Chapter 1 : Holly and the Mistletoe
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During the bleak winter years little Holly tends the trees, her namesakes, and the mistletoe which feeds from the trees in greedy growth, tender green leaves and pretty, perfectly round red berries sprouting and rising into plump harbingers of the holiday. It is known that the greenhouse makes the finest magical decorative plants, and in the Christmas days wealthy wizards send for their produce to grace their fine drawing rooms, to dangle mistletoe from the ceiling in great bunches, ready to ensnare an unsuspecting lover. Since the days of the druids, mistletoe has been the herb of the blessed.
Holly wonders sometimes at the magic of it: at the legend which promises that for each red berry on the sprig of mistletoe there may be won one kiss. For Holly, who trains and coaxes the mistletoe into its beauty, whose earthly magic urges the plant to cast a spell without words, without color, over those who hover hopefully beneath it, the allure is but a device to ensure there are galleons flowing into the pockets of the family who owns the greenhouse. She binds it with tinsel enchanted to shine, she does not think of her own ties. For years, she does not think of spreading love in the world. There is only the gloominess of the greenhouse on winter days, of the moon trickling through and passing like a maiden along the aisles of green, silent in her stolen footsteps.
But one Christmas eve, she meets him. He is a good friend to Holly, oh yes, he came to buy the finest boughs and most delicate and fine of wreaths, bound in pretty arrangements with Holly’s long, thin fingers, rustling from the hints of life she has poured into the plants through her devoted care.
She remembers all now, a faint pink blush gathering at the ends of the flaps of her ears, how he would come with a loud crack as she tended the best of the branches, and count a few golden coins into her hands. She always wanted to give him a good deal, she said, on the splendid decorations grown in her master’s greenhouse, but he shook off her protests with a smile and said it was his master’s money, regardless, and they did not deserve to be cut a deal, oh no. And then he winced as if it was painful to speak such, but maintained control. Indeed, she was quite scandalized, but did not think to be angered, for she liked him so dearly. And so she would walk with him, slowly in relishing the moment, their hands near to touching, speaking of small, gentle things.
He would choose the finest piece of magical mistletoe and test it, letting it grow and weave through his outstretched fingers. And she would trim it with her delicate silver shears and feel warm inside at his lovely smile, the thin crooked teeth like miniature piano keys, the folds of skin making way for his eyes to crinkle with pleasure. Even his skin was fine, and she longed to touch it.
She knew that to any of her family, they were just two foolish little creatures in a house of glass with the stars trickling in through a fine layer of silver frost. But for Holly, those quiet moments were everything.
Four years ago, he came to her at Christmas again, but he was dressed smartly and not in the rags and makeshift cloths of old, and he spoke of wonderful things, of freedom and rights for beings such as them, of marvelous friends who were the most deserving, the most important, of his wonderful new job doing important work, work which he did not shirk from as he once had. And she smiled and patted his arm with her shy hesitation but inwardly her heart was made of blood and ice, because there was he, with his talk of big things, and here was she, elbow-deep in soil, with scratches from twigs etching maps of her hard life across her small hands, and she knew nothing of freedom, of desire.
He asked if he could see her another time, now that he no longer needed the permission of his masters to leave the house: he proudly boasted that he could do as he wished, in his freedom, and missed the expression of sharp longing in her eyes, pulsing against her skin. He told her of others, friends he was helping, individuals like themselves, though some troubled him greatly. But she told him, quiet and meek as she had been born to be, how she was far too busy with the plants and tending the business during the year, there was nobody to do it but her now that her master was old and his hands bent in crooked shapes, and his grandchildren had no interest in toiling in the grub.
“I am sorry, but I must tend the greenhouse,” she said gently to her dear friend. “Here is my duty and my right, it is. The plants would not grow without my careful urging: the glass would go dirty, the pots crack if the larger plants were not re-potted. I am sorry, but I hope to see you again, oh I do!”
Her friend did not buy mistletoe that year. Holly thought he looked disappointed in her, something sweet and honest in his eyes, and the idea burned at her like an irritated insect bite until the following Christmas eve.
His voice trilled and squeaked nervously as he asked how her year had been, how she had tended the plants and sold to the cream of wizarding society. And the next year he came again, to tell her how things were changing, and he cried out with passion and excitement as she wove and snipped a beautiful garland for him to wear around his thin shoulders for the holiday, and thought how beautifully the fresh, perfectly crafted greenery complimented his papery skin, brought new vigor and life to his thin frame.
But the next year, this last year, he did not come, perhaps it was dangerous or he was too busy, and Holly fretted and worried and thought of asking the master to investigate, for she was lonely and frightened in the greenhouse, preparing the mistletoe and coaxing it from tightly wound vines, teaching it to dangle towards the heads of lovers like a snake. But master told her that times were changing out there: he was a merchant who would sell to all buyers as long as they were willing to pay, but he preferred not to ask questions. The underlying message was clear enough, though, and led her to bow her head with shame for even bothering to ask: her master was not willing to risk exposure for her lot. Master was busy with roasting hazelnuts with his jolly grandchildren, donning a stuffed stomach and red suit, pulling his silver-haired wife for a hearty kiss beneath a blooming sprig, besides.
In the greenhouse, in that palace of thick, rich smells and chill which seems to perfume the stagnant air with an overripe sweetness, the mistletoe continues to flourish from the sacrifices of the holly tree.
Yet here it is, many years since his first visit, a youthful errand before he learned thoughts of hope and rebellion, and Holly bustles about arranging her makeshift dress and, wiping her dirt-encrusted hands on her almost-apron she smiles brightly at him. Holly blushes and stammers a little, for she remembers when they were quite young and when he was still in service, before he was freed, oh yes!
“It has been so long since we have seen you, it has,” she says warmly, though she cannot quite disguise the fear in her voice. And he takes her hand: warm, his hand is, like the gentle touch of her parents’ kisses before they left her when she was so young to be the sole caretaker of the greenhouse.
He tells her, the familiar thrill and excitement in his eyes, that he has been helping to fight the war, to fight the Dark Lord who did so much harm to their kind, and that with the help of his friend- oh, how his eyes shine with glee when he speaks of his friend! – the war shall be ended and their lives will improve. He grasps her hand tightly in his own, as if being the warrior she never could be gives him the courage, and he tells her he wishes to buy a sprig of mistletoe with his own coins. And as he places them in her hand she sees her own reflection shining in his large, round eyes, and though when she usually sees herself in the reflection of the glass in the greenhouse she looks weary and faded, in his eyes she is bright as an angel.
She places the fine cut of mistletoe in his hand.
“I is good at levitation,” he pipes up, smiling as if at a private joke, and the fine sprig of mistletoe rises to hover above them, twining and growing long and beautiful, and tiny fairy lights twinkling from within. Holly gulps, and a fat tear trickles from her luminous eyes. In all these years, never has she stood beneath the mistletoe she so lovingly tends as anything but its caretaker: never has the mistletoe grown and flourished above her own head as if she were one of those worthy ones who is kissed beneath it.
And all that changes, and she closes her eyes in the heavenly moment, and for a moment it matters not that she is trapped in a life of servitude, for she is enraptured with him and his kind smile, his careful touch, his promise of something beyond this life. And he smells like fresh air and softness, as if his bones are hollow and filled with light, illuminating a colorful world.
The red berries do not disappear, promising a lifetime of kisses beneath them. The mistletoe longs at last for Holly’s happiness tonight.
And he is killed not so long after, and she mourns him with the pain of the forgotten, the cries of humanity wringing in her ears for the little being, inhabitant of earth who few knew and few mourned. He is laid there in a grave of sand, far from any holly tree.
But his death is not in vain, oh no, for soon the war is over, won by the wizards, victory as glorious as the crusaders reaching Jerusalem. And Holly thinks to herself as she urges new vines of mistletoe to nourish themselves, to suck the trees on which they dwell dry, that perhaps there is freedom somewhere in the future for her as well, that perhaps she will not always be like the holly trees for which she was named, allowing her master to profit from her, to drain her dry of her own identity. She hopes for better, and that is all he, the lost one, ever wanted for her, oh yes.
And as she leaves the greenhouse for the final time, wearing a bright dress red as berries, bright as holy blood, as the thick and vibrant fingers of a summer sun cast rainbows across her eyes, she looks back one last time and imagines she sees him in the shadows from the beloved plants, hears his voice rising with excitement against the glass walls, echoing in the confines of that which held her for so very long. And in that moment, as his spirit watches her move into the boundaries of the sky, they may both claim, as he so dearly longed for and ferociously fought for: to be a free elf.
AN: This is my entry for the Writer’s Duel 2013, Prompt 3: Under the Mistletoe. I hope you enjoyed the story as it was so sweet to write. For the record, I have no clue whether mistletoe and holly grow in greenhouses or outside, but for the purposes of this story, it should be realized that the greenhouse itself is something of a metaphor. :P Happy holidays lovely hpff-ers!
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