It was snowing. It would always snow throughout the holidays.
White billowing bluffs lined the village streets, while a glimmering of hoarfrost lay atop the sidewalk snow. Danielle slid her feet beneath the crispy coating. She did this to avoid the certain and irregular pace of two steps on and one step through. Her boots made perfect plows.
Long workdays were followed by a savoring of soup and a drink—or two—at the tavern, still a few doors ahead. Though her journey was never that long, eleven hours would seem to pass; eleven hours in the cold spent thinking of soup and Muscadet. How soup made her happy—all kinds of soup: tomato, spicy tomato and egg, minestrone, white bean and kale, borscht, pork and soba noodle, garlic and poached egg, corn chowder, golden potato, tortilla, egg drop, essence of corn, her father’s chili, carrot and parsnip, chestnut, pumpkin, clam chowder, roasted squash, salted cod and potato, split pea,1 sorrel and crab, bisques of every imaginable kind, chicken with spinach, mushroom and barley, creamy Chinese celery—oh how Danielle delighted over soup. But this evening, this cold particular evening, she waited for whichever steamy soup the kitchen would send out through its creaky swinging doors.
Danielle stomped her boots—twice each outside the door, and twice each inside the door. She made her way through the tables and chairs, and unwound her purl-knit scarf. Each counter-clockwise unfurling undid an hour or so of her workday memories; she whirled them to the rafters, and there they would remain.
She hung her scarf upon a nail on the wall; her brown and white patterned coat rested across the back of her chair. She tapped her toes repeatedly; leather soles scraped against the end-cut pine. The snow was quick to melt in the tavern’s glowing warmth. Shallow mirrors formed beneath the feet of damp-leggéd patrons. The barmaid greeted Danielle with her familiar nod:
“Muscadet and soup this evening, Miss?”
“Yes please, Muscadet and soup.”
And from her apron she pulled a spoon and one linen napkin. She placed them both before Danielle—who had not even time to unfold the napkin, let alone place it in her lap before her steaming bowl of soup arrived.
“Split pea,” announced the barmaid as she set a chilled glass of Muscadet to the right of Danielle’s spoon.
“Thank you.” She looked up, but the barmaid had whisked herself away. The trail of soup steam held softly in the air. Danielle imagined a nebulous path, an entire flight from kitchen door to tabletop. A gentleman seated himself a few feet away, and her illusion was dispelled. Out flashed another spoon, out another napkin.
Danielle could not decide whether she first wanted a sip of wine or first a spoon of soup. She breathed in the savory steam that danced from the bowl—yet she waited, and she waited some more before she took a taste of Muscadet. Not really a decision, nor even a compromise, but it pleased her none-the-less. She slowly drew her spoon across the face of the bowl, lowering it just enough to skim a taste—a small taste, to prevent the scalding of impatience. Still, the soup’s bold temperature made quite the impression upon her tender lips and tongue. There quickly came a sip to sooth, followed by another sip as the flavor returned. Then some more split pea, and next a sip to chase and sooth; and then—in preparation of yet another taste of soup, another sip of Muscadet. Sip, soup, sip—sip, soup, sip—sip. A waltz of sustenance, Danielle said to herself. She spooned another pillow of soup, a piece of ham rested atop. Sip, soup, sip—she relished in the pleasure of contrasting hot and cold, and she smiled at the play between the thick-by-rich and crisp-of-shrill; how Danielle laughed—aloud—at her clever gastronomic dance.
The walk home was bitter and cold. Yet raw as it was, the thought of her warm bed— “the warmest ever!” —waiting for her helped all sorts of tingling extremities to savor both their chill and ache. Danielle thought it funny that her sisters, when out in the cold, complained of their toes, their fingers, or their noses falling numb. For when the cold would roll out its numbing bite, only then would Danielle feel as though her skin was truly at work. In those moments, she could feel every inch her body knew: fingers would sing bright notes through worn, blue mittens; her nose might flash a pink of joy, while her lonely toes would grumble far below. And this was one of those moments. Danielle began to sing a made-up tune as she skated her way home.
O my toes, you’ll soon be home
A warming soon to come my friends
A warming soon to come
O dearest nose, a pillow of silk
Awaits thy tenderest of pink
A warming soon to come my friends
A warming soon to come
And you, my helpless frost-bit ones
I promise each of you in turn
A warming soon to come
A warming soon to come my friends
A warming soon to come
She dropped the tune; it was much too cold to sing very well at all. She turned another corner. Three more to go. A smile broke across her face, and she gave quite the wink to a street lamp that stood crooked on the corner of York and Main.
Danielle often found it difficult to fall asleep; she did live on a noisy corner— “The noisiest!” Big boxy sounds would pass right through her bedroom walls.
“It’s Paleolithic out there,” she murmured, turning over for the hundred-thousandth time. She would have stomped her foot had she not been in bed.
“Don’t laugh! I was almost asleep.”
Danielle rolled on her side, and made quite the production of doing so.
“Will you give my back a little rub?”
And he did.
Then from the street—
R laughed once more.
“Don’t laugh I said!”
“How can I not, when you’re being so funny?”
Danielle leaned in to give R a kiss.
A baritone groan!
“Brontosaurus!” Exclaimed Danielle, shaking her fist, “every fifteen minutes a brontosaurus—lucky for them they’re adorable.”
“Absolutely. You see: brontosauruses have such tiny heads with tiny brains tucked inside; such long, long necks; a ginormous torso with sequoia trunk legs—like this, you’re not looking, like this—and my gosh, what a long tail. I must say, they do look an awful lot like palindromes?”
R laughed once more. Danielle was past reproaching him.
“Yes, palindrōmosaurus, and every fifteen minutes one comes thundering down my street—”
This went on and on. Quietly the two amused themselves, stuffed as they were within the confines of the most comfy bed the world would ever know. They exhausted dinosaur names well before they were themselves exhausted. R fell asleep, as always, before Danielle. Yesterday, this would have upset her, but not this evening. She did not care, for Danielle knew that her sleep was well within reach; it was just around the noisiest of corners, yet far from earshot of any two-ton lizard.
The sizzle and crack-a-crawk of hot oil penetrated Danielle’s sleepy state. Snakes? She questioned from within her dream. Snakes, fighting under my cozy bed—how dare! Yet she did not fully waken. Bacon and pea shoots crawled beneath her bedroom door, and wafted across the hardwood floor to find her freckled nose half-buried in the warming fabric of her hand-made pillow case. Burmese fighting bacon snakes! Those crispy rattlers stirred her drowsy indignation, accelerating her arousal from the warmest slumber.
Danielle opened the bedroom door. R stood in the kitchen making breakfast:
eggplant and pea shoot omelet
pink grapefruit, halved
He was far too involved forming his perfect omelets to have noticed the creek of the door.
“What are you making?”
“Hey! Back to bed.”
And she slowly retraced her footsteps in reverse.
“Ok—but will you tell me what you’re making over there?”
“Breakfast in bed!”
Danielle turned in her tracks, and raced back to bed chasing a smile the size of Tennessee.
Breakfast was delicious. Danielle loved pea shoots; she could eat them every day, all the time, in a thousand different ways—if only they were not so expensive. Of course she thanked R for his morning’s effort—because it was not routine, and she liked to imagine that it could be.
R strummed and slid away on his two-dollar guitar while Danielle began her third batch of Christmas cookies.
“What will those be?”
“Peanut butter,” she answered.
R dropped his guitar upon the divan with great haste.
“I love your peanut butter ones!”
“I know,” she said, “they’re for you.”
R reached for her. Danielle mildly fought off the embrace.
“Now stop—I’ll get flour all over you!”
At that, he dipped his hand into the mixing bowl, and gave himself a defiant, all-purpose dusting.
“That’s been measured out!” Yet she gave R a proper kiss. Danielle’s kiss made his cheeks flush with red! “Your lips,” he once said, “are too good for their own red.” Of course, this was not what R had wanted to say or even what he thought he had said. After a long debate as to whether it had been “too good for their own red,” or indeed “too red for their own good,” R acquiesced. Though upon Danielle’s request, he would elaborate: “the red your lips acquire at night is such that they cannot help lending some to those of pale design.”
“A kiss, as provocation?”
Those words of Danielle’s—though she wished she had said nothing—were the last uttered for some time that April evening.
A Christmas cookie bake filled the room. Drying flour on fingertips, the oven’s heat, that kiss of R’s upon her lips, the warm smell of lemon poppy seeders cooling on the stove—Danielle was overwhelmed by stimuli. She pulled herself away, ending the lengthy kiss. Something of the kiss remained: something in, or on, or around her face and chest—even her fingers were affected. It could not be described, at least not adequately. It felt like when she would drink milk, and it would linger—hazily in her mouth and throat. Is this what they call love? A residual lactic veil? She quickly told herself to shut up, repeatedly: Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! R watched as Danielle stood there in silence and puzzle. Love, whatever do these people mean? Even if love were her own sun-burnt lips, she felt that she would not be any more aware of its existence.
“This is silly,” she said aloud.
It was nothing and he needn’t worry. So R returned to the divan and his song, as Danielle resumed her portioning of peanut butter dough—one chocolate piece per each moist ball.
Potholders were grabbed, oven doors flew open, and cookie sheets were placed into the oven. Danielle paused for a moment before closing the oven door; she then wriggled an orange cardamom one from its greasy paw print upon the sheet. They would still need to cool some. Cookie in hand, Danielle walked over to where R was sitting.
“Here, careful, it’s still rather warm.”
R thanked her for the tasty distraction. Danielle pursed her lips.
“Is something the matter?”
“Please—it’s nothing.” She retied her apron, “I need to check the cookies.”
R thought about asking her why it was she had to check after a batch so shortly after having put them in. But he did not; instead, he decided to pose a question about cookies in general:
“Danielle, what’s the worst cookie?”
“The snicker doodle,” she replied emphatically and without delay.
“And the second worst?”
“There is no second worst, just the worst!”
Racks of cookies rested on every flat surface Danielle’s apartment could provide: one atop the ice box, one across the sink, one on each of three stools, five upon the kitchen table, two on window sills, one even in the bedroom upon her chest-of-drawers; each was cooling under a damp towelette. R had left for work. Again, his kiss lingered upon her lips.
Up she bundled. Danielle possessed a surgeon’s precision when it came to the buttoning of her double-breasted coat—it had nearly twenty-five pearl buttons. She kept to the same pattern; her fingers navigated inside, around, back and forth—R laughed every time. “Your buttoning is a work of art.” Now, thanks to R’s observation, every time Danielle would button this particular coat, she could not help but think—not of her buttoning as art form, but rather of a particular painting or sculpture or what-have-you. This morning, she imagined a Caravaggio, though not a real one—she had never seen a real one—only a few, fleeting in a picture book, one of them even in color. So, as Danielle nimbled away at the remaining buttons, she assembled her own masterpiece: a Caravaggio in piecemeal, and she closed the door behind her.
“Today I baked a lot,” was Danielle’s address to the snow and cold. As much as she had baked, it did not help Danielle escape her present state. She worried. She was not able to afford the gift—the only thing R had expressed any interest in, an authentic moku hanga set—woodcarving tools imported from the Orient. In fact, Danielle could hardly afford the Christmas dinner she was planning—given that most of her family were going to be there—and how they could eat! Anything less than delicious, anything shy of abundance, and certainly anything short of festive would be a disappointment; and disappointing her family was just about the worst thing Danielle could imagine. Worse than disappointing R? Danielle smiled. She knew it would be awfully hard for her to disappoint him. She realized that, in fact, she was more concerned about not being able to please him. Am I more worried about disappointing myself? She kicked a chunk of snow. Am I selfish? She toppled another. The snow tumbled in advance of her step, and broke apart upon its short-lived journey.
Tzih-tshih, tzih-tshih, Danielle’s boots unzipped the snow. Tzih-tshih, another storefront passed. It was awfully cold out of doors, and a sharp, beautiful pain began to grow between her temples. My head feels smaller, my nose somehow bigger, and I can feel my toes. Feel her toes that is, for the first time since she had worn the leather insoles of her favorite boots down to their very tacks until those sharp bits bore tiny wounds upon the bottoms of her toes—not that Danielle would ever stop wearing them. She thought about having them mended; it would give her toes time to heal. But no, and besides, she thought it possible for one to grow a good callus or two.
She decided upon the long way to work that afternoon, in effort to avoid passing the import store with those coveted carving tools fanned out and on display. They came with their own water stone. Danielle liked this very much; she thought it made the set autonomous.
The long route made her late. She hated being late. To right her tardiness, the moment she arrived at work, she busied herself straightaway—nearly in a frenzy. Between the typesetters and the copywriters she flew. Quickly it became a blur—and then she was finished. Danielle wished the night crew a Merry Christmas, and they wished her the same in return. She wanted the cold, then the warmth, and then soup; in that order—yes, but mostly she wanted her soup.
The winter cold absorbed the children’s laughter—the few that braved the cold, or rather the few whose parents allowed them to do so. There had been a fresh snowfall, not a burdening amount, but a manageable one, and the children delighted in its magnitude. With the warmth from supper still in their bellies, they ran about and slid through the empty snow-laid streets, each in pursuit of the poker-jabber stick.2 The cold was everywhere. Danielle, more than a few steps from the tavern door, pictured herself already there and seated, the snow already melting, and her fingers on the verge of half a thaw. Old Professor would be there, so would Lone Writer, as well as the two young machinists.
The barmaid was already in full flight; she buzzed around the room with her tray of drinks held above her head. She sang a familiar waltz.
Long, long time ago
Someone I know—
Two glasses of beer to the young machinists.
Had a little red canoe,
In it room for only two—
A chartreuse cordial for Lone Writer.
Love found its start
Then in my heart,
And like a flower grew—
A spot of Madeira for a bearded gentleman.
Seeming in a paradise of love divine,
She spun between two tables.
Dreaming of a pair of eyes that looked in mine—
A fibble3 of gin for Old Professor.
Beautiful Ohio, in dreams again I see
Visions of what used to be—
Professor of what, Danielle was not quite sure—though she imagined he held a doctorate in marginalia, for he would sit the evening through, thinking, then writing—with sips of gin between. He sits there for hours—scrawling away. She expected that he was working on formulae for feelings or grand emotional equations. Let us see, rate of motion ® multiplied by a factor of time (t) equals distance traveled (d); plus memory quantified (m) equals—He broke for a sip—equals (g) regret. In conclusion: (r x t = d) + m = g. Danielle quietly laughed; she considered herself terribly clever. Old Professor put the pen to rest and finished his drink. The barmaid pattered by—
Visions of what used to be—
The drawing table stood pinched in the front corner of R’s apartment near the window. It was a small apartment; if ever one could be or become a side street crêperie, his apartment was the one. R sat at the table and viewed the wall before him where seventeen sketches of Danielle, various prints of the Charites, and images of Minerva hung from a constellation of finishing nails. R had been commissioned by the community board to design and print one of the annual New Year’s cards for the village. This was quite an honor for such a young artist. His ideas were limitless; however, his decisiveness lay somewhere between December and mid January.
On numerous occasions throughout December, Danielle had sat for R as he sketched her form. On the thirteenth, she was Minerva; with a shawl aegis and a whisk for a spear, she stood in lieu of the goddess for two hours. Minerva’s association with poetry, craft, music, and commerce seemed appropriate; however, Danielle presented a very unconvincing Minerva. She was statuesque, but too soft for the stark angles of a virgin warrior. R changed his mind.
On the sixteenth, Danielle returned to R’s apartment, where she posed as the three Charites: Beauty in contrapposto, Mirth in profile, and the fair-cheeked Thalia in three-quarters view. A few days later, R showed Danielle some assembled sketches of her body in triplicate, each embracing her own likeness. Danielle pointed out that R’s renderings, once transferred to woodblock—he chose the woodblock for its simplicity and rustic charm—would be nearly indistinguishable from the three fates.
“Having the weavers of human fate, especially that one who cuts the thread of life, is perhaps not entirely appropriate for the New Year.” Though initially hurt, he agreed with her. A better idea was needed.
It was a week later, and R was staring at the wall, searching for an idea, yet not one would come. He fell asleep. When he awoke, with a mind too tired to wander, he focused on a charcoal: Danielle in profile from the left side, her hair falling in curls over her ear. He looked for a profile view of her right side; not finding one, he quickly made a sketch. He took the original down and placed them together, as one would two bookends. He remembered seeing this image once, on a coin, in the encyclopedia. He began with A; he leafed methodically through volume after volume. When, not fifty pages into J, he came to the image on the left-hand margin. Janus. He read the entry. It was perfect. Danielle in dueling profile would become the two-headed god of gates, of beginnings, and of endings— though without the beard.
This evening the soup was parsnip and apple. The Muscadet Danielle would always have was not available—and would not be for some time; she was given another white, the name of which she could not remember. She offered her glass a discerning leer: more goldenrod than straw—jasmine perhaps? The smell was disarming; it was new. Her Muscadet smelled like how she imagined the cliffs of Dover might. This wine (it reminded her of gold) was not a golden apple wine, for sure not a green apple one either—that was her Muscadet, green apple splashed about the cliffs of Dover. This was nothing of the sort. It was very different. Not at all a chalky cliff. Effusive and appley—red delicious, and a mealy one at that, with a blistering skin. Danielle took her first sip. The wine was rich, with a texture of cream—less so one of wine. A miniature spider danced about her tongue, up it bobbed and down it dipped, weaving a gold jacquard. The finest thread of sweetness wove its way throughout the tapestry. “How wonderful!” Danielle exclaimed, hoping that someone might share in her delight. It was moments like this one that she most wanted R to be near—though he rarely seemed to be, and that was not his fault. Do I like him more, when perhaps the reason to is less? She took another sip. I think I just might.
It was not noticeable upon her first sip, but following her second—and for certain after her third—that touch of Danielle’s lips imparted a rosy hue to what moments before had been mere gold. The depth of tint grew more intense with every sip. Partridge eye lead to hibiscus, which gave way to rose petal, garnet soon followed, and it was garnet that lingered until carnelian bared her heart. With each sip, with every touch from her lips, the wine shed one hue of red for another darker still.
“What acts as mordent for your dying lips?”
Danielle looked up to find the bearded gentleman standing beside her. He was inspecting the tabletop.
“No alum, tin, or mordant chrome.”
He took a good look at her face.
“And here, no cochineal, nor carminic acid. Not a sliver of brazil wood—”
“The dye of the renaissance?” Questioned Danielle. The bearded gentleman gave her hands a closer peer.
“No, not even madder root—”
“The Turkish red, a cure for pallor when boiled with honey and wine?”
“It is refreshing that you know of such things.”
“Well yes, my friend—a printer—loves the color red. He talks about its value all the time.”
“What name would your friend give to this shade of red?” He asked as he pointed to her glass.
“Claret, I guess.”
“Yes, of course. I have seen cochineal used in cosmetics so that those with pale lips may broker bolder statements; but you—you need no additive. I’ve noticed your lips, they dye the wine with each successive sip.”
He held his hands up to the light. They were stained a motley purple and green.
“Are you a miller?”
“A dyer to be exact. And do you like red as well?”
“Yes, very much so.”
“Tell me, the cold and wind, have they caused your lips to crack—just so—that they might issue forth this ruddish vein when aggravated by the pleasures of your poaching wine?”
In response, Danielle raised her glass toward the light and added:
“Perhaps it was this, a small, small chip upon the rim that furtively abrased my pout and with the wine’s accord, has caused this red to bleed—just so?”
The dyer sat in thought for a moment. Danielle took the opportunity to finish her soup, she glanced up in-between spoonfuls. The clang and clatter of silver on porcelain continued throughout the tavern.
“Excuse me Miss, may I impose?”
Danielle put down her spoon.
“You may, but you must do so from this chair.”
And so the dyer took a seat. He pulled a silk handkerchief from his breast pocket.
“Will you touch your lips to this?”
“You would like for me to kiss your handkerchief?”
He nodded. Danielle took the white square of silk from the dyer’s hand. She unfolded it, turned it inside, then out, then drew it toward her. From the opposite side the dyer observed the soft impression of her lips; eagerly, he reclaimed his handkerchief to inspect it—carefully—both inside and out.
“Nothing?” Asked Danielle.
“I suppose not—”
“What were you expecting might happen?”
“Well, I was not exactly sure.”
The barmaid stopped at the table; she cleared the bowl, the spoon and the empty tumbler.
“Would you care for another Miss?”
“Yes please—what was it called again?”
“Vouvray—Vouvray Vouvray! How it rolls from the tongue.”
“I’ll have one as well.”
“It really is quite delicious; I’ve never had it before. I’ve always had a Muscadet, but they’re out at the moment—I guess I drank the last of the lot.”
“Two Vouvray,” the barmaid declared as she set the tumblers down upon the table.
Danielle raised her glass.
“To a Merry Christmas?”
“Yes, a merry one.”
The Dyer used his handkerchief to sponge the small amount of wine Danielle had spilled from her tumbler as she set it down. He moved his glass aside and spread the handkerchief evenly upon the pear wood table. He then poured another drop or two from his own onto the damp fabric. The silk was patient to absorb the spill. Danielle looked on.
“Will you try it once more?”
Danielle picked up two opposing corners and slowly raised the handkerchief.
“What do you fancy might happen now?” She said as she peered at him from above the silk fold.
“Good fortune I hope.”
He was quick to explain his circumstance: a particular client was in search of a deep-rooted red.
“The red your lips have lent this wine would be a welcomed match. As you have already witnessed, purple and green are currently in favor, so much so that I have not purchased any cochineal or madder root for quite some time.”
With the amount he had remaining he would not be able to arrive at the desired intensity.
“It would be washed out—unimpressive.”
“I see,” and Danielle kissed the translucent blot.
She held the white up near the flickering candlelight. Within moments, red grew from its absence. Across the white, her coral spread. The two observed as the red continued its draw and bloom. Danielle spoke—
“Have you ever painted with watercolors?”
The dyer knew exactly what she had meant; he nodded in agreement. With just that one touch, every tempered fiber of the handkerchief became consumed by red.
“Might this qualify as good fortune?”
“Yes—absolutely. I know it is rather late—”
“Yes very, but not too late.”
“I would like to pay you—”
“What is the work?”
“More of the same, but on a larger scale. You see—”
Danielle cut him off with a quick wave of her hand. She pulled out a pen and scribbled a figure onto an old matinee stub. She smiled, and with her index finger, she turned the slip around and slid it across the tabletop.
“That, my soup and wine—as well as tomorrow’s soup and wine.”
“But tomorrow is Christmas Eve.”
“Of course—so my soup and wine today and tomorrow’s twice removed.”
The dyer purchased a few bottles of the wine to take with them; they clanged and sighed within the sack. The walk to the shop was a short one—two blocks’ worth. So short in fact, the cold did not have the opportunity to impose. The shop was a step down from street level.
“Watch your step,” the dyer pointed out a few but tricky ones.
The low doorframe made room for Danielle to pass beneath without too much of a duck. Busy igniting a few work lamps, the dyer invited Danielle to hang her things on the tall rack to her left. In-between her buttons, she had time to look about. The shop was damp, pungent, dimly lit, and smelled of clay. The ceiling rested not far from the top of her head. The dyer’s work table stood bare in the center of the room. Danielle reached to touch the soft and well-worked grain. It appeared moist, though it was dry to her touch.
“Here, our midnight task.”
The dyer lowered a bolt of fabric on the table’s surface. He gave it a convincing push, and how its white arrived; an early dawn, it rolled from table edge to table edge. With his open hand, the dyer soothed the virgin white until it lay taut.
“What a fine silk—”
Danielle asked of its provenance as she rolled the nearest corner between her thumb and forefinger.
“How beautifully it holds what little light there is.”
The dyer pretended not to be offended. He opened the bottles and poured their contents into a shallow pan. He held a painter’s brush which he dipped into the wine. At one corner they began—the dyer and his brush, Danielle with her lips. Damp and colorless, his first stroke was quickly met by moistened lips; their blind engineering ignited a bleeding of red.
They worked together in silence for some time. Eventually, the dyer asked Danielle if she had ever read the Odyssey.
“Yes, once in school. Why?”
Each and every stroke was greeted by a kiss, each kiss preceded by a stroke. The pair sparked a swell of red.
“Do you remember the part when Ulysses finally returns home?”
“Yes, where he pretends to be the beggar?”
Stroke by stroke led kiss by kiss as blushing rouges raced to meet their like. Danielle’s tint of staining grew, so that what remained of white became stark white by envy’s touch.
“Penelope asks him to describe how her Ulysses was dressed when he left for Troy”
A lamp began to flicker and went out. Red embraced the shop.
“Yes, I remember, though vaguely.”
Danielle leaned in to follow the Dyer’s stroke with a touch from her lips.
“He mentions a purple mantle, a golden broach, and a close-fitted shirt.”
She placed another kiss.
There, another stroke.
“A shirt that looked as though it were made of onion skins—for it would glisten in the sunlight.”
“This shirt could only have been made of silk.”
As the dyer spoke, the last orphan plots of white bled together.
“There, we’ve finished.”
A solid plane of crimson stretched out before them. The dyer held a lamp above their work.
“Perfect—it will need an overnight to dry.”
Danielle was feeling rather tired; in fact, she had not felt this tired in quite some time.
“This will be an easy sleep indeed.”
“I have trouble sleeping, but I shall not tonight.”
“Yes, I believe we shall both have very satisfying sleeps.”
The dyer thanked Danielle and placed a small purse in the palm of her pale hand. She smiled at the htought of its contents. Even though it was late, she kindly refused his offer to accompany her home. Danielle enjoyed her walks alone. The door closed behind her as she climbed the handful of steps to street level.
The clock face on the church tower read two-fifteen in the morning.
“Why it’s Christmas Eve!”
When she would awake, it would still be Christmas Eve, but a more proper one. She would make breakfast and then set out upon errand after errand until at last she would be able to purchase those carving tools, take them home, wrap them up—just so—and hide her happy gift in the closet beneath a pile of her shoes. She was as excited as any tired one could be. Christmas fell on a Sunday, and it was sure to be a chilly one.
Danielle recalled the Sundays of her youth; they were the most bitter of bitter days. Was cold still new to her young body then, or was it the oven-warmed bricks the acolytes would shuffle in and then out from under footrests beneath the church pews? Danielle could not decide, but she knew that when she was six and would walk outside after service—each a million hours long—she would be bundled up as best to face the noontime cold. And the trees, they would move with the breeze, their ice-swollen limbs would not make a sound, even though she knew they were mustering to be heard. Crick-a-crack and creek-creek: Danielle would strain to hear their refrain, but she could not; it never reached her ears. She felt sorry for those trees.
“Now how did I manage that?”
To have missed her turn after so many years, Danielle was at a loss. She turned around.
The sight of her tracks was quite comical; they swerved to and fro down the sidewalk in elongated and drunken arabesques. Danielle began to backtrack. She attempted to slide her boots in the paths provided by her just-made ruts. This proved quite impossible. It would be easier to make straight ones than to remake such sloppy ones. She broke from her light-hearted guides and made the turn—the one she had missed—on to her block. She would be home in a moment and in bed the moment after.
Christmas Eve passed quite uneventfully. Danielle completed all of her required errands, including lots of reading and dumpling making; R was there to help. After clean-up, the two sat and read late into the night, sipping on the Japanese twig tea Danielle had scooped herself at the import store; she thought it was an appropriate foreshadowing for her Christmas gift. She smiled from behind her teacup. Each sip brought the day closer and closer to a close. Danielle fell asleep on the divan. R put down her book, making sure to save her spot, then carried her off to bed.
It was still rather early, and R remained awake. This evening, he would use Danielle’s apartment to print his cards, for it was much larger, with adequate room to hang and dry his prints. He set up a makeshift printing station on the kitchen table, a tray of black ink was poured, and the process began. R gathered the ink on the roller, moved it to a sheet of wax paper where he evened out the coating, then applied it to the first block. He carefully aligned the face of the card atop the inverted image, and with a clean roller, applied pressure for a clear transfer. The card peeled away with a tacky smack; a border had been printed. Next, he prepped the text block, and with the same technique, the backward lettering became three distinct and legible words. The first card was hung from one of five wires extending across the apartment. There it would dry, soon to be joined by four-hundred and some odd siblings.
When R had finished the two sides of black, he cleaned the roller and ink tray and began once more with red. His relief of Danielle as Janus awaited its ink. A red of sheer and sheen would coat the block; a twisting made her curls, and a simple slope chased her nose and inward turned to greet her threaded lips. R aligned the card over the image and placed it corner to corner upon the block. When it was removed, the card bore a bold and jailed image—only slightly different than he imagined it would be. Danielle’s soft features and profile translated from sketch, to relief, to paper in fluid beauty.
Two-hundred and thirty-one Janus prints later, Danielle awoke. She pushed the door softly open.
“Are you coming to bed soon?”
She asked before her leaden eyesight noticed the hanging cards. They dangled in a cardinal blur above her head. Flickering, they spun and moved with the breeze provided by the freshly opened door. She reached for one, stopped it in mid-twirl, and read:
to new beginnings
“You weren’t supposed to see them until the morning; it was a surprise.”
“Don’t be upset, I promise to forget.”
She kissed him and returned to bed, leaving the door ajar so that she could hear him rustling about and talking to himself while he printed her dyadic image late into the morning. The pink light and R’s shuffling held influence over Danielle as she slept; she dreamt of autumn and the murmuring of birch trees.
R was taking down the last of his New Year’s cards; he placed them neatly in four boxes of one-hundred and forty-four a piece. It was early Christmas morning and Danielle was in the middle of her dinner preparations.
“What’s the matter?”
“I forgot to get the coffee. My father will throw an absolute fit!”
Danielle grabbed her coat.
“Where are you off to, it’s Christmas Day!”
“To the Gardiner’s, to borrow some coffee.”
“Should you bring some cookies for barter?”
“Yes I should, and shall—and thank you.”
R filled a tin with cookies and handed it to Danielle as she finished the last of her buttoning-ups.
“Please, please keep basting the goose or it will be ruined. But quickly, and not too often or the oven will lose its heat. And keep checking the squash—”
“Would you like for me to go instead so that you can stay—”
“No! I trust you, besides, it will be nice to see Mrs. Gardiner.”
And she closed the door. It was a thick and unforgiving door, but it could not stop Danielle’s voice from reaching through:
“And stir the soup!”
Snow was piled everywhere and out of doors it smelled of absence—the Christmas cold made sure of that. At first, Danielle thought she smelled a milky blue. No—no, I think it smells white—almost pearly! And then she felt the cold. Such cold! Blast by blast, it penetrated her lungs, as breath by breath, the pair became twin shallow ponds struggling not to freeze over. Quickly, it became obvious to Danielle that it was too cold to worry, let alone think about her sense of smell—no matter how good it happened to be. It was cold, and cold smelled of cold, and that was that.
Mrs. Gardiner had made Danielle stay for a few cups of tea and a bit of warming near the fire before she allowed her to venture back out in the cold. After thank-yous and good-byes, and a final thank you, she raced home.
Danielle was about to lift the gate latch, when she noticed a flickering—a crackle of pink and a flare of red from within her second-story windows.
She scooped a ball of snow from the gargoyle snoot.
“Oh—the goose, the goose!”
Through the doors and up the stairwell, Danielle whirled her limbs around the banister. She caught herself after nearly stumbling to the floor, and let out a terrific yell. The door to the apartment opened just as Danielle was set to plunge straight through it. R was standing there, quite surprised at the sight of such a panic on her wind-burnt face. There was no smoke, no smell of a ruined goose—there was no fire at all; yet the room glowed. Red danced about both ceiling and wall as sunlight came through the windows and ignited the tablecloth.
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s for you—Danielle, for what you had said you wanted, the perfect Christmas dinner—remember?”
Of course she did. Danielle reached for R, and kissed him.
“And it will be perfect—thank you.”
She peered over and past his shoulder at the table now covered in brilliant red silk.
“What do you call that color?” She asked.
“Generous. I had never heard of it before.”
The two stood for some time amid the basking red. R had dropped the baster to the floor. Danielle leaned firmly into his embrace and buried her head in the itchy grey of his sweater. The snowball continued to melt in her blue-mittened hand.
Those four syllables whispered by R—her R—were just about the most perfect thing he could have said at that moment—or any moment. The snow found a melting path down her arm and made her woolen sleeve quite damp and cold. Yet Danielle felt a certain warmth, or was it the warmth of certainty? She could not recall ever being so warm, not even once. It feels like this—it must!
Danielle thought past the perfect Christmas table, through her bedroom door, toward the closet, under a pair of calf-highs, to where her gift lay wrapped and waiting. She pressed her forehead against his collar and closed her eyes.
Danielle walked carefully atop the morning’s frosted hoar. With two steps upon and one straight through and so-on and so-forth she went. She whistled. Faded notes passed between her lips. One step on and two straight through and so-on and so-forth. It was a chilly waltz, warmed only by the few stray bars that Danielle knew of Strauss’ “Vienna Blood.”
1Split pea was originally noted as the character's favorite soup, but was omitted in a later edit.
2 Poker-jabber stick originated as a child's game, similar to jousting, but played out upon the back of ponies. It evolved into an elaborate game to tag.
3Fible: local dialect for a unit of liquid measure equaling roughly two US ounces.
ContributorMark Du Mez
Mark Du Mez is a writer of little consequence living in Manhattan. A handful of fairy tales comprise the totality of his work; they have been read by an even smaller handful.