A Spell For Isabella

❉ In this brand new Christmas short story, Nick Myles tells a tale of a festive reckoning…

Have you been naughty or nice this year? Are you hoping to be rewarded for your behaviour?

Isabella Rayburn had been a good girl all year. There was nothing surprising about that: apart from a mysterious biting phase aged three, which though painful for her victims had passed after just a few weeks, the now 13-year-old Isabella had been a model of good behaviour all her life.

Isabella (not “Isabel”, “Bella” or “Izzy”, please) was kind, polite and considerate. She worked hard at school, did her chores without grumbles, and never gave Mr and Mrs Rayburn cause for complaint. While you wouldn’t instinctively describe her as “a joy”, there could be no arguing that Isabella’s name deserved to be near the top of Santa’s Nice List, particularly if he had indeed checked it twice, as legend assures us he does.

Isabella herself considered her goodness to be both morally correct and perfectly logical. Her young mind was not especially imaginative, but it was eminently sensible. To be pleasant and obedient smoothed the path to treats and approval, and enabled Isabella to feel that she was succeeding at life. While she was aware that judging people was frowned upon, in her secret thoughts Isabella couldn’t help but consider those who didn’t recognise the benefits of social conformity to be slightly inferior creatures, akin perhaps to un-trained dogs, or donkeys.

But Isabella’s compliance didn’t render her socially impotent. Indeed, she was an outspoken scourge of bullies wherever she found them, was by this age a well-read and committed socialist, and dedicated much of her free time to campaigning for climate justice, online and off. Isabella’s green credentials were impeccable, from her vocal veganism to her record gathering of signatures to online petitions. If there was a hill this idealistic young crusader was already prepared to die on, it was the future of Planet Earth.

On paper, Isabella should have found a ready-made ally in her like-minded classmate Helga Burton, who also lived on the same street as Isabella and was a keen environmentalist. Helga’s mother was from Iceland and her father from Woking, hence – so Isabella privately thought – her doubly unappealing name. But Helga’s heritage (the Viking part, at least) was visible to striking effect in her appearance: she was the tallest girl at school by a good inch or two, and she wore her long blonde hair in eye-catching plaits and braids like an Icelandic Princess Leia. Isabella considered Helga’s hairstyle choices bordering on the stereotypical, but she would have fought to the last to defend her right to look as clichéd as she wished.

Despite their shared passion for preserving the ecology, Isabella and Helga never really hit it off. They were perfectly civil to each other, of course, but their common cause did not breed affection between the two girls. Perhaps their demeanours were simply incompatible: Helga laughed a lot and had an easily excitable nature which drew people to her. By contrast, something about Isabella seemed to slightly repel her peers. Tidy, polite, intelligent and well-meaning, Isabella ought to have been immensely popular, surely? That she wasn’t caused her fleeting bafflement, but didn’t cost her any sleep.

As well as a large group of friends, Helga Burton had recently acquired a boyfriend. Joseph Flanagan was a burly American boy who had arrived at the beginning of the school year, the family having moved from Michigan in the wake of Mr Flanagan Senior’s latest military posting. Joseph’s appearance had made a splash – he seemed much more desirable than the home-grown boys – but he had swiftly fallen for Helga’s charms and now they were the “alpha” couple. They clearly adored each other, but while some girls regarded them with envy, Isabella was quite sanguine about the matter, having deferred any decisions on her own sexuality until a less hectic period of her life.

The main focus of attention in the lead-up to Christmas this year was a sustainability project designed to fulfil the conventional expectations of a Nativity tableau but with ethnically representative Middle Eastern characters, 100% self-generated electricity and negative carbon footprint.

Isabella had been the one to propose the project, but as Chair of the Events Planning Committee, Helga had taken charge once the students had voted it through. Isabella might have preferred to retain a more audible voice in the realisation of her proposal, had she been afflicted with the curse of vanity. As it was, she was content to be a team player under Helga’s mostly efficient leadership.

As the countdown to Christmas progressed, a sense of excited expectation gathered force at the school, and even sensible Isabella was not immune to its pull. Although she’d seen through the fraud of Santa Claus before the age of five, Isabella had no objection to the rituals of the season and the transformation of her normal surroundings by twinkling lights and decorations.

Towards the end of term the Events Planning Committee met one final time. Almost everything was in place and the Nativity tableau had already received many visitors and hosted two carol concerts. All that remained was to finalise the delivery of the tree and the roster of who would conduct a daily check of the tableau during the holidays.

A celebratory air hung over the students, and the usual crisps and fizzy drinks had been augmented by some home-cooked treats: there were gingerbread people, shortbread stars, cinnamon cookies and more besides. A few people tried Isabella’s mushroom vol-au-vents made with vegan pastry, and the group were effusive in their praise of Helga’s Kókosbullur: chocolate tubes filled with some sort of meringue and rolled in shredded coconut. These, Helga confidently asserted, were always the centrepiece of any Icelandic celebration.

Something about Christmas was bringing out Helga’s inner Viking, and her acolytes listened entranced to her accounts of Icelandic traditions. Her stories rippled out from Yuletide rituals to tales from Icelandic folk law and the country’s long history of witchcraft and sorcery. Isabella noticed that Helga and Joseph were frequently holding hands under the table as Joseph stared in besotted admiration at his girlfriend: the fount of so many stories of a strange and exotic race. Had she believed in magic, Isabella might well have wondered whether Helga had cast a spell over Joseph – how else to explain his slack-jawed Yankie adoration? But Isabella didn’t believe in magic.

“How old were you when you moved to England?” Isabella asked during a brief lull in Helga’s story-telling.

“Oh, I was born here,” replied Helga airily, as if the question was of no consequence at all.

“I see. But you go there regularly, I assume – visiting your mother’s family.”

“We might be going over for the whole of next summer” asserted Helga, proudly.

“You mean for the first time?”

Isabella didn’t manage to entirely conceal her surprise at this discovery. She noticed a rare dip in Helga’s usually self-assured manner. Joseph sensed it too, and looked towards Isabella with a hint of disapproval in his eyes, which Isabella realised for the first time were of a startlingly pale blue.

Helga put Isabella right: “You don’t have to live somewhere to be close to your heritage. My mum’s family visit all the time, and she’s always talking about her Reykjavik memories.”

“I’m sure,” said Isabella. “And I hope you have a lovely time when you go over.”

Isabella had expected that to neutralise any perceived slight, but an uncomfortable silence descended over the group. It was broken after a beat by Sanjay, an over-achieving science prodigy who had been in charge of creating the generator for the Nativity tableau’s lights and motorised features. It was powered by vegetable waste, and had inspired almost the entire school to bring in their potato peelings, mouldy bread and uneaten quinoa to power-up the project.

“Do we know when the tree’s coming yet?” asked smart Sanjay.

Sourcing a native fir tree that could be sensitively up-rooted and replanted in the school grounds had been one of Isabella’s responsibilities, and she had begun her research as soon as the Nativity project got the go-ahead. She’d found four suitable suppliers in the local area, had taken it upon herself to conduct the initial negotiations, and had submitted the details to the committee, ranked in order of merit and cost. So she was surprised when Helga answered Sanjay’s question by turning to her.

“Isabella – what’s the latest? When do we get our tree?”

Isabella was confused – surely Helga had followed-up the leads she’d been provided with?

“I don’t know Helga. What has the supplier said?”

“You were in charge of that, weren’t you?”

“I was in charge of sourcing supplier options, which I did. I emailed the four best choices to the group address on…” Isabella consulted her phone “…November 20th”.

Helga’s voice lost a fraction of its confidence.

“Didn’t you follow-up?” Helga asked.

“I couldn’t without authorisation from the Chair” said Isabella, truthfully. Helga consulted her own phone.

“Didn’t I ask you to…?” Helga’s search was clearly drawing a blank. “I’m sure I…”

Isabella was nothing if not fair. But also factual.

“There were no responses at all to that email that I can find…”

“Didn’t I…?” Helga sounded almost desperate now.

Isabella thought she ought to be thorough.

“Maybe it went to Spam. That can happen…”

She checked. Nothing.

“Nothing in Spam…”

Isabella wasn’t deliberately trying to shift the focus onto Helga’s mistake. It was just the truth. She tried to offer a lifeline.

“Check your Drafts – maybe you meant to send something.”

“No… there’s nothing there.”

Isabella had never seen Helga so out of sorts. It gave her no pleasure.

“Helga, it’s fine” she said. “The tree was just an extra, really.”

But Helga clearly didn’t see it that way. Her face had gone bright pink, and for the first time in all the years Isabella had known her she seemed lost for words.

Isabella continued: “It’s not even part of the Nativity story, is it?”

Joseph turned to Isabella, a harsh stare emanating from his extraordinary eyes.

“Isabella!” he barked, “Can’t you see Helga’s upset?”

Joseph had his arm around Helga’s shoulders, and she had turned her head to hide her face in his chest. His square jaw was set firm as he glared angrily at Isabella, and it flashed through her mind that it must be quite nice to have someone to come to one’s defence. Particularly a handsome American someone with strong arms and remarkable eyes. But as she instinctively smiled at Joseph, Isabella realised these new feelings probably weren’t appropriate in the current circumstances.

The meeting broke up soon after, the celebratory mood having dissolved like melting snow. The committee members drifted out, some mentioning the party most were attending on Christmas Eve. Isabella sensed that most of them held her responsible for the tree issue, even though it as clearly Helga’s fault.

As it happened, Isabella was rostered to check on the Nativity installation on Christmas Eve, so she decided to do that before going on to the party. As she approached the lawn outside the school where the Nativity was arranged, she saw that everything seemed to be in order. The lights shone steady, and the motorised elements were working fine: the donkey’s head nodding every few seconds and the shepherd extending his crook, upon which was glued the QR code that would take curious visitors to the website detailing the project’s development and inviting donations to the refugee charity the school had partnered with.

Isabella surveyed the tableau with a feeling of pride. Nobody else was about, and in her solitude she felt a close bond with this creation. This existed because of her, in this form at least. Her ideas and her ethics had driven the project, even if credit was spread amongst the committee of which Helga had taken the Chair. But, thought Isabella, it was still, in a moral sense, hers.

Isabella’s thoughts returned – as they often had these past few days – to that final committee meeting. She couldn’t get Joseph out of her head, specifically that look he had given her. It had been an angry, accusing glare with no kindness in it, and yet to Isabella it had been revelatory. Before, she had barely given him a thought – he was simply the new American kid in town who had attached himself to Helga. But in that moment of protective fire, Joseph had been transformed in Isabella’s eyes. Suddenly he blazed with a rainbow incandescence: achingly passionate, astonishingly complex, giving, loyal, open, honest, vulnerable… Lovely.

Isabella’s new-found understanding of Joseph wasn’t limited to the glimpse she had gained of his soul, but encompassed his physicality too. She couldn’t picture his face but her heart seized up in her adoration of the wave of his hair, the supernatural curve of his cheekbones, and of course those almost indescribably blue eyes. That this package of perfection should have been captured by Helga, the wannabe Viking who couldn’t organise a Christmas tree in December, was giving Isbella more agitated thoughts than she’s ever experienced before.

Moving away from the Nativity tableau, Isabella was at about the spot she’d imagined the Christmas tree would occupy  when through a gap in the winter clouds she saw a shooting star streak across the sky. Isabella of course had no time for the supernatural, but a shooting star still struck her as something special, rare and noteworthy. It wouldn’t be quite true to say that Isabella made a wish, but at the sight of that shooting star her heart opened in a way that it never had before. The hope that escaped from it was – perhaps for the first time – not something of which she was necessarily proud, but she recognised a fresh truth in it: she wanted what Helga had. She wanted Joseph.

That’s when the itching started. Very suddenly in her hands, feet, and on top of her head, Isabella felt as if her skin was being stabbed by dozens of tiny needles. The sensation swiftly moved from uncomfortable to unbearable. What on Earth was happening?

Stripping off one of her woollen mittens, Isabella was horrified to see that the skin of her hand was punctured by  hundreds of green filaments. They were small but growing – growing outward from her own flesh, including from under her fingernails. And they hurt, each one a source of stinging pain becoming steadily more ferocious.

Isabella’s hands flew to her head. If her hand was like this, then…? Sure enough, instead of the smoothness of her sensible hair, Isabella felt a mass of sharp prickles. Worse, she could feel the affliction spreading from her extremities to cover her whole body.

Of course she tried to cry out. But her tongue had sprouted the same green spikes and was like a rough brush in her mouth, useless for speech.

Of course she tried to run. But something had burst out of her feet and plunged into the soil, anchoring her to the ground.

If Isabella had been able to see herself she would have realised that she was transforming into a Christmas tree. But she soon became blind as sheafs of pine needles pierced and popped her eyes, whose rheumy remains damped her cheeks in lieu of the terrified tears she’d had no time to shed.

Fortunately for Isabella, her brain – along with her other bodily organs – was very quickly discarded by the plant that was taking her place. Her form elongated to a proud 15 feet, healthy green branches exploded from her trunk, and in mere moments a glorious Douglas Fir stood where once the teenager had fretted.

What consciousness this new version of Isabella retained could perhaps be described as a low hum of generalised resentment, and an awareness of the clay content of the soil through which her roots splayed.

Isabella’s absence from the Christmas Eve party wasn’t noticed, and no alarm was raised until Christmas Day when Mr and Mrs Rayburn realised their daughter hadn’t come home. A search was instigated but yielded nothing but the discovery of one of Isabella’s mittens underneath the tree that had miraculously appeared in the middle of the school lawn in front of the Nativity tableau.

The amazement at the mysterious arrival of the tree eclipsed any concern over Isabella’s disappearance. Even Mr and Mrs Rayburn found their curiosity piqued to the extent that Isabella slipped from their minds when they stood before the noble pine, which had soon been decorated by the local kids with tinsel and baubles and a glittery star.

Some people thought Helga must be responsible. For the tree, obviously – not for poor vanished Isabella Rayburn, who had been a good girl all year.

❉  A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Nick Myles is a London-based writer and director. His stage plays have been produced at numerous London theatres, and at both the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals. He has also contributed to Big Finish’s range of Dark Shadows audio plays. Twitter: Nick Myles

Become a patron at Patreon!