I have not been writing much here recently because other affairs are keeping me busy. As a lark, I want to include a writing assignment that I dreamed up for my work colleagues:
Fractured Fairy Tales: retell a fairy tale in the first person from the perspective of one of the characters (Cinderella, a bear in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the wolf in the Three Pigs). To add another level of difficulty, the writer has to include references to all five senses in the narrative (sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste). The fairy tale plot only serves as a starting point, and the writer can alter it to adjust to the character or make it funny or shorter, or give it a modern twist . The story may have a different ending than the original version.
Obviously, this task is a change of pace and style from writing technical proposals, but that was the point. I pulled “Rumpelstiltskin” out of a bag, and the writing process took on a life of its own. I will save the explanation of why I chose this writing assignment for another entry because this one is going to go a bit longer than post blog entries.
So here goes.
I have a weakness for frogs, the kind that swim in the moat of the king’s castle downstream from the swamp I call home. Maybe it’s the refuse thrown in the moat daily or the stagnation of the waters, but those juicy amphibians taste as if they have been stuffed with truffles. They are one of the few pleasures for a swamp imp that gets tired of eating moss and minnows. However, the king in these parts decreed that the poaching of any creature in his domain was punishable by death or its equivalent so I had to hold back my appetite to avoid detection.
Following his nose
One evening, I went to the castle moat to snatch a few frogs. I sniffed fear in the air. It came from a tower above the castle walls. I clawed up the stone face, led by the scent of fear growing more pungent as I drew closer—a woman in distress! I looked through the top-most window and saw a solitary maiden. She was weeping into her blond hair, seated by a spinning wheel and mounds of straw.
I slithered through the window and jumped down to the floor. The maiden recoiled at my sudden appearance.
“Well, my young thing, why are you so sad?”
The maiden said that her father, the town miller, had gotten drunk and boasted that his daughter could spin straw into gold, just look at her yellow hair. The king had heard the claim and summoned her. Her father felt as if he had endangered his daughter by his idle boast, and he wept as she headed to the castle. His tears were warranted. The king commanded her to turn the straw in the tower room into gold or she would end up in the dungeon forever.
Forever’s a long time; I should know.
“Give me your necklace and I’ll help you,” I offered her. I had no need for a necklace, but I felt her warm hand against my clammy skin as she gave it to me. I sat on the stool and spun. Before first light, I left her with golden spindles heaped on the floor.
I returned to the castle the next evening to find out what had happened to the maiden. I could still smell fear in the air, but this time coming from another tower. There I found her weeping, surrounded by even higher piles of straw, from the floor to the ceiling.
“Give me your ring and I’ll save the day.” The maiden placed her ring in my webbed hand. I was touched by her surrender. I set about my work, finishing before dawn.
The third evening I went back to the castle and caught a whiff of fear coming from the stables. Behind the barred doors and windows, the maiden wept, but this time she had nothing of value to give me in return for my service. I had heard other fairy tales and knew the maximum demand: “Give me your first-born child and I’ll do the trick.”
With no Prince Charming in sight, she agreed and I began furiously spinning the straw stacks into gold threads.
When I came back the fourth night, I smelt not a trace of the maiden’s fear, not from the towers, not from the stable. I could not track where the girl had gone. I returned to my daily routine in the swamp and poaching frogs from the moat every few weeks.
A year later
I went to castle moat and recognized a familiar odor in the air. I followed the scent into the castle’s private quarters. I found the maiden seated by a cradle. She was no longer dressed in hand-me-downs, but wore a plush gown and a crown. She had won over the king with her (my) generosity and become queen. She had just given birth to a prince, a first-born, who lay there in the cradle. She had remembered her oath to me.
It was that fear, for her child, I had caught in the wind. “Please don’t take my baby!” she begged and offered all her wealth. I had no need for her money if I could spin gold at will, just as I had no need for her necklace or ring. I wavered and gave her a pinch of hope: “Guess my name and you can keep your child.”
She rattled off hundreds of Christian names. I halted her, shaking my head: “Think about it and I’ll come back tomorrow night.”
The next evening, she pulled out a Bible and read thousands of names from the Old Testament. I shook my head until my neck ached. I laughed and gave her one more chance (I began to enjoy the sound of her voice). On my way back to my swamp hideaway, I stopped briefly at the moat and caught a brace of frogs as a treat.
Back at my hideaway, I cooked up my banquet over an open fire, my mouth watering in anticipation. With my belly full, I danced a little jig around the flames, singing of my exploits, punctuated by my biggest secret:
“Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, I’ll go to the king’s house,
nobody knows my name, I’m called Rumpelstiltskin.”
I heard the snap of a twig behind me. I turned around and briefly saw what seemed like the faint silhouette of a man’s face illuminated by the flickering fire—and then darkness. I returned to my revelry.
At the appointed time the next evening, I appeared in the queen’s chamber. The queen no longer smelt of fear, which puzzled me. She rattled off a few names, and I shook my head after each one. She paused several beats and whispered, “Perhaps, your name is Rumpelstiltskin.”
I gagged on my tongue. How did she find out?
I then flashed back to that glimmering face just outside the reach of my campfire while I was dancing and singing about my appetite for frogs and my tongue-twister name. It had been the maiden’s father, the miller. She had asked him to wait by the moat for an imp-like creature coming out of her chamber window. He had tracked me back to my hideout. My appetite for frogs had fouled me. I turned greener with rage.
The queen reached out her hand and touched my head softly, “Although I have discovered your name and won the challenge, I cannot forget that I owe you my life. I grant you a franchise on frogs from the castle moat forever.”
Even a swamp imp deserves his fairy tale ending.