I always love this time of year. Some argue that the traditions are no longer meaningful, that they are suited to a different place and culture. Some even compare them to the rats and other pests that we unwittingly brought with us; seeing them as something to be exterminated so that we can prosper here. I disagree. I think Krismass has survived changes in place and time because it fulfils common needs in all of us.
It’s about getting together with loved ones, eating a lot of rich food and trading presents. Who can claim never to have needed any of these things? If there was ever any other meaning to Krismass, it’s lost. I could argue that we’ve made it our own tradition and moulded it to suit us by forgetting irrelevant bits.
The only problem I have with Krismass is the heat. It makes doing all those lovely traditions a lot harder. With each hour, tempers fray and loved ones look a little less lovely; as each sun clears the horizon, appetites wither a little more; and with each scalding gust of the wind everyone becomes a little less happy to swop presents graciously.
I don’t know why Krismass must be celebrated on the hottest day of the year, but I have some ideas. Maybe the celebration isn’t all about fun and eating well. Maybe it’s meant to be difficult – like a test of one’s patience and temper. Maybe it’s meant to show us how even the best things can require work. Maybe we’re meant to realise the fundamental similarity of all things under the right conditions. We’ll never know now, but it makes you think, doesn’t it?
He’s come for me now in the summer, when the lake isn’t a vast frozen field, when children laugh and play in the sun and people sit on rocking chairs overlooking the waters, a hand-rolled cigarette hanging from their lips and a carafe of wine beside them.
A Pariah wearing an unadorned alabaster mask has been walking our streets. The mask is a sign of his knowledge and status; it hides the scars I gave him, which are a sign of his accomplishments. I haven’t seen him and his scars in so many years, but now my hopes are fulfilled: he’s come for me. Maybe I’ll see them again.
There’s talk that the Pariah will consume our village in conflagration, heat and dust. But my brother is not extravagant, has always been controlled. I remember his focus and drive, like that of a stalking cat. The village, I think, is safe.
I wait for him here on the pier, under the sun, while my husband is on the waters with our daughter and the nets. It’s my third day of waiting, but the Pariah hasn’t come for me yet.
I hope he comes while my family is away. They shouldn’t have to live with the disappointment of discovering my past.
What will I say to Gabriel when he finds me? Maybe I’ll tell him that I’m sorry. I am sorry, but what does that change? I hope he’ll talk to me in English, talk to me of New York and London and home, all so far away now. Of our old dreams. I hope he’s anger is a cool anger and that he’ll be merciful and quick.
The mountains are an arid rampart to the east of the kingdom’s peaceful green valleys. Beyond the range is the desert, a titanic, sandy bowl which cradles the heat with ferocious intent. Even from here, on the easternmost peak, the stony ground ripples with heatwaves like distant hallucinations.
She is not interested in the ground. She has climbed for two weeks in order to reach this specific confluence of desert and height. As she leans out from her rocky perch into the blue void she is circled by thermals: empty air swirls around her, flame-hot on her skin. The sultry breeze lifts her hair from her shoulders, and she laughs.
Because she’s looking for it, she catches the momentary half-seen shimmer on the edge of her vision. It’s not a heatwave. There’s a trick to this; she unfocuses her gaze, squints into the glare. She looks beyond and along, and the sky is momentarily filled with the immeasurable wing-span, transparent and flickering against the sky. The bird-body is curved like a dagger, the eye, glittering and amused, surveying her for a visible instant, flame wisping around the diamond iris. Then it’s gone.
She launches herself from the ledge in an arcing swallow dive as though into a lover’s arms. The maelstrom of heat which embraces her strips the flesh instantly from her bones, unravelling mind and spirit. Ash drifts on the scorching sky.
Disembodied, she floats on the wind, a fierce intelligence re-knitting her tenderly into its airy, insubstantial, tensile net. She circles the air currents borne on the gyr’s invisible breast, feeling the imperceptible wings stretch to the horizon, a flame at her heart.
The note was a scrap, torn from a larger page. It was pinned to the inside of the bread cupboard, which was not particularly chilly. The wavy attempt at copperplate screamed Agnes, and thus I presumed some game was on. I opened the pantry door behind me.
Ah. That game. I turned and walked away from the pantry, peeking behind furniture as I went.
“Not quite so cold” under the dining-table.
“Warm-ish” at the glass-blower.
“Tingly!” attached to Jeeves’s brass back plate. Poor thing, prevented from his polishing duties by my daughter’s games again, his clockwork had wound down while he waited for me at the cellar door.
I was descending the stairs when one of Agnes’s angel automatons zoomed up at me, thrusting a piece of paper – “Toasty!”- into my hands before exhausting its spring and collapsing in an inelegant spiral. I lifted the device gently: Agnes had updated the design, making it more articulate than ever, its filigree wings capable of boosting it into the air in a momentary approximation of flight. Ingenious, if limited – like all of our work – to the power that could be extracted from the spring.
My daughter greeted me, beaming, at the foot of the stairs. The workshop was basked in a golden glow. Agnes’s little hand wrapped around mine as she led me into the laboratory. The light was emitted by a sphere, as tall as a man, suspended in mid air. Dozens of angel automatons hovered around the device. I stared at the spectacle, astounded that not one of them seemed to flag or fall. Instead, their graceful bodies arranged themselves in the air to spell out a single word:
It was always hot in the kitchen, even in winter. The soup was a never ending pot on the boil, never the same flavour twice as leftovers were added and added – staff meals, yum… There were also the big roasts twice a day for the important people upstairs, the ones with money. Either pig or lamb and always six chickens with lashing of butter and bundles of herbs. The vegetable steam baskets were on the opposite side of the kitchen away from the windows that didn’t close. They couldn’t really, rusted and caked with flour, fat and sugar. The ovens were under the windows, they needed to be with all the heat they generated. None of the staff had seen snow on the outside wall in winter – the stones were baked just as the breads, cakes, tarts, pies and pastries. The stove tops awash with syrups, custards, boiled over water and messed sauces.
A path in stone around the main table that was never cleared, the edges rippled from the claps of pasta machines and meat grinders, the surface dotted with scorch rings from hot pots and pans. The stone was once a natural colour but now was an endless canvas of stains, peelings, spills and singed dishcloths.
The kitchen never closes and the heat never ends. As the new dishwasher, I welcome you to hell.
The burning on my back and the sizzling flesh smell wake me up: I’m tied to a metal cross in a pit of fire. The air swims with the heat. The sulphur in the air burns my eyes: I can barely see.
I let out a desperate scream as steel wire tightens around my wrists, the barbs cutting into me. The wire is white hot, but the wounds don’t cauterise. They stay open, like all the others I can suddenly feel. The blood flows and flows and I start to get light-headed, wondering how much more I can lose before I pass out… Sweat trickles into the cuts and stings like acid.
I swear I see the demon tremble a little as he plods toward the corpse at his feet and picks up the flaming cat o’ nine tails. The heat doesn’t bother him: he thrives on it. He allows himself a sly grin as he pulls back his rippling arm and brings it down on my face with enough force to tear my head from my shoulders.
I slip out of the borrowed body and re-corporealise into something more comfortable. No horns, no tail, no red skin today: just my favourite sharp suit, matching hat, and rosewood walking cane.
“Excellent,” I tell my minion. “Now get back to work in the Third Circle.”
He bows low, eyeballs into the dirt. I snap my fingers and he’s back at his post. Perhaps I should consider him for a promotion…
“It is already so late Andrew, will you not stay for dinner with us?”
Grandma Chaturvedi was a conservative, reserved matriarch from the old country who generally steered well clear of her grandson’s white Jo’burg friends: this was the first time she had ever addressed me.
“You don’t mind Indian food do you? We like it traditional here.”
“I’m not that English! Hot is cool by me.”
At the time I thought this both true and funny. The old woman just nodded and smiled quietly, eyes twinkling.
That first mouthful of curry was really good: full of rich, strong flavours. It was after the second swallow that the heat began. I felt it first high up in my sinuses: a tingling, flowing warmth – not unpleasant at first. It spread downwards like slick hot tar, tonsils dowsed in fire, my throat a tubular inferno. I was blinded by a tsunami of tears but could hear the suppressed giggles of the family and the desperate wheezy gulps of my body trying to breathe. Then the heat slowly surged upwards: a Salamander climbing my tongue with tiny barbed claws; fiery spines scraping my palate; liquid flame coating my lips.
By the time a glass of Lassi was pressed into my hands my hosts were incoherent with laughter and I, in too much pain to be embarrassed, eventually laughed with them.
That night when I said my last thanks to Grandma Chaturvedi she just smiled and said in her quiet precise English, “Where I come from they say a great curry burns twice – once on the way in and once on the way out.”
There seemed no easy response to this, so I forced a nervous smile and fled.