It starts with a whisper.
Ahead, the last leaf on the last tree to turn the colour of fire shudders, waiting for a breath of breeze. Treetop fingers splay across the sky, almost touching, still below the winter grey.
The morning rituals tire me, and this day I retreat to the forest. To be free, to walk amongst the giants, is water to a dry mouth. I drink it up.
Clouds spout from my nose as the hot air escapes. My feet tread a carpet of unborn bluebells and decaying green, both halfway from alive. Tender stem bracken snaps.
The slight stroke of wind plays across my raw cheek as I pass the tree still holding that golden leaf. The leaf falls, circling to the ground as a bird to a nest, and the slight sound it makes as it lands softly is the awakening you need. For deep below the forest you slumber, waiting for your blanket above to be full. Waiting for others to remember.
In times where folk did not believe, the leaf would be a folly to pass, but these months and days are less civilised. The older is returning, and long have I waited for this.
The cavern at the centre of your burrow shakes with the boom echo of the leaf, and I hope you stir. The sun falls and the grey fades. Yours is a dark time of night and cold.
The dank smell of sod and deadwood is sapped by crackle smoke. Beats of drum and laughter sift through a robin’s chorus. And see, a clearing marked with rags hung from branch stumps, and beyond the shine of fires.
What draws me to this gathering? My chest longs for escape from the routine, and the people for whom it is set, yet still I am pulled onward.
From the treeline I see them all dancing. Fires dot the clearing, tables built on felled trees host food steaming and fresh, and at the heart a mighty man built of wood and clothed in dead leaves.
You have called me to them.
The dancing stops and they stare, watch me walk into the fray, turn as I pass. The fires bite at the air, the clearing glowing hot. Searing meat singes on bone spits.
They are strange, these ones. Curious and painted in woad and peat. They come from before.
The night air sparkles above the heat with frost. The ground crunches. The drum beats and the dance flows on and again.
Before me stands your imitation, tall and brittle in the chill atop an unlit bonfire. You are returning. Away in the forest I feel you climb through roots and dirt to leave the womb. You rise from the sod, laughing, and I am here, as I swore, to herald your charge.
Upon my stamp the dancing stops and the clearing falls silent. Even the fires obey me.
They ask me who I am, where I come from, how long I have walked. They ask me if I know you.
I tell them I do. I tell them I am appointed.
They ask my name.
I am the Lord of Misrule.
They bow until I let them stand, then usher me to sit upon a plait branch throne. They tie these ribbons to my arms, these bells to my legs. I style the wares of the forest. A child wrapped in vines places a crown of holly upon my head, and another clothed in leaves sprinkles pine in my hair.
You are watching all.
The dancing returns with laughter, and spreads through with music and drum and the songs of the cold. They prance about the fires, spiralling until they group around the great wooden man. They hand me a staff of fire.
I hold the staff high and wait for them to wait for me. They stop. The meat is hot and the stew bubbles. The smell of roast seeps through the smoke.
I cast the staff down onto the bonfire gathered around the tree trunk ankles of the great statue. Flames eat the twigs with crackling rage and climb the structure to the head. It stands aflame, drying the blue black stains on their skin. They strip their furs in the heat and crow to the embers that join the stars.
I am one with them, yet apart.
They gather to feast on the flesh of beasts, their hunger strong, their lust burning. The night is held back with the fire that holds the shape of a man.
This day is the turning.
But, hold, a footstep. Look, you come.
You are giant and broad with willow fall whiskers above a mulberry beard, wrapped in a cloak of twig and hide. Antlers climb to the stars and your eyes are white point coals. You stand taller than two men and look down upon me, upon us all.
This is your day, your night. You are the Father. You shake your mighty head.
The dancers shrink away, yet I stand proud. You have at last returned.
You step upon the fire, kicking the wooden man, spraying heat and embers into the flattened mud. Your hands scoop cold from the air and fling it amongst us. You shun their painted faces, look to me, and roar with an ice wind.
I take a burning shard of branch and drag it along my skin, a bubbling sickle curve slice smiling from my shoulders and drooling blood.
I howl like a dog and wear your sign.
And the misrule begins.
You watch us feast without order on meat, on fire, on each other. You see the smearing paint and sweat. You smile as we tear down everything that was built without flinch or sorrow.
The new child took your day, took your feast, took your trees. The new child left a new name, but you left yours in waiting. The people forgot. I did not.
You are the Father. The new child has no place any longer.
You are Father of this day, of Christmas Day.
In your name we scream.
© 2019 Seb Reilly
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.