The Gingerbread Elves
written by: Dwain Campbell
As teapots go, the Brown Betty defined plain. Even an Amish goodmother might think it drab. Consequently, the chipped and ancient pot rarely made the short journey from pantry to kitchen. However, Advent Sundays saw merry gatherings in the mint green house at the end of Cherry Lane. Hungry relatives from all over Conception Bay filled the West Parlor knee to knee and jowl to cheek. Neither the squat teapot with purple violets, nor the tall pot with monarch butterflies, could satisfy the multitude. Indeed, one wag claimed Jesus would have no better luck serving orange pekoe to the Sermon on the Mound crowd. Facing such numbers, Mother supplied weak fairy tea to the children’s table in the ho-hum Brown Betty. Not surprisingly, at Christmas, it became known as the Fairy Pot.
Fairy Pot. Cousin Ralph, the Kelligrews postmaster, heard it so named as he warmed frozen toes before a pot-bellied stove. Nothing remedied December chill like medicinal sherry, but being a prissy bachelor, and a deacon to boot, Ralph strictly imbibed but a single glass. Well, two if arthritis wreaked havoc. Three at most if his mother was absent. Three begs four, and that was the state of affairs this day. As unimaginative as a fireplug, Ralph’s sherried brain stirred at the mention of Fairy Pot. Peering down an Ichabod Crane nose and harrumphing importantly, he addressed the children as they ate in the East Parlor, quite removed from the grown-up throng.
“That very pot,” he whispered, so the other adults might not hear, “was carved from a dragon egg. The very serpent St. George did in, if you must know. Mother Shipton, the Yorkshire witch, hollowed it out with an eagle’s beak. Mother read tea leaves in it, and foretold all six of King Henry’s wives.” Being a strict Methodist, Ralph was officially down on witches and wives by the half dozen. Strange how sherry will addle the most punctilious mind. “This pot,” he continued solemnly, “passed to a clipper captain who docked in the Pool of London. Seven times around the world and twenty times across the equator that pot has sailed. From it, the skipper poured tea for mandarins and maharajahs and hoodoo wild men with bones in their noses. Then it was dropped overboard by a nine-fingered, eleven-toes cabin boy frightened witless by the Flying Dutchman. That pot crested waves for forty days and nights until it was swallowed by Moby Dick. It clanked in the leviathan’s gullet amid indigestible Spanish doubloons and kraken teeth. One day a school of ugly sculpin tickled Moby’s underside, and he sneezed that pot out through his spout, right on the shores of this bay. At the end of Cherry Lane, in fact. Your great nanny found it in the san, and washed it in apple vinegar made from the Tree of Knowledge.” At that point Aunt Ida appeared with an offering of sugar donuts, and Cousin Ralph abruptly ended his Arabian Nights spiel with a thunderous burp. He shouldered back into the West Parlor, and fussed until a reluctant neighbor surrendered the Davenport by the fire.
The children regarded the teapot with wide-eyed, innocent wonder. Wonder is to magic as flour is to bread. It is the stuff of enchantment. And you know, as the children examined the Fairy Pot closely, it did have a curious luster not noticed before.
A visiting bucko, whose lips were sticky with raspberry jam, opined, “All that sloshing about in Moby Dick’s gut must have polished it.”
Jane, who lived in the mint green house, scoffed at that notion. “No whale bile buffed this. That shine comes from Granny’s Tree of College apple cider.” A precocious reader, Jane rushed to the kitchen and fetched oven mitts. The mitts made her tiny hands look like troll paws, but they prevented a burn as she lifted the teapot and read, “Made in Sadler, England.”
“Mother Shipton must have lived in Sadler,” concluded four-year-old Janet. That seemed entirely reasonable, and all nodded until, one by one, mothers came in to nab protesting children and button them into woolens.
That left Jane and Janet to wash out the Fairy Pot and sundry crockery. Rather than returning the pot to the pantry, they ceremoniously positioned it on an arrangement of white dollies covering the piano stool. To either side they placed potted flowers. It was an altogether wonderful shrine for a magic teapot.
And there it sat all day Monday, which was wash day.
And there it sat all day Tuesday, which was ironing day.
And thus, the snowy days passed, until Christmas Eve.
Father could not bear Christmas without Old Time Pork Molasses Cake. Each year the confection was baked early in the afternoon of the 24th. Janet reminded Mother that a crafty baker could transform cake mix into gingerbread in the blink of an eye. Mother sighed, for many desserts were on the docket. Yet it was Christmas Eve, so hie-ho, in for a penny, in for a pound. The girls busily spread butcher paper on the kitchen table and then controlled mayhem reigned. Mother kept several dishes in various stages of preparation as a juggler will keep apples in the air. All the while, the woodstove needed an even heat and the sisters required strict guidance, for children feel two tablespoons of baking soda must be better than the proscribed one. By and by, Jane rolled out tasty gingerbread with a wooden pin as Janet sprinkled flour to all points of the compass. Then, with rapt concentration, each girl cut out two gingerbread elves —yes, elves— and with elaborate care lay them on a greased pan. Being the oldest, Jane was allowed to slip the pan into the hot oven.
Twenty minutes later, mother removed the cookies, which were golden brown and perfect in every way. Excited, Jane used too much icing and Janet was generous with the candies, but in the end, four elves lay wonderfully decorated. Exhausted, Mother declared it high time for tea.
Tea. A neat idea formed in Janet’s active mind. She whispered the plan to Jane, who thought it awful fun and clever.
Mother sipped her restorative in the West Parlor. Unnoticed, the girls tiptoed into the East Parlor and crept out with the Fairy Pot. Once back in the kitchen, they ever so carefully hid the cookies inside the commodious pot. In singsong play talk, they told the gingerbread elves not to worry, they were only being concealed so Father wouldn’t google them. After opening presents tomorrow, the girls would bring them out for games. In accordance with Janet’s scheme, the sisters positioned a stool on a breadbox and thereby gained the pantry counter. Jane, precariously balanced on upturned saucepans, stretched mightily to shove the pot into the top cupboard. She concealed it with chaotic skeins of discarded yarn and felt.
Jane and Janet really intended to retrieve the yummy elves. Truly, they did. However, Christmas morning brought unbounded excitement. First off, stockings on bedposts sagged with Brazilian oranges brought north in by the brigantine Camille. Gorged on miraculous fruit and mucked with sticky fingers, the tikes proceeded to cloth gift bags embroidered in blue snowflakes. Well, Father Christmas outdid himself. Each girl held an honest to goodness porcelain doll. Princess dolls with corn silk hair, hooped gowns, and glittering ballerina slippers.
Exotic oranges and fantastic princesses. Two fat ducks in the roasting pan, soon to be swimming in gravy. Potato, turnip, carrot and cabbage, all boiling in a salt pork elixir. Mustard pickles, cranberries and apple sauce. Lemon bread and mince pies. Little wonder Jane and Janet quite forgot the gingerbread lads tucked away in the Fairy Pot. Forgot them entirely.
Entirely is a big word, but there it is. Christmas passed, then another and another, and not once did either child recollect the Fairy Pot. Mother, having acquired a new service set fit for a duchess, never thought of the plain old Brown Betty again. It remained perpetually out of sight and out of mind.
A decade passed, one that saw electrical wiring and indoor plumbing come to mint green house. Two decades passed, and the sisters were gone. The years brought sad wakes in the West Parlor and joyous baby showers in the East Parlor. Jane’s toddler first walked in the hallway, and Janet’s adventurous offspring tumbled down the stairs and banged her noggin. These tikes were crones when man walked on the moon, and their own children lived in Toronto. Years plodded and raced by, seemingly both at once. Finally, after a century, the mint green house became dark, the rooms silent, the stove forever cold.
One hundred years. Like a treasure in King Tut’s tomb, the old Fairy Pot sat undiscovered in its musty nest of yarn. The gingerbread elves slumbered inside. Most strangely, not a speck of mold or mildew marred them. Not a crumb had flecked from truncated, pudgy limbs. Uncorrupted they were, untroubled by worms as are saints of the Holy Church. Maybe, the old Fairy Pot did possess a patina of magic. Maybe it was a hollowed-out dragon egg.
Eventually, there came a postcard marvelous Christmas Eve. Pristine snow lay deep in Cherry Lane, freshened by flakes that lazily drifted down like apple petals in May. A merry flock of finches gamboled in the backyard Hawthorns, feasting on blood red berries. Not the least muted by thickening snow, midnight church bells summoned worshippers. Never did bells sound so clear or angelic.
Bellsong miraculously quickened gingerbread flesh. If genies can spring from lamps in Bagdad, then ginger spirits can be born of phantasmagorical teapots in Newfoundland. The elves yawned and stretched. The boldest sprite pushed off the lid from the Fairy Pot. It was deathly dark in the cupboard, but mischievous gumdrop eyes darted about with preternatural clarity “Games,” they piped as one. They were supposed to play games with two girls. But, where were the children? The gingerbread elves somersaulted in the yarn like real boys jumping into raked leaves. Finding this delightful, they dived from the teapot spout into the soft heap several times more. Quickly bored, they commenced exploration. All together, they shoved the cupboard door. It popped open with a rusty screech.
The harsh noise woke mousekins who huddled for warmth in the attic. More of them anon.
The cookie elves realized they were a veritable eagle’s nest, far above the counter and yards o’er the linoleum floor. With doughy cunning, one elf tied a thick strand of purple yarn to the Fairy Pot’s sprout and, with a cry of “look out”, pushed the ball out of the cupboard. The yarn softly thumped off the floor, and no sooner did it stop bouncing than all four ginger elves slid down the strand.
Stunted though their legs might be, the excited elves circumnavigated the kitchen in which they were made so long ago. They did this several times before cakey lungs wheezed with effort. Much had changed since their day. The room tartly reeked of mothballs rather than cinnamon. Rust flecked the proud Franklyn stove, and spider webs garnished high ceiling corners. The gingerbreads missed this neglect, for cunning is not to be confused with intelligent perception. Instead, they conceived a grand parade to the West Parlor, where surely the girls would be opening gifts. To this end, the elf with chocolate frosting pantaloons discovered a slip of gauze curtain and rigged himself a royal robe fit for Old King Cole. A discarded sewing basket in the corner yielded sharp needles for drumsticks and a thimble for a drum, thus His Majesty acquired a solitary bandsman. The last pair, locating tarnished butter knives, shouldered them like rifles for Grenadier Guardsmen. Single file, singing We Four Kings of Orient Are, the elves strutted into the hallway and, with much pomp, entered the West Parlor.
Mousekins heard the discordant chorus, but more of them anon.
No Jack Pine Christmas tree in the parlor. No bright candles in pottered holders, though blinking lights from a neighborhood Coca-Cola Father Christmas penetrated fly-specked windows. Rose wallpaper peeled in desultory strips, and linen sheets, coated by dust motes, covered long abandoned couches and ottomans. Not so much as a Christmas card on the mantle or a Mistletoe dangling from the door frame. No Nutcracker soldiers to review, though a pair of Cinderella dolls in faded ball gowns looked down from a high wooden corner shelf.
“Hullo” greeted His Majesty most cordially. “Would you Mademoiselles like to hop down for a waltz or jig?”
Not a syllable from the pair. Glassy, vacant eyes coldly regarded the elves.
“How rude,” exclaimed the drummer, his sugary smile inverted to a frown. “Coal in their stockings.”
“Haughty,” agreed the Grenadiers as one. “Orders, Grand Poo-Bah?”
The king shrugged. “We go upstairs and wake our Makers. By the time we descend to play games, Father Christmas will have whirled down the chimney in a cloud of pipe smoke to make this room merry and bright.”
Right then. Onward and upward. Working in pairs, one elf climbed atop his mate to gain the rise, then reached down to hoist up his benefactor. Hard labor, and the quartet were quite winded by stair four. While resting, one boyo noticed gleams at the top of the staircase. Two pairs of sparkling eyes regarded them with predatory intensity.
“The girls,” exclaimed the king. He hollered and helloed and suggested every game from tags to Crazy Eights.
One elf, a tad brighter than his brothers, noted an anomaly. Little girl eyes should hover a few feet above the landing, not a few inches. And though he had a mind of nutmeg, it did not seem right that girls should have shiny black noses, twitching brown ears, and snaky tails. Logically, these must be Father and Mother wearing fur dressing gowns.
Father! He wanted to eat them.
The mice on the upper landing thought eating a wonderful notion. When one dines on yellowed newspaper scraps for breakfast, lunch and supper, fresh gingerbread is manna from Heaven. The eager rodents hopped down one step, squeaking and drooling in sinister anticipation.
Raisin eyes bulging in fear, the elves jumped for the banister railing. Though it had not been polished since 1980, they slid down the rail as though it were a moonbeam. All landed akimbo in a tattered leather boot. By the time gingery arms and legs got sorted, the hunters were nearly on them. Then ensued a madcap race along the hallway. One of the rodents seized King Cole’s trailing cape, and only the tug on a slip knot deprived him of a meal. The elves bolted across the kitchen floor, panting like ruptured steam engines. They gained the yarn thread a mere whisker ahead of the skittering mice. No angels ascended Jacob’s Ladder as quickly as the gingerbread elves climbed the purple lifeline. They floundered through yarn like youngsters breasting snowdrifts and spilled pell-mell into the Fairy Pot. They hugged each as mice pounced on the Fairy Pot, but tiny paws impotently fumbled with the lid.
Close shave. A near run, indeed. At dawn the frustrated rodents retired to the attic, coldly comforted by a chewy repast from a pamphlet highlighting the coronation of George VI. The gingerbread elves listened nervously, but eventually all they could hear was real boys trying out new hockey sticks on a frozen pond. Not long after, church bells summoned families to morning service. Bellsong magically woke them, and bellsong lulled them back to sleep.
They are still there, you know. Slumbering deeply. Tucked away in the Fairy Pot which, in another time and place, had been a dragon egg.
- The Gingerbread Elves - December 26, 2022