Goodness knows what will happen if I don't get these groceries back soon…
Dreadful thoughts were whirling across young Sara Crewe's mind as she dashed across the London marketplace. The cold December morning was trying on her thin coat in the growing snowstorm that whipped her clothes around like ship sails in an ocean gale. She could hardly hear her own thoughts as storekeepers shouted their wares, and carriages rattled on the streets. Being a girl of ten years, Sara still struggled to carry the heavy basket filled with groceries back to Miss Minchin's School for Girls, where she attended to her education.
At least, up until a few years ago.
Sara didn't like to think back on such a terrible time as that. Rediscovering in her mind that her father was long gone, along with her family's money, only made the snowstorm that much more terrible, the crying of storekeepers ten times louder, and the basket of groceries like a heavy anvil that threatened to drag her down to the street.
Everything on the street was darkened by the winter snow and gray sky, save for the bright green wreaths that Sara noticed on the front doors of the buildings around her. Red ribbons tore through the dark woods like fire, and the green evergreens brought a trace of a spring forest.
A choir of beautiful voices caressed Sara's ears, and she found herself looking to the sky, dark, but still speckled with clouds as soft and light as angels' wings. Snowflakes fell into Sara's hair, melting on her rosy cheeks as she could imagine the angels flying above her, singing their beautiful songs of Christmas.
It was almost as if there was nothing but Christmas, and Sara could drop her things and stand there, listening to the music…
"Get out of the way!"
It took Sara longer than a moment to realize the command was directed at her, and she leapt out of the way.
But a tiny patch of ice found the sole of her shoe, causing her to back hard into the storefront of a fish merchant. A bucket of fresh fish was right behind her, some of the oil from the bucket spilling onto her coat sleeve.
"Watch where you're going!" the fishmonger growled at her.
Sara quickly tried to wipe away the oil, giving the beefy-looking man an apologetic smile, though it came out halfway. "Sorry, sir," she said humbly.
The fishmonger didn't give her a second glance before he went back to chopping at the fish, and Sara had to hurry on her way.
Amid the frantic beating of her heart, and the knot in her stomach, Sara could still hear the angelic choir from afar, just as the foreboding, grey-stone walls of Miss Minchin's School for Girls came into view. She paused before starting up the stairs, listening to the choir start to sing a whole new song.
Sara pulled in a breath, closing her eyes. The darkness of the school was dreadful, but the choir was filling Sara with a kind of new hope. She hadn't heard such beautiful sounds since the Christmas before. But since being a servant at Miss Minchin's all that year, it felt like a million years ago that she had graced the melodies of magic and hope.
Even when she pushed open the door, Sara hummed the melody of the song when she crossed the hall to the kitchen—low enough that when one of the students passed by her, they didn't give her another look.
The sky darkened with nightfall, the snowflakes floating against the streetlamps outside like little fairies. Sara watched them from the attic window, as some stragglers passed on the streets with filled baskets or silver canes in their hands. She sighed dreamily, and cracking the window a bit, she stretched her hand out. She caught some snowflakes on her palm, yanking her hand back in when an especially cold wind whipped at her skin. Sara counted the flakes that she had managed to keep on her palm, and she was surprised to find how long the flakes stayed on her skin without melting.
Well, the attic was rather cold, and especially in the winter…
Sara stepped back from the window, and instead sat on the floor, where she could watch the snow fly by like a storm of little lights. It was much more comfortable down there, though she wished that Becky, the other servant girl, could be up there with her, watching the snow; she would get such delight out of watching the flakes do a dance for them. Instead, Sara reached onto her bed beside her, and plucked a porcelain doll from her pillow. Sara smiled at her little friend—named Emily—and hugged her close.
"Oh," Sara sighed. "Wouldn't it be nice if you could come alive in front of me, Emily?" Sara's father always told her that dolls had that special power, that they came alive when no one was looking. But then, once a person came into their midst, they would return to their places faster than lightning, so that no one would discover their secret. It was indeed a secret that Sara wished she could have shared all these years, when she felt so alone at the school. And she especially wished she could share the magic of it with Becky.
Then, the door to the attic opened, and Sara jumped up, in case it would be Miss Minchin coming to give her another order.
Instead, she came across a girl just about her age, with tattered clothing hanging about her body, and soot tainted her cheeks.
"Becky!" Sara exclaimed. "Oh, Becky! Have you seen the snow?"
"Yes," Becky answered, sounding a little out of breath.
Sara took Becky's hand, and together they crossed to the window. She pointed to the flakes glowing in the streetlamps, and Becky smiled.
"Have you ever seen something so pretty before?" Sara remarked.
Becky shook her head. "I wish we could go outside and play in it," she said, before her face fell. "Oh. But we would probably get wet and cold in our coats. They're too thin for the snow."
"We could pretend to play in it," said Sara. "In here, the snow can be as thick or cold as we want."
"And it could look just like fairies, like it does out there."
Becky turned to Sara with a curious gaze. "Could there be pine trees in the snow? Like in the forest?"
"That's right," Sara said. "The trees will have branches as thick as our whole bodies. The needles can be green. Greener than the trees in spring."
Becky put her hand against the glass, but she started to shiver. "I know what my coat would be made of," she whispered.
"It would be a mink coat, white as the snow. With a pretty muff, just like a lady."
"Oh, mine would be mink too," Sara added. "And it would be flowing and beautiful, like a ball gown. And underneath, I would wear a dress of red silk, as beautiful as a real princess." She turned from the window, and twirled around. Her singed and careworn dress didn't twirl as much, but in Sara's mind, she looked like a little princess—a princess of the snow.
Becky smiled, and she started to twirl around after Sara, also picturing the beautiful things she would like to wear. "Oh, yes, Sara, I would also like a red dress to go with the coat!" she crowed.
"The world would be just like The Nutcracker," Sara suddenly exclaimed. "Everything would be covered in snow, and the snowflakes would actually be fairies. So would the flowers. And they would always do a special dance for us. And then, just beyond, there would be a giant castle, and an entire neighborhood, all made of candy."
"I sure wish," said Becky. "A neighborhood made of candy would be so wonderful." Slowly, her face turned into a confused frown, and she looked at Sara curiously. "Sara, what's The Nutcracker?"
Sara looked at Becky, shocked for a moment, until she realized what a glorious story she would have to tell Becky. Her eyes lit up, and she started for her bed, where Becky followed.
"It's a beautiful story, Becky," said Sara. "It's about this little girl, just like us, named Clara, who gets a special nutcracker from her strange old godfather as a Christmas gift. The nutcracker comes to life in the middle of the night, and he has to do battle with the ugly, greedy Mouse King. And then, Clara saves her nutcracker from the Mouse King by throwing her slipper at his face!"
"Just by throwing her slipper at him?" Becky asked, astounded.
"Yes," Sara said. "And then, by saving him from the Mouse King, he is transformed back into the prince from a magical land, far away from Clara's house. He takes her there as a thank-you, and she meets all kinds of people who dance for her and the prince. There are snow fairies and flower fairies, and everything is made of candy."
"Goodness," Becky murmured. "That does sound beautiful."
"My father told me that story every Christmas," Sara noted. "I think I still dream of getting my own special nutcracker, who will come alive and take me places."
"So do I, come to think of it," said Becky. "I'll bet the prince was very handsome."
"Yes, with bright blue eyes that twinkle just like stars. And hair that shines like gold."
"I hope he was strong."
"And dressed in red and gold and white."
Long into the night, the girls talked, as the snow fell harder and deeper around their little attic room. It was starting to pile in great bunches around the sills, high enough to start hiding the world from view. But finally, even as the snow continued to cover the window, the girls had to give in to their yawns, and decided that it was time to go to sleep. Sara and Becky slipped into their nightgowns, and pulled their blankets over their heads, while outside, windows and doors were closing against the cold night, awaiting the following day—Christmas Eve.
Sara and Becky were up the following day, doing any extra chores to clean the school for the holiday. Some of the girls had gone home to visit their families, while others were staying for some holiday celebrations that Miss Minchin had planned. Of course, how and why Miss Minchin, of all people, would plan such things for the girls, Sara nor Becky could guess. But the two servant girls had other things on their minds.
Shortly before they had turned in for the night, Sara had told Becky of some special plan she had. Since there was no way Miss Minchin would allow for them to join the celebrations, they would just have their own Christmas party in the attic. They would tell stories, make up their own Christmas lands, and imagine what sorts of things Santa might make for them. Sara even volunteered to bring up some extra candles from the kitchen so they could make the room look pretty for the occasion. And Becky would go into the cellar and fetch some old Christmas decorations for them to use on just that night.
The day passed slowly for both the girls, because neither of them could wait to put together their room for their little party. Still, they did their work diligently and carefully, so that Miss Minchin wouldn't ask for them to do anything more. Sara even hummed a few Christmas songs that she remembered the choir singing in the street the other day, keeping a smile on her face when Miss Minchin wasn't in the same room as her. She hummed a little louder when she straightened the decorations on the stairwell, knowing that soon enough she would be helping to make the attic look half this pretty, right alongside Becky.
So then, later that afternoon, right before Miss Minchin was due to take the students to Christmas Eve Mass, Sara and Becky got what they needed for their celebration, and got to work. They hung some old garlands across their wall, and placed an old wreath right over their giant window, like the crowning jewel to the snow that was falling outside. They even had a couple of ornaments that, while a little dusty and sustaining a crack or two, were still good enough to hang on the garlands.
"The only thing we are missing is a Christmas tree," Sara observed.
"I think the room looks lovely just the way it is, Sara," said Becky.
"Yes, I know," said Sara. "Just imagine if we had a giant Christmas tree—one the size of the dining hall downstairs. One with lots of pretty tinsel and presents underneath."
"Well, that would be very pretty," Becky agreed. "But I think the room looks very, very beautiful. Much more than usually, that's for sure."
"And, since Miss Minchin won't be needing us for much of anything after dinner, we can come up here and celebrate together as long as we like," Sara said happily.
"I cannot wait, Sara!" agreed Becky.
With that, Sara picked up the blanket from her bed, and started for the window. The snow falling looked even prettier than it did the other night, and at this moment, the sounds of Christmas carolers and choirs could be heard from all over. Sara cracked the window open in the slightest so as to amplify the wonderful sounds.
Becky came and leaned against the window dreamily, while Sara started to sing along. Then, when the carolers had come to a loud and joyful song, Sara broke away from the window, and started to dance. She tied her blanket around her waist, like a skirt, and twirled it around her legs while doing a happy little dance to the song. Becky was too mesmerized by the music and the snow to dance, but she had to smile at Sara's enthusiasm for Christmas.
"You could be like one of the fairies from the nutcracker story," Becky remarked.
"We both could," said Sara, doing a particularly fast turn towards the wall. But in the speed she was going, she had a hard time stopping herself.
"Sara, look out!" Becky cried, before Sara ended up crashing into the wall where some of the garlands were hanging. She slammed her hands against the wall to stop her fall, but something caught Sara's eye below where she stood.
Propped against the wall was a large box. Nothing fancy or flashy—just a plain wooden box with a little note stuck to the lid.
"Becky, come look at this," said Sara, as she reached down to pick up the note. It was a light piece of paper, folded in half, but written in gorgeous calligraphy:
"Inside this box is a special little Christmas gift for both of you. It is with great hope that you come to love these toys as much as any child with the heart and imagination that you both have. Keep them close to you when you go to sleep tonight, and they are sure to bring you pleasant dreams.
Merry Christmas to you both!"
Sara was spellbound all while she read the letter, finding excitement growing in her stomach, although she had no idea who could have written this note to her and Becky. Carefully, she put the letter between two of her fingers, and then reached to open the box.
With Becky looking over her shoulder, Sara's eyes widened so that they could have popped out of her skull. Becky put a hand over her mouth, pulling in such a breath that she had to bend closer to the floor to keep from fainting.
Inside the box, lay two nutcrackers. They were both about as tall as a dinner table candlestick, with a full, round build. Each had the same painted face, with bright blue eyes, rosy cheeks, and a mustache, but their costumes were different. One of them had a regal-looking suit with a red tunic, and a white-and-gold sash going diagonally across his body. The other had the same costume design, but with green, instead of red. They both wore polished black boots, carried a sword, had a flowing silk cape, and wore a high hat with a golden plume.
Sara and Becky picked up the nutcrackers from the box, staring at the wooden soldiers with such wonder, one would think that the nutcrackers were already alive. Neither of them hesitated to hug the nutcrackers to their chests, not believing that such a gift had fallen into their hands.
"I wish we knew where these nutcrackers came from," said Sara, as she held out her nutcracker—the one with the red suit—to gaze at him. "They're both so wonderful."
"Do you think Santa Clause came early? Just for us?" Becky wondered aloud.
Sara shook her head, not sure what to think. This event was just so extraordinary, that it felt like it was beyond even her own comprehension. Who could have given such a gift to her and Becky, and just when she had wished for a nutcracker of her own? In spite of her curiosity, Sara's heart was glowing. This nutcracker was the most handsome thing she had ever seen, and his eyes were sparkling so that she thought they were looking right into her heart. Under the garlands, it seemed like he was a Christmas gift meant for her.
"I don't know, Becky," Sara answered her friend simply. "But, you know, maybe these nutcrackers were made just for us. Look at the letter." Sara handed Becky the letter, all without looking away from the nutcracker. And in that moment, it struck Sara that perhaps, because of these nutcrackers, something magical might just happen. Tonight was Christmas Eve, the night where most magical things usually took place. The letter brought the idea of pleasant dreams, as long as the nutcrackers were under the girls' arms. What else could they do, but see what the future would bring?
Sara stood up, clutching her nutcracker close to her chest, just as she would Emily. "I think we should do what the letter told us," she said to Becky. "Let's sleep with the nutcrackers close to us, and maybe they will help us to have good dreams before Christmas."
Becky looked between Sara and her own nutcracker, before she also smiled. But then, she started to frown. "But we'll have to attend to dinner first."
"That's all right, Becky," said Sara. "These nutcrackers will wait for us."
The Christmas feast went by just as slowly as the rest of the day. The girls tried to avoid eye contact with Miss Minchin, so as not to easily give away their secret, and when no one was paying attention, they smiled. Everything looked so fresh and inviting on this Christmas Eve night, but the girls knew that their imaginations could provide feasts a thousand times greater. And throughout the whole thing, Sara couldn't stop thinking about her special nutcracker. In a way, she felt just like Clara from the story, especially because she felt like there was something magical about the wooden soldiers. She wondered what perhaps her nutcracker would look like if he were human, and when she looked over to Becky, she could see the same thoughtful look about her face.
The moment the girls were dismissed from the feast, Sara and Becky rushed back up to the attic, though careful not to give away their excitement through their rapid footsteps. They closed the door behind them, barricading it slightly, since they couldn't lock it without the key that Miss Minchin carried. And then, they began to celebrate.
Sara and Becky lit the spare candles that Sara had brought up, so that the entire room was brightened by candlelight. They listened further to the songs of the choirs and carolers, tying their bed sheets around their waists like ball gowns, and they danced together. They even picked up their nutcrackers, and used them like partners. In fits of giggles, the girls whispered about which traits they hoped their nutcracker's human forms to have, dancing with their nutcrackers between conversations. And when the carolers had stopped singing for a moment or two, the girls made their own music by singing in gentle voices, and humming sweetly to their nutcrackers.
The room grew darker as the snow piled up outside on the window. And gradually, the singer' voices started vanishing altogether. Since there was no clock in the room, the girls couldn't tell what hour it was, when finally, everything was quiet—no carriages or wagons on the street, no voices singing praises to Christmas—nothing except for the snow blowing against the window. It started to blow hard enough that the window rattled, creaking whenever the wind pushed more snow on the glass.
But by the time the window latch was in danger of blowing open altogether, Sara and Becky were both on the floor, their nutcrackers cuddled delicately under their arms. The candles still glimmered around them, bringing a warm glow to their peaceful faces. However still, the snow was piled against the window so that if they stood on their tiptoes, they would barely see through it. The wind was starting to gather against the snow drift…
A creaking sound awakened Sara, as suddenly, a cold draft snapped her senses awake. She blinked a few times, as she adjusted to the darkness. But it took her more than a moment to realize that something was missing from her arms.
Sara snapped herself upright, looking quickly about the room for her nutcracker. The room was now dark, as a breeze from the open window had blown all the candles out. Snow still covered the window, so Sara couldn't see far past her nose.
"Becky? Where are you?" she asked.
Sara heard a slow stirring from beside her, as Becky started to rise. "What? Sara, is that you?"
But suddenly something else had caught Sara's attention. The window had blown ajar a little more, and just seconds ago, over the railing of the balcony beyond their window, she saw a sweeping piece of fabric—like that of a cloak or cape—disappear over the edge.
"No! Wait!" Sara bolted from her spot on the floor, threw open the window, and looked down over the railing. She couldn't see anyone in a cape vanishing down either side of the street, and the night was as quiet as before.
Sara looked back and forth once again, before she spotted Becky rising from the floor, looking just as shocked as Sara.
"Sara, what happened?" Becky wanted to know.
"Our nutcrackers are gone," Sara explained. "And I swore I just saw something—someone—disappear over the railing."
"Are you sure?" asked Becky.
"Of course, Becky," Sara answered. "But I don't know what's happened to our nutcrackers." She let her hands run along the railing in thought, until she felt something soft and warm almost caress her fingers.
"What's this?" Sara turned, and saw, tucked over the edge of the railing, a pair of coats, as well as two silken red dresses. Both coats were made of white mink, long and flowing enough that they trailed in the wind. Sara pulled one of the coats off the railing, and held it against herself. It appeared to be just right for her height, so she started to put it on. It even came with a fluffy white muff to match.
"Sara, are you sure those are ours?" Becky asked, looking uncertainly at the clothes on the railing.
"Becky…" Sara started to say, as she buttoned up the coat, and twirled around. "This coat is just what I've imagined—it's white mink, and it's like a ball gown. Look." Sara twirled again, and indeed, the coat moved about Sara's skinny form just like a gown. She looked the figure of a snow princess, as the coat almost sparkled in the snow.
Sara stopped, and handed the other coat and muff to Becky. "Here, put it on," she offered.
"But what will we do with these coats?" asked Becky.
The answer came when Sara stuck her hand in the pocket of her coat, and something came out in her hand. It was a delicate slip of paper, folded in half, looking just like the note that had been on top of the nutcrackers' box. Curious, Sara unfolded the paper, and read it.
"Indeed, on this wondrous Christmas Eve night, something magical has happened. Because of the magic of Christmas, and the love you have found for your nutcracker gifts, the two of them have come to life. And they intend to share their gifts of life on this special night with you both.
They began by leaving you both one coat and one dress for the occasion. Afterwards, you will find the transformed nutcrackers in the cotillion just a few blocks in the opposite direction of the marketplace. There, your special friends will have planned a celebration of Christmas that, they hope, you will not forget. For they have brought along some special friends of their own to share this holiday with you, who also look forward to meeting you.
An adventure awaits the both of you. And tonight is the night when wishes will come true all over.
Merry Christmas once more!"
That spellbinding feeling came over Sara once more as, a little absentmindedly, she handed Becky the letter to read. And to be honest, she felt a little torn. She was quite amazed that she and Becky were getting these letters, and that they were relaying such messages as the nutcrackers coming to life and that there really was a celebration waiting for them. Was it really happening, just for her and Becky? Was this a real Christmas miracle waiting to unfold right before them?
Becky looked as if she would faint again when she read the letter. "Oh, my," she half-whispered-half-squeaked. "This…this is incredible. Sara, do you believe it?"
Sara paused to answer, as she looked around the room, and finally, to the mink coats that she and Becky were wearing. And when she thought about it again, there was one answer that she herself could believe.
"I do," she said. "Becky, this could be exciting for us! These mink coats were a gift from whoever planned this Christmas party we have been invited to. They are the exact coats that we were imagining earlier. It really is like some Christmas magic has come down on the attic. On to us!"
"We are going, aren't we?" Becky wanted to clarify. "To this party?"
Sara smiled a knowing smile, tucking the letter back in her pocket. "If this is all magic, then they will send us back before anyone discovers we are gone. And besides, our nutcrackers are waiting for us. We can't disappoint them by sitting around here. So, come on, Becky."
Sara ran to a cracked mirror in the corner of the attic, running her fingers through her hair, tying it up partly in a ribbon. She dipped her fingers into the washbasin, and wiped her face clean of any soot or ash. Then she took one of the red silk dresses and started to get out of her nightgown behind a wall.
"But how are we going to get down without waking anyone?" Becky remarked, as she fetched boots for herself and Sara. "It's a long way down if we don't want to make the stairs squeak."
Once she was washed and dressed, Sara went back onto the railing, remembering the sweeping cloak disappearing over the side. And as she suspected, a rope had been tied to the railing, extending all the way down to the ground. When she held up the rope, Becky came out, and closed the window behind her.
Carefully, both girls climbed down the rope, landing carefully on the ground. The world seemed colder down below, but the mink coats helped keep it out just fine. And when the girls started down the street, they tucked themselves into their coats, not speaking a word. The streets were darkened and silent, no doubt in high anticipation of Christmas, but the only sound there were the crunching of Sara and Becky's boots through the snow, which still tumbled around the streetlamps in flurries.
And finally, after a few moments, they came to a building that faintly glowed from the inside—the only building that appeared to have any sign of life to it. Curious, Sara and Becky crunched up to the door, and knocked carefully. They were prepared to get away if this wasn't the right place, but something seemed all too coincidental to finding a house so lit up on a quiet street…
Before Sara or Becky could step away, a tall Indian man with a short black beard and a turban greeted the girls. He bowed his head, and smiled at both of them.
"Sara, Becky, we have been expecting you," he said in a gentle accent. "Welcome."
"Good evening, sir," Sara and Becky said with curtsies of their coats.
"I see you came well-prepared," said the man, gesturing to the girls' mink coats and red dresses.
"Yes, sir, we did," said Sara. "We were told this would be a very grand party."
"Indeed, Sara, indeed," the man said. "You may call me Ram Dass. Follow me into the grand ball room, where everyone will meet you."
Sara and Becky stepped in, and Ram Dass led the girls down from the foyer, to a pair of great doors. They had ornate designs etched into them, so that hardly an inch of it was blank wood. But Ram Dass didn't bask in their beauty as the girls did. Rather, he took hold of both handles, and pulled them both open.
If Sara and Becky thought that the doors were lovely, the ball room was a sight to behold. From all sides, the girls could see several faces turn and look at them. They were either sitting at tables covered with lace-laden tablecloths, or standing around a large dance floor. Everything was beautifully carved, with designs as ornate as the doors to the ballroom. And just as the girls had done in the attic, garlands and wreaths were glinting on every surface. And to top it all off, a great Christmas tree was standing as tall as the ceiling.
Sara and Becky had to stop and stare for a while, just not believing what they saw. All of this…was it really for them?
"Is this all for us?" Sara found herself wondering aloud.
"Well, for you both, and the one night that your nutcrackers will have as real people," Ram Dass explained. "We are all gathered to celebrate this night of magic, and it is appreciated that you girls can be here to celebrate it with us."
Sara smiled up at Ram Dass. "Thank you, Ram Dass, sir," she said. "We are glad for all this. Really we are."
Ram Dass chuckled. "I am not the only one to thank. Your special friends are waiting in the center of the dance floor for you to meet them."
Sara and Becky followed Ram Dass's gesture to the dance floor, where, sure enough, two young men no older than seventeen in regal suits stepped up. Both of the girls were star-struck by what they saw, for both the young men were dressed in the same suits as their nutcrackers.
"Granted one night of life by the magic of Christmas, and the love you two shared for them, they intend to share this night with you," said Ram Dass.
Sara couldn't help but stare and smile at the same time, taking in the sight of the young man in the red-white-and-gold suit. She felt she must have been staring at a dream, for this person was just as she had pictured—a tall stature, a smile that made her shiver a little nervously, and brown-gold hair that shone just like the tinsel on the Christmas tree behind him. She couldn't see the color of his eyes from afar, but she imagined they were as beautiful as the nutcracker that she had seen before.
Slowly, Sara started to walk towards the young man, just as he did to her. His crimson, silken cape was flapping behind him, and he carried a scabbard on his belt, with a sword inside. She felt amazed, being in the presence of such a wondrous-looking person. And even now, she couldn't believe what was happening, that all this had in fact been meant for her and Becky.
"I wonder what his name is," Sara said to herself, nervously starting to unbutton her coat. "Oh, well, whatever it is, it's the most wonderful name in the world."
At last, Sara and her nutcracker stood right before each other. Sara bowed her head a little, and curtsied in her coat. Her nutcracker bowed, and from that position, he looked at Sara, who was hiding a nervous smile behind her falling hair.
"There now, don't be afraid, Sara," he said gently. He reached out a hand, and tilted Sara's chin so she could look at him. "I know you're a little nervous. I am too."
"I just had no idea I would be meeting you," said Sara quietly.
"Neither did I," he said, "but it is an honor to be doing just that."
"What is your name?" Sara wanted to know.
"My name is Ryan," he answered.
Sara curtsied again. "I'm glad to meet you, Ryan," she said.
"The pleasure is all mine," Ryan answered. "Now then, little Sara, would you do me the honor of this first dance?"
Sara, though still a little shaky about all this, gladly agreed to Ryan's offer. And he took her hand, leading onto the dance floor. Some music started to play, and Ryan's first steps led Sara into a dance that prompted everyone else to join them.
Throughout the whole dance, Sara found herself getting a little dizzy, but Ryan was gentle. He scooped her up at times, and then brought her down as gently as an infant. He would give her a few seconds before he started to twirl her again. Sara barely had time to notice how lovely her coat and dress looked as they fanned out, but to dance in the confines of Ryan's strong arms made up for it.
"You're doing wonderfully, Sara," Ryan told her.
Sara only replied with a smile, for she was more than happy to be here with her nutcracker. She was having more fun than she imagined she could in a long time, not since the holidays she spent with her father.
As Sara and Ryan were twirling around, Sara saw several faces around her. From afar, she could see Becky with her own nutcracker—a strapping young fellow in a green-gold-and-white suit, whom Sara later learned was named Wesley. Everyone else was in fine dress, like they had walked out of a fairy tale, with joyous expressions on all their faces.
"This is all so amazing, Ryan," Sara said to her nutcracker.
"I think so too," he said. "It feels good to be alive, and be celebrating Christmas here."
Sara grinned sweetly. "It's wonderful to be having such a great time again. It's…it's…magical."
Ryan nodded as he pushed Sara out for another twirl, and Sara had to laugh a little, because this time, Sara accidentally came twirling back into him, as if she wanted to give Ryan a hug. But in spite of the clumsy moment, Ryan patted Sara on the back, and helped her to resume the dance.
After a while, Sara's feet started to tire, and Ryan took her off the dance floor. They were soon followed by Becky and Wesley.
"Would you like something to eat or drink?" Ryan asked while they walked. "There's an extra-long table filled with holiday treats over here."
"Sounds perfect to me," said Sara, eyeing some of the items on the table: chocolate custard, frosted holiday cookies, cheesecakes, muffins of all kinds, slices of steaming pie, plates of candy bits, marshmallow snowmen, and large bowls of punch and apple cider. She started for the first thing she saw, too hungry to truly care what it was. But it was so delicious that she found she had to go for a second muffin, as well as another bowl of custard. It was glorious—far beyond anything she had ever had in her life. Her other friends gladly joined her, while the music helped to continue the festive mood.
"If this is a dream," said Becky through a little mouthful of cookie, "then I hope I never wake up."
"This is not a dream, Becky," Wesley said to her.
"It certainly feels like one," Sara had to agree. "Everything just seems too good to be true."
"I think it only feels that way because it has been so long since you last went to a celebration like this," Ryan reminded her. "I know it's been like that for me. So Ram Dass and Wesley and I wanted to make this night special for everyone, but especially for you both. We understand that life has been less than perfect over at Miss Minchin's, so being as it's Christmas, we—Wesley and I—were granted a night as humans, and we came together with Ram Dass to make the most wonderful Christmas that London has ever known."
Sara swallowed her last bite of cake, and gave Ryan her fondest smile. "Thank you," she said simply. "Thank you very much, for everything that you have done."
Ryan returned the gesture. "You are very welcome, Sara."
Then, Becky, who had stolen a glance at the Christmas tree, spoke up. "Look," she said. "Everyone is starting to dance around the tree."
And indeed. The music had changed to a joyful song that even those standing still were tapping their feet to, and all the dancers were forming a circle around the tree, dancing and singing together.
"May we dance then?" Sara prompted.
"Absolutely," said Ryan with a courtly bow, and he started to lead the group over to the tree, where Ram Dass and another dancer gladly made room for them. The music started out slowly, as the group was getting used to dancing in a large circle, skipping in either direction. Then, when the music got loud and fun, Sara and Becky both had to laugh when the circle was moving quicker and quicker around the tree. Everyone's jolly voices were singing along, but the girls had fun skipping around the tree, admiring its beauty. It was beyond even anything Sara had ever seen, and she enjoyed scoping out the ornaments that she passed, until at last, the circle gave way, and everyone tumbled backwards. They all got to their feet again, emitting fits of laughter that made Sara and Becky laugh, for the first time in awhile, from the bottoms of their stomachs. Not even Sara's last birthday party held a candle to this fun.
Sara and Becky were led back towards the treat table, where at least they could sit down on the tables. They were joined by their nutcracker friends, where they shoved out the last of their laughter, and took a chance for breath.
After a while, Sara suddenly felt a yawn rising in her throat, but she didn't want to show it, for she didn't want to have to leave. But in spite of her best efforts, it came out anyway.
"Tired?" Ryan guessed.
"A little, I guess," Sara admitted. "But I'm not ready to leave. I don't think I'll ever want to leave this place."
"Me neither," said Becky.
"I don't think anyone would want to," Ryan agreed, starting to sound a little somber. "But that is what is sad about the end of this night. Eventually, Wesley and I will need to transform back into our nutcracker forms, just as you will need to return to Miss Minchin's."
"Well, I suppose we can at least return together," said Sara.
Ryan smiled, and so did Becky and Wesley.
"How nice it would be if only we could have a party like this each and every year," Becky added, her eyes sparkling with glee.
"That would be left up to ourselves and Ram Dass," Wesley told her. "But I would believe we have a good sporting chance of making such a wish come true."
"I was wondering," Sara spoke up. "Was it really only the magic of Christmas, and because Becky and I came to love you both as nutcrackers, that you are alive now?"
"You would be right on that part," Ryan said. "Ram Dass helped us come alive too, for you see, he is somewhat of a magician himself. He understands the magic of love and imagination in children, and so he helped to bring us into your hands, and then, because of the things you mentioned, Sara, the magic took place, and here we are."
"And it takes a pair of very special girls for such things to happen," Wesley added.
Sara looked back to the dance floor. She felt utterly overwhelmed by everything that had happened tonight—all the wonderful things that she and Becky were experiencing. That was why, for just a few moments, she wanted to stand still, and take in the beautiful ballroom, and all the laughter and magic that it was displaying.
At last, Ryan put his hand on Sara's shoulder, and led her away from the treat table, and to the Christmas tree, which, now that Sara stood so close to it and could stand still before it, was the largest that she ever could have imagined. The trunk looked to be as wide as her attic room, with rich green branches and multicolored ornaments on every bough. And on the very top, was a golden star, shining as brightly as Ryan's eyes, while he looked over the tree alongside Sara.
"It's quite the tree, isn't it?" he noted.
"Yes," Sara agreed, reaching out a hand to touch the bough nearest her. The pine needles were soft under her fingers, the lights making them twinkle merrily. "It's like something out of one of my dreams. You know, everything here feels like that."
"Because it feels so great to have it," Ryan said. "You know, I'll bet that is what Christmas is supposed to feel like, because there is no other time like it. It's literally when magic abounds and everything just feels so much bigger—grander—than before." Then Ryan released a deep sigh, and looked to the star on top of the tree. "It's just a shame that our celebration has to end tonight. So that is why, as a little gift from myself to you, you have permission to take an ornament from this tree."
Sara looked up at Ryan with surprise, and when he nodded his approval, she looked at all sides of the tree. She felt she could no sooner choose a favorite kind of snowflake, since the ornaments were all so unique and enchanting to look at. Sara had to move all the way around the tree twice, before one ornament fell upon her gaze.
Two dancers—a man in a flowing cape, and a lady in a ballet dress and slippers, poised together in a romantic pas de deux—were hung between two candles, making their place on the tree resemble a stage. They were made of tender porcelain, their features sharp, though there was no trace of color on their costumes. Even so, it was difficult for Sara to take her eyes away from the two figures.
She plucked the ornament from the tree, and held it in her hands as tenderly as she might hold a baby's hand. And with a turn of her heel, she returned to Ryan, who seemed as enchanted by the ornament as Sara was.
"Good choice," he told her, and Sara grinned wholeheartedly. She didn't let him know, but the dancing man's cape reminded her of the cape she had seen vanish over the railing after she awakened. It reminded her of Ryan.
But suddenly, Sara felt a rise in her heartbeat like she had never felt before. Holding the ornament, and being so close to Ryan in the magical glow of the Christmas tree, the moment felt too perfect, like everything else had been tonight. So she put her arm around Ryan's waist, pulling herself closer to him. He bent down, and put both his arms around Sara as well, while Sara gave him a little kiss on his cheek.
Ryan had to stand up, feeling the blush returning to his cheeks. He had to admit, he was a little embarrassed, but he enjoyed Sara's sweetness. She was the nicest little girl he had ever met, and he felt proud and good to be her nutcracker.
The candles' glow warmed both their faces, and Sara closed her eyes in light of such a feeling. And then, Sara's thoughts about another dance or sharing another cake with Ryan were forgotten, as she found her eyes starting to get heavier and heavier as moments passed.
Finally, Sara couldn't tell which way was up or down, as darkness covered her world. But she was starting to tell where she was, for she was covered by a blanket and the air was chilly. Something was tucked under her arm—something large and made of smooth wood. The room was silent—no dancing or singing or laughter.
The dark silence brought Sara out of her sleepy state. It terrified her for an instant to not hear the sounds of merrymaking, for she raised her head and glanced around. She could just make out the jagged, aged walls of the attic, with the giant window speckled with piles of snow. It was closed to the balcony outside, but some of the snow had fallen away from the glass, as if the window had been opened.
Sara's mind suddenly flashed back to everything that had happened that night—the nutcrackers, the mink coats and the red dresses on the railing, and then the party down at the cotillion with Ram Dass and Ryan and Wesley.
Sara bolted for the window, and flung it open, sending a flurry of snow into the attic. She looked out over the railing, but the rope that she and Becky had climbed down was gone. Footprints were scattered across the ground in the direction of the cotillion, and part of the railing where the mink coats had been was devoid of snow, as if something that indeed been placed there last night.
Sara retreated into the attic, and looked all around for the coats and dresses. She couldn't find them, not even the big wooden box the nutcrackers were found in. But finally, she returned to her bed, where she noticed her nutcracker tucked into her blanket. His strong, brave stare was gazing right into her, and Sara felt her heart start to flutter. She picked him up, and held him to her chest, but not before she noticed something lying next to her pillow: a porcelain man and woman dancing together with love in their eyes.
In that moment, Sara couldn't remember feeling happier than she did before gazing at both her nutcracker and the ornament. In the spell of joy, Sara smiled at her nutcracker, and planted a kiss on his cheek—the same cheek she had kissed before she had found her special ornament on the tree with him.
"Thank you, Ryan," she whispered to her precious nutcracker. "I love you. Oh, and…Merry Christmas!"