As part of our 12 Days of Christmas, we’re bringing you some of your favourite authors talking about what Christmas is to them…in whatever form they like! We’re also bringing you their books at only £1!
Today is the turn of Cassandra Rose Clarke, author of The Assasin’s Curse, The Pirate’s Wish and the forthcoming The Wizard’s Promise, all with Strange Chemistry, as well as The Mad Scientist’s Daughter with Angry Robot!
Here’s how to take advantage of our seasonal special offer:1. Visit the Robot Trading Company at www.robottradingcompany.com2. Add the book(s) you’d like to buy to your shopping basket3. Add the magic word ‘tinsel’ to the ‘coupon/voucher’ box4. Click the ‘update basket’ button and the discount will be applied
I woke up to the sound of singing. At first I couldn’t place it, and I thought I was still dreaming, or that Aunt Shelly had arrived earlier than she said and had turned on the stereo downstairs. But when I rolled onto my side and saw that it was a quarter after midnight, I realized it was just the church across the cemetery. Midnight Mass.
Moonlight slanted in through the crooked blinds. The room was brighter than I would have expected, for midnight. I closed my eyes and listened to the singing—it was too far away for me to place the song, and anyway I hadn’t been to Mass in years. I doubted I could remember the names of the hymns.
I rolled onto my back, onto my stomach, my side, trying to get comfortable. I pulled the blanket over my head. The singing continued, fragmented by the wind howling in from the north. I’d gone to Midnight Mass every year as a child and I didn’t remember the singing lasting this long.
I shoved my head under the pillow but I could still hear the voices, whispery, distant, floating over the cemetery. With the voices came the memories of the Christmas Eves of my childhood: walking across the cemetery with my hand tucked in Dad’s, our arms swinging in tandem, my head tilted back, certain I’d get a glimpse of Santa sailing across the dark sky on his way to deliver toys to the Baptist kids who didn’t have to go to church first. The cemetery was always still and silent around us, and whenever we passed the grave of my great-great grandmother, Dad would touch two fingers to his forehead in a salute of acknowledgement. Afterwards, he’d whisper in my ear that if I was lucky we’d see a ghost because even they were allowed to walk the Earth on Christmas Eve so they could attend Mass. Then Mom would tell him to hush up. The idea of ghosts never scared me, though. You get used to it, growing up next door to a cemetery.
I slid the pillow off my head. It was too hot and stuffy under there. The music seemed to have stopped, and I lay still, listening for it—
Nope, they weren’t done yet. A low, haunting melody surged on the wind, the voices rippling like wind chimes. The clock rolled over to 12:21. The shards of moonlight seemed as bright as tanning lights. My insomnia was going to strike. I could feel it, like the start of a headache behind my temple. I’d finally started sleeping well these last few weeks, and it figured that church hymns would be the thing to instigate it all over again. I sighed, dragged the blanket over my face. The singing swelled. It almost sounded too sweet to be the St. Cecilia congregation, and for a moment I couldn’t move, paralyzed by the strange and unearthly beauty of that singing. A chill rippled over my skin, and I wasn’t certain, in that moment, if I was joyful or afraid.
A burst of wind slammed against the window. The screen rattled in the frame. Whatever midnight spell the hymns had created was broken, and I flopped down on my side, staring through silvery moonlight at the elongated shadows of the bedroom. It’d been my bedroom, a long time ago, although Mom had redecorated a few years after I moved out. No trace of my teenage self remained.
I wasn’t going to fall back asleep.
I threw the blankets aside and crawled out of bed, shivering when my feet touched the cold floor. I wrapped the top quilt around my shoulders and padded out of the bedroom. The hallway was lit with the eerie blue glow of the same night light that had once consoled my own fear of the dark several years ago. Funny that it was still lit, since that fear had evaporated. I was an adult now, and it wasn’t the dark that scared me anymore.
Downstairs, I could hear the singing even more clearly. I wrapped my arms around my chest, drawing the blanket in closer, and listened at the foot of the stairs, where moonlight flooded in through the window above the door. The singing sounded much closer than the church. My heart fluttered, and once again that strange chill ran up my spine—rhapsody or terror? In the silvery light of the foyer, through the groggy haze of my interrupted sleep, I couldn’t tell the difference.
I put on a pair of Mom’s slippers that she’d left lying beside the umbrella stand—she and Dad were in the Caribbean right now, staying in some expensive hotel on the French side of Saint Martin. I’d volunteered to house-sit because I couldn’t stand the thought of spending the holidays in my apartment in the city, accepting pity invitations for friends to celebrate Christmas with their families when my own family had failed so spectacularly six months ago, with a single revelation that had ended my marriage, my hopes for children, all of it. I was supposed to be settled into the routine of traditions by now; instead I had no traditions but the ghosts of the ones from my childhood. Like this big empty house, the music from Midnight Mass keeping me awake.
I opened the front door. Arctic air blasted into the foyer, but I stepped out onto the porch anyway. You never got white Christmases here, but as a kid I used to wish for cold on Christmas Day. Nice to have one childhood wish fulfilled in my life.
At first all I could hear on the porch was the wind, howling and whistling its own song of the Arctic. I flipped the switch for the porch light but it didn’t come on. Didn’t matter. The moon was bright enough that the trees cast shadows.
I walked out on the porch steps, straining to hear the music over the wind. For a moment I was certain that it had stopped, but then the wind gusted and I heard it, faintly. It was like crystals chiming, like light sparkling across the surface of a lake. There was no way it was the church.
But it was coming from the direction of the church.
From the direction of the cemetery.
I gathered up the quilt keeping me warm and stepped onto the grass. Damp cold seeped through the fabric of the slippers, but I didn’t care—I hardly even noticed. I just plodded forward through the blustery wind, following the path around to the back of the house, past the spiny, leafless bougainvillea and the empty herb garden. The singing grew louder, grew softer—it all depended on the strength of the wind. My chest seized up and my breath quickened, but I kept walking. I wanted to know who was singing.
But the back porch was empty, and so was the field that lay between our property and the start of the cemetery. St. Cecilia’s was lit up like a beacon, colored light streaming through the stained-glass windows and shining on the cars parked in neat rows beside the building. The cemetery was a smudge of darkness, the way it always was. I sighed and sat down on the porch steps. My feet were damp and stinging with the cold. My cheeks burned. I didn’t care. The mystery hadn’t been solved.
There was no way that singing was coming from the church. No way at all. But I could still hear it.
I drew myself deeper into the blanket. There were more of mom’s empty flowerbeds back here, all of them laying dormant for spring. The pecan tree was nothing but a tangle of black branches. The singing dropped away, and for a moment I thought it was over—but no, it surged again, swelling like the wind, and I recognized the melody, although I couldn’t remember its name. A hymn.
Maybe it was the church after all.
I stood up to go back inside. It was just singing, just Midnight Mass. But then a flash of color caught on the corner of my eye, and my heart jolted. It was a flower growing next to the entrance of the cemetery. Bright red.
I hadn’t seen it before.
I knew I hadn’t seen it before. Not when I arrived two days ago, dragging my suitcase to the back door. Not when I took out the trash this morning. Not when I went to the grocery store this evening, having run out of butter for the pecan pie. That flower hadn’t been there.
Now it was.
I stared at it for a long time, my heart pounding. The singing continued on, but now the flower had my interest: that flower, tall and surrounded with wide, flat, tropical-looking leaves, the single blossom shaped like a lantern and bobbing up and down in the wind. It didn’t even look like a flower that ought to be able to stand the cold.
I stepped off the porch. The singing died away and then faded in again, this time with the Ave Maria. The cold sank deep into my bones. It didn’t matter. I was drawn forward toward the cemetery, taking the same path I had hundreds and hundreds of times before, when I was a child. Recreating my past, all on my own.
The flower was so bright it seemed to glow. It was brightest at its center, like a lick of flame. I stopped a few paces away from the entrance of the cemetery. My breath puffed out in white clouds of steam, and I shivered beneath the blanket. Although I didn’t really feel the cold.
I reached out, ran my fingers over the curve of the flower’s blossom. It trembled beneath my touch. I snatched my hand away.
The singing swelled.
I jumped, whirled, the blanket flaring out around me. The porch light on my parents’ house glowed several yards away, and the church did the same in the opposite direction. I was mired in the darkness of the cemetery. Except for the light of that flower.
The voices were still singing the Ave Maria, and they were close, they were loud. They were outside. It wasn’t the church at all. It was the cemetery.
The dead are allowed to walk the Earth on Christmas Eve.
I whirled around again, measuring the distance to the church, then to the house. The house was technically closer but it seemed to have receded into the darkness. The porch light might as well have been a star.
I ran toward the church.
I ran into the cemetery.
I didn’t realize what I was doing until it was too late. Darkness swarmed over me. The light from the house blinked out; the church was enveloped in mist. I tripped over the edge of the blanket and fell, sprawling out on the cold, frozen grass. The cold shot up through my bare hands and soaked through my pajamas. I shoved myself up, trying to crawl to my feet, panic choking off my breath. My heart beat as fast as a hummingbird’s, using up all the heartbeats I was allotted in a lifetime. My hair swung into my face. My fingers were frozen. I couldn’t stand up.
And then someone passed in front of me.
I shrieked and scrambled backwards over the grass. It was a woman, dressed in a flimsy bias-cut dress, her hair curled and bobbed. A little boy followed after her, and then a man in a dark suit. Another woman, older, and her clothes older still: a long swishing skirt, a high-collared blouse pinned shut with a brooch.
One by one they passed. None of them were dressed for the weather, but all of them, it seemed, were dressed up. Sunday clothes, my mom used to call them. Funeral clothes. The clothes your body wears when you are dead.
I couldn’t move. The people passed by me. Some of them were singing. Some of them had their heads bowed. One man smoked a cigarette and blew the smoke up toward the stars, the ember a jewel in the darkness. None of them looked at me.
But then a little boy passed. He wore breeches and a waistcoat, and he turned to look at me as he walked by. His eyes were bright, twin stars set into the lines of face. I smothered a scream. He blinked at me: the lights flickered. Then he smiled, and said something, but I couldn’t hear him.
A woman grabbed him by the arm in the manner of all mothers hushing their children in church. The boy looked away, pouting, and began to sing.
I cowered there on the ground, tangled up in my blanket, watching the dead walk by. Distantly, the church’s bells started to ring, a riotous clanging that somehow still aligned with the melody of the hymn. It was music unlike any I’d heard; music, I suspected, that was not meant for the living.
The parade marched on. I wasn’t sure how long I stayed out there. The cold grew so intense that I no longer felt it, only a pleasant numbness like sleep. That numbness sank deeper than just my physical body: I could feel it assuaging the pain of the last year, the divorce and the loneliness and a Christmas Eve spent wishing I could be a child again, when the world was simple.
The last person in the parade was a woman dressed in white. She carried the red flower I had seen at the entrance to the cemetery, and now its glow was unmistakable. It cast a sphere of red light over the ground, over the woman’s dress and bare feet. Her head was bent as if in prayer, her lips moving, but when she passed me she looked up and caught me in her bright starlight gaze. I couldn’t look away. I didn’t dare.
She broke from the parade and glided over to me. Something about her reminded me of my father–the shape of her eyes, the tilt of her nose. The singing sounded far away now, but the church bells were louder, echoing around inside my head. The woman knelt at my side. The flower’s light fell on me, tingling where it touched my skin.
“This is not the place for you,” she said.
Her voice sounded as if it came from the church bells. She tilted her head back toward the cemetery entrance, back toward my parent’s house. I could see the porch light again, a tiny glimmering dot against the darkness.
“Go,” she said.
My fingers ached. My skin felt as if it was on fire. I had the dull realization that I was on the verge of freezing to death.
The woman stood up. She smiled. It was not exactly a human smile.
“Merry Christmas, granddaughter,” she said, and then she floated away, toward the clanging of the church bells.
I lay for a moment in the empty cemetery. The moon cast silvery light on the gravestones and the statues of angels. Someone laughed; over at the church, the congregants were spilling out of Midnight Mass, huddling together in groups of twos and threes. I struggled to my feet, hoping none of them would see me. It would be embarrassing, trying to explain what I was doing out here, half-dressed and half-frozen.
The moonlight outlined the shape of my parent’s house, and I hobbled toward it, leaving the cemetery behind.