Christmas in the Catskills

Editor’s note: The following document from our paper’s unpublished archives was sent to the offices of the Cornell Goshawk in January of 1934. It was kept in the stained, unpostmarked envelope in which it was delivered until our editorial team found it while cleaning the mailroom several years later. A note enclosed with the manuscript reads “run this with the spring edition, will you, Peter?” We have checked the paper’s history, and no editor named Peter has ever been on the staff of the Goshawk since its founding.

I suppose the whole experience, as contorted as it all became in the end, began when I was asked to spend the Christmas season in the ancestral home of Adrian Dumott, an old friend from Hamilton Prep. We’d been the only two foreigners, me from England and him from…well, I suppose I never asked. He’d been a sickly sort, not much for sport or fresh air, but we’d both loved the horror movies they showed at eight at the cinema in town and had always gone together. Fellow had dropped out after a season or two, but we’d stayed in touch for years. When he learned of my parents’ move back to England to tend their amphibian charity, naturally he invited me to spend Christmas at his place in upstate New York, and I was eager to finally pay him a visit.

My fiancée, Helen, was less delighted. She sat at my desk in the men’s dormitory, leafing through some of Adrian’s old letters. She was a sporting gal who looked like she’d just stepped off the hockey pitch, with the addition of a large pair of horn-rimmed glasses, which she periodically pushed up the bridge of her nose.

“‘Most pleased if you would pay me the pleasure of your’–this is just weird, Ed,” she said. “Has he talked to anyone in America in the last two years?”

“Don’t be silly,” I said. “He’s from one of those great old families. They all sound a little–”

“Like they’ve only ever read about people in books?” She frowned at the letter. “‘The grave misfortunes which have fallen upon you like so much spring rain.’ I mean, it does seem…like he cares about you.”

“Of course he does,” I said, opening my sweater drawer and pondering which would be the best for visiting a big old house in the mountains.

“It just seems a little strange, that’s all. And my dad’s been dying to meet you. You know he’s so proud that I’ve met a man.”

“As he should be,” I said, bending to kiss her nose. “His daughter, marrying a Cornell man. What more could a gal ask for?”

She took off her glasses and rubbed them on her handkerchief. “I think I should go with you,” she said. “It doesn’t seem right for you to spend Christmas with a stranger.”

“I’ve known Adrian for years.”

“But you don’t know this sister at all,” she said. She scanned the letter. “What was…Ophelia? Really?”

“There’s no need to be jealous,” I said. “She’s probably some astral waif. Not my sort at all.”

If I’m telling the truth, it was flattering to see her worried about her man. Helen could sometimes be a little standoffish. Not that a man doesn’t look for a certain amount of modesty from the gal he’s planning to marry, but she bordered on chilly. Her obvious jealousy reassured me that she was serious about our courtship. So she called her father and told him she was staying with some girls at a ski lodge in Vermont, and on the 19th we packed up my ’31 Studebaker and set off for the Catskills with the radio forecasting snow.

Adrian had written directions in his last letter, but we still had a devil of a time finding the place. It was down a road so narrow that the Studebaker got stuck. With some pushing from Helen we got on our way again, but it was nearly dark by the time we arrived.

I’d been expecting more of a rustic cabin, I supposed. Instead, it was like a Gothic castle, and it had me wondering why Adrian had been so keen on the old monster movies when it looked as though he lived in one. In the middle of the decaying front lawn was a fountain topped with an angel, but the poor chappie was missing his head, all but the steel bar that had held it on. The water pooled in the basin was half ice.

“Are you sure this is it?” Helen asked. “It looks abandoned.”

“Only house for miles,” I said. “Let’s give it a try.”

Still she waited, shivering, by the car while I went up and knocked on the front door. When I gave a look around, I saw Helen peering at the upper windows with a sort of worried look on her pink little face.

“Come on,” I said. “You’re going to make them feel strange.”

At last she started across the lawn. Absorbed as I was in coaxing her over, it took me a moment to realize that the door had opened behind me. I jumped with a start, and then laughed when I saw good old Adrian standing in the shadows just beyond.

“Old man!” I said. When he did not step forward, I bridged the gap, and clapped him firmly on the back. He hugged limply–I wondered if he was sick. I pulled back to get a better look at him.

He had thick, dark hair and creamy skin, and I’d always suspected he might be anemic or the like, but it seemed indecent to bother a fellow about that sort of thing. He’d barely changed since prep school: he was thin, with something almost beautiful about his features. He looked the worse for wear though, his cheeks gaunt, his eyes hollow.

“What are they feeding you up here?” I asked. “You look like you’re starving!”

“Starving for company, maybe,” he said. He smiled at me–I’d always liked the look of his teeth–a little prominent, perhaps, but bright and clean. And then his expression changed as he turned–his brow furrowed and he became confused. “And who is the lovely lady?”

My brusque coquette stuck out her short-nailed hand, chapped from the cold. “Helen,” she said, and shook his hand with a grip that made me fear she’d break his arm.

“My fiance,” I said. “I know, it’s quick, but–” I wrapped an arm around her shoulder, and joshed her from side to side. “She’s something really special.”

“I…it’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said, but I detected a little dismay. “Well, hopefully you won’t be the only guests. My sister invited some friends who are supposed to arrive in a few days. But if they don’t get here soon, I’m afraid they’ll be snowed out. This road is impassable in bad weather.”

“Good thing I brought records,” I said. “And libations, smuggled in. I’m a regular rumrunner.”

“I don’t drink,” he said. “But please, don’t feel burdened by my habits. I want you to treat my house like your own.”

“Should we get the bags?”

He glanced past me, out into the yard. “Oh, not just yet,” he said. “Let me make you both a drink first. You’ve come a long way.”

He waved his arm, and we stepped past him into the narrow front room, high-ceilinged, dark and icy cold. From there he led us into a parlor where heavy curtains were drawn and a fire burned hot enough that every corner of the room was warm. It was pleasantly arranged, but I saw no signs of Christmas–no tree, presents or even mistletoe. It seemed odd, but I didn’t want to upset Adrian by pointing it out as a shortcoming. So I took a seat on the sofa by the fire, and Helen settled into a chair, watching Adrian quizzically while he went to the liquor cabinet and fiddled with bottles and shakers. He set down two glasses before us, and sprawled himself out in a chair. “Please, enjoy.”

“You don’t drink, but you keep a liquor cabinet?” Helen asked.

Adrian smiled, flashing those dazzling teeth. “I like to be a good host. On that note–” he waved a hand into the dark of the hall, at someone or something we could not see. “Ophelia, come meet our guests.”

Stepping from shadow to light, she materialized in front of us: a tall, striking young woman. Not the blonde wisp the name had conjured up for me, but a near match of Adrian himself: the same thick dark ringlets and high cheekbones, and that same drawn look that made me wonder if they’d just had a cold.

“Welcome,” she said to me, smiling. “I’m so–oh!”

She had turned and spotted my Helen. Ophelia stepped toward her with hands outstretched at waist height. To my surprise, my taciturn darling arose, as though pulled by a string tied to her waist, and took Ophelia’s hands, and looked into her eyes. Helen looked small next to her, and ruddy, radiating brightness. Her glasses, I saw, had fogged over from the heat by the fire.

“I…” my fiance stammered, suddenly shy. “I’m Helen.”

Ophelia reached out and stroked her cheek with the back of her hand, in a sisterly sort of way. 

“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” Ophelia asked (it took me a moment to work out what she’d said, because she spoke so quietly). She stepped a little closer. “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss…”

“Ophie,” Adrian said, and Ophelia seemed to awaken, as if from a trance.

“And Edmund!” she said to me.

“Edwin, actually,” I said.

“I’ve heard so much about you.” She loosened her fingers from Helen’s and came over to me. Helen glanced at me over Ophelia’s shoulder as though trying to say something–but then, she often looked like that, and when I asked what she was about, she’d sigh and say nothing. She was probably just feeling nervous that a gal as lovely as Ophelia might tempt me to stray, so I made a note to comfort her when we got a moment alone. Ophelia offered me her hand, and we shook.

“I’m glad to finally meet you,” Ophelia said. “And your fiancee is so charming! You can’t imagine what it’s like for me, cooped up here with just my brother. I think girls and boys bore each other terribly sometimes, don’t you?”

I laughed. “I wouldn’t say that. Helen and I get on pretty well, don’t we?”

“Perfectly,” Helen said. She’d sat back down in her chair, and looked a little stunned.

“The drive’s probably worn her out,” Ophelia said. “Adrian, it’s dark out! Hurry and help with the bags while I fix Helen something to eat.”

***

In the gathering dark Adrian and I brought the bags into the hall–for his gauntness, he showed surprising strength heaving our luggage about. When we were halfway done, a light snow began to fall, and Adrian threw back his head to stare up into the sky. When he turned back to me, snowflakes clung to his long eyelashes and lay tangled in his hair.

“It’s good to have you here,” he said. “And I’m…so glad you brought Helen.”

I teased him then, saying I was worried he’d be jealous, since after all he’d never much liked when I tried to bring girls along on our evening outings back at school. He looked so serious and wounded that I almost regretted it.

“Why’d you have to drop out, Adrian?” I asked. “Hamilton was a lot more fun with you.”

He turned back to the house. “I had…other business I had to attend to.”

“You know, I feel like a heel. I never asked: did something happen to your parents?”

He shook his head. “I barely remember them,” he said. “It’s just been Ophelia and I, for as long as I can remember.”

Suddenly, his purpose was so clear I almost laughed.

“You can’t fool me,” I said. “I know why you lured me up here.”

His eyebrows shot up. “What?”

“The two of you haven’t had a proper Christmas in years, have you?” I asked. “Living alone, probably just the servants, and then when you got older not even that. I bet you don’t remember the last time you had a tree and garlands and Good King Wenceslas and all that.”

He looked shocked that I’d found him out. “Yes. Of course, you’re right.”

“Well, I wish you’d said something, old chap. I could’ve packed better if I’d known. I’ll tell you what, leave the planning to me and Helen.”

I clapped his back and smiled at him. It filled me with purpose to know that I could bring a gay Christmas to Adrian’s little family. I decided to confer immediately with Helen. Maybe we could rope in those other houseguests when they showed.

When we came back into the parlor, Helen was reclining in the armchair with her head tipped back on her neck, her face flushed from the heat, her golden hair askew. Ophelia perched on a footstool close by. When she heard us come in, Helen sat up with a start. She fumbled her glasses onto her face and stood up abruptly.

“I think I was asleep for a moment there,” Helen said. And then to me: “Ed, I need to talk to you. Please excuse us.”

She grabbed me by the hand and pulled me out into the hall. Among our suitcases, she leaned in close to me. I could smell the old-fashioned Adrian had mixed her; the trip and the drink must have made her sleepy. “Something isn’t right here,” she said.

“I’ll say so. They don’t even have a Christmas tree yet. Helen, I want to talk to you about–”

Helen interrupted me with a litany of strange complaints–the statue was wrong, and Ophelia had been far too friendly, and all the rooms were cold except the parlor. I found myself explaining to her that in large houses like this, people often only used one or two rooms during the winter, that my own parents had done the same.

“But you don’t understand,” Helen said. “When Ophelia was rubbing my feet, her hands were as cold as ice!”

“She was rubbing your feet?”

Helen flushed. “That’s not the point,” she said. “Did you see her…her teeth?”

“Old family trait,” I said. “Adrian has them too. Please don’t be rude about it.”

She wanted to keep going, but I saw Adrian over her shoulder and endeavored to shush her. He smiled at us; Helen jumped when she saw him.

“We were thinking of supper,” Adrian said. “Will you be joining us?”

I said that of course we would be, and followed him back into the parlor, where he and Ophelia had spread out a meat and cheese platter, and topped up our drinks. Ophelia didn’t drink either, I noticed; she was probably one of those League of Women Voters ladies. It fit the bill: she didn’t seem to like any of my jokes, even the ones Adrian explained to her. I brought out some Christmas records from my traveling case, but Adrian and Ophelia didn’t know any of the words. Still, we managed a pleasant evening, and stayed up far too late in front of the fire, until eventually I thought it might be dawn.

“We should really get some sleep,” I said.

“What a good idea,” said Ophelia. “I’ll show you to your rooms.”

“Ophie, they can stay in one room if they like,” said Adrian.

“We’re not married yet,” Helen said, glancing at Ophelia. Not wanting to seem like a dog, I promptly agreed. Ophelia used the fire to light taper candles in a candelabra, and started for the hall.

“I banked some fires in the rooms upstairs earlier,” she said. “And I’ll light the lamps for you. We never had electricity installed.”

“It’s quaint!” I said. “An old-fashioned Christmas.”

She smiled at me, and led the way up the stairs.

Mine and Helen’s rooms were right next to each other’s. After she’d settled us in, Ophelia wafted off somewhere in that way of hers. I tapped on the wall, and after a moment, Helen stuck her head out of the door to her room.

“Are you feeling alright now?” I asked.

“Something still seems wrong,” she said. “I’m not sure either of those two touched the food.”

“Maybe they’d already eaten.”

“I don’t like it,” she said. “If one more strange thing happens, I think we should leave. We can call my dad from the road. Promise me.”

“Alright,” I said. “I promise.”

I kissed her goodnight, her lips cold against mine, and went to bed.

I have to say: despite the bed being comfortable, I had a hard time staying asleep. In my dreams, I thought I heard whispering from behind the wall, and then after a while a strange thumping drumbeat, and then a scream. I sat up in bed, but as soon as I was fully awake, the noises were gone–nothing but my imagination.

I suppose it was because of this that I slept in so late. When I finally rolled over and checked my watch, it was four in the afternoon. I went out into the hall in my pajamas and bathrobe, and tapped on Helen’s door. When she didn’t answer I knocked again, and then opened it. Through the crack I could see her lying in bed, the covers pulled up to her chin.

“Helen? Are you asleep?”

I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Ophelia standing beside me. She looked a little better than the night before, less sickly. 

“Helen was up early,” she said. “We spent the morning together, but then she wanted some rest. I think I tired her out, poor thing.”

“Do you know when she’ll be awake again?”

“I’m afraid not,” she said. “But my brother will be up soon.”

“Soon? Has he slept in until this hour?”

She flashed me a smile. “We keep the hours we want here. There’s no one to tell us otherwise.”

She led me downstairs and through a series of cold, lightless rooms to a cavernous kitchen with huge shuttered windows and a wall of ovens. She’d lit a fire in one of the smaller ones, and I huddled near it in my dressing gown and pyjamas while she toasted a slice of bread for me over the fire. The butter in the tin was ancient, so I declined it as politely as I could. I noticed that she kept glancing toward the door that led to the front of the house, any time there was a gust of wind or a creak from a floorboard.

“Any word from your friends?” I asked. 

“Not yet,” she said. “I was hoping they would make it in before the storm.”

“You said you were lonely out here,” I said. “Why not move to the city?”

“Adrian likes this dreary place,” she said. “ When he went away to school I was hoping he’d take flight, but he was home by Christmas of that year.”

“He’s always been an odd sort.”

She shook her head ruefully, and I liked her better then. “I’ve resigned myself to looking after him,” she said. “We read, and I go to the city sometimes, and sometimes…” she smiled, as though at some private joke. “Once a year or so, we get to have charming company.”

Adrian came in then, in silk pyjamas and bare feet. Next to his sister, who seemed much improved, his pale drawn look was downright worrisome. I asked if he was alright, and he waved me off.

“Did you sleep well?” he asked, and in the spirit of discretion, I said that I had, and that it was a good thing, because he and I had better go and fell a Christmas tree straightaway. He seemed for it, but spent so much time fussing over warm boots and coats that by the time we set out it was already dark.

“Wait,” he said, as we were heading out the door for perhaps the fourth time. He turned to Ophelia, who had been watching us with amusement. “Where’s Helen?”

“She’s been sleeping,” I said. “Apparently your sister tired her out this morning.”

Adrian’s face went rigid, and I wondered what had upset him so.

“She’s fine, don’t be silly,” said Ophelia. “Go play in the snow with your friend. I’ll stay here and watch for my guests.”

“Come on,” I said to him. “It isn’t Christmas until we have a tree.”

We tramped through the light snowfall together until we came to a stand of small pine trees. Once again Adrian surprised me with his strength: he managed to cut down a sturdy tree with only a few swings of the axe. I realized it was petty, but I felt a little left out. 

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Did I do something wrong?”

He looked so apologetic that I told him it was nothing, and then I laughed. “I sound just like Helen,” I said.

“She does seem…irritable,” he said. “Does she appreciate you, Edwin?”

“Oh, that’s just her way,” I said. “But she tries her best. She was jealous of Ophelia last night, I could tell. But she still got up early in the morning to spend time with her.” He looked quizzical, so I added, “She knows how much it means to me that we all be friends.”

“Yes,” he said. “Friends. Of course.”

We dragged the tree back together across the snow, and hauled it into the parlor where the fire still burned, newly stoked, although Ophelia was nowhere in sight. I’d liked the exercise in the crisp air–my face felt red with the cold. But when I looked at Adrian, he still seemed colorless, drawn. I asked how he was feeling, and he shrugged me off. It was then that I remembered Helen, and excused myself to check on her.

I went up the stairs and knocked again on the door of her room. No answer. When I opened the door, she was still in the same position she’d been in earlier. I crossed to the bed and looked down at her, and when I pulled the covers back, she seemed less than alright. She’d lost her rosy glow, and now looked as frail and wan as either of the siblings. When I snapped my fingers in her face, and patted her cheeks, and flicked her in the nose, she didn’t move. Frightened, I held my hand under her nose, and only let myself relax when I felt a faint breath on the back of my hand.

I came back downstairs to find Adrian and Ophelia in the parlor. I cleared my throat.

“Whatever you just had, Helen’s caught it,” I said.

A look passed between them.

“Will you excuse us for a moment?” Adrian said.

I busied myself in the parlor while they went out into the hallway. I put another log or two on the fire, moved around the embers, thumbed through a book, fixed myself a drink. I tried not to listen to their fight, and did a pretty good job. All I caught were a few snatches here and there, which were worrying enough: something about a broken agreement, and some talk about me as well. I wondered if I’d somehow overstepped my boundaries, puttering around rearranging their Christmas. And then I overheard Ophelia say something astonishing: “I can’t help if I’ve fallen in love.” And Adrian saying “Love? You just met!”

It didn’t take much work on my part to put two and two together. Being the only man in the house not her brother, Ophelia had naturally taken a shine to me. I wondered that I hadn’t noticed it while she was making my toast. Adrian was, of course, worried for Helen’s sake. I’d have to find some polite way to put Ophelia off when I had the chance–it wouldn’t do to be breaking engagements.

Eventually, they came back into the room.

“We’re sorry to have left you waiting,” Adrian said. “But you don’t have to worry about your fiancee.”

“We’ve had this…illness,” Ophelia said. “In about a day she’ll be as we are now.”

“I hope not, you look just this side of the grave,” I said. “But the best thing for her is rest, so let’s let her sleep. Are you two up for cards?”

And so I spent another evening in the house. The tension between Ophelia and Adrian seemed ongoing–a few times I caught them exchanging meaningful looks–but for the most part I managed to keep them occupied, and so cooler heads prevailed.

On the way up to bed, I turned to Ophelia, after Adrian had left the room.

“I just wanted to be sure you knew,” I said. “You’re a very lovely young woman. But I love Helen. I think I’m going to ask her to set a date for the wedding. On Christmas morning.”

“Well, she’s a very lucky girl, then.”

“You’ve had a talk with her,” I said. “Do you think she’ll say yes?”

She smiled, and I could see why Helen had been so jealous of her–she really was lovely, in a strange way.

“Let’s just get her better first,” she said. “There will be plenty of time for talk when she’s feeling well.”

It was probably because I’d only just woken up, but I had a hard time sleeping that night. I tossed and turned fitfully, worrying about this and that–my beloved’s case of the flu, my friends’ quarrel with each other. Then the fire suddenly went out, and in the dark and the cold, I thought I could hear fierce whispering again–through the walls. Probably the draft, or the mice, which old houses like this always had. It was almost a good thing Helen was sleeping through these first few nights so soundly, or she’d have been a mess.

I lit the little lantern near my bed with some trouble, and put on my robe and slippers. I planned to venture out in search of a snifter but when I opened my door, a tall silhouette stood there. I realized that in shadows, it was difficult to tell my two hosts apart.

“Adrian?” I ventured.

I realized I was mistaken when the figure stepped forward, grabbed me, and kissed me. It must be Ophelia then. She had come looking for me in the night to persuade me not to marry Helen after all. An interesting case, that she’d had such a strong reaction to my fiancee, when it had turned out all along she’d been pining for me. I resolved to write some kind of paper about it when I returned to school.

I thought all this, and got ready to rebuff her and reassert my engagement. But I confess, I fell under a spell. The kisses were more forceful and intoxicating than I’d expected–and if I am honest, Helen and I hadn’t done much kissing even in the early days of courtship. I felt so weak under the onslaught that when the figure took the lamp from me and put it out, I didn’t protest, and when it half-carried me to bed, I felt myself go weak. My visitor then proceeded to do something I’d only ever before heard alluded to, and so I shall only allude to it here. All I will say is that it came as a shock, and that I felt awakened by it–although if I’m perfectly honest, after it was done I was pretty sleepy. As I drifted off, I heard footsteps padding toward the door, and then Adrian’s voice said (I suppose in my dream), “I will protect you, Edwin.”

***

Once again I slept in until the early evening. When I woke up, I felt fresh and renewed, as though my life were beginning all over again. Suddenly it all seemed clear. I’d written to Adrian about my engagement and he’d invited me to Christmas. He’d hoped all along I would get along well with his sister, and then marry her and then we could be a family. Then when I’d showed up with a fiancee, he’d tried to pour water on the situation, but Ophelia was already determined to have her way. The whole scheme was so devious and yet so innocent, just like Adrian himself. I came downstairs practically whistling, ready to sort out the whole business. I ran into Adrian first, in the parlor, lighting the fire. He turned toward me, brushing those handsome Byronic curls out of his eyes. 

“I cannot be engaged anymore, Adrian,” I said to him. “I’ve realized that Helen can never give me the life that I want.”

A faint smile came over his face. “Oh?”

“I’ve had an awakening,” I said. “I’ve realized that the stale pseudo-Victorian mores of our time can’t contain the man I truly am. I’m not fit for marriage, and not sure I’ll ever be.”

“That is news!”

“Please don’t be disappointed,” I said. “Your sister’s a lovely girl. But simply knowing her has aroused my true passions, and thus awakened, I cannot easily go back to sleep, do you understand?”

“I…don’t quite follow, no.”

I was about to explain, but I was startled by someone entering the parlor. I turned, and saw Helen for the first time that day.

She was deathly pale, and drawn, in the same way as my hosts. But I realized that there was some new quality about her, some feverish light that hung on her every limb. It was quite fetching, actually. She looked at me in a way that she never had before, and I wondered if some word of what had happened the night before had already spread to her–perhaps she was seeing me in the same new light in which I saw her. Ophelia came in soon and stood behind her, and Helen reached up toward her unconsciously, and leaned back against her arms in a close, sisterly manner, and I realized she could not yet know what Ophelia had done. I almost didn’t want to tell her, but it was clear I had to be honest.

“I’m sorry to cast such a pall on the evening,” I said. “But I feel compelled by the spirit of truth. Helen, last night I’m afraid I broke my promises to you–with Ophelia.”

Helen and Ophelia exchanged one of those opaque female glances, and then both of them looked at me.

“That’s impossible,” Helen said. “She was with me the whole night.”

“Oh, I know Ophelia was tending your sickbed. But you were so ill, and she must have slipped away for just a moment. I didn’t want to be dishonest with you. Or with you, Ophelia. You see, you’ve brought about my sexual awakening, and now I must leave you to pursue it. I hope you understand.”

You’ve had a sexual awakening?” Helen asked.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do this to you, Helen.”

“Oh, Adrian, you shouldn’t have,” Ophelia said. “Look at that snow outside. My guests won’t make it. You’ve only set yourself up for disappointment.”

“Me?” Adrian said. “We had another choice, and you’ve taken it.”

“I can’t help that I fell in love,” Ophelia said, stroking Helen’s hair. Helen didn’t seem as horrified or upset as I’d thought she would be. She clung to Ophelia like a child to its mother, although I could see that she was looking at me with a hunger I’d never seen before. Perhaps my statement had aroused something in her–although in the fairer sex, it would naturally be of a more delicate nature.

“Well, it has to be him,” Ophelia said. “You can be upset with me if you want, but you know I couldn’t let her be the one. The moment I saw her, I knew.”

“That’s a strange way to put things,” I said. “You saw her and knew it had to be me?”

Ophelia rolled her eyes.

“And really, Adrian?” she said. “This is the one you wanted to keep? He’s so impossibly dense.”

“I feel as though you’re all talking over my head,” I said. “And that’s really not very polite.”

Ophelia sighed.

“I’m sorry, Edwin,” she said. “Let me fix you a drink.”

“It’s a little early for one.”

“Let her make you a drink, Edwin,” Helen said, still watching me with that strange new intensity. I conceded, and we sat down on the couch, and I sipped, while the three of them watched me. 

“Something for you, Helen?” I asked.

“I’m fine,” she said.

“Let’s put on a record,” said Adrian, and selected some Christmas music. I tried to get them to speak earnestly about their feelings for a bit, but I suppose the combination of the early drink, the decadent evening I’d just passed, and the gentle strains of Silent Night made me drowsy, because despite the tension in the room, I soon found my eyes creeping shut.

“Finally,” I heard Ophelia say. I could dimly hear her talking to the others, and tried to keep my ears perked to hear if they were talking about me, but soon it became impossible to understand anything they said, and I let my drink settle out of my hand onto my lap, and leaned my head back against the sofa.

***

When I woke up, my first impression was that the fire must have gone out, because I was quite chilly. I was lying down spread out, and I tried to roll over and pull the covers around with me, which was when I realized that there were no covers, and that I was chained by the wrists and ankles to a large stone slab. My clothes were rumpled and damp, as though I’d been dragged along the floor.

Looking around, I tried to get a sense of the room I was in–it looked like no part of the house I had seen, but then I suppose we’d stuck mostly to the warm and well-lit spaces. This room was lit by a few braziers placed at intervals around my slab. I still felt a little foggy from the drinks by the fire, and began to suspect that I’d been drugged in some way. I was making a note to ask my friends about it when they emerged from the shadows. They clambered up onto the platform on which I lay–first Ophelia, who put a hand out to help Helen up, and then Adrian, who sat cross-legged by my head, looking apologetic. At last, I understood why Adrian had lured me up here.

“So that’s what all this about,” I said, although it was difficult to form words. “An antiquarian sex cult.”

“Ah–fine,” Ophelia said. “That’s it, Edwin. You solved it.” She tore open my shirt, scattering buttons across the stones. I made a note to send out for repair the moment I got back to Ithaca. She lay down beside me and began nuzzling into my neck. Helen grabbed one of my wrists and began sniffing at it, licking it tentatively.

“I’m sorry, Edwin, old chum,” Adrian said. “I never wanted it to come to this.”

“There’s no need to be embarrassed,” I said. “A Cornell man never shies from new experiences. If this is where I find myself, then I intend to enjoy it.”

“I agree,” Ophelia said, and she bit into my neck with surprising strength. To be honest, it hurt quite a lot, and after that, my consciousness became faint, probably from the excitement and the sweet smoke burning in the braziers. I remember sharp jabs of pain, and then an unusual but pleasant sensation, like being made of liquid. They didn’t quite seem to be taking my clothes off, which was the only drawback I could see, sex cult-wise. Adrian was stroking my hair and whispering apologies, and I kept trying to assure him that I was alright, but I was so faint I could barely move–

And then at once they all lifted their heads, and I could hear what they heard: a faint low rumbling somewhere above us.

“The houseguests,” Adrian said.

“It’s too late,” Ophelia said. “He’s practically gone. Let’s just finish him.”

“Yes, for God’s sake,” Helen said. “Do you really want him running around the world waving his sexual awakening at everyone?”

I must have entered a dream because it seemed to me that Adrian hurled himself at Ophelia, and that the two of them sent a brazier clanging as they rolled on the floor, hot coals scattering like small stars. They made noises like fighting cats. Helen sprang at them too, but Adrian, with surprising force, tossed them both sideways–in my dream, I mean. He stood over them.

“You won’t take him from me,” he said. “Go round up the others. I’ll tend to him.”

“You can’t let him drink,” Ophelia said. “No matter what he says.”

“I’m not that careless. Hurry up.”

I heard retreating footsteps, and then Adrian was close beside me. I felt a stab of delicious hunger.

“I say, Adrian, old friend,” I said. “Do you think you might give me something to drink?”

“I can’t,” he said.

I think I lunged at him then, but the chains held me fast. He stayed near me, just out of reach, while my vision focused and reblurred. Finally, I slumped back against the slab. Ancient rituals of sensuality were exhausting, I realized, and hardly a thing I could perform every day.

***

When I woke again, I was in bed upstairs with the blankets pulled up around my chin. On the table beside the bed was a tray of shortbread and a glass of milk. I ate ravenously–I felt as though I hadn’t eaten in months. I had bandages on my wrists, and around my neck, and one wrapped around my thigh, but when I unwound them, my injuries seemed to have healed. 

When I came downstairs, I was relieved to find my hosts, and Helen, looking much better than the last time I had seen them. They were all still pale, but had a pleasant rosy glow around the cheeks and lips. They all smiled at me as I entered.

“No more orgies for a few days, chaps,” I said. “I’m pretty well sorted.”

“Can I fix you something to eat?” Adrian asked. I was still quite hungry, so I assented. They said they’d all already eaten, so Adrian fixed me a meal for one, and I ate it while we chatted, and Ophelia even suggested a game of cards. The tree was still propped up in the hallway, so I directed Adrian to set it up, and then told him that tomorrow we should pop some corn and make garlands for it. He seemed delighted, and kept asking me how I was feeling, touching my arm a good deal with those strong but delicate hands of his. It occurred to me that Adrian was probably a homosexual, but I resolved not to trouble him about it. Whatever else he might be, he was my oldest and most beloved friend.

It was clear, too, that Helen and I were no longer engaged. She seemed oddly drawn to Ophelia, perhaps as some kind of transference–the two of them sat snuggled together on the couch, legs intertwined. It was actually a very cozy picture, and I told them so.

“You know, Adrian,” Ophelia said. “Now that I’m not so peckish, I can see why you like him.”

“I can’t,” said Helen, and they all laughed, and I laughed too–after all, I’d just broken up our engagement, and if her only animosity was coming out in jokes at my expense, I could be the bigger man.

We sat up again until quite late–I realized we were all off our normal clocks, with the celebratory nature of the season. It was kind of nice, like a vacation in time.

“You know,” I said. “I could see my way to doing this every year.”

Adrian smiled, and put a hand on my arm. “You’re always welcome in my house, old chum,” he said. “And please, feel free to bring guests.”

The snow had started to fall again. I pulled back the curtains in the parlor to look out over the front yard.

“Say, Adrian,” I said. “There’s another car out there. Did the other houseguests show up? I thought I remembered something about that.”

Ophelia started to say something, but Adrian spoke before her.

“Afraid not,” he said. “That’s mine. I used it earlier today to get some groceries in town and forgot to put it away.”

“You’ll have to take me for a spin when the snow melts,” I said.

“Perhaps,” he said. “Let’s just have a…jolly Christmas first, shall we?”

And so we did–an unconventional Christmas to be sure, but one which was ultimately far more satisfactory than the stultifying traditions of yore. Having experienced one another as we had, we could know one another for who we truly were–as friends, as fellow voyagers in the mysteries of life, and as companions of choice, and not of habit. It was a Christmas for the new liberated age, in which the light of truth shone bright, and we had been revealed to one another in such a manner that nothing remained hidden or secret between my three companions and I. 

Art by Tiffany Yates. You can find more of her work here.

Oh yeah and also I wrote a book that you can preorder here.

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