In the Christmas house that was always and never there, lived two sisters and a crowd. In this house there were banshee rats and a ticking fire; kittens roosting in the pantry and a glossy alabaster Jesus on the wall, next to the pinned tide times, seance timetable, flower rota, blind bell-ringing and hours of lamping for the village men. The two sisters were beautiful and shared secrets and built each other into strength in the absence of love.
In this house were presents in old paper and you always knew what they were. Soaps of almond and violet; dusty talcum powder smelling like the grave through its wrapping. There were sooty notebooks and crayons that smelled of arsenic and the mortifications of childhood. Outside, sweltering in the snow, or frost and rime, were barren hens astride camphor eggs in the big run and, beyond, the walled garden where the real world was said to begin, only you should only go there if you must and never alone or without prayers and your talismans.
‘Oh, Anna Cat, is it Christmas again. Is it? Will it be the same as before – as the other years in this impossible house?’
‘Yes, my sister, Grace Matilda.’
‘But Anna Cat, you promised you would make it different this year now you are grown.’
‘Ah, that I did, that I did.’ And Anna Cat smoothed her sister’s arm and said, ‘Shh now.’
But how would it happen, the making different? Was she not just an ordinary girl living in a Christmas house that was always and never there? Stop your mouth: you mortals and countrymen know little of what is effected with faith, the lovely moon, pretty silver dust or the incantation you can build if you rise early and speak to the robin in his first call and then, only on the solstice, which was today. And Anna Cat had risen early and spoken.
Out in the storeroom were sugar plums and toffees and cold pastel sugared almonds in tubes. In the stockings in a few days there would be a satsuma, a prayer on gold paper, an admonishment for the wicked, a piece of coal, a special spoon for grapefruit (for one girl), a butter knife (for another) and a small ball which had no use or allure for either. And every year, a piece of silver cutlery with which to build your home, which was only a room in this house, though you would gain your own table, stove and linen. The girls hated the cutlery and its mocking silver and longed for difference; for gold and for something spontaneous and impossible in the now world beyond the walled garden.
‘Oh, Anna Cat. There will be more silver cutlery in the stockings, and I am frightened. I think this year, if they are working left to right, it must be a knife or perhaps a little butter knife.’
‘For me, my darling. For you it will be the grapefruit spoon, pretty and ridged, but you will hate it. You know how they think a grapefruit breakfast, or a grapefruit starter is the finest thing and talk incessantly about it.’
‘I know, my Anna-Cat. I think, when I see it, that I will long for a cheerful spoon with a wooden handle or some pretty cobalt with which I could eat a boiled egg and soldiers on Christmas morning. I long for that. Mother thinks eggs are wrong in their virgin state. That they are too rich and salty and breed base passions.’
‘Mother knows nothing. Only her sad appetites and the judgement they cause her to place upon the world and the curses that ensue from her dyspeptic temperament, my darling. There will come a time, as I promised you, my sister. It will be soon. Shhh.’
‘And I long for gold things. I want gold things on the tree, too. Not the pewter and silver and white but something…’
‘Something gold and pretty for Christmas, like stars and the sun and the present Melchior gave.’
‘Shall we play with the gold words, my darling? Shall we say…arum…gilt…gleaming…put the words in your mouth and roll them around.’
Yes! I will say other words too and be bad. I will say flaxen and fire and butterscotch.’
‘Shhh. They will hear. Come with me to look at the moon. It is the longest night. Come.’
Every year, at the solstice, on Christmas Eve and Epiphany, they walked until they could speak with the moon; they walked to the boundary at the edge of the walled garden. ‘Tonight, of all night, do not confuse her with lots of fine words; just call her Moon.’
‘Yes, my Anna Cat. Hello Moon. You are silver, but we love you though it is gold we long for. I hope you do not mind. I do not think so because you smile so at us.’
‘Hello Moon and Happy Christmas Moon. Do not mind my sister and her ways’ and the moon waned an infinite amount and smiled upon the sisters.
‘My sister, promise me again that we will not always live like this with the glossy Jesus, dusty notebooks and the silver cutlery!’ Grace began to cry as, from the house, pots were banged and doors to pantries opened; people came and went. ‘Promise me.’
‘As I said. It is the final time. I said, when I received my final piece of silver cutlery, then I could…I could break the spell and we should go beyond the boundary. I would build you a house on the moon, she would be kind and you could take the things you like from the Christmas tree, when you left for your new home on Christmas Day in the afternoon after the horrid and magnificent Christmas dinner.’
‘You will come?’
‘Of course, but my greatest pleasure is to see you happy, so you must choose how we build the house and what we furnish it with.’
‘What will we eat there? Next Christmas, Anna-Cat, what should we have for our dinner? Would there be grapefruit then turkey and roast potatoes and glorious burnished sage and onion and gravy?’
‘If you like, sweet child, but we shall make it different and our way, so it is not congealed of spite and bad magic, for as you have learned, your dinner is delicious, but it is malignant and it entraps you still.’
‘I know that.’
‘We can eat moon dew, which is a special sort of manna, and we can eat it whenever we like and with our hot and happy hands if we want.’
‘I should like to eat with gold things.’
‘Well then my darling, we shall eat with gold spoons, which I shall make for you myself from the gold which the moon whispers she hides beneath her silver dust, and I shall turn it in my strong and happy hands with help from the hot breath which the moon has when she loves you.’
That year, the year in which Anna Cat received her final piece of cutlery, the butter knife, and in which Grace Matilda received the hated grapefruit spoon, they ate a banquet of roast turkey and burnished sage and onion, then flaming pudding in a house of spite and cold decadence which was impossible and the only house they had ever known. There were prayers over the glossy Jesus, conversation of morbidity and sharp-tongued blessing and all the wretched paradoxes that lived in the house that was always and never there. Snow fell and the family dozed, faceless, graceless, and delighted with itself and the horrible way it had built a microcosm which trapped its young with delicacies. And yet and yet. They did not look, did not see, but on the wall the glossy Jesus smiled a little and the tide times changed as the Christmas world tilted on its axis.
Snow fell and the robin came to sing. Mutter. Mutter. Make the incantation, gather your things, your thoughts, your truest heart. So, when the moon rose, out went Anna Cat and her sister Grace Matilda and they stepped across the boundary at the edge of the walled garden where the real world began and were swept into the new life on the moon. On Boxing Day, they ate manna with gold spoons, already there as a homecoming gift from the moon herself.
‘Oh Anna-Cat, we are so happy, here on the moon, Merry Christmas, my sister.’
In the house that was always and never there, snow hardened and turned to slush and the grey days of the new year before the gorgeous day of Epiphany, which was celebrated with decadent shafts of sunlight on the moon and with destruction of the Christmas tree on earth. The sisters’ absence was noted but they were not missed. There would be more, in time and the cutlery-buying would start again, for more girls they might have. But oh, that tallow-faced family was wrong, living on alone until its next Christmas, and celebrating itself, parsimonious and silver. Remember the song of the robin, on the morning of the solstice if your house is abundant but mechanical-cold; learn the kind magic and ascend with Anna Cat and Grace Matilda.
There is room for us all on the moon next Christmas.
(The title is taken from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Anna Cat is my husband’s name for me, Anna Catherine, here a riff on Merricat – Mary Katherine – in Jackson’s book. This story was a very quick write in a pocket of time I had today; be gentle with it.)