Is it odd for an atheist to celebrate the season? No. Of course not. The Winter Solstice is common to all of humanity, regardless of the table-flipping guy who got nailed to a cross. Jesus set an example for us that we should love each other, and I am perfectly happy to celebrate that message on the darkest day of the year.
Yes, I’ve got the story count wrong. But seeing as the number 13 is lucky to Chinese people, let’s hope it does some good for us this Christmas Eve. And, speaking of cultural cross-overs, here’s a piece for you straight out of my clicking, cog-timed heart.
A Steampunk Christmas
The whispers were the worst.
Not the actual pain, or the unpredictable spells that invariably overtook her at the most inopportune times. They were spending a fortune on sticking-plasters; her knees looked like theater district bill-boards. Missy could bear it all, even the sudden bouts of nausea or the fits in the night that had her writhing and spasming, Delphine clutching her anxiously so she didn’t roll off the bed.
Missy just couldn’t stand the other girls at the market whispering behind her back.
“That Missy thinks she’s better than us,” said one in hushed tones. “With her airs and her ‘yes ma’ams.’ I bet she’s a cold fish.”
“Fragile little flower, always going around with that fancy walking stick.”
“I bet it’s a sham. She’s faking it,” said the worst of them, her high voice carrying to Missy’s ears over the mists of the city. Missy had always had better hearing than most, but now she wanted to stick one of her hair stays into her ears. No- what Missy really wanted was to go over to them, raise her dragon-headed stick and beat those girls over the head with it.
Instead, she pretended she didn’t hear. She thanked the fowl-monger for her purchase, and continued up the cobbled way. Missy had gone up and down Pickup Street so many times, she knew every pothole and every splintered board. Every flower girl and paperboy on the street bid her good afternoon. Even the rickshaw drivers were polite. Missy knew, most importantly, where the City Convocation had neglected to repair the road with flightstone, instead cordoning off the enormous holes where one misstep would result in a lethal fall of thousands of feet into the clouds below.
The artists who sold little paintings waved to her, and she smiled at them under the clockworked signboard for Jinkies Spectacles. The huge sign was done in painted planks: a schoolgirl putting on and taking off a pair of magnificent wrought iron spectacles with a steady groan of gears. It was nearly Christmas, and an early snow had given the Jinkies schoolgirl a fine head of white hair.
She had to struggle to climb the last steep bit of Pickup Street, a high stair arching up the side of a bowl made of high, stacked flats. Missy and Delphine’s flat was one of a row of identical buildings. Square Mile City was truly only one square mile big, so everybody who lived in the city had to squeeze in together. But that meant homes on the edge of the square had a fine view of the obelisk in the center of town, the top part of the Engine that kept the whole city aloft. The pyramid of flightstone glittered with a web of conductive gold cracks as it slowly turned with the Engine’s enormous gears.
At last, she climbed the final huge step and stood outside number forty-two Pickup Street, a ramshackle puzzle piece right on the edge of the pile. She passed into the communal passage, waving hello to the old seamstress on the first floor. In the back of the building there was a rickety stair she had to climb every time she went out. Every once in awhile she missed her step and ended up sticking her foot out over the yawning abyss. Sunset was coming, and the country below was lit orange. The light was beautiful, but it made her dizzy. She took a moment, leaning on her stick. She tried not to look down.
Eventually she reached her door mid-way up the building, opening it into a one-room flat. There was a small herb garden in her large window, heaps of old books, and her straw bed. She flopped on, exhausted. It was small, but Missy knew the room only as hers and Delphine’s little love nest.
Missy Sotheby Claire had been high born, and so this eking out a meager existence had at first been novel, then wearing, and finally, routine. Then the illness had struck at her with its paralyzing fingers, and Missy had never felt so much despair, not even when she fought with Father and left Claire Isle. Sometimes, if the City turned just right, she could see its mansion towers and spinning lift blades in the clouds, and she had to draw the ragged curtain over the window. Now she was Missy Delacoeur, and she had never heard a name more beautiful, not for a single day since she received it.
Missy had married Sara Delphine Delacoeur young, when there had been plenty of suitors from other Isles vying for her hand. Missy was black of hair, with a streak of white at the front that highlighted her almond eyes and shocking white irises- a beauty even by City standards. But she’d met the junior librarian of the Central Library on a finishing school tour and it had been love at first sight.
They were married at Circus Gardens. Missy had been twenty, Delphine twenty-four. Delphine had looked spectacular in her thrift store suit and flawless topaz skin. Her hair had been its usual windswept mess of starlight silver.
“Please don’t tell me you got me a comb,” said Missy, as the door unlocked and Delphine came in with a paper shop box. Missy had sold her lovely hair last month to make rent, and it hadn’t grown back yet.
“Of course not. I’ve read that story, too melodramatic,” said Delphine. “But you’re not allowed to look.”
Missy looked at the box with a mixture of apprehension, annoyance and pleasant excitement. Delphine had been very careful, bringing the box with her to work and back so Missy had no chance to peek. She knew her wife very well- her mischief, and her illness, also. They couldn’t afford any luxuries, and Delphine must have worked an extra shift with the Engineers to buy her Christmas present.
Without another word, Delphine began to prepare dinner. Soon, the house filled with a fine herb scent, and Delphine served the meal with half a hard roll each, the last of their week’s bread. Missy had a side of chalky tablets, choked down with a thin tea. Half the time she would throw up the meal later in the night, regretting the loss of the money even as her stomach rebelled. But for now, it was nice to have dinner together, a young couple just starting out.
Working normally was out of the question- nobody would hire someone who might collapse at any moment in the day. Missy eked by with a coin here and there, teaching children to read, but her stamina was not strong. Some days she had to send a child away from her sickbed, not even able move to the desk by the window. It was the dizziness that came when she read for too long- her eyes wouldn’t focus. They could not afford the good doctors, who lived and served mostly on the Isles, and the local apothecary women only knew so much. Square Mile Hospital was ridiculous. It was full of consumption and lice, and sometimes the pox.
Of course, the birdwives and most of the shop girls did not understand. To them, Missy had the dialect of the Isles and the gait of someone who had taken waltz lessons since she could walk. The wealthy didn’t live in the city- they lived on the Isles, outlying boroughs reachable by sky swifts.
Somewhere deep down she still felt she was better than the clucking birdwives. She could ride a sky-swift, and could not only read but hold discourse with the Professors at the Central Library. Delphine and Missy were rare souls who understood pursuit of art, of writing and the fascination with skycrafts, those machines that kept the city aloft. That was why Missy loved her.
Her family visited her the day before Christmas. Delphine was at Central, and Missy had just sent a child away for the second time in a week. His mother would probably not send him back. Missy didn’t need to look to recognize her father’s sharp knocks.
“Hello Missy,” he said as soon as she opened the door.
“Father,” she said, apprehensively.
Lord James Sotheby Claire was an imposing man in a city of imposing men. He was a bit like a knife with a face on it, all hard angles and cutting words. Now he stepped inside, tracking dirt over Missy’s colorful woven rug. He looked around, and the corner of his mouth twisted.
“I see Delacoeur has yet to secure more appropriate accommodations,” he said.
“This is quite appropriate enough,” said Missy. Though she said it calmly, when she went to fix tea, she managed to slam the kettle down hard enough for drops to sizzle on the top of the stove.
“Missy. You can always come home,” said Lord Sotheby Claire. “Help at the company.” He meant to be kind, but the offer sounded like a reproach.
“No, I can’t,” said Missy. “How many times do I have to say it? I can’t even make the journey on foot every day. How will I count your shipments or balance your books when I am laid out on a bed most days? Or give orders to hundreds of spark men, let alone the foremen who have been there since before your day?”
“If you just push through-”
“No!” Missy dashed her teacup to the ground in a fit of fury. The precious object was one of the few nice things she and Delphine owned, but right then it felt like she didn’t deserve to have any nice things. If she could push through the nausea and the pain she would, but there was no telling when her legs might give out under her and dump her to the ground.
The shattered cup sat between Lord Sotheby Claire and Missy for a moment, sundered into a circle of sharp points and spilled tea.
“You should go,” said Missy. There were tears in her eyes.
After her father left, Missy shut the door. She was furious, but she could feel her illness creeping up with the anger, eating it, drawing strength from it to lay her low. Missy wondered why she was even here, what she was living for.
It took a long time, but she managed to pull together before the last light faded. With an hour left of sunset, Missy lifted a loose board and came up with a bundle wrapped in butcher paper. Inside were scraps of fine cloth, cut from her old dresses and Delphine’s worn shirts.
Missy continued to unwrap, revealing a bundle from the leatherworks. She had pushed herself to the limit to go to the works on Giving Day, but by the time she got there most of the samples and miscut coats had been claimed. Missy had nearly given up, but the owner had seen her and had known her father. He came out with good canvas and leather meant for coachworks, tough and sky-worthy. Missy had wept with joy.
Each morning, Missy sewed the latest scraps into the coat. Making a good coat was a difficult thing, but the lovely old seamstress on the first floor was willing to let Missy use her machine. In exchange, Missy read the news very loudly each morning, so the nearsighted seamstress could hear. Missy was glad of the large newsprint.
The coat was meant as a librarian’s coat, with big pockets for books and little loops for pens and tools. But it was drafty, and that meant Missy had to sew layers of panels into the coat to trap the down and keep in the warmth. The work was grueling but come December it was nearly finished. Now, when she unfurled the garment, the interior gleamed with a dozen different panels, all beautiful in their own way but together a patchwork of Missy’s love. Missy was mindful of her stamina, but as the last streak of light died in the distance she bit through the last thread.
“It’s finished,” said Missy. She gave a long sigh, and closed her eyes- the room was blurry with the effort. She couldn’t wait for Delphine to come home. They would eat the confit canard, which had been marinating in a pot of good fat, garlic and long strands of herbs. There would be rice and roasted collards. Come Christmas morning they would polish off the succulent feet, with tiny dewbird eggs for breakfast. Delphine would fry potatoes in fat for Missy to tuck into. The Square Mile Clock would ring its seven bells, chiming in Christmas greetings, and snow was predicted to fall through the day in a light, dry blanket.
At two minutes past when Delphine was due, Missy wasn’t concerned. Delphine worked long hours sometimes, and though it was unusual on Christmas Eve, she knew how badly they needed it. Two hours later Missy began to worry in earnest. The streets would be dark. Tradewinds would whip through the streets. Delphine’s cough-!
Three hours past due, Missy awoke from a troubled slumber to the sound of her door rattling. Missy gathered herself up into a shawl and opened the door on its thin chain.
“Danny!” said Missy as she recognized the long braid and man’s suit. Danielle Pritchett was Delphine’s closest friend, and worked at the printer’s near the Library. She had been their best man, though she had no truck with nuptials herself- such was the depth of their friendship.
“Missy! Come quickly. It’s Delphine… she’s at the hospital!”
“Oh no!” said Missy, but when she tried to move, her leg dragged on the rug. She toppled forward into Danny’s arms.
“Oh, bollocks,” said Danny, who looked like she regretted coming. “You’re in a bad way.”
“I have to go to her!” said Missy. “What’s happened to Delphine?” Missy looked furious, and close to tears.
“She’s been taken in an ambulance,” said Danny, but it didn’t soothe Missy at all. “She fell. Earlier today. He was pretty high in the stacks. People heard her coughing a fit… there was blood. They took her right away.”
“No, not the hospital. That’s where they take the consumptives to die!” said Missy.
“Come, I’ll help you walk. I have a rickshaw waiting,” said Danny. Why didn’t she say so earlier?! Missy tottered to her feet and now she could see tear streaks in Danny’s makeup.
“Wait,” said Missy, and hobbled back inside the room. She threw on her own ragged coat and her goggles, and picked up Delphine’s Christmas present wrapped in its butcher paper.
“All right. Let’s go,” said Missy. Her brow drew tight, stoppering her tears.
Missy had to stop and clutch the rails of the stair, which were pitching back and forth with the movement of the airborne city. They were also dusted in fresh snow- the first vanguards of a hard frost. The coming snowstorm was rollicking the city with great swells. Missy had no time. She nearly put her foot through a gap, stumbling.
“Can you make it?” said Danny.
“Yes! Just… go down first!” said Missy.
“Oh! All right,” said Danny, and clomped down to the bottom. She turned. “Wait, no-!” said Danny, seeing what Missy was about to do.
“Right,” said Missy, and put her bottom on the rail. Her back hung over hundreds of feet of black sky. Missy took a deep breath and slid down the rusty rail, sending up a wing of snow whirling into the deep.
“Oh, my word!” Missy cried. The city tipped, and Missy nearly went down on the wrong side of the rail. Then a gnarled but strong hand had her by her clothes, and jerked her back towards safety. Missy curled her toes to bring her weight in, and then she was clutching Danny, her heart going a mile a minute.
When she opened her eyes Missy looked into the face of the old seamstress, who had leaned out of her window and pulled her in with a deft, strong hand. The old woman nodded.
“Fly,” said the seamstress. Missy clutched at her heart, nodding.
Danny and Missy made their way through the alley and found themselves on Pickup Street. A light sprinkling was beginning to layer over the older drifts. Missy hurried downhill, not daring to break into a run for fear of tumbling. Danny tried not to race on ahead. The girl was one of the rare people who accepted Missy at her word when she said there were some things she could not do.
“My rickshaw!” said Danny. The street was empty. “I told him to wait for me!”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” said Missy. Her legs were trembling, and her bones burned under her dress. Missy could still push through pain. She hobbled down the street, clutching Delphine’s Christmas present.
The road was narrow, and it was hard to see where the city had put up bright partitions around the holes in the ground. Missy pushed on, past windows lit with the promise of cheer. People were raising cups full of amber-wine.
In that eerie quiet, the sound of the Jinkies’ girl billboard came clearly through, grinding her gears back and forth as she waved in the snow. But Danny, who helped make the overlarge signboards, knew the billboards should be locked down.
“Missy, stay back!” cried Danny. She lunged, knocking Missy over. Not a moment too soon, something emerged out of the murk of the clouds. Missy felt the air shudder, and then the street buck as the Jinkies Spectacles girl came down upon the badly maintained street. The snow and material of the road exploded out of the impact. There were pipes under the road, but below that there was only the sky. Snow plumed out a frozen geyser- the blizzard was picking up, and surged through the city’s bones. Flightstones escaped their moorings and floated gently into the air. Pickup Street was completely blocked.
Missy wailed. She had come all this way- how could this happen? But she saw a gleam of hope: there was a gap in the wreckage, just big enough for her to pass.
“Missy, are you mad?” Pritchett cried as Missy trudged onward towards it. “The whole billboard is about to fall through the street. You’ll be crushed!”
“I have to! I have to risk it!” said Missy, and she clambered up against the hole. Snowmelt was dripping through it in brownish streams, and beams stuck out to snag her- but on the other side, there was a downhill slope. The snow was piling up, pressing on the wreck, as if the city was passing through a snowball.
Pritchett had the stout build of someone used to lifting heavy rolls of paper into the steam presses, while Missy was a wisp of a thing. Pritchett wouldn’t be able to follow.
“Delphine wouldn’t want you to-!” said Pritchett.
“Delphine may not live to complain,” said Missy.
She thanked the stars she had cut her snaggle-prone hair, and tossed Delphine’s present through the hole. Missy began to push through, careful to test each board before putting her weight on it. Halfway through it a wave of dizziness came over her, and she nearly fell. But there was a plank lying across the far end, and she fell upon that instead.
Pritchett’s cry made Missy start, and she heard the groan before she felt the plank beneath her shift. The Jinkies’ huge spectacles came into view, as if someone had taken them off and casually chucked them into the street ahead.
“Missy, go! The sign is falling!” cried Pritchett. Missy felt her friend pushing at her feet. The plank came free,and she slid out of the hole with it. There was a moment when the snow slapped her full in the face. When she looked back, the wreck of the billboard was sliding down into the road, eaten up by a great chasm.
“Pritchett!” Missy cried, standing with some effort. The top of the wreckage disappeared from view, and Missy gasped to see her friend on the other side, waving at her to go on.
Missy nodded emphatically, but her knees buckled. No- not now! Fresh pain flowered in her knees, but she fought to her feet. She was not far from market, and there was hope in a stack of old fowl-monger’s delivery pallets nearby. Clumsily, she got back to her feet and kicked it over. The lights of the city gleamed below, and Missy could see the hospital’s bright red cross standing out near the center of it. She collected her little bundle and laid herself down on her makeshift sled- it was downhill, all the way down, and all she needed was the nerve to jump.
“Delphine, hang on!” Missy said, and pushed off.
The pallet slid over the lip of the incline, slowly at first, then picking up speed, until she was flying down the road before a rooster tail of snow. By this time people were peering out of their windows, trying to see where the billboard had fallen. Missy whipped past them, flying faster as the city tipped, pushed by cold winds.
Past the merchants’ quarter, shuttered and dark.
Past the birdwives who dipped their heads into the cold.
And finally to the hospital, where the red light of its cross made the snowfall a field of blood. Missy steered with her feet, sending the pallet into a pile of snow, and she stopped in her tracks.
It was hell itself to climb off the pallet, and torture when she burst into the triage. Everything throbbed with pain. The nurse at the front had no idea who she was going on about. Crazily, the whole front of the desk was covered in holly and sparkling lights.
“Delphine! Sara Delphine Delacoeur!” said Missy.
“And who might I ask is looking-”
“Missy Delacoeur! I’m her wife.”
The nurse seemed confused, but checked the chart.
“I’m sorry,” said the nurse. “But it looks like Sara passed away last night.”
Missy stood there, not minding the waves of pain and nausea washing over her, numb. She thought that even if she collapsed and melted through the thin hospital flooring she would only be joining her wife in the endless beyond.
That was when a voice broke through her shock. There had been a large, matronly nurse peering over the first’s shoulders, and now this woman spoke in outrage.
“By the Engine, woman! You’ve spilled nog all over this chart. Here,” she thrust a clipboard into the front desk nurse’s hands.
“Ah. Oh I’m terribly sorry, your… wife… is in the East Wing,” said the nurse sheepishly.
“Is that where the consumptives-?” Missy couldn’t even finish her words, fearing the dreaded infection that spread in the air.
“No, no, we keep them in the West Wing,” said the matronly nurse. She handed Missy a shiny visitor’s pin. “Go on now. It’s Christmas Eve, go be with her.”
In a state of shock, Missy staggered down the hall where the nurse pointed. She passed door after door full of people, mostly patients in work clothes who had been out preparing the city for the snowstorm and fallen in the ice. Missy tiptoed around a surgical theater, covering her mouth at the smell. Finally, she reached a large set of double doors, and when she pushed it open, found an enormous ward with high ceilings, lit with gas and yellow snowlight from windows that soared into the rafters. People were in the beds here, broken and battered in slings and bandages. But they were parked with ample room, and in a far corner she spotted the messy silver hair of her lover.
“Delphine!” cried Missy, and she darted forward, only for her ankles to give out beneath her as if they sensed their service had come to fruition. She feared one of her spells, but a hand reached out to help- a nurse, who had been tending a nearby bed.
“Ma’am! Ma’am, you are unwell, let me call a doctor-”
“No! Please, help me get to my Delphine. We… I have no money, I cannot see a doctor,” said Missy, suddenly ashamed. “We may not have enough to cover her stay.”
“Ah,” said the nurse. “Aren’t you Lord Claire’s daughter? He’s a frequent donor to this hospital. I’m sure some arrangement can be made… here, I’m sure nobody will mind if we lend you a crutch.”
Missy was too fatigued and gripped by Delphine’s form to argue. She took the crutch and hobbled over to Delphine, whose chest was rising and falling with difficulty. When Missy sat at the stool by her bed, her eyes opened.
“Hello, my love,” said Delphine in a wet voice. “You’ve come all this way. I seem to have fallen… I’m sorry. We don’t have-”
“Oh, you stupid woman!” cried Missy, and she fell upon Delphine’s hand, clutching the cold fingers to her chest.
“Silly. It’s just a passing bout of grippe,” said Delphine. “I will soon be all right.”
“But the Library- and I can’t-!” Missy sobbed. “It’s Christmas, and we should be at home, in our home, with our hot dinner and our warm hearth, and the presents-!”
“That’s right. It’s Christmas Eve.” Delphine looked impressed. “You’re not using your stick, even. You’ve even brought me my present.”
Missy looked, and amazingly, she had. The bundle had stayed under her arm through the perilous pallet ride, and now she brought it out with the butcher paper only slightly scuffed. Delphine sat up, coughing slightly.
“It is past midnight,” said a neighboring patient, a woman at the next bed with one side of her head wrapped up. She smiled.
“Christmas morning,” said Missy. “Go on, open it!”
Missy watched as Delphine opened the bundle of paper. When the coat spilled over the bed in a riot of colors and patterns, her ashen face lit up in joy. She touched the soft lining, feeling for the tool straps and deep pockets. Their neighbor clapped her hands together delightfully, so wonderful was the rainbow of the coat.
“It’s perfect. Just perfect. I got you something too,” said Delphine. She took a box from the bedside, the very same one Missy had seen every day. Today, there was a bit of ribbon around it. “I worked on it for weeks.”
Missy carefully teased open the pasteboard box, finding another box inside it made of horn. When she undid the latch, she found a piece of satin fabric wrapped around the most beautiful pair of glasses she had ever seen. The sides were baffled, to rest the eyes, and if she turned the ring of gold around the lenses, they darkened into a pale umber color.
“They’re for your reading,” said Delphine. “And your drawing. Your teaching. The books that you love. You adjust the lenses like this, to shield your eyes from the light. They will keep you from becoming too nauseous. I had to ask the Engineers for help making it.”
“Oh, Delphine!” said Missy, and she threw herself upon the bed, weeping unabashedly. She felt as if a huge weight had been lifted. The coat had come too late to keep Delphine well, and the glasses would not help Missy with her legs. But they were sparks of light in the darkness, like the brilliant lights of Christmas she had seen in the windows. It was a reminder of the sun in deepest winter.
The patients in the ward were all looking at them, and most of them were awake. They were polite, their voices hushed. The sounds ran together in a susurrus of whispers. Missy listened to the gladness in their voices, and suddenly she broke out into something not quite laughter and not quite tears- it was too much, these whispers of joy. It blanketed them and made them feel not so alone.
Like the glasses and the coat, the whispers wouldn’t fix everything. But it was enough for Christmas, and it filled them with warmth. Right then, the whispers were the best thing in the world.