Good morning, all! I’m Jackie Keswick, usually found writing suspense, action adventure and fantasy, both m/m and m/f. It’s December 13th and today my post is part of the Rainbow Advent Calendar, a FB group where a couple of new stories are ready for you to read each day. If you can’t manage them in your tea break, or you’d like a solid afternoon or evening of consuming story after story, you can do that, too. You can find a list of all advent calendar posts by clicking here.
For my post in this year’s Rainbow Advent Calendar, I’ve been playing with something a little different. In the middle of all the hubbub and noise, I felt in need of something quiet and sweet. And this is what the Muse came up with: a glassmaker who enriches her customers’ lives with her magic, but pays for that talent by having a giant hole in her life where love and companionship should be. Until a woman with eyes like a cat walks into her shop…
It’s a quiet, sweet, safe-for-work, first-meeting story. And the first time both my characters wanted to be female. 😉
You can read it right here, or you can download it for reading later from my brand-new bookstore – where it’s free.
It wasn’t the flashiest bauble in the shop, or the largest, but Rica treasured it more than anything else she’d ever made.
Every year, it was the only one left unsold.
And every year, Rica packed it carefully away, hoping that someone would be drawn to this particular piece of glass and magic and come to claim it.
A line stretched from the barn’s huge double doors to the small car park. It had been there for the last ten days, from ten in the morning when she opened Baubles, to five in the afternoon. The line was a reassuring sight. Baubles opened on the first day of December and closed on Christmas Eve, and Rica had to live for a year off the income she made during those days. All week, customers had come in a steady stream, regulars and newcomers, and even a good sprinkling of people on the lookout for a one-of-a-kind gift or two.
“We have room for two more, please.” She held the door for two customers leaving with bags in hand and beckoned to the front of the line. Two women, clearly mother and daughter, stepped through the door. The elder carried a dark green cardboard box labelled Baubles in sweeping gold calligraphy. One of hers from the previous year. This year’s boxes were midnight blue.
“I’ve come for a refill,” she said. “I’ve brought my daughter this year, too.”
Rica smiled back. “Then you know how it works.” She waved at the arch made from holly she’d set up to serve as the entrance to the shop proper. “Stand in the arch and take a couple of deep breaths. Then let yourself be guided.”
The women nodded; the elder smiling in anticipation, the younger a little sceptical. But neither argued. They stood under the holly arch for a few moments, then began to circle the display.
The large barn beside Rica’s workshop stood empty for most of the year. Only during the last month of the year did it turn into a shop and, right now, it was filled to the brim with the fruits of Rica’s labours. Two enormous bare trees stood in wooden tubs at either end of the open space. Trestle tables lined the long wall at the back and the walls to either side of the doors. And clusters of leather trunks and woven baskets formed a long row in the centre. Holly and mistletoe hung from the roof beams and mood lighting doused the barn in golden light.
The tables, tubs and baskets were each piled high with glass ornaments, and more hung from the trees’ bare branches. Baubles, teardrops, hoops, chimes, candlesticks and night lights, pens and map weights…unique, handmade, and in all colours of the rainbow.
Some were transparent, made from the thinnest glass she could fashion. Others were merely translucent, delicately coloured and glowing as if they held a light inside. Yet others were rough to the touch, the surface dotted with tiny divots and runnels, intriguing to handle. Her favourite this year were the candlesticks where she’d let the glass melt drip down the finely blown stem in imitation of candle wax. It had taken her over a month to master the technique, but the result pleased her.
Just as the look of her barn pleased her this year. There was a pattern to the cornucopia of colours and shapes, clearly visible if one knew how to look. Her candlesticks, night lights, and other usable items took up the long table to the right of the entrance. The pieces weren’t cheap and would make a handsome gift for someone. Making them the first items a customer saw seemed shrewd business sense, but those who thought so were wrong.
The candlesticks and pens might be stylish and expensive, but they were only glass, an expression of her mastery of her craft. Nothing more.
The baubles at the back now—especially those hanging from the spreading branches of the trees—those were special. They were the reason many of her customers came year after year. They came for the magic in her glass, for healing and protection, and to find what was lacking in their lives.
Those baubles—some plain, some flashy, some small enough to wear on a necklace, others as large as a reading lamp—were what allowed her to work undisturbed for eleven months of the year and only open her shop during the twelfth.
When she worked in solitude, her magic came alive.
Opening Baubles was her chance to share that magic.
“This one wants to come home with me,” a voice startled her back to the present. An older man in a neat suit and mustard yellow scarf held out a small bauble to her. It was a pale straw colour with a dusting of tiny winking lights inside. Turmeric powder, her eyes informed her. Eyes, joints, liver, her mind added. She was no doctor, didn’t know what ailed this man, but his soul had been drawn to this one bauble. Just as her magic had been when she made it.
She smiled as she set the ornament into a midnight blue box and wrapped it carefully. “Have a peaceful year,” she said.
A slim, elegant woman was next in line when she opened the door, taller than Rica by at least six inches. Her lush brown hair, warmed by hint of red, framed her face like a helmet. The perfect foil for hazel eyes that changed from green to gold and back in the few moments it took the woman to step through the door and take in the store.
“What a lovely place.”
Her voice was lovely, too, rich and husky, and Rica’s smile grew wider as her heart sped up. For some reason that had nothing to do with Christmas, and everything to do with magic, she wanted to hear this woman laugh.
“Thank you,” she said instead and ran through her instructions for the newcomer.
“So that’s the reason for all the holly,” the woman nodded. She stepped into the arch, breathed deeply, and then made her way into the shop, straight to the tree at the left-hand side of the barn.
The rowan had succumbed to a storm last spring. They’d dried it carefully, leaving most of the trunk and all the branches intact and now it stood proudly in a huge wooden tub, hung with her glass baubles instead of berries.
Just as the holly that decorated the barn, the rowan was a warding tree. The baubles she’d hung on its branches offered protections. Sickness, loss, ill fortune, lies and deception, heartbreak, folly, ill intent… all in tune and augmented by the tree she’d chosen for her display.
Her newest customer had made a beeline for the rowan as if she was in dire need of just that protection. Now she contemplated the tree and its precious cargo for the longest time but didn’t reach for even one of the swaying glass spheres.
Very few people ever left Rica’s barn without a bauble. The woman with the gorgeous hazel eyes and the voice that made Rica’s mouth go dry and warmed a space deep inside of her was one of those few.
“You didn’t find what you were looking for?” Rica asked as the woman returned to the front of the store.
“No, though I had a feeling it should be here.” The woman looked neither disappointed nor disheartened. Just a little nonplussed. “Maybe I’ll have better luck tomorrow.”
For the length of a few crazy, stuttering heartbeats Rica struggled to catch her breath. There was one bauble she’d not put on display, but surely… She pushed the thought aside. It was too momentous to contemplate in a barn full of customers and with a line of people waiting outside.
“Open-mindedness is a great gift,” she said, and opened the door to see the woman out when all her instincts shouted at her to keep the customer in her store and keep her talking. “Maybe you will have better luck tomorrow.”
Rica didn’t open the secret drawer in her dresser that night. She didn’t need to. She knew too well what it contained: a plain wooden box, scarcely larger than her hand. Velvet lined its interior, as midnight dark as the gift boxes she’d chosen for this year. And inside the velvet nestled a bauble.
It wasn’t the flashiest bauble she’d ever made, or the largest. In fact, it was probably one of the least eye-catching of all of them. Nothing more than delicate, transparent glass with a tiny, red sphere suspended in its centre. A simple piece, at first glance, but Rica treasured it more than anything else she’d ever made.
Because when the bauble’s magic kissed the light surrounding it, the tiny sphere inside it began to glow and pulse like a heart. It didn’t happen often, and most of her shop’s customers failed to see it even though she’d displayed the bauble along with all the others since she’d first opened Baubles six years ago. Nobody ever felt drawn to this bauble and year after year it had been the only one left in her shop, unsold at the end of the winter month.
On every New Year’s Eve, Rica had settled it carefully into its box, saddened but hoping for a better outcome the following year. Until that hope had dwindled to nothing, and she’d left the bauble in her dresser when she’d gone to set up the shop this year.
She was a glassmaker, but she made more than glass. The baubles her gift helped her create enriched her customers lives. Returned blessings that were missing and protected against ill fortune and loss. She knew her gift was rare. Maybe she had to pay for it with a gaping hole in her own life.
When she’d created the small bauble, she hadn’t known that she was locking away a piece of herself inside the sphere. She’d only realised it later, when she’d found that companionship and love were missing from her life. And ever since she’d been waiting for someone to be drawn to this particular bauble and to come and claim it.
The woman with the beautiful eyes and the voice that made her heart stutter had left her shop empty-handed when she’d expected to find what she was looking for.
Doesn’t mean she was looking for a piece of you, Rica reminded herself sternly, but her heart missed a beat regardless, remembering eyes that shifted colour like a cat’s and a voice like velvet and chocolate.
It would be silly to expect the woman to return to the shop.
Nobody who’d left empty-handed had ever come back.
This wasn’t the way magic worked.
If anything, the line was even longer the next day. Rica welcomed the interest. Not just because it meant she’d have the funds to work another year, but also because it kept her busy.
She’d lain awake half the night while her mind spun aimlessly, and when she’d finally dropped off to sleep troublesome dreams had plagued her. Dreams of being trapped in a sphere of glass, watching the lives of others outside her prison. Desolated weeping had brought her awake, but her eyes had been dry and the heart-breaking sound only echoed in her mind.
Her house seemed too large and too empty as she dragged herself from her bed and ate a lonely breakfast. It had never felt that way before, and Rica blamed the dreams as she welcomed the distraction of guiding customers, wrapping purchases, and wishing strangers a peaceful year.
The line of customers thinned as closing time approached. Rica’s feet burned. She felt as parched as if she’d spent the day in front of a furnace blowing glass. And her mind, used to solitude, quivered with the overload that dealing with people all day long invariably produced.
When she opened the door to admit the final group of customers, and her gaze fell on skillfully made up hazel eyes, everything in her suddenly stilled. The barn, the customers, even her meticulously crafted glass—all vanished from her mind.
“You came back,” she managed, voice a dry, hoarse rasp.
“I said I would,” the woman replied, both her gaze and her attention riveted on Rica. “And I wanted to. I’ve been looking forward to seeing you again all day. And then I almost didn’t make it in time. Traffic was murder. But I’m here, and it’s all good.”
“I hope you find what you’re looking for,” Rica murmured, suddenly sure that her wish was hollow. She didn’t understand it, didn’t dare believe it, but she knew that the bauble that drew this stunning woman was not on display in her barn.
“Seems I’m coming back tomorrow,” the woman said when she returned to the holly arch, empty-handed for the second time. “I still have this feeling that what I’m looking for is here, and I always trust my instincts.” She held out her hand and smiled so warmly that Rica felt an answering flush on her cheeks. “I’m Lillian, just in case you wanted to know who’s haunting your barn.”
The next morning, Rica rose long before dawn and dressed by candlelight. It suited her mood. She’d awoken feeling oddly hopeful, as if, this year, her month of selling protection, hope, and healing to everyone who was in need of it would end differently than it had ever since she’d opened Baubles. And before she could change her mind, she opened the secret drawer in her dresser and pulled out the small wooden box.
In the barn, she lifted the ornament from the box and carefully draped the chain over one of the higher branches of the rowan tree before she stood back and watched it settle as if it had grown there. Maybe the rowan was an odd choice, but Lillian had made her way right to the tree both times she’d been in the shop. And maybe…maybe the small piece of her that was locked into the bauble needed protection. It certainly looked fragile enough.
Rica took a deep breath and then she set about getting ready for her day. She had put her faith on the line. Now all she could do was wait—and hope and pray—for Lillian to return to the shop.
Her wait was a short one.
“I thought I come before I head off to work,” Lillian told her as she entered the shop with the first group of customers. “Just in case.”
“In case of what?” Rica asked before she could stop herself.
“In case you change your mind and take it down again, of course.”
The comment left Rica gaping. But not as much as Lillian’s single-minded march to the rowan tree. Or the fact that she could see the red sphere in the clear bauble pulse with light like a heartbeat.
Elevated to racing by the warmth in Lillian’s eyes.
She knew absolutely nothing about the woman. Not where she lived. Not what she did. Not even her second name. It didn’t matter. Her bauble, the one she’d made all those years ago when her magic had first come to her, glowed and pulsed when Lillian drew close.
“Your soul is beautiful,” Lillian said when she returned to Rica’s side, cradling the fragile glass. “And it’s nice to know that I’m not mad.”
“For feeling I’d lose something precious if I didn’t come to your shop. I could barely think of anything else, which isn’t a good thing in my job. But then I came and saw you,” her smile was suddenly bright enough to light the barn, “and I knew why I was here.” She held up the bauble and watched as the light inside it pulsed. “And I was right, wasn’t I?”
“So it seems. What are you going to do with it?” Rica couldn’t imagine letting the bauble leave her shop and her life. Was this what was going to happen?
“I was hoping I could leave it with you until tonight. And… would you maybe like to have dinner with me? So we could get to know each other?”
Rica found a smile of her own. “I’d like that. Around six?”
“Yes, that’d be good.” Lillian sighed, looking almost wistful. “I feel like staying here talking to you, but I’m sure you’re busy and I’d better get myself to work. I’ll see you at six.”
“I look forward to it.” Rica took the bauble from Lillian’s hand, shivering when their fingers brushed. She set it carefully back into its box but couldn’t bring herself to close the lid. That part of her had been locked away for far too long. She placed the box on the shelf behind her, and when she turned around, Lillian was gone.
And had left her phone behind.
Rica picked it up and hurried out the door with a hasty, “Excuse me just one minute,” to the waiting customers.
“Lillian!” The woman looked up from unlocking her car and Rica almost jogged to join her. “You forgot your phone.”
“No, I didn’t.” The stunning smile had a mischievous tint. “I just wanted to have you to myself for a moment.”
Rica looked at the line of people stretching across the small car park. “We’re hardly alone.”
“Alone enough,” Lillian smiled. “For a Christmas kiss.”
It was only December 13th. Days of queues and wrapping purchases, and people looking for the missing components to their lives lay still ahead of her.
She and Lillian hadn’t had dinner yet, let alone a first date.
But as she looked into Lillian’s hazel eyes just before their lips touched, Rica didn’t think about any of that. The way her soul sang, and her heart sped, Christmas with all its magic had come early this year. And she’d gotten the best gift she could have asked for.
© Jackie Keswick 2018