshine, and the people began to move.
Away. The minuscule people rendered in painstaking detail began to move away from her head, where it hovered over their town.
Zona brushed a lock of her hair behind her ear and quietly said, “Hello?”
There was a collective gasp among the townsfolk. The young man who sheltered the two people from before stepped out of his bakery. His eyes were huge and serious, and he stepped around the crowd, almost walking right up to Zona, right below her chin.
“Who are you and what do you want?” he called up to her. His voice rang out clearly and echoed off the little houses.
She blinked, and blinked again. She whispered, “…Albinus?”
The crowd gasped. The tiny little man took a step back. “What did you say?”
“Albinus Defiance Taylor?” Her mouth was suddenly dry, so she licked her lips.
The tiny little man opened and closed his jaw a couple times before fainting dead away in the middle of the snowy lane.
Zona took her cue from him and gracefully slumped to the side—not upon the exquisitely rendered buildings—as she passed out.