Wednesday, December 14, 2016

#12DaysOfChristmas Day One - A Clever Greek Turned Into a Bird

“On the First Day of Christmas
My True Love Sent to Me …
A Clever Greek Turned Into a Bird”

Elise Kannan wrapped a scarf around her neck, the tight loops of cashmere yarn rubbing softly beneath her chin. The air she breathed into her lungs was cold and damp and smelled a bit of exhaust, but she would hardly expect anything different. She lived in London, after all. And it was December. There were no blooming things to perfume the cold, wet air, but bright red bows blossomed from Christmas wreaths, and tiny, white lights decorated storefronts and street lamps like handfuls of shiny sequins.

She hailed a taxi and climbed in, pulling her travel case beside her. “Heathrow, please,” she instructed the driver as the little black car moved back into the flow of traffic. She’d taken this journey more times than she could count, most often for work. She was a historian and spent most of her time inside the British Museum where she was both curator and student. This trip was also an exploratory one; aimed at gaining knowledge after much reading and researching and studying. It wasn’t necessarily for the nine to five job, however. She shook her head and smirked. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d clocked in at nine, or left the office by five. She’d seen less of her flat in the last seven years and more of the museum. Weekends off were scarce. Her refrigerator held few perishable items, but her collection of take out menus was impressive.

This was a personal trip, more for pleasure than business, but she still meant to learn something. It was the holiday season, and her journey had everything to do with Christmas. Well, a Christmas song, anyway. It had all come up as a joke one night between her and Freddie, a long time friend whom she enjoyed dinner with once a week at the pub near her place. It was at the tail end of November and he was complaining about the Christmas program he was beginning to organize for his students.

“It’s always the same, isn’t it?” he groused. “’The First Noel’, of course, and ‘Away in a Manger’.”

“And don’t forget ‘I Saw Three Ships’,” Elise reminded him.

“Oh, yes.” And with that he finished his pint. “And that bloody ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’. That one goes on for an eternity.”

Elise shook her head. “That’s quite a lovely song. One of my favorites.”

He blew a yeasty smelling gust of air in her direction. “Really?” He looked genuinely perplexed. “It’s hard enough getting adults to remember the words to that one, let alone a bunch of children. Ah, the first few days seem to stick in the brain from one year to the next, but you get past the five golden rings and no one seems to know whether they’ve got geese or pipers, and if they’re drumming or swimming.”

“Milking, maybe?” Elise laughed. “Or leaping perhaps.”

Freddie cocked an eyebrow and studied her with intense brown eyes. “You remember the whole bloody song, don’t you?” he asked. When Elise blushed and shrugged her shoulders, he let out a raucous bit of laughter. “You do! You little freak of nature, you.”

“If you tell anyone I’ll just deny it.”

“Anyone who knows you at all will know you’re lying.”

Elise laughed, but a seed had been planted in her inquisitive brain. She’d done some research later that evening, more than any normal person would admit to, and found that the old Christmas carol held more intrigue than she would have ever imagined.

The earliest known version of the lyrics was published in 1780 under the title "The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin's Ball". It was in a children’s book called Mirth Without Mischief.  She’d found a list of other versions—sixteen in all—the last one written in 1966. That information was something else she’d deny knowing if she was ever confronted. She wouldn’t be telling Freddie about it, that’s for sure.

She used the lines in the song to help build an itinerary, and the next morning she’d put in for three weeks’ vacation time. Greece was her first stop. She was looking for a partridge in a pear tree, and she was fairly certain she knew where to find it.


The flight was a little over three hours long, and Elise was ready to leave the plane the second it landed at Athens International Airport. It had been awhile since she’d been in Greece, and, although it wasn’t the warmest time of the year, mid-to late December was known for balmier temperatures than London could boast. The sun was only out for a few hours a day, but Elise still felt a great excitement about feeling the sand between her toes.

Athens is one of the world’s oldest cities. Elise had never traveled there during the holidays and was surprised to discover how lively it was. The sidewalk caf├ęs were loaded with people, and there was an army of live musicians playing at nearly every dining establishment in the city.

She ate bread dipped in sadziki, a mixture of yogurt, cucumber, garlic and salt, then ordered some fried kalamari with fresh lemon juice to enjoy before the main portion of her meal, the psito, was brought to the table. She ate the leg of lamb slowly, savoring the flavor of the meat before enjoying the roasted potatoes that garnished her plate. And then there was the wine. Elise was so full after her huge meal that she walked very slowly back to her hotel room while music continued to spill out of restaurant doors, and revelers on holiday toasted one another at outdoor tables.

As Elise approached her room, she looked up and saw the vague shape of the Acropolis rising nearly five hundred feet above the sea. She shook her head and bid a quiet farewell to the ancient citadel that looked down over the city.

“See you tomorrow,” she said as she slipped inside and drifted off into a deep and easy sleep.


The Acropolis was a stunning sight in the light of day. As Elise walked past the Aglaureion, she sipped from a cup of very strong coffee. She studied the shrine of Aglaurus, who had been the daughter of Actaeus, king of Athens. She knew the story and was fascinated by it. Aglaurus had been the product of an incestuous relationship and was driven to suicide for ignoring a warning from the goddess Athena. Elise perked up at the piece of remembered history, and she nearly dropped her coffee when she tried to reach into her bag for a notebook and pen. She stopped herself and took a deep breath as her eyes moved over the shrine. It was only one of many ancient buildings of enormous architectural and historical significance up here on the hill … and it was not the one that had brought her to Athens in the first place. Elise knew she could get caught up in it all if she wasn’t careful. Unfortunately, this next three weeks had been carefully planned, and the time she had in this historic city was limited.

She took a deep breath and another fortifying sip of coffee before moving on.

Elise spotted the Erechtheion, a temple that was dedicated to both Poseidon and Athena, and the Pandroseion next to that. This is where Athena had planted a sacred olive tree.

She continued to walk. There was the Arrephorion, a small building that had provided the lodgings for the Arrephoros, or four noble Athenian girls who worked to prepare the body-length garment that women in ancient Greece wore. Elise racked her brain as she studied the building. The Greek word for the garment suddenly popped into her head. Peplos. The sacred gown was used in the Panathenaic Games.

Elise moved through the courtyard and found the staircase. She exited the Arrephorion and found herself at the temple of Aphrodite. As entertaining as tales of the goddess of love were, she was not who Elise had been looking for.

“Now we’re getting closer,” Elise said quietly as she approached the Athena Promachos, or rather where she had been decades before. For a thousand years, the thirty-foot-tall bronze Athena stood and kept watch over her city, but the statue had been destroyed in 1203 after being pulled down and carted off to Constantinople. 

Elise shook her head. She was getting sidetracked again.

Athena was part of her “Twelve Days of Christmas” crusade, but the biggest player in the tale she’d found and studied was the hill upon which the Acropolis stood. That and an old Greek myth.

She walked around the old temple of Athena and took in the sight of the Parthenon which rose tall behind it. There was so much history here, so much mythical intrigue. She thought about a link she’d found to this ancient place and the first day of Christmas as it was described in the song. The link was tenuous at best, but still held enough to validity to warrant the trip.

Daedalus was an artist and a skilled craftsman. It is said that he created the Labyrinth on Crete, the one in which the Minotaur was kept. Another story about Daedalus—probably the most well-known story—was of his wings. Because he’d created the Labyrinth, and was the only one who knew how to find his way through it, Daedalus was locked up in a tower to prevent anyone from learning about the secrets of his Labyrinth. Minos, the king, kept a careful eye on all vessels, only allowing them to sail once they’d gone through a thorough search. This disallowed Daedalus to leave Crete by sea. Because Minos made sure it wasn’t safe for Daedalus to travel by land, the artist decided he and his young son, Icarus, would fly to their freedom.

Elise never learned exactly where the two of them had found feathers while up in the tower, but it was written that he tied a bunch of them together, starting with the smallest and moving toward the largest, and secured them with wax. When he was finished, he’d crafted a set of wings for both he and his son.

The craftsman then stood in the window of his tower and waved his wings. He lifted from the sill and hung suspended in the air. He warned Icarus not to fly too high. He was afraid that the heat of the sun would melt the wax in his wings. He also told his son not to fly too low because the foam from the sea would make the feathers wet.

Things were going well, and they’d flown quite far when Icarus forgot what his father had told him. He began soaring toward the sun and, as Daedalus had predicted, the wax began to soften. The feathers began to fall off, sending Icarus plummeting into the sea where the boy drowned.

This is where Athena came in.

After the death of Icarus, the goddess visited Daedalus and gave him wings. She told him to fly like a god, and he was able to escape Crete and the king.

As expected, Minos was unhappy about this. He suspected that Daedalus had arrived safely in Sicily and went looking for him there. He finally found him, using a spiral seashell, a string, some honey and an ant. Elise shook her head as she remembered this part of the tale. It was far-fetched, but it was mythology. That was part of the beauty of it.

Minos confronted Cocalus, the king of Sicily, and demanded that he hand Daedalus over.  Cocalus agreed, but urged Minos to take a soothing bath before he confronted the wayward artist. He’d been traveling for a long time and was tired and dirty. Minos agreed—and paid dearly for it. In some versions of the story it is written that Cocalus’ daughters killed the king of Crete. In others, it was Daedalus himself, who poured boiling hot water over the man.

Elise turned and began walking back toward the edge of the Acropolis. Greek myths were seldom short, and strands of each story often reached out and wove themselves into other tales. What had happened in Daedalus’ past became important to her task at hand when his sister gave birth to a son named Perdix.

Daedalus had become so proud of himself. He’d begun to think that he was so clever that he would never have a rival. When Perdix showed a bit of ingenuity, his mother asked Daedalus if he might teach the young boy a bit about the mechanical arts. He agreed, and was eager to show the boy just how brilliant he was.

One day, while the two of them were walking on the seashore, Perdix found the spine of a fish washed up on the sand. He took a piece of iron and notched it on the edge and crafted a saw. Later, he connected two pieces of iron and connected them at one end with a rivet. After sharpening the other ends, he’d made a compass. His ingenuity angered his uncle.

In a fit of jealous rage, Daedalus pushed the young man over the edge of the Acropolis. Athena saw this and saved Perdix by turning him into a partridge. She then gave Daedalus a scar on his shoulder in shape of the bird and banished him from her city.

Elise looked down at the heart of Athens sitting several hundreds of feet below her and gave a quiet whistle. Now that had been a tremendous fall for that poor boy. Athena was the goddess of wisdom. It made Elise wonder why she hadn’t thought to change Perdix into an eagle instead of a fat little bird who was unable to fly very well. Perhaps the decision had been unwise, but partridges had taken the opportunity to learn a lesson from the experience. The bird, mindful of falling from high places, decided all those years ago not build its nest in the trees. Even today the partridge doesn’t fly much and avoids high places. One fall from the Acropolis was enough for that small, plump bird, thank you very much.

Turning from the edge, Elise began to move toward the covered walkway or Stoa of Eumenes. She knew a little about partridges. Whoever thought up the words to the Christmas carol obviously had less knowledge. Thinking of the lyrics made her wonder about pear trees, and that made her stomach rumble in hunger. Partridges in pear trees made little sense, but dessert, even this early in the day, certainly did. She dropped her empty coffee cup into a waste bin and headed back into the bustling city and the talented chefs who could indulge her recently discovered craving.


A Greek Pear Dessert

    6 pears
    750 ml red wine
    100 g sugar
    1 cinnamon stick
    6 cloves


    Carefully peel the pears taking care not to remove the stalk.
    Place the pears upright in a pan; add the wine and the sugar.
    Gently simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.
    Add the cinnamon stick and the cloves and continue to simmer for a further 20 minutes.
    Remove from heat and let cool.
    Serve the pears cold drizzled with the wine sauce from the pan.

 This recipe is from ThatSouthernBelle and can be found here.

Friday, December 9, 2016

#FreeWriteChallenge Day 23 - My Favorite Fairy Tale, Modernized

The Nutcracker and the Cheese Ball

A Modern Take on
E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Classic Fairy Tale
The Nutcracker and the Mouse King

The story begins on Christmas Eve at the Wing house …

J.C. sits in her living room speculating about what kind of present her godfather, Drosselmeyer, a very talented clockmaker and inventor, has made for her. The guy is a little off, and she’s believed this the entire time she’s known him. Still, he gives great gifts, and he has a wicked sense of humor. Humor, in J.C.’s opinion, is a very important thing.

The wait is long and she almost falls asleep. Christmas is a busy time of year and J.C. is a bit worn out. At last Drosselmeyer arrives. She perks up when she is presented with his gift, which turns out to be a nutcracker. She has no idea why he decided to make such a thing … but the doll intrigues her with his unusual face and his jacket the color of candied cherries. Even more than that, though, she is thrilled with the fact that he will provide her with a snack. She has been so busy wrapping those last-minute presents and baking cookies for the families that live in her cul de sac that she forgot to eat a proper dinner. Her stomach growls in protest. She finds a bag of mixed nuts—where did those come from?—and begins to put Drosselmeyer’s gift to good use. Unfortunately, she tries to crack one that is too hard and the nutcracker's jaw breaks. After some very colorful (and quiet—it is Christmas Eve, after all) swearing, J.C. heaves a frustrated sigh and pulls an old ACE bandage from the depths of her bag. It’s bedraggled and hasn’t been rolled up properly, but it will have to do. She carefully wraps it around the wounded nutcracker, keeping his lower jaw snug against the top, lining up the painted white teeth. She shakes her head sadly as she pats his shiny, wooden hat. So much for snack time.

When everyone has left the living room and it is finally time for bed, J.C. knows she should probably do a quick clean up. She looks around the space, her mood on this side of defeated. She is so exhausted. The house is always a little messy. Okay, maybe even a tad more than a little. She has several talents, but housekeeping has never been one of them.

She looks around and spots the nutcracker. Feeling a bit guilty for breaking him, she reaches out and runs her fingers over his soft, feathery beard. She tells him in a quiet voice that she will ask Drosselmeyer to fix his jaw, hoping the old man will be able to find some time in his busy life as a retiree to make the repairs. Honestly, she is surprised he opted for homemade gifts this year instead of doing his shopping online. She knows he is on a bowling league, and she overheard him talking earlier in the evening about the trips he was making to coast. He’d tried surfing not long ago and found it rather entertaining. It seems odd that he would spend so much time on strange little gifts such as this wooden soldier, but to each his own. J.C. studies the nutcracker before giving him a smile and a shrug. He is strange, but handsome—in an odd and unexplainable way. As she tells the nutcracker this, his face seems to come alive momentarily. J.C. blinks, surprised. Then she shrugs it off. What’s crazier? The fact that she thought she saw a wooden soldier smile at her, or that she was talking to one in the first place? Perhaps she has imbibed in one too many glasses of wine, she reasons, lying back against the couch.

The grandfather clock begins to chime. Wait. She doesn’t have a grandfather clock. Still, as J.C. stares across the room, she is almost sure she sees one there—and that Drosselmeyer is perched precariously on top of it, refusing to let it strike. Okay, maybe she has had a few too many glasses of wine.

She hears a scratching noise. It’s coming from below the ground. It starts out soft, then gets louder, and soon, J.C. sees mice begin to emerge from beneath the floor boards. She’d been meaning to get them redone, but she had no idea they were in this state. When she spies a seven-headed Mouse King rise from the honey-stained slats, she shakes her head in disbelief.

Wow. It was true what they said. The holidays really could bring about some serious stress.

A sudden movement to J.C.’s right makes her jump. She turns to see a dozen dolls stored in a toy cabinet come to life. Toy cabinet? J.C. shakes her head. That must have come from the same place the nuts and the clock did. The dolls? She thought those had all been stored away years ago, but here they were—and they seemed to be taking direction from the nutcracker, who was forcefully taking command and leading them into battle with the mice. The wooden soldier held the old ACE bandage in one hand and turned his body so that his painted eyes could focus on J.C. “A token” he said in a strange, deep voice, then he forged ahead to take on the army of rodents.

He and the dolls seem to be winning, at least at first, but soon they are overwhelmed by the mice. J.C. watches as the nutcracker is trapped. He is about to be taken prisoner. For reasons she can’t explain, J.C. feels as though she needs to save him. She takes off her New Balance sneaker and aims it at the Mouse King’s head. Or one of them, anyway. The sudden movement makes her alcohol soaked brain swim and she loses her balance. She isn’t sure if she’s hit the large rodent because a sharp, stinging pain diverts her attention. She’s put her arm clean through the glass of the toy cabinet, cutting it badly. The last thing she sees before she faints and falls back to the couch is deep, red blood dripping from the wound. Oh, well, she thinks. The floors were ruined by the mice, anyway.

J.C. falls into a deep sleep. In her dream, Drosselmeyer comes to visit her. She is in her bed, her arm wrapped in a length of snow white gauze. Memories of a year-long battle with wrist surgeries causes her unease, but when her godfather brings to her the nutcracker, she realizes she is dealing with something far stranger than orthopedic distress. The nutcracker’s jaw has been rehinged, and there is no sign of the ACE bandage anywhere. J.C. expects Drosselmeyer to leave right away, what, with his busy social schedule and all, but the older man sits on the edge of the bed and begins to tell her a story about Princess Pirlipat and Madam Mouserinks—also known as the Queen of Mice—instead.

According to Drosselmeyer, The Mouse Queen was a nasty, underhanded rodent. She tricked Pirlipat's mother into allowing her and her children to eat up all the lard that was meant for the King’s sausage supper. Of course, this enrages the king, and because he’s angry, the queen is unhappy as well. The king, hungry and disgruntled, orders his court inventor to create traps for the Mouse Queen and her fat and well-fed children.

The inventor, who happens to share the Drosselmeyer name, does as he’s asked. His traps are successful. He manages to kill all Madam Mouserinks’ children, which makes her very mad indeed. She swears to take revenge on the King’s daughter, Princess Pirlipat.

Pirlipat’s mother, terrified that harm will come to her child, surrounds the princess with many cats. These cats like to nap, as cats are known to do, so the child’s nurses are instructed to constantly stroke the felines. Unfortunately, even nurses get tired, and they—as well as the cats—fall asleep. The Mouse Queen takes advantage.

She uses magic to turn Pirlipat, who is known to be quite beautiful just as most children are, into something hideous. Her head is now enlarged. She is given a wide, grinning mouth, and from her chin sprouts a cottony beard. She resembles a nutcracker more than she does a little girl, and, understandably, this makes the King furious. He blames Drosselmeyer and gives the inventor four weeks to find a cure for his stricken daughter. When a month passes and Drosselmeyer has not come up with a way to bring Pirlipat back to herself, he begs his friend, the court astrologer, for help.

Together they read Pirlipat's horoscope and find that the only way she can be cured is if she eats a Crackatook nut. As if that isn’t difficult enough, this nut must be cracked and given to her by a man who has never worn a pair of boots or taken a razor to his face in his entire life. It gets worse than that, though. This man also must hand her the nut without opening his eyes, then take seven steps backward without so much as a stumble.

I have always known finding a good man is a difficult task, but poor Pirlipat … Not only did she have a really messed up name, but the man she was looking for? Well, I wasn’t sure she was going to have any sort of luck finding him.

The King obviously feels the same way because he is beside himself at the news. The odds seem slim to none, but this is his little girl. He can’t sit around and do nothing. Well, he can sit around and do nothing. He’s the King. He finds someone to do his bidding for him.

He calls Drosselmeyer and the astrologer and demands that the two of them go out and search for both the Crackatook nut and the man they need to give that nut to his daughter. The pair leave with the King’s threat of a very long and painful death should they return to the castle without both the things they’d been sent out to find hanging heavily over their heads.

For many years, the men travel without finding either the Crackatook or the man. During their journey, they find themselves in Nuremburg and take shelter with Drosselmeyer’s cousin who is a puppet maker. They think they have failed in their search and tell the puppet maker why they have been away from the castle for so long. Surprised, the artisan pulls from a small pouch the very Crackatook nut they have been looking for. Later, when the astrologer and the inventor meet the puppet maker’s son, they realize this is the man they need to crack the nut and present it to the woefully ugly Pirlipat.

The three of them arrive at the castle and the King is overjoyed. He tells Drosselmeyer’s nephew that if he can crack the nut and give it to his daughter, he will give him Pirlipat’s hand in marriage. The young man raises the Crackatook up to his bearded face, pops it into his mouth and crack! The hard shell splits open as easy as you please. He closes his eyes, hands the kernel to Pirlipat and takes seven steps backward with his bootless feet. The princess swallows the nut and presto, chango! The big head disappears. The beard vanishes, and the wide grin is replaced by a beautiful, girlish smile.

Unfortunately for Drosselmeyer’s nephew, that seventh step is a doozy. His heel comes down right on top of Madame Mouserinks, the Mouse Queen, causing him to stumble. The curse that is lifted from Pirlipat then falls on him. His handsome visage changes, and he becomes the nutcracker. Although the princess is once again beautiful on the outside, her soul proves to be surprisingly ugly. Seeing the changes that overcome him, Pirlipat banishes young Drosselmeyer from the castle instead of becoming his wife. She is the princess. She has options, especially now that the spell has been lifted.

How rude.

J.C.’s godfather, seeing that he has tired her out with his tale, leaves her bedside so that she can rest. Her sleep is not deep and is colored by strange images. She blames it on the painkillers she’s been given for the nasty cut on her arm, but in her dream, the visions come from another source. It’s the seven headed Mouse King, and he’s whispering into her ear, threatening to bite the newly mended nutcracker that stands at her bedside to pieces unless she gives him sweets … and the recipe for the cheese ball she served on Christmas Eve.

For the nutcracker's sake, she sacrifices both her candy and the recipe, but the Mouse King is a greedy liar. He continues to threaten J.C. until the nutcracker intervenes, telling her that if she will find him a sword, he will finish the seven-headed menace off once and for all. She finds a sword among the debris left when the toy cabinet fell and crashed to the floor and gives it to the nutcracker.

Let’s be honest here. Even if this wasn’t a dream, the mess would most likely still be there. J.C. isn’t the best housekeeper, remember?

She drifts in her restless sleep, and when she sees the nutcracker in her thoughts again, he has with him all the Mouse King’s seven crowns. The hideous rodent has been conquered!

The nutcracker takes J.C. with him to the Land of Sweets where the Sugar Plum Fairy rules. They are offered chocolates from Spain, coffee from Arabia, tea from China, and candy canes from Russia. While they eat and drink, Danish shepherdesses perform on their flutes and Mother Ginger, a rather odd looking woman, introduces them to her twenty or so offspring. There is much dancing, but J.C. feels a bit sick from the sugar and caffeine overload and begs to be taken back to her bed.

It’s amazing how odd Percocet laced visions can be.

It is several days before J.C. is released from the hospital. She steps into her home and realizes that the mess she left behind has been cleaned up. The dishes have been done and, as she suspected, there is no toy cabinet, broken or otherwise in her living room. What she cut her arm on is still a mystery, but she is sure, in time, she will figure it out.

She hears a knock on the door and opens it to find her godfather, Drosselmeyer, standing on her porch. He says he has come to fix the clock. She tells him there is no clock to fix, unless he wants to look at her microwave, but the last time she checked, that one was working just fine. Drosselmeyer brushes past her and steps inside.

Drosselmeyer tinkers with the unbroken microwave and J.C. spies the nutcracker that is now resting upon the bookshelves. Her mind wanders to the story her godfather told her. He watches her as she lifts her hand to touch one of the nutcracker’s wooden boots. He smiles and tells her that he’s glad she is nothing like Pirlipat. He knows had she been in the princess’s rather expensive silk shoes that she would have loved the man who had saved her no matter what he looked like. He smiles and asks her if his assessment is correct.

J.C. shrugs. Sure, she tells him. It’s what’s inside that counts. Besides, this question is purely hypothetical. And that Percocet has been hidden deep inside the medicine cabinet.

The conversation is interrupted when Drosselmeyer’s cell phone sounds from the pocket of his jacket. There is talk of an arriving flight. From where, J.C. asks. Nuremberg, her godfather responds. Who is coming to visit? It’s Drosselmeyer’s nephew.

J.C. cocks a disbelieving eyebrow in his direction.

She shoos him through her kitchen, down the stairs and out the front door. She tells him he best be on his way. It’s a long drive to the airport. Before she shuts the door on him she gives him a smile and reminds him that she doesn’t care how handsome his nephew is. She’s happily married, and the only nuts she likes to eat are already shelled and come in a can.

The End