Monday, December 31, 2018

The Best Takeaway from "Crazy Rich Asians"

I have watched a handful of Chinese and Korean dramas with Rebekah over the last couple years, so I was looking forward to watching this movie with her, which we did over the Thanksgiving weekend.

For me Crazy Rich Asians was not as interesting as the dramas she's handpicked for us, but one scene from this movie has stuck with me. I cheered it when I heard it, and I've paraphrased it a few times at home over the last few weeks.

Eleanor Young : You're a foreigner. American - and all Americans think about is their own happiness.

Rachel Chu : Don't you want Nick to be happy?

Eleanor Young : It's an illusion. We understand how to build things that last. Something you know nothing about.

Of course, I like to be happy as much as the next person (perhaps even more), and I am happy most of the time.

But my happiness, overall, doesn't come from pursuing happiness or expecting people, places, or things to provide happiness for me. In fact, I don't pursue happiness at all. Simply put, I understand the long view and taught myself how to build. 

That's where happiness lie.

In nearly sixty decades of life, I've built all kinds of worlds, real worlds and pretend worlds. I've felt great happiness when building and even greater happiness enjoying the finished structure. And, yes, I do think many people don't comprehend this secret to happiness.

Since I began this blog in 2010, I've rarely missed a day of contributing to it. But I needed time over this weekend to put in story form the greatest thing I've ever built. I shall present this story to my family when we celebrate Christmas on January 7.

I shared a snippet of this story on Christmas Day at church to one of the attendees. Surprised, but pleased, she said, "Who would have thought, all those years ago...?"

She didn't finish her thought. She didn't need to finish it. 

First drafts are messy and often full of confusion and frustration, to the extent many people stop too soon and never reach the goal.

Staying the course often means walking alone as the early cheerleaders fall to the wayside. That doesn't mean the walk isn't full of doubts and potholes, Of course it is, especially when the naysayers cry more loudly than the yes-sayers - or worse, when the yes-sayers all throw up their hands and go home.

As this is a gift for my family, this particular story won't be posted here or be available for sale. 

But that's not the takeaway here, is it?

Illustration by Kathleen Rose Van Pelt for "Bryony."

Friday, December 28, 2018

Holiday Round-Up and Social Me-dia

No story round-up today. I'll catch up on briefs and stories in a week or so. This week, I'm using up the last couple days of vacation time in strategic ways.

Although I still have work to do, I'm structuring it in a way that I'm enjoying the time, a little time out, if you will, since I have lots of great plans for 2019.

I've hung out with family and watched one episode of Futurama with Daniel as we very sloooooowly pick off the last season. And it's the only TV I've watched. (I'm a social watcher).

Timothy and I went for coffee and saw the tree light up and play music at The Promenade in Bolingbrook.

I've done some reading and hope to get some more done. (I have two books right beside my bed).

I've met with Colleen Robbins at the Joliet Public Library over Book and Bean Cafe coffee and incorporated most of her edits into the second manuscript of Before the Blood.

Rebekah has reworked the cover for the first BTB book a couple of times. We're crossing our fingers KDP will approve the book today.

I've walked, not as much as normally but I also don't feel I've gained weight from overreating (I've indulged in a few treats but very minimally). Yoga and weights need to be picked back up (get it?).

I've worked on character development and loose structure for the werewolf story while enjoying a dark roast Dunkin Donuts coffee Timothy brought me. I even found my notes from 2010 when I started playing with it. And BTW, it's called Lycanthropic Summer.

Timothy surprised me with a list of 50 more titles and story premises for The Adventures of Cornell Dyer series. If I live long enough to write them, I will use up all 100 ISBNs we ordered. I'm excited to begin working on the next one.

Rebekah and I spent a lovely Christmas afternoon working on my Christmas gift for my children when we have our Christmas celebration on Jan. 7, also Rebekah's birthday, which she gets to spend in Raleigh with her one and only sister (Sarah Stegall),  so thrilled for both of them.

But I also cleaned house on Christmas Day. And not again since (note to self: should do that today).

I'm having dinner with a friend on Sunday.

I ran around to most of my health providers yesterday with my new insurance card, trying to figure out who will and will not accept it. Overall, it seems to be fine (HURRAY!).

I've talked to Joshua on the phone a lot off and on. And two and half hours with my mother.

I've spent minimal time on social media.

Which leads me to why I posted this link about "tech fatigue."

People today either love or hate social media or what I often term "social me-dia," because a lot of the social has gone out of the usage, with the tool becoming all about "me" and hardly anything about "you."

I still like the sharing aspect of social media, the reason why I still use it for reasons other than my job.

Social media allows me to share my interests with people who are interested (or who may be potentially interested) and others can do the same with me. And then I can share certain aspects of their interests with others who also may be interested.

If social media does not widen a sense of community, it has failed. If one feels isolated in a crowd (and social media is a very large crowd), social media has failed.

Maybe this is way, except for a couple Facebook ads after I released my first book in 2011, I've not bought another.

I've not bought a Twitter ad. I've not "boosted" a post, not even when blog views dramatically declined after Facebook's last algoroithim update thing (which I don't understand) since Facebook was the main entry for readers.

I'm really not good at taking selfies and have no desire to learn. But I'm glad I figured out the basics of Goodreads last month since I'll be reading more this year.

Social media, for me, does not replace phone calls or face-to-face meetings. In fact, I stayed awake into the very wee hours while my oldest son Christopher was in the ER with dangerously high blood sugar. (He texted funny memes, and I sent back emojis and gifs).

But different tools are useful for different forms of communication. And different people prefer different mediums, so using a variety helps me connect with others by way of their preferences.

For instance, my grandkids get excited by my little monthly letters. When the post office doesn't screw up the mailings.

Here's the link.

With that, I'll sign off. My coffee is cold and I do have a little work to do.

Have a most blessed day readers, writers, and vampire fans! :)

Illustration by Kathleen Rose Van Pelt for "Bryony."

Sunday, December 23, 2018

All Eight BryonySeries Christmas Excerpts

Thank you to everyone who took the time to read one (or more) Christmas excerpts from the BryonySeries trilogy or its upcoming prequel Before the Blood over the past two weeks.

For your convenience, I'm posting all eight links here, so if you missed some you hoped to read (or wanted to re-read any), you won't need to scroll back far and hunt them out.

As a reminder, the first three selections are from the trilogy and the last five are from the prequel. Because they are scenes that feature Christmas, only No. five has an actual vampire (although No. two has a "restored" vampire); Nos. two, four, five, seven, and eight feature future vampires; an No. 3 features a future vampire's "victim."

If you haven't read any of my fiction, this provides an introduction to my themes and styles.


A Very BryonySeries Christmas: Excerpt No. 1

A Very BryonySeries Christmas: Excerpt No. 2

A Very BryonySeries Christmas: Excerpt No. 3

Very BryonySeries Christmas: Excerpt No. 4

A Very BryonySeries Christmas: Excerpt No. 5

A Very BryonySeries Christmas: Excerpt No. 6

A Very BryonySeries Christmas: Excerpt No. 7

A Very BryonySeries Christmas: Excerpt No. 8

Photo by Timothy Baran

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Friday, December 21, 2018

Community News: Dec. 20 and Dec. 21, 2018

Check out upcoming events and the awesome things people are doing.

Local faith events: Dec. 20 to Dec. 27

Local arts and entertainment: Dec. 21 through Dec. 28

St. Mary Nativity in Joliet announces its November Students of the Month

Joliet Franciscans hosted fundraiser
Sister Jean Okroi and Visitation and Aid Society honored at the event

Indian Trail first grade in Frankfort celebrates 'Around the World'

St. Dennis Catholic School in #Lockport holds career fair

Minooka High School’s National Honor Society inducts members

Minooka Community High School’s Sean Hackney honored as National Board Certified Teacher

JTHS Alumni Spotlight: Lily Luna

JTHS Alumni Spotlight: Marissa Draper

Sign up for the Will County Go Guide

Sign up for the LocalLit Short Story Newsletter

Sign up for The Munsonville Times

Illustration by Matt Coundiff for "Visage." Follow him at

Story Round-Up: Features in The Herald-News, Dec. 16 through Dec. 21

Today's blog will be brief. As you can see from the lateness of the post, it's a busy day!

A few less bylined stories this week with the tight holiday deadlines.


Each story has so much inspiration that one of them should uplift you, encourage you, or give you hope, if hope is what you need today.

Each story was a privilege for me to write. So, yes, I've been busy, but what an awesome busy to be. I don't take a single moment of it for granted. I'm blessed to hear these stories and grateful to pass the blessings onto you.

Now, here's where to find information and after that, the stories.

Non-bylined features:

Monday through Saturday I assembled my non-bylined works - brief posts and calendar listings - into one convenient file and posting them on Facebook in the evening, so readers can easily choose the ones they want to read.

One can also find those event listings, the Gotta Do It calendar, as well as the pets, health, faith, and arts and entertainment calendars, under the sections tab on the left hand side of Click on "features" and the topics drop down.  Gotta Do It runs under "people."

Community news? Again, under the sections tab, under features, and by topic. Updates are posted on these days in print and web (and some only on web on other days as I have the time): Monday (pets), Tuesday (health), Thursday (faith), Friday (arts and entertainment), and Sunday (people).

 Social media:

Daily updates: I do post the briefs and calendars on Twitter during the week, so you're welcome to follow me at @Denise_Unland61.

BryonySeries stuff: I post curated content relating to the BryonySeries at @BryonySeries. And assorted related content at And of course, please follow the adventures of Bertrand the Mouse on Instagram at bertrand_bryonyseries.

If you're a writer anywhere in the world, you're welcome to jon WriteOn Joliet's Facebook page at We're based in Joliet, Illinois, but we love to meet and interact with writers outside our area, too.

Upcoming events:

Books and Such

Information on my books (including where to buy) along with upcoming events is at

Thank you for reading The Herald-News. And for reading this blog. And if you've read (or plan to read) any of my books. Your support is greatly appreciated.

A weld and a prayer
Debra Horn turns a Romeoville welding school into a success story

 "I just care for people," Horn said. "I just like people to be better. So when the opportunity came up, I was like, 'OK, let's go for it.' I'm a firm believer that you only live once. I'd rather have tried it and failed than not to have taken advantage of it and sat back and wondered all these year what could have happened."

An Extraordinary Life: Joliet man was 'accepting of everyone' 

“He never had a [Christmas] list,” Sister Ann Stoiber said of her brother Ray Stoiber. “He didn’t ask. He didn’t want. He got along with a little and was content with a little.”

 Bringing good tidings of joy
Mokena young adult hosts annual holiday party at Joliet homeless center 

For seven years, John Narcissi of Mokena has hosted a holiday party at Daybreak Center for its clients. Narcissi is only 22. 

Artworks Oh, there's no place like gingerbread homes for the holidays

 Donating candy is also a great way for individuals who aren't able to bake or volunteer on-site during the event participate, too, Emil said.

"I see what we do as a conduit through which other people can participate in helping people," Emil said.

LocalLit author spotlight: Susan Werner of St. Charles 

Susan Werner said: "Written in the style of a fairy tale, this true story is based on my memory of a Christmas in Alabama and "hunting" with my grandpa when I was six years old.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Very BryonySeries Christmas: Excerpt No. 8

This final excerpt is from the fifth and last book of Before the Blood, scheduled for release in September 2019.

Tossing her haughty statement to the winds, Bryony accepted John's hand with the acceptance of a trusting child and descended the great polished staircase with him to Jenkins, the carriage waiting in the cold ivory morning, and the start of a new life, for her, for John, for them.

            She took her first real look at the gleaming heavy door , which Jenkins swung open from the outside at their approach; she took her second look at the carriage as a married woman, a carriage that would take her away from everything and everyone she knew except John, and she scarcely knew him.

            Jenkins opened the door. Folded blankets were piled on the cushions. A basket sat on the floor. The promised breakfast?

            A pair of hands grabbed her shoulders and yanked her around. A pair of lips pressed into hers with bruising might, and his pencil-thin mustache scratched her.

            It ended as quickly as it started.
            "Next time," was all he said, the suggestion of a smile on his lips.

            She trembled in fear and with an emotion she could not identify, one that had nothing to do with fear.

            Bur she willingly placed her hand in Jenkins' larger one and stepped into the carriage as the coachman asked, "Jenson, sir?"

            "Yes. Mrs. Simons should see her world first."

            Her own world. What could John mean? Weren't they leaving her world?

            Inside, John tucked the blankets around her, opened the basket, removed a bowl of thickened milk and small loaf of puffed bread glistening with sugar. He tore off a small chunk, scooped up some milk, and hand-fed it to Bryony as the carriage slowly descended the snowy hill, and the frosted trees rolled past.
            She and Susan had stood at the bottom just last May, trying to envision the upward view while heeding John's admonition to keep off the property.

            Now this mansion and its entire estate was hers because she was now a Simons, Bryony Simons, Mrs. John Simons.

            She belonged to John, and he belonged to her. If the church ceremony didn't prove it, last night did because John went inside her and left something of him behind.

            That's why she was going to see the world, because John owned the world, and all that he owned, she owned.

            But what was the world beyond Munsonville and stories in books? And what would she do once she arrived?

            John tapped her cheek. Bryony turned obediently and opened her mouth, John's fingers brushing her lips. Through bare branches heavy with snow,  the sun glinted on the frozen lake as the carriage turned right and crunched toward Main Street.

            The horses clip-clopped down the snowy path. The trees sparkled with Christmas morning light. Beneath its icy crust, the lake moaned, "Woooooo...wooooo...."

            It paused and then clattered objections.
            He's not just any man, Bryony assured the icy waters.

            But they didn't warm to her; the deep wouldn't be appeased.

            Beneath the sepia top hat, John's fair hair swarmed over his shoulders and down the Inverness as he prepared another bite. Bryony, warm and safe beneath her blankets and beside the husband she had withstood, never felt more alive.

            He tapped her cheek. Obediently, she opened her mouth. Grown-up milk toast for a grown-up girl, fed to her by a grown-up man.

            They passed from white woods to white village. She shaded her eyes against the lake's glare. Snow spread across the road and cloaked the trees and rooftops of the closed-up buildings.

            When she was a child, Bryony fancied angels tucked the village into a blanket of snow to keep it warm and safe through winter.

            She wondered at the bright, silent calm. Not a creature stirred, not even a mouse. A sharp memory of reading the old familiar story aloud to Mr. and Mrs. Parks all those years ago pricked her eyes and hurt her throat, because she missed the book, because she left the book by its forlorn self on the shelves of her old toy room, because she lost the book.

            Her father would spend the day, alone, the way he spent every holiday. The Parks would muddle through Christmas Day without little Bryony, and her eyes swam with their desolation.

            John tapped her cheek. Bryony obediently opened her mouth; her tears soaked John's fingertips.

            The hardest part was passing from world to wilderness. She strained through the window for a glimpse as the carriage rolled her away to a great unknown with a man who could plunge his stake into her at will.

            John stroked her cheek, and she turned to him, panic-stricken.

            "Don't look back," he said. "You are not Munsonville."
            "The whole of it." Mr. Munson stretched out his arms as wide as they would go. "The woods, the water, the hills, the land: it's all mine."

            She wasn't his; she would never be his. She could not be Munsonville. Ever.

            But she was the lake: tempestuous and intense, limpid and serene, turbulent waves over deep, full of mystery, even to herself.

            She tried not to think that she, John, and Jenkins were the only human breaths in this winter wasteland as John fed her an orange, slice by slice by slice by slice, by slice...

Photo by Timothy Baran

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Community News: Dec. 19, 2018

Food resources, recipes and food drives, oh my!

Food resources in Will, Grundy counties

KLA Schools of #Plainfield holds food drive

Plainfield Lions host annual Christmas Basket program

A classic risotto is creamy and indulgent, thanks to saffron

We packed tons of flavor into our spinach dip with herbs

A flavorful, flourless chocolate cake without all the fuss

Let out your inner artist: Grab the kids to make pancakes

A trio of ways to make white chicken chili pop with flavor

Sign up for the Will County Go Guide

Sign up for the LocalLit Short Story Newsletter

Sign up for The Munsonville Times

Illustration by Matt Coundiff for "Memories in the Kitcvhen: Bites and Nibbles from 'Bryony.'" Follow him at

A Very BryonySeries Christmas: Excerpt No. 7

This excerpt is from the fourth excerpt of Before the Blood, scheduled for a July 2019 release.

Brumfeldt returned the next day, and the daily routine returned somewhat to its former state, somewhat, because a slew of decorators soon descended the morning after a quiet Thanksgiving dinner and proceeded to transform Arcadia into a wonderland of herbage and sparkling radiance.

            Sapin de Noels in rooms and hallways along with an everlasting supply of fresh greenery wrapping the doors and archways lent a resinous fragrance throughout the chateau. Garlands of colored glass beads wound through trees boughs, hand-painted and hand-blown ornaments hung from branches, as did thin strands of extruded silver, which caught the winter sun by day and shimmered in the gaslights by night.

            At every turn stood blood-red poinsettias.

            Under the giant white spruce in the spacious north parlor, a pile of packages wrapped in stiff paper and tied with satin bows mysteriously appeared and grew larger by the day. Each tag bore the same name: Henry.

            "For you," Lawrence said with a gentle smile when he beheld Henry's wonderment. "To compensate for Christmases lost."

            Spread across flat surfaces were various crèches, heirlooms Lawrence had collected from around the world, Brumfeldt had said.

            Now Henry had seen these displays when running errands with Lizzie or Kitty, so it wasn't their existence that fascinated him. No, Arcadia's versions possessed an intricate workmanship lost on the cheaply manufactured versions sold in Leland Hills.

            Every figure, "santons," his uncle called them, whether terracotta, wood, or ceramic, conveyed emotion, born from carving and paint. Some wore real clothing, of finer cloth and stitching than ever draped his family.

             Joseph standing guard by the manger, staff in hand, ready to protect the Child and observing it with paternal affection.

            Mary, demure and radiant with new motherhood, hand lightly touching her breast as she gazed lovingly at her newborn son.

            Bowed shepherds, crouching shepherds, kneeling shepherds gaping with awe.

            Magi from the east, tall and proud, but not too proud to kneel before the king of kings and present majestic gifts.

            A slew of common folk, their faces frozen in reverent disbelief.

            Their lines spanned entire rooms and wound around the curios: the old, the young, the blind, the maimed, gypsies, tramps, and trades men and women of every profession including bakers, chimney sweeps, farmers, fishmongers, flower sellers, hunters, and washerwomen.

            Even the animals, the donkey, cattle, sheep, camels, and an occasional dog, wore expressions of hushed wonderment as they beheld the savior of the world.

            In the evenings after he completed his studies, Henry often analyzed and sketched these figures, discerning and capturing their unique details. So lifelike were they that Henry would scarcely been surprised if one actually opened its mouth and talked.

            These kept him quite occupied now that the nightly fireside chats with his uncle, and Brumfeldt, too, when he was at leisure, were temporarily suspended. The afternoon post brought stacks of Christmas greetings, which the men read at night in the west parlor while enjoying glasses of  calvados.

            "The Smythes will spend winter in a warm climate," Lawrence said. "Doctor's orders, Edwina states."

            "Holloway's still in New Haven. Appears permanent after all."

            The cards stretched across each mantle and filled every open space. Some boasted religious themes. Some hinted at nostalgia: Others poked a cruel sort of fun, like the two women pushing a terrified elderly man, after they'd rolled up into a giant snowball.

            "Here's one from the Stones," Brumfeldt said. "And one from Mr. Colin T. Greene, with an emphasis on "Esquire," no doubt signed by Elaine."

            "No doubt."

            But the signatures inside meant nothing to Henry, and he found these commercially produced artworks less interesting than the handcrafted nativities.

            "Salutations from the Harringtons," Lawrence read. "And the Rutherfords."

            "Lady Elizabeth sends her love and hopes she and Carlton can visit soon." A pause. "Girard?"

            "Yes. Soon."

            Even the grounds had acquired the splendorous spirit. A immense snowfall blanketed the acreage in early December, which later formed a crust when the temperatures further dropped. On sunny days, as far as Henry could see in all directions, the entire expanse glittered with crystals.

            "Arcadia," Henry murmured, mesmerized by its beauty and feeling pencil alone would do it injustice.

            A week before Christmas, the carriages arrived, an unbroken rumbling train of deluxe wagons bringing a perpetual stream of multitudes. The guests ascended and descended the staircases, skulked in the main parlors, pervaded the dining rooms, and bowed or curtseyed to Henry as he passed.

            "Simplicity and peace" vanished. Day and night, Arcadia buzzed with voices or the pattering of footsteps.

            "Who are these people," a stunned Henry asked Brumfeldt when he met him in the hallway on his way to rhetoric.

            "Colleagues, socialites, meddlers, the curious. You should see the numbers he refused. He rarely opens Arcadia's doors to the proletariat and when he does, well, people will delay appearing before St. Peter himself just to see it." He tapped Henry's chin with his manicured hand. "And stop ogling. Remember, you, not they, are the prize."

            "The prize?"

            "He did it for you." Brumfeldt checked his watch. "I must take a call. Now remember..."


            "Quickly, Henry."

            "The working class doesn't wear mink and rubies."

            "You'll learn. Everyone is working class compared to Lawrence Girard."

            On Christmas Eve night, Lawrence ordered the opening of Arcadia's three-balconied theater, spectacular in its white base, green toned etchings, pink marble, and gold moldings, a delightful marriage of classic French lines and exquisite Chinese carvings.

            What other delights might his uncle keep hidden within the chateau? Henry had no time to dwell on it for the concert was beginning.

            A glorious chorus of hundreds of voices presented a full length performance of Handel's Messiah. Henry, who watched from a secluded box with Brumfeldt, wasn't sure if he believed in God or angels, but the refrain of these powerful voices reverberating through the theater nearly tipped the scales in the "Yes" direction.

            As the applause died away, and the audience left their seats for the reveillon, Henry remarked, "This will make quite a splash in the papers."

            The monocle dropped. An astonished Brumfeldt turned to him as he fumbled for the glass. "The papers?"

            "Yes, when the stories appear."

            Brumfeldt snorted and replaced the eyepiece.

            "And what does that mean?"

            "Exactly as I implied. Your uncle owns most of the papers. He doesn't 'appear' in them."

            Henry gazed at the throngs below. "Nonsense. All it takes is one enterprising reporter..."

            "To sell the story to a non-Girard publication? It won't happen. Even if he doesn't own the newspaper, he owns the owner."

            Not until the crowds dispersed, did Brumfeldt open the door. Silently, they strolled through the corridors to Lawrence's private parlor. The chatter of happy revelers hummed in the distance; the concert strains loitered in Henry's mind as he attempted to digest Brumfeldt's peculiar comments.

            The table was fully laden with a French feast for three. As Henry consumed the oysters, the roast duck, the croque-en-bouche, and Brumfeldt uncorked yet another bottle of wine, Henry mused on reliving the Christmas Eve of his mother's childhood, wondered at Brumfeldt's strange speech, and studied his uncle with fresh eyes.

            For Lawrence Girard, Arcadia's host, sitting at the head of the small table, consuming traditional food and drink with unflappable steadiness instead of merry festivity, and making idle conversation with Brumfeldt, had absented himself from every activity and event in his own chateau.

            Henry grinned as he reached for his goblet.

            Society's elite, thinking they had entered Arcadia's inner chambers and gleaned knowledge reserved for few, had really only glimpsed a mirage.

            And for what?

            "He did it for you," Brumfeldt had said.

            He thoughtfully sipped. It was a riddle with no answer.

            The clock struck midnight. Brumfeldt and his uncle raised their glasses to each other and smiled, each man lingering in the tenderness in the other's eyes.

            This, Henry realized with abrupt revelation, this was the real Arcadia.

Photo by Timothy Baran

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Community News: Dec. 18, 2018

Check out upcoming events and the awesome things people are doing.

Local health events: Dec. 18 through Dec. 23 

High levels of lead in the blood requires follow-up
WillCounty Health Department feels family history may provided clues  

Troy alumni run in Chicago Marathon 

Including You, Inc. Awards Gift to Will-Grundy Medical Clinic in Joliet 

Illinois receives lead hazard reduction grant 

Annual ball raises funds for Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox
Mary Brenczewski and Edward Czerkies honored

Frankfort students work on hockey and soccer skills

Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox opened new outpatient endoscopy center in July 

Illustration by Matt Coundiff for "Visage." Follow him at

A Very BryonySeries Christmas: Excerpt No. 6

This excerpt is from the third book of Before the Blood, which is scheduled for a May 2019 release.

Dawn broke cold and gray, but the parlor fire was cheery, as was the warmth for the kitchen's cook stove, where Mrs. Parks was stirring a pot of porridge when Bryony pattered in, clutching her stocking with a sticky hand and savoring a piece of molasses candy.

            "Goodness, child," Mrs. Parks exclaimed. "You'll catch your death!"

            "Merry Christmas, Aunt Bertha.." She held up her stocking. "Santa brought candy. Where's Uncle Orville?"

            "Fetching more firewood." Mrs. Parks covered the porridge and moved it away from the heat. "Let's get you dressed."

            After a breakfast of porridge (made with real milk, unlike the porridge Mrs. Parks prepared at home as Father shunned milk, too) and fried potatoes, they presented the gifts, Bryony first: a white linen handkerchief with scalloped lace edges from Mr. Drakes' general store for Mrs. Parks and the scarf  Bryony had worked on most of the year for Mr. Parks.

            Each stitch was a labor of time and discipline for Bryony, even though the finished result was crooked and bunched in places. But Mr. Parks pronounced  it as "jest the thing" to keep his face warm when chopping wood and ice fishing and proved it by wrapping it around his neck then and there.

            "Yore turn," Mr. Parks nodded his head at the two cloth-wrapped items by Bryony's plate.

            Bryony had two gifts: a set of farm animals Mr. Parks had a carved and a book from Mrs. Parks, A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore. Its cloth cover was pink and featured the jolly old saint himself, driving his team of flying reindeer straight into the sky.

            "I reckon yil read it to me afore bedtime?" Mr. Parks asked.

            Bryony nodded, enthralled as she turned pages of three-color lithographs and gilt. Mrs. Parks bustled around the kitchen, packing the ingredients for dinner at the Griffiths, her Christmas gift to Mr. and Mrs. Bass.

            "So they can enjoy the day as a couple," Mrs. Parks explained.

            Mr. Parks laughed so hard he wet his trousers and shuffled to the bedroom for dry ones, chuckling behind the curtain as he changed them.

            Mrs. Parks was not amused. "Some folks don't mind piling up the laundry!"
            The door opened, and Mr. Parks walked out, fastening a suspender and grinning like a Hoberdy lantern.

            "A hole quiver of Cupids arrows won't turn Teddy and Sally into lovebirds, Bertha. Yer waistin' yore time."

            "Well," Mrs. Parks said as she latched the larder door. "It's the Christian thing to do. Sally Bass slaves over that poor woman day and night. She deserves twenty-four hours at home, and the Griffiths deserve a real Christmas dinner."

            "Yer a good woman, Bertha," Orville said, trying not to chuckle.

            "I just hope they appreciate it. You never can tell with some folks."

            Bryony could wait no longer.

            "Uncle Orville, please may I give Old Drew his gift?"

            "Shore, Bryony, you can feed him as soon as I load the cart. No sense dressin' you up twice for the cold."

            Old Drew had captured the spirit of the day, for he snuffled happily at the large carrot in Bryony's outstretched hand and ate it in four bites. When he finished, Mr. Parks lifted Bryony into the cart, where she sat shivering while he went inside for the rest of the food and Mrs. Parks..

            The Griffiths' four-room home was next door, which meant a quarter-mile north up the hill. These village dwellings had taken shape in a curious fashion: smallest houses at the bottom, with each house after it slightly larger in size, until one reached the top, which had two large houses. One belonged to Susan Betts and her family, and one belonged to Mayor Pike.

            Now the hill had three vertical roads. The Bass' lived at the bottom of the east road, in a three-room home similar to the Parks.'

            The moment Bryony stepped through the back door, she heard Mrs. Griffith's raspy gasping. Mr. Griffith and Harvey were sitting at the table, playing cards, but they rose at the little party's entrance. The room was warm, so Bryony knew Mr. Griffith had lit the oven.

            "Bertha, Orville." Mr. Griffith's voice broke as he spread out his hands, rough with broken nails and embedded dirt, marks of a hardworking lumberman. "I...I don't know how to thank you." Deep lines of unrelenting worry showed through his face's gray stubble.

            "Yes," Harvey echoed, with an expression far too somber for s young man. Unlike his father, in wool pants and flannel shirt, Harvey wore one of Mr. Hasset's old collars, along with a necktie, suspenders, and a pocket watch; and he'd tamed his wavy mound with some of Old Man Fisher's pomade. "We've never had a Christmas. We've..."

            The noisy breathing stopped. He paused, eyes frightened. Then came a loud whoop and a series of rapid barks, which restarted the wheezing. Mrs. Parks began sorting out the food, politely pretending she hadn't noticed, and Mr. Parks mumbled he needed to check old Drew.

            Bryony stared, eyes wide, heart racing.

            "Ida's in the parlor," Harvey said.

            Mr. Griffith was already sitting down and shuffling the cards.

            So Bryony wandered into the parlor. It had no Christmas tree and its lath and plaster walls had no festive decorations. The walls, however, did flaunt more of Mrs. Bass' needlework, all beautifully mounted in carefully crafted frames.

            Ida, sitting on the sofa and donned in red satin dress with gold trim, cast-off from Mrs. Pike no doubt as it fit her like an oversized sack, followed Bryony's gaze.

            "Paulie built 'em, every one." Ida pointed to the frames. Her topknot was lopsided, but every hair was in place. "Ain't he handy?"

            "Very." Mrs. Parks stood in the doorway. "Every boy should learn a useful trade." She jerked her head toward the card-playing heathens, all three of them, for Orville had joined them.. "Why, in my day, I..."

            A heartrending gagging halted the lecture. Ida fled to her mother. Mrs. Parks, superior attitude mitigated, held out her hand and said, as if ashamed, "Come, Bryony. You may help with dinner preparations."

            They bedded fish and onion slices in pie dough, stewed pumpkin, boiled peas pudding, rolled sourdough biscuits, and liberally powdered peeled apples with nutmeg and then baked them in their juices for dessert.

            It was the most Bryony and Mrs. Parks had worked together without an argument. Amongst the ruffling of the cards, the banter of the men, and periodic instructions to Bryony, Mrs. Parks cocked her head, as if to catch unusual sounds from the bedroom.

            When dinner was ready, Mrs. Parks bade Ida to eat with the others, while she sat with Mrs. Griffith and fed her bread soup. Punctuating the feast was the terrible sound of Mrs. Griffith forcing air into her rotted lungs.

            "Mr. Munsin said Thorton's payin' a pretty penny for lumb..."

            A strangled croak choked off Mr. Parks' thought. In the distance, Bryony heard Mrs. Parks say, "There, there..."

            Mr. Griffith grunted. "Yeah, we bin busy. Pass the biscuits, boy."

            Harvey did and then said, "I read in The Times that the roads connecting Jenson to Thornton are in horrendous shape. Some of the residents are trying to force the..."

            A screeching inhale, followed by frightening silence. Harvey turned pale. Ida flung her tucker over her face and sobbed. As Mr. Griffith half-rose from his chair, Mrs. Parks walked in and seated herself besides Mr. Parks.

            "She's sleeping, poor dear," Mrs. Parks tucked a bit of flannel into her neckline. "Orville, please pass the pie."

            Mr. Parks lit the candles again that night; Bryony read aloud from A Visit from St. Nicholas; and Mrs. Parks settled down with her mending. After an hour, they retired for the night, even Puss, who scorned Bryony's attempts to coax her onto the bed in favor of Mr. Parks and the fire.

            As Bryony melted into the pillow, and dream thoughts appeared, Mr. Munson's voice floated through the walls:

From God our Heavenly Father
A blessed Angel came;
And unto certain Shepherds
Brought tidings of the same:
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by Name.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort....

            "Shame on that man, bothering folks when they're trying to sleep!"

            "Shut up, Bertha! Prbly jest comin' home from Bosie's!"

            Bryony rolled onto her side and grinned in the darkness.

 Christmas in August tree by Rebekah Baran