At ten p.m., the doorbell rang. It was an odd sound; not because the doorbell was never rung, but because two feet of snow had fallen the night before and it was hard to imagine that anyone would be out.
Ivy answered the door. She was bored and uncharitably hopeful that it was a neighbor with horrific and entertaining news. Instead, it was an odd foursome of adults, and when as soon as the door was cracked, they began to sing. Ivy was so entirely over the Christmas experience that it should have been first shocking and then embarrassing, but the tune they sang was strange and archaic and oddly urgent. The lyrics began on a familiar note: lullay, though little tiny Child and this poor youngling for which we sing and the next words Ivy caught were Lullay, though the night devours us.
“Are you retarded?” Ivy’s older sister Elizabeth said from the down the hall. “You’re making the house freezing. Close the — ah!”
“They’re singing,” Ivy said, unnecessarily.
“Carolers,” Elizabeth said. She gave the singers a frown disguised as an inviting smile. Elizabeth had lovely curly red hair and a lovely wide smile, and one of the singers, a tall, elegant, older woman that reminded Ivy of a tree, returned the look pleasantly. But she didn’t break in her singing. Elizabeth whispered in Ivy’s ear — she had to press her mouth right against Ivy’s ear in a ticklish way to be heard over the song, and she smelled like lipstick — “they sing in exchange for things like food and drink.”
Ivy did not think that it was food or drink they wanted.
Elizabeth scooted Ivy and herself a little further out of the doorway so that she could half-pull the door shut behind them. Ivy could still hear the television singing a country Christmas special from inside. Beside her, Elizabeth’s face was frozen into a politely interested smile as she hugged herself against the cold and tilted her chin back and forth with the rhythm.
Ivy became aware that there was a crow sitting on one of the singers’ shoulders. She didn’t think it had been there before. It gave her a hard, clever look. She wanted to point it out to Elizabeth, but Elizabeth was looking at her watch.
The song came to an end and Elizabeth clapped her hands. “Very lovely.”
One of the singers, a black-haired man too tall to be a dwarf but too short to be man, leaned toward Ivy and asked, “What did you think?”
Ivy said, “I don’t think a thought is really something you can ask for without an introduction first.”
“Ivy!” Elizabeth said.
But the black-haired man said, “Very wise.” He cast a knowing look at the singer next to him, a blond-haired girl with a circlet of blood-red berries on her hair, who didn’t seem to pay him any mind. So instead he shared a look with the crow.
Now that they were decidedly done with the song, Elizabeth seemed to realize that she was supposed to offer them something. “Would you like some –” she considered. “Coffee? I think that’s what we have. Or some tea. It’s fruit, or Earl Grey, or something like that. One of those ones in the colored bags.”
“Would you come sing with us?” the old woman who looked like a tree asked. Her hands were clasped neatly in front of her; she wore beautiful green velvet gloves, and Ivy saw that two of the fingers of the right glove hung limp and empty. “We could use some more voices. We’ve lost two of our number tonight.”
A tear fell from one of the blond-haired girl’s eyes. In the cold black air, it left a frozen-looking trail on her cheek, but she kept looking at Ivy and Elizabeth as if she hadn’t noticed it falling. The woman standing next to the blond-haired girl was very fat and red-cheeked, with mighty braids looped by her ears, and she too looked both sad and fierce. The fierceness seemed at odds with her plumpness, but it was there nonetheless.
Elizabeth laughed — Ivy could tell she didn’t believe their request was serious — and asked, “How are you traveling?”
In answer, the group turned to look behind themselves. Out in the middle of the yard, glowing in the darkness, a light-colored sledge rested on the snow and, before it, a pair of strange, fine-boned horses. A figure sat at the front of the sledge, reins in his hands, turned toward the door but his face hidden in shadow.
Ivy felt a tug in her stomach at the faceless gaze, the shape of the shoulders.
“That’s very cool,” Elizabeth said. “I can’t believe you guys are out singing on a night like this. It’s twenty two degrees.”
“It’s the longest night of the year,” the black-haired man said. He was looking at Ivy when he said it.
“I know,” Ivy told him, loudly. She didn’t want him to think she was an idiot, but most of all, she didn’t want the figure sitting in the sledge to think she was an idiot.
“Could you guys wait here for a second?” Elizabeth asked. “I want to get our mom to see the — uh — horse and sled thing. Could you do that? She’s just at the computer. She would be totally — Hold on.”
She slipped back into the house, pushing the door hard enough that it snicked shut softly. Everyone seemed to be silent, waiting for that door to close entirely.
“Are you coming, then?” the lady who looked like a tree asked.
Suddenly, impulsively, Ivy said, “I will, if he asks me.”
They all turned to look at the sledge and the silent figure that sat at the front of it. Ivy saw now that it was not horses at all that pulled it, but two deer, their antlers flashing in and out of view in the darkness.
“The father never interferes,” the tree lady said. She sounded a little bitter about it. “He merely drives the sleigh.”
“Why here?” Ivy asked abruptly. “Why us? Why me?”
“We come to every house,” the black-haired man said. “we at least try. Every year. We sing and we–”
The plump lady interrupted him firmly “–drive the cold winter away.” Only Ivy didn’t think she meant “winter,” though she wasn’t sure what else she could mean.
Ivy had a thought. “You came last year. My dad answered the door.” They didn’t correct her, so she went on. “There were more of you. There were a lot more of you.” This fact seemed suddenly very sad and very noble at once.
In the house behind Ivy, her mother’s voice echoed in the hall, talking with Elizabeth, sounding annoyed. The driver shook the reins; bells rang out through the night. The lady who looked like a tree said, “We need to move on; will you come with us?”
“Will I come back?” Ivy asked.
“Possibly in the morning,” the black-haired man said. The crow regarded him, and he added, “Or next year.”
Ivy heard her mother again: “–was attempting to make a purchase by midnight in order to have a snowball’s chance in hell of it arriving by Christmas Eve, and so I can only take a second–”
Ivy asked, “Is it important?”
The short black-haired man said, “I don’t think whether something is important to us is really something you can ask for without an introduction first.”
Her mother was nearly to the door. Ivy fidgeted. “Maybe next year . . . ?”
At that, the figure at the sledge shook the reins again, and this time, the deer began to move restlessly; the carolers did as well. Ivy felt the tremendous wish to take back her words, or at least say them softly enough that the figure by the deer wouldn’t have heard them.
“Maybe,” the black-haired man said, kindly, but it was clear that he didn’t believe it.
“Well, it’s a lot to ask, you know, in just a few minutes,” Ivy burst out, indignantly, as they began to file back towards the sledge. The frigid night was dark, pressing in around their darkening figures. The cold itself struck Ivy as hungry, just then.
“Yes, it is,” the tree woman said. At that, the crow swooped from her shoulder to flap clumsily onto the driver’s arm. The deer suddenly spooked at something that Ivy could not see in the darkness; they crowded against each other, bells ringing furiously. The driver sang an eerie little note to them and they stilled, though they were still staring off into the black.
Ivy’s mother opened the door. “What was it you wanted me to see so badly, then?” she asked Elizabeth.
The two looked around the empty stoop.
Elizabeth said, “Ivy?”
Author’s Note: I haven’t written in 3rd person for six years; I didn’t think I could. I wanted to see what happened when I did. Plus, Santa.
Image courtesy: missdeelite