PEPPERMINT THE ELF AND THE WEEPING WAIF
You tried hard not to look in the mirror. You tried so hard.
You’re a senior in college, home for the winter break, and you have tried to tell yourself that there is no job that’s beneath you as you try to earn some cash for next semester’s books. That was, of course, before they made you wear the elf costume.
You finished your second day’s shift as “Peppermint.” (The name is sown onto the doublet of the costume in bright red thread.) Some sadistic person put the mirror in the changing room right across from the entrance, so you can’t avoid seeing yourself.
The worst part, though, comes a second later. You realize you’ve left your bag — and your keys — back Santa’s Magical Village is set up. It’s a little spooky as you make your way back. The crowds have left, most of the hundreds of multicolored lights are off, and the constant piped-in carols have gone silent.
That’s why it’s so easy for you to hear the sound. Sitting on what was Santa’s chair is a tiny figure, sobbing her little eyes out.
You look to your left and right, but you’re alone. You take a few steps forward before you realize that you’re walking quietly. This is a bad idea. You don’t want to startle the child. When you’re close, but not too close, you speak up.
“Hey. What’s up?”
She stops mid-sob like someone hit the pause button. Slowly, she looks up at you with her impossibly young face. The girl is dressed in a simple red and green dress and red leggings. Although the heat is off and the room has begun to cool down, she doesn’t seem to be affected by the chill in the air.
“You don’t look like Peppermint.”
You think to yourself, “Well, no. I’m not an herb.” Out loud, you say, “I guess not. Where are your parents?”
Her brow furrows in confusion as though she can’t possibly understand why you’d ask such a question. “I don’t know. It’s not important. I have to find Santa.”
“Okay, but . . .”
She speaks with a deep urgency. It’s like a starving man saying he has to eat. “I have to find Santa, or it’ll all be ruined.”
Chosen: Maybe you’d better convince her to tell you what exactly will be ruined. It could be important. And you could try bribing her with candy canes to get her to open up.
“Wait. Slow down. What will be ruined?”
“You wouldn’t understand.” She stands up as though about to leave. If she runs, you’ll never catch her.
“Wait!” Your hand drops to the tin of candy canes. They keep it closed overnight so as not to attract vermin, but you pop off the top and show her the bounty within. “I mean you should at least take a candy cane with you if you’re going.”
Her eyes pop open wide as she stares at the inside of the tin. “That’s so many candy canes.”
You shrug. “You can have as many as you want if you tell me what’s going on.” Sure, why not. Candy canes are cheap.
The little girl takes a hesitant step forward, then, far faster than you’d believe, she’s snatched up a half dozen sticks and is back on Santa’s chair, greedily removing the plastic.
“So,” she says past a mouth full of peppermint stick, “have you ever heard of Belsnickel?”
“Is that what they make hand bells out of?”
She rolls her eyes. It’s far too adult a thing for her to do. “No, not Bells of Nickle. Belsnickel. Or sometimes Belschniclkel. It’s an old German legend.”
“Did your parents tell you this story?”
She glares at you. “As a matter of fact they did. Sixty years ago. I know you’re not going to believe me, but I’m not a little kid. I’m an elf. I work for the big guy in red on holiday spirit preservation.” She holds up a tiny, tiny hand stopping you before you can reply. “I told you that you wouldn’t believe me and you wouldn’t understand, but you wanted me to tell you what’s happening.”
You hold up your hands in surrender. She’s already eaten two of the candy canes. Right now you just need to keep her talking.
“Belsnickel arrives before Christmas with a big sack like my boss has. He gives out candy and cakes and cookies and pies.”
She glares at you. “That’s what he does with one hand. The other hand has a big hazel stick. If a child reaches for the candy or cookies too quickly, or if Belsnickel just knows they’ve been naughty, he beats the kid with a stick.”
“So, kind of like that Krampus thing?”
“Don’t even get me started on that jerk.” She bites into another candy cane with a vicious crunch. “Anyway, for reasons that should be obvious, my boss isn’t fond of beating children. He doesn’t even do the coal thing all that often anymore. So they worked out a deal. Belsnickel limits the places where he shows up to a few spots in Germany, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. In return, Mrs. Claus bakes Belsnickel an amazing Christmas pie.”
“You have never had a Mrs. Claus pie! You don’t know!”
You really, really have to work hard not to take a step back. How can someone this small be so intense?
“Um. Okay. So, what exactly is the problem?”
She pops the last piece of candy cane into her mouth like she’s downing a shot of liquor. “I was supposed to deliver the pie. That was my job.” Tears start to form in her eyes. “But I stopped off to make sure the reindeer were getting the right kind of oats and . . .” She bursts out in sobs. “Blitzen got loose and ate the pie!!”
Chosen: Go find Blitzen! A magical flight-enabled reindeer eating a magical pie might just be a more pressing concern right now.
You take a deep breath. You’re being asked to take a lot on faith.
But then, what better time of year for it?
“I just have one question,” you say, “what happened to Blitzen?”
The elf, cocks her head at you. “What?”
“Well, he’s a magic reindeer, right? And I’m guessing that if Mrs. Claus made a pie, it must be magical too. Or is that wrong?”
The elf’s face melts into a mask of terror. “That’s . . . that’s right.”
“So what happens when a magical reindeer eats a . . . Hey! Where are you going?!”
The girl has left the seat and is bolting from you at a speed you can hardly believe. You race after her, stumbling through the darkness in “Santa’s Magical Village.” Of course, for working on Christmas Eve, an elf would have to have great night vision.
You hear the door slam open, and you stumble toward the lit exit sign. Outside, the parking lot lights are on full blast, and you have no trouble whatsoever with finding the elf. She’s climbing up the side of the sleigh.
“Wait!” You run forward and jump onto the runners. “Where are you going?”
She stares at you. “You can see the sleigh?”
“What? Of course. It’s right here.”
“But you can see it?”
“What are you talking about? Yes!”
She places a hand on yours. “I don’t have time to explain. We need to get to Blitzen.”
“If you can see the sleigh, you’re supposed to come with me.”
You’ve read the internet memes about how fast Santa’s sleigh would have to travel to deliver presents to every child in the world. The first time you travel by magic, you know that he’s got time to run home for at least a dozen restroom stops, and maybe a quick bath.
You stand in Santa’s Magical Village. The real one. You could deny it, but, really it’s past time to deny anything. Besides, there is a reindeer standing in front of you. And whereas Rudolph’s nose could be said to glow, this whole reindeer is lit up like a Christmas tree.
Chosen: Mrs. Clause is probably with Santa, and it stands to reason that Blitzen knows how to get to Santa. So let’s let him burn off some of that magic and find the big guy.
“Okay,” you say, “so what’s the plan?”
The elf inhales, opens her mouth, and stops like someone hit the pause button.
“So, no plan. Got it!” You stare at the reindeer. The odd golden glow is growing brighter like the world’s slowest dimmer switch is being turned up. “Um . . hey, Blitzen. How you doing, buddy?”
A line from a famous song comes to your mind. They “used to laugh and call him names . . .” Given that, you’re not all that surprised when Blitzen looks up at you with a sad face and starts to talk.
“I don’t feel so well.”
You look back to the elf, who shrugs. You look helplessly at Blitzen. “Is there anything we can do?”
“I need help.” Blitzen sounds piteous.
That clinches it for you. “Okay. The only person I can think of who might know what to do is Santa. Where is he?”
“We rode him and the Mrs. out to a little party with some friends in Hawaii,” he groans. “It was exhausting. Used half our magic since it was just me and Comet.”
“Wait. Using your magic. If you flew the two of us to Santa right now, would that help burn off some of the magic in your system?”
You didn’t know a reindeer could shrug, but you have no other ideas. You and the elf jump onto the back of Blitzen. (Reindeer are not made for bare-back riding.) And so you travel by magic for the second time ever. It’s much rougher this time, and you’re glad to have your arms around Blitzen’s neck.
The elf leaps off the reindeer before you even realize you’ve come to a stop. She screams for Santa in a voice too big for that tiny body. You climb down off Blitzen and are relieved to notice the golden glow has faded quite a bit.
Santa arrives in a red Aloha shirt. He couldn’t possibly be anyone else. He looks down at Blitzen with concern, then smiles. “A good fly was just what he needed. Nice work, Wintergreen.” You realize you only just learned the elf’s name.
“Oh, you poor dear, you look exhausted. Come on, Peppermint, I’ll get you a glass of iced Kona.” She smiles at you, and Mrs. Clause is everything you expected her to be, though the sarong wrap was not a clothing choice you expected.
“Actually, ma’am, this is just my name tag. My real name . . .”
She laughs a melodious chuckle. “Dear, we know. You’ve been off the naughty list since the beginning of the semester.” She pulls you away. “I’m glad Wintergreen ran into you. She needs a calming influence like you. Far too high strung. So what exactly brings you here.”
You explain the situation. Mrs. Clause rolls her eyes. “Belsnickle! Oh that rascal. Well, good thing I brought something special for the party.” She almost drags you inside the beautiful vacation home. There, set out among everything else is a beautiful coconut cake. It looks remarkably like it’s covered in snow.
“Take this to Belsnickle. I think he likes cake better than pie anyway.” It wasn’t in a gift box a second ago, but considering who you’re dealing with, you don’t ask.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Clause, but how do I get to him?”
“You take Blitzen, He likes you, I can tell. Just tell him where you want to go and he’ll take you to Belsnickle’s home. Just drop it on his doorstep. You don’t want to get him chatting. He’s such a bore.” She pats your arm. “You may not know this, but Peppermint is Santa’s second in command. He’s one of my oldest friends. You’ve done proud by him. Now go.”
And that’s more or less exactly what you do. You’re back at Santa’s Magical Village (the fake one) in less than ten minutes. No one will ever believe you, but ten years later, when you’re still getting the extra large candy cane in your stocking and no one can understand how, you tell the story again. When your little cousin Geoffrey challenges you, you roll up your sleeve and show your deep tan.
“Exactly why,” you say, “do you think I get invited to a party in Hawaii every year a few days before Christmas? Just accept it, little man. If you’re really good next year, I might just bring you back a slice of cake.”