The Fifth Fedora: Weird Noir and Stranger Tales in Honor of Stephen T. Vessels is now published by Borda Books and Wilder Utopia, and is available on Amazon or in our bookstore. "Nutcracker and the Shape Shifter" is a wonderful part this collection of tales told in Stephen's honor. The following, for your enjoyment, is an excerpt of Jack Eidt's story.
The Solstice Celebration
On the shortest day of the year, John Gundert and his wife Susana gathered the children in the living room opening to a view from a bluff over the Pacific Ocean. The two young ones, Rolf and Alisa, were excited by the prospect of the solstice holiday present wrapped in what looked like maps of the world, and Master Bernoulli had dropped by to bequeath his yearly tribute to the health and well-being of the household. The old man’s given name was Christoph that he seemed to have abandoned. No one really knew where the title “Master” came from, and the family just called him Uncle. He was a confidant of Gundert’s late father, and had always been a bit of an enigma, an artist-sculptor, a storyteller of the outrageous and unbelievable. He was known to seek wild places where he could live for little money, as he engaged in what he called import-export business. He had a way of getting around in the world.
Alisa, a cute curly-brown-haired girl with a short bob, sweet brown eyes, looked to her daddy and said, “What do you think Uncle has brought us?”
“Something marvelous, no doubt,” answered Gundert, but he was not so sure that his definition of marvelous coincided with Alisa’s.
Uncle’s appearance had taken a weathered turn at age sixty. He had a sun-wrinkled face, a wild eye, and a thatch of graying hair spreading from a wool cap he wore, a Croydon Herringbone Plaid that sat rakish atop a head perpetually scheming. His long cashmere overcoat with wide lapels was a few sizes too large, on a body accustomed to indulgence of the fine arts of living, so his presence was grand. Quite the skilled craftsman, he could create and repair all manner of electronic and analog intricacies, though his fine artistry with always a touch of abstract esoteric mystery, most inspired the children.
Gundert’s wife, Susana, offered to take Uncle’s coat, but he shrugged her off. She then retorted, “Okay then, what can I bring you to drink?”
“How about a scotch, dear Susana, to start the solstice commemoration?”
“Yes, get him the single malt,” added Gundert, and Susana narrowed her eyes. She was not always a fan of Uncle, not comfortable with him drinking around the kids.
“We keep it just for you, Uncle,” she said, not looking at him.
When Susana delivered the drink, she rang a bell, that sprung the children running toward a table arranged with wrapped presents before the window that opened to the sea. They yearned to discover what Uncle had brought them.
When Rolf, the blond-blue-eyed son, tore apart the old maps Uncle used as wrapping paper, they could see his creation, a statue or doll three feet tall with a round head, grotesque face, goggle eyes, and a red mouth with razor teeth. The children gasped when they saw it.
“This doll is something else, Uncle,” said Gundert. He knew his wife was not thrilled with the gift.
“What is it?” asked Rolf, standing back from it. He did not seem impressed either.
“Rolf,” said Uncle, “this chap will be leading the revolution.”
“What sort of revolution?” countered Susana, an émigré from Cuba who did not approve of revolutions, generally, though her family stuck it out for decades.
“I think young Rolf is more about tactics,” added Uncle, with a wide smile as he pronounced his words almost toward the living room ocean view picture window, the invisible audience of the beyond, where the sun would shortly begin to gain strength and take back the balance of light in the world. “This celebratory fellow, he is called Kugelkopf. He is a sort of clown, a trickster, and his spherical head is a nod to the entire planet. He is among us to upend established orders that must be overcome.”
“Does this come from a tradition?” asked Gundert, humored. “Who gives it such meaning?”
Uncle only nodded and did not respond.
Susana did not hide her disapproval, running her hands through her long black curly hair, a familiar gesture for her when agitated. “I’m not sure we are about upending any established orders in our house, Uncle.”
Uncle smiled. “The thing we must grapple with is our seriousness. Every day we assume tomorrow will be like yesterday. What happens when we do not recognize tomorrow? This is where we turn to Kugelkopf for answers.”
“Why is he dressed in women’s clothing?” asked Rolf.
“He is a dancer, and his clothing is androgynous, not a woman’s or a man’s.” Uncle had draped a colorful hat with ribbons over the bare-ball-head. “He is a warrior, disguised in bright flowery colors and has mirrors dangling at his arms.”
Rolf was looking at other presents that might interest him. “He’s no warrior. Where are his weapons? How can he defend himself from attacks with bullets and knives? I want to see how fast that painted head would melt when the rains fall. He would blow over in the winds that whip off the ocean this time of year. And what happens when the fires come down from the hills in summer? He would burn to a crisp. He needs a metal shield. That’s not a recipe for winning a revolution.”
Rolf picked up his favorite armored toy, who carried a rifle, the Nutcracker soldier. “Commander Nutcracker will kill that ball-head in a blink of the eye.”
Kugelkopf had a droll look on his spherical head. He did not cast his eyes toward any of them. Nutcracker, on the other hand, seemed ready to take him on, just waiting for the word from Rolf.
“Rolf has a point,” added Susana, which only made Uncle smile wider. “It seems like a random talisman you have gifted my children. It just doesn’t seem appropriate.”
“I like Kugelkopf,” Alisa spoke up. At nine, she was three years younger than Rolf, and had a more giving, let’s say indulgent nature. “He is very cute. Though, I should say, something about him reminds me of you, Uncle. As if he could go out in the world and do anything he wanted. But you don’t wear ribbons.”
Both Gundert and his wife laughed knowingly at this comment, but Uncle cocked his head, maybe embarrassed.
Gundert stepped up. “It’s time for dinner. Kugelkopf is for both of you, but Alisa, you oversee his welfare, and keep his ribbons dry in the rain and protect him from wildfires. Now, let’s put him in the cupboard, so we can eat.”
Of course, John Gundert had his Christmas trees, carved wooden placards depicting a pine and an oak, creations that Uncle had fashioned in the past. Uncle was adamant that they celebrate the solstice because of the solar turnaround. The old fellow quoted the Book of Genesis that the Garden of Eden was the backdrop of the birth of any savior, with need for bearing fruit and seeds, acorns, and pine nuts. “The Yuletide is here,” he added with his usual nod to the pagan precursor of the return of the sun. “The ancients of Northern Europe saw this time of great darkness as when the veil between the living and the dead was at its most transparent.”
Gundert knew Susana, as a nominal Catholic, was okay with solstice celebrations before actual Christmas, as she saw it as a time for redemption. She had no patience for the anti-religious zealots back in Cuba who held power. Unfortunately, she had some questions about Uncle’s previous solstice present of wooden idols on horseback fashioned after the Three Magi from the East, the wise magician kings following the Evening Star to deliver gifts for the Savior of the World.
Susana celebrated Three Kings Day, believing these kings were astrologers who foretold the advent of a divine being coming into the world to save us all from this mess. El Día de Reyes is something Uncle understood quite well, as he had traveled to Puerto Rico to study with the Santeros, specially trained wood carvers, who helped him create Santos de Palo, wooden saints in the form of the Three Magi. He carved the first two in the manner of the Boricua Santeros, with dark brown complexioned elder named Melchior from North Africa on a white horse, and the young bronze indigenous Gaspar on a black horse. Both were fitted out in crowns, capes, and regalia. His third Magus, however, was a female, as he called her the pale Nerthus from Europe, riding on a red horse. Susana did not appreciate Uncle taking liberty with tradition, even if these were Caribbean versions already re-imagined from the biblical stories. Their races and ethnicities and the lands they represented, as well as the horses not camels they rode, spoke to the colonized Americas. In that way, Uncle must have seen the door was opened to re-create.
Uncle had been quick to note that while Melchior brought gold fit for a king, and Gaspar incense made from tree sap for godly powers, only Nerthus could wield the power of Earth. She brought tree leaves, bark, and roots for healing, and of course anointing and embalming the dead, but for Uncle she represented a sort of Mother Nature, between regeneration and destruction that went well beyond the other two Magi. This is what concerned Susana.
Jack Eidt is a novelist, urban theorist, environmental journalist, as well as editor and publisher of the culture blog Wilder Utopia. His fiction has won multiple awards, with work featured in literary journals, newspapers, and opinion-editorial websites.