How Great Our Joy

Maxwell Randolph and Astraea Cole made an unlikely couple, mainly because he was a Christian and she was a Pagan. They met while working at a school for mentally disabled children. People made jokes about their operating in proximity. One woman joked how if they were in the same room there might be a “hyperbolic reaction,” which she said was an explosion when certain chemicals were mixed. The times they worked together, however, they got along. Astraea thought Maxwell handsome and well-mannered and wished she could get to know him better. One day he came through the main lounge and heard her playing Celtic harp for a group of children in the school. Afterwards, when the children went on to their next activity, he said, “Unutterably beautiful.”

She laughed. “Thank you. I hope it’s not so unutterable that people say it’s not worth listening to.”

“I could listen to it all day — beautiful music played by a beautiful young lady.”

She blushed but liked being complimented. It seemed so charmingly old school. She remembered people said he was a Christian believer.

“Thank you,” she said. “Someone told me you play guitar,” Astraea said.

“I play.”

“I could use some back-up. Maybe we could work on a few duets. I think the kids would like that.”

Astraea worked in music therapy. Maxwell tutored higher-functioning Asperger’s syndrome students.

“People notice our religious differences,” he quipped. “They don’t think we could play a duet of any kind.”

“People are short-sighted.”

“As pretty and talented as you are, I don’t think religious differences would enter my mind.”

Astraea found out Maxwell was a Gemini. She remembered reading that a Gemini man’s “admiration falls spontaneously from his lips, giving him a way with women.” It seemed true for Maxwell, and she liked this. They ended up playing three times a week for the students in the music therapy program. They talked and had lunch together. The more they saw of each other, the more Astraea liked Maxwell. She mentioned him to Callie Bailes, a friend who shared her beliefs, though she fell more on the strident side of the practice.

“If he’s a Christian, dump his ass right now. More people have been killed as a result of Christianity than anything else in history. Nine million women were burned as witches in Europe by the Christian Church. He wants to kill you, Astraea.”

She knew Maxwell did not want to kill her and he did not seem like someone who would approve of genocide. When Astraea told him what Callie said, he laughed.

“All of that is news to me. The Nazis and the Communists killed ten times more people than everybody killed in religious wars or by the Inquisition — probably ten-thousand times more. Your friend needs to brush up on her history.”

“What about the witches the Church burned — all those women?”

That night he emailed her an article claiming the number of women killed as witches in Medieval and Renaissance Europe was closer to 1000; and that in Eastern Europe mostly men were executed as witches. Astraea checked the author’s statistics, going so far as asking two of her former professors from college about it. They affirmed the accuracy the article, though they said the Christian church had harmed women in other ways.

Abashed, Astraea thanked him for the article and apologized for what Callie had said.

“I’ve heard people say Pagans kidnap children and use them for human sacrifices; or that your worship services are really orgies,” Maxwell said. “Rubbish. I stay away from those types.”

Still, Christians seemed like the enemy. The idea that she might have a Christian boyfriend struck her as unfeasible.
The two of them played music and worked together. Astraea did not encourage him romantically, though secretly she wanted him to ask her out. One night she and Callie went to a coffee bar. When the owner came out to introduce the live music for that night, her mouth fell open.

“Maxwell Ayers,” he said, “and Alicia Sindorf.”

Maxwell walked out on stage followed by an incredibly beautiful young woman. Tall, blonde, with a classic face, blue eyes, long legs, arms, and fingers, she personified grace and beauty. She carried a flute and two recorders tucked under her arm.

“Is that the guy?” Callie asked, noticing Astraea’s reaction. “The Christian guy?” Astraea nodded. “Let’s go,” she said.

“No. I want to hear him.”

Callie crossed her arms and slumped back in her chair.

Maxwell and the girl started out with “Hidden Treasure,” an old song by the British group Traffic. Callie looked up in surprise. Their worship group often sang the song as a hymn.

Take a walk down by, take a walk down by the river
There’s a lot that you, there’s a lot that you can learn
If you’ve got a mind that’s open, if you’ve got a heart that yearns.

The girl played the flute beautifully. Maxwell did the guitar part exactly as it sounded on the original recording. When they finished and the audience applauded, he caught sight of Astraea. She smiled and waved enthusiastically. His elation that she was there shone on his face. She felt a warm rush of affection run through her — sexual excitement too.

Maxwell and his musical partner went through a program of folk and pop songs, some original compositions, and instrumentals. She hoped he would not play hymns or give out Christian talk. He did not use the platform to preach Christianity, though they did do a hymn, “Be Thou My Vision” and a song that seemed vaguely religious called “The Wessex Lullaby,” which he and the girl sung a cappella in a hauntingly beautiful arrangement with odd, ancient harmonies. When they took a break, he came down to her and Callie’s table.

He sat down in an empty chair, smiled, and took her hand. She felt faint (Can I really be feeling faint? she asked herself). Recovering, face hot, she decided to give in to her impulse, smiled, leaned forward, and gave him a small kiss on the lips.

“Wow,” he said. “Best tip I’ll get all night.”

Callie looked like a Victorian spinster who had smelled something bad. Astraea introduced them. She feared Callie would not offer to shake hands with Maxwell, but she did, though her grip and the face she made suggested she thought he had some sort of infectious disease.

“You did some beautiful music tonight,” Astraea said. “Have you and your partner played music together long?” The woman on stage with him is ten times prettier than me, Astraea thought. If he’s dating her, I don’t have a chance.

“Quite a few years,” he said, a smile in his eyes. “She’s my sister.”

A wave of relief spread through Astraea.

“She’s very pretty — and talented.” She hesitated and then said, “I thought she was your date. I noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.”

This got a laugh from Maxwell. “Alicia never wears her wedding ring when she plays. It catches on the stops on her flute.”

Alicia was talking with friends. She broke away from her group and walked over to their table. Her beauty and friendly manner seemed to disarm Callie, who stopped frowning and even joined the conversation once or twice. But when Maxwell and his sister went back on stage, Callie said she wanted to go home.

“I want to see the second part of the show,” Astraea protested.

“I really need to get back.” Callie had driven. Astraea glanced up at the stage.

“Go on. I’m staying.”

“How will you get home?”

“I don’t know. Maybe Maxwell will drop me off.”

Callie gave her a look and left in a mild huff. Maxwell and Alicia started singing as Callie walked out the door.
The second half of the show consisted of more instrumentals, Alicia playing recorder and flute, Maxwell doing back-up on guitar. They sang pop and folk standards, ending with the cover of “Fields of Gold” by Sting. Applause filled the room. They did an encore and ended. Maxwell came over to her table.”

“Where’s Callie?”

“She went home. She stranded me here. Can you give me a ride?”

“Sure I could.” He licked his lips nervously and then asked. “Can I buy you a drink first?”

“I’d really like that. I’m surprised you drink.”

He laughed. “I’m not Baptist or Methodist! Do you prefer beer or liquor?”

“Liquor.”

“Then we’ll head for Giardelli’s. That’s a nice bar.”

They said good-night, climbed into Maxwell’s car and headed downtown. Snow gleamed under a full moon. Astraea liked the snow and quiet of winter. If it only were not so long, she thought.

At the bar, she ordered a Tom Collins. He had white rum on the rocks. “Was that your militant friend—the one who talked about the Church killing people and burning witches?”

“She’s the one.”

“Too bad she feels that way.”

They drank and talked until the bar closed. When he came to her house, she asked him in. Just inside the door, the passion they had contained for so long broke loose. Maxwell kissed her wildly. She responded with equal fervor. He ran his hands over her breasts and bottom.

“I’ll be right back,” she said, “just a minute.” Astraea hurried into her bedroom, tore off her clothes, and threw on a robe and hurried back to him. He put his arms around her, felt she wore nothing underneath the robe, and carried her to the sofa. The wind had kicked up outside. They heard it roar in the chimney as he untied her robe, threw off his clothing, and lowered himself on to her white body framed in the opened-up blue gown.

That night was Astraea Jenner’s first time. Afterwards, when Maxwell lay asleep, she thought of the complications that would come with what she had done. In her coven’s worship, one participant had to “stand for the virgin” — stand up front and symbolize Artemis, Athena, Chandi, Chasca, Hestia, her namesake Astraea, and all the other chaste goddesses of world Paganism. An experienced woman stood for the goddesses in relationships. The coven had no trouble finding these women, but virgins were a bit more difficult to come by. So it was that she found herself without sexual experience at age twenty-eight. Astraea had understood preserving her purity as a duty she owed her family and worship community.

Now, she thought, as she walked through the snow to work two days after the beginning of their liaison, I’ll have to tell the worship leaders I can’t fill the role I’ve filled for so many years. When she withdrew from her place in the worship service, everyone in the coven would know why; and Callie would supply them with the details, especially with the news that her boyfriend was a Christian. Though he must not be much of one, she thought, if he engages in sex outside of marriage. She remembered how guys had hit on her a lot in high school because they thought being Pagan made her a ready-to-roll slut and an easy mark. The same was true in college. She had liked Maxwell because in all the time they had known each other he had never hit on her. The next day at lunch she asked him about it.

“Doesn’t the Christian Church teach chastity? You’re not supposed to have sex outside of marriage, are you?”

He told her he had slept with four other women. This shocked her. His admission made her think she might be his latest conquest — one more successful seduction to add to his macho-man resume. He read her expression.

“I wasn’t trying to seduce you.”

“What were you trying to do?”

“Show that I love you. I thought you would sense that.”

She blushed. Her eyes teared up and she felt remorse for what she had suggested.

“I’m sorry, Maxwell. I’m just confused because . . . well, you have your beliefs.”

“Once Renée Descartes — the philosopher who said ‘I think, therefore I am’ — a very devout Christian — fathered a child out of wedlock. A local Calvinist pastor publicly denounced him for this. Renée said, Human foibles should be treated with charity and understanding, and no one living should disdain the mundane pleasure of love. Maybe I fell short of what my faith expects of me, but I am human, and I’m in love. I didn’t mean to deceive you or use you, Astraea.”

His response came with such force and sincerity she could not help but believe him. If he was lying — well, he was a good liar and it would be enjoyable to be deceived by such a capable charlatan; and she knew from how he had treated her that he loved her. If she was wrong in this regard, she might as well give up, since being wrong about Maxwell would prove she had no judgment whatsoever. He said he would marry her but she said she did not want to get married, at least not yet, though, she told him, she wanted to maintain their sexual relationship.

They fell more deeply in love and felt their attachment deepen as the winter holidays approached.

Still, the question of religion always loomed like a wolf in the fog, ready to spring, ready to do harm. When Astraea withdrew from her role in worship, a wave of resentment ran through the coven. No one faulted her for losing her virginity, but no one liked it that her lover was a Christian. As Astraea had imagined, Callie filled everyone in on the details.

Unlike most of the people in her congregation of worshippers, Astraea had been raised a Pagan. She was not a convert and had maintained her faith throughout her 28 years of life. The anger she faced for dating Maxwell was rooted in a sense of betrayal. Many of her coreligionists had left Christianity and faced ostracism and belligerence from family and friends. They viewed her, a Pagan from the cradle, as exemplary and felt frustration at the potential attrition that her having a Christian boyfriend entailed.

“I’m not converting and I’m not leaving the coven,” she told her father and mother, tears of frustration dropping from her eyes. “Maxwell respects my faith.”

“If you marry him, which faith will you practice?”

“We’ll each practice our own faith.”

“What about your children?”

“We can let them decide when they’re old enough to judge what they want to do,” she answered, jaw tight, voice clipped.
She had asked Maxwell if he got any flack at church about dating a girl who was not a Christian believer. “No,” he answered. “People in my church are pretty open-minded.” Still, she knew Maxwell’s faith meant a great deal to him. She remembered how Christian kids had tried to convert her, especially in high school. Some, she had to admit, were sincere and operated out of genuine (if impractical) concern for her. Others, though, preached at her.

“You’ll go to hell,” Melissa Berger told her once.

“If God is love, like you say, how could he send people to hell?” she retorted.

“He has no choice.”

“It seems like God could do anything. If God is all-powerful, how could he not have a choice?”

“He plays by his own rules. Otherwise, we would have a completely chaotic universe instead of a universe where things operate according to laws.”

Missy was smart, Astraea remembered with chagrin. It was easy to refute the arguments from most of the kids who tried to evangelize her, but Missy must have had a skillful apologist among her friends because Astraea could never get the better of her in debate. On the surface, she sparred and argued with her opponents; inside, she experienced annoyance that thinly covered the hurt she felt. She was different. Why couldn’t people accept her? She grew weary of the controversy she had not chosen but, by the circumstances of family and birth, found herself deep within. Maxwell seemed different, but how could she ever completely be sure of his acceptance and good intentions?

****

Winter deepened. The shops put up their Christmas lights and decorations. Solstice would arrive in a month. Astraea feared she might lose Maxwell. Christmas might remind him of the anomaly their relationship represented. She went with him to a performance he did with his sister. Alicia and her husband sat with them afterwards. When Maxwell went to order more coffee, Astraea asked about an instrumental number they had done. She whistled what she could remember of it.

“That’s called ‘Herrick’s Carol.’ It’s popular in England,” Alicia told her. “Over here, we use the tune for the Christmas carol ‘How Great Our Joy.’ It’s Maxwell’s favorite carol because Robert Herrick is his favorite poet.”

Astraea knew of her boyfriend’s liking for Herrick. He often recited lines from his poems. Once after they made love, he had got her laughing by reciting Herrick’s more risqué numbers like “Upon the Nipples of Julia’s Breasts.”

“He was an Anglican priest and he wrote stuff like that?” she had laughed.

“He had his quirks,” Maxwell winked.

He knew by heart the poet’s most famous poem, the one that began “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” and several longer poems. He entertained the idea of someday doing a Ph.D. in literature and said if he did this his dissertation it would be on Herrick. One night as she lay next to him at his apartment and watched the Christmas lights he had strung around the bedroom window blink off and on, she got an idea. If she could pull it off, the chances of their breaking up would be minimal.

Just before Christmas, they spent a weekend together. He asked if she wanted to attend church with him. Her defenses immediately went up but then she thought better of it. “Sure, I’ll go,” she said.

Astraea had never been inside a church. Christians were the enemy, at least philosophically. But what would be the harm of it? People were not going to swarm all over her and try to make her convert. They would not try to burn her at the stake.

The service held her interest, mostly for novelty. Hymns and readings from the Bible, recitation of creeds, prayers and responses followed a sequence. Maxwell recited even the long creeds without stumbling or hesitation. The pastor gave a homily. Most of the hymns were Christmas carols she knew from hearing them on the radio and in stores this time of year. After the service, everyone gathered in the church longue for coffee and cake.

People were civil and friendly. She saw coworkers who knew she was a Pagan. No one joked about her being in church. She had selected what she thought was a reasonably modest outfit only to find that most of the women there wore skirts much shorter than hers. She saw women with tattoos, piercings, and hair dyed blue or magenta.

All in all, she enjoyed going.

She knew inviting Maxwell to her worship would be uncomfortable, especially with her friends’ negative reaction to her choice of him as boyfriend. She had to find out how he regarded her faith. She decided to invite him to their Solstice celebration.

Her parents were not enthused, but Astraea stood her ground. As their only child she had some power over her parents and knew it. She remained stubborn.

“Why are you against him coming to the service?” she asked, irritation in her voice.

“He took advantage of you,” her father said, which was what she had all along imagined as the source of his hostility toward Maxwell. Astraea slammed her hand on the table.

“Mother, Daddy, the day we had our ‘little talk’ you told me it was my body and my choice and I could decide when I wanted to become sexually active. He didn’t take advantage of me. It was my idea — all my doing — and at my initiation, I might add. I decided it was time. I’m sorry I can’t participate in the service like I did before, but it was what I wanted — and I was only doing what you told me to do.”

She saw from their reactions that she had won this round. Her mother spoke up.

“We don’t want outsiders gawking at our worship service.”

She felt anger rising. “People come to ‘gawk at’ our worship services all the time and we’re happy to have them as visitors. Probably ten or twenty people will be there as visitors on Solstice. That was dishonest, Mother, and you know it was.”

Her parents looked abashed. They said they would be happy for Maxwell to come to the service and apologized for their intransigence. Astraea went to bed that night feeling bruised but victorious. The next day Maxwell said he would be privileged to attend.

“Be sure to dress warmly,” she advised. “We’ll be out in the cold an hour-and-a-half. Your feet will freeze, so you want to wear some warm socks and boots.” She felt anxious about the whole thing. She knew Maxwell would be respectful, but wondered how the other people in the coven would react. Her parents had fallen short of her expectations. Callie would not be welcoming. She worried about the other people in the congregation.

When December 21 came, Astraea found herself worried to the point of distraction. She got alone, took a deep breath, and told herself she needed to stop it, settle down, do her job, and look forward to worship tonight. She sat in her cubicle, did the relaxation techniques she had learned in yoga, and felt better. She and Maxwell played music for the students. He said he was looking forward to the service tonight.

She and her parents drove to the lodge the group always rented for Solstice. She smiled when she noticed the beautiful, clear night nature had given them. Inside the lodge, the smell of food greeted them. People milled about, talking. She spotted Maxwell and went over to him. After a kiss, she introduced him to her parents, who were polite but, she thought to her chagrin, a little cool.

“Do you want to participate in the service or just watch as a guest?” her father asked.

“I’ll watch. I’m honored to be here. Thank you for the invitation.”

Just before 4:30 the worshippers put on robes. Astraea felt self-conscious and wondered if Maxwell would think she looked silly in the cloak with a hood. The procession moved outside, trudging through the snow to where the ceremony would take place. Maxwell walked beside Astraea. When they came to a circle marked out with solar lamps around the Henge, the sacred stone, they circled it once and then walked into its bounds. Maxwell stood behind with the twelve other people who had come to observe.

The worshippers sang two winter hymns. The leaders recited creeds and read prayers. Astraea noted Bekka Miles, who was 10, stood for the virgin tonight, which was embarrassing (the ones who stood were supposed to be mature women). More hymns followed. Astraea felt her feet getting cold. She wondered how Maxwell was doing. Leaders from the group read proclamations of the coven’s commitment to world peace and to the care of the earth. After that, as the sun sank behind the stone and darkness fell, the participants lit candles and faced the sun as it dropped out of sight. Snow radiated blue. The black sky pulsated with starlight and with a gibbous waxing moon. Astraea had worshipped at Solstice since she was old enough to walk and it meant more to her than any other rite. A long silence followed and then the congregation broke into a final hymn, blew out their candles, and hugged and kissed, the service ended.

Astraea kissed parents and friends and then hurried over to Maxwell. She gave him a smack on the lips and beamed up at him.

“A lovely service,” he said.

“Let’s go back to the lodge,” she returned. “I’m freezing.”

Inside, food tables lined one wall. Astraea hung up her robe and accepted a glass of wine from one of the women serving at table. She got one for Maxwell.

“So explain the service to me,” he said.

She told about the sun as a symbol of life and the light of goodness. “The candle ceremony is the part of the service that means the most to me. At Solstice the sun is absent longer than at any other time of the year, and that period of darkness is a good time to reflect on the light within you. That’s why we hold candles. They represent our inner light — goodness, kindness, patience, and the other virtues. We reflect on what it means to be a genuine human being and to do good and bring warmth and light to other people’s lives.” As she spoke, she felt a tremor building and then a torrent of emotion broke loose inside her. She began to cry. Feeling foolish and knowing she would embarrass people and ruin the Solstice Celebration, she ran outside. Maxwell ran after her.

Astraea could not stop weeping. The ceremony poignantly illustrated what her faith meant to her. The pain, rejection, and isolation she had endured for her beliefs entered the mixture of emotion she felt. The stress of what had happened with Maxwell and with her parents also added to her doleful spirit. Maxwell came up and put his arms around her.
She wept. Her father noticed and came outside. Astraea did not want to talk with him. She reached over and squeezed his hand but did not break her embrace with Maxwell. Her father understood that she was all right but wanted to be with her boyfriend and left them alone. After perhaps ten minutes, she managed to stop. Feeling she had cleared her soul, she looked up.

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.” He took out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes. He gave it to her to sniffle her nose.

The two of them went back inside. Everyone gave them puzzled, concerned stares. Astraea told Maxwell to get food for both of them. She sat down with her parents and talked with them for some time. When she had finished, she kissed them and went over to join Maxwell.

“Well, I wasn’t expecting that,” she said. He did not reply. She continued. “All of a sudden I just got a sense of what my faith meant to me. When I was explaining the candle ceremony, it hit me. I guess I’ve been holding a lot inside and . . . well, the dam broke and it all gushed out.”

He leaned in closer. “You are the most beautiful woman — on the inside and on the outside — in the world,” he said.

If she had not wept for ten minutes just a little while ago, she would often reflect later, she probably would have started up again.

Afterwards, her mood turned celebratory. Solstice parties were fun. People ate, drank, and exchanged gifts. Musicians played, people danced. Maxwell and Astraea took to the floor. Even Callie offered to dance with Maxwell. Astraea played her harp. Maxwell borrowed a guitar and accompanied her. At a little past midnight, the celebration broke up. Astraea went home with her parents, who now seemed taken with Maxwell and said they thought he was a fine man. Astraea agreed with them, though, she reflected merrily, when they talked about this all three of them were quite drunk.

****

Things went well after Solstice, but Astraea still worried about the difference in religion. She could see Maxwell respected her faith, but she could not get past the idea that their difference in belief would mean the end of their relationship. As she practiced harp one afternoon, an idea came like a revelation, like an epiphany. She tried to dismiss it as foolish and dangerous, but sometimes she knew a thing was the right thing to do. After an hour of running all the implications and possibilities through her mind, she decided she would do it, despite the danger and expense.

The next day Astraea drove to an isolated rural area, parked, and walked through a snowy wood to a house. She knelt at the door. Thomas opened it and let her in.

Thomas and Clara were adepts at yogic practice. They were not Pagans, but Astraea was a student of theirs, and had learned yoga and meditation from them since age eight. She had never dealt with them in their practice of tantric magic. They made tea for her. She sat in a warm room lit by a fireplace, cheery and comfortable. After small talk Thomas asked her what she sought.

“I thought you would know.”

“We could have known,” Clara said, “but chose not to uncover your heart. We would rather hear you speak it out.”
Astraea gathered her courage and told them what she wanted. A long silence followed. Thomas and Clara sipped their tea. Astraea sat there in dread, wondering what would follow. Finally, Clara spoke.

“Astraea, you are one of the finest young women we know. You have been loyal to your community and your family. You’ve devoted yourself to serving those in need. You have always behaved with wisdom and compassion toward others.”

“A lot of people tell me I made a wrong choice in dating the young man I’m dating now,” she said.

“Your life and your choices are your own,” Thomas said. “We can grant your request, but it will take time, preparation, and a lot of energy. You know our time is valuable, so it will cost you.”

“I’m willing to pay.”

They asked for quite a lot of money. Astraea was a saver. As a teenager, she had bought certificates of deposit with her babysitting and graduation money and allowed them to accumulate interest for years. She could cash one of them for the amount. She told them she would pay the price. They gave her the details on how the tantric spell would work.

On Christmas Eve morning she called Maxwell and asked him to come over. “I have a surprise for you,” she said.
After he arrived, she led him to the small plot that served as a back yard for her apartment. She took his hands and told him to close his eyes and did the same herself. Both felt a gust of wind — or energy — blow on them. When she opened her eyes she saw they were there.

“You can look now,” she said, almost giggling.

He looked around. Bewilderment registered on his face.

“Recognize the place?” she giggled.

He gazed at the Gothic building, the graveyard, the forested hills around them — all covered with a thick layer of white.
“This is Dean Prior Church, where Robert Herrick was vicar,” she said when he did not answer. “You told me about it and showed me a picture of it once. I’ve brought you here.”

“By magic?” he looked alarmed.

“The people who did this don’t practice magic—at least not as we understand it. They practice Tibetan Buddhism and are adepts at meditation and astral projection. All points of time exist at the same time; all places are the same place. Some people know how to uncover the past and go there. This isn’t sorcery, Maxwell, or evil magic. Come on. Let’s go inside. The service is about to start. Herrick will deliver his Christmas sermon and you’ll get to hear it.”

She pulled the astonished Maxwell into the building. They entered a candle-lit sanctuary and slid into a pew. Astraea wondered if she had gone too far and had done something Maxwell might think of as an egregious violation of God’s laws regarding time, limits, and boundaries. He stared about in a daze. A gaunt young man stepped up and told the congregation to rise. Everyone stood. He hummed. The building filled with humming as the worshippers found the musical key. The man began singing a hymn. After the first few words, everyone joined in.

Astraea did not know the song, but Maxwell did. He gaped for a moment before joining the singing. She listened as the music rolled over them, a cappella, with parts, descants, harmonies. The beauty stirred her soul and warmed her (the church was not heated). After four verses, the gaunt young man motioned for them to sit. Those sitting near them eyed them curiously — their garments, Astraea knew, would strike the people of this era as odd. The service continued.

A bullish man with dark hair and a mustache, dressed in a clerical robe, stepped up to the pulpit. Maxwell stared. Astraea assumed he was Herrick. He opened a massive Bible and read the Christmas story. Though a Pagan, she had heard the tale enough that she knew it. And, she admitted, it was an inspiring myth: God coming to be born a human being. She took Maxwell’s hand. He glanced at her and then turned his attention to the man in the clerical robe, who stepped back. The young man came up and began to lead another hymn. Again, Maxwell knew it. Astraea remembered the tune and smiled. It was “Herrick’s Carol.” The first hymn they sang had been unaccompanied, but on this number someone in the back played a dulcimer and someone else a harp similar to her Celtic harp. The music sounded celestial to her. The voice of the congregation rose and fell harmoniously.

After the hymn the dark-haired, heavy-jowled man delivered a homily on love and giving. The congregation listened, though Astraea heard snoring, farting, and shuffling. At the end, they sang another hymn, read from the Bible, recited what she assumed was a creed, prayed, and received a benediction. The worship ended. She took his arm.

“We have to go now. Don’t follow the congregation out. Their way out isn’t our way out.” She pointed to a side door. “We get back through that door.”

“Why that one?”

“I don’t know. I just know we need to go there. That’s how it works with this. Come on.”

They exited, but not to the outside. The two of them found themselves in a small room with two other people, a man and a woman. Astraea, surprised that they had not immediately returned to their own time and location, smelled fresh-baked bread. She noted that the woman in the room was the one who had played harp on the second hymn. The woman smiled at them.

“Good day.”

Astraea smiled. “Good day. I think we might have gone through the wrong door. I’m sorry. We’ll leave you alone.”

“Father Herrick said someone would be here to assist us. It must have been you he spoke of.”

Astraea knew they were to be in this room and not leave by another door.

“Certainly. We’d be glad to help.”

“I don’t think I know either of you. Are you visiting the parish?”

Astraea had to listen carefully. The people spoke with what sounded like a thick Irish accent, though she realized it was how English sounded in the seventeenth century. She felt relief when Maxwell spoke up.

“We came from the West — from the colony of Virginia. We returned to visit our relatives in London but stopped on the journey so we could worship here.”

“Ah, Virginia. That is why your speech sounds strange — and why your garments are different. But please come around. They will be here presently. I am Elspeth; this is my husband, Collin.” Her husband bowed. “Come on around.”

Not understanding, the two of them joined Elspeth and Collin on the other side of a table. She noticed bins of bread and two cheese wheels nearby with knives to cut them.

At the entry to the room a line of ragged, decrepit people pressed forward. The robed man with dark hair and heavy jowls marshaled them into an orderly file so they came in one at a time.

Astraea’s feet grew cold. The smell of the people troubled her nostrils. They looked ragged and weather-beaten. Astraea noticed and tried not to wince at their goiters, rotten teeth, bleary eyes, and crooked limbs. They entered and bowed. Elspeth and her husband gave each a loaf and a portion of cheese wrapped in cloth. Maxwell sliced, Astraea wrapped. They worked in the cold room. During a pause, Astraea complimented Elspeth.

“You play the harp beautifully.”

She smiled. “Thank you, good lady. My mother taught me. I’m teaching my daughters. It is a skill passed down from ancient days.”

Astraea noticed the gentle manner and kindness with which Elspeth and Collin treated the people to whom they distributed food. After giving them a loaf and some cheese, they said, “God bless you.” The line finally gave out. Almost all the food was gone. The priest of the church came to the door.

“That was the last. Thank you. And you, visitors.” His dark eyes twinkled with kindness. “Staying at the inn?”

Maxwell nodded, speechless that he was speaking with Robert Herrick.

“Father,” Collin spoke up, smirking, “someone told me you composed a little poem about Mark Fowles. I’d like to hear it.”

“Not in this holy place,” he said, eyes full of mischief. “And it might offend the ladies.”

“It won’t offend me,” Elspeth said, “any more than Martial on whom you model your poems offends me when I read him in Latin.” She turned to Astraea. “You, young woman?”

“I won’t be offended.” She could tell the priest wanted to recite. All of them waited in amused anticipation.

“Well,” he said, “like Martial did with his poetic subjects, I changed Master Fowles’ name. I renamed him ‘Craw’ — a name I invented for the sake of peace. Here’s the verse.” He cleared his throat and took a theatrical stance. “Craw cracks in syrup then doth stinking say, / ‘Who can hold that, my friends that will away?’”

Collin, Elspeth, and Maxwell broke out in peals of laughter. Astraea smiled, analyzing the joke, realizing in a flash that “cracks” meant “farts” and “syrup” meant the farts were liquid not gaseous. She “got it,” realizing the poem was about a gross man who crassly tried to excuse his stinking flatulence by jocose, familiar speech. She laughed with genuine delight, happy to see Maxwell laughing as well and noticing that she also enjoyed the couplet.

“Not what I would expect from a parish priest,” Collin noted.

Herrick shrugged. “The truth is the truth.”

After taking leave of the others, Astraea and Maxwell left the room and found themselves standing in the dark and snow behind her apartment. She breathed a sigh of relief. It had been worth it, she thought—worth the money and the risk. She wondered if he would think taking him back to the 1600s constituted sorcery. He looked into her eyes. Snowflakes landed on his cheeks and melted.

“Did you really take me back in time? Did I really see Robert Herrick and attend Christmas Eve services at his Church?”

“I was going to tell you but decided to keep it a surprise. It wasn’t magic or sorcery, Maxwell”—

He put a finger on her lips. “Don’t apologize. I know you would never do that sort of thing.”

“You do?”

“You’re a decent human being. You respect my beliefs.”

“I’ll explain about how my friends sent us back there later on,” she said, fighting back tears because she did not want to ruin the moment. He had never openly stated how he regarded her attitude toward his beliefs. Callie had said he secretly thought of her as reprehensible and only wanted to convert her. She managed to suppress her reaction to this revelation of his acceptance. “Do you want to go inside and have some wine?” she asked.

“I like standing here in the snow with you.”

“It’s pretty,” she replied. Every word she said sounded glib to her. Snow coated her shoulders. She felt it melting in her hair. Fishing for something to say that didn’t sound like the breathless cliché of a girl in love, she spoke: “That was only the second time I’ve been to a Christian worship service. It was pretty cool — both were alike even though they were separated by 400 years. I thought it was cool how they distributed food to the poor afterwards.”

“It’s an old tradition.”

It was harder for Astraea to hold back her tears. She leaned against him. He hugged her and kissed her hair. She felt miserable and elated at the same time. It would not be easy to navigate their relationship. Intolerance floated like icebergs on a winter sea coming at them from two directions. People on both sides could be intolerant. They could be that, she mused, but they were irrelevant.

Maxwell and Astraea stood in the snow under the winter sky as the calendar rolled forward to Christmas Day.

[David W Landrum’s speculative fiction has appeared in Mystic Nebula, Modern Day Fairytales, Earthspeak; Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales; Sorceress Signals, Father Grim’s Storybook, Cliterature, and many other anthologies and journals. His novellas, Strange Brew and The Gallery are available through Amazon; another novella, ShadowCity, and a full-length novel, The Sorceress of the Northern Seas, are forthcoming from Damnation Press and Netherworld Books. He teaches Literature at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. ]

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