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…