By Florence Newman
One Halloween night, when my friend Ellie and I were about eight or nine, we went trick-or-treating door to door around our neighborhood. This was in those dangerous days before parents hovered protectively behind their costumed children to make sure that they didn’t get snatched by predators posing as genial homeowners or receive apples lanced with razor blades. Back then, we two girls were alone as we approached a stranger’s house where a glowing porch light beckoned. I recall the house being set back among some trees, with a long, serpentine brick walk leading to an old-fashioned gabled portico, but such “memories” are no doubt later embellishments conjured up to match the eeriness of what happened there.
Ellie rang the doorbell. We were dressed as society ladies in our mothers’ long gloves and pearl necklaces (we loved playing dress-up), or maybe I was Peter Pan and Ellie was Wendy, as we were one year for a class play called “Midnight in the Library,” in which characters escaped from their books and frolicked on the stage. The light from the doorway must have fallen over a charming picture of childish expectation as we stood there with our innocent, upturned faces and outstretched paper bags. “Trick or treat!” But the woman who had opened the door didn’t offer us candy. Was she short and silver-haired or young, willowy, and brunette? I guess I’ve forgotten. Or else it was hard to make out the details of her figure, back lit in the frame of the door. Certainly we were dazzled when she leaned over and told us, conspiratorially, that she was a witch.
“And I have a gift for each of you. Hold out your hand.”
Of course we did. Into my palm she pressed two copper pennies, then two more into Ellie’s.
“These are magic pennies. Promise you won’t lose them.”
We nodded solemnly, conscious of the awesome power with which we were being entrusted. As we left, Ellie and I looked at each other: she was grinning and her eyes had a mischievous twinkle. Did we believe the pennies were really magic? I, at least, believed they might be. After all, we had read about magic in the Narnia stories and in The Hobbit and The Time Garden and The Enchanted Castle. And before those, there had been fairy tales, like Jack and the Beanstalk, which taught us that the world was filled with magic that one could stumble across at any time and that only grown-ups foolishly rejected. Now here was a grown-up who not only believed in magic but was herself a witch, proving what every child secretly wishes to be true.
I never put the pennies to the test: what if they failed, shattering my fragile faith, already under assault by life’s steady barrage of the banal and ordinary? But neither did I lose them. Every now and then, 55-odd years on, when I’m looking for something else, I come across a battered leather box in a bureau drawer and discover inside it an ornate, antique key, badly tarnished; several unmatched buttons; and a square plastic container, about one inch by one inch, through whose top I can see two copper pennies. All thoughts of my original purpose are crowded out by recollections of that night, my friend Ellie (does she still have her pennies?), and the remarkable woman who claimed to be a witch. I am old enough now to be such a witch—a short, silver-haired one—though, as I mentioned, it’s hard to catch children alone on Halloween anymore. Witches were probably scarce even in those long-ago days. Still, I can aspire to be the rare woman who passes along that truly magical gift.
Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years. A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers. She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden. She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.
Copyright © 2017, Florence Newman
The Princess and the Cobwebs
By Jim Sizemore
There once lived a King in a castle high on a hill overlooking rich farmlands and forests. The King owned everything as far as the eye could see. His peasants labored from sunup to sundown growing his crops, tending his flocks and carefully breeding his livestock. The King, a more-or-less fair man, as absolute rulers go, allowed the peasants to keep a reasonable share of their earnings. So, as peasants go, they were more-or-less happy.
But the King had recently become terribly unhappy. Some years before the time of this story, his wife the Queen had died. The King then shifted all of his love and attention to his only child, and the beautiful young girl became his obsession. For a time, his focus on her was enough to keep the King perfectly happy. But then she changed, as children always do; the once sunny girl turned into a sullen, hyper-sensitive adolescent.
The King was distraught. He tried reasoning with his daughter, pleaded with her to tell him what the problem was so he could have it fixed. But his heightened concern only made matters worse. She became more and more distant, and soon refused to communicate with her father at all. The King was depressed. His work suffered. The lack of royal leadership was felt across the land. Crops failed. Taxes went uncollected. Battles with neighboring kingdoms over land rights and such were at first neglected, then lost by default.
As powerless administrative bodies often do, the King’s Court panicked. Dire interventions into the King’s business were considered by some of the younger court members. As young men often do, they even convened a secret meeting to plan a royal coup d’etat. When the Court Wizard heard about what was going on, he suggested a delaying tactic to head off an uprising. The Princess would be handed over to him for a complete physical, mental and spiritual evaluation. The King agreed, despite that doing so amounted to admitting that the Royal Blood had become tainted. A cover-up story was concocted and the exam scheduled. Despite attempts to keep things quiet, the scandal leaked, and it soon became obvious to even the lowest peasant that their King was a desperate man, not unlike the most common of his subjects.
In time the report came back and was duly translated from arcane medical jargon into the King’s English. It stated that the only unusual finding was a heretofore unheard of condition, caused by No-One-Knew-What. Small cobweb-like fibers, with the tensile strength of steel, were growing in the girl’s ears. The good news: their progress appeared to be very slow. Even so, the condition limited the social life of the princess. For one thing, the sprouts effected her balance. She walked with an erratic gate, couldn’t run or jump, and her favorite pass time, dancing, was out of the question. The Wizard explained that all this angst seemed to account for the Princess’ bad behavior; it was, he declared, enough to unsettle anyone. The Wizard’s report ended with an apology. He confessed that he had already tried all of his magic tricks, and nothing had worked. Therefore, as good fake doctor’s do, he recommended taking a “wait-and-see” attitude.
The King was grateful that the Wizard had at least suggested his daughter’s problem, but he was not satisfied with the passive approach. In better days The King had been a man of action, and now he was once again inspired to draw upon that attribute. He instructed his Town Crier to issue a bold proclamation. The King decreed that any man who could free the Princess from her problem, and thereby restore her cheerful character, would be fixed for the span of his natural life—at least gold-coin-wise. Also, subject to the approval of the Princess, The King threw in the possibility of a marriage option.
Every eligible young swain in the Kingdom, every aging bachelor, every social-climbing-son-of-a Duke, applied to have a go at solving the mystery. Some of the men were crude in their approach, as we know men can be, especially when in competition for the hand of a rich and beautiful young woman. Several tried outlandish physical humor: standing on their heads and spinning while juggling three balls. Others took the subtle approach, bombarding her with terrible puns and corny jokes. Then there were the totally clueless ones who attempted to melt the fibers by whispering sweet nothings into her ears. Alas, none of it worked, and the Princess grew only more awkward and ill-tempered.
The King was desperate. Finally the bachelor son of the court sheep herder came forward. This was most unusual. As a rule, a commoner would not dare to think that he had anything to offer one so high-born. But to this sheepherder-in-training, known in the kingdom as Max the Talker, no such self-effacing idea had ever occurred. From birth, Max had shown unusual self-respect, a natural sense of entitlement, so to speak. On the day of his application appointment with Her Highness at the Castle, he showed up perfectly relaxed, head erect, back straight, smiling sweetly.
After just one session with Max the Talker, the King noted an improvement in his daughter. For the first time in three years, she actually smiled. And she asked for permission to see Max again, which of course was granted. Thus it came to be that Max the Talker was allowed to spend one hour each afternoon with the Princess. At first they met in her chambers, chaperoned by her Ladies in Waiting. For the next six months they spent the hour talking about subjects of mutual interest on a wide range of subjects: history, music, clothes, books, food, dancing and suchlike. Max the Talker never mentioned the cobwebs, and neither did the Princess. Nevertheless, she continued to recover. Before long she demanded even more privacy, which the King was quick to allow. From then on the chamber door was locked from the inside, the couple now without adult supervision of any sort. With this new arrangement, it was obvious to everyone that the Princess’ rate of recovery had accelerated. She was becoming her old sunny self again.
The King was ecstatic. His work, such as it was, improved. The Peasants had never been better managed. The Kings’ soldiers once again became victorious in battle. Taxes were paid on time for the first time in three years. Quarterly reports indicated that the Royal financial house was in order, again showing profits for each quarter—and at rates higher than ever before. The Wizard, when he reexamined the Princess, was amazed: The “cobwebs” had vanished. This news was quickly reported to the King who, without hesitating, awarded Max the Talker the fortune in gold, plus his restored daughter’s hand in marriage. To the King’s surprise, and also to his relief, Max the Talker graciously declined the hand of the Princess. He used the golden windfall to buy a small farm, plus a huge herd of sheep, larger even than the King’s own.
As the months went by, and when not too busy with chores, Max the Talker was content to hang out with his many peasant friends, discussing this and that—anything they found conversation-worthy. In the evenings, he made notes in his journal. And best of all, he finally had enough free time to write at length, which had always been his passion. Max knew that he could never have been this happy as a member of the King’s Court, so he felt not the slightest twinge of regret. He and the Princess remained friends, and met from time-to-time for a longish chat. Eighteen months after the disappearance of her ear problem, the Princess met a handsome peer from a nearby Kingdom and fell in love. And that was that.
Max the Talker, meanwhile, staying true to his character, spent the rest of his days living just as he had always thought he would—happily ever after . . .
Copyright © 2016 Jim Sizemore