One day near Advent, Father said, "Don't be frightened now, but the penumbra period begins today."

"What period?" Lydia asked, frightened. "The penumbra. The Gregorian penumbra," Father said. "We must be careful.

We're living in dangerous times."

"Dangerous, how?" his daughter asked anxiously.

"Dangerous in all respects," Father said bleakly. "The most critical point is the winter solstice."

"What happens then?" Lydia asked, her heart in her throat. "Besides the longest night," she remembered.

"Anything at all can happen then," Father said, still more gloomily. "And will happen. The penumbra period lasts from the beginning of December to the end of January. It reaches its climax precisely at the winter solstice. During the penumbra period anything can happen: strange coincidences, seizures, people going mad, disappearances, muggings, disappointments, strains, slips and sprains, shipwrecks, assassination attempts, avalanches, spontaneous forest fires, tornadoes, meteors colliding with Earth, deluges, just about anything imaginable. And even unimaginable."

Lydia tried to imagine how a thing could be unimaginable. She couldn't think of any such thing.

"Did you listen to the Prophet?" Lydia asked. "Or did you learn this from Cyrus Teed?"

"What Prophet? No, I read it in a book, the title of which is How to Guard Against Everything," Father said. "A long time ago. But I didn't want to worry you earlier. Now you're old enough to worry."

Lydia herself wasn't sure of that. "Is there a penumbra every year?" Lydia asked.

"I guess so," Father said. "Every Year of Our Lord."

"But I don't remember that last year at this time anything really terrible happened," his daughter said. "Not the year before either. Even though naturally Christmas came, and you've said that Christmas is an awful time."

"Christmas doesn't count. It's a matter of something even worse," Father said. "We were just lucky. It can't last forever. Now don't be scared, but it can't. Best to guard against it."

"It's been raining for three hours already," Lydia mused. "Maybe it will never stop raining. The water will start to rise, and the streets will become rivers and the marketplaces lakes, and houses will start to sail away in all directions."

"Everything is possible," her father said and looked downright contented.

"It's a good thing we went to the store only yesterday," Lydia said.

Actually she had stopped worrying altogether. In the attic were an air mattress and swimming tubes and flippers. She began to be interested in the penumbra's possibilities.

On the other hand, she was somewhat doubtful. Lydia wasn't familiar with the calculation of probability or the compilation of accident statistics, but she guessed that if catastrophes were to happen, they could just as well happen before or after the penumbra.

"The Pinatubo volcano erupted in February. Someone stole all the geraniums from the florist shop last May," Lydia said. "And my classmate's dog ran away in March. But it came back in December, just during the time of the penumbra."

"What's that supposed to prove?" her father asked.

"About as much as your book," Lydia said pertly.

But it was still raining. It rained December's icy drizzle, but in Lydia's mind it was a downpour. Small, cold ponds appeared in the yard. Little by little they began to run together. Perhaps the rain had decided to fall for the entire time of the penumbra. Every few minutes Lydia peered out the window to see how fast the water was rising. Father turned on the radio to hear the news.

"Are they talking about disasters?" Lydia asked.

"All kinds," Father said.

"But they talk about them at other times and not just during the penumbra," Lydia remembered. She listened, but she heard not a word about deluges. Anyway, just to be on the safe side, she went to pump up the air mattress.

It was heavy going. Lydia pumped and pumped, and the mattress filled up painfully slowly. Maybe moths had eaten holes in it. Just as she had the mattress nearly full, she noticed something. The winter sun was gleaming in the window and in the puddles in the yard. The weather was clear. A half-frozen raindrop hung from a branch of the maple tree.

The radio was still on, and from it came a song which Mother had sometimes sung:

"O Fortuna, velut luna, statu variabilis!"

That means: "Oh Fortune, like the moon, ever-changing!"

© Leena Krohn