Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tall Tale Tuesday :: Reprise

In the grey gloaming of the forest I saw her, that tormenting red jacket, and I heard the trilling of her twilight song as she snuck in between the green brambles and dense thickets. She was heading west on the dusty path canopied by lean branches of the high trees. The light of day faded and I lost track of her. So I slept. I dreamt of her. She taunted me, teased me through the night, tossing her strawberry curls as she kept running.

Dawn came early, as it always does to those who spend the night sleeping on a hard and dewy ground, and woke me. I found a grand oak, thick and golden, on which to urinate before tending to my aching stomach. I happen to be a rather accomplished hunter. After ensnaring a couple of conies and having a sumptuous breakfast, I took to the search, westward, once more.

The path twined and narrowed until it happened upon a wooden bridge set atop a silver stream shimmering in the morning light. The water looked cool and it babbled over blue rocks in the bed of the stream. Beyond the bridge lay a glen with hillocks of rich green grass. As I stepped toward the bridge, three brown goats hurtled past me from between the tines of the tree trunks, each goat larger than the one before. Their sharp hooves trip trapped upon the wooden planks as they clopped across.

Upon reaching the far side, each took big mouthfuls of the springy grass. I smirked and walked out onto the bridge. When I reached the center, a great black troll with dead eyes leapt up from the underside and stood adamant between me and the exit. “Who’s tripping over my bridge?” he asked. I gave him my name. “I’ve come to gobble you up,” and he strode toward me. His stink assaulted my nostrils as he advanced; a putrid mixture of fermented river scum and excrement. It was when his third footstep fell that he gave a great howl, a sonorous yelp, and both his hands sped to rub his naked hindquarters. He leapt once more, only this time it was off of the bridge and into the water where he let the cascading current take him downstream. I crossed the bridge. Across from me at the end of the bridge was the eldest and fattest of the billy goats, his ivory twin horns glinting and flecked with scarlet drops.

“Thanks,” I said to the billy goat.

“Get lost,” he replied. “Don’t ever interrupt our breakfast again or I'll send you screaming, too.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “But before I scram, do you know which way the chick in the red jacket went?” The goat lifted his head and eyed the stone fence in the distance. There was a small break in it, and I glimpsed a fleeting flash of flitting red slipping behind the gap. It seemed large enough for two men walking abreast to slip between. I would fit, too.

Ten minutes at a causal gait put me at the wall’s gap, around which stood a baker’s dozen of trim gentlemen in fine tailored black suits and sunglasses, scuttling to and fro, snapping pictures and taking statements from the smattering of witnesses, all of whom were staring intently at the base of the wall. There, in a crumpled and runny heap, sat the eviscerated remains of a local celebrity. He was a pretty boy, with his flashy smile and cream colored shell and soft-boiled physique. A real ladies man.

The sun was moving along in the morning sky and the cadaver’s innards were ripening, rotting.

I approached the darkest skinned of the suited men. He appeared to be speaking into the lapel of his jacket. “It’s a homicide, alright. Tell ‘em to send out the coroner. We’ll need Doc Foster for this one. It’s messy.” The man paused and looked at me. “Can I help you, sir?”

“Yeah. What happened?”

“Well, he had a great fall. The first responders did their best, but he’s...”and the officer drew his chubby, sausage-like thumb across the girth of his neck in a well-known pantomime. I growled my understanding. He continued, “Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

“Just one more thing, officer. I’m looking for a girl, about yea high, wearing a red jacket. I thought she came through here. Did you see her?”

“See her? Hell, buddy, she’s the perp. She gave the poor guy a shove and bolted into the Western Wood.” He began to rifle through his black trousers. “Listen, if you catch up with that salty strumpet, gimme a call. Don’t engage her on your own. Ya hear me?” He handed his business card, a white cardstock thing with a black crested print of the King’s coat of arms.

“Will do, sir,” I said, with every intention of chucking it once safely on the far side of the stone wall. I walked through the break and waited until the noise from the hubbub of the crime scene died away before I balled up the card and tossed it into some pretty purple rhododendrons. If anyone was going to have this girl, it was me. There’s no way Johnny Law would ruin that.


I stopped for lunch at The Greasy Spoon on the eastern fringe of the Western Wood. The day’s special was written in chalky pink letters on the board behind counter: Hamburgers and Moon Pie. My waitress was an emaciated chick, but she came by it honest. Despite her physique, she maintained a round face, dimpled and beautiful. Not my cup of tea, though; she’s nothing compared to my lithe quarry.

I asked for a coffee and a couple of venison flanks, juicy red and raw. She scribbled it onto her lime green pad and wheeled about to place the order. The diner was vacant and oddly bereft of most smells one might expect in an establishment of doubtful reputation. I sighed and contented myself with the stillness of the air conditioned restaurant. Then the door to the kitchen sprang open, bringing with it the affronting stench of burnt grease and the dishwasher, a rotund boy with skin like porcelain. He sprinted up to the cash register and took hold of my waitress’s hands. “Spoon, sweetheart,” he said, “I’ve had it with this foolishness. Some might think it impetuous or reckless for us to be together, but I don’t.” He gulped a deep breath and went on bended knee, rather awkwardly I might add, for his plump figure was a neat fit between the counter and wall. “Let’s be married. Let’s run away.”

Spoon’s expressions were unabashed and warping as the emotional weight of this tumult danced upon her face. She was fighting whichever emotion was welling up inside, until the her heart was full to the brim. Eventually, she smiled. It was a gleaming, girly smile. “Oh dear, I love you. Let’s!” With the word, the lovers bounded for the exit (after Spoon shimmied the dishwasher loose from his wedged kneel) and left me alone in the diner. It was several minutes before I realized no other employees were on staff and my venison flanks weren’t coming. I shrugged and laughed. My next meal wasn’t far away.


The treacherous aspect of a jaunt to the center of the Western Wood isn’t navigating the density of undergrowth or losing the path, but skirting the entrapments and snares that await would be adventurers. The paths that lead to the beanstalk and the giant realm above still lead to the beanstalk, the roads to that carry travelers to the den of the dwarves still alights journeying folk upon their doorstep, and so forth. But the enchantress of the Wood, a crooked and bedraggled old woman called Grandmother, constantly evokes new and depraved magic with which she admits wayside travelers into the dungeons of her cold castle. Unto what end they come remains a mystery, for survivors of the Western Wood are sparse and never the loquacious sort, but the few rumors speak of the overflowing prisons at Grandmother’s House. It is for this abysmal domicile that the girl in the red jacket makes. I would wager my skin and my snarl on it.

First, though, I had the Western Wood to conquer, an enormous labyrinth with various death traps, and each cloaked in sundry masquerades. It is most akin to Theseus in the labyrinth, only the Minotaurs are of an innumerable quantity and often look like fruit or beautiful flowers. One must find a Theseus and have him divulge the secrets of the maze. My Theseus was three brothers. Three blind grey brothers without their tails.

Their burrow was tucked just inside the fringe of the Wood, where the sunbeams are distilled by the gilded treetops, shunting out the luminescence and trapping the sultry air. I gave a rasping shout into the hole, and wait for their woolly heads to appear. Each head sprouted grey and in quick succession. One. Two. Three. I bade them a good afternoon and made my plea for their guidance to Grandmother's at the center of the Western Wood. “Our tails,” they squeaked in synchrony, “bring back our tails.” I asked where they were. The mouse in the mouse in middle spoke. “She has them. That hag cut them as we hung from her hand by them. She keeps them in the bedchamber of her castle, as best we can gather. Retrieve them. Do this or die trying, and we will lead you to the very doorstep of Grandmother’s House.” I agreed. “Then let’s be off!” they chirped.

Gamboling about in a circular pattern, they tittered wildly, amplifying one another's energy. Once at full tilt, they bolted helter-skelter into the brush of the forest. I followed, listening to their incessant twittering and marking the nearly imperceptible pattering of feet. We scampered and scurried and bustled through orange groves and dense brush and undergrowth of thistles, all the while bright bangs and clattering crashes rang out as enchantments were tripped. We stayed a step ahead. Always a step ahead. In the frenzied flight I caught glimpses of a figure dressed in lush red to my right, at first far ahead, then parallel to us before falling well behind.

By dint of sheer pace and dexterity, we evaded all treachery. Adrenaline still pulsed through me once we came to the short clearing and regal lawns of Grandmother’s estate. The House was a pernicious thing of hewn rock. It was black. A deep, devilish black, as though a legion of chimney sweeps had been commissioned to rub the soot from their brushes and clothes against the stone. It stood blasphemous against the indigo sky. Emerald green pennants atop the tall towers flitted and fluttered in the wind.

The brothers each sighed, self-satisfied. I was panting. “Th-thanks,” I said. They chirruped and sprinted back into the mess of brambles we just fought through. I stepped into the clearing and contemplated my next move. The girl in the red jacket was still a while off. I had time to dispose of the witch.

I padded across the palatial lawns with no contest or clamor. I supposed the witch was very comfortable with her defenses, considering them impregnable. Most of these tyrannical crazies suffer from such narcissism. The castle gate was lowered. It felt too easy.

The courtyard was ornamented with high hedges, neatly kempt, and beautiful apple trees, the fruit of which was the purest of silver and gleamed dimly in the waning afternoon light. Oblong and awkward shadows danced upon the lawns and the golden caps of the castle’s minarets glinted brightly. The door to the grand hall stood ajar. It was a dark and decrepit space, filled with musty tapestries and grimy mirrors. The stink of necrotic flesh blossomed in my nose so stout I fought hard to reject my natural impulse to recoil and whimper. The lone light in the room flickered high above upon the landing of the obsidian staircase. I ascended.

Her room was the first door on the left. She slept in the bed at the center of the room. First, rip her throat, she mustn’t speak; she will set a spell upon me, I thought. As I thought it, I noticed the necklace she wore. It was of a fleshy color and had three knots. The blind brothers’ tails. It clung tightly to her neck, but not uncomfortably. I crept to the bedside and beheld the shriveled lump of flesh taking in shallow breaths, barely alive and only just human. My heart welled with pity. In my hesitation, the hag awoke. But she did not awake into an outburst of cantrips or necromancy. She only smiled. “I knew you would come,” she said in a quavering voice. “We all must play our parts, after all. I’m an ill-tempered and envious witch. I cast beauties into enchanted sleeps and place princesses in the high towers and tempt maidens with plump, poisonous apples. It can’t be helped.

“And you, you’re a big bad wolf, with a taste for the flesh of man cub. My granddaughter, yes?” she asked.

“Is she really your granddaughter? I thought everyone called this Grandmother’s House?”
Her face contorted into a confounded expression. “Of course she’s my grandchild. They all are. Red. Hansel, Gretel, Snow White, Rapunzel. All of them. That’s what makes the magic difficult, but it’s my part to play. Why deny what I am?”

“You’re a monster,” I said.

“And so are you,” she said, reaching up and petting the scruff of my neck. Condescending slattern. “So, get on with your part. Eat me whole or tear at my throat, then take up your reward. It’s at the gate now. You’ve earned it.” The witch closed her eyes and laid flat against the downy mattress, jutting out the wrinkled expanse of her neck.

Her words reverberated in my mind for a moment before I decided. When I decide something, I go through with it. I hate it when people oscillate. I opened my mouth and lowered my head towards the witch. “You can keep going on being a fiend if you like, putrescing from the inside out, but I’m deviating from my role. After all this time, I think a little improvisation is in order.” I put my teeth to the closest knot of the necklace and undid it.

The witch stared at me for a long while. A note of derision hung in her gaze. The creaking of the bedroom door broke our concentration. “Grandmother!” cried the girl in the red jacket. “What is the Big Bad Wolf doing to you?”

“It’s just Wolf, actually,” I corrected.



“You stay away from us, beast! D’you hear me?” Her voice quaked with anticipation. Red fussed with the pleat of her skirt and straightened her jacket. She knew her part, too. Get eaten whole. Be rescued. Call it a day.

“No problem. I’ll be on my way, then.” I ambled toward the door.

Red stood perplexed and opened her prim mouth to interject, but she merely pursed her lips and attended to her grandmother. As I crossed the threshold, I heard her address the hag.

“What do we do now?”

I laughed. My mind was made up. I would return the tails to the Three Brothers. Beyond that, I was without an inclination of what would come next. It was a novel idea.

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