Short Story by J.S. Mulvey
Illya Kuryakin stood barefoot in his kitchen glowering at a small jar of viscous white substance. He unscrewed the lid gingerly , and sniffed dubiously. His frown deepened. "Salad Dressing," he said, pronouncing doom and fixing his partner with a reproachful glance.
"It's the same thing," Solo shrugged. "Really, if it was so important, you should have gone out for it yourself."
Kuryakin cut him no slack. "Apparently." The cold blue eyes never wavered.
"Look, this isn't about the mayonnaise, is it?"
"Salad Dressing." This was delivered in the same tone of doom, the edge perceptively sharper, now.
The patented Solo shrug. "Ok. Salad Dressing. I told you- to me it's the same stuff. But, it isn't about that, is it?"
Illya looked at his hands, noticed that he was nervously rubbing his thumb and forefinger together, and stopped, but did not look up. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"You do. But, for the moment let's say I believe you. What I'm talking about is a man whose idea of haute cuisine is soup that comes 'ready-to-heat-and-eat-no-need to add-water' in the can going up like a Roman Candle because I bring over the wrong brand of mayonnaise."
Illya sighed. "all right. It isn't the Salad dressing. It's all this." He strode to the window angrily to glare at the twinkling lights of the city below.
Curious, his friend followed him, to look in puzzlement over the smaller man's shoulder at the City they shared, the world they did not.
"If you're going to go all Russian and moody over it being Christmas
He did not turn from the window, but anger radiated from every taut line of his body. "What possible relevance has my being Russian to this holiday, which I do not celebrate, and this conversation, which I do not want? And, while you are casting ethnic slurs, at least get them right. All of us are "Russians" to you, just like all this white, gooey stuff is mayonnaise, but I am, in fact, Ukrainian. My boyhood, about which you are so persistently curious, was spent in Kiev, remember?"
No sooner had he risen to the bait than he realized his mistake. Too late, he saw the acquisitive gleam in Solo's coffee-colored eyes.
"This holiday, which you superstitiously refuse to name: it's the real problem, isn't it?"
Once baited, twice shy. Now, he knew Napoleon was fishing, and he would not respond. Illya shrugged the question away irritably. "I don't understand all this," he said, sounding more plaintive then he would have liked. "The world doesn't change, just because the season does. Nothing is any different, but people continue to pretend, for some few days, every year, that a handful of tinsel and a few dollars given guiltily to charity will somehow make a difference. It doesn't make me feel cheery. It makes me angry."
Solo chuckled, "and even pleasanter to work with."
" It is true that I find all of this false cheeriness wearing, but I have adapted. I no longer snarl at everyone who wishes me fortune he would envy if I had it, nor, do I bite the hand that offers me a friendship he does not feel."
"No, you ignore it, which is not so bad, but you might miss some real offers, and fail to benefit from some real wishes for your good fortune. Speaking of which, you are going to the office party this year? I was specifically asked to invite you."
"Asked by whom? I can't anyway. I'm busy."
"But you are curious. I know you are. But, I won't tell."
"Don't you ever tire of that game?"
His friend would not be put off. "You'll never know if you don't go."
"Then, I'll never know. I intend to spend this rare evening off quietly, peacefully, enjoying the company I like best."
"Oh? Whose is that?" The gleam was back.
"My own. Good night, Napoleon. I will remember your warning, and never allow you to shop for me again, when the choice is as esoteric as mayonnaise."
Solo stalled. "Speaking of company, have you heard anything from that red-head?"
"I don't know who you mean." But he did, and, though he privately thought of her hair as mahogany, and, in the right lights titian, not red, he knew very well. If he looked at his quaint metal mail basket, it would sing to him in soft coral paper and a rushed, angular script, handwriting that mirrored the perpetual rush of her heart. But, he would not - not while his partner was standing there grinning, waiting for him to drop some elusive clue, some fact about a life he labeled 'private' and kept under impregnable guard.
Not even a glance would betray him. The letter was a secret pleasure, to be savored alone. No glance did betray him, but a pink flush running from his suddenly over full heart to his hairline did. Solo's grin got broader. Well let him make of it what he would, there would be no more fishing tonight. Illya wasn't talking. "There's a song you ought to hear," Napoleon was saying. "It's about people who despair of things ever changing. 'The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,' it says."
"Do you believe in Santa Claus, too?"
"As a matter of fact, on nights like this, I almost could. Look at that moon! Look down there at those tiny lights, each one an innocent on his or her way somewhere, thinking of things you and I don't have the luxury to imagine. Home. Dinner cooking. Children who want everything under the sun and confidently expect to get it. All those things. If these things exist, why not Santa too?"
Illya, silent and cynical in his practiced disbelief, had no answer. His life was not about faith.
Finally, alone, he plucked the letter from its in-sight hiding place, and slit the envelope with a miniature cutlass, slaying Lilliputians. The thought brought him nearer a smile than he'd been in days. Illyusha, the letter said, in her warm , arch voice- teasing him closer yet to that elusive smile.
'At the Four Corners of the shortest night,
nor bull nor angel trust, nor lion.
The eagle builds his aerie 'midst the lilies of the field
and sings old songs. Come and hear the bells!'
It was signed simply, 'J'.That single letter, unornamented by even a period, told him all, for there was ever only one 'J'.
The Bull and the Angel were easy enough to discard. Matthew and John between them accounted for a good two-thirds of the possibilities. The lion was a bit tougher, for images of warm, Florentine sunlight making a halo around the bent head of the Baker's Wife and fierce marble statues of Lions flooded his mind briefly. Shaking away these evocations of his past, he concentrated on the Eagle. Luke? Luke in the fields, singing old songs. There was indeed a church by the name of St. Luke in the Fields in the Village, and a glance at the calendar told him that this year's Caroling (old songs!) would indeed fall on Solstice, the year's longest night. There, she would be, and so, come hell, high water, or world-ending crisis, would he. To hear the bells? That was a puzzle which he could allow to remain unpuzzled until he saw her face. On second, thought , perhaps not. He had already discovered the disconcerting fact that while he was looking into her face, he was nearly always unable to think of anything else at all.
He arrived at dusk, figuring that he should not miss even one moment of the longest night, for he had no way of knowing how long she might stay. Members of the church choir, identifiable by their tidy, red ribbon pins were passing out sheet music to the odd assorted carolers who had come for love of choral music, or merely to find an hour or two of warmth and some free donuts and coffee afterwards. No one but he had come for love, and even he would deny it, though the pull on his heart kept him moving restlessly, the streaky mimeo paper clutched in his hands while they were divided into small groups, each led by a volunteer wearing a red ribbon. He scanned the small crowd. Where was she?
Illya was still looking for her, trying hard not to seem to be waiting for
anyone in particular. In the dark hour before his personal dawn, he had just
about decided that he had made some error and missed his opportunity. Suddenly,
the man behind him startled him from his ruminations by saying "Bong."
Another man said, distinctly, "Ding-dong." Several women began to
add softer grace notes. The caroling had begun. Were these the bells he was
meant to hear? Human bells? People giving voice to carillons designed for brass
throats and heavier tongues? His spirits began to lighten- this had to be the
right place after all.
He didn't know the song, and had no real interest in singing, but he did try to follow the words and the unfamiliar melody. He had been relegated to the section of bells- voices not trusted yet to carry the tune, limited to soft bursts of sound and no words more complicated than the odd "bong" or "ding", and the accidental harmonies that result naturally from humans singing together. After a significant amount of "Bonging and "Dinging", the ragged chorus, of which he was a silent part, began a verse he could identify with. "And, in despair, I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth I said." These words he could sing and feel- a disbelief that things would ever be anything but the way they had always been. Here, in these cynical words was a sentiment he could fathom. This at least made sense, but what was it doing in the middle of a Christmas hymn? Could it be that it was there because it was there that those most in need of the song's hopeful message were? There was a whispered conversation going on behind him. He strained to catch the words, and only heard more bonging. "Then rang the bells, more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!" someone was singing in a light, breathy contralto, nearly to frail to carry the words past the racket of the "bells". But his heart heard. "The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, "she sang. There she was, in the place of the soloist with the tidy red ribbon pin, singing about the new birth of light changing night to day, bringing dawn to him in the middle of the winter's longest night. The song ended and the carolers moved on, leaving him standing in the dark but still dazzled. She finished her verse, and came down the church steps, was warm and solid in his arms. He was unwilling to tighten his grip, for fear that she would melt into shadow and disappear. This was a dream he wanted to keep dreaming a while longer. She kissed his chin, his throat, cold little touches. Then leaned back and laughed up into his eyes. "I am so glad you found me!" Really, Illyusha, I had begun to worry my clue was too esoteric." "You should not have worried," he said in a low tone. "I would find you anywhere. You call to me." "I am only here for the weekend, I have to go back home for Christmas, but some gifts are better enjoyed out of season. They help us maintain our belief in the miraculous. " She sobered, extinguishing her smile for a moment. "You do believe in miracles, don't you, Illyusha?" He looked from her face to the gilt sliver of the winter moon, to the flushed and lusty singers of old songs. And felt the beat of wings around him- did it matter if they were angels or pigeons? They were messengers from Life Itself to one small droplet in Its immensity. "On a night like this," he told her softly, his lips against her titian hair, "I almost can."