Note: I wrote the following piece for a Fantasy Writer’s.org monthly challenge three years ago. I haven’t found a market for it, so I’m publishing it here for Winter Solstice. There is a little fantasy/science fiction mix here, so bear with me. I’ve always like this story and whenever I read it–well, you’ll see.
THE INATTENTIONS OF MR. WEATHERBY
In advance of the coming cold front, thick flakes swirled and hit the muddy street. Ari’s boots slipped in the mud and the thin coating of melting snow. Her basket in hand, she looked up as the flying ice batted her eyes. She pulled up her scarf over her nose and pushed on, making her way to the little store before her. The storefront was dark, but whether it was because Mr. Weatherby closed the store early, or the sudden storm dampened the light of the sun, she did not know.
She pushed at the door, and it yielded, opening on the slight warmth of an enclosed space holding back the greater cold of the outside world. There was a fireplace off to the left, but it was not lit. The rafters were dark from a lack of light in the shop. She stomped her feet before she entered loosening some of the mud from her boots.\
“Weatherby,” she called.
Typically, there was no answer. She often remarked he was the worst storekeeper ever, but Weatherby would only scoff.
“I’m here, aren’t I? No one else would supply this sad sack little town.”
“Weatherby,” she called again this time with impatience.
The creak and shuffling of Weatherby’s desk chair wafted from the office in the back. Weatherby poked his head out of the door.
“Matilda,” he said grumpily.
He always got her name wrong, in fact, called every woman Matilda.
“Come on out here, Weatherby,” Ari demanded. “I have business for you.”
Weatherby grunted and shuffled to the service counter.
The shopkeeper’s angular face was quite pleasing even if his white hair straggled down to his shoulders. And his body was lean, perhaps a little too much so. He dressed neatly too, wearing a crisp white shirt under a tan vest along with his black slacks. But his personality left much to be desired.
“What is it now, Matilda?” said Weatherby sounding cross.
“I brought the muffins I promised.” She shoved the basket at him. Ari didn’t bother to be polite anymore to Weatherby. He didn’t appreciate it.
“Did you bring blueberry?” said Weatherby.
“You know darn well, Weatherby, there are no blueberries on this planet,” she scoffed.
“I was looking forward to blueberry,” said Weatherby prying away the cloth napkins that covered the muffins. I can only give you ten pennies per muffin if they aren’t blueberry.”
Annoyance crawled through Ari’s veins like a clinging vine. “You are giving me fifty pennies per muffin and no less! You sell them for a dollar anyway!”
“No blueberry,” he said mournfully.
“Cut the act, Weatherby!” Ari said.
There was a flicker of something in Weatherby’s eyes, a look of appreciation perhaps?
“Okay, Matilda. Fifty pennies per muffin as agreed.”
“And I’d like payment now,” she demanded.
He scoffed. “Remember our arrangement, Matilda. I pay all my suppliers at Solstice.”
“Damn strange way you conduct business, Weatherby.” Ari looked around the store. “And why haven’t you decorated for it?” she said. \
“It?” said Weatherby as if clueless about what she was talking about.
“Solstice. In two weeks, Solstice. The triumph of the light over darkness? The birth of the new sun god? Lighting the Yule log?”
“Yule log?” said Weatherby sounding confused.
“Just where do you come from, Weatherby? Everyone knows about Solstice!”
He gave a snort by way of an answer.
She tried a different tack. “People like it when you decorate. It brings more business.”
“More business?” said Weatherby doubtfully.
Ari hated it when Weatherby acted stupid. He wasn’t.
“Stop acting dense. Of course, it brings more business. No one likes to shop in a funeral home.”
“How is this decorating done?” asked Weatherby.
“Oh, by the triune goddess! If you want me to help, all you have to do is ask.”
“Then I’m asking,” said Weatherby. “You’re not charging for this service, are you?”
Ari sighed. “Not everything is a financial transaction, Weatherby.”
“If you say so, Matilda.”
Ari first laid eyes on the grump six weeks prior to that conversation on Samhain. Weatherby showed up in the on a rickety wagon drawn by a mule. There were boxes piled high on the back of the groaning mass of wood and wheels. The mule look like it would keel over from the strain of pulling it.
He lithely jumped down off the wagon with an agility that gave a lie to his apparent years. Ari, coming out of the yarn shop, stared at him.
Walking to the wagon, Ari greeted him.
“How are you, stranger?” she said.
Weatherby ignored her, took a box from the back of the wagon and walked to the empty storefront.
“Hey!” said Ari yelling after him. “It’s rude to ignore people.”
Box in hand, Weatherby kicked open the door.
“And it’s rude to shout at people you don’t know,” she heard from inside the store.
Ari entered the building that had been empty for some time.
“You don’t know me, do you?” he asked from the shadows.
“Of course not. You’ve just arrived.”
“Then you were rude,” he said brushing past her and going back to the wagon again.
“Well,” thought Ari, thinking the man very odd.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
Just then a wind whipped up driving dried, fallen leaves clattering up the street.
“Whatever it may be, why would I tell you?” he said.
But with the wind and the leaves Ari heard “Weatherby.”
It was shortly after that when Weatherby made his first and only visit to her cabin. She spied him on the road that ran outside it striding down the road looking as if he had someplace important to go. But that was silly. Hers was the last cabin out here and all that was beyond was the wide woods. She sat on her porch knitting a small blanket. She didn’t remember from whom she was knitting for and Ari supposed it didn’t matter. It kept her hands busy.
“Hello, Weatherby!” she called out.
His head turned slowly, and he looked at her as if he was inspecting a bug.
“Matilda,” he said.
“Would you like some tea?” she said feeling it was the neighborly thing to ask.
“Now why would I want that?” Weatherby said.
“Because maybe you should stop being an old grump and have a cup of tea with one of your neighbors.”
He stood and screwed up his face as if thinking over something grave.
“I suppose so. Got any muffins?”
“Why, yes. I baked some this morning.”
“Blueberry?” he said hopefully.
She scoffed lightly wondering just where this man came from. “Nary a blueberry grows on this planet, Weatherby. Something about this place won’t let them grow.” She paused not knowing what to say next. But then a thought popped into her head just as Weatherby put a foot forward to walk away. “It would be the wrong season anyway,” she called out. “They run out before the Fall Equinox.”
His eyes glittered as he looked at her. “Well,” he conceded as if offering her a great prize, “I guess I’ll have some tea and a muffin.”
“Don’t wear yourself out on my account, Weatherby,” she said caustically.
“Not a problem,” he said with a crooked smile and he ambled up the stairs.
Weatherby took a seat at her table before the great stone fireplace. Ari prepared tea from the cauldron of hot water she kept there.
“So, Matilda, what is it you do here?” he said. He gazed at her intently as if her answer was very important.
“Do?” The questioned annoyed her mostly for the fact that she didn’t have an answer. She didn’t think about those things.
“I don’t have to do anything, Weatherby. My husband keeps me very well,” she said thinking about the bag of coin, albeit shrinking, behind a loose stone in the fireplace.
“Ah, so you have a husband,” he said with a knowing grin.
“Indeed I do,” she said now feeling more annoyed by his prying. “What woman comes to a colony planet without one?”
“And where is he now,” asked Weatherby, “that his wife has strange men in her house for tea?”
“Yes, Weatherby. You are a strange man. Drink your tea and stop prying in my affairs.”
He chuckled but stopped asking questions. They spent a nice afternoon talking, though she couldn’t remember much of the conversation. He did, however, offer to buy muffins for his store, if she’d just bring them by.
Ari walked through the woods, the day after she talked to Weatherby about decorating the store, as she cut and gathered various evergreens. Some Earth plants took better to terraforming than others, the evergreens among them, so there was plenty to collect. She cut long branches of pine and holly with its red berries. Even through her thick gloves the sharp holly stuck her. But she cut it anyway. It wouldn’t be solstice without holly.
Weatherby declined to accompany her. This was annoying because the branches and other greens were heavy. It took her several trips. The greens piled high in the center of the store as she brought in one load after another.
Without asking, Ari took a spool of wire and a couple spools of red ribbon from his shelves. Sitting cross-legged in the middle of the store she made ropes of the evergreens and crafted red bows, placing them four feet apart on the ropes.
Finding a ladder she hung the greens in the store on the headboard that ran like molid . Fortunately there were nails stuck in the wood panel around the store all at regular intervals that made the task easier.
“Aren’t you going to help?” she said looking at Weatherby staring at her on the ladder.
“Is there a reason why I should?” asked Weatherby with a trace of irritation in his voice.
“It is your store.”
“Why are you putting up these greens?”
“Because since nearly the beginning of time evergreens have marked this time of year. When everything is dead or dying and covered by the dark and cold, the evergreens remind us that life is eternal.”
“And why is life eternal?” said Weatherby.
Ari rolled her eyes.
“The sun god and the earth goddess join at Solstice to make the new sun god who grows and increases, bringing the spring of the year.”
“Really?” said Weatherby showing rare interest. “What happens then?”
“Oh, for Cerunnos’ sake!” she snorted. “The new sun god joins with the maiden goddess in the spring to promote the fertility of the earth.”
“And then what?” asked Weatherby, his eyes catching the light. They seemed to glitter.
Ari shook her head and sighed.
“At Samhain he goes to the underworld where he waits until Solstice to meet with the goddess again. It is a never-ending cycle. Really, Weatherby, don’t you know these things?”
“You’d be surprised what I know, Matilda,” said Weatherby said turning away.
During the last two weeks before Solstice business was brisk at Weatherby’s store, and Ari noticed his shelves looking a little thin.
“Weatherby, aren’t you going to order more stock?” she said. “You really are the worst storekeeper ever.”
He didn’t answer immediately as he studied his ledger.
“Don’t you have a husband to annoy, Matilda?” he asked finally.
“Why did you keep asking about him?” she said. It was only the second time Weatherby did so but she didn’t like the question. Still, he was the closest thing she had to a friend in this town.
“No. To tell you the truth my husband ran off last year. Haven’t seen him since.”
“Hmph,” said Weatherby. “What about children?”
“I had a boy. He left in the spring to marry some girl. Haven’t seen him either.”
“You don’t seem particularly concerned,” he remarked.
“And what business is it of yours?” she demanded. There was nothing she could do about her family leaving her, and it was best not to think about those things.
He closed his ledger book with a thump and looked her in the eye. “Indeed. What business of mine would it be? Okay, Matilda. I’m ordering some stock, muffins, in fact. Bring them two days hence on Solstice Eve.” Weatherby came from behind the counter. He took her arm led he to the door even as more customers came into the store.
“But?” she protested.
“Solstice Eve, no sooner. I’m very busy right now.”
“Well!” said Ari indignantly as the door shut behind her.
But two days later she arrived with the muffins just as he asked.
She entered the store to find every shelf empty.
Weatherby came out from behind the counter.
“Did you bring the muffins?”
“Weatherby,” she said looking around, “What is going on?”
“Nothing, Matilda. Nothing at all.”
She shivered. The room was cold.
“Why don’t you light the fire?” she said.
“Should I?” he said.
“By the horned god, yes! It’s Solstice anyway. Time to light the Yule log?”
“Ah, yes,” said Weatherby. He walked to the fireplace and with a single spark lit the fire. Before long, flames burned hot and bright. She noticed a white bearskin rug in front of the fireplace. She didn’t remember seeing it before.
“Come sit down, Matilda. Let’s see those muffins.”
She sat and handed the basket filled with muffins to him.
“Ah,” he said pulling a small leather bag from inside his vest, “before I forget.”
She shook it and heard the clinking of coins. “What is this, Weatherby?”
“For the muffins,” he said.
She looked inside and saw the coins were gold.
“This is far too much,” she said and pushed the bag toward him. He took it, but set it next to her.
“Don’t worry about it. I had a good year. Everyone had a good harvest and sold their crops for a good price. But then it’s like that every year, isn’t it, Matilda, since you go here?”
“I really don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Don’t you, Matilda?” he said indicating with a wave of his hand that she should sit. When she did he passed one of her own bake goods to her.
“Really, Weatherby, my name isn’t Matilda.”
He didn’t answer. Instead he ate the muffin with a faraway look in his eyes as though he was a million miles away. Ari tried a different tack to get his attention.
“Do you have a wife, Mr. Weatherby?”
“Hmm? Why, yes I do.”
“Where is she? I have not seen her.”
“I usually spend time with her once a year.”
“That seems like a curious marriage,” remarked Ari.
He raised his eyebrows.
“Yes, it is. But we’ve been together a very long time, so it doesn’t seem so long before I see her next.”
“How long have you been married?”
“Oh, a little over fifty-two thousand years.” He smiled at her.
She laughed. “Mr. Weatherby, I didn’t know you had a sense of humor.”
He lost his smile. He bit into his muffin and sighed. “I do miss blueberries,” he said.
“What? Why do you go on about blueberries?”
“Because they were on the planet we came from.”
“Weatherby, I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“Yes, you do.” He waved his hand around to all the evergreens she put up. “You remember, at least some of it.” He sighed. “The time is getting late. I suppose I need to tell you the rest of it.”
“You’ve been known by many names over the years. Arianrhod is the most recent, but there was also Ceriweden, and the most ancient Semiramus.”
“But each year you remember less and less,” he said sadly. “As the humans grew as a species, and tamed the fire of the gods, they made their own light washing out the brightness of the stars. The rituals to balance light and dark no longer held meaning for them. They defiled their holy mother Gaia and polluted her. And they fought great wars bringing much destruction, but we could not help, because they no longer knew us. Great were your tears in those days, and your grief also. Though we kept our part of the rituals, your grief was too great and you started to forget.
“We left our home world because I thought maybe if we find a new place you could remember us again. We came to this world, where the humans want to keep their life free of the technology and sins of their ancestors. And we consecrate it with our rituals and each time I hope that when we do, you might know us again. But you haven’t. Not yet. So I make you tell me the stories of how the old year ends and the new begins.”
Ari’s throat grew dry.
“But why, Weatherby?”
“Because of what we must do tonight. And you know darn well my name is not Weatherby.” He gave her a gaze that cut to her soul. Weatherby moved closer and whispered in her ear.
“Tell me my name, my love,” he said huskily. “Tell me and remember.”
She drew a sharp breath. The low timbre of his voice sent a shiver down her spine. A fragment of a memory crossed her mind.
“Ceri,” she said.
“Not quite. Try again.” He moved closer pressing his body against her.
This time she caught his scent, the scent of green things and the musty earth. The name came to her.
“Cerrunos,” she breathed.
“Yes, darling. That is one of the names.”
He kissed her and wrapped his arms tight bring her close to him. His first kiss was gentle and filled with love. The second was filled with the first flickers of a flame in tinder. The third was pure passion and desire.
As the log in the fireplace burned bright so did his love. As he moved she remembered their love when it was young and wild when humans lived at one with the land. She remembered when humans called upon them to bring back the light of the sun when darkness threatened to overtake it. She remembered all the times they joined celebrating the endless cycle of life tumbling one year against the other. He sighed as he passed his spark to her. She felt his love blaze within her creating the magic that held back the darkness. When he was done, he looked at her and kissed her one more time. “Sleep now, my love. And next year, please make the blueberries grow. Until then, remember . . .”
Feeling as if tangled in the warm glow of a fading sun, Ari could not help but sleep a long and restful sleep. But a sharp pain and then a cry woke her. The bright morning sun shone through the windows blinding her. Turning her head away her eyesight cleared, and she looked for the man, the man whose name she could not remember, but he was gone. Instead there was newborn babe at her feet.
She gasped and picked up the child and held him to her breast. The baby cooed and though newborn, smiled at her. That grin seemed to remind her of someone but she couldn’t place who.
The boy grew rapidly. By the end of the week he could walk. By the spring he ran off to marry some girl.
Image published under a Creative Commons license issued by Flickr user Davidwhitewolf of Random…