“I hate Christmas,” Danielle growled as she let herself into her flat. She really didn’t, but after the day she’d had, she had to let her feelings out on something. The weather was stormy, rain mixed with snow, and she was soaked since she’d had to walk home. The string of lights she’d put up in the window had shorted out, leaving her flat dark and unwelcoming. The postman had come, but there were no Christmas cards and no packages, not even the books she’d ordered, just a big, official-looking, padded envelope. She dropped it on the hall table with a sigh, thinking that she’d open it later, after a warm cup of cocoa … but there was no cocoa left. She’d used the last of it to make cookies over the weekend, and had forgotten to buy some that afternoon. Not that she could have spent any money anyway. She’d become more and more frustrated while browsing the Christmas Market, looking for something to give friends and family who already had everything they needed and wanted, and then she’d discovered that her wallet had been stolen.
After dealing with all the technical issues that such a theft invoked, Danielle sank onto the couch and clicked on the television, but the weather was messing up the satellite reception again, and there was nothing on. Remembering the official-looking envelope, she decided she might as well finish her bad day by opening it up, and then she could go to bed and hope for something better to-morrow.
Inside the envelope was a book, and a card from her Uncle Eric that said simply It’s your turn to be an angel.
An angel? What exactly did he have in mind? The book didn’t hold a clue; it merely illustrated the song The Twelve Days of Christmas, which as far as Danielle remembered did not feature angels. And Uncle Eric wasn’t her true love, either. An old friend of the family in every sense of the word, he’d been more like a doting grandfather, even now when he was living far away in a retirement home.
Danielle flicked through the pages. The book felt very old, and yet each illustration looked new and real. She stopped at the picture of the seven swans and swore she could see the water of the pond lapping at the shore. Yet, if the water were moving, why weren’t the swans? It must be some kind of optical illusion. She turned the book slightly to see what would happen, but it still looked the same. To see if she could discover what had made the effect, Danielle put a finger onto the picture.
She felt a powerful whoosh, and then she was no longer sitting on the couch, but teetering precariously in the shallows of a pond complete with swans. In the darkness behind her, there were cheers and applause, but then Danielle lost her balance and sat down hard. Cold, black water enveloped her up to her waist, and she gasped, both at the temperature and at the sudden change of scenery. The cheers turned to laughter that was quickly silenced, and Danielle glanced over her shoulder to see a group of people standing on the bank, some holding torches, and all watching her with obvious amusement. Wrapped in cloaks, they looked like something out of the Middle Ages.
The swans paddled towards her, coming from all directions. Frightened of a possible attack, Danielle scrambled to her feet and floundered towards the bank, not caring as the cold mud sucked her slippers away. One of the men met her there, helping her the last few steps onto dry land and wrapping his cloak around her. It was warm and soft with animal fur.
“Welcome, angel,” he said, guiding her towards the others. They all echoed him with a joyous, “Welcome, angel!”
But the youngest child protested, “The angel last year was a man.”
“And this year, it’s a woman,” the girl’s mother announced. To Danielle, she said, “Welcome, angel. Let’s get you some dry clothes before Mass. Poly? Polyhymnia! Run and find something for her to wear!”
“Yes, my lady,” said one of the teenage girls from the back of the group, then raced away. As they followed, Danielle glanced around. In the light of the torches, she saw a stone bridge over the pond – moat, actually – that led to a medieval-looking stone gate complete with portcullis. Ahead of her, the girl wormed her way through the crowd until she was standing right in front of them, walking backwards so that she could keep an eye on Danielle.
“I’m terribly sorry, but I think you must be expecting somebody else,” Danielle said as they crossed the bridge. “I’m not an angel, my name is Danielle, and truthfully, I’m not even sure where I am.”
“This is the village of Seven Swans,” said the older woman. “I’m Lady Faustina, and you’ve met my husband, Lord Maximian.”
“My name is Aurora,” the girl said. “That’s my brother Decebalus. And my other brother Laurentinus. And his wife …”
She bumped into Decebalus, and Lady Faustina said, “Aurora, watch where you’re going!”
Aurora turned around with resigned obedience, and Lady Faustina sighed. To Danielle, she said, “I’m sorry. She gets so excited at Christmastime.”
“Doesn’t everybody?” Danielle replied. They’d passed through the gate now, and were in the courtyard of a castle. Lady Faustina steered her towards a set of huge wooden doors, and they entered into a great hall where servants were bustling around, clearing away the remains of a huge feast. The heat was pleasant after the outside cold, but Danielle noticed that it came from more than just the roaring fireplace.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, looking down at her feet. “These stones are warm!”
“Hypocaust,” Lady Faustina explained. “Now come.”
The room was decorated with greenery of all kinds, and Danielle recognized both holly and ivy. There were also little wreaths made of something white that she wasn’t close enough to identify. Following Lady Faustina up a spiral staircase, Danielle came to an upper chamber, lit only by a few candles, but showing signs of greenery as well. The girl Poly straightened up from a chest, unfolding a dark green garment onto the four-poster bed.
“This is for summer, my lady,” she murmured, but Lady Faustina said, “It’s dry, and she’ll be warm enough under the cloak. Come, Danielle, get out of those wet things. Poly will dry them by the fire in the kitchen.”
Danielle stripped off her clothes and Poly helped her into the dress. It was a bit short, as were the boots that Poly had found, but both were manageable.
“Let’s get over to the church,” Lady Faustina said. “We’ll just make it if we hurry.”
Poly held out the cloak and Danielle pulled it on as she hurried down the steps. The church was on the village side of the moat and the bell stopped ringing as they crossed the bridge. Lady Faustina made shooing motions with her arms, and Danielle increased her speed, so that they entered just before the service began. The nave was full of people, and as Lady Faustina worked her way up one side, Danielle realized that there were no seats or pews at all; everybody had to stand. At least the church had its own hypocaust as well, so that the floor was not cold.
Part of the church service was a Nativity play which started with the Holy Spirit coming to Mary in the shape of a swan. Lord Maximian, dressed in a cloak covered with long white feathers, spread his arms wide and enveloped the woman playing Mary until nothing but the top of her head was visible. There was a bit of rustling from under the cloak, and when he released her, “Mary” had stuffed something up her dress to indicate pregnancy. Staring at this in utter astonishment, Danielle thought that someone must have mixed up the Bible with the Roman legend of Leda and the swan.
The swan motif did not end there. Not only did the angels who told the shepherds the good tidings also wear cloaks of swan feathers, but the play also included a scene about a Bishop Cygnus. Having become worried about one of the members of his church, a poor shepherd who lived far outside the village, Cygnus went out on the day before Christ’s Mass to check up on him, but became lost in a blizzard. After praying for help, he opened his eyes, and saw a swan waddling in the snow, a most unusual sight. Thinking that it must be a sign, Cygnus followed the swan, which led him right to the shepherd’s door, then lay down and died. Cygnus found the shepherd ill in bed, but was able to make a meal from the swan’s meat, which restored the shepherd to health the next day. Every Christ’s Mass day from then on, Cygnus followed the example of the swan, giving food to the poor.
It was like the legend of Bishop Nicholas and the stockings by the fire, Danielle thought, only different. She must have fallen into another dimension, an alternate universe of some kind, where the Roman influence had lasted much longer than in her own. It would explain the mixture of a stone castle with Roman underfloor heating and people with Roman names wearing medieval clothing and boots rather than togas and sandals. But at least they still celebrated, and even remembered the Christ part of Christmas, which was reassuring. And really, the swan element was no stranger than Santa Claus, reindeer, or elves.
A touch on her shoulder turned Danielle’s attention to Lord Maximian, and when she gave him a questioning look, he took the green cloak from her shoulders and replaced it with the feathered one he’d been wearing for the play. He also placed a wreath of feathers on her head, then guided her to where the priest was standing.
“And now the angel of the swans will bless us all,” the priest announced, “and when she’s finished, we will hand out the cakes.”
Smothering a nervous giggle, Danielle smiled at the sea of expectant faces in front of her, wondering exactly what to do. She had neither angelic authority nor special powers, but she could at least wish them all well. Taking Lord Maximian by the hand, Danielle said, “May God bless you in this Christmas season and throughout the year.”
He looked surprised, then pleased, then leaned down and kissed her. “Thank you!” Lady Faustina put her hands on the sides of Danielle’s face and kissed her as well. Following the example of his parents, Decebalus briefly touched his lips to Danielle’s cheek, blushing. Under the watchful eye of his young wife, Laurentius gave her a quick peck on the forehead.
“The other angel always just did us all at the same time,” Aurora said when it was her turn. She held up both arms and quoted, “God bless us, every one!” Recognizing the line from Dickens, Danielle grimaced because she hadn’t thought of such a thing. Then Aurora threw her arms around Danielle’s neck and gave her a loud, wet smooch. “But I like this way better.”
Danielle went through each member of the congregation, fighting the temptation to shorten her sentence simply to “Bless you” as though responding to a series of sneezes, and got a kiss from everybody in return. She couldn’t remember ever having seen such delighted, grateful faces, and soon forgot that she was not a real angel.
The priest had been handing out swan-shaped cakes from baskets behind the altar, and when Danielle finished with the last villager, he gave her one, too. She’d already bitten into the wing of the spicy treat when she noticed that the baskets were empty and he did not have one. Breaking the other wing off, she offered it to him, and he accepted with an embarrassed smile.
“My lord, my lady, whenever you need my help with playing Cygnus, I am ready,” the priest said, but Lady Faustina shook her head. “Elpidius, go home to your wife. She needs you more than we do.”
“Well,” the priest protested, but Lord Maximian pointed firmly to the door. Bowing, the priest hurried away.
“Poor man,” Lady Faustina said to Danielle. “His wife’s been ill ever since they lost the baby.”
“Is there anything we can do to help?” Danielle asked, wishing she were a doctor.
“You could bless her when we play Cygnus,” Decebalus suggested. Danielle glanced at him, wondering if “playing Cygnus” meant what she thought it meant, and saw that he was blushing again, which made her smile.
“Yes, exactly,” Lady Faustina agreed. “We’ll do them first. Poly, go and see if Fulvius has brought the cart around yet.”
Poly rushed to the door of the church, then came back to say that everything was ready. Danielle followed Lady Faustina and the others outside to where an old man with a lantern was guiding a horse and cart. The cartbed was covered by a tarpaulin, but there were large lumps visible underneath.
“To Elpidius first,” Lady Faustina told Fulvius, and he clicked his tongue to the horse. As they walked behind the cart, Aurora said, “Can I be Cygnus this time, please?”
“Do you think you’re strong enough?” Lord Maximian asked, and Aurora nodded. “Yes! I’ve been practicing all year!”
“All right,” he replied, and Aurora squealed in delight. They soon reached Elpidius’ cottage, and Danielle noted with surprise that they parked the cart around the back. Aurora folded back the tarpaulin, but it was Laurentius who lifted out a large bundle and placed it into her outstretched arms. She staggered happily away under the weight, and Laurentius looked over to Danielle. “Your turn.”
She put out her arms, expecting to receive a similar bundle, but hers seemed to be wrapped up in the same kind of feathered cloak that she was still wearing. As she followed Aurora around to the door of the cottage, however, part of her load slipped from her grasp. Thinking she’d dropped something, Danielle looked down, and almost dropped her burden in horror. It wasn’t a cloak she was carrying – it was a dead swan, with its head and neck dangling over her arm!
“Merry Christmas!” Aurora shrieked. The cottage door had opened and Elpidius motioned them to come in. The room was small, with a mattress on one side of the fire, and a table with two stools on the other side. Aurora dropped her sack onto the table, and Danielle laid the swan next to it, glad to be rid of the corpse.
“It’s the angel,” she heard Elpidius say, and turned around. He was kneeling by the mattress, stroking his wife’s hair away from her face, then he glanced imploringly at Danielle and moved aside. The woman’s eyes fluttered and focused on Danielle as she knelt down, but although her lips moved, no sound came out. Danielle put her hands on either side of the woman’s hot, dry face and said what she had said to all the others. “May God bless you in this Christmas season and throughout the year.”
The woman put her hand over one of Danielle’s and clasped, smiling briefly, then relaxed and closed her eyes. Afraid that she might have died then and there, Danielle felt for a pulse, then sat back on her heels in relief when she found it. “She’s still alive.”
“Swan soup will have her well in no time,” Aurora announced, “just like in the legend.”
The woman opened her eyes again, glancing beyond Danielle to the table, and this time she whispered, “Swan?”
“I’ll make it,” Elpidius said, and straightened up. Grasping Danielle by the hand, he said, “You’ve given us hope, angel. Thank you, and thank God.”
As she and Aurora went out, Danielle thought that hope must be the best gift of all. She felt so buoyed by the thought that she hardly minded when Laurentius put another dead swan into her arms for her next visit, telling herself that it was just like a frozen turkey, only different. This time, it was Decebalus who lugged the sack to the door, and he and Aurora alternated accompanying Danielle to the various cottages.
When the cart was empty and they were walking back to the castle, Aurora announced, “This was the best Christmas ever! I love playing Cygnus!” and then yawned until it seemed she’d never get her mouth shut again. Smothering her own yawn, Danielle nodded silently.
“Too bad you won’t be here to-morrow,” Decebalus said. “There’ll be dancing.”
“But will you come next year?” Aurora asked. “Or will the other angel come again?”
“I think I’ll come next year,” Danielle said. As they approached the bridge, she scanned the moat, but there were no swans. Instead, there was a powerful whoosh, a moment of complete blackness, and the surface under her feet was suddenly so yielding that she lost her balance and thudded into the wall of her living room. Clinging there, she realized she’d materialized on top of her couch, and was still wearing her borrowed clothing. Carefully, Danielle climbed down, taking an extra big step to avoid the book which lay open on the floor.
Well! No wonder Uncle Eric always had a secretive smile on his face whenever he spoke about Christmas. Being an angel! Travelling to other dimensions! Danielle leaned over and picked up the book, closing it gingerly. She didn’t want to be accidentally whisked to the next adventure before she’d had the chance to recover from the first one. Or did the book only work once each day? That would be logical, and because she’d started in the middle, she had a feeling she could pick and choose which page she’d try next. What would it be like, she wondered, to be an angel to twelve drummers drumming?
written December 2010