“Ransom and the Christmas Tree”
by Robert Runté
“You missed the turn,” Lily said.
“Nope.” Trixie said from the front seat. “We’re not going to Banff this time.”
In the back seat Ransom exchanged looks with Lily.
“Um,” Ransom said. Since two of the fae had broken into his Banff hotel room years before, Ransom had never been entirely relaxed in the national park. He allowed Matt and Trixie to drag him along on their Banff weekends for the sake of friendship, and–if he were being completely honest–for the town’s exceptional dining. But driving past Banff to go deeper into the mountains was an entirely different matter.
“Relax,” Trixie said. “We’re just going a little way further up into the hills, to this spot I know. . . to cut ourselves a Christmas tree.”
“Surprise!” Matt said with false enthusiasm. He spoke over his shoulder as he drove. “It’s an important tradition in Trixie’s family.” His eyes pleaded with Ransom to go along with this.
“Our family tradition, now,” Trixie said, smiling sweetly as she patted the tiny bulge where she was beginning to show. The wintry scenery sped by.
“Is cutting trees within the park strictly legal?” Lily asked, knowing perfectly well that it was not.
“Look,” Trixie said, gripping the wheel with an entirely different tone. “My dad bringing me up here each year –since I was like, four–to cut a Christmas tree is one of my only good memories growing up. So we’re doing this. And I don’t want to hear nothing from you guys about what’s legal, after some of the things I had to help cover up for you two.”
Fair, thought Ransom. But it wasn’t human prohibitions that were worrying him.
“Right,” said Lily reaching for a compromise, “but you’ll let us choose the tree?”
“What? No. The youngest chooses the tree.”
Matt, smiling his desperate please-don’t-screw-this-up-for-me smile at them in the rear-view mirror explained, “Trixie says she’ll know which tree the baby will choose.”
“No!” Lily and Ransom shouted together.
Trixie turned fully around in her seat to confront them. “And why the fuck not? You think I don’t sense stuff from my baby? You think I’m making that up?”
“No, no,” Ransom assured her. “It’s not that.” Indeed, Ransom had detected the baby’s consciousness a good month ago. “It’s that the baby will be attracted to the wrong trees.”
Trixie stared at him as if he had lost his mind. “You’re telling me my baby, who isn’t even born yet, has poor taste?”
Lily shook her head. “No, we’re saying babies are often attracted to shiny objects . . .”
“Which they can put them in their mouths and choke on,” Ransom clarified.
“Unless,” Lily said, trying for a more conciliatory tone, “some loving parent puts the dangerous object out of reach.”
“You think my unborn baby is going to choke on a Christmas decoration?”
Ransom sighed. Opted to be more direct. “We’re saying that babies are attracted to the fae. Letting the baby choose will guide you straight to the one tree in the entire forest with a tree nymph.”
“Why do you guys have to always ruin everything?” Trixie complained, rolling her head in exasperation. “Why does everything always have to be about the fae with you two?”
Ransom replied, “We’re trying to keep you and your baby safe! Things can get pretty gnarly if you take an axe into a fae forest.”
Lilly nodded. “There’s a reason Ransom and I always have artificial trees at Christmas.”
Trixie glared at them like a logger confronting Greenpeace protesters over owl-nesting. “My dad and me got a tree from this forest every year since I was four, and nothing bad ever happened.”
“Are you sure?” Lily asked quietly. “We understand that your dad died in a pretty bad car accident-”
“Which,” Trixie interrupted, pointing her finger sharply at them, “had nothing to do with no fairies!”
“Are you sure, though?” Lily pressed. “‘Accidents’ are kind of how they-”
“I’m pretty sure! Because the cops told us my dad was already riding in the trunk when it happened.” Trixie wiped her cheeks with her wrist. “So if it was fairies caused the accident, they arrived late to the party.”
“Oh,” Ransom said.
“Sorry,” Lily said.
“So we’re doing this,” Trixie said again. “No fairies in this forest. We’re choosing a nice little tree to take home to the apartment, and I don’t want to hear no more about it.”
Trixie turned her back on them, her arms crossed over her baby, her body language brooking no argument.
Ransom exchanged looks with Lily again, and shrugged. Maybe it would be okay.
“You’re sure this is the right place?” Matt asked, as they all got out the car.
“I’m sure,” Trixie said. “Same spot every year, for like, twelve years.”
“Did it always look…?” Ransom hesitated, because surely this wasteland wasn’t where one came to cut Christmas trees. Whole sections were just naked sticks, and even the few scattered pines that were struggling to hang on were more grey than green. The blight was so blatant, one didn’t need fae senses to see that the whole hillside was a scarred ruin.
“Must have been a fire came through since you were here last,” Matt said. “We should maybe keep going a couple of hills farther.”
Trixie shook her head. She was hugging herself, as dismayed as the others at the devastation in front of them. “This is the spot. I want to look here first, okay?” She turned her head to look at the others quickly to see if they were going to object; then, still hugging herself, walked down off the edge of the road, across the ditch, and struggled up the other side into the wood.
“I’ll get the stuff,” Matt said going to the trunk.
Ransom shrugged at Lily again and started after Trixie. It must be terrible to start a nice walk down memory lane and suddenly find yourself on this hellish trail. Ransom couldn’t decide which would be worse: discovering that a significant landmark from your childhood had been laid waste; or realizing it had always been this bad, and you had just over-romanticized it in your memories.
Trixie stopped in front of a massive tree trunk, still sixty or more meters tall, for all that it had lost most of its branches. Tightly hunched in on herself, her elbow remained anchored on her chest as her hand floated out to wave vaguely at the forest around them.
“This is it,” she said in a small voice. “We always came straight to this one tree, paid our respects, and then started looking from here.”
“An Englemann Spruce,” Lily said, joining them. “It must have been magnificent when you came here.”
Trixie nodded. “It seemed even bigger when I was little. Impossibly tall.”
Matt came up behind them with a shovel and a bulging garbage bag.
“What are you doing?” Ransom asked, distracted. “You’re not going to try to dig out a tree are you?”
“What? Oh, no. The shovel’s for the recycling. I thought we could do that part here, even if we couldn’t find a proper tree to cut.”
Ransom blinked, trying to process what Matt was saying.
“That was the other half of the tradition,” Trixie explained. “Dad told me that since we were taking from the forest, we always had to bring something to exchange. So he’d bring a couple of big bags of compost to bury out near where we cut down the tree we chose. To replenish the soil, to balance what we took.”
Lily’s soft groan confirmed the sudden, inexplicable, dread welling up from inside Ransom. He felt as if his peripheral vision was being closed off by darkness on every side. His fae core must have recognized something very bad, but Ransom’s conscious mind had nothing. He looked over to Lily.
“It was always about the compost,” Lily whispered to him.
And then Ransom got it, the full horror of it all at once, as he whirled to face Trixie. She was still hugging herself, bent nearly double as she saw their faces.
“Tell me!” she screamed.
Ransom shook his head. “It’s nothing,” he lied. “Just a fae thing. Nothing to do with you or your Dad.”
Trixie’s face screwed up with some emotion she could barely constrain. Tears? Anger? Determination? Ransom wasn’t sure what he was seeing.
“Just tell me,” she said again, her demeanor settling on infinite tiredness.
Ransom couldn’t do it. He just froze.
“Trixie?” Lily asked.
Trixie gritted her teeth, nodded sharply.
“It was never about getting a tree,” Lily said quietly. “It was always about burying.”
Trixie nodded, tried to straighten up, but then turned away from them and threw up.
She held out one arm behind her back, her hand raised to hold off their help. After a long moment, the arm went down, and she turned back to face them.
“I get it. If anyone had stopped us, he would have said, ‘Why officer, I just came out here to cut a Christmas tree for my little girl.’ Cop to a lesser crime to avoid getting caught at the real one.”
Ransom didn’t know what to say, so said nothing.
“No one ever did,” Trixie said. “Stop us, I mean. I thought it was about Christmas.”
Wincing Lily said, “It gets worse.”
“How could this be worse?” Matt groaned. “That was her one decent memory of her father!”
Lily gave Matt a sympathetic look, but turned to face Trixie.
Trixie took a deep breath. “Let’s hear it.”
Lily gave a half-nod acknowledgment, plowed ahead. “He didn’t just bury the bags at random did he? It was always in a circle around this one tree.”
Trixie turned sharply to stare at the tree, survey the ground nearby. Remembering.
“The first time, at the base of the tree,” she said eventually.
“Somebody important, then,” Lily said. “The Engelmann Spruce as a marker. Then the others around that one, the servants set to be with their master in the afterlife.”
“Is that a thing?” Trixie demanded. “Something fae?”
Lily shook her head. “I’m just guessing. But tree as marker, subsequent ones in a circle around, just has a kind of symmetry to it that might have appealed to your dad. I doubt he knew anything about the fae that lived here.”
“Back to wood nymphs are we, then?” Trixie asked, sounding bitter.
Ransom could feel the electricity of Trixie’s anger, her sense of betrayal, coming together in a bolt that was about to lash out at Lily.
“Trixie!” Ransom said sharply to call her focus off Lily. “Look at this place! It was fine the last time you saw it. Because your dad hadn’t completed the circle until your last trip. But when he put down the last body, he trapped the nymph within that circle. The tree, the whole forest here, started to decay from that moment.”
Trixie shuddered as the dark aura that had been about to lash out from her collapsed onto her head, flowed onto her shoulders, soaked inside her soul. “Oh my god! We killed the forest!”
“Not you!” Matt cried out. “Your dad! Your dad did this. You had nothing to do with it.”
“That’s true,” Ransom said, gesturing with his hands for everyone to settle down. “This isn’t your fault. Nothing to do with you, really.”
Trixie turned to stare at Ransom. “The way you said that – there’s a ‘but’.”
“Not your fault, but that’s not relevant to the fae,” Lily said.
“The fae hold descendants responsible for the actions of their predecessors,” Ransom explained, “the way people hold parents responsible for the actions of their kids.”
“Unto the seventh generation,” Matt quoted from some forgotten bible verse.
“No, that’s about long term consequences of bad ecological management,” Ransom said. “It’s three generations for curses in the fae world.”
“You have to fix this,” Lily said. “It has to be you, or it won’t work.”
“Fix it?” Trixie asked.
“The nymph won’t be dead,” Ransom explained. “Not exactly dead, anyway. But trapped in her pine, it’s, it’s-”
“Worse than dead,” Lily said. “Smothering. Drowning. Falling. Forever…”
“We have to release her from this tree,” Ransom said. “Open a way through the circle of dead for her, or the blight will continue spreading unchecked… eventually, maybe killing the whole park.”
“Release her how?” Trixie asked.
“We have to get rid of what’s pinned her here,” Ransom said.
“The one at the base of this spruce to start,” Lily said. “Then any one of the others— whichever one you remember well enough to pinpoint.”
“No,” Ransom interrupted. “Has to be other way around. Released from the tree, the nymph needs out of this glen and back to some place green. If the outer-ring is still intact when she’s released, she’ll just bounce around inside that bubble—until she notices us, and then, well…
“Probably not that favorably disposed to people, after decades like that,” Lily agreed.
Trixie pointed west and upwards with her chin. “That way okay?
Ransom nodded. Evergreen forests stretch between the mountain peaks they could see, safely inaccessible to people.
Trixie stepped over a log blocking her way, pushed through a patch of dead saplings, grey forest skeletons that cracked and tumbled in her wake. “Bring the shovel,” she said over her shoulder.
“For the record,” Matt announced, stowing the shovel back in the trunk, “I want to just say that was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do.”
“Worst maybe, but it was also one of the best things you ever done,” Lily said, getting in the car.
“I’m exhausted,” Trixie sighed, laying back in her seat. “That was draining.”
“Yeah, well, no kidding,” Ransom said. “Physically and emotionally.”
“And pregnant,” Lily added. “I’m amazed you could function at all by the end.”
“Had to be me, you said.” Trixie turned in her seat to face them. “If my dad taught me anything, it’s that you have to do what has to be done.”
“That sounds a lot better from you than from him,” Ransom said. “I’m proud of us for setting that poor nymph free; not so sure about the things your dad thought needed doing.”
Matt waved Ransom’s objection away. “The principle’s sound. Just different contexts.”
“Stop,” Lily said, before they could get into it. “We saved a nymph, a forest, and Trixie and her baby. That’s not bad for a day’s work.”
“Me and the baby?” Trixie asked.
“The nymph never cursed your dad,” Ransom explained. “It was suspended in the spruce, unable to act. So if your dad was cursed, it was by some other fae. If the blight had started spreading to other glens, they would have traced the source back to you, or worse, your daughter. She wouldn’t have had a clue what was happening or why.”
“‘She’?” Matt asked.
Lily smacked Ransom’s shoulder, but there hadn’t been any strength to it. “They didn’t want to know the baby’s gender.”
“Oops,” said Ransom.
“Too tired to care,” Trixie said, her hands moving back to caress her tummy. “It’s funny, but the baby– she–she’s really happy. Contented.”
“She could sense the nymph’s pain and the moment it eased. She helped the trees. Doesn’t know what a tree is yet, but felt all that nonetheless.”
Trixie stared at Ransom. “You can sense that from her?”
Ransom nodded. He opened his mouth to answer, but Lily cut in before Ransom could give away the baby’s name.
“The fae owe her–owe you–for making things right,” Lily said. “It’s possible that’ll help her one day if she encounters one of them.”
“Lifted the curse and maybe earned a blessing,” Ransom agreed.
“Yeah, well, new family tradition,” Matt announced. “Artificial tree, and tofu for Christmas dinner.”
“Tofu?” Trixie asked.
“No bones,” Ransom explained with a sigh.
Robert Runté is Senior Editor with EssentialEdits.ca and was formerly Senior Editor for Five Rivers Publishing, a small Canadian press, for which he acquired and edited 30 books, primarily science fiction and fantasy. A former professor, he has won three Aurora Awards (Canadian SF&F) for his literary criticism and was shortlisted again for 2020. His own fiction has been published in over thirty venues, and three of his short stories have been reprinted in ‘best of’ collections, most recently Canadian Shorts II.