Wooden men and animals never seen on Earth, celestial ephemera, and shapes with meanings known only to their designers rose up from the salt and the dust in the false twilight of Annabelle's glow. The lighting would take place at midnight, at Charlie's signal. The littlest ones were excited, not least because it was the only time all year they could stay up so late.
Annabelle, the lesser, further, and dimmer of the two stars that lit our not-quite barren world was the reason we never had full night nine months of the year. Just a kind of persistent soft twilight bookended by the rise and fall of Agnes. Back when such things mattered, we found it romantic, Charlie and I. It still was. I held Charlie's gnarled hand in mine and we watched Andy's grandchildren shake with the eager anticipation of chasing devils.
Agnes was an angry bitch. She bore down on us during the long day with an intensity I was sure was meant to sterilize her child of the disease transmitted when our landers tumbled out of the sky and spilled their infectious contents in red smears and purple bruises across the sand.
Our landing was a barely mitigated disaster. I was seventeen and had gotten pregnant on the ship. Far from a scandal, it was celebrated. I wasn't the only, and not the first, but Andy was the first born on new ground, almost before we'd reached it. It had been a close thing. I was bleeding from the head and seeing double. I saw two of the column of smoke rising from our companion lander, and two of the lumpy, red-stained sheet that covered the mangled body of Andy's father. Through my delirium and grief, I don't remember Andy's birth, nor him first being brought to my breast.
Others were much worse off. It was a long time ago, a time of pain that was gone but never forgotten. We'd made it, so far, and we've made it so far.
There are no pine trees on this world, no Christmas trees, but we make do. We tried planting them, but they never took, not without more soil amendment than we could afford to take from the meager stores we'd been left with.
There is no holly, no poinsettias, no amaryllis. There is mistletoe. Plenty of mistletoe. It's a parasite and it took to this world even better than we did. The things that pass for birds here love it and shit the seeds everywhere, on everything. I have no idea why the planners thought we needed to bring it, but if we don't make it, it will be mistletoe that is the lasting legacy of our attempt, the only living foreign visitors left for future discoverers to notice.
The devils danced among us. Charlie and I sat propped on a blanket in the center of a vast circle, which itself was in the center of an even vaster plain. I nodded to the couple chosen this year to be the signal bearers and put the sulfured paper stick in Charlie's hand. Charlie was too enfeebled to send the signal himself, but he would be seen to be the initiator of it, as tradition demanded. I lit the stick in the little token fire that had been made for us, and heard silence spread out from us in waves as the entire village noticed, one by one.
The couple approached carrying their own sparklers. I helped Charlie birth new fire from his and watched the couple head out with it among the devils, searching one out to carry the signal. Charlie broke the silence, croaking out the traditional starting call, "All a good night!". His voice was too weak to be heard by the furthest of the celebrants, those standing ready to put the torch to their own creations, but the word went round and the silence turned to expectant murmurs.
Dust devils occur when hard packed ground baked by the sun heats the air just above it. That air is trapped by a heavy wall of relatively cool air above. Any crack in that wall, and the hot air rushes up in an inverted tornado, like water swirling into the drain of an upside down bathtub.
Here, the cracks appeared only after Agnes set. It was an unusual phenomenon, created by, our best minds guessed, the particulars of air currents over Zebediah, the high, steep range to our southwest, whose base our growing village was neatly tucked against.
One thing that people who remain on Earth don't think of about settling a new planet is the need for a whole new calendar, whole new clocks. Debate over it raged on the ship, to pass the relentless years and because everybody knows that time is the ultimate master. We wanted to elect one we could live with, could live under.
Some wanted to mark Landing Day as the new year. Some wanted to shoehorn a resemblance of Earth's months and hours into wholly different cycles of night and day and axial tilt. Some wanted to ignore both and simply import ship's time whole and unmodified into new ground and new stars, never mind that Einstein told us that non-simultaneity was the law of the universe and ship's time bore even less relation to Earth time than a stopped clock would.
The end result of the compromise was that the month we still called December was the hottest month of the year. Some suspected a cruel joke by Australians in the party, but more likely it was the kind of compromise humans are all too fond of, the kind that left everyone maximally unhappy. Still, it fit. Agnes made our land all but uninhabitable in the summer days. The only thing for it was to batten down, to tuck into cellars and ride it out, and to get needful chores done when only Annabelle ruled the sky. It was, for us, what the looming dark of winter was for those who had originated the old traditions of light and sleighs and bells.
Salt was the perfect medium for capturing Agnes's wrath, holding it till she was gone and letting it seep out under Annabelle's watch to fall up through the cracks. In summer, the devils wandered across the great flat to our east, just beyond the reach of Zeb's protective shade.
It is our version of a not-so-wintry wonderland each December. For weeks, wood and straw are gathered and carted out by night, to be piled into large heaps forming a wide circle. We have plenty of time; it's too hot to plant or to build, and too late to recover anything not harvested a month ago. The most vigorous of our generations, the children of Andy's generation, those just starting farms and families of their own, had, of late, taken on a new idea of sculpting their piles of twigs and branches and logs into fantastical statuary riddled with voids designed to feed the flames to come.
I watched the young couple venture out among the wraiths swirling around us. Science attributed their faint blue-white glow to static charge released by friction in the dust's violent lashing. Legend said it was lost spirits trapped in the vortex, held by spawn of the eternal battle between Earth and Sun, between Zeb and Agnes.
I could only see the couple as shadows among shadows. It was easier to follow the disembodied light from their sparklers, darting here and there in pursuit, sometimes separating, sometimes converging as they sought to surround one of the capricious imps.
There! They caught one. They released their bundles and a shower of sparks rose to the sky like a swarm of brilliant fireflies. The plain erupted in cheers, the perimeter of our festival erupted in flame, and the children squealed in delight.
Wine flowed. Young couples retreated to the shadows, to celebrate, in the ancient ways, their love and the hope of generations to come. Families gathered around their fires or visited the fires of good friends, waiting for the devil to come, be consumed, and bless their house with a year of good fortune.
The children joined the chase, flitting here and about after one ethereal column of dust and static glow or another. When caught, the children threw sparklers, confetti, leaves, or more dust into them, whatever was at hand.
They hoped to guide the devils' random motion toward the flames. I watched one scattering of children, their faces indistinguishable, mere silhouettes against the surrounding walls of fire. They came together to surround a devil, to usher it with their offerings toward the perimeter. There was no escape for the devil. It was surrounded by joyous, devious children.
I watched them toy with it, sending up the symbols of the season. Our season, a season we brought from earth and made our own, made fit for our world. They worked together, children of different families united to a common task. These are children wholly of us, ancient Earth forgotten, never known in their minds.
They believed that their coaxing would turn the random motion of the dust devil -- in reality guided only by the caprice of atmosphere and fine gradations of heat -- toward the fortune of their families and their friends.
They've done it! A flaming, writhing whirlwind shot toward heaven when the first of hopefully many devils thrashed desperately as it was exorcised and forced to release its trapped spirit. The victorious children came running to Charlie and me. I gathered an armload of trinkets wrapped in bright, festive paper from the wagon as they approached.
"Grandpa! Grandma!" a young one cried, the apparent leader of the ad-hoc troupe that had won the first battle. "We caught one! We pushed it into Danny's fire!" Charlie was 'grandpa' to everyone here, young and old. Everyone but me. To me, he was husband, and father of five of our six children.
"I saw it." Charlie promised them, a little white lie. I helped Charlie hand one present out to each child. As quickly as they'd come, they were gone, off again on a new chase, torn between showing off the prize they'd won and finding a devil to throw the wrappings and ribbons into.
I leaned closer against Charlie and squeezed his hand. He squeezed back, weakly, but he did. He looked at me with his rheumy, half-blind eyes, still twinkling in the firelight after all these years, and I saw memories in them. Not just our world, but of Earth as well.
We came here as young adults, too late to be children chasing devils, but we had our memories. We had loved, we had laughed, and we had seen our colony grow from hanging on by a fingernail to establishing itself firmly in the earth, the soil of Zeb.
We'd watched our children, our children's children, and their children's children work the soil and slowly, little by little, evolve a yearly celebration to mark the passing, finally, of the longest day of the year. On this day, Agnes once again reached her high water mark in the noon sky, the apex of her struggle against Zeb to eradicate us. It marked the beginning of her slow retreat to gather her forces and leave us a respite in which to gather ours.
Pillars of flame shot to the sky as one chase after another caught its prey. Children scampered and laughed and battled and came to Grandpa for presents. Gatherings both rowdy and bawdy celebrated the night. Lovers entwined and dreamed of future families. Charlie and I held each other, all those things long past for us, but carried on in our children.
It wasn't yet a sure thing, but it looked like we might be battling mistletoe and other devils for a long time to come. I kissed Charlie despite being under nothing but stars, and he spoke to me before dropping his head and beginning to snore.
"I wish it would snow, just one goddamn time", he said.