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Gifts From The Ancients

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A voice carried by a connection of echoes woke her.

In the bleak midwinter,
Frosty wind made moan.
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone.
Snow had fallen
Snow on snow – snow on snow –
In the bleak midwinter long ago…

Evey lay in bed and adjusted herself to the idea of wakefulness slowly. V continued singing of angels and frightened shepherds in the Gallery, and as she listened, she absorbed the words and decided that the song had a pronounced overtone of menace to it, like some many other things that V favored. Smiling, she got up, changed quickly and wandered out of her room to see what all of the dark joviality was about.

Though time ceased to have any real meaning in the Gallery, she knew that it was late in the evening; she had only been asleep a few hours. The Gallery was dimmer than usual and she had difficulty seeing though she still heard V’s animated singing. As she rounded a corner to enter the main room she was stopped by the appearance of a massive fir tree between her and the kitchen. It was alight with dozens of candles and strings of candied fruits and paper ornaments. The tree scented the room with sap and the crisp smell of the frozen night while the candles filled the space with a friendly glow and the vaguest hint of beeswax. Evey had never seen anything like it – she could not imagine why V had brought a tree into his home but she was enchanted by it in a way that was difficult to describe. Looking around, she saw cedar boughs strewn about on the floor providing safe harbor for dozens of votive candles. It was like she had suddenly appeared in a holy arbor. Intrigued beyond restraint, she wandered through the scene to find V.

“Ah! Good evening, Evey. I did not expect to see you up for quite some time yet.” V turned at the sound of her footsteps on the foliage. As usual, he was tending to something on the stove.

“V, what’s with the tree? And, what is that heavenly smell?”

“Well, the scent may be the bread pudding or the mincemeat tarts or the roast goose that I just put in the oven – it won’t be ready for a while though. Could I sate you perhaps with some mulled wine?” He turned from the stovetop where he was stirring a concoction of red wine and spices, and gestured dramatically with a wooden spoon.

“Um, hot wine? Sure, I guess… V, what’s going on, exactly?”

“Did you never celebrate Christmas?” V asked with incredulity.

Evey just stared blankly at him.

“The Winter Solstice?” He tried again but still got nothing.

“Hanukkah?” V noticed that he was now embarrassing her so; instead, he offered her a mug of warm, spiced wine.

“No, perhaps you are too young. So many wonderful traditions have been lost in only one generation, I fear.” His voice hardened at the end, as it always did when he made an offhand reference to the world that they lived in.

“Christmas was the Christian celebration of the birth of that religion’s savior, Jesus Christ.” V brightened again suddenly as he gestured that Evey should sit down and he poured himself some mulled wine. “It was celebrated on December 25th and coincided with the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice on the 21st, which is the darkest day of the calendar year.”

V sat down and continued on with exuberance. Evey wondered how he could maintain such a high level of energy so consistently. It made her tired sometimes just watching him.

“Historically, Jesus was thought to be born in springtime, but his birth date was moved to avoid persecution of newly converted Christians who still clung to their pagan rituals. The Christ child was also seen as the ‘light’ of love and faith, so it was fitting that the celebration of his birth occur in a time of extreme darkness, so that it afforded the requisite amount of hope in his followers.”

“Oh.” Said Evey, unsure of whether he was pulling her leg or not. “What is Haan-u-ca then?”

“Hanukkah is another religious celebration of light and hope, but it is Jewish, not Christian. It came about when Jews reclaimed a sacred temple in their holiest city from non-believing usurpers. Upon liberation, they discovered that sacred oil used to light and bless the temple had been sullied, leaving a single bottle unharmed – enough for one night’s worth of light only. The Jews lit the lamps with the oil and it miraculously lasted for 8 nights, which was enough time to press new oil for the sacrament.”

“Hmmmm.” Evey murmured over the rim of her mug. “Sounds impossible to me.”

“That is the essence of faith, my dear.” V chuckled as he sipped his wine through a straw. “Belief in the absence of proof is the cornerstone of every religion. For example, Christians believed that Jesus was the son of an omnipotent deity, but born of a mortal woman. They believed that he could perform miracles, and when he was killed, they believe that he rose from the dead and ascended to the heavens promising that he would return to Earth again in a time of great cataclysm.”

“So, Christians believe that their savior is a zombie of some kind?” Evey asked as she cocked an eyebrow suspiciously.

V laughed so hard that he was unable to speak for nearly a minute. Evey was shocked but the sound of his rolling, deep laughter warmed her within and soon she was laughing in sympathy with him. He slapped the kitchen table hard, nearly upsetting his wine and then gestured to her delicately.

“You have such a delicious mind, Evey! That must be why I care for you so…” His voice was incandescent with affection.

She had never heard him say such a thing to her before, and it made her blush deeply. Perhaps it’s the wine, she thought, he couldn’t just have admitted that he cares for me…An awkward silence fell over the table – perhaps V had also realized what he had just done. Evey scrambled to find some neutral bit of conversation.

“So, is it December 25th already? It’s hard to believe that I’ve only been here for 6 weeks…”

As soon as she said it, Evey realized that it was the wrong thing: it reminded them both that she was his captive and suggested that she was counting the days until her release. The truth was that she had stopped counting the days a few weeks after he had taken her. Her life above had been nowhere near as comfortable as it was now, and selfishly, she wanted to luxuriate in it for a while longer. V’s personality had grown on her too. He was a mystery and he still tended to frighten her with his manic behavior, but he was always gentle with her, and solicitous, and entertaining. He could make the most dull topic animated, the most obscure subject clear, and the most prosaic activity new and engaging. She was becoming strongly drawn to him in a way that set off the alarm bells of common sense. But still, she edged closer to him daily.

“I didn’t mean… what I meant to say was… it’s not awful for me here…” Evey stumbled hopelessly.

V raised his hand to stop her words. He rose from the table and turned towards the stove, busying himself there.

“It’s alright, my child, I know what you meant.” He sighed sadly, pulling something from the oven. “No, it’s not December anymore. It’s the middle of January, but I thought that I’d brighten up the place a bit with all of…this.”

Evey’s heart sank: she had offended him and dismissed his sweet gesture with one sentence. How could she have been so insensitive? His back remained turned and she could not tell if he was actually engaged in a task or hiding from her. She grasped the opportunity to come up with a way to mend what she had so carelessly rent asunder.

“V, what does the tree have to do with any of this?”

Evey hoped that his mood would shift at this opening, as it so often did with him, and that her unintentional slight would be forgotten. V’s face turned slightly towards her and then back to whatever he was doing at the stove. The moment lengthened perceptibly and then he turned and set a plate of golden pastries in front of her, taking his seat again.

“Tart?” He gestured towards the plate.

“Pardon?” Evey said with an edge.

“Mincemeat tart. They are delicious and have just a hint of rum in them. They are best when warm, as they are now. Please…” He gestured again.

Evey hesitantly picked up a tart and took a small bite. Flavors of ancient richness flowed over her tongue as the little pastry seemed to heat her from within. She had never tasted anything quite like it and quickly followed the first bite with a larger second one.

“It’s sweet! I thought that you said it was meat?”

Mincemeat, dear. It’s a mixture of currents, prunes, apples and spices made into a sort of jam-like filling. In the 1700s, mincemeat was made from minced offal and baked into pies for the lower classes as a treat from their lords – but organ meat is a little out of fashion these days.” V chuckled as Evey wrinkled her nose at him.

“There’s more than a hint of rum in here, V….”

“Hmmm, my hand must have slipped…” He waved the comment away.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect that you wanted me drunk.”

“Perish the notion.” V said taking a liberal sip from his straw.

“You didn’t answer my question…”

“What was that?”

“The tree…”

“Ah yes.” V leaned back in his chair, his manner and body language relaxed. “The tree is a Germanic ritual brought to the Isles by Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert. It also has pagan symbolism: the evergreen – always alive – representing life and fertility even in winter.”

“Fertility?” Evey felt the rum and mulled wine start to kick in and opened the top two buttons of her shirt.

“Yes. Like the Viking Yule Log: a phallic symbol whose running sap represented the hope for fecundity in all things for the coming year.” V laced his fingers across his stomach, seemingly pleased with himself.

“But what do you do with the tree?” Evey shook her head.

“Oh, you place gifts for your loved ones under it.”

Evey peered around into the candlelit gloom near the tree’s base and felt the knot in her stomach tighten a little. There was a single wrapped box under the grand tree. She looked back at V in the darkness in shock.

“But V, I don’t have anything for you.”

V rose slowly and walked over to the tree to retrieve the box. As he walked back, he slid it casually across the table towards Evey, and then returned to the stove to check on dinner. Eventually he returned to the table, refilling her mug as he refilled his own.

“V…”

“Dinner will be another hour, I think…” He murmured.

“V…”

“It’s not the gift that matters, Evey.” He sighed. “It’s the act of giving.”

Evey nodded and touched the box gingerly. Her fingers caressed the wrapping and the silk ribbon that held it together. After a serious moment of pondering, she decided that she should not compound her previous rudeness by not opening his gift, though she did so with trepidation. Her hands removed the wrapping and slid over the heavily polished surface of an old rosewood box. She lifted the bronze latch and opened it to reveal a vintage writing station: a crystal ink well, a sterling silver pen rest, an ebony pen with an assortment of nibs, and a stack of creamy, heavy bond writing paper that had her initials embossed in the center of each sheaf. Evey’s mouth opened as her fingertips swept over the collection of items. She looked up at V, eyes wide with shock, utterly speechless.

“You said that your father was a writer, and you read a great deal. I thought that perhaps these items would comfort you here. Perhaps you have stories of your own that you wish to write…” V’s voice was soft and reverent, for he too understood the power of words. “You could keep a journal – to ease your loneliness. I know that I’m not good company.”

“On the contrary, you are excellent company; you’re just not around very much…” Evey said the words without thinking, still marveling at her gift.

V remained silent and unmoving in the flickering darkness. Evey noticed the silence after a moment and wondered if she had done something wrong. It was hard to see him, and even if she could she would not be able to read his expression for the mask. She blinked into the dim while holding a sheaf of paper between her fingers.

“Is something the matter, V?”

“No.” V breathed. “Everything is as it should be. Do you like your present then?”

“Yes! It’s exquisite and far more than I deserve. How did you manage to find embossed paper?” She smiled openly, no longer hiding her pleasure from him.

“Oh, I’ll never tell.” He murmured warmly. “If I told you, it would take away the magic, and magic is part of the ritual of celebration.”

“Mmph.” Evey arched an eyebrow at him again. “Fine, don’t tell me. But, please, do give me some more wine.”

They sat together and discussed history, religion and myth for some time until V announced that the goose was ready. V served the meal and placed a plate in front of Evey but not himself. Evey hesitated and put down her knife and fork without taking a single bite.

“You won’t join me?” She asked.

V stood still, as if the answer was obvious.

“V, please share this meal with me. You have worked so hard…” She grabbed his gloved hand and pulled it towards her gently.

“Evey, I cannot - ” He started.

“V, take off your mask and eat with me. It is very dark in here, and from where I sit I can see next to no detail in the gloom. Please, V. I promise that I won’t pry – I don’t wish to compromise your comfort. I just want to eat with you. Look, I’ll even remove the extra candles from the table, leaving just one for me – I can barely see my own plate now…”

V inclined his head in thought, then nodded and squeezed her hand briefly. He returned to his chair and leaned back into the darkness. Evey heard the sound of leather and metal clasps jingling, and then a plate of food suddenly materialized before him.

“Thank you, V.” She said quietly and picked up her fork.

Evey had never eaten roast goose before. It was tender and succulent, flavored with the same spices and fruits that he had previously offered her. He served her Yorkshire pudding and candied yams, roasted rosemary potatoes with current jelly, and squash marinated in roast drippings. Of course, the meal was accompanied by copious amounts of festive libation, which seemed to suit both of them. Once sated by the meal, a silence fell over them again, but this time it was of quiet enjoyment, not awkward hesitation. V reached for more wine as Evey broke the silence.

“I have a gift for you after all, V.” She purred softly. “Would you like to have it?”

V’s hand froze in mid-pour, seeming unsure of what her intention was. After a moment, he placed the bottle down and tented his fingers in front of him.

“I am willing to receive whatever you wish to give me, Evey.”

“In that case, you shall have it.” She leaned back in her chair and made herself comfortable. “The wrapping is plain, I know, but perhaps you will enjoy it nonetheless…”

With that, she began to tell a story.

In ancient Japan, people believed that mortal life was just one part of a soul’s journey: life continued after death in many forms and often carried the experiences, follies and vices learned through previous lifetimes. Demons, ghosts and other creatures of myth were believed and feared as readily as the vagaries of weather or the whims of local lords. Goodness and virtue were not sufficient to protect one from a predatory supernatural being, so peasants tended to huddle together at night in hopes of warding off vagrant spirits.

One night, a young man who lived alone received a knock on his door well after nightfall. The young man was brave but not foolish: while others would have ignored the knocking, he approached the door and asked who was there. The voice of an old woman called out to him for help and shelter – it was a cold night and she was all alone. Though he thought better of it, he opened his door and welcomed the old woman in to sit by his hearth and partake of his simple meal. The woman wore all white, and her white hair crowned her head like the mane of a wild animal. Her rheumy eyes darted to and fro in suspicion and her gnarled hands grabbed at the plate that he offered like claws. Still, the young man remained calm and talked with the old hag through the night. She asked him why he had let her in on such a night when demons were clearly abroad in the land. He said that he had nothing worth taking save his life, and that was a lonely one. Should a demon wish to strike him down for goodness, he would happily move on to the next stage of his journey. He sighed that he could offer his guest no more than a simple meal and a roof for the night.

The young man fell asleep and when he awoke in the morning, the old woman was gone. No footprints remained in the snow, only fox tracks. The man went about his business and when night fell again he heard another knocking at the door. He called out and a young, sweet voice of a girl replied, begging for aid. He opened the door and saw the form of a shivering girl, her face as pale as new-fallen snow and her body as delicate as a cherry blossom blown on a breeze. He took her in and discovered that she had been run off by her parents for refusing to marry a man three times her age. She had fled to the mountains and was caught in a storm. She was hungry and sick, so he gave her his bed and his supper. She remained with him until she was healthy again, and began to help him work his land in payment for shelter and food. It did not take long for them to fall in love.

The years passed and the man achieved prosperity in his endeavors. He and the mysterious girl had many beautiful children, who in turn married and had children of their own. The man was happy and considered his life to be a good one. Finally, he succumbed to old age, and on his deathbed he called out to his wife one last time. She cradled him and before his eyes, she became young again. He stared in wonder and asked her who she was. She smiled and told him that she loved him and then turned into the old woman that he had helped decades before. Finally, the hag turned into a white winter fox with sharp brown eyes that he recognized as those of his wife.

The fox explained that it was the soul of an old woman who had been turned out into the snow by her family when her care became too expensive and arduous. She had roamed the land by wintry night begging for help, and punishing those who refused with plagued livestock, ruined crops and stillborn infants. When she came upon him, she was reminded of the goodness in life once again, and took pity on his lonely existence. She meant only to stay with him for a short time, but found that she loved him and their children too much to return to her demon’s life. Instead, she lived with him until his mortal days were through, ensuring both of their happiness for a time.

The old man cried at the fox’s story, seeing only the woman that he loved for his whole life. He did not want to part from her, but the course of life is not for man to determine so he gave up his wishes to Fate and died nestled in the warm fur of his beloved. The fox cried bitter tears of loss and walked out of their home into the winter forest only to discover that her husband had become the snow in which she tread, so that she could always roam freely and still be close to him.

Evey paused as her story ended, leaning back in her chair. V remained silent and swathed in shadow.

“Our course through life may be set, but we still can make choices along the way, I suppose.” She offered. “Did you like your gift?”

V shuffled in the shadows and let out a long satisfied breath.

“Scheherazade.” He murmured, reaching for his wine. “You have a gift, Evey. You are a weaver of stories… I loved my gift.”

“If I am Scheherazade, does that make you a tyrannical Persian king? Do you wish to have my head?” Evey smiled coyly, the lone candle flame illuminating her face like a Renaissance portrait.

“I am a tyrant of sorts, but I will not ask you to part with your head…tonight, at least.” V chuckled and clapped his hands softly in applause.

“Hmmmm. Would you like to unwrap another present, V?” Evey leaned forward conspiratorially and her unbuttoned shirt fell open highlighting the soft glow of her collarbone and the valley leading to her breasts.

V became silent and still once again. He was so covered in shadow that Evey could make out nothing but his silhouette. She waited breathlessly for his response, knowing somewhere that she had possibly pushed him too far. Inwardly she chided herself for drinking too much and allowing her flirtiness to get away from her. Why did she always seek to ruin things? The evening had been such a pleasure up until this moment. V leaned forward slightly in his chair.

“Yes, I would.” He breathed cautiously and said no more.

Evey smiled that her gambit had paid off. She pulled her legs up into her chair and crossed them, settling in for another long tale. She wove another ancient tale of love, loss and adventure for his pleasure. She painted scenes and characters for him in words and gestures that came alive in the dark closeness of the candlelit Gallery. V continued to pour wine at intervals, laughing heartily at comedies and murmuring at questionable moments, but always enthralled by Evey’s voice.

At the end of her tale, she asked him again if he would care to unwrap another present, and again he said yes. The pattern repeated itself for hours as Evey regaled and enticed him with story after story. Her father had taught her many things in their brief time together, but the most important thing was that a good tale told well is a universal joy – it can link people together like no other art form. A shared experience in story can show us that we are not alone. Evey wanted so much to tell V that, though she had nothing to offer but the stories that her father had given her as a child.

Hours later, Evey’s voice began to fail and her eyes drooped in fatigue. The warm glow of comfort and intimacy was something that neither of them wished to break, but her body wanted rest. V rose from his chair and floated to her side, laying a hand on her shoulder.

“You are tired. It has been a long night for you – my hours are not as regular as they should be. I forgot that you only had a few hours sleep when I woke you.” His voice was soft and affectionate. “Forgive me. I have so enjoyed your stories that I fear that I have exceeded your tolerance. Come, I will escort you to your room.”

He held his hand out to take hers, and as she arose and walked with him down the corridor to her room she leaned into his shoulder sleepily. His arm wrapped around her and directed her to her bedroom door. There he stopped, squeezing her shoulder once before releasing it. Evey turned to face him, or the shadow of him, as the gloom of the corridor was almost absolute. He no longer seemed concerned with being unmasked in her presence. It must be the wine, she thought, or he knows that I can’t see a thing. She smiled and leaned against her closed door facing him. A warm effervescence surrounded them, and both seemed to breathe it in greedily. V stepped closer to her.

“Goodnight, Scheherazade. Your head is safe tonight.” He growled.

“But what of tomorrow?” She breezed in return.

“Tomorrow? We shall have to see -”

She cut him off as she leaned forward and kissed him softly, her hands resting on his chest. His body went rigid under her lips and hands but she persisted, warming his lips with her own. Slowly, hesitantly, his lips parted and she moved closer, taking him in and complimenting his posture. Her hands remained on his chest safely away from his scarred skin – only their lips met. She knew that he would balk at any further exploration, and all that she really wanted was the warmth of his kiss. He moved his head slightly and drew in her bottom lip gently – a small request for something more that he was afraid to articulate. She sighed in contentment and drew the breath from him until she had no choice but to let him go. She leaned back onto her heels keeping her hands on his chest and waited. He remained still.

“Well, goodnight then.” Evey smiled warmly as she turned and entered her room bathed in a glow of something surprising and inexpressible. “Thank you for everything tonight, V. Everything.”

The door closed softly leaving him alone in the corridor. After a long moment, he stepped towards her door and absently traced a knot in the wood with a gloved finger, his breathing irregular and rough.

“Thank you, Evey.” He whispered, and disappeared back into the main Gallery.