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Robert in the House of Tales.

"In the olden times when wishes still had power, there once was a king whose daughters were all beautiful; yet the youngest of them was so beautiful that the sun who had seen much was enchanted each time he saw her face. Close to the king's castle there was a large dark forest ..." Oh, I know this story, tell me another one, the boy wanted to say--but, still listening, he fell asleep. He felt himself walking wide awake through a landscape full of bright colors, sweet smells and soothing noises. He could hear the wind sighing through the high grass that stroked and tickled his legs, and then the soft whispers of a wide field of high-stemmed flowers--red and orange, yellow and blue, all swaying in the breeze, their large blossoms reaching up to him, their big and hungry mouths closing and opening as if they wanted to speak. Their warm and delicious breath almost made him faint. And when he looked down, he saw that their pollen had left yellow stains on his pants. What a mess. He thought he heard his mother scolding.

Then the grass and the flowers were gone, their whisperings replaced by the rustle of leaves. It had become dark. He looked up and saw high trees bending in the wind. And between them a few stars. Already? It must be getting late. I should be in bed listening to a bedtime story. If he only knew where he was. He stopped. Everything looked strange, and he was close to tears. There was no path, either before or behind him, only moss and trees, and he had forgotten to take some of those white pebbles to mark the way he had come--like that boy did in the story his mother had read to him a few days ago. How I wish I could hear my mother's voice now or my father's scolding. It must be the dark forest around the king's castle. And I'm all alone in it. He felt his pants become wet and he began to cry.

A big bird flew by--so close that one of its wings slightly touched his cheek. The bird sat down on the branch of a tree not far in front of him. He could see its bright eyes opening and closing. "Why do you cry, little boy?" it croaked when the boy had come a little nearer. "Because I am lost and don't know where I am." "Can't help you there. I only know my way around this forest. But save your tears for someone who needs more help than you do. Not far from here, I saw a pretty girl running away from a creature I have never seen around here--half man, half monster it looked to me, with horns and a long tail. She was crying for help, and if you run fast you can still rescue her. Come, there is no time to spare."

With this the bird slowly rose and flew ahead, its blinking eyes showing him a way through the trees, and the boy running and stumbling after the bird's lanterns. "Don't fly so fast," he shouted several times quite out of breath, but then he heard shrill cries that must be the girl's, and in the moonlight he saw her white dress on a patch of moss and a black shadow catching up with it. "No! Stop! Let her go!" he shouted and, still running, he broke a dry branch from a nearby tree and hit the monster's head from behind with the furious force of fear and desire. It turned around, bleeding, its mouth wide open, its lolling tongue and yellow fangs growing huge before him. He almost fainted when he breathed in the beast's foul breath, and with the last strength he could muster he drove the branch deep down into its throat. Then he collapsed. But before consciousness left him, he saw the girl's face bend down to him, then felt the sweet-smelling flower of her mouth on his. His hands, groping after her, touched one of her breasts, so warm and tender, like the bird he had once held in his hands. But all his hands were left with was a piece of white cloth, a scarf--perhaps that of the king's daughter? Then everything grew black around him.

He woke as if from a bad dream. But when he saw the scarf in his hand and that he was not in his bed at home, he knew that whatever had happened was not a dream but real. He looked around and became aware that things had changed once more. He was not in the forest any longer but in a large room. The softness he lay on was not moss but a rug. There were also rugs on the walls, and four windows. The dim light they gave made it difficult for him to see. He felt chilly and miserable. Except when he looked at the white fabric in his hand. He tied it around his wrist as he knew knights did when they went on a quest for the woman of their heart. He felt happy when he remembered who had worn it, her lips, her smell, the light brushing of her breast he could still feel on his fingers' tips.

Suddenly, a noise. As if someone had sighed. He looked into the semi-darkness of the room and saw in one of its corners an old man sitting on a large and decrepit chair covered with cobwebs. Slanted on his head and only held there by one of his ears was something jagged and yellow. And on the floor next to his right foot a stick of yellow metal capped with what looked from a distance like pieces of colored glass. "Are you the old king with the beautiful daughters?" the boy asked. "Ah, don't remind me" the old man said and moaned again. "I have lost them and everything else. I have cried so much that I have no more tears left when I think of them. Oh, I wish you were the prince who I was told would come one day to bring my daughters back to me and restore my power. I had so much, then, and now I have nothing. In my sadness, I gave up everything I had because nothing mattered any more--no kingdom, no power, no gold, no love nor hope. Unless ... perhaps ... Are you the prince I have been waiting for?"

The boy didn't know what to say. So he just shook his head. The king (or he, who once was a king) continued sadly. "True, I still have this house, this castle. But it's all that's left. It is very large, has many floors and stories as well as many halls, doors, and chambers. There must be hundreds of them which, alas, I cannot open. They have stolen the keys, or perhaps I gave them away. What does it matter. I don't know what is behind those doors, my household, perhaps, asleep, or the evil spirits that haunt me, or even my daughters locked away by those who abducted, perhaps seduced them. I don't have the strength to look, nor the keys. I have been sitting here for so long, for years and decades, perhaps for centuries."

The boy (who was on his way to not being a boy any more) became impatient. He had become curious about the old king's castle--there was so much to discover (perhaps also, he wishfully sighed, to uncover). Where did it begin (or where had he come in?), where did it end (or how would he get out of it again?), how many stories did it have, and how many doors to chambers full of treasures or beautiful maidens? He left the old man to his sorrows and began climbing the stairs. The keys, he had said, were gone. But perhaps they were hidden somewhere. The old man could neither climb steps nor see very well, so forget him! He was now on the first floor. (Or was it the second already?) It opened on a large hall with many doors. He looked up the flight of stairs and saw no end to it. To the right, a long row of doors; to the left he saw a chest of many drawers. He opened one and found--how strange!--a set of iron shoes, in another a few apples still looking red and fresh, although they must have been there for a long time. They made him hungry. (Yet, careful, perhaps they have been poisoned! There was that story he remembered. Better not eat them.) In a third he found a poker, a magic poker, for all he knew. He put his hands on it, perhaps it might be of use to him some time, although he could not quite imagine how; so he left it where it was. In a fourth, he discovered a pair of glass slippers (where did these come from?); in a fifth, a little girl's red hood; in a sixth, a golden ball and a dead frog. (Why dead? Wasn't it supposed to turn into a beautiful prince?) Finally, in the seventh, rusty keys--a whole bunch of them. So they hadn't been stolen, after all. The old man had simply forgotten about them. He took them. They were heavy. How long would it take him to find the right one each time!

He started with the door next to the staircase. The first key didn't fit. The second broke off, its end remaining in the lock. He would never know what was behind that door! With the next door, none of the keys worked. It would take ages to try them all out, and he soon gave up. But with the third door, the first key he tried did fit! He took a deep breath, then unlocked the door and pushed it open. It screeched on its hinges. He was sure it hadn't been opened in a long time. But inside, everything was quiet. Close by the window was a spinning wheel with a girl's head resting on it, fast asleep. He couldn't see her face, and yet he was sure that it wasn't the one he was looking for. There was straw on the floor, quite a lot of it, and one small ball of gold glistening even in the dim light. In front of the spinning wheel lay a little man, a dwarf perhaps, apparently dead (what was his name? how did the story go?); his right leg had been torn from the rest of his body. The boy (who was not going to be a boy much longer) shuddered and shut the door.

Somewhere downstairs he heard the noise of people talking and laughing. He went down a flight and came to a door that was already half open. When he entered the room he saw many people in front of a big screen watching a film. The film showed a large square surrounded by buildings so high they looked as if they could scratch the sky. On that square he could see an enormous crowd standing around a stage where clowns, acrobats, performers of all kinds did funny, dangerous, or just entertaining things. Behind it, as in a circus or a theater, were rows of spectators--celebrities and dignitaries the boy knew from TV or from pictures in the newspaper his father read every morning at the breakfast table. Above the stage was a huge screen which ran the images of a film or of a slide show, or both, he wasn't quite sure. One of these showed two people--a man and a woman--sitting on two chairs next to each other, their eyes blindfolded, their arms and legs tied and with plugs fastened to their heads, arms, and feet. Another picture showed a little girl in flames running down a street with her mouth wide open. In yet another, one could see a figure standing on a chair naked with a bag over his head and plugs fastened to his hands and genitals. The crowd accompanied these images with "Ahs" and "Ohs," at times booing, at other times wildly applauding. Then a man jumped on the stage evidently wanting to give a speech and when he jumped, he lost his pants which he then tried to pull up again. The people roared with laughter, thinking perhaps it was part of the show. And since it seemed such good fun, they dropped their own pants or panties, laughing and giggling self-consciously, while some pointed lewdly at each other. The face of the man who had started all this looked familiar, an American President, for sure, but the boy couldn't remember his name.

Suddenly a glaring spark of light, like lightning--and the two people on the screen fell forward in their chairs. Then, like the Prince of Heaven, Uncle Sam was seen coming from afar on a ball of light. The light became weaker as soon as he landed on the stage, but the boy recognized him from his usual outfit: top-hat and tails in the American colors, the pointing finger wanting "You" However, the light he had brought (or that had brought him) was fast burning out, and the eagle that had been hovering over his head like the Dove in some religious paintings, fell dead at his feet. A sudden blast of wind blew off his hat. When he tried to catch it, he let go of his pants which, apparently, had become too big for him. So that, suddenly, he also stood with his pants down to his ankles. There were a few laughs, but mostly in embarrassment. People looked down to pull up their own pants again and discovered that they were standing ankle-deep in excrement. (Had they done that? Was it their own?) The crowd, and the crowd watching the crowd, fell silent. Something awful had happened. The boy felt it too and, quietly, sneaked out of the room.

And into the next, where a wild party was going on--not exactly one for children as he soon noticed. It must have been going on for quite a while since most of the people he saw were not sober any more. Someone said there had been a murder; and, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible, he tiptoed from one room to another, until he saw the dead body lying on a rug: a woman with an ice-pick between her breasts, the blood still running from a large wound. There was blood all over the place--on her dress, on the rug, on beer and whisky glasses, on furniture and on people's hands. The police had just come and begun to cordon off the spot. He heard someone whisper there had been another killing. Strangely enough, neither the police (who seemed to make things worse), nor the dead body (or bodies meanwhile) kept the party from becoming wilder and ever more reckless. The noise level rose steadily, porcelain crashed, chairs broke. People let themselves go completely--how disgusting they were, how monstrous! (What would his parents think if they found him here!) He saw some drunkenly besmear themselves with their own shit and men doing things his mother slapped his hands for. When he crept upstairs looking for a bathroom, he found two naked people humping, rolling, and moaning on the floor. The chaos seemed total. At one point he noticed that it was being filmed as it unfolded, everything happening in front of running cameras: guests and hosts were actors and audience in the game they played. He was standing in a corner, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, watching but not knowing what to make of it. Until someone shouted: "Get this boy out of here!" And the boy was only too glad to leave the crazy world of adult rituals.

He wasted a lot of time opening the door to the next room--the fourth, wasn't it?--fumbling endlessly with his bunch of keys. At last he found the key that fit the lock! He pushed the door open--then closed it right away: he had seen a room full of corpses (pew, what a stench!), all of them women, their heads chopped off and heaped up in a corner. He felt ill. Must be bloody King Bluebeard's special chamber. What a monster he had been! Even if he did spare "the last one" the most beloved of his many wives. (Who, then, placed his head among her own gallery of trophies. Served him right! Still, he wasn't sure he liked that story.)

The next two rooms he entered were interconnected. Here people watched some theatrical act, performed on a small stage. In the first one, it was all pantomime--not a word spoken. A young woman entered a bedroom, made the bed, wiped the dust off the furniture, changed the towels in the bathroom, then left, but came back because she had forgotten something. Whereupon the master (didn't he look a little like the old king--was she then one of his daughters?) bared her bottom and spanked her. This went on for a while: she coming in, doing her work, then going out, then coming back to do something she had forgotten to do, and her strict master thereupon whipping her bare behind. It went on and on, and, as in a speeded-up film, became faster and faster, the blows harder and harder, while the master mumbled something like wanting to show her with the force of his rod the way to God. It was a strange game, and yet both seemed to like it; perhaps, because it was so very regular, so predictable. Some spectators were bored and left, others watched with an attention he only dimly understood. There was some heavy breathing, especially when the spanking part began, and the boy wondered about the games men and women liked to play with each other--some of them at least. (But not his parents. Never! Or would they?)

In the adjacent room, he saw the last section of a magician's act--its most gripping part as he gathered from the excitement of those watching. The magician had already conjured doves and rabbits from his hat. (They were still moving around on the stage.) Someone from the audience now asked him to do something with his assistant, a pretty girl whose smile was meant to invite participation. Great applause. The magician hesitated for a moment, then touched the girl with his magic stick. People laughed hysterically when they saw her shrink. The magician could now pick her up and put her in his hat. The audience began to clap madly and became more and more excited. As did the boy who wondered what the magician would do with her. With a smirk and a lewd movement, he put his hands into the hat and fumbled in there for a moment. There were yells from the audience, and the boy yelled with them--then, the magician pulled the tiny figure of the girl, now naked and gesticulating frantically, out of his hat, but did it with so much haste--or was he, like the audience, so excited?--that he tore her apart and her small body fell bleeding to the floor. There was total silence, then pandemonium. Someone called: "Get the police!" The boy ran out of the room, shocked and trembling. Had he not shared that strange excitement of the crowd? He felt deeply ashamed and vaguely complicit. What things men like to do with women! (Would he, too?) What he had seen, not only in this room, was awful, but also--he didn't quite know why--strangely thrilling! There must be more to all this, something he didn't yet know. But first he must get away from it all, he said to himself. Still dazed, he stumbled against a door he hadn't seen was there and that immediately yielded to the pressure of his weight. He fell face forward--not on a hard floor as he had expected but on soft grass.

He couldn't believe his eyes when he opened them, and sighed a sigh of relief when he realized that he was finally out of that cursed and haunted house. Hadn't been that difficult after all. He got up and saw he was facing a forest, must be the same one he had walked through earlier. When was that? It seemed so very long ago. Now I only have to find my way home, he thought. Perhaps I'll find another friendly bird that'll get me safely through the woods. After he had walked for a while, he became tired. It was hard to say what time it was, he didn't see any sun, and judging from the quality of light, it was either morning or evening. Just a little nap before I walk on, he murmured, sat down on a mossy spot and immediately fell asleep. He woke with what he thought was a wet rag on his face. Is it already time to get up? Do I have to go to school? he mumbled. When he opened his eyes, he looked into the face of a big old dog, panting and slavering over him. "Don't be afraid" someone nearby said in a grating voice. "She won't do anything, she is a nice dog--just a little hungry, as I am too."

As if to confirm, there came a big rumble from the dog's stomach, and the boy became aware that he, too, hadn't had anything to eat for a long time. Next to the dog stood a figure not much taller than the boy but older. He had the biggest nose the boy had ever seen and when he talked, his chin moved stiffly like that of a nutcracker. That's why his voice sounded so strange. Then, the penny dropped: "You are Pinocchio," he shouted excitedly. "I have read so much about you! And this must be your faithful watchdog Melampetta." A friendly growl came from the dog, and Pinocchio nodded happily. He was always glad when someone recognized him. "But what are you doing here in this dark forest, Pinocchio? I thought you were in Venice. It must be so much nicer there," "How true. I haven't seen the sun since I left it," Pinocchio sighed. "Actually, I had to get out of Venice. Some small matter with the police. But I must have walked into the wrong direction, and Melampetta's nose isn't what it used to be. We lost our way, and have no idea where we are. I am so glad we met you."

The boy was also happy to have company. The only thing they now needed was something to eat. After a while, Pinocchio lifted his long nose and sniffed in the air. "Don't you smell anything? A strange smell. What is it?" The boy couldn't smell anything, and the dog only let out another rumble, if it was a rumble. "Melampetta, you smell bad," the boy said. But Pinocchio evidently had a different smell in his nose because he enthusiastically said: "It's gingerbread" And, sure enough, through the high pine trees they soon saw a hut made of what looked like brown bricks and shingles. White lines were running all over it, which Pinocchio declared were sugar frosting. Pink and yellow lollypops were hanging from its door and windows and made tingling noises in the wind. Now all three stomachs rumbled in unison, and they rushed to the little house, broke off gingerbread shingles and stuffed them into their mouths. When, suddenly, the door flew open and an old woman stepped out, furiously shaking her crutch at them. "Stop that immediately, or I shall call the police," she shouted, whereupon Pinocchio, still thinking of Venice, dropped his gingerbread. But Melampetta and the boy continued chewing. Police? In this forest?

The hag, her whole body contorted with anger, came up close, shaking her long bony finger at them. But then, as if suddenly thinking better of it, rubbed Pinocchio's big nose almost tenderly, slightly bending it toward her deep cleavage, the lecherous hag! Then she patted the boy's head and caressed his innocent face. He shuddered from her touch since, now that she was standing so close to him, he became aware how very ugly she was. Not only her face (she had a disgusting moustache, like his grandmother, whose kisses he always tried to avoid); he could also see her old body through the torn dress she wore: her breasts, hanging like a goat's dugs, even, when she bent forward, her big and dried-up nipples. She cackled to herself for a moment, forced her face into a welcoming grin and then said: "Sorry, I got so angry. I thought you were thieves. I need these shingles, and you should not eat from them. But you are hungry, I guess." They all nodded. "Come with me to my oven, then. The bread that's in there must be almost done. You can eat of it to your heart's content. Actually, I had expected some other guests--a boy and a girl. But you will also do." She cackled again and led them to a near-by oven.

That bread she had talked about already lay on top of the oven and really smelled good, so that Melampetta was salivating heavily. However, the old woman did not give it to them as she had promised; she did not even look at it. Instead, she opened the oven--the long tongues of hot flames greedily licking its mouth--and pushed Pinocchio (who happened to be standing closest) into it. Yet the boy, grasping what was going on, clung to Pinocchio's leg and pulled him out; while the toothless but fiercely growling Melampetta held on to the witch's leg and tried to drag her away from the oven. Pinocchio's hair was singed quite a bit and the tip of his nose had turned black, but thank God he was still hale and alive.

"Let go of her, Melampetta," he shouted, "take Pinocchio and run. I can deal with the old witch." Pinocchio jumped on his faithful dog while the boy continued to struggle with that evil old woman as long as it took them to get away. She was stronger than he thought, and he loathed feeling her ugly body writhing underneath him. He jumped up and let her go. But the witch who had longed for Pinocchio's long nose, now wanted that pretty boy to burn in her hot oven. "I shall chew your tasty bone yet;' she cackled, running after him. Naturally, the boy was faster than she but then stepped on what must have been Melampetta's droppings and fell, pants, shirt, face and all, into the stinking mess. He got up and out of his shirt, but then felt the witch's hands on the waistband of his pants, before she also slipped and fell down, pulling the pants down to his ankles. The keys, he remembered the keys, and took them out of his pants' pockets, then stepped out of them and ran on, while she was loudly cursing in the mud.

He didn't know for how long he ran, naked, dripping with brown ooze, and with the keys in his hands. He heard noises behind him. But when he turned around, it wasn't the witch as he had feared but the beast he had encountered earlier--with the branch he had rammed into its throat still sticking out of its mouth. The king's castle was near, however, and the moat in front of it even closer. (Had that been here before?) He jumped into the moat--this way, he could at least get clean again--and swam across with one hand, holding the keys above his head with the other. The dragon (if it was a dragon) was still on the other side and, at least for now, did not dare to commit its heavy body to the water.

The castle had three towers that were connected. Walking along the wall in search of a door, he noticed that high on the first of these towers was a window that stood wide open. Rose bushes had grown up the wall, till right underneath it. I could easily climb up, he thought. But when he started climbing he saw that the hedges not only had thorns, they also held little knives that would cut deep into his flesh. And sure enough, when he looked up, he saw a few bodies hanging between those beautiful roses--quite dead. Poor fellows, they must have been in search of a sleeping princess. There should be other ways to do this!

A window was also open in the second tower--not quite as high up as the other one but pretty high. He heard someone shout sotto voce: "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your golden hair!" and saw a girl's head appear in the window, then turn around to let her hair fall down the side of the tower like a rope. I'm too late, I guess, he murmured. Besides, the girl whose soft breasts my fingertips remember, had black hair, didn't she. Luckily, there is still a third tower. But he saw no open window there, so that he had to walk all around the castle walls hoping to find a door. There was one, at last. It was so tiny that he almost overlooked it. Yet it was locked! Good that I thought of those keys. Hopefully it would not take long to find the right one. If there was a right one in the first place, or if the lock hadn't become rusty and wouldn't turn.

Yet after several tries it did. He was in a dark hall that he knew would lead to one of the towers. But which one? After a while, he came upon the steps of a spiral staircase. So he must have reached one of the towers. He climbed for what seemed hours, then felt a door that opened to his push. He saw a big room, a kitchen with an enormous stove, a large table with many footstools for the maids to cut meats and vegetables--except that they didn't because they had fallen asleep. As had the cook who had been overcome by sleep while stirring the pots. There was still a smell of burnt meat, although the fire had long gone out. Oh I know that story--how it ends, and who they are waiting for. Yet I am not the right prince, and she, who is asleep upstairs over her spindle, is not the right princess. He closed the door and started his search for the second tower.

He finally found it and unlocked the eighth door of his quest. Yet the girl standing there with her back to the window screamed when she saw the naked boy entering her room. "Please, close that door," she begged. "I can't move because there is someone climbing up my hair. I didn't expect anyone to come through the door. It's not in the story I am in." So the boy, redfaced and self-conscious, shut the door and, with keys in hand and the scarf (again white) around his wrist, began his long search for the third and last of the three towers. He was on his way down, when he noticed that the stairs were actually going up--although by now they should be level. The whole building seemed to be shifting while he was moving in it. Where am I, he asked himself, while he felt he was walking level, although he thought that he should be walking up again. The staircase finally ended on what must have been the highest floor--although he had no feeling any longer whether up was not actually down or vice versa.

The stairs had led him to a door that sprang open, as if by magic, as soon as he looked at it. It was the ninth door he would walk through, and when he did, he saw what he had given up all hope of seeing: the king's most beautiful daughter, that radiant girl he had once saved from the monster in the forest. She lay on a rug, apparently dead, her long raven hair almost covering her naked body--a body that, when he looked at it in rapturous contemplation, seemed to gleam as white and luminous as snow. A half eaten apple was still stuck in her mouth. He untied the scarf he had wrapped around his hand and spread it over her body leaving her beautiful face uncovered. He bent over it and stroked it tenderly. Then he pulled out the apple and kissed her mouth again and again. Then her neck, then--not moving the cloth--her arms, her breasts, and her belly. Then--but could it be that she had just moved? He looked up and saw that she had indeed opened her eyes. She sat up slowly, the thin fabric that hid her nakedness slowly sliding down. She flung it off impatiently, then pulled his head to her breast (which made him rigid in his happiness) and covered his hair with kisses.

"Oh, my Prince, you have finally come to take me away from here. But first let me feel your body beside me. I have been waiting and dreaming and longing for such a long time." He did--and then lay stiffly and quietly next to her, while she gently stroked his back. Then, perhaps still lost in her dreaming, she opened her legs and drew him toward her. "My Lucky Pierre, my lovely Peter," she whispered while touching with both hands the magic poker that had risen, like a red and long-stemmed flower, straight up between his legs. "I have just the right place for you here in my treasure box, my dewey dell, my warm and tender cove." And with that she cooed him and licked him and stroked him, then guided him, poker and all, into the dark, warm, and bushy nest that hid the juicy mouth of her gaping tunnel. It felt somewhat narrow at first, yet grew wider and wetter the farther he moved into it, its moist and rosy walls enclosing and deliciously squeezing him. He was inside, soaked, yet feeling gently gripped, then tightly enwrapped in the pulsing velvet muscle that drew him, sucked him, pulled him further and deeper toward the blackness he felt coming. At the same time, he was outside, sweating, moving, his tongue deep in her mouth, his hands kneading her soft breasts and hard little nipples, while she was holding on fast to his bare buttocks as they were rising and falling and rising and falling. Until, suddenly, his whole body seemed to be riding forward and upward. He screamed with delight before he collapsed; then heard a loud and ugly cackle echoing in the spacious halls as he was sinking and tumbling down the floors and stories he had climbed up before. "Look at him." he believed he heard his mother say, "how wet he is. I have to change his pants and his bedding. What's the matter with him tonight." He looked down at himself and saw that he didn't have any pants on. Must have left them upstairs. And the white scarf he thought he had again grasped when he fell, was only an old rag--which he now used to wipe himself off and to cover his naked lap. It had been the princess, hadn't it? Please God, he moaned, not that old hag, not that witch I have tried so hard to run away from.

He looked around, exhausted and ashamed. He recognized the room he was in. Except there was now a woman sitting on the king's chair doing something with her hands. Some needlework, it appeared. She stood up and spread what looked like a rug, first on the floor and then on an upright but slanted surface that looked like an easel, only bigger. Then she stepped back to better see what she had done. She probably saw more than he did in the dim light, but what he saw made him forget his awkward situation for a moment. At first it seemed like a blur of many colors--green, red, blue, orange and yellow. But then he recognized the circular center--perhaps a sun-wheel composed of several forked pink and red flames. In the middle was a red something that looked like a single red flame or like the open mouth of a shell. There were fantastic figures in different colors grouped around that center: birdwomen and fishwomen, floating upward or hanging upside down, or babies with wings, or mermaids with antlers and long hair. But what struck him most was the figure above the center: a woman with roots for hair, holding a winged baby in her right hand, with a big red hole between her legs and another baby with wings underneath. Perhaps it had fallen out of that hole.

The boy was so transfixed that he did not notice that the woman had seen him. "Pobrecito," she said in a language he didn't understand. "Do you see now what miracles we women work for the world?" She spoke vivaciously, rolling her rrr's, then broke into a peculiar, high-staccato laugh before she looked again at the piece she had just finished. The boy (who had stopped being a boy) was taken aback, acutely aware of his nakedness. "Who are you, little man," she then asked, turning once more toward him. "My friends call me Bob," he answered after a moment of silence, "but my mother calls me Robert." "Robert, really. Robert," she said and smiled. "What a nice name. My name is Ralip. That may sound like a strange name to you, yet it isn't in the country I come from. However, in order to get it right, you have to fetch a mirror." The boy wanted to run out to get one, but then remembered that he had nothing on. She saw his predicament and had pity with him. "Here, put this on, young man," she said and threw him a large wrap, her mantilla.

He did as she said. But when he looked up to thank her, the woman was gone. Instead the old king was once again sitting in his old chair staring at him. The boy (let's call him Robert from now on) was greatly puzzled--but then, after a moment, managed to stutter: "I wanted so much to be that Prince. I truly did. A-a-and I really tried to rouse your daughter from the deep sleep she was in after she had eaten that poisoned apple. But I couldn't bring her back to you. I--I guess I failed." (But had he?) The old man who, as Robert suddenly noticed, wasn't the king after all (couldn't be, because he was wearing glasses), looked at him and said with a smile: "Don't take it so hard! Shit happens. We all step into it now and then. But we can always get up, wipe ourselves off, and try again."

After he had said this, he slowly underwent a curious transformation: his gray hair became black and his old man's body visibly younger--until he had become a child again. (His kind old eyes, however, still gazed at him from behind glasses.) At the same time, Robert was aware that his own body had begun to change into the opposite direction: his black hair was turning white, his skin was shriveling up all over his body, his belly grew thicker in slow motion and then sagged; and the magic poker he had applied with such pleasure what seemed only minutes ago had shrunk and become an old man's limp and useless tool. How would he ever be able to go on a quest again? But the old-man-turned-child-again read his thoughts and reminded him of Sir John Paper who, even in old age, had been willing to face Puff, the Dragon, and dared riding on its powerful and dangerous tail.

"But that's only a story. I know that because I've read it. That old Sir is not called Paper for nothing: he exists only on paper and so does his dragon. In contrast, the dragon I thought I had killed--that monster anyway, was real. He came roaring after me when I came back from the forest. I barely got to the moat in time (and, thank God, found the door to another story). That tale with Puff and Sir Paper, by the way, was written by someone whose first name was the same as mine--but his second name escapes me. It had as many letters as his first. Yet I do recall the little boy on the book's cover." "It is a picture of the boy that you were once, and that I am again now."

"Would it help ... Could I get back to what I once was by telling my story backwards? Is that how you did it?"

"I don't think that would work. Can you remember the many different doors you walked through and all the stories you stumbled into? I bet you don't even know how you got into this house." That was true enough, and his heart sank. "Even I, who know this enchanted house so very well, don't know where all the doors lead to, or where people are living or hiding. Everything is changing so fast."

"Who owns it then? That old king I saw before, or ..." He hesitated for a moment when he looked at the man-turned-boy-again ... "you?"

"Neither one of us. We have inherited it, were all born into it. The king once thought he owned it but then things changed, the house shook and moved in its foundations, and he lost everything ... By the way, I know your name is Robert, and you must wonder about mine. Names don't really matter to me. So just call me Storyteller. As you must be aware by now: this house is made of stories and is also many stories high. Some of these I have invented. But most of them I found here (as you did when you came into the house), and I have been retelling them as many others did before me. We all live in stories--stories we have been told from childhood on. Even if we live in stories we believe we have invented, they may yet have been invented for us."

"Wait a minute," Robert said. "I am getting dizzy. Are you saying that you are telling the stories that I encounter? That I am a figure in one of your stories? Or that this is part of a story that I imagine? Oh, now I understand! You must be the evil spirit the King talked about. A trickster and a liar, an evil magician. It's probably your fault that he lost his power!"

"I'm afraid you don't understand anything," the storyteller said. "Perhaps centuries ago, storytellers did have the power you think I have. But we don't--although I wish we still had it. And yet, we continue telling or re-telling stories in the hope that they will change something, or that they help bring change about. That king you mentioned. He ruled as if this house belonged to him. His power made him start wars and led to the death of thousands of people. He made many of us suffer, even his daughters. He told you they were abducted. Not true! In reality, they ran away from him. He himself is responsible for his downfall--even if the many stories that exist about kings and king-like rulers may have shifted the house a bit and thus helped prepare the collapse of his kingdom. At least, that is what I like to think."

Robert, the one who once was a boy, was silent for a moment. Then he sighed and shook his head. "You said that his daughters ran away; but a few minutes ago you told me how difficult it was to get out of this house and that even you wouldn't find the exit. I myself was out and came back in only a short while ago."

"There is another thing you don't understand," the other Robert said. "You may have noticed that this house is different from the ones you know. Did you see that the few clocks we have here are all without hands? Time seems to be standing still--even though change is always going on. (You have changed while you have been in this house, and you saw me change.) It's hard to tell whether it's night or day here, or whether we are waking or sleeping. You may have thought you had escaped the house of tales but, didn't you notice, you stayed right in it. The forest you walked through (the king's forest) is always around us, is, in fact, a part of us. What is inside is outside and vice versa. Some of the animals you met there, you may also see here. The rug you are sitting on could easily change into moss again. The daughters that ran away from their father are outside and yet also still here. And from the way you look, I suspect that you met at least one of them." Robert was aware that his face was turning red, but he didn't say anything.

"When I said that transformations are always going on," the storyteller continued, "I also meant that the shape of the house is constantly changing: walls are rearranged, stairs turned upside down, ceilings rising or sinking, some new stories are continuously added, at the same time that old ones disappear. Even its foundations occasionally shift. A dangerous matter. When things become too chaotic, my telling stories helps to create more stability; but when things become too solid, I let my stories undermine walls or oil hinges so that doors can once again turn without shrieking and old stories become fresh again. In this sense, I am the Master but not the owner of this house."

"You still haven't told me how to get out of this spooky building, and why I have turned into an old man while you have become a child again."

"I was coming to that. I have told you why I tell stories. But there is also another reason. Look around you. Do you see all the animals that have been slowly crawling into this room while we were talking?" Robert hadn't. But in the general dimness he now saw the yellow eyes of large and small cats, a crouching tiger here, a lion there, their tails gently but audibly beating the ground. There were wolves and bears, too, with their mouths wide open and their tongues hanging out, and a crocodile (or was it a dragon?) whose vicious hissing gave Robert the creeps, and, oh yes, further back, still in the hall outside, he saw "his" monster with the branch he had rammed into its throat still sticking out. From time to time the beasts growled or made other threatening noises.

"There was a time," the storyteller continued, "when music held them at bay--the sound of a flute could tame a lion or enchant a snake. A very long time ago, there was a great musician who, overcome with sorrow over the death of his wife, was even able to enter the kingdom of death and come out of it alive by the magic of his music. I don't think that music is still able to exert such magic. So I have tried to do it with stories. Telling fables to the beasts has kept them tame and at a distance. And as long as I tell stories, I can slow down the aging process that is creeping up on me as on everybody else. Then, I become a child again--if only for short spells. But as soon as I stop telling stories--as I did in order to explain all this to you--these always hungry beasts grow restless and come closer, as they do now. Should I ever get tired of storytelling, I am afraid they shall either eat me up or carry me away through that secret door that only they know about. So, yes, there is a door out, but most of us don't even want to find it. We need these animals to push it open--we don't know into what and where, perhaps only into icy winds and everlasting darkness. Some do it violently, some gently. But go we--they--all must."

He fell silent again, and Robert noticed that the storyteller was about to undergo another of his many transformations. He saw gray in his dark hair and wrinkles in his face. (Only his glasses would always stay the same.) And as he did, the growling of the animals grew louder, and the monster with the stick was pushing his way through to the first row. It had its eyes on Robert, snarled angrily and then furiously bared its fangs. "Quick, tell a story," Robert entreated the storyteller. "Why don't you do it."

"I'm so scared, I can't think of one." "Why don't you tell him the story of John Paper and the dragon."

"But it's not my story. Someone else already told it."

"Yes, I know that since it was I who wrote it," the storyteller replied. "But if you tell it, if you make it yours, I'm sure you'll tell it differently. Besides, it's your monster that makes the worst noise. And, don't you see? It has its eyes entirely on you."

Which was certainly true. While they had been talking, the animals had crept closer, but the monster with the stick in its mouth had gotten up, its savage fangs bared and its jaws wide open. And now he saw that the stick was not a stick anymore but had turned into a piece of metal, its sharp tip pointed at him like an arrow or a lance. The beast's breath was not only foul but hot like fire. Something had to be done! So Robert began: "Puff that mighty dragon: where is he? He lies, brooding, the sorry beast, in his wretched cave ..." I have to be careful, Robert thought, and not make the monster even angrier. It takes so long in that story until Paper and Puff finally meet and come to understand that they really need each other. So he changed the story, as the storyteller had foreseen he would; and as he continued, the beast increasingly calmed down. It closed its mouth (as much as that was possible with that thing in it) and after a while it even closed its eyes and trustfully put its paw on Robert's leg.

All the beasts had become quiet now. So that Robert, while continuing his tale, began gently, oh so gently, to pull that thing out of the beast's throat. Its fury had apparently left it so that it even licked Robert's foot gratefully after he was done with his operation. Perhaps it had also recognized itself in the image of "Puff," the dragon of that other Robert's story. The once-boy who had now become old (that Robert, not the other Robert who was growing old again) carefully mounted the monster's back who then lifted its tail to form a saddle on which he could sit comfortably upright. Then, the other Puff (to give Robert's monster a name)--the Puff that was not paper but, like Robert (which one now?), was real--began to move, first trotting, then galloping, then running at great speed toward a door that had not been visible till now, and with a roar and a cry they both crashed through it and into the howling darkness.

"What is the matter, Robert, don't cry," said his mother and kissed her child on his sweaty forehead. He was sitting in bed upright with tears running down his cheeks. "Calmate, muchachito. It was only a nightmare. It's already way past midnight now and you have school tomorrow. You have to go to sleep."

"But I can't! I had so many bad dreams."

"Don't be silly. You are a big boy now. You should know that dreams are not real." She gently touched his cheek. "Lie down again. I'll tell you a better story: 'Once upon a time ...'"
COPYRIGHT 2012 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Ickstadt, Heinz
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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