by Charles de Lint & MaryAnn Harris
"We have jobs," Maida told Jilly when she and Zia dropped by the professor's house for a visit at the end of November.
Zia nodded happily. "Yes, we've become veryvery respectable."
Jilly had to laugh. "I can't imagine either of you ever being completely respectable."
That comment drew an exaggerated pout from each of the crow girls, the one more pronounced than the other.
"Not being completely respectable's a good thing," Jilly assured them.
"Yes, well, easy for you to say," Zia said. "You don't have a cranky uncle always asking when you're going to do something useful for a change."
Maida nodded. "You just get to wheel around and around in your chair and not worry about all the very serious things that we do."
"Such as?" Jilly asked.
Zia shrugged. "Why don't pigs fly?"
"Or why is white a colour?" Maida offered.
"Or yellow ochre."
"Yellow ochre is a colour," Jilly said. "Two colours, actually. And white and black are colours, too. Though I suppose they're not very colourful, are they?"
"Could it be more puzzling?" Zia asked.
Maida simply smiled and held out her tea cup. "May I have a refill, please?"
Jilly pushed the sugar bag over to her. Maida filled her tea cup to the brim with sugar. After a glance at Zia, she filled Zia's tea cup as well.
"Would you like some?" she asked Jilly.
"No, I'm quite full. Besides, too much tea makes me have to pee."
The crow girls giggled.
"So what sort of jobs did you get?" Jilly asked.
Zia lowered her tea cup and licked the sugar from her upper lip.
"We're elves!" she said.
Maida nodded happily. "At the mall. We get to help out Santa."
"Not the real Santa," Zia explained.
"No, no. He's much too very busy making toys at the North Pole."
"This is sort of a cloned Santa."
"Every mall has one, you know."
"And we," Zia announced proudly, "are in charge of handing out the candy canes."
"Oh my," Jilly said, thinking of the havoc that could cause.
"Which makes us very important," Maida said.
"Not to mention useful."
"So pooh to Lucius, who thinks we're not."
"Do they have lots of candy canes in stock?" Jilly asked.
"Mountains," Zia assured her.
"Besides," Maida added. "It's all magic, isn't it? Santa never runs out of candy or toys."
That was before you were put in charge of the candy canes, Jilly thought, but she kept her worry to herself.
Much to everyone's surprise, the crow girls made excellent elves. They began their first daily four-hour shift on December 1st, dressed in matching red and green outfits that the mall provided: long-sleeved jerseys, short pleated skirts, tights, shoes with exaggerated curling toes, and droopy elf hats with their rowdy black hair poking out from underneath. There were bells on their shoes, bells at the end of their hats, and they each wore brooches made of bells that they'd borrowed from one of the stores in the mall. Because they found it next to impossible to stand still for more than a few seconds at a time, the area around Santa's chair echoed with their constant jingling. Parents waiting in line, not to mention their eager children, were completely enchanted by their happy antics and the ready smiles on their small dark faces.
"I thought they'd last fifteen minutes," their uncle Lucius confided to the professor a few days after the pair had started, "but they've surprised me."
"I don't see why," the professor said. "It seems to me that they'd be perfectly suited for the job. They're about as elfish as you can get without being an elf."
"But they're normally so easily distracted."
The professor nodded. "However, there's candy involved, isn't there? Jilly tells me that they've put in charge of the candy canes."
"And isn't that a source for pride." Lucius shook his head and smiled. "Trust them to find a way to combine sweets with work."
"They'll be the Easter Bunny's helpers in the spring."
Lucius laughed. "Maybe I can apprentice them to the Tooth Fairy."
The crow girls really were perfectly suited to their job. Unlike many of the tired shoppers that trudged by Santa's chair, they remained enthralled with every aspect of their new environment. The flashing lights. The jingling bells. The glittering tinsel. The piped-in Christmas music. The shining ornaments.
And, of course, the great abundance of candy canes.
They treated each child's questions and excitement as though that child was the first to have this experience. They talked to those waiting in line, made faces so that the children would laugh happily as they were having their pictures taken, handed out candy canes when the children were lifted down from Santa's lap. They paid rapt attention to every wish expressed and adored hearing about all the wonderful toys available in the shops.
Some children, normally shy about a visit to Santa, returned again and again, completely smitten with the pair.
But mostly, it was all about the candy canes.
The crow girls were extremely generous in handing them out, and equally enthusiastic about their own consumption. They stopped themselves from eating as many as they might have liked, but did consume one little candy cane each for every five minutes they were on the job.
Santa, busy with the children, and also enamored with his cheerful helpers, failed to notice that the sacks of candy canes in the storage area behind his chair were dwindling at an astonishing rate. He never thought to look because it had never been an issue before. There'd always been plenty of candy canes to go around in the past.
On December 19th, at the beginning of their noon shift, there were already lines and lines of children waiting excitedly to visit Santa and his crow girl elves. As the photographer was unhooking the cord to let the children in, Maida turned to Zia to ask where the next sack of candy canes was just as Zia asked Maida the very same question. Santa suggested that they'd better hurry up and grab another sack from the storage space.
Trailing the sound of jingling bells, the crow girls went behind his chair.
Zia pulled aside the little curtain.
"Oh-oh," she said.
Maida pushed in beside her to have a look herself. The two girls exchanged worried looks.
"They're all gone," Zia told Santa.
"I'll go to the stockroom for more," Maida offered.
Zia nodded. "Me, too."
"What stockroom?" Santa began.
But then he realized exactly what they were saying. His normally rosy cheeks went as white as his whiskers.
"They're all gone?" he asked. "All those bags of candy canes?"
"In a word, yes."
"But where could they all have gone?"
"We gave them away," Maida reminded him. "Remember?"
Zia nodded. "We were supposed to."
"So that's what we did."
"Because it's our job."
"And we ate a few," Maida admitted.
"A veryvery few."
Santa frowned. "How many is a few?"
"Hmm," Zia said.
They both began to count on their fingers as they talked.
"We were veryvery careful not to eat more than twelve an hour."
"Oh so very careful."
"So in four hours--"
"--that would be forty-eight--"
"--because there are two of us."
They paused for a moment, as though to ascertain that there really were only two of them.
"So that would be…um…"
"--times how many days?"
"--not counting today--"
"--because there aren't any today--"
"--which is why we need to go the stockroom to get more."
Santa was adding it all up himself. "That's almost two thousand candy canes you've eaten!"
"Well…almost," Maida said.
"One thousand, seven hundred and twenty-eight," Zia said.
"If you're keeping count."
"Which is almost two thousand, I suppose, but not really."
"Where is the candy cane stockroom?" Maida asked.
"There isn't one," Santa told her.
"And that means," he added, "that all the children here today won't get any candy canes."
The crow girls looked horrified.
"That means us, too," Zia said.
Maida nodded. "We'll also suffer, you know."
"But we're ever so stoic."
"We'll hardly complain."
"And never where you can hear us."
"Except for now, of course."
Santa buried his face in hands, completely disconcerting the parent approaching his chair, child in hand.
"Don't worry!" Maida cried.
"We have everything under control." Zia looked at Maida. "We do, don't we?"
Maida closed her eyes for a long moment, then opened them wide and grinned.
"Free tinsel for everyone!" she cried.
"I don't want tinsel," the little boy standing in front of Santa with his mother said. "I want a candy cane."
"Oh, you do want tinsel," Maida assured him.
"Why does he want tinsel?" Zia asked.
Maida grabbed two handfuls from the boughs of Santa's Christmas tree. Fluttering the tinsel with both hands over her head, she ran around the small enclosure that housed Santa's chair.
"Because it's so fluttery!" she cried.
Zia immediately understood. "And shiny!" Grinning, she grabbed handfuls of her own.
"Veryvery shiny," Maida agreed.
"And almost as good as candy," Zia assured the little boy as she handed him some. "Though not quite as sugary good."
The little boy took the tinsel with a doubtful look, but then Zia whirled him about in a sudden impromptu dance. Soon he was laughing and waving his tinsel as well. From the line-up, all the children began to clap.
"We want tinsel, too!" one of them cried.
The crow girls got through their shift with great success. They danced and twirled on the spot and did mad acrobatics. They fluttered tinsel, blew kisses, jingled their bells, and told stories so outrageous that no one believed them, but everyone laughed.
By the end of their shift, even Santa had come around to seeing "the great excellent especially good fortune of free tinsel."
Unfortunately, the mall management wasn't so easily appeased and the crow girls left the employ of the Williamson Street Mall that very day, after first having to turn in their red and green elf outfits. But on the plus side, they were paid for their nineteen days of work and spent all their money on chocolate and fudge and candy and ice cream.
When they finally toddled out of the mall into the snowy night, they made chubby snow angels on any lawn they could find, all the way back to the Rookery.
"So now we're unemployed," Zia told Jilly when they came over for a visit on the twenty-third, shouting "Happy eve before Christmas eve!" as they trooped into the professor's house.
"I heard," Jilly said.
"It was awful," Maida said.
Jilly nodded. "Losing a job's never fun."
"No, no, no," Zia said. "They ran out of candy canes!"
"Can you imagine?" Maida asked.
Zia shook her head. "Barely. And I was there."
"Well, I'm sorry to hear that," Jilly said.
"Yes, it's a veryvery sorrysome state of affairs," Maida said.
"And we're unemployed, too!"
"Lucius says we're unemployable."
"Because now we have a record."
"A permanent record."
"Of being bad bad candy cane-eating girls."
They both looked so serious and sad that Jilly became worried. But then Zia laughed. And Maida laughed, too.
"What's so funny?" Jilly asked.
Zia started to answer, but she collapsed in giggles and couldn't speak.
Maida giggled, too, but she managed to say, "We sort of like being bad bad candy cane-eating girls."
Zia got her fit of giggles under control. "Because it's like being outlaws."
"Fierce candy cane-eating outlaw girls."
"And that's a good thing?" Jilly asked.
"What do you think?" Maida asked.
"I think it is. Merry Christmas, Maida. Merry Christmas, Zia."
"Merry Christmas to you!" they both cried.
Zia looked at Maida. "Why did you say, 'Merry Christmas toot toot'?"
"I didn't say 'toot toot'."
"I think maybe you did."
Zia grinned. "Toot toot!"
They pulled their jingling bell brooches out of their pockets which they'd forgotten to return to the store where they'd "found" them and marched around the kitchen singing "Jingle Bells" at the top of their lungs until Goon, the professor's housekeeper, came in and made them stop.
Then they sat at the table with their cups of sugar, on their best behavior which meant they only took their brooches out every few moments, jingled them and said "toot toot" very quietly. Then giggling, they'd put the brooches away again.
Story copyright (c) 2001 by Charles de Lint & MaryAnn Harris
Art copyright (c) 2001 by MaryAnn Harris
Page design by MaryAnn Harris