Sometimes when Plen woke before the sun, he lay in bed the way he never could at sea, listening to the sounds made by everything still waiting for the dawn, watching the slow creep of light through the bedroom window and across the wall. Even after almost a year ashore, this still seemed the height of indulgence.
This morning, though, he rolled out of bed even as he opened his eyes, and padded across the hallway to Joy’s room, with its small myriad of toy animals and brightly-colored paper birds. “Joy,” he said, shaking her shoulder. “Joy, wake up.”
She moaned at this, batting at Plen’s insistent hand, face still pressed hard against her pillow. “Sun’s not up.” ‘Go away’ was unsaid but strongly implied.
“Faraji and I are taking you fishing, remember?”
“Oh,” she groaned, or perhaps ‘No,’ face already sliding back into the slack lines of sleep, eyes almost closed. It took yanking the pillow out from under her had to get them open properly. She really did say “No!” then, but Plen had her chivvied halfway off the bed even as she said it.
“Happy Christmas,” he added while handing her a clean dress. “If you’re not downstairs in five minutes, I’ll come up and carry you down, regardless of what you’re wearing.” She moaned at him again, but managed not to drop the dress on the (desperately needing to be swept) floor. “And try to remember that you wanted to do this—begged to, in fact.”
That got him a nod instead of an unhappy sound, so he counted it as acquiescence and went downstairs to see if Faraji was up yet.
Not only was Faraji up, he’d laid out the supplies for the morning’s expedition and produced bread and milk from somewhere. “I thought we were all out,” Plen commented as he finished sopping up the last bit of milk in his bowl.
“No, I just said we were so no one would have a midnight snack and leave the rest of us hungry in the morning.” Faraji took the empty bowl from him as Plen debated protesting this admittedly wise precaution. “Should one of us fetch Joy down? If we don’t leave soon, the sun will beat us to the beach.”
“I’ll go get her if you’ll load Baby.”
“Fair enough,” Faraji agreed, and began gathering poles and net and baskets off the table. The things would make an almost laughably light loan for their Fliek’s dragon, but it would be much more pleasant than having to carry everything by hand, especially if they managed to catch anything.
Plen went back upstairs and found Joy sitting on her bed, dressed, hair still a mess. She had her brush in hand, but was staring vacantly at the wall across from her. “Want some help with that?” Plen asked from the doorway.
Wordless, and not looking away from the wall, she held out the hairbrush—more in the direction of the window than toward him. It might have been an act, but she appeared to have put her dress on backwards, so likely not. Plen bit his lip in an attempt to keep from laughing (or sighing), and began brushing her hair more carefully than the time really allowed.
By the time he finished, Joy had fallen asleep again, still sitting up.
She woke up again on her own about halfway down the mountain to the beach, in the middle of a somewhat heated discussion of whether to get a cow or two goats. Faraji was mostly winning because goats really were more practical, but Plen liked cows better because you didn’t have to worry about them eating laundry off the line.
“Cows’ milk tastes nicer,” Joy commented in the middle of Faraji’s defense of stakes-and-chains over fences. “Also, they have very pretty eyes and lovely pulpy noses and goats kind of scare me.”
Well. That more or less settled the matter.
“Could someone get me down from here? I like Baby very much but she’s rather uncomfortable to ride.”
They fished until the sun shone hard on the beach and they’d caught enough to feed them each quite a few times over. Or rather, Faraji and Plen fished and Joy chased sand pipers and drew pictures in the sand while Faraji told her stories of being at sea. Of the time someone had netted an octopus without realizing it and the creature had eaten a chunk of the ship’s fish supply before being discovered. Most of the crew had wanted to eat it in retaliation, but the captain had been so impressed by its tenacity that he’d let it go. Faraji described the way it moved, boneless, across the deck, so well that Joy squealed in disgust and refused to listen to any more stories from him for the rest of the morning.
“You tell me a story,” she asked (demanded) Plen, scrunching up against him as if he were a defense against further descriptions of the octopus. “Tell me one about when you were little. You and Mum.”
“Ah,” Plen said to stall for time, trying to scrounge up something he hadn’t already told her many times. “Well, this isn’t exactly a story, but it does have an octopus in it.” This earned him an elbow in the ribs and a disgruntled “Plen,” and Faraji’s rare laugh. But he told it anyway, because it wasn’t really about the octopus (which had done small tricks with colored balls and hadn’t been anything more than strangely fascinating). And it was a Christmas story, anyway, the first time Plen and his sister had gone to the town’s celebrations on their own, unsupervised.
“Do you think there’ll be an octopus this year?” Joy asked when he was finished, after a long, somewhat melancholy silence. The story had been mostly funny, but it made Plen think of his sister and how she should be the one telling Joy stories about him.
“Maybe,” Plen told her. “Was there one last year?”
She shrugged. “Uncle Increase didn’t let me go.” And there wasn’t anything Plen could say about that. He’d come home as soon as he’d heard about his sister’s death, but it hadn’t been soon enough.
But before melancholy could deepen into outright grief and regret, Faraji caught the last fish of the morning, too big to fit in the net (almost too big for the line) and too big not to keep, and the three of them spent several very exciting minutes chasing it around the beach as it tried to thrash its way back to freedom.
Of course, once it was thoroughly dead, they had to chase Baby into the ocean, because she’d apparently spent the morning grazing on manicheel trees, and had managed to thoroughly coat herself with the poisonous sap without noticing—one advantage, Plen supposed, of being covered in scales, although it did make it tricky for the rest of them.
By the time all that was finished and Joy (and Plen and Faraji, once they’d made sure Baby was secured out of reach of any more manicheel trees) had flopped down on the sand to catch her breath before trekking back up the mountain, all of them (even Faraji) were slightly giggly and not thinking about anything other than how good the fish were going to taste and how long they would have to wait to eat them and how hungry they (Joy, because she hadn’t had breakfast) were.
“If we’d caught the last fish first, we wouldn’t have needed to bother with the others,” Plen commented as he and Faraji began puzzling out how to attach it to Baby’s harness. “It’s almost big enough for Joy to ride.”
That earned him a squawked “Plen!”, because Joy was a full twelve now, and not little any more, although it admittedly was a very large fish, Faraji.
“Yes, it is,” Faraji said in a tone that probably would have been more pleased if they’d thought to bring some twine with them. In the end, Plen sacrificed his belt and they managed to rig up something that didn’t look like it would dump the fish on the ground the first time Baby sneezed.
By the time they got up the mountain again, Joy’s stomach was growling so loudly that Plen could hear it even on the other side of Baby, and although she didn’t complain, she did look very unhappy. Which was probably why she didn’t notice that they’d turned off the track three houses before theirs until they were greeted by a small horde of children shouting “Happy Christmas!”
“Happy Christmas,” Joy repeated back dutifully, despite her obvious confusion. “Uncle Plen, what—”
“There’s too many fish for just the three of us, so Faraji and I thought we might as well share,” he said, as though this hadn’t all been planned out for several weeks now. “You don’t mind, do you?” Because it had been just the three of them (for her and Plen, at any rate; Faraji was another matter entirely) for what was probably a little too long.
“No,” she said, wide-eyed, before being dragged away to be shown dolls and barrettes and other Christmas extravagances.
“Good,” Plen said to the now-empty yard before heading inside to greet his hostess, who he suspected would be rather more than that in a year or so’s time, if Faraji had his way. (And if the children had theirs—he doubted Widow Lee could have afforded five new dolls and assorted bric-a-brac for her daughters, let alone the beautiful knife her only son insisted on showing everyone, especially Faraji, several times over.)
Everyone ate too much and was very happy about it, and then all of them went back down the mountain into town for the Christmas sports and the evening service at St. Eulalia’s. They bought and ate too much candy, sang Christmas songs until their throats hurt, laughed until their faces did too, danced until the littlest Lee girl was so dizzy she fell over, and spent a very long time watching the performing parrot and monkey act. (Apparently there were no octopuses this year, for which Joy was extravagantly grateful.) At one of the jewelry vendors, Joy couldn’t decide between three necklaces, so Plen bought them all—because it was Christmas, and apparently it hadn’t happened last year for her, even though she’d been living in the middle of town at the time, right in the heart of all the celebrations.
(And a little bit because his own last ten Christmases had spent been at sea, with nothing to give except a few carved whales’ teeth and no one to give them to except Faraji, who’d never celebrated Christmas before Plen came along. Really, all three of them were playing catch-up.)
After the evening service, they headed back up the mountain—slowly, because they were tired but happy, and content to be so. Night had fallen, but the moon was full, and shone bright enough to show them the path. Faraji led the way, pointing out constellations to the older children, telling them stories about the pictures in the sky: the hunter and his dog, the fisherman who caught a whale, the crown no one could wear and the throne no one could sit in. Plen found himself at the back of the group, carrying the next-to-littlest Lee girl and talking quietly with her mother.
“Thank you for this,” Widow Lee (‘Rosa, please,’) said, soft enough to keep from waking Plen’s burden. Plen wanted to misunderstand, to make some comment about how the teeny-tiny girl in his arms was so teeny-tiny that he barely noticed her (which had been true when they started up the mountain, but wasn’t any more), but Rosa kept speaking, so he didn’t get the chance. “We haven’t had much to celebrate since their father died, or any way to celebrate it. I haven’t—” she broke off, and the moon gave just enough light for Plen to see her biting her lip. “Thank you,” she repeated.
And Plen couldn’t come up with anything to say in response that wouldn’t sound patronizing or flippant, so he held his tongue until he thought he could say “You’re welcome,” and have it come out the way he wanted it to.
The moon was very high by the time they reached Rosa’s house, and all three adults had their arms full of drowsing children (Faraji somehow managed two). Getting them all in bed took longer than Plen would have imagined possible the previous Christmas, in his life before Joy. But eventually it was accomplished and time for Plen and Faraji and Joy to go home to their own beds (and hammock).
“Happy Christmas,” Plen said to Rosa before he turned to leave, Joy sound asleep against his shoulder and heavy and clinging to him as though she was still terrified he’d abandon her.
“Happy Christmas, Plen,” Rosa said as she stood in the doorway, radiant in the moonlight despite her evident exhaustion and the remnants of long sorrow. “Faraji.”
“Rosa,” Faraji answered, voice full of things not yet ready to be spoken. “Happy Christmas.”
And thus endeth the gentle_edgar era of my writing career, which spanned  years and a shift in my approach to writing: fewer random bursts of whimsical creativity, more focus on writing things with your basic beginning, middle, and end. A move away from the bonsai-like drabble and toward longer, more involved stories.