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…”