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…