(A Very Declan Christmas)
I’ve done a holiday short for the last few years. Here’s another one from the Raven Cycle universe.
Christmas was complicated, because of the dreaming.
Christmas and dreaming already felt like natural bedfellows; the holiday was already like a recurring dream humanity agreed to share. The logic of it was pure dreamstuff: A stranger brought gifts, sometimes impossibly longed for gifts, sometimes impossibly undesirable ones. A living tree was taken from the field and put inside the house. Tokens were stuffed in socks, an enormous bird was wrestled into the oven. Cranberry sauce was not a particularly realistic food. Like a recurring dream, Christmas came every year whether or not you wanted it.
Declan Lynch would’ve liked Christmas quite a bit if not for the nights that led up to it.
There were four of the Lynches: Niall, the charistmatic father, Aurora, the dulcet bride, Declan, the eldest, and Ronan, the youngest but nonetheless natural heir to everything important Niall possessed. They all lived in a place called the Barns, a remote Virginia farm tucked deeply into the hillocks in the west of the state.
They were a family of secrets.
Declan Lynch was marvelous at secrets. His mother whispered to him, laughing a little as she did, to make the secrecy unfrightening: Your father has brought a secret home for us; don’t tell anyone or they might want one too. The secret would be a car, or a three-horned cow, or a painting that made him feel strange to look at it. Sometimes they would keep the secret, but more often his father would disappear on a business trip to sell it to someone in the market for secrets.
Will you help me clean up the bedroom? Aurora would tell Declan some mornings. We’ll make a game of it.
On mornings like this, his parents’ bedroom would be full of secrets. Thousands of tulips, or an ocean of dried insects, or hundreds of muddy footprints from an unseen beast, or dozens of frozen blocks of fragrant soap. His father would be lying in the midst of it, still covered with secrets, or sometimes in the shower, cleaning them off himself.
Declan always helped clean, but he didn’t make a game of it or laugh or sing as his mother did. He’d always been too serious for her.
Smile, little Declan, she’d say, and tousle his curly hair. There’s so much to smile about.
There was a lot to be worried about, too, though.
Ronan, for instance.
Ronan was everything all at once. He was irascible and adoring, eager and reticent, joyful and furious. Niall had said once there was a saying about Irish weather: if you don’t like it, wait a minute.
That was Ronan.
Ronan had his share of secrets, too; Declan always understood that this was why he was the favorite. His were grander and more explosive than Niall’s, harder to hide, more likely to end in disaster.
Declan worried a lot about them.
He would wake with flaming swords, acidic butterflies, snarling fly traps, tiny bouncing infernos. Luckily, Ronan’s secrets were far more rare than Niall’s. He would go for months without one, and then flare up when he was wound up, or around the full moon. Or around Christmas.
It had taken him several years to understand that it wasn’t Christmas that made the dreaming worse; it was the Winter Solstice. Longest night of the year. Ronan slept the same amount around the solstice as he did any other time, so Declan wasn’t sure what was different about it. He just knew it was coming.
Each year, Aurora helped the boys construct a new advent calendar, helping them to count down the days until Christmas.
Smile, Declan, she’d say, You’re so serious. Look how few days until Christmas, when your father returns.
Declan would look at the number of days until Ronan’s bad nights, and he would not smile. By the time Christmas hit, Declan’s eyes were bagged and sleepless.
What do you want for Christmas this year? Aurora asked.
No more secrets, Declan thought.
The first bad night that year was the nineteenth of December. Behind the advent calendar door had been a tiny wooden wren ornament with a golden ribbon. Declan had hung it on the tree too high for Ronan to reach and Ronan had thrown an absolute shit fest over it.
Boys, Aurora said. There will be another ornament tomorrow, and Ronan can hang that one. Go play together.
They did not go play together. Ronan wanted to, but Declan was sick of his face. He’d been watching his brother all night long for three days already, scrutinizing his sleeping face for evidence of oncoming disaster.
That night, when Ronan began to whimper in his sleep, Declan looked up from his post by Ronan’s bedroom door and threw a koosh ball at him. Ronan groaned and rolled over.
Declan had to wake him twice more that night, but there were no secrets.
The day after that was unseasonably warm, and the boys went outside to kick a ball around the cow fields. There was the unexpected gift of one thousand starlings, who had settled in the dun-colored grass on their way elsewhere. The birds shouted and squawked busily, moving in concert when startled. The game of kick ball quickly became a game of seeing how close the two Lynch brothers could creep to the flock.
I’d like a bird army, Ronan said.
Declan thought of how plausible such a request was for a person like his younger brother, and, thinking of what Ronan’s room would look like in the morning after such a manifestation, said, I don’t think that would be very interesting.
You’re never into anything. You’re the most boring person I know. Ronan leapt to his feet. He ran into the flock of birds with such speed that their shock took a few seconds to catch up. Then he was in the midst of them, surrounded completely by birds scouring the air with their wings, birds and brother indistinguishable.
That night, when Ronan began to shift in his sleep, Declan woke him a little more roughly than was needed. The fourth time, he jerked the duvet off his brother, making no attempt to hide himself.
Niall returned on the Solstice. It was a properly chilly day; no snow, but the ruddy grass was all turned white with frost and the trees were muted gray and the distant mountains beyond the trees were icy blue. Niall had them unload the trunk of his car, which was full of tantalizingly odd-shaped gifts. Secrets, some of them, Declan was sure, which were fine, but what he really wanted was a microscope set. None of the boxes were the correct size for that, which put him in a cross mood. Ronan’s euphoric mood — Ronan was always ecstatic when Niall returned — made him even crosser. He watched his brother on Niall’s shoulders as they played Giants around the barns, and he watched his mother and Ronan roll out sugar cookies, and he watched Niall set Ronan on the roof of his car for a better view as he flew one of his secrets high up into the sky for Ronan to watch.
Declan, come in and play with us, Aurora said that evening after they’d returned from Mass. She’d set up Chinese checkers by the fire. Ronan was already installed by the fire, laying on his stomach and looking through a peculiar book his father had brought home; it made Declan’s stomach twist to look at it, and after a moment, he realized that it had no pages — it had merely the impression of pages. The story hummed out of the book without words. Ronan was reading it without any apparent discomfort, and why would he have any? He was the same kind of impossible as Niall.
Aurora reached a hand toward Declan. Look, you can have one of your presents early.
It was a bag of new pieces for the game, ten intensely black-purple marbles. They shimmered like a raven’s eyes. They were so entirely to Declan’s liking that he went to his room and cried instead.
Let him go, Niall said, sure and he looks like he’s been up for a month.
When he woke, it was well into the night. Solstice night.
In the other room, Ronan was sleeping. Dreaming. Declan began to shift to get out of bed to begin his watch, but then he thought about all the bad feeling inside himself, and he didn’t. He rolled onto his back and warred with himself. Ronan might wake with something dangerous; Ronan deserved it. Ronan might get hurt; Ronan deserved it. Ronan might spend Christmas with one eye; Ronan might appreciate what Declan did for him then.
Through the wall, Declan could hear Ronan whimpering.
Declan was tired of managing secrets. There was nothing brilliant about dreaming for the one left awake.
Declan put his pillow on his head.
In the middle of the night, he woke.
He didn’t know at first why he had woken, because the world seemed dark and strange — a moment later, he realized he still had his pillow over his head, twisted round with the comforter for an airless, soundless nest.
When he removed it, he heard a squalling howl. For a cold, pulseless moment, he thought it might be Ronan. Then it came again, and he thought that it couldn’t be. There was something quite primal about it.
Guilt shoved him out of bed and sent him into the hall and through Ronan’s door.
The squall came again as he entered the door, and fear chittered through him. He hated the secrets. He hated them. He hated being afraid.
He smashed the light on.
There was Ronan.
His younger brother was stretched out on the bed. He looked incorrect. Badly assembled. This was because he was paralyzed, which Declan knew from rueful experience meant he had brought a secret from his dream. His light blue eyes stared at nothing. His mouth was parted in pain, and his arms were covered in scratchmarks that hadn’t been there when Declan had last seen him on the hearth. The book Niall had brought him laid open within hand’s reach.
Declan didn’t know if Ronan could hear or see when he was like this, but he bent in front of him and said, you messed up, Ronan!
The squall came again. This time it was obvious that the source wasn’t in Ronan’s room. This was a curious facet of the secrets; sometimes Declan found them right next to Ronan — but not always. Sometimes he found them elsewhere in the house. And sometimes he never found them. He would just know that a paralyzed Ronan had manifested something somewhere and hope that it was nothing that would ruin the secret. Declan was terrified that Ronan would manifest a monster in his room one solstice.
The cry came again, and Declan left his frozen brother behind to step into the hall.
He found Aurora there, golden hair disheveled, wrapped in the silken blue robe Niall had brought her.
In her arms was a child. A baby. His hair was as golden as Aurora’s and as curled as Declan’s. Aurora was smiling at him, and the baby was already smiling back, comforted in Aurora’s arms. He cooed.
Declan said, Ronan—
Smile, little Declan. Aurora tousled Declan’s hair. Don’t tell anyone about this secret.