TWELVE BY STAGECOACH
An Andersenian Tale,
Retold for the New Year by Sandra Dermark
2nd of Jan, MMXVIII
It was a dark night not long ago, with a perfectly starry sky where there were no street lights or Christmas lights. There might have been frost on the windowpanes and snow on the windowsills, or there might have been not. "KABOOM" went a party cannon... or was it the cork of a champagne bottle? Fireworks wrote the number 2018 on the black canvas of the night sky!
Jingle bells and the tramp of horses could be heard by the guardhouse on the outskirts of Anytown. The sight of a stagecoach in these days is rather unusual, isn't it? There were twelve people in that carriage, not one less and not one more; six seats on each side and all places were occupied.
In this moment, the bells in the church towers had just given their twelfth peal, and the good folk of Anytown were raising and clinking and draining their glasses, having already consumed their twelfth grape, or orange segment, or spoonful of lentils. Some people were watching a show where a countess's butler had to pour, and then to drink, for four absent friends, getting gradually more and more intoxicated. Many adults were also getting gradually more and more intoxicated. They had drunk to wealth, to health, to absent friends, to last year's achievements, to hope, to love... While the two non-commissioned officers (carabinieri, or gendarmes, or maybe guardias civiles) stationed at the guardhouse gate had to stay sober on duty and endure the cold as they listened to their superiors' revels within; the colonel's wife flirting with a younger lieutenant, the nanny tucking the colonel's children into bed, a pair of lieutenants, both dapper young men, hiding behind the curtain in a half-drunken state to do their little things... While the non-coms on duty themselves stayed there as if rooted, yet warm and full of thoughts of friends and families. Right then, the stagecoach stopped at the gate of the guardhouse. That stagecoach, with a dozen strangers on board. Who were those travellers? Each and every one had their passport and their luggage, and all of them brought gifts for me and you and everyone else in Anytown. But who were they, and what did they bring? What were their intentions?
"Happy New Year!" a manly baritone sounded from the carriage, greeting the sergeant and the corporal on duty.
"Happy New Year!" the non-coms replied, then asked the first one to come forth, and for his name and profession, for it was a man, and a bear of a man, tall and strong, with a barrel chest and rippling limbs, clad in a shapka and fur coat and warm Uggs, and with a full hipster beard; there was something regal about him as well.
"Look into my passport. I am what I am! The one on whom countless people bestow their expectations. Come to me next week, and you'll get a surprise from the Good Witch or the three Wise Men! I give presents left and right through them, for they're my associates; I also host soirées and birthday parties; and, considering what happened for Christmas last year, I also host sales in every shop, so the price of the gifts is always right! My cargo ships may be braving storms in the tropical monsoon or icebergs in the Arctic Ocean, but my office is warm and cozy, and you are always welcome for a brandy. I am an entrepreneur, and you may call me Jenner. I also bring lots of bills to pay, and it might be a steep uphill climb; but there's nothing to worry about!"
Next up was a younger man, who was a real trickster, aside from the director of a theatre for comedies, a leader of celebrations and costume parades... long story short, the life and soul of every party. He wore a jester's hat and a Venetian mask, and his luggage consisted of a brightly-coloured piñata he carried on his back.
"This is the key to every merry-making; as I say, where there's a piñata, revels are never missed! For Carnival, this thing will go KABOOOM, indeed!! I want everyone to be happy... you and me and everyone else, for my life is a short trip, and I'm the baby of the bunch... usually twenty-eight, like this year, but within two years they'll add that extra day I don't give a hoot about! So: carpe diem, hakuna matata...! Hip hip hooooorrray! Get 'em tiger, get 'em tiger, hey hey hey!"
He was screaming very loudly and making dramatic gestures, and looked certainly flustered; the sergeant thought this lad was surely intoxicated.
"Not that loud; there are children fast asleep..."
"The more the merrier reason why I come, to express myself the prouder and louder! I am actually Don Carnal himself, travelling incognito under my artistic name, Februarius!"
Then came the third one; a slender fellow who was closely related to Old Mrs. Lent, and to Saint Joseph the carpenter, and he was a weatherman by profession; but since the weather was so wistful (now wild as a lion, now tame as a lamb) and his predictions rarely succeeded, he couldn't afford much food, and thus was thin as a rake, and looked as stern and bony as Stannis Baratheon. In fact, he mostly despised meat, preferring fish and seafood, and he turned strictly vegan on Fridays. His only ornament was a little posy of fragrant violets on his first buttonhole, to mask the scent of gunsmoke with the first flowers of springtime.
"March! March! March-two-three-four!", the fourth traveller, who was also the fourth male, nudged his predecessor. "Into the guardhouse; there is punch, and sangría, and sex on the beach..." he sniffed the air, whispering in the gaunt fellow's ear. But that statement was nothing but an April Fools' prank; thus did the fourth one begin his career, just like every year. He looked pretty merry, with those bunny ears on his raincoat hood and that umbrella for a walking stick, à la Singing in the Rain, and in those red Wellingtons: he was so carefree because he worked so little, and kept a fortnight of holidays!
"This world needs a little more stability, in my own humble opinion", quoth he. "One day there's a downpour so heavy we have to cancel that Easter egg hunt, or that picnic; the next day it's all suddenly sunny, isn't that ironic or funny? Rain and shine and storm and fog... no two days with me are alike! I do lots of things actually; I hide eggs in the gardens, indeed, and splash the morning dew with my umbrella on the clover... but I'm also a mortician, conveniently enough. There's a very important fellow who died an excruciating death, and it's mostly that bloke's funeral that sadly gives me employment. Depending of the moment, I smile or I sob, I shed tears of sorrow or tears of joy... See this li'l briefcase here? Full of springtime clothes; T-shirts and shorts and black tennis shoes... but I would be quite the fool to put them on, right? Here am I! When I dress up, I wear lace stockings and garters, Wellies with high heels, and tonnes of make-up!"
Now a young lady came out of the coach.
"Miss May!" she introduced herself. She wore a springtime dress of light silk, as green as linden leaves, with a pink rose (or was it a peony?) right on the cleavage, aside from a pair of flowered rose-pink sandals, and tucked behind her ears a wreath of daisies in her bright golden hair. She carried an intoxicating fragrance of mimosa, and the sergeant, who was allergic to the pollen of that species, began to sneeze into his pocket handkerchief.
"Gesundheit!" she greeted the non-coms with a friendly smile. How lovely she was, as a nymph or a faery! And she was a soprano, a primadonna; but not one that sang at the opera or in the cabaret. She was a woodland primadonna, one who sang her airs for pleasure in the fresh green Nature of springtime, with a chorus of songbirds, crickets, and frogs backing her up. In her little green silk handbag she carried a Grimm storybook, full of the wild woodlands of folklore, and the Fields of Castile by Antonio Machado, full of fresh and scented verses.
"Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle is coming!" a chorus of male and female voices was heard from inside the carriage. And out came Mademoiselle Juno in her flapper evening wear, confidently sauntering forth with an aristocratic sneer on her lips and sparkle in her eyes. One could see, from a first impression, that she had been born to host Midsummer revels, and graduations as well. She held these celebrations around the summer solstice, so that all the students could be rewarded and all the merry-making could be had under as much daylight as possible. Of course she could afford a carriage, a limo, or a Lear jet of her own... but she still travelled by stagecoach with the other eleven, as a token of her humility and modesty. She didn't travel alone either; she was accompanied by her mother and by her younger brother, Ser Julius.
He was a dashing young man, well suntanned, his torso looking like a bar of chocolate, his limbs equally rippling; he wore nothing but a pair of swimming trunks and a boater hat. The hot sun makes all attire stifling. And for the same reason, his feather-light luggage consisted only of a towel within which a pair of flip-flops and a pair of goggles were conveniently packed.
"Children! Children! Mum finds it hard to catch up," a deep, warm contralto voice called after both of them. For now came the siblings' mother, Madame Augusta, the queen of aquaculture and of growing juicy fruit; her fish farms and her fruit harvests were legendary! She was as plump and red and sunny as the prized watermelons she grew, or as a lobster thermidor; dressed in green petticoats to reinforce her Rubenesque waistline, and constantly fanning herself with a hand-fan; in her other hand, she carried a large picnic hamper, through whose lid the handles of a tennis racket and a croquet mallet protruded. She was flustered with exertion, running to and fro and keeping an eye on everything, always ready with a cool drink and fresh fruit, which she brought herself to those who were thirsty in the middle of the day.
"As the Good Book says, by the sweat of our brow shall we gain our daily bread," she wiped the perspiration from her own forehead with a handkerchief. "Yet in the middle of the day, when our spirits falter, it's always good time to find some friendly shade and quench that burning thirst! Later on, at sunny-down, we can have a swim, or a luau, or a tennis match, or why not croquet... and, when night falls after the long afternoon, isn't it nice to lie down on the sand or on the grass and count those shooting stars?"
Out came now yet another male, an artistic painter by profession; the Master of Warm Colours, whom all the woods and all the parks and gardens know so well! The deciduous leaves, which are his canvas, change colour under his paintbrush so magnificently! This treetop would look red, this one golden, this one orange... and so did the sky of glorious evening sunsets, which are also his canvas, as well, in delightful, warm harmony, as the days got colder. The master artist, wearing a lumberjack shirt stained with those paints of fiery and earthy and sunset hues, whistles, like a starling that has just arrived by migration, twirling his fine auburn moustache; he sips now and then from a tankard of beer, around whose handle he has entwined khaki-green hop vines for decoration; he has an eye for aesthetic and weighs everything he does in the scales of beauty, light and darkness in equal proportion. And now he stood there with his artist's case, in which he kept his palette, his little pots of warm-coloured paint, his brushes, his little sponge, and his water-glass. That was all of his light luggage; after all, his main concern was that the students who returned to school and to University would stop, even if for an instant, to admire the works of art on his glorious treetop and twilight museums.
Next up was a gentleman in a deerstalker hat and overcoat; he thought of sowing and tilling the ground, and also maybe of gunning down some deer or some moose, or chasing the fox on horseback with the hounds in advance; hence the loaded shotgun flung across his shoulder and the foxhound pups he led by their leads. Every now and then, His Lordship took some nuts out of his pocket and snacked on them; "crunch crunch," his jaws made, and it sounded like the tread of feet on dry leaves. He brought a lot of luggage; a trunk full of autumn clothes, a clutter of leaf-rakes and shovels and chisels and pruning shears, everything topped with a lit jack-o'lantern, not to mention the hounds; and he spoke mostly about teaching his pups to chase the fox kits, and about economics and the current crisis, but his speech was suddenly interrupted, and there was not much to understand of it, because of all the coughing and throat-clearing and sneezing and wheezing behind him; for November was up next.
This bloke had such a case of the common cold, or surely it was the flu, that he used his long knitted woolly scarf, instead of a handkerchief, to cover his nose and mouth; all one could see of his face was a pair of gray eyes in that rosy, narrow slit between a floppy woolly hat and that scarf. "And surely the good folk will get in the mood for staying indoors all cozy!" he said. "But surely I will get at least slightly better when we remember the bloody plains of Lützen, or burn Guy Fawkes at the stake, or prepare all the firewood and charcoal that fireplaces need for the winter... There are also provisions that these humans have to gather for the winter, as the squirrels and the ants have already done: candied nuts and citrus fruits, plump pumpkins, here a goose or a turkey, there the aforementioned firewood..." And throughout the long, bleak evenings, he made skis and skates and snowboards and sleds snow-worthy, because of course he knew that the winter sports season was just beginning!
Now came the last passenger, the little old granny with her kettle full of warm spiced tea. She was shivering with cold, but the eyes of Mother Christmas shone as bright as two North Stars, and her face was as youthful as that of a child, and she was full of strength, though bent with old age. On her back, she carried a little evergreen tree in a plant-pot.
"I'm tending to this little one with all of my care; so it will grow tall and strong on Christmas Eve; on the highest branch, the top of a star or an angel's halo will graze the ceiling; and it will grow decorated with shining lights in the winter night, and with baubles, gingerbread, hearts, fruits, pine cones, ice crystals... The fireplace or the central heating will warm the living room and make it all cozy, and that evening all the children, great or small, before they open their parcels, will be snuggled up in their covers as I take a storybook from the shelf, and I will read out loud, so that the children's voices are hushed, but the ornaments in the tree, and all over the room, will come alive... the nutcrackers and the horses and the tomts and the frost fairies will my tales breathe life into, and, right on top of the Christmas tree, the star shines as brightly as a summer sun, or the angel flaps their wings, flying from their perch to kiss children great and small, even the carollers who pass by outside on the street, in the crisp long night, singing Adeste fideles and the Carol of the Bells, and other such lively midwinter songs. Be it as star or angel, this spirit shall bring joy to the hearts of everyone!"
"Allons-y!" the sergeant said. "This stagecoach may proceed!"
"One at a time; please entrust your passports to us," the voice of a younger man, the lieutenant on duty, addressed the twelve passengers. "Each and every passport is only good for one month, and, when that month has already passed, we shall write a report of their behaviour for this year, in general and of memorable events, on their passport. Herr Jenner, you may please proceed to step inside."
And the first passenger, dropping his shapka before the officer, went in.
Next year, at the start of 2019, we shall tell you, dear readers, what these twelve travellers have brought to all of us and to all of you. I swear, as sure as my name is Sandra, that I don't know it yet, and I am sure that neither do anyone of you. Soothly we live in interesting times!