I tend to get blank looks when I tell people I’m into fairy tales. “Mmm,” they say, nod and smile slightly, then quickly move on to another topic. I can imagine what’s going on behind those humour-the-weird-person smiles: “Fairy tales,” they think. “Princesses singing in meadows, princes riding to the rescue, kissy-kiss, Happily Ever After. Ugh, kiddie stuff. Why would anyone bother?”
Oh, but you’ve got it wrong, people. So very wrong.
Mind you, I don’t blame you. The average English-speaking person’s exposure to fairy tales is extremely limited, to maybe a dozen commonly known stories – and that’s being generous: “Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Snow White”, “The Frog Prince”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Rapunzel”, “Aladdin”. Any others I’ve forgotten? Okay, maybe “The Little Mermaid” and “The Snow Queen”, but, actually, I’d almost be willing to lay you a bet that you don’t really know those stories at all. You probably know the Disney version, which has a different ending from the original Andersen tale, or rather, in the case of “The Snow Queen”, has nothing whatsoever to do with the original (beyond there being snow and a queen).
But laying aside the fact that even in those tales, the “heroic prince rescues passive princess” trope only appears in the Disney version, and with many of them not even there (Cinderella’s prince, for example, is purely decorative), the idea that “fairy tales” equate to “a few simple tales for children” is simply wrong.
For starters, numbers. The Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales alone comprises 200 tales (Yes. Two Hundred.), and that’s only the best known collection of German stories. It doesn’t even begin to cover collections like “The Arabian Nights“, Perrault, Afanasyev, Andersen, or any of a myriad of canons of folktales and literary fairy tales.
And then, there is the content. Take another look at the title of this post. No, that is not a typo; I didn’t forget to put a second s on “princes”. Even in the very small selection of the aforementioned fairy tales, there is only one tale in which you could say that a prince rescues a princess, and that’s “Sleeping Beauty” – and even here, “rescue” is a doubtful term. Again, please forget Disney for a moment (good ol’ Walt has a few things to answer for); in the written version, all the prince does is show up in the right place at the right time, rather unheroically.
One story of a prince’s rescue attempt – but two of maidens rescuing princes from enchantments (“Beauty and the Beast” and “The Frog Prince”), with possibly a third one thrown in (“Rapunzel” – the prince loses his eyesight after the witch chucks him out of the tower, and Rapunzel cries on him, which cures it), and two more of girls triumphing against the odds and getting a trophy prince as their grand prize at the end (“Cinderella” and “Snow White”). But poor boys aren’t left out either – Jack climbs up the beanstalk and whups the giant’s butt; from what I remember, princesses aren’t really involved.
So, fairy tales are about princes being heroic? Not so much.
But one of the biggest reasons I’m so deeply fascinated with fairy tales, or let’s rather call them folktales for now, is their sheer complexity. Yes, on the surface they’re simple. They can be for children – hence the Grimms’ title Children’s– and Household Tales. “There was a girl who had a mean stepmom and stepsisters, and they bullied her and made her do all the work…” I mean, there’s even a Sesame Street version of this, with Elmo in the starring role. And it works! But if you read the story carefully, and start thinking about it, start imagining what it could have looked like, what the girl felt, why her father might have acted the way he did, how very plucky she was to do what she did – you could spend the rest of your life writing retellings of “Cinderella” alone. To add to the hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of “Cinderella” tales out there already.
As for rescuing princes, I was just re-reading the Grimms’ “The Twelve Brothers”, which is one of the “brothers turned into birds” tales (there are two others in Grimm, “The Six Swans” and “The Seven Ravens“). A king has twelve sons. He decides that if the thirteenth child is a girl, he’ll have the twelve boys killed so that the girl gets all the wealth. Mom warns them, they run away. Baby Sister grows up and goes to find her brothers; they get turned into ravens; she rescues them by being extremely heroic.
I mean, wow! What I’ve just given you is the Cliff’s Notes of Cliff’s Notes version, but of course the Grimms run into several pages, 1800 words worth – and that’s in the typical folktale style of telling a lot of the story in very bald language without going into much detail. But if you read the tale, and start to imagine “what really happened”, or rather “what could possibly have really been happening”, you’ve got the plot for several full-length novels. A psychopath father, obsessed with wealth, so elaborately planning the murder of his twelve sons he already has the coffins made up, complete with sawdust filling and little silk pillows… A mother who is being forced to hold the key to the chamber where those macabre caskets are lined up, waiting for her boys… Twelve young men, fleeing into the forest, vowing to kill the first woman they come across in revenge for what their father threatened to do to them because of a girl… And that’s only the first third of the story! Stephen King, move over; the Grimms had you beat 200 years ago.
And then of course the story goes on, about the sister’s heroism – seven years of silence, no talking, no laughing. It’s the latter that is nearly her undoing, because she is accused of being wicked; no good and true person would be so stern and serious. But what if this princess had a really strong sense of humour? What if she found practically everything funny – and had to supress her laughter? What if… It goes on and on.
Are you still surprised I’m so into these tales? Probably not – but then, you’ve known me for a while. And while you might have given me one of those blank looks when I first started going on about fairy tales, you’ve long been used to me by now. Or maybe, I’ve even infected you with my enthusiasm…
Why not? Spells have been broken before now. Princes have been rescued by princesses or merchants’ daughters; stable boys have defeated ogres and giants. Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away…
Life, the Universe, and Fairy Tales. They’re not as simple as you think.
The Twelve Days of Christmas:
A Christmastide Tale in Twelve Instalments. With Elves.
The Twelfth Day of Christmas
I sprang forward just as the hall door was beginning to close after the last elf had wafted through the opening. I got my foot in the crack, then pushed outward against the heavy steel panel. I was not letting them take Tom from me again. And if I could not free him, then they would have to keep me as well.
Leaving behind me the sound of the confused muttering of the miners waking from their trance, I stepped through the door. As I had half expected, I arrived not in the darkness of the back alley behind the hall, but in the brilliant sunshine of the fake elven spring. I rubbed my eyes, dazzled by the sudden change in light, and it took me a minute to realize where I was.
I stood among the trees at the edge of the supernaturally green meadow, looking at the gleaming white tent pavilion in the middle, where the elf lady sat enthroned on jewel-toned silk cushions. The elf lord stood beside her, and they gazed with disdain at Tom, who was being helplessly dragged towards them, then thrown on his knees before them.
“You think you can win your way back to your world by trickery?” the lady said, her voice like ice shards. “Do not fool yourself, mortal!”
I could barely stand to look at Tom. He knelt at the lady’s feet, his head bowed, his shoulders slumped. Defeated, he raised his hands, clutching at hers, begging for mercy. Silently. He would not speak—could not speak—please, Tom, do not speak!
“He is not worth your time,” the elf lord said contemptuously, clamping his hand on Tom’s shoulder and yanking him back from her. “Take him away. Guards!”
Immediately, a loud thrumming sound began in the forest behind me.
Tum-tu-rum, tum-tada-rum, tum-tum-tum…
In two rows, one from my right, one from my left, they stepped out from between the trees. Two lines of drummers, dressed in guards’ uniforms, like giant stereotypical nutcrackers. Rum-tada-tum, rum-ta-dum—step by step they advanced into the meadow, converging on where Tom was cowering before the icy elf woman.
I raised my phone, ready to shoot. This was it! One more picture, and we had them all.
But there, what was this? My eye scanned down the line of the red-coated nutcracker elves. Two, four, six—wait! Eight, ten. They had done it again. There were only ten.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a motion. A white figure sauntered out from the crowd milling about the meadow, the pinwheel pattern of the rivets on his Elvis suit sparkling. He carried his snare drum under his arm, and he wandered over, falling into step behind the last nutcracker, sleepily tapping on the drum head with his fingers.
Oh! Thank you, Elvis! Now there were … there still weren’t enough. There were only eleven.
In despair, I looked over at Tom. The elf lord had an iron hand on his shoulder, holding him down on his knees. There was no way Tom could pull off the same trick twice, and the elves knew it, too. A wickedly triumphant look travelled between the elf lord and the lady, and she looked down with a sneer at Tom.
That did it.
I was not going to let those bastards win. Twelve drummers we needed in the picture, and twelve drummers we were going to have.
Right at that moment, Elvis turned his head, and with eyes that were anything but sleepy looked straight at me.
But I didn’t need him to tell me.
In one motion, I jumped to my feet, whirled around with my back to the scene in the meadow, gave my phone a shake to switch the shooting mode to “selfie”, and with my flat hand started rhythmically thumping on my breastbone in time with the drumbeat of the nutcrackers. Just in case that wasn’t enough, I beatboxed for all I was worth, making popping, clicking and drum-rolling noises I’d had no idea were even possible to produce with my tongue and lips. Then I raised my phone up high, lining it up so all the drummers were in the shot, and pushed the button.
There was a shrill scream from the elf lady. I swung around. She staggered back from Tom; the elf lord snatched his hand from his shoulder and veered away. Both of them were shrinking, shrivelling into themselves—all the elves were. The perfect green meadow faded and darkened to a muddy brown, and a roaring sound came from the white silk pavilion, which slowly collapsed in on itself, turning grey and ragged.
Tom sprang to his feet and ran back to me.
“You did it!” he cried. “Come on, quick!”
He grabbed me by the hand, and together we rushed away from the disintegrating meadow.
I threw one more glance over my shoulder. Where the beautiful illusion had been was only mud and chaos; small splotches of light with Dr.-Seussian outlines flitted back and forth across it.
In the middle of it all, a white-suited figure stood, swinging his hips to a tune only he could hear, his gaze turned towards to an invisible, adoring audience. Then once again, he looked up and right at us, gave a farewell wave, then faded away and I could see him no more.
We ran up the hill and rushed through the door of the crumpling hay shed, ducking in a hair’s breadth before the lintel post came crashing down. It just clipped me on the shoulder as it fell.
And then we stood in Whitewell’s dairy barn, surrounded by the sweet smell of cattle and feed and the soft sound of cows rustling and breathing. Behind us was a solid wall, to our right and left a few empty stalls. One of the cows turned her head, looked at us over her black-and-white shoulder, and gave a deep “Mooooh!”
Tom jumped, stared at the cow for a second, then threw back his head and started laughing. He laughed and laughed until tears ran down his face.
I looked at him with a smile. “Care to tell me what’s so funny?” I said when he finally caught his breath.
“Oh,” he said, wiping the tears from his cheeks with the backs of his hand, “nothing much. Just the contrast from that—” he waved his hand in the direction of the barn’s back wall, “—to this.” He gestured at the cattle. “I’ve never been more glad to see a cow in my life!”
Abruptly he pulled me around to face him. “One more thing,” he said, “and I’m not waiting another minute with this.” He dropped to his knee in front of me and reached into his jeans pocket, still holding onto my other hand. “Mac, my darling, will you marry me?” In his fingers was the princess-cut diamond ring that I had last seen on the elf lady’s hand.
My jaw dropped. “Where—how…”
He grinned. “You’d be surprised what a bit of grovelling can do. Puts you right in front of a lady’s fingers. And if she’s a cheat who’s kidnapped you and tricked you into giving her a ring that was meant for someone altogether different, she deserves what she gets. So will you, my one and true love? You’ve brought them all to me: the partridge, the doves, the French hens…”
“… the calling birds, the gold rings, the geese,…”
“…the swans, the milking maids, the dancing ladies…”
“…and the leaping lords.” I concluded. “But the pipers you delivered yourself.”
“Not really. You caught them on screen.” His face was serious. “And the drummers are entirely to your credit.”
“Mine and Eldon’s,” I said, gulping down a lump in my throat. “I’ll never, ever…”
“…forget him? No. We owe him so much,” Tom said. He squirmed on his knee. “But it’s darn uncomfortable down here. So one more time: will you marry me?”
I held out my left hand, the fingers spread. “Get on with it already, Thomas Rimer. Of course I’ll marry you—do you think I’d go through all that trouble for anyone but my true love?”
He slid the ring on my finger then, and stood up to give me a proper kiss.
The barn door creaked open and Celia wandered in, looking lost and defeated, her streaked grey hair hanging limply around her face and her eyes dull. But then she caught sight of Tom and me, and she whipped up her head, electrified.
“Did you see him?” she cried.
I nodded, and a light blazed up in her eyes. “Where? How?”
I turned and pointed behind us, and as I looked I saw a faint outline of a door in the back wall of the barn.
“Thank you!” Celia’s hand closed on my forearm for just a moment, her face shining. She no longer looked her almost seventy years, but in a flash I could see the twenty-year-old she had been. “Thank you!” Then she rushed past me, her brown hair waving like a flag behind her—brown? Had I really seen that?—and she vanished through the door. For an instant, I saw a bright green spring meadow beyond, and then there was only a wall.
The real barn door burst open, and the oldest Whitewell girl came in, talking over her shoulder. “We have to get the cows done first,” she said, “but as soon as we’re done that, we’ll get going on the search. We shouldn’t be more than—” She turned around and saw us, and her jaw dropped. “What the…?”
Several more figures pushed into the barn behind her. There was Mary-Lou right at the front, Gina, Joe Engelhard—and they all stared at us as if they were looking at a pair of ghosts.
Mary-Lou was the first to find her voice. “What the heck are you doing here? And where have you been the last four days?”
Tom and I looked at each other. Four days? So it was January 5th—the Twelve Days of Christmas were over at midnight, over and done with.
“Where have we been?” Tom said, and he started laughing again.
“It’s a long story,” I said. “You’ll find it hard to believe. It starts with a partridge in a pear tree…”
The Twelve Days of Christmas:
A Christmastide Tale in Twelve Instalments. With Elves.
The Eleventh Day of Christmas
The door at the front of the hall swung open, and in trooped the remaining workers of Lord’s late shift.
“About time,” Herb greeted them as the Morris dancers stopped their whirl. “Did you bring the tin whistles?”
The big bearded guy at the front of the line hoisted a pink tote bag, its delicate colour incongruous against the coal dust that was permanently ground into the skin of his beefy hands. “That’s why we were late. I couldn’t find them; my damn girlfriend packed them all into here.”
“And of course, he couldn’t touch that bag to check inside it,” one of the others said with a smirk, “it might have made him look more girly than he already is.”
A ribald chorus of laughter greeted this sally, and as the tote bag carrier put his burden on the table perhaps a little less gently than he could have I could hear the metallic sound of pipes clattering together.
“All right, let’s do this thing,” said Herb. “Who’s got the music?”
Marty pulled a sheaf of papers out from underneath the boombox. “You do, genius.”
“Well, yeah, uh,” Herb spluttered. Then he tugged on the straps of his overall bib and squared his shoulders. “Of course I do.” He twitched the papers out of Marty’s hand and started handing them out, seemingly at random.
“I’m not playing,” Marty said, his hands raised in protest as Herb shoved a paper at him. “I’m tone deaf, remember?”
“So will the rest of us be after this,” said the tote bag guy. “I don’t know whose damn idea this was in the first place.” It looked like he still hadn’t gotten over the teasing about the pink bag.
“It’s traditional,” said Herb firmly, plunging his hand into the offending bag and coming out with a bouquet of gleaming metal tubes with bright-coloured plastic whistle heads. “Or at least it will be after this year.”
The big guy made a huffing noise, but he pulled a scarlet-headed tin whistle out of Herb’s hands like he was drawing a straw. The little instrument nearly disappeared in his huge hand.
“I still think it’s stupid,” he said.
“Then why’d you order the things from Amazon?” one of the other fellows said. “You were all for it when Herb brought it up the other day.”
“Because he used to play one in marching band back in high school,” Marty said, “and he was damn good at it too, even I could tell. Herb, do you still need the rest of us, or are we through here with the dance?”
Herb threw a cursory glance around the hall. “If you could stick around for a bit, let’s run through the Morris again after this,” he said. “We could use a bit more practice.”
“All right.” Marty grabbed another can of beer from the table and leaned against the wall next to two other soot-covered miners.
Marty was right—the big guy was good. As soon as he put the little flute to his lips, his bad mood seemed to drop off him. His eyes lit up, and a lilting, dancing stream of notes flowed from the whistle. He never even glanced at the sheet of music lying on the table in front of him.
Herb looked at him with his jaw dropped. “Shit, man!” he said when the big guy’s tune stopped. “Why’d you never tell me about this before?”
The guy shrugged, looking embarrassed. “Didn’t think of it,” he mumbled.
Herb raised his eyebrows, then turned to the others. “Okay! Any other closet James Galways in you lot?”
“James Galways?” one of the other guys asked, tossing back another beer.
“Forget it,” Herb said. “Who can play one of these things?” He held out the bundle of whistles with their coloured plastic heads.
I counted. It would have been too much to ask for there to be eleven—wouldn’t it? Two orange, three green, three blue and two black. Ten. My shoulders slumped.
“Come on,” Herb said, shaking the whistles at the miners. The guys looked at each other, then after some shrugging, embarrassed looks, and shoving each other forward—“You do it!” “No, you do it!”—enough of them stepped up to form the whistle band.
The big guy hadn’t been kidding with his quip about going deaf—the squeaky racket most of them produced from the whistles was painful. He winced.
“C’mon, guys!” he yelled over the noise. “This isn’t rocket science!” He waved his scarlet-headed tin whistle at them.
Scarlet? Wait—I had forgotten to count his whistle in the total! My heart suddenly hammered in my ears so hard the sound drowned out the shrieks of the tortured tin whistles. There were eleven! Eleven pipes, and eleven pipers!
Could you call the noise they were making “piping”? Did it count if it wasn’t actual music? I took out my phone, but my hands trembled so much I couldn’t open the camera.
“Shut up!!” the big guy yelled over the din. About half of the guys listened and took their whistles from their mouths, but three or four of them, who had been making serious inroads into the beer before consenting to try the whistles, had now gotten into a contest as to who could produce the most hideous screeching noise from their instrument, and they fell about laughing, shoving each other back and forth between taking blasts on their pipes, crashing into the people standing next to and behind them. One of those was the blackface elf lord, but he seemed completely unfazed by the jolt. In fact, he was staring at the rambunctious miners with a most peculiar look on his face—was he actually egging them on, somehow?
And why was the hall so crowded all of a sudden—where had all those extra people come from?
“SHUT! UP!” tin whistle guy roared, and when that had no effect, he tore the whistle from the lips of the fellow next to him who was producing a particularly earsplitting shriek, and he smashed it over his skull. The crack of the instrument’s plastic head splitting reverberated right through my bones.
No!! Not the eleventh pipe!
I must have cried out, because several of the faces in the hall turned towards me and stared.
And among the stares were the triumphant-looking silver eyes of not only the elf lord, but also the lady.
In fact, I noticed through the haze of my disappointment, the extra crowd in the hall was made up of the beautiful elf people, more of them drifting in ethereally through the open door at the back. Their deadly beauty seemed incongruous among the coal-faced miners, who had been shocked into acquiescence by the big guy’s outburst and were now at least attempting to generate something akin to music with their pipes. Not that it mattered anymore, as there were only ten pipes left, and the elves knew it and were gloating over it.
I slumped to the ground against the kitchen island and buried my head in my arms. A tremendous fatigue washed over me. Was there any hope left to help Tom? True, it was only the tenth day; not time for the pipers anyway… I pulled out my phone to check the time. 11:59 PM. As I looked, the time clicked over to midnight: the eleventh day had begun.
Slowly it penetrated my consciousness that the sound coming from the other side of the serving hatch between the kitchen and the hall was no longer horrific screeching noises—it was music. Lilting, beautiful tunes, like a Celtic dance. I grabbed the edge of the counter, pulled myself up and looked through the serving hatch into the hall.
What I saw surprised a laugh out of me in spite of myself. The burly miners in their sooty overalls and clunky workboots were dancing—dancing in a gentle shuffle, swaying to the tune of their own melodious piping, a transcendent look on their scruffy faces. Behind them, on the other side of their circle, stood the elf lord, his face miraculously no longer black-smeared, conducting their dance with a wave of his slender white hands, a malicious gleam in his eyes.
His waving hands took on a pulsing rhythm, and the miners became a marching pipe band. A-one-two-three, they marched up the hall, turned a right angle at the end, turned again and marched back towards me; another sharp right, ten steps along the short side of the hall—they walked by me right in front of the serving hutch, their eyes glazed with the spell they were under. My fingers twitched to reach through and grab their sleeves, shake them out of their trance, but I knew it was pointless. They swept past me, turned the corner and marched back up the hall to the tune of their own piping.
The elf lord’s face wore an expression of wicked exultation, and the lady and the other elves beside him clapped their hands in a gleeful rhythm, marking time with the marching players.
But suddenly there was another movement in the corner of the hall that went counter to the swaying movement. A shadowy form that looked different from the elves, not ethereally beautiful, but stocky and dark-haired, was weaving its way through the crowd.
Tom! He had made it out, he was here! My heart did a jump in my chest. We had won, he was free!
But—no. There was something wrong. He looked … he looked off. Wrong-coloured, somehow, as if there was weird lighting on him. Yes, that was it—the light that fell on his head and shoulders looked like sunlight on a spring day, not the blue flickering of the fluorescent tubes that lit up the hall. He wasn’t really here—or was he?
And what was he doing?
The marching band of piping miners had reached the far end of the hall again, the elf lord made them do another right turn, and they strode back towards me, skirling all the while. Suddenly Tom ducked around the backs of two elegantly swaying elves. With three more strides he reached the back of the marching line and fell into step with his piping workmates. Was he caught in the spell as well? No, please no…
Then he raised his two hands, cupped them together to form a ball, put them to his lips, and blew into them through his thumbs. Right over the tune of the pipers I could hear the hooting note of his dove call.
Tom himself was being the eleventh piper!
I whipped up my phone and clicked the shutter button.
Suddenly the scene froze. The piping miners stopped dead in their tracks, several of them with their feet half-raised in mid-stride, and the big guy at the head of the line had his eyes closed, obviously caught right as he was blinking.
The elves turned their head and stared at Tom, their silver-eyed glare like icicles.
“What is this?” the elf lady cried out, her gown swirling up around her as if she was generating a furious wind. “How dare he!”
“We will deal with him,” the elf lord said, and at his imperious hand gesture two of the elves jumped forward and grabbed Tom, their sharp nails digging into his arms. “Take him!” the elf lord cried, and the room became a stream of motion as they dragged Tom backwards, past the immobile miners, and he was taken with them as they flowed out the door.
But as he was borne out between the steel door posts, he turned his head, and he gave me a wink.
To be continued…
The Twelve Days of Christmas:
A Christmastide Tale in Twelve Instalments. With Elves.
The Tenth Day of Christmas
I stumbled through the door of the fake hay shed and emerged into cold darkness. Slowly my eyes adjusted, and I blinked. Not only had I gone from a bright spring day back into a winter night, this wasn’t even the inside of the Whitewell’s dairy barn. I stood in the alley behind the community hall in town, having apparently just stepped out of the back door of the second-hand bookstore next to it. The yellow lamp over the doorway lit up the softly drifting snowfall, and now I became aware of the traffic noises from Main Street on the other side of the hall. Not too late in the night then—this town rolls up its sidewalks by 10:00 PM; nobody is out and about past that hour.
As if to prove my point, a vehicle turned in at the end of the alley and came racing towards me—well, maybe not racing, but still moving rather more quickly than is advisable in a dark, snowy back alley. I flattened myself against the hall’s brick wall and gave the driver the stink-eye as he skidded to a halt on the other side of the hall door. He choked off the engine and leaped from the truck, and now I recognized him: it was Marty Wardle, a coworker of Tom’s. It looked like he had just come off his work shift, his hard hat and lamp still on his head and his face smeared with coal dust.
“Hey Mac,” he tossed over his shoulder as he stabbed the code into the security panel, yanked open the hall door and vanished inside. The door spilled a rush of light, warmth and sound into the darkness. I could make out the sound of a fiddle and drums, and over it all the rhythmic jingling of bells and a strange clacking noise, punctuated by shouts. The door slowly swung shut, but I jumped and grabbed the handle before it closed all the way and left me out in the cold. The stale-coffee-and-industrial-dishwasher smell of the hall’s back corridor assaulted my nostrils just as the music broke off abruptly. I side-stepped into the kitchen, walked around its middle island with the cracked purple arborite countertop worn from decades of community events, and peered through the serving hutch into the hall.
A group of men stood in a circle in the middle, all of them dressed just like Marty in hard hats, dirty work overalls and steel-toed boots, their faces sooty with coal dust.
“About time you got here, man,” one of them called out to Marty, who had just joined the group.
Marty shrugged. “Sorry, had to go back and double-check Valve Six.”
There were a few grunts of approval around the circle as Marty reached for a can of beer from a flat on a side table that also held a large silver boom box. I recognized most of these men—Lord’s Mine employees, all of them, as far as I could make out. It was a little hard to tell under all the soot.
“Well, you’re here now, let’s get on with it,” said a stocky guy whose bib overall strained over a belly that has been the final resting place for at least two fried chickens and a case of Molson Canadian per week for as long as I’ve known him. Foreman Herb Downing has no need for artificial padding when he plays Santa Claus for the local elementary school every December.
He stepped over to the boombox, hit a button, and the Celtic fiddle and drums started up again.
“Where’s my stick?” Marty shouted over the music, tossing back the last of his beer and crushing the can in his fist, then chucking it at the blue recycling bin under the table.
Herb gestured into the corner with his own stick, a thick three-foot-long staff of plain wood.
“A-one-and-two-and-” he counted out, his foot stomping the rhythm, setting the bells tied around his ankle jingling.
Marty snatched up his stick and fell into step in the circle.
Stomp, step, stomp, jump—they struck their staffs together, leapt back out of the circle and back in, stomp, step, and a-clack and a-jingle, stomp, step, shout—the Lord’s Mine Morris Men in action, practising for the Twelfth Night parade on Sunday. It was a sight to behold, and as always, I couldn’t help but tap my foot and beat the rhythm of their dance against my thigh.
Tom was supposed to be one of them—why hadn’t they missed him? At the very least, they should be one man short in the routine! But the pattern didn’t look unbalanced. I started counting the spinning bodies. Two, four, five—Marty, Herb… I lost track and had to start over again. How many were there meant to be? It definitely wasn’t the usual six or sets of four—I knew that when the original owner of Lord’s Mine had brought the tradition over from his native England, he couldn’t find the right number of dancers, so they made up their own to go with their idiosyncratic “costume” of just wearing their work clothes with the addition of bells and staffs.
“Whoa!” Herb yelled as the swing of his partner’s staff went wide and glanced off the burly foreman’s hard hat, knocking it askew. “Watch it there, buster!”
The whirling dancer spun away from him with a stomp of his boot, his bells jingling, a smile on his face. It served Herb right; it was probably his own fault he’d been hit in the head. It couldn’t be this elegant, graceful man’s fault; he was easily the best dancer in the lot. I didn’t even begrudge him having taken Tom’s place in the figures.
Two, four, six, Herb, the beautiful dancer—and I’d lost track again, staring at this man. Who was he? I didn’t recognize him under the blackface. And he was wearing blackface, not just the coal dust layer that the others had on, left over from their work shifts. Full, smeared-on blackface. Didn’t he know that wasn’t acceptable anymore? None of the others were made up that heavily. I looked around the circle of dancers and subconsciously kept counting.
Six, seven—a leap and a stomp, a step and a clack—eight, nine—a stomp and a shout, a leap and—ten! There were ten of them! Ten Lord’s men leaping!
As I whipped out my phone, shook it open and clicked the shutter button, the recognition fell into place: the blackface who had usurped Tom’s place was the seductive elf lord. And just as the shock of the realization ran down my spine like in an icy trickle, he looked up and his silver eyes locked with mine.
There was no more sweet, seductive allure in that glance. It had become a dagger-sharp threat.
To be continued…
The Twelve Days of Christmas:
A Christmastide Tale in Twelve Instalments. With Elves.
The Ninth Day of Christmas
I stepped through the door of the barn out into the meadow. Birds were singing; flowers were blooming all around—daisies, buttercups, Indian paintbrush, black-eyed Susans, you name it. There were even blinkin’ butterflies fluttering over it all. All that was missing was a frolicking little baah-lamb. Baah, Humbug!
This was baloney. I looked around, trying to orient myself. Would I be able to get back? The barn door behind me was still there, except from this angle the building looked like a romantically decayed hay shed, overgrown with picturesque ivy. Whatever—so long as I could get back out through it.
Turning around, I saw that the hyper-beautiful meadow in one direction extended to the edge of a supernaturally green forest, in the other rose up to the brow of a gentle hill. I couldn’t see any point in going into the forest—who knew what lurked there; I didn’t trust all this unreal and unseasonal beauty. I set out in the other direction and crested the brow of the little hill. Beyond that the meadow was curving away down a hillside, a path leading down into a lush green valley.
I had only walked for a few hundred metres when around a bend in the path I came on another green field. This one was not a picturesque alpine meadow strewn with wildflowers, but an equally picturesque groomed lawn, velvety-smooth and emerald green. It was surrounded by a low hedge spilling over with rose blossoms; a tent pavilion stood in its centre, gleaming white in the sunshine, with pennants in every colour of the rainbow glittering from its pinnacle. Beautiful people gently strolled about in front of it, the hems of the ladies’ gowns gliding over the grass, the men bending their shapely heads to hear what their companions were saying. I could hear strains of enticing music, and I was overcome with an urge to go over to find out what was creating this unearthly beautiful sound. I had to hear more of it, had to be near it, experience it, be among those beautiful people, be one of them. Walking on a little ways along the rose hedge, I came to a small opening, a gate just wide enough to let me in—as if it had been meant for me.
I stepped through, and was about to hurry towards the pavilion, when my eye fell on a person. A male person, apparently, dark-haired and dressed in dark blue pants and a grey shirt, sitting on the ground beside a little bush to the side of the path. He intently gazed at a little square flat thing in his hands, not longer than the palm of his hand, and periodically stabbed at it with his finger.
I frowned. There was something familiar about him. Where did I know him from? Something stirred in my memory. Wasn’t this the man I had met just recently—the most beautiful man I had ever seen? The man for whose sake I had come to this place, to be with him forever?
I gazed at him, willing him to lift his head, so I could see his mesmerizing silver-grey eyes, could exchange with him the loving glance that was sure to follow when he caught sight of me.
His fingers fumbled, and the square thing dropped from his hand and landed on his foot.
He flinched, snatched the thing up from the ground, and looked up.
His eyes met mine. Not silver-grey, but brown.
We stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity.
All of a sudden, it was as if someone had turned a fan on the woolly fog that had filled my brain, and I could see in his eyes that it happened to him at the same time. Tom!
We rushed towards each other, but then Tom froze, throwing out his hands in a gesture that stopped me in my tracks. I opened my mouth to speak, but he frantically shook his head, pressing his fingers to his lips to tell me to be silent. He pointed to his left, and I turned my head to look.
From out of the green trees on the edge of the meadow came a procession of the most beautiful ladies I had ever seen. Stately and lithe, grave and merry, clear and mysterious all at once, they twirled and glided over the meadow, their motion in perfect harmony with the strains of the unearthly music that came from the white silk pavilion. A dance of ethereal beauty, performed by the most perfect physical beings I had ever laid eyes on. Nine of these ladies there were, led by one whose white-gold hair floated past her waist, setting off the silvery blue of her gown.
But wait—I had seen her before! I knew this not with the woolly-headed vagueness that had afflicted me when I first caught sight of Tom, but with a razor-sharp clarity that allowed for no mistake. This was the woman that had been in the house on Carson’s Landing—the one who wore the ring that I had been hoping for.
I turned to look at Tom to tell him what I knew, but I saw him staring at the lady, mesmerized. He moved slowly, as if he was in a trance—and then I noticed what he was doing: he was trying to lift the cell phone he was still clutching in his fingers, but his arm moved as if he was dragging it through molasses.
Nine ladies dancing!
I whipped out my own phone, shook the camera open, held it out and pressed the volume button. The shutter clicked—and with the sound, Tom came out of his trance.
His head flew around and he stared at me, then he pulled me down to the ground beside the little bush, out of sight of the dancing ladies.
I drew breath to protest, but he clapped his hand over my mouth.
“Don’t!” he mouthed soundlessly. “Do not speak!”
I nodded just slightly, and he took his hand from my face. Then he mimed zipping shut his lips.
“Oh-kay,” I formed with my lips, nodding and copying his zip-the-lip gesture for good measure.
He gave a quick nod of approval, then his head came up and he froze.
I cautiously sat up and looked over the bush. There, not ten metres away with his back to us, stood the gorgeous man from Engelhard’s.
My eyes widened. Him! The most wonderful man in the world! He was the one I had come here for! My one true love, my—
Something painfully flicked me on the ear. I hissed in a breath, and the pink cotton candy cloud disappeared from my brain. Tom was holding his thumb over the nail of his middle finger, poised to give me another flick on the ear, but at the sight of the glare I directed at him he hurriedly lowered his hand and changed it into a thumbs-up gesture.
I grinned. Then I pointed with my thumb over my shoulder at the people in the middle of the meadow, towards whom the not-really-all-that-gorgeous guy was strolling now. “What are they?” I mouthed at Tom.
He responded the same way. “Elves.”
I frowned at him incredulously, and he nodded.
“E-L-V-E-S,” he spelled out laboriously in finger alphabet.
“Really?” I mouthed.
He nodded, then he raised his finger in an expression of “I just had an idea.” He took his cell phone and pulled up the notepad program.
“Lured me in,” he typed. “Can’t talk out loud, else stuck. Elvis said.”
That had to be a typo; he probably meant “elves”. And why would they tell him that?
Tom saw the expression on my face, and he shook his head.
“No no no!” he mouthed. “Not elves—Elvis!”
He pointed at the name on the phone screen and then into the crowd around the pavilion, and all of a sudden it was perfectly obvious what he meant. I was surprised I hadn’t noticed the man before, he was so different from the ethereal creatures he was standing among. Although he was tall and dark like several of them, he was dressed head to toe in a white jumpsuit with pinwheel patterns made of rivets all over it, holding a snare drum under his arm as if he was in the middle of setting up the stage for a concert. But most importantly, in spite of his outfit, of his enormous sideburns, and of the ostentatious black curl that dipped into his forehead, even in spite of the dreamy expression on his face as he stared at the elven lady who was now gliding into the pavilion, somehow he looked real.
He was real, even if he had not aged a day in forty-eight years. Celia had been right all along.
Tom tugged my sleeve and held out the phone, showing me the message. “What day is it?”
I grabbed the phone from his hand.
“Jan 1,” I typed.
His eyebrows climbed to his forehead and he took the phone back.
“Took me @ xmas eve,” he typed. “Thought it was only xmas day. U sure it’s Jan 1?”
I shrugged. If this place warped time perception so much that he hadn’t felt eight days go by, it could be just about any date now.
Tom’s thumbs were flying over the keyboard.
“12 days of xmas song will get us out,” he typed, “Elvis said.”
I nodded vigorously. I’d known that! I quickly pulled out my phone, booted up the picture gallery and tabbed through the pictures, starting with the partridge in the pear tree.
Tom’s eyes widened. “Yes!” he mouthed, excitedly jabbing his thumbs up into the air.
But when I got to the picture of the eight girls in the barn—or the eight maids a-milking, as it were—my jaw dropped. There was the barn, and the rumps of the cows, and the four girls I had talked to at first—but in the back half of the barn, which wasn’t nearly as big as it had appeared, there were only a few empty cattle stalls, and scattered among them, four weird things. Splotches of light overlaid with shapes that looked like something Dr. Seuss might have drawn while on drugs. Eew, not attractive.
I quickly swiped the picture to the right—and sure enough, the nine ladies dancing over the meadow were just the same: weird creatures laid over light splotches. The background showed as a stark, empty field, with a few bare trees and not much else. I shivered, and Tom put his arm around me, rubbing my shoulder. He looked down at my phone and gave me a questioning look.
I nodded. Yes, those had been the dancing ladies. But hang on—if it was the nine ladies dancing, it had to be the ninth day! I pointed at Tom’s cell phone where I had typed “Jan 1”, shook my head and made a “two” gesture with my fingers.
“Time moving too fast,” he typed, “u gotta get out of here or they get u 2.”
I stared at him. I wasn’t leaving without him!
He shook his head.
“Can’t leave til you get all 12 days,” he typed and pointed at my phone.
Get them all? How on Earth was I supposed to pull that off?
Tom took me by the shoulders, turned me around and gave me a gentle shove.
“Go,” he mouthed at me, “please!”
He tapped his wrist where his watch would be, if he ever wore one, and twirled his forefinger in a “hurry up” gesture. Time was passing!
A shot of fear skittered down my spine. What if it was already too late? What if the last few days had already come and gone while we were stuck here talking, and I had missed the mark?
To be continued…