Read an Excerpt

The following is one of the stories from “Sing We Now of Christmas”

Day 10

Title: Stocking Stuffers

Song: “O Holy Night”

Author: Michael D. Young

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and though her husband had settled down for a long winter’s nap, Theresa lay wide awake. While her husband dreamed of sugarplums, she could only think about cookies, specifically the ones on her side table next to the Christmas tree.

Last year, the cookies had vanished, replaced by a note written in meticulous calligraphy. It read:

Dear Fellow Cookie Connoisseur,

We regret to inform you that St. Nick has developed a slight peanut allergy. In order keep him jolly, we humbly request that your Christmas cookies be nut-free next Christmas. Thank you for your attention in this matter.

Sincerely,

I.M. Fudge

At first, she was convinced that her husband, who had a peanut allergy, was playing a prank on her. A subsequent amateur handwriting analysis, however, proved this theory incorrect. It turned out that no one in the family could produce a single letter of calligraphy, even at the threat of a present-less Christmas. She had no other choice but to concede that a denizen of the North Pole had written the note.

Now she couldn’t remember if she had added walnuts to her famous chocolate chip cookies. Though she tried to drift off to sleep anyway, her mind conjured up what the note from I.M. Fudge might look like this year if she ignored his or her warning.

Dear Thoughtless Baker,

Due to your blatant negligence shown by including nuts in your Christmas cookies, St. Nick went into anaphylactic shock and had to be resuscitated by Rudolph. Your gift-delivery privileges are hereby revoked—forever.

Sincerely,

I.M. Fudge

Perhaps her privileges would only be revoked for a year, but it seemed ridiculous to receive any kind of punishment over having the wrong kind of cookie. At last, she could take it no more. Sliding stealthily out of bed so as to not wake her husband, she crept downstairs.

The lights from the Christmas tree cast a warm, colorful glow over the living room, and allowed her to make her way over to the side table where the cookies lay on a plate. Telling herself that she was only eating one for testing purposes, she selected the smallest cookie and took a substantial bite.

As she chewed, her heart sank. The distinctive taste of walnuts cut through the rest of the flavors, making it impossible for her to deny it any longer. She had messed up and had been perilously close to giving St. Nick a nasty allergic reaction.

Taking the offending plate of cookies with her, she stumbled through the dark, trying to go on only the light from the Christmas tree and the few snatches of moonlight that filtered in through the frosted windows. Cinnamon and nutmeg swirled through the air, accenting the piney scent of their Christmas tree.

She reached the kitchen and fumbled around on the counter for the plate of Christmas goodies she had not yet given out to a neighbor who was out of town for a few more days. Rationalizing that her neighbor probably didn’t have a nut allergy, she ripped off the bright green plastic wrap and transferred a few chocolate chip cookies which contained nuts, to the plate to give her neighbor. For good measure, she popped one of the cookies in her mouth, reveling in its combination of richness and sweetness.

A sound from the living room startled her, causing her to jump and nearly drop the plate she had been holding. Clutching the replacement cookies, she snuck back toward the living room to see if her husband had bumbled downstairs, or if she had a yuletide cat-burglar on her hands.

Peeking into the living room, she didn’t see anything out of place. She stared into the dark, watching for any sign of movement. When the night remained silent, she ventured a few more steps forward and placed the tray of cookies on the table.

Suddenly, a tiny sneeze sounded behind her from within the pile of presents. They didn’t own a pet, and none of her children had such a ridiculously high sneeze. Her heart racing, she grabbed the first thing she could find: a ceramic statue of St. Nick. Another sneeze sounded, and several of the presents shifted in their position.

Walking on her tiptoes, she approached the pile of presents, wondering if one of the toys had magically come to life a la Frosty the Snowman. A third sneeze rocked the presents and she leaped forward, flinging aside the presents closest to the noise.

Instead of the proverbial mouse stirring around in her presents, a tiny man in a brown, floppy hat with a single jingle bell on the end cowered before her. Her mouth hung silently open as she tried to assure herself that she hadn’t drunk any alcoholic egg nog.

They stared at each other for several seconds before the tiny man stepped forward and offered a miniscule hand. “Uh, Merry Christmas. My name is I.M. Fudge, and as you’ve probably gathered, I’m an elf.”

“It was a toss-up between hobbit and sugarplum fairy.”

Mr. Fudge crossed his arms and his bulbous nose went bright red. “Do you see any frilly wings on me? Or hairy feet, for that matter?”

She gave him a once-over and saw that he indeed had neither. “Sorry, Mr. Fudge. You could have been a leprechaun, for all I know. I’ve never seen anyone like you before.”

Mr. Fudge rolled his eyes. “I’m not even going to touch that one. But I guess there’s a bit of truth to the leprechaun comparison. I don’t wear green, have red hair, or speak with a charming accent, but you do get something for catching me.”

“Oh?” Theresa said. “A stocking full of gold? We could use that.”

Rubbing his nose, Mr. Fudge hopped from one foot to the other as if he couldn’t physically stand still. “Once again, you’re on the right track, but not quite there.”

Theresa paused and lifted a finger. “You’re going to give me a plate of golden cookies?”

Mr. Fudge slapped his forehead and closed his eyes. “Okay, enough with the guessing game. I’ll just tell you.” The elf reached into his pocket and withdrew a tiny green stocking, which he extended to Theresa. “Here, take it.”

She extended two fingers and allowed Mr. Fudge to drop the stocking onto them. “That’s nice, Mr. Fudge, but it’s not exactly what I had in—”

Suddenly, the stocking grew until it resembled the others handing above the fireplace. With a little yelp, she scurried backwards. Maybe it had been something she had eaten.

At its full size, she could see the beautiful golden pattern stitched into the side that looked like the smiling face of St. Nick. “This is the Overstuffed Stocking,” said Mr. Fudge, pointing to the stocking she held. “It’s like a smaller version of Santa’s bag.”

Theresa stroked the soft fabric and traced the golden pattern with one finger. “You mean, I can reach inside and pull out whatever I want?”

Mr. Fudge narrowed his eyes. “Not exactly. You see, this stocking is a little more specific. According to the rules, you may reach in once for each family member. You will then pull out whatever it is they want the most, if you can—”

Bouncing with excitement, Theresa plunged her hand into the stocking and fished around. A look of consternation crossed her face and she withdrew her hand without anything in it. “I’m having a stocking malfunction. I thought of chocolate truffles from Belgium and all I got was air.”

Puffing out his cheeks, Mr. Fudge stepped forward and took the stocking back. It reverted to its original size. “If not letting people finish their sentences got you on the Naughty List, you’d be on it.”

Theresa mimicked zipping her lips and stared unblinkingly at the elf, who bowed and held up the stocking. “Thank you. Now as I was saying—you first have to guess what the gift is. You then reach into the stocking and see if you were right. If you guess correctly, you will be given a bonus present. Does that make sense?”

Theresa nodded mutely.

“Very well then,” Mr. Fudge said. “Let’s get started. First, take hold of the stocking and state the name of each member of your family.”

“Well, there’s my husband, Mark, my son, Spencer, and my daughters Rebecca and Jaime.”

Mr. Fudge nodded and pointed to the stocking. “Good. Say their names one at a time and then guess out loud what they would want most for Christmas.”

Theresa opened the top of the stocking with one hand and reached it. “Let’s start with my husband, Mark.” She chewed on her lip and gazed toward the ceiling. “He’s always traveling for work, and I’ve seen how he looks at those fancy phones all of his coworkers have, so I’m going to say, a top-of-the-line smartphone.”

Fishing around in the stocking, her fingers closed around something much thinner than any phone she had ever seen. Whipping her hand out, she saw that she held a single piece of paper. In the dim light, she could see that it was a gift certificate to Luigi’s, his favorite restaurant and the site of many of their early dates.

She wrinkled her brow, studying the paper for something she might have missed. “I—I don’t understand. He’s told me how much he wants a new phone. Why would the stocking give me this?”

Mr. Fudge adjusted his floppy hat. “Perhaps you need to consider not only what is on this paper, but what it represents. It sounds like your husband is a busy man, and I’m sure he has become busier as the years go by. Perhaps he misses spending quality time with you as often as he likes.”

“That sounds right. He’s said as much before, and I try to plan, but somehow other things keep getting in the way.”

“Well,” said Mr. Fudge, “now you have no excuse. Take your husband on a date.”

“I’ll do that,” Theresa said, placing the gift on the floor next to her. “It’s too bad the stocking didn’t also get him coupons for free babysitting. That’s the really tricky part.”

“I’m sure you can figure something out,” Mr. Fudge said. “If your presents are good enough, maybe your children will do it for you. Your youngest looks like she’d be able to take care of herself for a few hours anyway.“

“Speaking of, we ought to get on to the next one. I’m sure you’ve got a lot more cookies to test.”

Mr. Fudge rubbed his eyes, “You have no idea. I had one house already tonight that left Santa a nut log. A nut log, for Rudolph’s sake! I think some people believe that ridiculous movie.  You know, the one where killing off Santa means you get to be the new Santa. Trust me, it’s not as cushy as it looks.”

“Don’t worry,” Theresa said. “I’m trying to stay on the Nice List, and I’m not killing anyone. Let’s try my son, Spencer.”

“Yes. What sort of present would he want most?”

Theresa stuck her hand into the stocking and chewed on her lip. “Well, he just went off to college this semester and he’s only home for Christmas.”

“Oh? How does he like it there?”

“I’m not sure. I can’t usually get more than a non-committal ‘fine’ out of him once in a while. He never opens up to me about who his friends are or how his classes are going, or even if he’s dating anyone.”

She felt as though a light went on in her mind. “That’s it,” she said. “Girls.”

Mr. Fudge squinted, adjusting his cap, “The Stocking does have limits. You’re not going to be able to pull a girlfriend out of that stocking, no matter how much he wants one.”

“Of course not,” Theresa said, rummaging further in the stocking. “I mean that he probably wants something that can impress the girls—something that will really make him the big man on campus.”

“Sounds good,” Mr. Fudge said. “I had the shiniest jingle bells on my sleigh back at the Elf Academy, and that turned more than a few heads. But you’re going to have to be more specific.”

“Well, then, I choose the status symbol all college boys have craved since its invention: a brand-new sports car!”

Mr. Fudge cocked his head to one side and gestured for her to proceed. “Believe it or not, that will work if that’s really what they want the most. You’ll just get the keys out of the stocking, but the rest of it will appear out in front of your house.”

Theresa fumbled in the stocking, mentally crossing her fingers. “Come on…Camero, Porsche…Beamer…”

Mr. Fudge chuckled. “If this works out, you may be asking your son to borrow the car. Never thought you’d see that happen, did you?”

Theresa’s smile vanished as once again, her hands clamped around something that felt like paper. Hoping it was the biggest gift certificate ever to a car dealership, she withdrew what the stocking had given her and studied it.

She held in her hand a pair of season tickets for her son’s college basketball team. Not only were they good seats, they were right on the front row. She knew that such seats would be the envy of all.

“I don’t understand,” Theresa muttered. “Why would he want basketball tickets? I didn’t even think he was interested in sports.”

“You need to consider all the possibilities. There are subtle clues. Notice that there are two season tickets, and not just one.”

Theresa stared at the tickets and felt realization begin to dawn. If he had wanted to go with a large group of friends, he would have wished for tickets for everyone. Instead, these spoke of wanting to go with one other person.

“A girl?” Theresa asked. “Do you have any flying pigs up there, because not once has my son gone out of his way to impress a female. I’ve begged, pleaded, and done all the matchmaking I could muster. Nothing has helped.”

“Funny how the stars finally align when you’re not trying to hurl them from orbit,” Mr. Fudge said. “Yes, I’d say there is a woman he’s trying to impress.  An athlete, from the looks of it. I’m sure you’ll be able to tell more from his reaction when he sees those.”

“For once, I’m the one who can’t wait for Christmas morning.” She set the tickets aside and retrieved the stocking. “That just leaves my two daughters.” She glanced up at the clock hanging on the wall. “Are you sure you’re okay on time?”

Mr. Fudge chuckled, “Of course. I was just being hard on you earlier. We elves have the power to slow time. How else do you think Santa could make it all around the world in one night? Take as long as you need.”

Theresa stroked the stocking, liking the way it felt under her fingers. She imagined it to be the same material as Santa’s trademark red suit. “Well, my oldest daughter, Rebecca—now there’s a riddle.”

Mr. Fudge sniffed the air as if noticing something unpleasant. “I sense a note of disapproval. What has she done that disappoints you?”

Setting the stocking down, Theresa rubbed her eyes. “It’s not so much her as the company she’s keeping. Her new boyfriend is dragging her down. She used to date such nice young men, but ever since she started running with Kolton, she’s practically become a new person…and not in a good way.”

“I see. She’s infatuated with a boy from the Naughty List. I’ve seen that happen many times before. What, then, do think she would want more than anything?”

“I wish I knew. I wish I could give her some common sense, or even better, that she would want it.” Theresa glanced at the mantel where a row of family pictures stood and stared at a much younger version of her daughter.

“It doesn’t matter to the stocking what you want for her—only what she wants for herself.”

Crossing her legs, Theresa stared off into space. “I guess something to impress her boyfriend. She’s always hanging out at the mall and spends every cent she gets, and then spends the rest of her life in the bathroom trying to reach some idea of ‘pretty’.”

“Your guess?”

“A new designer outfit. Something she could never possibly afford on her budget or mine…not even if she borrowed my credit card.”

Reaching her hand into the stocking, she searched around, hoping to grab a high heel or an appropriately long skirt. Once again, her fingers wrapped around what felt like only a piece of paper. She withdrew it and found a single sheet, which looked strangely like a page torn out of her day planner.

“It’s blank,” she muttered, turning it over and looking at it from different angles. “If she needed a piece of scratch paper, she could just ask.”

Mr. Fudge chuckled and accepted the paper from Theresa, “You can’t take this one at face value either. Of course she doesn’t want a torn calendar page. What could it represent?”

Theresa took back the page and shrugged. “I don’t know. There’s nothing on it. No clues or anyth—” Her voice cut off and she wiped her eyes. “It’s blank. This page is out of my planner and it’s blank. Does this mean she wants…”

“One day with you?” Mr. Fudge asked. “It appears so. When’s the last time you gave her something like that?”

Theresa looked away, studying at the floor. “I don’t know. Probably years. She doesn’t seem to take much interest in me these days. I would never have thought she wanted something like this.”

“Don’t feel bad. It takes experienced gift-givers years of training to get the knack.”

“I’ll make it happen,” Theresa said. “Now let me see if I can actually get the last one right.”

“Give it a shot,” he said with a smile. “I’ve seen it happen before. Remember to think outside the gift box.”

“Right. My last family member is my daughter Jamie.”

Mr. Fudge pointed a finger at Theresa’s face. “You smiled when you said her name. Is she your angel child?”

“You could say that,” she said, broadening her smile. “At least compared to the others. She’s a good student, a responsible daughter, and, well, I just don’t have to worry about her much. Which is good, because her sister has me worrying enough for two.”

Jumping from one foot to the other, Mr. Fudge picked at a crumb between his front teeth using his reflection in a shiny ornament. “And what would your studious student want? Remember, school isn’t everything.”

“I know,” Theresa said, “but to her, it is a lot. This one is actually pretty easy. She’s been begging me for a new graphing calculator for ages, and I just haven’t found it in the budget.”

“Well, reach into the stocking and see if your calculations are correct.”

Theresa fumbled around in the stocking, not immediately finding anything. At last, her fingers closed around something square and metal, with a couple of slips of paper attached to it. It felt a little small to be a calculator, but then again, everything with technology kept getting smaller, so it wasn’t out of the question.

She chuckled, thinking she had finally gotten it right. When she fully withdrew the object, she could see that it was clearly not anything her daughter would be using in math class. She stared at the metallic rectangle in her hand and her brow creased. “I don’t understand,” she muttered. “She doesn’t even have a film class.”

“You haven’t taken everything in context,” Mr. Fudge said. “Reserve judgment.”

She considered the rectangles of paper. “Tickets again,” she said, “but not to a sporting event. These are to her spring choir concert.”

“So,” Mr. Fudge said, “what do you get when you add one camera and two concert tickets? Any solutions?”

Theresa brought her hand to her chin. “It seems she wants me to attend and film her concert.”

Mr. Fudge shot her a tiny thumbs-up sign. “Advance to the head of the class. Not so hard, was it?”

“Not really. I’m surprised, that’s all. It’s hard to believe that she wants this more than a graphing calculator.”

“I’m guessing they had a Christmas concert at school. Did you film that one?”

Theresa’s cheeks went hot. “I…I didn’t go. It was on the same night as the Christmas social at my husband’s work. It was really important that I be there. I was on the planning committee, and I said I was…” Her voice trailed off and her eyes moistened. “I should have gone. She works so hard at home to learn all her parts. She even had a solo in ‘Winter Wonderland.’ I should have gone.”

Mr. Fudge put a hand on Theresa’s knee. “See this as a chance for redemption. What else is Christmas for?”

She set the camera and tickets on the floor next to her and wiped her eyes. “I suppose. I’m grateful for the extra presents, but I can’t believe I couldn’t guess right for any of my family members. I feel like I don’t know them at all.”

Mr. Fudge patted her knee again. “Redemption, remember? You’re not obligated to tell them about me or the stocking. I imagine this Christmas is going to get rave reviews.” Mr. Fudge straightened up and backed away. “But you’re not done yet.”

Theresa sniffed. “I’m not?”

“No, you have one member of your family remaining—yourself.”

“I get a turn? Really?”

Mr. Fudge nodded. “Of course. You’re the one who has done all the work—from baking the cookies, to elf-napping, to playing this high-stakes guessing game. You deserve a present most of all.” He leaned in with a conspiratorial look. “The question is: do you know what you really want?”

Theresa leaned forward and placed her elbows on her knees. “I…think so,” she said slowly. She took her face through several thoughtful contortions and started to speak a few times, but fell silent. Her words then tumbled out and her face flushed.

Mr. Fudge held up a hand. “Whoa, pop the clutch before you shift gears there. Slow down and try again.”

She took several deep breaths and then started again. “I want…” she paused, and then let the words tumble out all at once, “…that diamond necklace I saw with my husband in the mall.”

Lifting one eyebrow, Mr. Fudge rubbed his chin. “Give me a second before you test that theory.” He reached into one of his pockets, withdrew a tiny notebook, and flipped through a few pages. His brow furrowed and he flipped through a few more before his face lit up. “Confirmed. Your husband already got that for you, and even if he hadn’t, that’s still not the right answer.”

“You mean, you’ve got a cheat sheet?”

Mr. Fudge shook his head, jingling the bell on the end of his cap. “It’s not cheating if it helps me do my job. The present index lets us know what everyone is giving each other so we don’t duplicate.”

“Can’t you just tell me what I’m going to pick out of there?”

The bell jingled again. “I could, but I think you should find out for yourself.”

With an excitement she hadn’t felt since her childhood, Theresa reached into the stocking and grasped something right away. Startled at how big it felt, she pulled slowly, making steady progress up the stocking. When she reached the top, she yanked a final time and the object grew to its full size. She held a large book bound with a leather cover in her hand, which reminded her of the scrapbooks she used to make with her mother.

Setting down the stocking, she put the book on her lap and read the gold lettering embossed on the cover: Our Family.

Her fingers trembling, she turned to the first page and found a beautiful color photo of her entire family, and miraculously, they were all smiling and looking at the camera, without a single silly face or snuck-in bunny ears.

She turned to the next page and saw the name of her first child written in calligraphy and a picture of him as a baby. The following pages showed him as he grew up, documenting his biggest life events all the way through his high school graduation and a few shots from college.

The following pages repeated the process for her other children and then ended with a section that showed her and her husband, especially highlighting the pictures they had taken on their wedding day and anniversaries.

At last, she came to a section where she turned a page and found it blank. She leafed through the remainder of the pages and found them all free of pictures. “I don’t understand,” she said, trying hard to keep her emotions under control. “Why are they blank? Did someone forget to finish?”

Mr. Fudge crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. “The book is as complete as it can be. It is only your lives that are incomplete, and thank goodness for that! You have many happy years with your husband and children, and many blank pages on which to document those years.”

Losing the battle with her emotions, she closed the book and clutched it to her chest. “Thank you,” she whispered. “This is what I wanted most. That jewelry is just a bunch of rocks. I don’t know how such silly things get in the way of the really precious things.”

Walking to her side, Mr. Fudge picked up the stocking, which returned to its original size. “Don’t feel bad; it happens all the time, especially around Christmas. There are so many shiny things this time of year, it’s incredible that anyone looks at anything else. And now, on to business.”

With a bow, Mr. Fudge stashed the stocking back in his pocket and turned to the new plate of cookies Theresa had set out. He poked and prodded, sniffed and tasted, and then finally nodded. “I declare these cookies 100% Santa approved.” He looked up at Theresa. “Speaking of which, he’s going to be along soon. I’m going to have to ask you to resume your long winter’s nap.”

“Right,” she agreed. “Why don’t I just place these in their stockings?”

She worked quickly, placing each family member’s present in their stocking, and placed the memory book on the mantle. Satisfied with her work, she turned and smiled at Mr. Fudge. “Thank you, my good elf. I promise, you’ll have no more troubles, cookie or otherwise, out of me.”

Mr. Fudge fixed her with a glare of mock severity, “Good to hear. And just so you don’t get any ideas, the stocking thing only works once. There’s no use setting out ‘elf traps’ or anything like that. Believe me, it has been tried.”

Theresa held up her hands, “Like I said—no problems.”

Seemingly satisfied, Mr. Fudge walked to the fireplace, laid a finger on the side of his nose, and disappeared in a flash of yellow light and a cloud of smoke that smelled faintly of cinnamon and nutmeg.

Feeling the weight of the entire hectic month of December crash down on her, Theresa stumbled back into bed, nestling against her husband’s motionless form.  As she settled in, he stirred and then rolled over. “Everything okay, sweetheart?” he mumbled.

“Yes,” she whispered, “everything’s fine. I just had to switch out the cookies.”

Her husband shifted again and propped his head up lazily on his hand. “Is this about that crazy note from last year? You know that had to be one of the kids.”

“I don’t think so,” she whispered. “But don’t worry. Everything’s taken care of.”

He grunted, rolled over, and in seconds was snoring peacefully.

Theresa lay back on her pillow, and though her body ached with exhaustion, she could not bring herself to shut her eyes. Even better than the visions of sugarplums that danced in her head were the visions of what the coming morning would bring, when they would write the next page in their family’s book.

 

The following is one of the stories from “Carol of the Tales”: 

The tinkling of bells carried on the wind, and old Timothy Abbot looked up from his work. He narrowed his eyes, lifting them to the horizon. Had he merely imagined the sound? Those bells had not sounded in his town in so many years. Perhaps it was merely wishful thinking?

Timothy raised his tool, ready to continue scraping the bark from the log that would eventually find new life as a table leg. Before he could make the first stroke, the bells tinkled again, louder this time. He could not be imagining it.

His tools clattered to his workbench, and he rushed to the door. A third time, the bells sounded on the wind, and a smile broke across Timothy’s face. He placed a hand over his rapidly beating heart, tell- ing himself that he should not allow himself to rejoice until he could be absolutely sure that she had returned.

Barely containing his inner optimist, Timothy ran down the path and up the hill toward the sound of the long-absent music. Snow flurries swirled around him, and his breath created a trail of steam as he quickened his pace. Reaching the top of the hill, he swept his eyes down the slope to see a lone figure, wrapped in red and green. The winter sun caught dozens of pinpricks of light attached to her clothing, confirming Timothy’s suspicions.

He cupped his hands around his mouth and called her name.

“Carol! Carol!”

The woman lifted her eyes to the sound, a few strands of her dark hair escaping from under her cowl, teased out by a breeze. She raised her hand in greeting and Timothy’s heart soared. He felt himself torn between rushing down the hill to meet her and turning to

spread the news in the town. Not only had Carol returned, but she had chosen their village for Christmas Eve.

Knowing that the others would never forgive him if he kept this news to himself, he turned and called the announcement through the streets. Others took up his cry until it rang from almost every window and doorway. Finally, the church bell pealed from the town square, completing the festive uproar.

His job done, Timothy turned, set on being one of the first to greet Carol. He met her as she crested the hill. “Carol, may I help you with your heavy load?” he asked.

Carol smiled, the deep lines in her face lending her a kindly look.

“You know I never let my satchel out of my sight. It’s too valuable.”

Timothy raised both eyebrows. “You don’t trust me then? I grew up in this hilly country, you know. I’m as surefooted as a goat and

twice as hearty. I won’t let anything happen to your sack.”

She shook her head, the grin never disappearing from her face. “Nonetheless, Mr. Abbott, I wish to keep it to myself. It is all that I

have left in the world. Should I lose it, I wish it to be my own fault.”

“You can call me Timothy, Carol,” he said, glad that she had

remembered his name. “We are old friends, are we not?”

She nodded silently, weariness, settling over her features. “I had intended to return sooner, though it seems my fame grows every year, and I have more requests than I could possibly fulfill in twelve full months of Christmases.”

Timothy nodded and fell into step next to Carol. “At least al- low me to accompany you to your table at the inn. We have kept it in

good repair all of these years for you.”

Together, they braved the crowding streets with Timothy clearing a path toward the largest inn in town—Wilhousky’s House. A throng of townspeople followed them in, and while Carol nodded and smiled she did not speak to any of them.

They entered a spacious hall, filled with round tables decked with tablecloths and Christmas décor, candles, evergreen boughs and sprigs of holly. A tall man with an ample mustache, who Timo- thy knew to be Wilhousky himself, greeted them and gestured to a table in the center of the room, directly under a massive candelabra.

“The finest table in the house,” proclaimed Wilhousky. “No one has sat here since last you visited our humble city. Would you care to take your place?”

One of Wilhousky’s servants removed the dark tablecloth from the special table and turned it over to reveal a red and green pattern that matched the colors of Carol’s clothing. Carol took the of- fered chair amid thunderous applause from the onlookers. Timothy stepped back, waiting to see what Carol would do next.

Carol raised her hands and all fell silent. “My friends,” she called, in a voice pure as the bells for which she was famous. “Thank you for your warm greeting. I see many familiar faces here today, but for those who may not know me, I am Carol and I have come to share my tales with you.”

The crowd applauded again, though the applause died off quickly to let her continue. She placed her bag on the table in front of her with a clattering of metal on metal. Several small children pushed through the crowd to get a closer look, and a little girl to Timothy’s right called out, “What does she have in the sack? Is she a

helper to St. Nicholas?”

Carol’s gaze turned to the girl. “In a way, I do, little one. Through my tales, I help others celebrate Christmas more fully. I’ve never met the Saint face to face, but I’m sure he would approve.” She turned to address the rest of the crowd, which grew by the minute. “Allow me a few minutes to assemble my apparatus and then we will begin.”

She dumped the contents of the bag onto the table, pouring forth an assortment of metal pieces of every size and shape. Among the sundry rods and screws lay an assortment of silver bells, both large and small, and tiny metal figurines, fashioned as various char- acters from the Christmas story, shepherds and kings, angels and an- imals. Each character clutched a mallet, ready to strike their assigned bell.

Working with unbelievable speed, Carol assembled her de- vice, until a beautiful, multi-tiered pyramid stood on the table before her. The various characters stood in various places around the pyra- mid, each positioned in front of a silver bell. On the pinnacle of the pyramid stood the manger scene with an angel positioned in front of a star-shaped bell at the very top.

From right below the angel, a number of thin fan blades stretched out at regular intervals in a starburst pattern, like a great windmill turned on its back.

The innkeeper motioned for the others to sit, while an army of servants worked their way through the tables, offering drinks, pas- tries, and other refreshments. Carol continued undaunted, making the final adjustments to her Christmas pyramid. At last, she fitted the final piece and raised her hands for silence.

The sound in the room snuffed out like a capped candle.

“Any of you who have prepared candles, please come forward.”

Timothy fingered the trio of candles he always kept in his pocket in anticipation of this day. Last time, he had not known of the requirements and so had not been allowed to receive a tale from Carol. The candles had to be homemade, of a certain height and thickness to fit her apparatus, and had to include a little bit of the person who made them—literally. He had drop several strands of his own hair into the wax before it set, lending the candles a personal touch.

A young woman approached Carol’s table, clutching three candles in one hand. She kept her gaze to the floor and sat with slumped shoulders in the seat across from Carol. She wore a plain brown dress and had long, stringy hair the fell unkempt around her head and over her face. She offered the candles to Carol, who in- spected them, turning them every which way in her hands, and sniff- ing each one in a test known only to her.

A smile spread up Carol’s face, and she nodded. With deft fin- gers, she placed each candle in a round stand that jugged out from the side of the pyramid. A servant approached with an already-lit candle and lit each of the three around the pyramid.

As the room filled with expressions of wonder, the windmill blades of the pyramid began to turn, and with them, all of the scenes on the side of the pyramid. The inner gears rotated, spurring the

characters to action, each ringing its bells at exactly the right time.

The apparatus wove a tinkling tapestry in the room, the pealing of bells rising and falling in time with the click of the gears. Timothy watched in rapt silence, recalling the last time he had heard those melodies, the ones he had been humming while he worked ever since.

The flames suddenly died, and the mechanism ground to a halt. Carol opened her eyes and smiled at the young woman across the table. “Throw cares away, young one, “she said, her face taking on the glow of youth herself. “I bring you words of good cheer.”

The young woman nodded, still silent.

Carol stood, now addressing the entire audience. Her voice rang through the hall, strong and assured without the slightest interruption from anyone.

“There once was a rich baron with two lovely daughters, Frieda and Eloise. In order to increase his kingdom, he sought to ar- range one of his daughters to marry a nobleman from a neighboring territory. The law stated that the eldest daughter should be married before the younger, and this provided a problem because the girls were twins and no one could remember which one had come into the world first.

“Thus, the baron decreed that the young nobleman should visit his palace and meet his daughters so that he might choose for himself which one he preferred. They arranged the meeting for three Days’ time, and the baron told his daughters to prepare themselves.

“On the first day, Frieda called the best tailors in the land and had them prepare a beautiful new dress that billowed out like the petals of a precious flower. Elosie, however, spent the day practicing her singing, preparing a special song for the coming of the noble- man.

“On the second day, Frieda called the finest beauty artists in the land who planned for her hair and makeup. She rejected offer after offer until finally accepting a look late in the afternoon. Elosie, however, spent the day tending to her horses, brushing their coats and training them to make a good showing for the nobleman.

“On the third day, both girls awoke, and Frieda spent all morning putting on her gorgeous gown and letting the servants at- tend to her hair and makeup. Eloise dressed simply in a becoming dress she had sewn herself under the tutelage of her mother.

“The afternoon arrived when the nobleman was to come, and the sky gathered blackness. Soon a mighty storm raged in the land, and great cracks of thunder rattled the palace. At the appointed

time, a messenger, soaked to the bone rode up to the palace, frantic and out of breath. ‘His majesty’s carriage has been stuck in the mire!’ cried the man. ‘Our horses cannot pull him free, and only I was able to escape.’

“Frieda stamped her foot and pouted, and then returned to her room to let the artists touchup her makeup. Before anyone could protest, Eloise ran to the stables and hopped atop her best horse, ordering the stablehands to bring the others. They galloped into the gale and found the nobleman with his stranded carriage, sinking deeper and deeper into the mud. Eloise ordered her men to hitch their horses to the carriage, and with their combined effort, they brought it out of the mud and dragged it to the castle.

“As they rode, Eloise sang the song she had prepared for the nobleman, lifting her voice even above the pounding rain and roll- ing thunder.

“When they reached the palace, the baron brought out Frie- da and Eloise took her place next to her sister. Eloise dripped water, her dress smudged with mud and her face coated with grime. He hair looked as though she had ridden through a tornado.

“‘May I present my daughters, Frieda and Eloise,’ said the Bar- on. “I trust you will find it a difficult choice to pick between them.”

The nobleman shook his head. “It will not,” he said. “In fact, I have already made my decision. Before me stands the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”

“Eloise lowered her head, while Frieda twittered with delight, extending her elegantly gloved hand. The nobleman extended his hand, and with it, raised Eloise’s chin. Their eyes met and a shocked smile rose up Eloise’s face.

“‘Me?’ she asked. “But, you don’t want me. I do not own any gowns so fine, and my face will never look so beautiful, no matter

how much makeup I wear.”

“The nobleman chuckled. “While that may be true, I am not looking for a garden ornament, but a wife, a companion through all of life’s trials. There will be more storms to brave and more mires from which to escape. I cannot imagine anyone I would more like to

have at my side than you.”

The girl pushed back the hair from her face, revealing a large set of deep brown eyes and a timid smile. A tear traveled the course down her cheek, glinting in the firelight. “Thank you, Carol. That is exactly the story I needed to hear. H-how did you know?”

Carol reached out with a candle cap and snuffed each of the can- dles. She then returned them to their owner. “It is the bells. The intri- cacies of their music tell me what you need to hear. There is some- thing magical to bells, don’t you think? Especially at Christmas time.”

The girl nodded and clutched the partially spent candles. “I know it. Thank you, Miss Carol.”

She turned to go, but the seat remained unoccupied for only seconds, when a young man dressed in a sumptuous robe and jew- eled rings on every finger. He sat and removed his plumed hat and withdrew three perfectly formed candles with a flourish.

“Lovely story, Carol,” said the man. “I like a man who knows what he’s looking for.”

Carol’s eyes twinkled. “And I assume you know what you are looking for? Would you have a tale of me?”

The rich man leaned back in his seat and crossed his legs. “If it comes at only the cost of a few candles, it might be amusing. Play

your little bell thing, and see what sort of yarn you can spin.”

Nodding silently, Carol accepted the candles and placed them in their correct places. The servant lit them as before, and the bells conjured another tune, darker and more frantic. Timothy rubbed his chin and narrowed his eyes. The bells’ music woke in him a melan- choly mood, one that he’d rather leave behind. He hadn’t felt that way since the night he had lost his beloved Christine.

The music died away, and Carol began without preamble. “There once lived a poor man who toiled every day in the fields, eking out a meager living for his wife and young daughter. One winter, the frosts came early, destroying much of the crops throughout the land and sending it into a dreadful famine. The man did everything he knew how to do to survive, but he could see that his wife and daughter were starving. Most of his friends and neighbors became ill and mal-

nourished so that even less could be accomplished.”

The rich man leaned farther back in his seat, his eyes tracing some unknown oddity on the ceiling.

“Desperate,” continued Carol, “the man made a pilgrimage to

a church far from his home. There he knelt and lit a candle for his family, offering up his heart in their behalf. Providence smiled on the man, and the next day as he was working in his field, he unearthed a box brimming with treasure. Overjoyed, he rode to the city and bought provisions for a feast to which he invited all of his friends and neighbors. Overnight, the man became incredibly wealthy and bought up a great deal of land around the village.”

The listener leaned forward, his eyes finally returning to the sto- ryteller.

“That night, the farmer dreamed, and in his dream he saw a church with high, thick walls standing on his land. Knowing the source of his good fortune, the man made plans to build this church in their village, right on the spot where he had unearthed the trea- sure. He broke ground, brought in masons and carpenters, and pre- pared to raise the walls. A few days before work was to begin, how- ever, a traveling merchant came to town, bearing exotic wares from far-off lands. He told fanciful tales of his travels and exploits, display- ing even more wealth than the poor farmer had discovered.

“The merchant’s arrival set the farmer to thinking. To build a small church was fine, but would it be a greater show of gratitude to build a spacious monastery? If he adopted a merchant’s life for a time, he could make more than enough money to build something much more impressive. His mind made up, he bid farewell to his family and used his wealth to invest in a fine horse and cart laden with luxuries. Years passed, and when at last the farmer returned, he did so with once unimaginable wealth, far greater than he had pos- sessed before.

“With happy zeal, the farmer launched into his plans to build the monastery with a spacious chapel and room for dozens of monks and nuns. A few days before construction was slated to start, a car- dinal from Rome came to the town to oversee the founding of the new order of monks. While he was there, he told stories of the great cathedrals of Europe and the massive complex of St. Peter’s at the Vatican.

“The images stirred a new wonder in the rich man, and he re- solved then to increase his offering. He stood before the entire village and told them of his plans instead to build a cathedral on the spot. To raise money for this, he used his current money to build a sprawling marketplace, better than all others in the land. He spent every day at the market and many days traveling, searching for bet- ter and better wares to sell.

“The years passed and the farmer grew richer and richer. He built a spacious manor for his family on the edge of town and entertained guests from all across the continent. He wore fine clothes every day and ate only the best food. Every year, his wife would try to convince him that he had amassed enough wealth to build his cathedral, but every year, the farmer only shook his head and answered ‘Just a little more, my dear. One more tower, one more window….’

“The next year, war ravaged the land and came even into the farmer’s small village. All those in the village fled to the farmer’s manor, but it had been built as a mansion, not as a fortress. Raid- ers stormed the manor and set it ablaze. The farmer alone escaped and watched as his fortune, his friends, and his family perished in the conflagration.

“The dream of the church with thick walls appeared again in his mind, the one he could have built so many years before. His heart broken, the farmer sank to the ground and knew no more. He spent the remainder of his days, wandering the world, telling his story to all who would hear, and died with barely a penny to his name.”

Timothy held his breath with the rest of the room, waiting to see how the rich man would react. All the color had drained from the man’s face, and he stared listlessly into the flames.

The rich man stood, his shoulders slumped, wringing his hat in his hand. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said, his voice contrite. “Your tale has given me much to think about.”

All eyes turned as the man slunk from the inn.

The tales continued, late into the night. Carol turned some with poorly made candles away, but most enjoyed the melodious rise and fall of her voice. Sometimes, the room shook with laughter, while other times, not a sound could be heard. Often, those in the crowd dabbed at their eyes, and some slunk away in the same man- ner as the rich man.

As the candles in the room burned low, many families took their children home. The elderly citizens left next, and as the night

drew on, even the young men and women retired to their beds. Tim- othy remained in his seat, taking in every story like a new friend at his table. At last, only he, the innkeeper and Carol remained in the room.

Carol glanced around the room and, finding herself alone, pushed her seat back and stood.

“Wait,” said Timothy, standing as well, “there are is still one tale left to tell.”

Her eyes wrinkled with amusement. “Timothy, what sort of tale could I tell you? You are already the best man I know. I should be hearing a tale from you.”

“Exactly,” said Timothy, taking his seat at Carol’s table. “How many times have you come to our village over the years? Seven? Eight? In all those times, you have enthralled me with your tales, but I have also seen the sadness in your face, the haunted look in your eyes. You have helped so many others fix their lives, while leading a broken one yourself.”

Slowly, Carol returned to her seat. “How would you do it? I thought only I could hear the tales in the bells.”

Timothy placed his candles in the holders and smiled. “I have paid close attention to their language all my life. I am by no means fluent, but I think I can eke out a single tale, especially for someone whom I know so well.”

The blades of the bell apparatus spun, creating a song unlike any they had yet heard. It was not a triumphant carol, nor a com- pletely melancholy one, but something in between. Timothy closed his eyes, listening to the rise and fall of the bells, letting the melodies create images in his mind.

“There once was a beautiful young woman who longed someday to have children of her own. On a beautiful fall night, she met a handsome silversmith with whom she fell desperately in love with. They spent every day in each other’s company for days upon days and wed in the early summer.

“The years passed and not a single child arrived in their fam- ily. She tried to keep a happy face, but her husband could sense the deep despair in his wife.”

Carol leaned forward, her eyes glistening. “Go on,” she prompted.

“They lived for several years in happiness, though one day, she found him in bed, low with a raging fever. As the days passed, he grew weaker and weaker, and none of the physicians could do any- thing for him. Instead of staying in bed, however, he stayed in his workshop working on a special project he would not share with his wife.”

Carol’s hand went to her mouth, and a silent tear trickled down her cheek.

“On his final day of life, he presented his wife with the gift- -a beautiful Christmas pyramid done in silver. With his trembling hands, he placed three homemade candles around the pyramid and lit them, beckoning the angels to come lead his soul above.

“Over the next years, she met many other men and tried to find happiness in their company. She could not, however, get her be- loved silversmith out of her mind. Her heart broke at the thought of never having children of her own. To ease the pain, she found work as a school teacher, in a country schoolhouse where she could be a motherly figure to many children. She delighted the children with her talent for storytelling, and the charming music played by her husband’s parting gift.

“Many seasons passed happily for her in the schoolhouse set atop a hill overlooking a sparkling river and rolling fields. Then, one dark morning, a knight burst into their schoolhouse while she was teaching. He informed her in rough tones that a wealthy earl wished to build his summer palace directly on this spot on this hill and that they would all have to leave.

“She stood her ground and ordered the knight out of the build- ing. Over the next few weeks, the earl’s men brought more and more supplies and workers to the site in preparation for the construction of the palace. As though she didn’t notice, the woman stubbornly held classes every day and slept in the schoolhouse at night.

“In the middle of the night, she woke to find her schoolhouse in flames. She leapt from her bed with only one thought in her mind- -her husband’s gift. Coughing and stumbling, she worked her way through the smoke and snatched the tower from its place in the front of the room and held it to her chest. She ran with all her might and escaped only seconds before the flames collapsed the roof. Weeping bitterly, she turned and watched it burn.”

Carol sat silently, her hands folded across the table in front of her.

Every line in her face stood out, and her eyes stared into the distance. “And what happened then… to this woman?” she asked.

“She left,” said Timothy, “thinking that it would be easier for her if the earl thought her dead. She gathered up a few supplies and slung the pieces of the silver pyramid on her back. She wandered throughout the land, telling stories to lighten the downtrodden of the earth. To this day, she wanders, never staying in any town longer than a night, never allowing herself to grow too attached to anyone, lest she lose them too.”

Timothy’s voice trailed off, and Carol glanced up after a few sec- onds of silence. “And?” she prodded. “Surely that can’t be the end of the tale. All tales need not end happily, but they all require a proper ending.”

With a smile, Timothy reached across the table and took Carol’s hand.” That’s because the story hasn’t ended yet… as you well known.”

Carol met his eyes, and Timothy thought he saw in them both grief and joy simultaneously. She clutched his hand, barely able to hold back the tears. “I didn’t know there was anyone who could listen to the bells as I do. I see that they’ve given you a story I know all too well.”

“Right,” said Timothy, “and like you are always telling people, each tale is given for a purpose. No one else knows this tale, do they? Why would the bells reveal it to me?”

Hanging her head, Carol wiped tears from her eyes with her free hand. “I suppose I’ve been handing out lessons for so long that I hadn’t realized that I might need one myself. Perhaps the time has come to change my story. Perhaps my days of wandering are…”

She trailed off, staring into the darkness as though listening for something.

Timothy held his silence for several moments before breaking it. “Carol,” he said, tenderly, “Would you like to spend Christmas with me this year? My tale is also full of loss, and I have been alone for many years. Perhaps our loneliness will not be so painful, if we endure it together.”

A smile broke over Carol’s face, and she nodded. “Yes, I think it’s time. It’s what Christoph would want.”

Timothy arched an eyebrow. “Your silversmith?”

Carol gestured to the silver pyramid. “The very same. Yes, Timothy, I would love to spend Christmas here with you. I will arrange with the innkeeper to stay here.”

Mr. Wilhousky appeared out of the darkness, with a grin that looked ready to tear his face. “Free of charge, of course,” he said. “In all my years as innkeeper, we’ve never run out of wassail and cakes. They’ve cleaned out my larder in a spectacular fashion. I’ll have a ser- vant waiting at the bottom of the main staircase to show you to our finest accommodations.”

Timothy turned to watch the giddy innkeeper depart, wonder- ing just how long he had been listening. With a sigh, he rose and patted the back of Carol’ s hand a final time. “Merry Christmas, Carol.”

She nodded and turned to go. “I think it will be.”

He stood and watched as Carol melted into the darkness, a warm, joyful feeling growing inside of him. The bells had been silent about how the story might continue, but he couldn’t wait to find out.

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