PART ONE CAN BE FOUND HERE
Christmas Eve, approximately 11:05PM
Dolly crossed her wrists behind Drummond’s neck and chinned herself up his body, making sure to rub all her soft parts against him. When she was standing on one fully-extended toe, the other knee hooked around his hip, the heel pressed into his butt, she got to within reach of his mouth and put her face up to be kissed.
It was a demand no sane male could possibly deny. Drummond wrapped his arms around her ribs and lifted her off her feet. He bent his head and captured her sweet lips with his. Dolly felt a shudder run through his body as their lips met. A wave of heat rolled over her in response.
They stayed in the clinch for long moments, coming up for air several times, but diving right back into the warm salty ocean of each other.
Finally, Dolly let herself slide back to stand on her own feet. She looked up at her lover with a sleepy-eyed expression. “Mmm,” she purred. “I think that one works.”
“Good,” Drummond said. “That’s all of them then.” He craned his neck and did a final visual check on the sprig of mistletoe hanging in the center of the doorway.
As Dolly’d put it, they’d been field testing the installations. Had to be sure they all worked properly. There would be guests in the house and it would simply not do to have inoperative or faulty mistletoe.
Or so they told themselves. If pressed, they would have vehemently denied any contention that they were just using the excuse for a little snogging.
“OK,” he said, smacking her on the butt, eliciting a mock pout from Dolly that morphed into a naughty grin. “You’ve stalled long enough. Time to get ready for mass.” He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her around, giving her a gentle shove toward the stairs to the second floor.
She was wearing a sexy little La Perla number consisting of a strapless bra, spaghetti-strapped camisole, and loose under shorts, all in champagne silk. It was obviously not suited for outdoor wear. If they were to make it to midnight mass at La Immaculata, she’d have to get dressed and quick.
Dolly stumbled a bit, her bare feet slapping against the hardwood floor of the passage as she reluctantly headed for the stairs. Drummond paused for a moment to watch her go, the little jigglings of her well-muscled body being so enticing. He sighed and followed her.
“I don’t understand why we have to go,” Dolly was objecting. “I mean, it’s not like we’re Christians.”
“No, we’re not. But if we’re going to celebrate their second most important festival, then you, young lady, should have some understanding of what it’s all about.”
“I hate it when you call me young lady.” She stopped halfway up the stairs and started to turn to face him.
“Would you prefer,” he asked as he stepped up behind her and gathered her diminutive form in his arms, “I called you little girl?” He lifted her off her feet and carried her giggling, wiggling, and kicking the rest of the way up the stairs.
“No. I prefer you ask me before just assuming I want to go to this heathen ritual.”
“Why? Did you ask me if I wanted a Christmas tree or a house full of guests on the 25th?” He set her down on the floor in the upstairs hall and brushed past her into their bedroom suite.
“No. But that’s different,” she said, following.
“How’s that?” he asked from the bathroom, where he inspected his hair and beard then moved on to the closet.
She got into her closet before he got to his and her voice was muffled by all of the clothing close around her. As she selected a pair of white jeans and a cashmere sweater, she explained. “I’m a woman. I’m allowed to do things that don’t make sense.”
“Cheap shot!” he protested. “No fair playing the sex card.”
“Why not? You play it on me all the time!”
“Like just now, when you carried me up the stairs.”
“That wasn’t about sex. It was about size. Besides, you were in the way.” Drummond was sure he’d scored a telling point on the little doll. He grinned to himself as he pulled a denim pullover on over his skivvy shirt and tucked it into the waistband of his jeans.
“Yeah, but,” Dolly would not give up. “The difference in our size has to do with the different sexes being bred for thousands of generations to be the size we are.”
“And your buddy Xe is….” six feet tall, But then again…
“Well, we don’t count, ’cause we’re all artificial people. But you aren’t. You’re a natural-born and you’re humongous.”
“Naw. Shaquile O’Neil. Now he’s humongous. I’m merely above average.” He padded barefoot around the doors and into her closet, a piece of fabric held behind his back in one hand.
“How’s it coming?” he asked, grateful that Dolly was one of those women who could dress quickly and looked like a million bucks no matter what her condition.
She smoothed the sweater down her body and inspected the effect in the full-length triple mirror mounted on an amoire in the middle of the closet. “Just finishing up,” she said, leaning in toward the mirror and picking at loose threads and bits of fluff–both real and imaginary.
“Not quite,” he said, bringing his hidden hand out from behind his back. “As a woman, it’s customary for you to keep your head covered in church.
“What?” Dolly leaned back and glared at his reflection in the mirror. Then he smiled and melted her heart. He did that kind of thing, she thought, never realizing that she did the same to him.
“Oh, let it go,” Drummond scolded gently. “It’s harmless and it’s a chance to wear a showy scarf.”
Dolly goggled at him. He wasn’t one to bow to convention like this. He must have some other motive. Then she felt a feather light touch on her hair and a confection of white lace appeared on top of her head.
“Most of the women there will be wearing wool scarves and suchlike. But you, my dear, are so angelic that I thought only a mantilla made of the finest white Irish lace would do.” He settled the lace on her golden-red hair, arranging it and pinning it in place with hairpins he must have filched from her dressing table. They had little diamond chips mounted on them and they glistened like starlight where they clung to her hair.
She had to agree that it not only looked angelic and fetching and all that, but it was cute. She would wear it. But he would not get away with this shameless manipulation of her. She’d have to figure out some retribution for his sins. Meantime, she smiled and road-tested the mantilla, making sure it would stay in place by wrapping her arms around his neck and climbing up him for another kiss.
Suddenly inspiration struck. Breaking away from Drummond, she hurried to her dressing table and picked up a spray bottle. She sent a cloud of its contents into the air and stood in it, until droplets of the mist collected on her hair and skin. Then she picked up a small glass vial and poured some of its contents into her hands. She stoppered the vial and threw her hand up into the air. Like a cloud of fairy dust, little specks of glitter drifted toward the floor. Dolly ducked in under them and caught the cloud on her face and hair. Where the glitter met the water it stuck to her.
She turned to face him, eyebrows lifted in question. His appraisal was positive; he stood there admiring her, slowly clapping his hands together. She looked like a fairy-angel from some children’s story. The very essence of the moment.
“Shoes,” he pointed out. “Then we have to go.” Dolly already had heavy white woolly socks and white leggings on. She pulled on a pair of white and silver slouch boots and grabbed her white rabbit-lined jacket from the coat tree. She pronounced herself ready to go.
Drummond stomped his foot the rest of the way into his boot and bent to smooth the leg of his jeans down to above his ankle. Then he straightened and lifted his leather bomber jacket down from the same coat tree and gestured for Dolly to proceed him out the door.
En route between Hyde Park and Mt. Adams, approx. 11:35PM
Cincinnati’s December weather is deceptively mild. Later in the winter would come the bitterly cold, subzero, biting wind, blowing drifting snow of a real winter. That Christmas Eve, however, there was only an inch of snow on the grass–streets were for the most part clear. When Drummond backed the Cherokee out of the garage and thumbed the garage door remote, their brick-paved drive was only slightly damp.
“I still don’t understand why we’re attending this ritual,” Dolly protested on the ride to the church. “I mean, these guys are a bunch of fanatics.”
“Some Christians are fanatics. Drummond is a Christian. Ipso facto, Drummond is a fanatic. Name that fallacy.”
“Reasoning from the particular to the general. But…”
“No buts about it, my dear, darling girl. I will grant you: there have been fanatic Christians. Even those who perverted their religion for temporal power–an egregious sin in the eyes of the early Christians.
“And, of course, we don’t have our own fanatics. Men who openly moved against their neighbors and sought to extend the influence of the Olympians by force of arms. None of that in our home camp. We pagans are pure of heart and…”
“OK, OK! I get the point. But that stuff happened a long time ago.”
“So there’s a statute of limitations on venality? If you’re going to excuse barbarism on the part of one, you have to excuse it for all.”
“Even for communism?” She had him there.
“OK. Granted that… I will contend that Marxism does not deserve the same consideration. However, that argument will get long and boring real quick if you insist on having it. And since you,” he glanced over at her and smiled, “oh Best Beloved, are anything but boring, I foresee that you will not insist on having it.”
“Not fair!” she protested.
“Why? Baby Doll, you’re the one with all the degrees in history, archaeology, anthropology. I’m just a bit jockey. Emeritus at that. My degree is in electrical engineering, not computer science.”
“But I didn’t grow up in a religion…”
“Exactly, my dear. I did. So will you trust me that this is an important thing for you to know–to experience? Nobody’s trying to get you to convert to Catholicism. Hell, even I would have a problem with that. But the service is open to all, and it would be a good thing for you to learn to respect the beliefs of others. To experience their rituals in their time and place and maybe–just maybe–begin to understand what drives them.”
Dolly was silent for a bit.
“Listen, Gabrielle. I don’t mean to lam into you. It’s not your fault. You are as you are because of choices that were made. The best choices, we thought. Except for that thing with your limbic system going out of whack (not your fault), everything’s worked out pretty well so far. But this is something I think you should do. And if I can get this word in edgewise, I think you’ll enjoy it.”
“OK,” she conceded.
“Can you agree that all people who do not share your beliefs are not fanatics?”
“That’s not to say, however, that none of them are.”
She turned and looked at him. His face was lit from below by the dashboard lights and the headlights of oncoming cars. “I think I knew all of that. So why this…?”
“Why are you resisting it so much?”
“Because everything I know about Christianity…”
“Is probably wrong. Not to fault the Center faculty, but the deconstruction of Christianity began long before any of them were born. It takes a particularly strong mind or a devoted heart to overcome that kind of perversion of the truth. And you have to know that the truth is being twisted in order to resist.
“And to be fair, it isn’t just Christianity, it’s all religions. What would you do if Prof. Clotho tried to tell you that Rama or Krishna didn’t exist. Or Nana or Hephaestus.”
“Well, that’s ridiculous. I know those people.”
“Are you sure? You could be the victim of an elaborate hoax. I could be in on it.”
“But me. I mean–my very existence proves that the gods…”
“Not to bust your bubble, Baby, but it proves bupkis. It proves that you believe what people have told you happened–how they said you came into existence. That has about as much evidentiary value as the stories about the stork’s bringing babies.”
Drummond couldn’t believe that Dolly hadn’t considered all this long ago. But it made it easier to credit her resistance to attending Midnight Mass.
“OK, so there’s some things you can’t see or touch or feel and you have to accept what people tell you–you just have to take them on faith.”
“Exactly, my dear. And you are about to participate in a ritual–a celebration of transcendent faith with a capital ‘T F’.”
Mt. Adams, approximately 11:47 PM
Dolly was silent and thoughtful for the remainder of the trip to Mt. Adams where the Church of La Immaculata stood on a height overlooking the River. Drummond found a parking space on St. Gregory Street–no mean feat, considering how much of the on-street parking had been eliminated by development on The Hill over the years. They walked the last couple of blocks arm-in-arm, Drummond slowing his steps for her sake, she stretching her strides to the limit for his.
They came to the corner of St. Gregory and Pavilion, and Dolly stopped him when he would have gone on across the street. Foot traffic was heavy, all heading toward the church. She pulled him out of the flow with a tug on his hand and backed him up against the wooden fence that surrounded a beer garden. In his day, the place had been called Yesterdays. It had a different name, now.
“I’m sorry, Babe,” she said. When he began to protest, she held up a hand to forestall him. “I’m not saying you’re right, but you do want the best for me, and I should remember that. If you say you think I should do something, then… I probably should. At least–” she grinned at him. “You’ve never steered me wrong, yet.”
He gazed at her with tears in his eyes that threatened to freeze in the cold air. “I love you, Gabrielle Dolly.”
“And I love you, Mitchell Cary Drummond.”
“Come on, or we’ll end up in the first pew.”
“And the downside of this is…?”
“Yeah, well,” he gave a rueful grin. “People don’t like to sit down front in church for some reason. I guess they feel guilty so close to the preacher.”
She got the joke immediately and chuckled, a rich, throaty sound that made his heart skip a beat. “I guess that’s an acknowledgment of the truth, then, when those Baptists say that we’re all sinners. People know it and don’t want to be reminded of it.”
“And the little lady is right in one!”
Dolly dropped his hand and did a Gene Kelly number around the street sign at Pavilion and Belvedere. The effect of the mantilla, the diamonds, and the glitter on her golden-red hair in the glow of the gas-burning street lights was nothing short of numinous.
They crossed Pavilion Street in the middle of the block between St. Gregory and Guido, past Pia’s Sandwich Shoppe opposite the end of Fuller and the short row of private houses, then into Guido Street, the narrow cul de sac that led to the church.
One side of Immaculata’s sanctuary faced Guido Street, and the lights from inside backlit the stained glass windows. The sound of the high, piping voices of a boys’ choir and a stirring organ reverberated through the old stone wall, setting up a rumbling sympathetic vibration in Dolly’s chest. An excitement began to build in her that she could neither define nor determine its cause, although she was sure it had something to do with the music.
They reached the turnaround at the end of Guido and, when she would have gone straight to the church door, he pulled her aside to the top of a set of steps. There was a waist-high steel railing around the landing and down either side of the steps, which stretched away out of sight down the hillside.
Drummond struggled to say something. Dolly had the sense to simply wait.
“What there is. No.” He sighed, impatient with his inarticulateness. “What you are about to experience is something numinous. Do you know what numinous is?”
“Sure. Carl Sagan said it was like, what you feel when you contemplate the universe in all its grandeur.”
“Right. Except that that’s not what he meant. He borrowed the term from religion. Numinous is what you feel when you contemplate God.”
“Why are you doing this? You know better. You’ve talked with Jesus–excuse me–Eliahu. You of all people…”
“Two reasons. First, my lack of faith is no reason to denigrate the faith of others. Second, even absent the faith, the contemplation is still numinous. Just because we know that Jehovah is a hairy thunderer whose worshippers had delusions of grandeur, just because we know the man called Hephaestus or Vulcan and his wife Aphrodite, a.k.a. Venus on a personal basis, does not give us the right to diminish or talk down the faiths of people who don’t have our special advantages. It is, I think, in the manner of a sin. A very big sin.”
“But aren’t Christians supposed to prospect–er–what’s that word?”
“Right. Them. Isn’t that a way of talking down somebody’s religion? I mean, if you think they’d should convert to yours…?”
“Yes. You’re right. I said it was my belief, not theirs. I figure, so long as they don’t use force, then they can try to convert the heathens all they want. And they know that forced conversions are meaningless.
“But you’ve gotten me off-track again. You’re good at doing that, you know?” He smiled gently at her.
He noticed that she was beginning to vibrate. And for once, he welcomed it. For the first time in over half a year, he didn’t shiver with fear for her when she started dancing in place, jogging one knee, making subtle little shifts in her stance, tiny swaying movements of her hips, dancer-like postures of her hands, the expressions on her face like poses. It was palpably obvious that she was happy, whereas before, it had always manifested fear or anger or frustration or rage. He stretched out an arm across her shoulders and pulled her to him.
“Settle down, little one. The service will take over an hour. Pace yourself or you’ll wear out.”
“OK.” With a conscious effort of will, she damped her oscillations until she was almost still. “Numinous.”
“Right. Numinous. You understand the word or the concept within your own frame of reference. What I want you to try to do tonight is try to see this ceremony from the frame of reference of the celebrants in the congregation.”
“Wow! All these new words.”
“I know. And I won’t be able to explain them to you as we go. You’re going to have to trust me on some stuff, but remember your questions for afterward. OK?”
“OK,” she said. If it had been anyone other than Dolly, he would have sworn she said it shyly. But Dolly was never shy.
He crooked a finger under her chin and bent to kiss her. When she realized what he was about, she closed her eyes and parted her lips a little.
“Ah-ah-aah!” came the admonition in a friendly feminine voice. “None of that here!”
Drummond straightened and Dolly opened her eyes. “If not here, then where?” Drummond asked.
“Why in one of my temples!” Aphrodite quipped in answer to Drummond.
Dolly gasped in surprise and blurted out, “Nana! Papa!”
And, of course, it was. Aphrodite and Hephaestus, dressed a tad formally, but appropriately nonetheless.
“What are you doing here?” Dolly asked.
“Here in Cincinnati, or here at a Christian festival celebration?” Hephaestus answered Dolly’s question with another.
“Yes,” Dolly answered. Drummond just smirked at his god mother.
“Well, we’re in Cincinnati for the festival and we’re at the festival for you, my little munchkin.”
“Pour moi?” Dolly said, pressing her fingertips to her chest in mock-surprise.
“Pour vous,” Aphrodite replied.
“But won’t Jehovah, like, strike us dead or something?”
“Why,” Drummond interrupted. “Because we know for a fact what most Christians take on faith? I don’t think so.” He turned back to Aphrodite and Hephaestus. “Could you two go on in and find us a pew?”
Taking the hint, Aphrodite nodded, a mischievous glint in her eye, and dragged Hephaestus off into the church.
“OK. Real quick, ’cause it’s getting close to time. You’re gonna be expected to kneel and cross yourself, and sing along with hymns and participate in call-and-response prayers and catechisms.”
Dolly’s jaw dropped. “I don’t even know what half of that stuff is.”
“It’s OK,” Drummond said. “I don’t either. I was raised a Protestant. But the form of the service is pretty similar across sects. What I was gonna say is just watch everybody else and follow their lead. Since you can sight read music and have perfect pitch, you’re light years ahead of the rest of us, who can only mumble the words and sing the tune really bad whilst trying to fake it. Don’t worry. The important stuff is in the hands of the pros.
“But before we go in, I want to try to get you into an open frame of mind. Try to empty yourself. Let it wash over you.”
“Not in your case,” he said dryly. “But do try to keep yourself open to the experience. It won’t hurt you.”
“OK.” She centered herself remarkably quickly. Within a minute or two, she was breathing lightly and evenly and her vibrations had damped to nil. “Let’s go,” she said.
And then Drummond had to spoil it by keeping up a running commentary all the way into the church.
“I picked this church because they’re doing an all-Bach service. This should be great. The music Bach wrote is mathematically precise, but is nevertheless some of the most spiritually moving music ever written. The boys’ choir is going to do a special arrangement of “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
They got inside the door and had to wait at the rear of a crowd backed up trying to get into the sanctuary from the hallway. Dolly was entranced by the tiers of votive candles, each in its own tiny glass cup. Drummond made a way for her through the crowd and showed her the tapers and the collection box.
He put a bill in the box and whispered to her, “Think of a prayer.”
“Like what?” she whispered back.
“Oh, blessings for the soul of a departed loved one are really common. Good fortune for some endeavor, like a new business or a charitable organization.”
“What about that clone that the aliens killed and you thought it was me?”
That, as Dolly was able to do to Drummond several times daily, rocked Drummond back on his heels. The theological arguments about whether the clone possessed a soul aside, it was… “A very good idea. For the girl we never knew.” And he handed her a taper, then took her hand in his as he helped her light two candles.
“So, Jehovah watches all the candles and filters the requests and like that?”
“Well, no. Not exactly. There are a lot of reasons for this. Some of it is seeking help from God; although direct intervention is never seen as likely, it’s believed that God can influence events in ways that a perceptive person can take advantage of. There’s also the aspect of sharing the emotional burden…
“But you, you little scamp! No more questions until after. Understand?”
She tried to pull off a pout, but couldn’t. She stuck out her tongue in a saucy gesture admitting defeat and then blessed him with her megawatt smile.
As they were waiting to go in, Dolly was watching those ahead of them in the crowd at the door. Genuflecting, crossing themselves, dipping fingers in the font.
“What’s all that?” she asked.
“You genuflect as a gesture of respect. That’s the kneeling thing. You cross yourself or not, according to your own beliefs. It marks you as a non-Catholic if you don’t, but nobody really cares, especially if you leave money in the collection basket. You do not touch the holy water unless you are eligible for communion, which you are not. I’ll explain later. Trust me.”
Dolly nodded confirmation. She genuflected at the door, but did not cross herself. As Drummond, who was behind her, went through his own ritual, she located Aphrodite and Hephaestus and waved to them. Drummond stood and she took his hand and pulled him along in that direction.
Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment made when Quirnius was governor of Syria. And all went to enroll themselves, every one to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to enroll himself with Mary, who was betrothed to him, being great with child. And it came to pass while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were shepherds in the same country, abiding in the field and keeping watch by night over their flocks. And an angel of the Lord stood by them and the glory of the Lord shone round about them and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of joy which shall be to all the people; for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign unto you; you shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth, peace among men in whom he is well pleased.
Dolly didn’t understand it all intellectually. It would be years before she did. But that night, she finally understood the simple truth of faith. It is noteworthy that she became a more tolerant individual thereafter.
Love and Peace from both of us.
Merry Christmas to you and yours.
Drummond and Dolly, 12/24/98
The story will be concluded tomorrow morning for your delectation.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!