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?