Zona woke up on the couch in the living room, an afghan draped over her. Her shoes were lying by the armrest, but otherwise she was in the same clothes as the day before. Bright gray light shone through the sliding doors. Pasha was curled up between her ankles, snoring quietly.
There was clanking in the kitchen. She glanced at the ceramic winter-scene village warily: it seemed motionless. Slowly she slipped her legs off the cushions, tugged the blanket aside (Pasha complained, yawned, rolled to her other side and returned to slumber), then trip-danced sideways to the kitchen.
Her mother was dolloping batter onto an electric skillet, but at the creaking floorboard behind her, spun around and caught Zona’s face in her palms. “Zona! Are you okay? Heavenly days, what happened to you? Are you feeling all right? Your father found you on the floor! Was it jet lag?” She narrowed her eyes. “Did you dip into the liquor cabinet?”
Zona swatted her mother’s hand, checking her forehead’s temperature. “I’m fine, Mom, really. I just…” There was no possible way she could ask her mother about the village. She had, however, better-than-average poker face. “Yeah, jet lag, I guess. The last thing I remember, I was staring at the village all lit up like that, and it brought back so many memories.” She smiled with expert sheepishness.
Her mom melted and embraced her, clucking over her sweet, nostalgic daughter. “You go get cleaned up. Silver dollar pancakes will be ready in ten minutes.”
She showered, pulled on a fuzzy sweater and black leggings, and had breakfast with her parents. Silver dollar pancakes were another throwback to shared history: they were one of her grandmother’s signature dishes, that and homemade apple pie with a slice of cheddar. Very old-school. All of Zona’s concerns about being inundated with adulthood melted away with the hot breakfast from her past. She tried swinging her legs, like she did as a child when her happiness was too much to contain, but she only banged her slippers against the solid oak table legs.
“We’re going to the grocery store,” her mother told her, as her father wiped his mouth and toddled around the table. “Then we’ve got some quilts to drop off at the church, and I’m going to go visit Dolores, from bridge club. She’s doing poorly, but her son’s visiting. He’s a pilot in New Hampshire.” On and on she went, rattling off facts and trivia. Zona could see the footnotes building up beneath her mother’s chin. “Just a bunch of old-people errands.” She laughed and patted her daughter’s arm. “You feel like tagging along with us?”
“Oh, don’t make the poor girl,” her father called from the hallway. Zona’s hero.
The house was especially quiet once her parents had gone out, pulling their old Bonneville out of the driveway and growling up the avenue. Zona sat in the silence, palms pressed against a quilted gingham placemat. There was a clock ticking somewhere: the Bavarian cuckoo clock she grew up with. The automatic coffee maker ticked off and shut down. The toilet upstairs refilled its cistern, drained from a slow leak.
Looking out the window, she saw a powder-blue-haired, pear-shaped woman walking a little dachshund in a tartan vest. At what point in your life do your aesthetics shift and you start doing stuff like that, she wondered, for a whole second.
She could feel the living room throbbing with significance behind her.
Zona sighed, rinsed her dishes, put them in the dishwasher, and went to confront the Victorian village. She padded in quietly to the living room. Someone had shut off the tree and the village, each running off separate power strips. Behind the tree the cuckoo clock ticked. Pasha was still curled up on the couch; abruptly, she scooped the cat up in the afghan, with minimal protest, and hustled her upstairs to her parents’s bed, closing the door behind her.
Why would I do that? She stood in the empty living room, staring at the darkened, quiet ceramic buildings. This was just a dream. I was just dreaming.
And to prove it, she knelt before the haberdasher’s and the milliner’s, leaning over the gazebo in the center of town, and clicked on the village’s power strip.
“Alby! She’s back!” Boursiquette charged up the stairs to her older brother’s room and found him sitting up, their parents at his bedside. They all looked up at the girl.
“Who’s back?” asked her father.
“The woman in the sky!”
“Well, what’s she want?”
“To talk to him!” Her pale arm shot like an arrow at Albinus. “Asked for him by name!”
Albinus jerked with shock. “What’s she want with me?”
His father glared at him with beetling brow. “Yes, what does she want with you, Albinus Defiance?” His mother timidly rested a hand on her husband’s bicep.
Albinus was about to deny any reasonable guesses, when his sister blurted, “Just get downstairs! She’s huge!” and ran out of the room. He looked at his clothes, hanging up over furniture and dripping with melting snow. Snorting, he pulled another outfit from the armoire and denied his father’s questions, hounding him down the staircase.
“I’m sure I know as little as anyone else, what’s goin’ on!” he yelled up at his parents. “But I’m bound to figure this out and alleviate everyone’s concern, all right?” With that, he hopped back out into the snowy, slushy lane. On the edge of a large crowd in the center of town, Boursiquette was waving her hands up at the sky and pointing at him, so he too looked up.
Hovering over the city was a woman’s face, a human woman’s face the size of several large buildings in town. It didn’t block out the entire sky, but it emerged from it the way an actor pokes his head from between curtains to peek at the audience. Except this woman was peeking down, pointing downward, looming over the town like an actual goddess.
A low ceiling of clouds drifted just below her cheekbones and around her nose. Her eyes were wide and alert, flicking back and forth slightly as though picking out all the details of Pucklechurch.
His sister’s tiny fist punched him in the hip. “Go on, say something! She’s been asking for you!”
He blinked at Boursiquette, then gaped up at the woman in the sky. “Uh, hello, up there,” he called out. A murmur ran through the crowd.
“You’re Albinus Defiance Taylor, the baker,” the huge woman said slowly. The tone of her voice was soft but its volume resonated through the village. “You make cookies.” Her eyes twitched. “You’re Atheling Morgan Manning, the editor of the Pucklechurch Gazette.”
Reflexively, Atheling called up, “Editor-in-Chief, but yes.” The crowd tittered and he blushed.
“And that’s Juverna Rose, your daughter?” He affirmed it was. “And there, behind you, Bigland Bowler Bentley, the best beef butcher in Britain!”
The stout man in question blinked in surprise, then nodded and repeated it to himself, commenting, “Huh. I quite like that.”
“Albinus Defiance, that’s…” The huge woman squinted. “Boursiquette, your sister.”
The young woman spun on her heel and beamed proudly at the crowd. Albinus yelled up, “But how do you know all this? Are you some kind of angel?”
The huge woman’s face went pinkish in the cheekbones, and long, slender fingers appeared from nowhere to gracefully cover her mouth for a moment. “No, I’m not! Please don’t think that. I mean, I’m not a devil either.” The crowd gasped and shifted restlessly. The thought hadn’t occurred to them. “I’m just a regular woman! Are you… real people?”
Albinus gawked at her. The mayor of the town stepped from the crowd and leveled a finger up at the tremendous visage. “We’re all quite real, I assure you! What you are is a question of which we are still uncertain!” The crowd murmured approval. “Who are you, what are you, and what is it you wish of the good people of Pucklechurch?”
It hadn’t dawned on Albinus how lovely the woman was until her face darkened, as it did now, taking some of the loveliness away and replacing it with threat. “I made you up. I made you all up.” Her huge eyes rolled around the perimeter of the village. “This isn’t real, there’s no Pucklechurch. This is just a story I told my folks last night. Pucklechurch’s a ridiculous name for a town.”
The crowd had no idea what to make of this. The mayor huffed and snorted. Butchers, bakers, candlestick makers all looked at each other in confusion, until Albinus called up once more. “What exactly do you think you’re looking at, great lady?”
Some of the darkness left the woman’s countenance. “This is a Christmas village,” she said carefully. “I put it together last night. I do it every year.”
Albinus looked at the mayor, who only nodded back and gestured for him to continue. “If you don’t mind, great lady… what’s a Christmas village?”
Zona watched the little people go about their business. It was remarkable to see their little legs working, carrying them along, their little arms holding packages and working eensy-weensy little tools. She could hear the little doors opening and closing, and the creak and rattle of wooden horse carts hauling supplies and containers back and forth. When she really leaned in she could begin to feel a cool breeze run across her features, though the proximity of her chin and nose to the rooftops tended to worry the townspeople so she kept a respectful distance.
Her chin was parked in her palms once more, and her eyes glittered to watch the never-ending activity of the small English town. Through the meticulous inquiry of Albinus Defiance, the town’s ad hoc ambassador, she slowly came to realize that she was somehow peeking into a moment in the past. Though it didn’t make any sense, her arrangement of the ceramic buildings resembled the layout of their village down to the last fence post. Actually, a number of elements had to come into play: if she hadn’t fallen upon this particular setup, if her father hadn’t put so much effort and skill into rendering these houses and businesses, if her mother hadn’t labored to collect every single building and collectible item, the whole family pulling together to obtain Albinus’s bakery, none of this could have happened. And now she had to wonder whether something was guiding her hands when she placed the houses, whether something was putting those ludicrous names in her head when she spun that story to her parents over cocoa.
It didn’t make any sense, but it was happening. The townsfolk, now quite used to the miracle of the enormous hovering woman, went about their business, and Mr. and Mrs. Taylor took over the bakery to allow their son to continue his incredible conversation.
The handsome little man sat on a wooden bench, procured for him by the butcher. Zona smiled at him, enchanted by the detail on his little jacket and overcoat, the amazing range of expressions he went through during their chat. He liked to smile, and he had a cute smile. Was that just because it was so small? It took all her willpower not to thrust her face right into the buildings and just drink in all the amazing detail with her huge eyes.
“What are you studying in college, Zona?” Albinus leaned on one arm.
“I’m majoring in creative writing, actually.”
“You’re a pretty good storyteller, to have created all this.” He looked around his town, leaning back against each turn of his head, as though taking it all in for the first time. “It’s quite convincing. I’ve totally bought into it.”
She laughed, covering her mouth. The apparent fragility of the little buildings brought out a protective instinct in her: she kept her distance, she never raised her voice, and she tried to deflect her laughter. But Albinus made her laugh a lot, so that was a constant concern.
A young woman came out in a broad white and blue dress, a furry shawl wrapped around her shoulders. “I thought you might like some lunch,” she told Albinus quietly, though Zona had no problem hearing her. She passed a cloth-wrapped parcel to him and he thanked her brightly.
“That’s Disraelina Sykes! Hi, Disraelina-from-the-cheese-shop!” Zona grinned and waggled her fingertips beside her cheek. The young woman shrank back, glancing up darkly at Zona before ducking out of the street again. “I think she likes you,” Zona stage-whispered at her little friend.
Albinus laughed. “No, it’s merely my turn. Ninian Slight Pugh broke up with her last week, so she believes herself to be down to the bottom of the barrel, if she’s making time with me.” He grinned sadly at the cheese shop and began to open the parcel, an impressive ploughman’s lunch.
Zona raised her eyebrows. “That’s an awful lot of beef and cheddar for someone who’s supposed to be low on the pecking order.”
Albinus shrugged and tore open some dense country bread. “Desperate times, I suppose. So, where’d you go last night?”
“What do you mean?”
“You appeared over our village for a moment. Do you remember that?”
She nodded. “That was the first time I saw you guys moving. It surprised me, I wasn’t expecting that. Sorry if I scared anyone.”
“So you see us walking around all the time? Did that happen as soon as you put all your model buildings into place?”
“No, it’s like−” She heard the tinkle of glass and looked up. “Oh no, Pasha!” The cat had come downstairs, probably in search of her dinner, and sneaked up silently beside Zona, absently brushing against an ornament on the tree. “Hold on, Alby!”
She twisted and caught the old cat under her armpits, then ran stomping off to the kitchen to pour her a bowl of kibble and refresh her water. When she returned, the town was motionless once more. She stood in front of it, peering around the corners of the little buildings, poking at the post office with her big toe. “Alby? Disraelina? Mayor Vaughan?”
But the little ceramic statuettes held their position. Her pinky toe accidentally knocked over a pair of ice skaters. When she jerked away from them, her heel toppled a pine tree and a section of picket fence, snapping it in half. She gasped and scrambled to replace the skaters, bringing the fence to the kitchen for a dot of wood glue. “Oh geez, oh geez,” she hissed throughout the process. Were the skaters okay in real life? Well, their real life…
Gingerly she set the fence down in the fluffy, glittery snow, guessing at the indentations the posts and joints had made. “Stupid cat,” she muttered, then cleared her throat and knelt before the little village once more, lowering her head into the town square, her long hair draping over the church and a bed-and-breakfast.
“Alby?” Her eyes were wide open, seeking out any detail. The buildings were all in place but there was no model of a wooden bench or a young man on it, in the main boulevard. “Albinus, are you there?”
The street remained fluffy and dark, with glowing squares of colored light splayed across it from the model windows. Ambient light from the sliding glass doors only cast dimly across the town.
Zona’s heart lurched. This wasn’t fair! What kind of world would give her this kind of magic, and then just take it away at random? “Albinus, come on… come back.” She placed her palms on the outskirts of the town and leaned forward. Her face glided over the Victorian village like a drone, her watering eyes picking out every alleyway, every open door and window, every rolling hill of sparkly fluff. And then she went over it all twice.
She began to feel grief, and almost immediately to laugh at herself for it. Grief, for what? For this mystical little village? How could she explain this to anyone? Who in the world would ever understand?
And was it real? Was she seriously talking to tiny people living in the ceramic Victorian Christmas village she set up every year since childhood? Zona sat on her heels and let her head hang back, breathing deeply. This was insane, it was all insane. How long had she been doing this?
The cuckoo clock said that her parents had been out running errands for two hours. Was that right? She looked distraught over the tiny houses, feeling the tears build up. “Albinus…”
Pasha came padding around the corner, her huge yellow eyes guileless and earnest. “Fucking cat!” Zona picked up a nearby slipper and threw it at the cat but missed wide. Pasha serenely watched the foot gear sail through the air. Furious, Zona looked around for something to grab. She reached for one of the pine trees.
She had been about to choose the tree lying on its side, the one she’d knocked over with her big, clumsy foot. The one thing that was out of place.
Holding her breath, Zona very carefully freed the bristly pine tree from the sparkly snow-fluff, then set its base where it looked like it had stood before. She gave it a little twist, to help it stand firmly, and she pulled her hand slowly away. Wiping the tracks of her tears on her sleeve, she once again planted her hands on the outskirts of town and lowered her head into communion with Pucklechurch.
“There you are!” Albinus grinned up at her, in the middle of his day-lit street. Another young woman was sitting on the bench with him. At Zona’s relieved cry of “oh my God!”, the woman looked up, yelped, and scurried off into the stationery shop. Albinus made a half-hearted gesture after her, but then only laughed and waved up at Zona. She couldn’t stand how cute his tiny gloved hand looked, his scrawny wrist sticking out of that dense wool coat sleeve.
“Wondered where you went,” the little man said placidly. Most of his lunch was finished: he was peeling a minuscule boiled egg, it looked like.
“I’m sorry,” said Zona, swallowing her sobbing. “I was interrupted. Things going on in my world, you know. But I fixed it! I’m back.” She wanted to reach down, scoop the little man up, and… what? The instinct surprised her. Press him against her cheek? Smother him in kisses? Pop him into her mouth? What in the world could she do with a tiny little man?
One thought flooded into her mind, unbidden and unprecedented, and her cheeks burned.
Albinus only looked up at her quizzically. “Everything all right up there, Zona, my goddess?”
Her eyes flew wide open. It felt like a bolt of energy shot down her spine when he said that. Why would he say that? Gasping, she strove to change the subject. “Was that−” She choked and cleared her throat. “Was that Pleasant Ann, from the letter shop? Inks, papers, envelopes, um…” I’m babbling. Why am I babbling?
“It amazes me how you know everyone’s names. Yes, Miss Harris came out to console me while you were away.”
“I bet she did. Is she also making time with you?”
The tiny man laughed. “She’s only interested in me because Disraelina’s interested in me.”
Zona covered up her mouth to laugh, and they squeezed in another hour of conversation before the jingling keys at the front door announced the return of her parents. Reluctantly, Zona explained to her little friend how she had to go, but she’d be back as soon as she could. He entirely understood and wished her well, very much looking forward to the next time they could chat.
She greeted her parents, who wanted to know why she was so flushed and excitable. She helped them unpack groceries and put them away, and she rigorously asked them about their day. Her mother was surprised but pleased at her intense engagement, taking the opportunity to talk at great length about their social calls and whatnot. Her father only smiled but kept glancing up at his daughter with a question in his eye.
Later, Zona took several pictures of the precise arrangement of Pucklechurch’s buildings, trees, and miscellaneous props, then walled the little town off with shoes and slippers and STAY AWAY signs on notebook paper.