CMBright's Countdown to 2023

CMBright

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A Warm, Fuzzy Blanket

Godiva followed the female giant. Sif. She needed to integrate the sounds they used, words for everything. Not that she did not have her own sounds to describe the world, but if she was to understand the strange creatures she needed to communicate with them. Which meant speaking, or at least writing, their language.

Ilana was the female she had found lost in the Away. A strange, small giant, Godiva and her nest had led her back to her nest up in the trees. Her tree house. One shared with two typical giants, Sif and Erlmarr. Ilana had been the one to give her an individual name as well as giving them a group name. Mouseling.

Sif noticed her interest but thought she masked her reaction. Godiva could see the tension in the female's movements, smell the change as emotion lightly tinted the female's scent. The female did hold the door open a moment, long enough for Godiva to slip inside the work room behind the giant.

Godiva was aware of Sif watching her as she explored the work room. The female gathered a pile of white fiber and a stick and disk thing. "Spindle", the giant said.

Godiva saw others, thought they looked simple enough. Erlmarr, the male giant, had shown her how to craft things from clay and heat them until it was hard. As hard as rocks that could be shaped by breaking them at any rate.

Godiva was lost in curiosity examining cylinders in various diameters. All had a point or a curve on one end. Curved ones were always flat or rounded on the other end. Some had a point on both ends, others had a disk, still others had a length that connected them to a matching cylinder with a point on the other end.

"Knitting. Needles," the female informed her.

Godiva dropped into a crouch at the sound of the forgotten presence. She groomed her face in quick, swift movements as she rose to a standing position. Turned to look at Sif before a nod in acknowledgment, a single swift dip and rise of her long nose.

Her attention returned to the contents of the room. Several squares held strands. It took her a moment. She knew fabric, but had never imagined how the giants got the strands to fold over and under each other.

"Loom," Sif said, tapping the square frame. The female sat on a bench by the frame, "Weave," she said as she started the task. A tap, 'shuttle', a panel with a strand wrapped around it was passed through the strands in the frame. A movement of Sif's feet, the strands in the frame shifted, the shuttle was passed through again.

Godiva watched for a time, then brought one of the points in a silent question. Sif studied her for a time, then stopped her task.

The giant did not take the point Godiva had brought. Instead, she found a task that had been partially completed, adding to the long strip already made. One had loops of the strand made from fibers. The other was used to add more loops, one at a time.

Sif added one line, all of the new loops on the second point, the knitting needle. She started over, adding loops, maintaining the pattern.

After a time, Sif set it aside for a different project. A circle, or close to one. "Crochet. Hook," the female said, then started working. The crochet hook was used in a different motion to create loops similar to the knitting needles.

***

Godiva had followed a different path when the female had returned to eat in the middle of the bright time. It had taken a hand of days for her to create the tools she had seen Sif use. Spindle to turn fibers into strands called yarn or thread. A loom, it had seemed easier than the points or hook to use.

The thread she tried to create varied. From barely thick enough to hold together to thick lumps and every thickness between. As chaotic as the Away. Was it away from giants if she was living with them? It was a thought that came to her frequently.

Godiva had examined the looms. She had seen how the strands, the thread, was supposed to wrap up and down. That went well enough. But when she was finished, the threads were all flat. Not forming the triangle between end of the fabric in the process of becoming and the end. Sif discovered her at that point.

The female said nothing before leaving. Not that Godiva could hear more than a word or two in the babble of sound when they spoke normally. More each day, but the learning that was easy when it was a single, clear sound was harder to decipher when it was in actual use.

Erlmarr came to her the next day, giving her two looms. One like the one Sif had used, the second with a strap to go around her and a way to secure the cylinder on the other end. Godiva saw each had a piece she had not grasped the significance of when she had examined the loom. The piece worked differently on each loom, but appeared to have the same effect in the process.

She tried again. This time she got the pattern of threads, one up, one down, repeating across the loom. Wrapped a second thread around the shuttle, passed it through the triangle the way Sif had. The thread followed the shuttle, instead of remaining in place. A bit if trial to discover a method that would secure the thread at the beginning of the task.

It took several days. The second one, Sif asked her to come to the female's workroom. There, she removed a fabric from a loom. Godiva watched her carefully to see how she performed that part of the task before Godiva left the female giant. When it came time, Godiva was able to remove the fabric from the loom.

Godiva examined what she had made. She had intended to make the warm coverings Ilana called a blanket. Instead, the irregular thread had made... this. Godiva sighed. She often failed the first time. She learned. But this? Not a blanket. Not something she wanted at all.

Godiva snuggled into the nest and the warm layer of shredded cotton balls. Warm. Fuzzy. It did not matter that it was not a blanket.
 

CMBright

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Joy and Sorrow

"Snips of snail" she muttered, "puppy dog tails? Who writes these spells?" She sighed as she rubbed the bridge of her nose, then put the book of shadows back on the shelf and began setting her workroom to rights.

When the commission had fallen into her lap, she hadn't believed her good luck. She knew she looked young for a witch. At twenty one, she was young for a witch. She began braiding her copper red hair. An impish grin bloomed, let the rubes think it was traditional, she actually loved the variety of ways she could wear her hair when it was long.

Now? She wanted to pull her hair out instead of putting it into a single neat braid. Long hair was one thing, stray hair in her face was another.

She picked up her glasses, wire rims in copper that matched her hair, with the newest lenses. Not glass, which would look like coke bottles. Glass was natural sand, formed with elemental fire and could be worn while working delicate magic. The new lenses? Light, thin, wonderful for day to day living. Worked havoc in her workroom. Good thing she didn't need them to read, though it had been pure torture to rewrite every last one of her books of shadows so she could read the print while working.

Breathe. In... Out...

She'd known that developing one new potion would be difficult, the commission was for two. Joy and Sorrow. One to trigger each emotion. Perhaps there was a reason why the Crones wouldn't touch the commission. Maybe they were the smart ones and she was just a fool beginning her journey in the craft.

The rep had smirked as he'd taken in her lovely features, her moss green eyes behind her glasses, the attractive robe that did not hide her figure. Finding colors that went with her hair and eyes wasn't trivial when she tried to use natural dyes so she didn't have to maintain separate wardrobes, one for everyday, the other for working with magic.

She let him think it was a glamour. Let the rubes think only the hideous or the old who needed a second career could practice magic. She could live with strangers judging her and assuming her heart shaped face was a mask.

Defaulting was not an option. Her life was too close to financial disaster to court guild penalties. As the days passed, the deadline drawing closer, she managed a bitter potion for Sorrow. A touch of magic to activate it. She wasn't entirely certain the concoction worked, but it definitely brought tears to her eyes.

That left a single day to craft a potion for Joy.

She though of the magic beans she'd bought. Called cacao, the beans were expensive to import. She wasn't clear on the process, but they were a deep brown. Supposed to have medicinal properties to ward off depression. She ground one and steeped it in a bit of water. Grimaced at the bitter taste. Hummed a snip of song about a spoonful of sugar.

Brewed it in milk with the expensive white crystalline sweetener. It still needed something. Peppermint elevated the spirits. She extracted oil from a handful of leaves in clear alcohol, then added a drop of the result to the potion. Adjusted. It wasn't quite right. It needed something to take it from enjoyable to joy.

She paced as the thought. Clouds? Whipped cream. No. Too pedestrian. It took some experimentation, but she found a simple syrup of sugar and water, with a drop of peppermint oil, added to gelatin and whipped to a foam, then set in the snow to chill created a solid cloud. With time running out, she made several batches with different amounts of oil so she could select the best level of oil.

Magic was hardly an exact science. She ground a few of the beans she had sprayed with the right amount of peppermint oil. Added the sugar. Brewed the resulting granular powder in cream. Added two of her solid clouds. Sipped. Close. She was so close.

She started again. She added another tiny pinch of sugar. She had to have enough, but not too much, it was expensive. Almost as expensive per weight as the cacao beans. Potion brewed, she sipped.

A happy jig later, she ground the rest of the beans. Added the right amount of the white, crystalline sweetener. The oil was already soaked into the beans before they were ground. Portioned it into cheesecloth pouches for easy brewing. Portioned out her solid clouds into similar bags. Wrote a card with the instructions for brewing her hot cacao potion before adding the clouds. Packed everything up to go meet the rep.

"— then you sip the heated cacao with the clouds. Pure Joy," she finished her spiel to the representative for the client.

"Joy is a hot cocoa?" the rep asked, his expression dubious. "What is is made from?"

It occurred to her that she had already told him about the cacao beans, but if he wasn't paying attention... "Magic, you know spell and potion components are protected by guild bylaws. But if you want to buy one to experience pure Joy Hot Cocoa potion for yourself, you can. Or you can trust me to know how to do the job you paid me for and buy them all for your client. Your choice."
 
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CMBright

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Chocolate Coins

The nurse helped him into the comfortable recliner. Past a century, he was more fragile than the antiques he had once enjoyed collecting. The privilege of money, to spend his golden years in the comfort of his own mansion, surrounded by the luxury he had acquired over a lifetime of developing software that had changed society while making him a fortune.

"Did you get them?" he asked the nurse, a strong man at the peak of his physical years.

"I got them, they were hard to find, but I followed your instructions to the letter," the fellow replied.

"Thank you, you may leave, I'll call if I need you," the old man informed him.

He wasn't surprised that the nurse had initially questioned him. If the man though dementia might have finally begun, he had not so much as hinted at the possibility. A good man, that. Loyal, whether to himself or to the paycheck he signed didn't matter much in the grand scheme.

The old man let his thoughts drift. Writing software had always been as much creativity, letting the odd connections form as they willed, as it had been expressing desires in as concise and precise a form as possible in a variety of computer languages.

As he had grown successful, he had left his ordinary world behind. Thousand dollar meals, exquisitely prepared by the finest chefs in the world. Meals eaten next to heads of state, prepared in kitchens of presidents, monarchs, and other world leaders. His own personal chef, willing to make the finest takes on gourmet meals from a dozen cuisines.

He reached over. Took one dull yellow disk. His one guilty pleasure. One day a year. Up until the last year, he had been able to obtain them himself. This year, he had finally admitted he probably should have delegated the task at least a year or two sooner than he had.

He had not grown up rich. He'd been content to leave much of the memories of that time behind, along with the things that reminded him of those days. Like the cheap casseroles, meant to stretch food dollars but often tasting much the same. Bases of cream of something soup or spaghetti sauce, noodles or left over rice or a bag of tater tots, lots of vegetables, very little meat. Cheese, bread crumbs or both on top.

To be fair to his single mother, the casseroles did taste good enough. They were filling. And they weren't the only dish she made, even if there was a near infinite variety in that one simple theme.

It was a ritual, to remove the foil just so from the brown disk beneath in two single pieces, still close to flat. Not crumpled, not until the treasure was revealed, not unless he chose to crumple the foil before he discarded it. A point of remembered pride.

It had often snowed back in those days. It still did, just not as often, not as deep. The familiar refrain of the old even in his day, that the days of one's youth were golden, the gold faded over the years. Like the disks, they always appeared to be dim with age, they had since those halcyon days.

Snowball fights with other neighborhood kids. Building their snow forts, sometimes he built his own, other times he joined with others. Sledding down the steep hills or a day at the local slopes near Denver spent skiing.

He inserted the disk into his mouth. Gold coins, the cheapest chocolate he could imagine. He let the memories of his childhood flood through him. Like the habit of letting it melt on his tongue, just like he was now, to prolong the treat.

A childhood dare of running barefoot through the snow, just to a fence and back. That friend's mother with dryer warmed towels for snow chilled bare feet and mugs of hot chocolate heaped with mini marshmallows after he finished the dare.

Slowly he ate the gold chocolate coins, savoring memories more than the cheap chocolate. After a life of wealth and luxury, it was about the only guilty pleasure he had left. So valuable, he horded those coins, only bringing them out to enjoy only on a single day each year.
 
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CMBright

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Who Sent It?

It was that time again. One of the two most dreaded days of the year. The other was Valentine's Day. This was the annual Christmas Card exchange.

From time immemorial - or since some kid complained they were the only one who didn't get a card or only got one - every kid had been required to give a card to every kid in their class. Then, sixteen years ago, half the class had refused to give a single card. The reason? There was a school bully in the class.

In the normal course of events, the bully would have received warnings, suspensions, even expulsion if nothing else worked. That particular bully was the daughter of the Mayor who was also the richest person in town at the time and could not believe their little angel was actually a demon in disguise terrorizing the school.

After he'd bankrupted one teacher for libel, slander and defamation - yes, they are separate legal charges - no one was willing to attempt to write a referral note. That was libel. Or talk about it during parent teacher conferences, given that was slander. Both of which would damage the reputation of the Mayor's little angel. Any impact to the Mayor's reputation was incidental.

Instead of forcing the issue, the Principal made a ruling. Each student could chose the criteria by which they gave out those dreaded holiday cards. The reasoning? If everyone gets one, it includes the untouchable school bully. If no one gets one, that meant no one and the parents threw fits about the idea that their kid would have to pay for a stamp and have letters clog snail mail boxes. So, the compromise was we went back to pick and chose, popular kids get a ton, some kids did sent to everyone or nearly and other kids get a few.

Who am I? Just a kid. Mom is the town Sheriff. Also an elected position, but far less power than one would expect in a school classroom. We're well off, but we're not rich and I've been a bit awkward, so I'm not exactly popular. I'm the one who gets maybe a half dozen cards from my circle of friends and that kid who still hands one to every student because they bought the ones that come in packs of two dozen or thirty to have enough to hand one out to every student in the class.

So, I was happy with my haul of eight cards that year when I dropped my backpack at home. I had to call Max off, as he started scratching and licking my bag, dumb dog. We found the scruffy stray dog two years ago, on Christmas eve and he just looked like a Max. We tried for a month to find his owner. I think his 'wanted poster' is still up at the Post Office and the Sheriff's headquarters, Mom keeps one up, with all of his details and to contact the Sheriff to arrange to come get him. Just in case his humans actually give a damn about him. After two years, I kinda doubt it. Max might be a half trained pest, but I love him so I kinda hope no one ever comes to claim him.

I was old enough, and the town safe enough, that I was home alone. Mom had been in at some point, there was a new post-it on the fridge. It read Fletcher called, wants to study after school, don't play video games after homework is finished.

"Geeze, Mom," I muttered when I finished reading the last line, "that was just one time, let it go."

Wade was the first, followed by Irwin and Fletcher. Fletcher loved up on Max as soon as he was in the door. He would've gotten a dog himself if his sister wasn't allergic to just about every thing on the planet with a full coat of fur.

It was the usual session, with comments like "Did you get jump for #2" and "How did you figure out that x=pi on #24?". As it wrapped up, before we started our allotted hour on the computer, I brought up my mystery.

All the cards had been signed. Except one. "I'm kinda hoping Blondina sent it," I said after I finished my explanation. It wasn't her actual name, that was Brendina, but that golden hair? Gorgeous. Boys, Girls or Others, it didn't matter. Everyone either wanted to date her or be her. Since she played everyone, no one quite knew if she knew who she was into, if anyone. She was Dina to her face. Her idea. She hated being named after her uncle Brendan, only that 'wasn't a girl's name', but her Dad wouldn't budge and her Mom came up with the compromise.

Fletcher laughed as Max fawned over him. "Nah. If she had a crush, wouldn't she just come out and say it?"

"Yeah, Blondina is pop-u-lar. We aren't. Maybe it was Gloria?" Irwin opined. He'd gotten teased about being named Steve once too often in kindergarten, by 1st grade, he went by Irwin, his middle name.

I thought about it. Gloria was sweet, but she was so introverted she had said a grand total of six words in class since the school year had started in August. Given it was now December 5th? I didn't think she had it in her. I said as much.

We went through the list of classmates. Too popular. Too introverted. Disliked me too much. I decided to snoop during class the next day.

"Hey, was it hand written? Some make them instead of buying a few cards or a pack," Wade said.

I shrugged. Got the cards out of my backpack. Spread them out. "Look for yourselves."

Fletcher pulled one aside, "That was mine, I always sign 'em. Which one didn't have the name?"

I couldn't help it. Fletcher was anal that way, he'd signed every card he'd ever sent in every year I'd known him. He'd never live this down, "Read it," I told him.

He started to read the cheesy sentiment in the card. Stared. By that time, I was laughing so hard tears were streaming down my face.

"I forgot?" Fletcher said. "I actually forgot to sign it?"

It had never occurred to me to check that Fletcher had signed one of the cards, since he always remembered. Every single year, every single holiday and birthday card. Even Max going nuts over my backpack. Exactly the same way that dog went nuts every time Fletcher came over.
 

CMBright

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This turned out to be a short one.

Snow Spirit

Magic tugged. That magic felt like an incorporeal hand plucking deep inside, as gently and as insistently as a child tugging on a mother's hand. They were a snow spirit. Nameless yet as individual as a snowflake, as all their kind. Clear, crystalline hair, eyes as blue as a clear winter sky, skin as white as a blanket of their namesake as it rested over the forest.

The spirit followed the tug of the magic to a den. A wolverine dozed deep inside. No gift was given, nothing was taken as the snow spirit gave their blessing to the wolverine that the young within might thrive in the new year.

The task complete, the magic tugged again. The spirit was guided to a kodiak. Twin cubs, each as small as a squirrel, blinked at the stranger before resuming the interrupted meal. Again, the snow spirit gave their blessing to mother and cubs to prosper in the seasons to come.

They did not expect the woman. Considered her. The woman knew she was as much an animal of the winter snows as she sat bundled in blankets as the bear and the wolverine. Life danced deep inside the woman. The magic did not guide them wrong. The snow spirit approached the woman, gave the blessing she had to give. The woman smiled, touched their cheek with a hand encased in a mitten as they turned to leave her.

A snowshoe hare was next. The spirit considered it. Wished for rich forage and plentiful kits. A mouse. A squirrel. They followed the tug from creature to creature. They did not visit all of the forest creatures. They knew they were not the only spirit. It was the trees that the snow spirit enjoyed the most. Trees dreamed deep. Images drifted like leaves released in the autumn to float upon the wind.

Visits completed, magic's pull ended. They danced with others of their kind beneath the aurora's light. The snow spirit knew they would never see the result of their blessing. That was not the purpose of their life, a season as ephemeral as a snowflake on a tongue.
 
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CMBright

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A Frozen Lake?

She stretched, slipped on her sheepskin slippers and wandered over to the door to the laundry room. She might not like doing laundry, but she disliked dirty clothes even more.

"Damn it!" she yelped on the other side.

She hated this part of the job. She looked around, trying to get her bearings. Snow. Over the top of her slippers. Burning cold where it touched her skin.

That didn't help much. Neither did the conifer forest. A slow turn. Behind her was a cabin. It was not her own, nestled in a forest of western hemlock and spruce on one of the islands off the coast of Alaska.

She spun around, ready to attack or defend at the sound.

It had been the stranger clearing his throat. She tried to pretend nothing happened, asking calmly, "You Called?" The words were innocent enough. If the stranger had Called her, he would understand the meaning behind tone she used to inflect that word.

"I did," he said.

She took a moment to take in the stranger's appearance. His face looked vaguely Eastern European. Long ice-white hair tied back in a simple tail that flowed in a straight fall to his knees. It contrasted strikingly with the agelessly young face without a single line. A pale face, not albino, not light coloration, just... pale.

His attire was Japanese. Traditional Japanese. Silk kimono and what was the name for the one warn under it like a tee shirt worn under a dress shirt? Didn't matter. Holding an open umbrella on the cloudless winter day. If he was wearing traditional tabi socks and sandals, the snow was hiding them.

"Hey, Drac, why did you Call? I've got laundry to fold." He did have some indefinable quality beyond the pale skin that make her think vampire.

"I am the land god for this area. I Called because I need your help," he said, then sighed, adding, "My name is not Dracula."

She shrugged, not repentant. He needed her help or he would not have Called. "What do you need help with?" she asked. She realized that flannel pjs might be fine in her cabin, but she was getting cold. "Could you help?" she asked, gesturing at her attire.

He grinned, the imp! Waved a hand. Suddenly she was in winter attire, as traditional as his own. The one against her skin felt like to be cotton thick enough to be flannel. Over it, a touch verified there were two kimono of thick silk. A third was two layers quilted together over some batting. It felt like thick socks encased in warm boots, she resisted the urge to look down.

"If you are ready?" he asked.

"Lead the way," she said. She hated the cryptic ones. She wanted them to just get to the point so she could fix whatever she was Called to fix.

She thought they hiked about a mile, but she could have been off. She wasn't good at judging distances. The mountain forest would have been a gorgeous place. If she was on vacation. If she had chosen to come to... she didn't know where she was. Japan? Eastern Europe somewhere? Hell, she could be in Canada with some weirdo. Land deity? That did sound like Japan and he was in traditional garb...

"This is the trouble," he said, breaking into her thoughts.

"It's a frozen lake?" she said. She'd expected a rampaging monster, perhaps an oni or a yokai if she was right about her guess.

"It is an onsen that is frozen over. The snow monkeys are distressed. I Called because I was unable to find a god who was able to restore it."

"You want me to fix... a hot spring?" she asked.

"To restore it, yes," he said. "If there is anything you require, simply speak. I or my guardians shall hear and it will be provided."

She nodded. "What is your name?" He paused a long time, long enough she thought he would not answer as she watched the back of the still form standing in the thick layer of snow.

"You know, it has been long enough I have forgotten the name I was born with. I have been called Jidoku for so long, it might well be considered my name. I certainly answer to it," he said after the long pause, then disappeared into the trees.

The sooner she got this sorted, the sooner she could get back. Jidoku hadn't mentioned sleeping arrangements, she did not want to think about where she'd sleep, if it came to that.

Mage sight seemed the place to start. She saw red. In a hot spring, seeing the swirls of reds meant fire was where it should be. There was even a tiny draconic fire elemental of some sort playing below the ice. The blue-whites of elemental ice magic were all on the surface of the frozen hot spring. Trails to and from the hot spring in those same icy blues.

She paced as she examined every aspect of the situation. Why was a hot spring, which was obviously still hot, frozen over? The obvious answer was magic, of course. Most people weren't sensitive to magic. She wasn't most people. Good or bad, she embraced it. Learned and used magic to solve problems that were science failed because it was magical in origin.

As twilight began, she saw a lovely Japanese woman approach. Unlined face, young appearance but an indefinable air of age. Hair was as white as Jidoku's. Familiar. A name surfaced.

She did her best Japanese bow, hoped it was either close enough to right or the woman would understand her lack of cultural knowledge. "Yuki onna, greetings," she said, trusting the magic that translated languages for her was working.

The snow woman giggled like a schoolgirl in a Japanese anime. "Greetings, I look forward to knowing you."

She studied the snow woman. Saw that she was definitely the source of the traces of ice magic. Since she thought she was in Japan, an indirect approach might work better. "Might I ask if you could help me with something?"

"Perhaps. If my humble skills would be of any use to you," the snow woman replied.

She looked over her shoulder at the frozen lake. "The onsen appears to be frozen," she said. What had Jidoku said? "The snow monkeys are distressed."

"Oh. I'm sorry. I did not realize I had troubled any," the snow woman said.

Negotiation was always the best option, in her opinion. It quickly became apparent that was as far as the snow woman would commit. "If there is something troubling you, perhaps it might be something I could help with?"

The snow woman pounced on the bait eagerly. "Are you familiar with the land god here?"

She shook her head. "He asked if I might assist him in restoring the onsen, but no, I cannot claim to know him."

"Ah. You would not know how I might attract his attention," the snow woman asked.

"If you were able to assist me in restoring the onsen, he did mention giving me what I needed to complete my work. He implied a trust regarding my judgment of what that entails."

"An introduction?" the snow woman appeared to think she was hinting, in fact it was a demand masked as a question.

"And his name, if you do not know it yet," I decided to sweeten the pot.

"His... true name?" the snow woman breathed.

I had to shake my head at that. Honesty or the situation shattered, whether magic or negotiations. This was both. "I am uncertain if he knows his true name. I know the one he uses now, if that is sufficient."

"It will do. I had hoped he would be impressed, ice magic is difficult when countering fire."

"Impressed, yes. But not favorably. Fixing it, that would be likely to be seen favorably. Beyond that? An introduction. A name. No more."

"Done," the snow woman agreed, giggling again. A wave, most of the ice was gone, the rest melting as the magic stopped inhibiting the normal heat flowing through the spring. The fire elemental rose to the surface for a moment, glared, then sank back into the depths. She chuckled. It must have enjoyed how the ice had trapped the heat in the pool.

"Jidoku? Can you return? Someone wishes to meet you," I said, not yelling but pitching my voice to carry. He walked back into the clearing perhaps twenty minutes later. I did the honors, adding how she had helped restore the onsen. I left out that she'd frozen it in the first place. Jidoku called a name. A creature that could have modeled for a Japanese temple guardian statue showed up, complete with beads around its neck. Jidoku asked it to lead me back to the cabin.

Back at the cabin, she walked through the door. The portal magic worked properly. She sighed. She did not enjoy the chore, but not even magic could make laundry do itself.
 

CMBright

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Prompt is Keeping Warm.

A bit on the longer side. Dystopian future with my sentient, bipedal mouse Godiva remembering her first encounter with snow. Framed flashback writted as if it was "now" in 3rd person, past to keep me from going nuts keeping the necessary grammar changes. She is the same character who failed at weaving in "A Fuzzy Blanket".

Winter Essay

Ilana had given them names. Godiva for herself. Tora for the male who had joined her nest before she realized. Mouseling was used for any of their kind. The Others were unnamed because they were unseen, choosing not to reveal themselves, though she had seen the outline of one or two from time to time as they hid within the community in the trees.

The area where the children learned was covered in a large construction called a tarp. Layers of fabric called canvas, with a layer of batting in between cut into shapes and sewn together. That had been placed to it covered the frame that allowed the air to flow during the warmer months. A metal bowl contained a fire that warmed the area, the tarp trapping the warmth.

She knew that when Teacher gave the task that female had decided on for that day, Tora would not be working on it. He chose to remain near her when the nest separated. To protect her. For some reason he thought she was prone to poking trouble.

Godiva, with fur in a mix of chocolate browns and whites known as merle, felt a mouse grin spread. Whiskers briefly tipped forward, cheeks puffed, eyes wrinkled before returning to her normal expression. She thought she was careful enough, choosing only those risks she felt they would all benefit from.

Teacher spoke. It was difficult for Godiva to hear individual words and meaning from the string of sound. She caught a few words, enough to decipher pieces. Winter. Snow. Remember. Write. Enough to know the purpose of the task.

Godiva was new to the giant's words. She had met Ilana in spring. She had learned much already. There were times she thought there was too much to ever learn enough to understand giants and their ways.

Four months or a month and a season, in the community these giants had built in the trees. Another four months or a month and a season, before that, learning with Ilana in the area the child called the clearing below. In the Before, it had never taken that long to master new patterns. She did not know if this new task, one she had set herself for her own purposes, was more difficult or if her thoughts had slowed with age. As long as Teacher was patient, the chocolate merle supposed it did not matter.

Godiva turned to the papers and supplies on the lap desk Ilana set up. Cylinders, pointed cone on one end, flat on the other. Made out of wax with pigments, sized for her hands. Crayon. A cylinder, thinner but the same in shape, graphite stick. Ilana had shown her how to draw. Godiva had a task. Even in the Before, she had enjoyed tasks. It had been the only variation in the routine of her life in the Before.

As she began to dig through the layers of time, through the maze of memories, Godiva began the first lines of the drawing that would take the place of words in conveying her memories.

***​

She had not been Godiva in those memories. 287 was settled on her hips, legs on either side of the twitch tail's back. There had been a brief time, a hand and a double hand of cycles or one repeat of the dark time light. They had found a walled areas similar to the ones the giants used. During that time, she had watched as images flowed across a long square panel, as if watching tiny giants going about tasks through the transparent wall of the nests in the Before.

No giants were there when she found it, of course. She wanted nothing more than to be away from them. There was no trace of them anywhere in the walled area, the walls themselves different from other areas she had encountered.

In those moving images, she had watched them create rests to settle on, used on the backs of larger beasts. She had seen them harness others to pull movers. How to prepare skin of animals hunted and stopped forever so the skin could be used. How to use a thin cylinder to pull strands through fabric to connect the two pieces. Task after task after task.

Chipping stone or glass? 287 watched those, but she had already figured out most of the methods the giants performing the tasks used. She had crafted eye covers from clear bottles, though from time to time a chip cut skin. So far, no permanent harm. The sharp edges she made were worth the risk. Worth showing the rest of her kind.

They had left a cycle of the dark time light, one that went from nothing at all to round and back a sliver at a time, one of the patterns in the chaos of Away. 287 preferred to search out the path to Away during the dark time. Twitch tails and guinea pigs were not active during the dark time.

It was a minor irritation to switch from activity during the dark times to accommodate that. It was a major advantage to have the mobility of the twitch tails, to use the strength of attaching two to three pairs of guinea pigs to the movers 287 and her kind had made from the items found in the walled area that had held the panel.

The animals did not like the growing cold. The fluff tails seemed the most hardy, the guinea pigs appeared to feel the cold the most. 287 drew on memories of the giants she had watched inside the panel. Crafted the strand puller from a double loop, scraping one end until it was sharp, trying method after method until she found a way to make a hole on the other. Three layers, two solid fabric. The center was cut from large panels of fiber that was thick fluff. Each animal sported one of the layered fur coverings. They appeared content enough as they worked or walked.

If the Before was routine and pattern, the Away was chaos. She would think pure chaos, if she did not see occasional patterns in the chaos. Like that moment. Fluffs high up, near the impossibly high ceiling of Away. The color of the fluffs was important. The shape somewhat, the color more so, in her experience. These were on the darker end of gray. Not black, but dark.

Much of Away was chaos. 'Trees' and 'clearing' floated from her present as she experienced the past as if it happened again in that moment.

Trees blocked their view of the ceiling. Clearings allowed her to see whether the fluff was there, to judge how dark it was. Clearings also gave the hunters who moved through the air opportunity to see them and the animals now with them. The balance of gain and risk, judged from moment to moment.

She guided her twitch tail toward the side, her nest mates found areas to stop and began releasing the guinea pigs that pulled the movers. These joined the mass drifting into the clearing to forage among the vegetation there. Other nests and individuals on movers began to drift into the area, finding spaces of their own to stop movers. Places that were hidden within the panels close to the foot surface.

***​

The long transition between bright and dark time began. If the ceiling underwent its shift from blue to colors as light faded that was normal in the Away, the dark fluff hid it from her. One pattern within the chaos was that the dark time was never as warm as the bright time. Good back when it had been hot enough to stop those too active for too long during the bright time. Not good when it was cold enough during the bright time to ache.

287 was looking up when she saw it. Stuff drifting down from the dark fluff. More chaos, not drops of water, this was white, appearing as fluffy the balls of fiber. Ones giants made, that they prized for their nests. A clump fell on her whiskers, water? Solid, fluffy, very cold, water?

She shook her head. Chaos. When she counted the last of the movers, the last of the individuals settled as she was or walking on their own two feet, the last of the animals walking together, she went inside the mover for storage. A hand of Others were in there. As far as she could tell, the spheres with strand-like limbs slept. She hoped they did as the stepped around them, gathering some of the food stored there. 287 went to the mover with her nest mates, where they began to snuggle as they prepared to sleep through the dark time.

Worry about the animals began to gnaw at the edges of her thoughts. As she stood, a few of the females and 264, the lone male, joined her. They were not the only ones going out, rousing the guinea pigs, twitch tails and fluff tails long enough to gather them in huddles beneath the cover around the clearing. Once allowed to lay down again, the animals fell back into their interrupted sleep.

As the chocolate merle went into the clearing where the guinea pigs had remained to sleep after foraging and back beneath the cover, she noticed a pattern. Where the piled fluff water blocked the moving air, she was not as cold. Not warm, but very much less cold. As the last animal was located and settled, she organized the rest for a new task. They would move the fluff water to make walls around the animals and the movers.

Cold work. They soon figured out it could be pressed into balls, as the balls rolled more layers of fluff water stuck until the balls were placed. Hands hurt from handling the fluff water. Would fabric covers help? Perhaps, but in the moment, there was no time for more than placing hands beneath shoulder joints or deep in a fluff tail's fur for a hand or two of breaths before returning to the task.

As she wondered how a ceiling might be created, she realized that the fluff water was doing exactly that. Creating a ceiling as it rested on top of the panels of the vegetation they had gathered the animals under.

As walls were build high enough, angled to allow layers of balls of fluff water to be rolled up into place until wall touched panels with their covering of fluff water, those walls extended until they enclosed the animals other than an opening large enough for their kind to pass through, 287 and the rest began to bring out the taken fabric, to layer it over the animals to keep them warm.

***​

Godiva rose from the depths of her memories. Looked over the still images she had drawn. Herself mounted on a twitch tail, the movers and the group of extra mounts, pullers and fluff tails near. She did not understand why the giants called twitch tails squirrels when the name was obvious. Guinea pig, rabbit, those names for the animals that pulled and the fluff tails she was able to accept. The fluff water that the giants called snow as it fell from clouds in the sky. Moving the animals, making the snowball walls. She nodded, a single swift dip and rise of her head.

Remember winter and cold, write about it. She thought she understood, that she had done well at the task Teacher ask of those gathered to learn. She had showed how well they had worked to remain warm in the first encounter any of them had with snow. Godiva had always enjoyed tasks. She had always enjoyed doing them well. Teacher was good at creating tasks that made her to think. Godiva thought she enjoyed the ones that caused her to think most of all.
 

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Magic of the Season

Yletha pulled the sheet out of the oven built into the side of her hearth. She examined each of the dozen cookies baked golden brown with dots of deep brown and toasted white. Two were judged worthy to set on her finest earthenware plate. Two solid clouds, confections of sugar syrup, peppermint oil and geletin, whipped while hot, then chilled and cut to size, were set on the plate.

The witch poured pure joy into her best matching mug. An enchantment to hold just enough warmth the liquid within would remain warm as water suitable to bathe an infant. Mug and plate were taken over to a table turned alter in front of the window. She set both on the alter, adjusted so they were just so. Contemplated the placement of the elements, nudged a pine branch just do, turned a sprig of holly to better show the vivid berries among the green leaves. She cast a second spell on the mug, one to create a wall between the heat in the mug and the clouds from the plate and set on top of the thick liquid.

Yletha took a deep breathe. She was as ready as she was going to get. She glanced around her cottage, unnecessary, the only purpose putting off her work a moment.

The cottage and nearly everything within were tools made by her own hands for her craft. She was a witch, living a short walk outside the hedge that protected the village from the worse of the predators that lived in the forest. She followed the path of the seasons. The walls of the cottage were a blend of clay, sand, summer straw. Materials of Earth to ground summer sun to be released on cold winter days. She thought of it as the window. It was unique, the only window of glass, the rest were left open to the forest or covered in gauze screens or thick shutters depending on the conditions. Not this one. The glass of this window was special, crafted by an artisan who worked with fire and air elementals. Magic was blown or cast into every piece of glass he crafted.

Furniture of bent willow, easy to make, challenging to make beautiful. Cushions and blankets she had crafted herself. Her robe was angora wool, left in natural white, to honor the Winter season. She had an old pair of glasses on, the lenses thick glass, the wire rims copper to match her hair. The modern ones were a lighter material, the lenses thinner, but those would disrupt the delicate Work.

Ready, she settled into the cushioned chair in front of the window, the alter against the wall. A blanket, dyed with the faintest hint of indigo pulled over her lap.

Thoughts wandered a moment. She let them. Best to be ready while she Worked. The window was really a marvel. Most were multiple panes, perhaps a hand on a side, in squares or diamonds with strips of carved wood or crafted metal. Her window was three hands across, five hands of straight sides before it curved in a perfect half circle across the top. A single sheet of pure glass, fired with the aide of a fire elemental.

Ready, she saw her reflection in the window. She shifted so she Looked inside. Her reflection faded, the Winter court came into Sight on the other side of the window.

As her own reflection faded completely, the Winter King appeared. He possessed the build of a king who has not seen a single day of famine in his life. The softness of a gentle king, not one sculpted by war. Warm eyes, for all they were the blue of a clear winter sky, nestled in wrinkles carved over a lifetime of joy. Tumbles of snow-white hair and beard. Crowned with a wreath of holly leaves and berries. Red robes the color of holly berries, lined with soft, plush white fur at neck and wrist. Seated on a throne that could have been carved of clear ice, frosted with snow, she could not see below his waist. He was the only spot of color in surroundings of clear ice and white snow.

He was examining her and her domain as she was watching him and his. "Why does a Child of Summer call upon the Holly King?" he asked. Humor there, but hints of judgment as well.

He had to judge her worthy, if the Work was to succeed. She bowed briefly but deeply as she sat to the spirit she had scryed. "I follow the Path of the Seasons. Living in the Wild instead of any village. If I was born a Child of Summer, I consider myself that no more."

"Your words are true enough," the Winter King admitted. "Yet you come before me within walls that breathe with Summer's warmth."

Yletha paused a moment, before the words formed and flowed. "As you said, I am a Child of Summer. Most of those who dwell in Winter's domain are. Squirrels sleep in tree hollows. Bears den in caves. Beavers build walls between themselves and winter snow, storing food to keep them through the season."

"True enough," he admitted.

"It is the season of gifts, I have brought a sacrifice, I wish you joy," the witch offered.

The Winter King might have grinned, like a child offered a treat. If so, it was masked in his facial hair. A wave of a hand, plate and mug disappeared from the alter, to appear on a table of carved ice on his. A cookie, rich with small chunks of solid cloud and drops she had developed herself, of cacao bean paste, sugar and simmered milk blended till smooth and creamy. Shock mingled with awe and joy on his bearded face.

The Winter King lifted the mug. Features turned as severe as a blizzard. "You gift Fire to a domain of Ice and Snow?" he growled.

"A gift of a trace of warmth, no more. Even Winter's Sun gives warmth," she countered.

He studied the mug or rather what it contained. "What is this?" he asked after a time.

"Potion of Pure Joy, though not the enchanted form," Yletha answered quickly.

"Traces of magic, yet you claim not enchanted?" His tone was as stern as a judge contemplating whether the one before him was guilty of the charge.

She shrugged and said, "To keep the contents warmed just so. To prevent the clouds from melting too soon. Nothing more."

He took a cautious sip, acted as if the potion was scalding hot instead of barely warmed. Perhaps to the Winter King, it was. "Pure Joy, indeed. Appropriately named. Your gift is worthy. State what you would wish of me as gift in return."

She did not ask for any tangible gift. Yletha did not ask for any specific gift at all. Instead, as she had been taught by her mentor, she spoke of the people of the village. Expressed concerns and hopes they had. Asked for the Winter King's blessing.

He smiled. "It shall be considered," the Winter King assured her.

She let the Court of the Holly King fade, replaced by her own reflection in the window's glass. She had passed the tests. Including the final one. Not asking for herself, not asking at all, simply informing him who might benefit from any generosity he might chose to bestow on those she cared about. Generosity, not greed. The warmth of spirit in the midst of winter cold. That was the magic of the season.
 

CMBright

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The Staff Yule Party will not be posted. Not quite fanfiction, it is very obviously inspired by imagining if the Headmaster and Professor S, of potions fame, had faked his death to nudge events. If it has been stripped enough to skirt the no posting fanfiction for legal reasons rule, it is too close to be comfortable posting here.

It follows a current of conversation through the party. From Madame P thinking about the Headmaster's brother's broken nose to Professor McG joining Professor S under mistletoe. Professor T sees as it continues skipping from character to character until the Grounds Keeper gives his regards to the Headmaster who expresses doubts over whether the means he used were justified by getting rid of you-know-who.
 

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Cracks in the Ice

About a mile below the surface. Deep enough to be below the permafrost well below the glacier topped mountains. The walls had been covered in a layer of ice that had grown thicker until he might be traveling inside a glacial crevasse, had one been domed over into a tunnel.

He could see his breath in the cold white glow from the mage light. His boots were spelled to grip even the slickest ice without slipping or skidding as he wound his way through the maze of caverns. A wrong turn and not only would he not find the rumored treasure he sought, he might never find his way out again. Even along the proper track, he'd found several skeletons, some showing the broken bones that killed them, others not showing what had caused them to die.

The tunnel, tall enough he could walk proudly instead of hunched, opened up. A cavern. As indicated on his roughly drawn map, given him by a frail old man with ice white hair. He sold a copy to any adventurer. Cursed, though he never said how or why. Icing tavern ales was a popular trick in summer. Less so in winter, which was when he pushed the maps.

There was a treasure. Diamonds, clear as ice, strewn over the cavern floor. There for the effort of gathering them up. A warning to take care to gather quietly, with a cackled laugh. It was an ice cavern, perhaps the water that trickled through the rock formed icicles large enough that one dislodged could injure, maim or even kill.

He crept toward the wall of ice at the back. Cracks ran through the wall. He came close to turning around. He had come so close, even a handful of those diamonds would buy a fortress, stock it, equip him with the finest equipment coin could buy.

His boots were spelled to prevent slipping on ice. They did nothing to stop the diamonds from shifting or the soft clatter as a result.

The ice wall cracked. It was not a wall. It was a dragon. One that was very unhappy at being woken.

"DAMN IT!" a feminine voice roared in the cavern. "That useless wyrm of an ex!"

He didn't wait around for the ice dragon to finish her tirade and start a more physical expression of her wrath.
 

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Cheering you all on!
The Staff Yule Party will not be posted. Not quite fanfiction, it is very obviously inspired by imagining if the Headmaster and Professor S, of potions fame, had faked his death to nudge events. If it has been stripped enough to skirt the no posting fanfiction for legal reasons rule, it is too close to be comfortable posting here.

It follows a current of conversation through the party. From Madame P thinking about the Headmaster's brother's broken nose to Professor McG joining Professor S under mistletoe. Professor T sees as it continues skipping from character to character until the Grounds Keeper gives his regards to the Headmaster who expresses doubts over whether the means he used were justified by getting rid of you-know-who.
I think we’ve had fanfic-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off Countdown stories before. I definitely did a clear Beauty & the Beast one without naming names, & alluded to potentially the 11th Doctor actually being at a SF convention, & I'm sure dpaterso had some unnamed famous characters too back in his FFC stories.
 

CMBright

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I think we’ve had fanfic-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off Countdown stories before. I definitely did a clear Beauty & the Beast one without naming names, & alluded to potentially the 11th Doctor actually being at a SF convention, & I'm sure dpaterso had some unnamed famous characters too back in his FFC stories.
It's pretty clear that it's the four door Toyota with the missing front bumper, even the numbers have been filed off.
 

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No One Had Ever Spiked the Punch with THAT Before...

The professor watched the children. An old man sitting in a wheelchair, he looked harmless enough. He'd been in the chair since the accident before he'd opened the school. Time accounted for the age. Each one of the students of his school was special, each gifted in their own way. There were plenty of normal children from the school district, mingling with his kids. It was important. For normal and special to mingle, to learn they were more alike than different. What better time than the Holiday Season? It had been this way for half a century. Since the year he had founded his school for gifted children and the first open Holiday Party.

All of his teachers were patrolling the party. A fellow that barely broke five feet but possessed of tremendous attitude was handing cups of punch to the children, both theirs and those visiting. He sat close enough to guard the fellow and the bowl, every sense he had alert. He didn't need to act, that was the job he'd given his former student. A good man, since his anger issues were under his control, though not gone entirely.

That fellow and the punch bowl he was manning were in the kitchen, he was handing paper cups through a serving hatch in the wall between the school kitchen and the cafeteria. Other teachers were watching for infractions of the new rule in place this year.

The moment any of those cups of punch was set down, the instant it left a hand, one of his teachers got rid of it. Some walked up, others were more creative. He didn't care how the teachers enforced that rule, as long as there was not a repeat. Random minor assaults to the senses, such as the occasional whiff of sulfur or a momentary flash of light were worth avoiding a repeat of The Incident.

The old professor in the wheelchair shook his head. In any group of children there were those who bent the rules. Spirit was a good thing in his gifted students. In time, that spirit could be channeled in useful ways. Spiking the punch was a challenge that was almost inevitable. What happened last year? Never again. Not at his school for gifted youngsters.

It had been the first time anyone had ever spiked punch with the superhero formula. His student body had tripled by the end of the year as the regular schools found they could not handle the newly gifted students. The Professor thought he'd rather battle his oldest friend than have a repeat of The Incident. No. No child would ever spike the punch at his school again.
 

CMBright

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I went non-fiction for hitting the road.

The Jinxed White Christmas

I was born in Michigan. I spent many childhood years in Minnesota. So as a young adult, Christmas in Oklahoma and Arkansas was often missing that element of snow.

Back then, Christmas meant hitting the road. Packing the car. The trunk was packed with presents, fit together like tetris pieces to fit them all in. Suitcases were in the back. Two cat carriers were on top. Vincent and Gilligan shared one, MeiLing had her very own carrier. Mom drove, I was copilot.

In Oklahoma, that meant keeping an eye out for the turn off in Tulsa. In Arkansas, that meant watching for signs and reading the curves and squiggles in our own shorthand. "Curve left, 40." That was a gentle bend in the road, the sign saying to slow down to 40 miles per hour. "Curve right, 25." There weren't many nearly right angle sharp but you had better slow down for those. "Squiggle, 30." Those were the fun ones, several bends, back and forth, with the speed they recommended for the eighteen-wheelers that did travel those highways.

I think it started snowing some time after we passed Fayetteville. Mom slowed for the potentially slick road conditions, we took those signs a bit more carefully. Otherwise, there was no sign that this trip would forever after be known as the Jinxed White Christmas. By Mountain Home, we were discussing the approach. One of several houses on a county road. One of many such small clusters surrounding Lake Norfolk, there were two roads one could use to get to Grandma's house.

The first road was the one we usually took. A gentler slope, but longer length from the road that eventually went to the state park to the first of the driveways. The second was steeper but shorter. I don't remember either of us taking the curve into consideration. Or the driveway or two on that shorter road into account.

By the time the moment of truth arrived, we were creeping. Snow was piling up on the road, we were far enough from traffic we were breaking our own ruts through the untouched snow. The second, steeper access would be our path.

We were past that curve on that access road. Slow, but we had just enough traction to make it up the steep slope in spite of the slippery snow. I didn't see thee person out on foot. Going for mail, walking over to talk to a neighbor, the reason didn't matter. All Mom could do was brake. All I could do when I felt the car begin to slide was close my eyes. Trust Mom. Hope all would end well.

I'd been afraid, in that moment we were out of control, that the car would slide far enough the car might not stop before the distant lake shore. In hindsight, there were enough trees that would not have happened.

Mom turned as we slid. Into the ditch on the side of the road. The ditch was deep enough to stop the car. In that moment, the car stopped safely was enough. We hadn't hit a tree as we slid out of control.

That was how the jinxed white christmas began. We got home fine. The cats got home fine. Christmas was thoroughly enjoyed. I don't remember the power going out, but the pipes froze. On reflection, the power could not have gone out. Not when I remember watching the news, seeing that power outages in Little Rock had resulted in grocery stores losing any perishables in fridge or freezer cases. I remember Mom coming in, telling us that the tow truck had almost towed itself into the car, instead of towing the car up to the top of that steep road. The second tow truck did manage to get the car up. It could have been worse, given the car was ran fine. If there was any damage, it proved purely cosmetic.

As with all trips, the time came when we had to go home. A discussion and agreement. North to Missouri and flatter, straighter roads, then down through Oklahoma instead of the Arkansas route. Cloudy skies were clear of precipitation. For a while. As we approached the Missouri border, a light sifting of snow began. By the time we turned west, travel was crawling in the increasing snowfall.

We pulled off, it was a tiny town, Mt. Vernon. The corner room was officially the last room in any motel in town. We got that one. Two adults and three cats. It wasn't the last room, period, in the motels. At least one car of refugees from that blizzard got a room that was officially closed to renovate or repair, but I would think they were happy to be off the road and inside four walls and a roof. I didn't ask if there were other amenities, like power or running water. From that motel room, we called the places where we were working that year, we were snowed in, we would not be able to get in until the roads were passable.

Three days. Three days before we could finish the return from that Jinxed White Christmas. The rest of the drive was beautiful. Snow covered the ground. Trees glittered, encased in a layer of ice that refracted the light.

Along the Tulsa Turnpike, there was a McDonald's built to arch over the road. Gas stations in the parking lots on either side. Gift shops in the arching building. It might still be there, around half way between OKC and Tulsa, it is a good location to stop for food and fuel without getting off the turnpike.

In the center of that building we looked out. To the northeast, snow and ice glazed trees as far as the eye could see. We knew from coming from that direction that landscape went past the border into Missouri. Uncounted branches were down or cracked under the weight of the ice, attached to the tree by a strip of bark or wood.

To the southwest as the turnpike angled, it was typical Oklahoma winter dead grass and trees that had shed leaves. As if a line had been drawn across the state. On one side, snow and trees covered in ice. On the other, not even a coat of powder. I don't remember there being a light frost on the winter dormant grass. The Jinx was gone, along with the snow that year.

That was around a quarter of a century ago. Every year since then? If you guessed I never wanted to see another snowflake again, you would be wrong. I still hope for a White Christmas every year. Some years have been white, more often, they have not. I enjoy every Christmas as much as I can, white or not.
 

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Low fantasy. Intended as cozy.

Granma's Casserole

Chana was stripped to her chemise in the warmth of the cottage kitchen. Spells kept food and drink in larder, pantry and buttery far longer than one could keep them with cold alone. Not that she did not preserve with drying, smoking, salting or sugaring or the other methods at her disposal.

She ran the tuber over the blade, hand guard to protect work calloused fingers. Cheese was crumbled in one baked clay bowl, bread from rolls left to dry after baking a few days before were crumbled in another.

The tuber slices went into the bottom of the round baking dish, glazed before the second firing of the earthen vessel. She ran onion over the blade, cut the slice across, turned it then sliced again to make small pieces to scatter evenly over the tuber. A shredded slice of green winter cabbage, slices of parsnip, a handful of shreds from a roast were each layered over the sliced tuber in the pan.

A pot went over the glowing coals. She could hear Granma's voice, a ghost produced by memory, prompting the slice of butter, the spoon with the same amount of flour. Not yet. Garlic and ginger first. For flavor, for preventing winter colds. A couple cloves from the crock on the counter. Only a few left, soon she would take another head apart, peel the cloves and fill the crock again. A mug of milk was set on a nearby work surface.

Chana didn't know if garlic and ginger defended against winter colds or if solitude did, but the flavor was good. Now, when the garlic was clear, was the time to add the spoon of flour. She stirred. Cooking the flour until it was golden took time. She stirred and stirred. Granma's voice echoed across the years. Patience. It's worth the effort to do it properly.

Finally. Time to pour in the milk. She added half of the crumbled cheese, dumping the rest into the bread crumbs and setting the mix aside. More stirring. Back and forth as she went around and around the pot. More patience. Granma used to do a stir to see if it was smooth. Chana missed that part of the ritual.

Sauce found smooth and rich, Chana poured it over the layers in the dish. Then the mix of bread and cheese crumbs over the top. Finally the thin drizzle of oil. After all, Chana, there is only so much stored for the winter months, Granma's voice insisted. Chana never went hungry, but the awareness had always been there. Enough, as long as they were prudent. Enough to last the long winter, as long as they didn't waste food or gorge.

Baking pan in the oven, she went out into the chill cottage. Chana pulled on two woolen gowns against the cold, then went out. Brought in an armload of wood, fuel was almost as precious as food during the season the cottage would be snowed in. The wood was for the main room, which would warm the loft above. It did not take long to have the fire crackling. Gowns off, back in the single layer of chemise, Chana went back into the kitchen.

A bit longer. She made a pot of tea, enough for a single mug, with a single spoon of honey to sweeten it. Took mug and pot out, then used two thick rags to carry the casserole to the table.

Granma's casserole was different every time. Yet it was always comfortingly familiar. She smiled as she ate.
 

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Had trouble with kindness. I think it turned out well.

Karen

"Morning, Vanessa," Karen said. "There's breakfast in the break room this morning."

"Oh, that is good news," the school principle replied.

The principle was fairly young, she had worked as a teacher fresh out of school for five years before her predecessor had turned over the school to her. Karen knew she was older, her expression... RBF, the younger generation called it. She always looked a bit cranky, unless she concentrated on forcing a cheerful grin. At work, that wasn't an option. Kids first, adults second, with no attention left to spend on a fake expression.

Karen repeated the greeting as the teachers came in. It wasn't quite small enough to be a one room school house. With three teachers for the six grades, it was close.

The flood of kids passed through the hall. Around a hundred, but with enough energy to seem like at least three times as many. One of the parents made a snide remark about "Karen's" when she took too long to get to an adult. The kids always took priority. Add her natural expression, and an unfortunate character that had come out a few years after she was born? It seemed every morning, there was at least one such remark.

Karen had watched the last students trickle in, just beating the morning bell. Keven hadn't showed. She checked her records. His mom had called in yesterday, he'd be out today, she hoped he'd be back tomorrow. It was planned, as far as any parent could plan a sick kid. She had left the basket in the delivery hatch that morning. Kevin's mom might need to get orange juice, but Karen hoped the bread for toast, carefully packed oatmeal for Kevin and a mini quiche for his mother, not to mention a nice chicken stew with dumplings steamed and packed separate to keep them from going soggy. A half dozen individual baked custards. A casserole and rolls to heat for dinner completed the basket she had left.

Vanessa came in, a paper plate in hand. "If the morning stampede is over, you've got to try one," the principal said as she set the gently steaming mini quiche on the desk.

Karen smiled. "I know. I've had them before."

It wasn't much. Flour was cheap. One coop with broody hens and a couple roosters kept her in laying hens. A barn with a couple of miniature diary cows and a sow. A neighbor who traded the use of his stud bulls and boars for a day of picking in her orchard each year. The garden. All because she loved the rhythm it created in her life.

It was too much for her to use. Not enough to be worth the effort of selling at farmer's markets, in her opinion. Not to mention the enjoyment she got out of baking and bringing the mini quiches once a week. Karen enjoyed having a use for the extras from her farm. Vanessa and the teachers enjoyed the once a week breakfast. She loved her rural town life.
 

CMBright

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I looked up Alton Brown's eggnog recipe. The ingredients are accurate, liberties were taken with the preparation.

A Perfectly Good Eggnog

Alana didn't drink eggnog. Period. She found the idea repulsive.

Grandma's baked Christmas Custard, that was worth the trouble to make. Alana cracked four eggs, separating the yolks from the whites. Checked for the smallest trace before adding each white to the ones before. Four whites set aside in one bowl, she weighed out two ounces of sugar to beat into the yolks.

Yep. Unlike eggnog, Grandma's Christmas Custard was awesome. The yolks in the stand mixer had changed color. She added the pint of whole milk, the cup of heavy cream, the shots of the best quality bourbon she could afford, a few grates from the pot of dried nutmeg.

She'd show her mother-in-law. One bite of her Grandma's Christmas Custard and that woman would swear off that vile egg concoction forever! The custard ready, it went into the ramekins, ramekins into the water bath and the whole thing into the oven.

Alana grinned at the mental picture of Brian's family at the Christmas Eve party. Tasting the custard her grandma had taught her. Ignoring the eggnog. The mixing bowl cleaned, she added the egg whites and a generous spoonful of sugar and began to whip the meringue. A check, stiff peaks meant checking the custards. They rippled, close but not quite set. Out they came, meringue was added, back in they went to finish setting while browning the meringue.

The next day, Brian loaded up the gifts for the exchange. Alana loaded the custards. She couldn't wait.

"Alana, dear," her mother-in-law said as the older woman took her aside. "I have to congratulate you. I would never have imagined using a perfectly good eggnog to make a custard! It's genius!"
 

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Cats and Tinsel don't mix. I hope all are aware, but if you have cats or dogs at home, please don't decorate the house with tinsel. Or Poinsettas.

The events and setting are totally fictional. Town taken from a name on a map of a place never visited or researched in Arkansas.

Tinsel Cat-astrophe

RatBane stared. It was glorious. Shiny. Twinkly. Strands that danced in the breeze of the village square. The humans had outdone themselves for the Midnight Celebration. The longest night of the year. A full moon that year, not often the night was both. Cats were gathering from far and wide. King of Cats or not, not even the King of Cats would dare to order another.

Night by night, he watched. He hoped the mice in the granaries and the offerings of the women who understood their needs would hold out as the feline population swelled. The visitors from other villages would return home once the Midnight Celebration was over. Well, if the mice in granary and barn ran out, if the women didn't have enough to share for all, it was up to the visitors to find prey in the forest.

The night of the Midnight Celebration fell. Darkness might cloak most of the village from human sight. For the cats it was as bright as noon. The only spot of brightness was the Offering Tree. Lights in patterns of green, yellow, blue, bright, repeating over and over. Dozens of shapes, balls, carved birds that appeared to have feathered tails, glass shaped like icicles, and more. And those strands. Someone would attempt to eat those glittering, taunting strands.

Over a thousand cats descended upon the Offering Tree that Midnight Celebration. If they started near dusk or ended near dawn, what was time to a cat?



On the morning of the twenty-second, the Mayor of Toad Suck Ferry came out to the town square. He sighed. Yet another year to find the town's Christmas tree toppled. Ornaments scattered far and wide. The people would still be uncovering lost ones come spring. Good God! What a mess.

The tinsel. That was scattered far and wide. As far as blocks away from the town square. Every year. Every damn year, he tried to talk the residents of Toad Suck Ferry into leaving the tinsel off the tree at the very least. Every damn year, children talked parents into keeping the damn tinsel.

Every damn year, the same Tinsel Catastrophe struck.

Part of the tradition, part of the job, part of the work to be done. The mayor sighed. There was work to be done.
 

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Short, silly and inspired by Kid being grossed out by our public(ly appropriate) displays of affection. Otherwise, all characters and events are entirely fictional, with any resemblence purely coincidental.

"Dancing" the Night Away

"Mommy, Daddy," the child cried, seeing her parents enter.

"Morning, Kiddo," Daddy said.

"You were out all night?" she asked.

Her parents shared a look. Memories of the luxury hotel room. The shower. "Yes, Babe," Mommy said.

"What'd you do all night?" she persisted.

Kids. Always curious. "Danced," Daddy said.

"All night?" the child asked. "Mommy, is that true?"

Her mother shared a momentary look. A memory of the intimate time, as they had explored one another the way they had before the child arrived. "It's true, we danced."

After a while the child left to play with friends. He started laughing. "So. How long before we explain we were doing the 'mattress mambo'?"

She joined in his laughter. "Until she stops finding parental intimacy gross."

"So never?" he asked.

"Pretty much," she agreed.
 

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What if...

Frozen Forest

Klaus never expected to be remembered. It was not even that bad a ride to the home his youngest had built. That child had settled just outside a village nearly a full day away.

He loaded the sledge with gifts for his grandchildren. He had only planned on a pair, but seeing the sledge groaning under the load, he had two choices. Remove some gifts, or use more reindeer. Generosity for the grandchildren won out. Eight were hitched in four pairs to the sledge.

The river crossing was easy enough, frozen deep and hard, the reindeer didn't hesitate. The forest, that was the challenge. There was a road in the summer. A track that could be seen easily. Winter snow covered the road. Easy to get lost in the forest of snow-frosted pine trees. Bear slept during the winter, but wolf packs might scent his draft beasts. They might be hungry enough to risk a human who could be armed.

To Klaus' pleasure, the worst danger on that trip was the cold. Every exhale formed a cloud in the air. As he unhitched the eight reindeer and turned them out into the corral, he wondered if his cheeks were red from the long ride in the frozen forest. In the cabin, he joked that if he hadn't been old enough, his hair and beard would be white from the frosty air.

"Father," his son cried, "You made it!"

Klaus accepted a red robe from his son's wife, along with a matching stocking cap. He gathered his grandchildren onto his lap. A bit of a winter cold turned his chuckle at their joy at his arrival from 'ha' to 'ho'.

"Father, you are a saint to come all this way!" his daughter by marriage told him as he handed out presents.

Klaus laughed. "Yeah, Saint Klaus. Delivering presents in a sled pulled by eight reindeer." As if any would remember his trip over the river and through the frozen forest to deliver presents that year.
 

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Inside A Small Box

The woodcutter entered the cottage he shared with his handfasted. Two days before Yule. Two days before the year and a day expired. He saw his worst fear realized in the two small boxes nestled in the pine branches on the alter above the hearth.

Promise boxes. Ones that held the marriage rings. Rings he could not afford. The boxes he would have obtained the day they pledged, if he had only been able to obtain the rings to symbolize the marriage bond.

That there were two boxes could only mean one thing. Another suitor knew the end of the year and a day was soon. Rude not to wait until handfasting officially ended. Not that he blamed that lucky man.

"Hello, my love," she greeted him as she entered the living area from the bedroom. He'd been proud of that addition to the small cottage built for her.

"Do I know him?" he asked, nodding at the two boxes, one green as holly leaf, the other the red of holly berries.

"Of course, Silly." She laughed. "Open yours."

His? Traditionally, he should have crafted them, purchased the ring inside. He had never seen either box. He picked the green box up and opened it. "It's... empty." he said.

"No it isn't," she said. At the confusion that must show on his features, she added, "It contains everything. All my potential days. With you. As your wife. If you can gift me the other promise box in return."

"Is that truly how you feel?" he asked.

"Yes."

Dazed, he took the red box and handed it to her with due solemnity. "I don't want to wait a single moment," he said.

"You will have to, I'm afraid. I talked to the druid, he can't accept our vows till Yule. Other duties. He also muttered something about our relationship born on the day the year changed from dying to new born as he walked away, chuckling."

The woodcutter laughed. The two promise boxes were returned to the alter to wait their reopening when they broke the handfasting and spoke the marriage vows. Two days until they exchanged gifts of everything they were.
 

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White and Light

At sun high, the snow began. By sun down, the snow covered the grass as far as he could see. He knew he had to keep walking. Fur cut and laced snug covered chest and arm, legs, feet and hands and face. A fur from a massive cave bear enveloped him. As long as he walked, he was warm enough. Stop to rest, the wind would find skin. Stop to rest, he might never rise again.

From black through more shades of gray than he had imagined to white. When had sun up passed? It didn't matter. A strip of bark with a slit came out of his pack to protect his eyes from from the glare. He slipped it beneath the rabbit furs laced to cover his face, leaving only his eyes exposed during the night.

Not that seeing mattered much. White ground. White snow falling as far as he could see. Which was about as far as his extended arm in front, above or to either side. Extend his arm, his hands were hidden in all the white.

Was it sun high yet? Impossible to tell. His stomach rumbled. He fumbled in a pouch at his waist, careful not to drop any of the mixture of meat, fat and fruit pounded into a paste, then dried until need. His mouth and chin, exposed to the cold and wind began to burn as the cold touched skin. He ate methodically, then replaced the fur.

It did not matter if he walked straight or in curved paths, as long as he continued to put one foot in front of the other. He was lost. As the light, bright white began to darken into grays, he was tempted to rest. As the world past his extended wrists turned black, he knew. Hope faded but was not gone. He walked on.

The bark came off. It wasn't needed with the glare gone. Thoughts numb with cold and exhaustion. When had the light appeared on the horizon? It drew him. Promised rest in safe warmth.

He stumbled into a hut. Fell onto the dirt in front of the hearth. Banked embers. Out of the wind. Out of the snow. In the light. Safe. Warm enough to rest in his furs. Safe. He slept.
 

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Another short non-fiction piece. About a window in a blizzard from the 70s. Prompt was the lines.

Window in the Clouds

Dad scrambled. My flight home to Mom had been canceled due to the blizzard. I was in grade school and a bit oblivious to the adult drama around me at the time. The rush as Dad took me to the new gate to board a different flight was harder to miss.

As I said, I was young that year. My trust in adults not yet shaken or broken by time or well intentioned promises that fell through as often as they were kept. I might not remember that specific flight pack, but I always had one. A book to read, a toy, a few favored snacks, as a minimum. Flights back then had bags of peanuts and drinks once we were in the air. I would have been given a flight wing pin by a stewardess, likely pinned to my top, outerwear off under, above or next to my seat.

My parents divorced before I could remember them being together. Once Dad turned me over to the stewardess, I was on my own until I got to the end with Mom. Well, alone other than gazes of the watchful stewardesses on flights and the escort if there was a connecting flight.

Seven planes. I was on the seventh plane in the line taking off in a window in that blizzard. The original flight would have had a connection, probably in Chicago. The new one was directly from Michigan to Minnesota. I don't remember any turbulence on that long ago flight. I suspect adults were afraid, I was in my own private world. Prepared to navigate that adult world in spite of my lack of years.

How old was I that year? Third grade? Fourth? By sixth grade, we had moved to another state. No older than a decade, then. Maybe as young as eight. Alone. On a plane. In a blizzard.

I was confident in my experience in that adult world and the watchful eyes of the stewardesses. Back in that day, most were women. Flight attendant would not be commonly used for a decade.

I knew it was a single flight. Did I inform the stewardesses that it was my landing, my place to disembark? Not that I would have thought they didn't know. Or did I wait, allowing them the adult privilege of informing me it was time to disembark?

In the gate waiting room, Mom wasn't there. It was a blizzard. I had that faith in the adults in my life. Mom most of all. If she wasn't there, she was coming.

From time to time, a stewardess came over. "Mom is coming," I answered each inquiry.

Finally, one decided to act. I wasn't aware of this fact. Calls were made. In time, I would learn that Dad had called Mom about the canceled flight, but not about the new one. She had barely made it to our home in the suburbs on the bad roads, to learn her only child was stranded at the Minnesota Airport. In the blizzard.

More calls. Dad's sister lived in Minnesota. In Minneapolis or was with friends in the city. Close enough to make it.

She came. "We are staying here," she informed me.

"I wanna go home," I remember saying.

"You'll get a day off school," she countered.

"I don't care, I wanna go home," I insisted.

Young, certain I was in the right. One might even say stubborn. I'd prefer single-minded. Needless to say, I did not win that argument.
 

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Wrote this a few days ago, before Zan went on promptmas break for a couple days. Went back this morning. My 'odd man out', not because it is free verse poetry. Because it was inspired by a summer trip to an Ozark Limestone cavern.

Ozark Cavern

Summer heat.



Cavern mouth.

Gulping visitors,

Sipping heat.



Long throat,

cooler degree by degree

cooler by foot descending



Belly of Earth,

Journey from Summer

To Winter's bite



Lightless.

Darkness enrobes



Fear

Atavistic dissolution

Cavern assimilation



Light.

Visitors blink

Return to self.



Ascend.

Degree by degree.

By foot ascending.



Returning,

emerging into

Summer heat.
 
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Short non-fiction, more opinion style than memoir snips previous.

When Winter Rolls In

"Don't like the weather? Wait five minutes." Not quite the Will Rogers quote, but close enough for a paraphrasing from memory.

In Minnesota, winter rolled in with the first snow. From before memories of successfully navigating from Kalamazoo, through the tangled maze that was the Chicago interstate system to the Twin City suburb until we moved, in my grade school mind, winter began with that first snow and ended with the beginning of the thaw in the spring.

But what happens when Winter does not have that first snow fall until January, February, even as late as April? Or no snowfall at all?

I never changed that thought pattern. It doesn't matter what the calendar says. Winter is snow. Before it snows, even if it is January, it is not winter. Cold autumn, yes. But not winter. Some years, in Oklahoma, I go directly from autumn cold to spring cold rain. This year, it looks like Christmas will be White and therefore Winter. Most years, snow is more random.

After snow melts, cold and dry is back to autumn. Cold and rain is forward to spring. Perhaps winter and winter snow will return, perhaps it won't. Perhaps not the normal view of the seasons.

Then again, in those early Minnesota days, I never really saw the point of battling the core of my very self to fit some normal. I see the seasons by my own definitions of hot summer, cool to cold and dry autumn, snowy winter and cold and wet spring.
 
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