“You’re awfully precious about that little village, Zona,” her mother said over coffee.
The coffee percolator, like the silver dollar pancakes, came from Zona’s grandmother. Why throw out an appliance that still worked, her mother said. And while it was fun to watch the water burble up through the clear glass knob on the lid, college life had shown Zona what good coffee could taste like. So for two weeks of holiday break she suffered quietly over cups of bad coffee, listening to her mother’s subtle criticism.
She shrugged. “I just think I did a really good job this year, is all.”
“Is that wall of shoes really necessary?”
“I’ll take it down if everyone remembers to not futz around with my arrangement.”
“Usually we let Pasha go where she likes.” A cup clattered tentatively into a saucer. “She’s getting on in years, you know, and we have to make concessions. We just don’t know how much time she has left.” Her mother looked out the window pointedly. “I suppose we never know how much time anyone has left.”
Zona looked into her coffee and bit her bottom lip. She hated these emotional digs, when her mother was fishing for attention. Yesterday she let her father teach her how to split wood and asked him whether she needed much more attention lately.
“She’s plenty capable,” he said, adjusting his hunter’s cap. “She can drive and see clearly enough. Can’t seem to remember where she’s set down that ol’ smartphone of hers.” He grinned at her.
Zona lined up the ax atop a standing piece of wood, drew back, and sheared off a nice piece of kindling. “I mean, do you think she’s becoming needier or anything? Does she, I dunno, cling to you more, these days?”
“I don’t know about that. She’s sadder, sure, we’ve lost two friends in the last eight months. But we’re getting to that age, I guess.”
She felt a chill spread through her chest. She hadn’t heard about this, or if she had, she’d pushed it out of her head to make room for her studies. “I’m so sorry, Daddy, I didn’t realize.”
He shrugged. “Or it’s just that ol’, you know… empty-nester syndrome or whatever they call it. She misses you.”
“I call every weekend. That’s more than anyone I know.” She paused. “People think I’m weird, actually.” She held her breath and split the wood perfectly down the middle: it cried out with starchy protest in the crisp winter air.
“You’re very good about that. I know some kids take college as the opportunity to get away from their folks, once and for all.” He bent to collect the wood and set up another log for her. “It just, you know, ain’t the same as havin’ a warm body around.” He gripped her shoulder briefly. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out, once you have a daughter of your own.”
Silently Zona counted the buttons down his flannel jacket, looked at his boots, looked at hers, then looked up at their house. A line of several geese flew overhead, honking encouragement at each other.
“Don’t reckon as it’s my fault if she comes back,” Albinus muttered, pulling a rack of tea cookies from the large oven. He tested them with a toothpick. “I’m a man of limited means as it stands: it’s quite a bit beyond my ambit to dictate the comings and goings of a woman large enough to kick over Town Hall.”
“Look at me when I’m speaking to you, boy,” his father intoned. But Albinus continued to swap out racks of dough with racks of cookies to cool, accenting his actions with an extra rattle or a loud slam, until his father seized his shoulder and spun him around. A metal tray struck the tile floor, sending dough balls across the room.
“That was two dozen rose lavender!” Albinus glared up into his father’s face. “Adgith Blandina Vaughn’s waiting on those! The mayor’s having−”
The taller, older man backhanded his son’s cheek. Albinus caught himself against the edge of a table. “Next time she comes—if she comes—you tell her to go away. You hear?” His father sidled up to him and leaned down into his face. “You have some pull with her. I don’t know what that’s about and I don’t want to know. This town has a certain order to it.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. “There’s no call for this … this weirdness, whatever in blazes is going on. It’s unseemly. Now, I’m handing this shop down to you, just as my father bequeathed it unto me−”
“I don’t give a continental!” Albinus barked at his father. “You want to stick your head in the sand in the name of tradition or propriety or just your all-flaming lack of imagination, fine! Whatever the Creator has planned for us, He’s given me something special, and I’ll be blasted if I’m going to sneeze in His face over it!”
His father pursed his lips and drew back for another blow, but spotted his son’s balled fists. He snorted and took up his hat. “You’ve got a sauce-box on you, and no mistake. You’ve got some fine and high airs about you now.”
Albinus sneered and took up a broom, began to push the unbaked cookies around. “Father, this is a tiny little shop in a tiny little town, out in the middle of nowhere. The fact of the giantess has opened my eyes to this. What’re we doing here? I’m making cookies for the mayor’s soirée, you’re grooming Boursiquette for marrying off to Baldisaro Atkinson’s eldest. Atheling Morgan’s writing it all up in his twee little rag, and we all roll out of our little beds to eat it up every morning, day after day, year after year.” He stared up earnestly at his father. “Is that all you want? Is that enough? Fills you up, so that you can see something amazing come out of the bleedin’ sky, and you tell it ‘thank you, but no’?”
His father only shook his head slowly at his son. Albinus did the same at his father and returned to sweeping, and without a word his father left the bakery.
Zona squinted at Albinus. “Your cheek’s a little red. Are you okay?”
His gloved hand flew to cover it. Townspeople in the area glanced at him, then at the house where his family lived. “That’ll be him poked up! Never mind that. What’s that dark cloud I see in your eyes?”
She blinked. This little man, in his luscious period clothing, all the more darling for its miniaturization, sitting in the center of his little village… nothing escaped his notice. “I can’t hide anything from you, Alby. Christmas was two days ago, for us.”
He nodded. It was a slight gesture, from her relative perspective, but she was also becoming attuned to the subtleties of his environment. “Aye, same. We had a nice little dinner and all.”
“So the holiday’s over.”
“Yes, time goes on, as ever it has and ever it shall.”
Her eyebrows furrowed at him. “That means I’m going back to school.”
He looked surprised. “Oh, so you’ll be bringing Pucklechurch to college with you, then?”
Was he entirely dense? “No, Alby. The Christmas village stays at my mom’s. We’re probably packing it up tonight, actually.”
Finally, his expression matched hers. “Oh. Well…” He searched for words.
“Yeah.” She glanced at all the doorways, all the storefronts. “This might be it.”
Albinus rose off his butcher’s bench. He looked especially frail and forlorn, standing in the road where the snow was beginning to darken with soil, after weeks of horses and wagons. Zona felt a stinging in the corner of her eye.
“That’ll please Father,” he said quietly. “He don’t approve of my consortin’ with entities beyond the normal ken.”
She smirked. “It’s been a fun couple of weeks,” she prompted.
“It has! It’s been very… interesting.” His tiny eyes locked on one of hers, then the other.
“I wish it didn’t have to end.”
“Zona,” Albinus said firmly, “you big, glorious goddess. Come down here and kiss me.”
Her cheeks flushed. “What?”
“If you were my size, this would be when I would grab you and make you kiss me, because you clearly want to, and even if you don’t, I want to. But you…” He waved his tiny arms up at her. “Can’t you pick me up or something?”
Behind him, the front door to his house flew open. “Albinus Defiance Taylor!” his father roared, charging into the street. “Don’t you dare!”
Without hesitation, Zona carefully snaked her hand between the buildings and easily found purchase in the slack of all the layers Albinus was wearing, and she hoisted him away from the snowy street. The townspeople froze in their tracks, diminutive expressions of surprise and fright on their faces, and Mr. Taylor skidded to a halt in the empty space where his son had been.
He leveled a finger up at the giantess. “You release him, you great slattern! You set that recalcitrant podsnapper right back down here!”
Zona stared at the tiny dark figure. “I know you’re not talking to me like that,” she said quietly.
But he continued. He ranted and called her many other things, and he even picked up the butcher’s bench as though to hurl it up into her face. Zona merely drew in her breath and blew him out of the town square, up against the church, and continued blowing until he slid along its siding and disappeared into the narrow alley beside it.
“Beauty,” said Albinus, dangling in empty space.
She cupped him in her palms and rose to her knees, above the village. The daylight faded from the drifts, darkening to the glow of small colored lights. Albinus peered over her fingertips at the display, rows of ceramic houses beside an enormous decorated pine tree. “It’s just… It’s just a little model town!” He looked up at her. “What does your world look like?”
Slowly Zona rose to her feet. Her cheeks were hot and her head was a little dizzy, as she stared at the tiny, perfect little man in her hands. Barely conscious of the words, she murmured, “Well, I can show you my bedroom,” and started up the stairs.
“Dinner, sweetie!” Zona’s mom called up the stairs. “Chicken and dumplings! You coming down? Be sure to clean up first.”
“Way ahead of you, Mom.” Her voice echoed sharply in the bathroom. She grinned at the tiny naked man toweling himself off on a washcloth on the vanity. She knelt before him, resting her jaw before him. “I’m sure Mr. Taylor will object to what the great slattern has done with his little boy.”
Albinus stared at her lips as she spoke. “He can go soak his head.”
She laughed and puffed at him gently, and his hair wafted in the breeze. He stood up, nude, and showed himself off to her. “This is enough for you, then? Did you get your cookie from the baker?”
Her eyes glittered to watch the fine lines run down from his shoulders, below his pecs, the light shadows of his minuscule ribs beneath taut skin. He stretched his lean legs, tiny thighs tensing, legs ending in the finest little toes. Zona’s heart was pounding hard. She caught him up in her palm and mashed him into her lips, smooching him comically, exaggeratedly.
He laughed, squirming into her lips, his soft skin and fragile bones writhing against her mouth. “You’re gonna get us all messy again! We’ve gotta get cleaned up for dinner!”
She stood and held him just below her chin. “I’ve got to get cleaned up,” she purred. “All you have to do is not spoil my appetite.” She lifted her hand slowly and opened her mouth wide. He squealed and laughed, kicking at her writhing tongue, his voice echoing in her maw.
“It’s getting cold!” Her mother was actually clanging a metal ladle against a pot lid, at the bottom of the stairs.
Zona mildly cursed her mother, gave Albinus one more full-bodied lick, and then they got dressed. “I’m going to miss you so much,” she whispered to him, taking her time on the staircase.
“You can’t imagine how much I’ll miss you,” he told her. “I don’t know if I’ll survive the heartbreak.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“It’s not like you can mail me letters from college or anything. This is it—I’ve missed you by nearly two centuries.”
Her heart twinged. “Just… shut up for a while.” She snaked her hand into the neck of her sweatshirt and slipped her little man into one bra cup. “Let’s just enjoy dinner.” If he said anything, she couldn’t hear it, but all through the meal his little body rubbed pleasantly against her breast, blocking out all the flavors of dinner and everything her parents said.
“Why don’t you help your mother with the dishes.” Her father nodded at her and toddled out of the kitchen. “I’m gonna go do the tree.”
Numbly, Zona nodded and started collecting plates. This was a calming ritual for her, she’d always assisted her parents with setting places and clean-up. Her mother chattered on about returning to school, and Zona mindlessly answered her questions about courses, how far she was from her degree. When she finally asked about meeting any nice boys, the expression on her daughter’s face silenced her. Sensing something was up, she only embraced her daughter who, strangely, gave her a one-armed hug in return.
“Is there anything you want to talk about?” Her mother put on the automatic coffee maker—the percolator was for breakfasts only—and microwaved some cinnamon rolls. “It’s a boy, isn’t it?” Her mother paused, then rested her palm upon her daughter’s hand. “I’m sorry. It’s about a nice young man, isn’t it? You’re not a little girl anymore. I just have to remind myself of that sometimes.”
Zona half-sobbed and looked out the window. “It’s silly. It was just someone I met for a little while. I guess I fell for him hard.”
“And he left you? How could he leave someone as sweet as you?”
Zona paused to find the appropriate half-truths. “It’s not quite like that. We weren’t supposed to meet in the first place. It was pretty much impossible, but we…” She cupped her mug in both hands, feeling it warm up as her mother poured her coffee. “We had a couple great weeks together. Stole every chance we could, just to spend another few minutes with each other.”
“So romantic,” her mother said, smiling. “That’s how it was with your father and me, in the beginning.”
Zona looked up. “What do you mean?”
“Well, his family wasn’t rich. He was a salesman, a brush salesman back in the day. He lost his last year of high school to traveling all over the state. All the money he earned went to supporting his family or paying off the car he bought, just to have that job in the first place.” Her mother retrieved the cinnamon rolls and the butter tray. “We knew each other from high school, but we only started seeing each other when his job let him pass through town, now and again. I never knew when he was coming through, and with the war going on, each time I saw him could have easily been the last.”
“What did you do?” Zona hadn’t really paid attention to this story before.
Her mother smiled wolfishly at her. “I took him! I held onto him and didn’t let him go! Next time he came through town, right after graduation, I hopped in his car with two changes of clothes and $50 from my mother, and we just headed out to find our fortune! It was hard going for a while, and not everyone in our families took it very well, but,” she bit the corner of her mouth, “if you want something like that badly enough, you make it work out. Look at us now: this house is paid off, and our beautiful little girl’s going to college, like we never could. I don’t think we’re doing too badly.”
Zona grinned, watching the steam form patterns in her coffee.
“I’ve got the kitchen, sweetie. Why don’t you go help your father with the ornaments?” Her mother kissed her on the cheek and went back to the sink.
When Zona walked into the living room, she froze in her tracks.
Her father glanced over his shoulder and smiled. “Sorry, was this your job, too?” Into a large brown box, he was loading a small white box labeled Apothecary. She looked at the village: only a few houses stood, and the Christmas tree hadn’t been touched. Her father turned his back to her and resumed packing. “I’m sorry, baby girl, I know you like the ritual of the season and all. Did I overstep my jurisdiction?”
Zona gave her breast a gentle caress and said that everything was perfectly fine.