A Beast and a Ball

Prince Ferdinand opened the next folder on the pile with a sigh. Some of this paperwork was ancient. Had his father ever done any paperwork? Had his grandfather? Prince Ferdinand snorted. Knowing the state of the nation’s finances before he took charge of the accounts, it wasn’t likely.

He started skimming through the papers. Wait, this was a missing person report. Wasn’t it a job for the sheriff? He read further. The baron and his household vanished a decade ago, but the lights were still on in his manor every night. No one from town was allowed inside. He’d managed all business with his tenants and the village through letters.

This could be interesting. The prince looked back down at the paperwork. Right. It was probably time for a break. He left on his fastest horse in the morning.

It was evening when he arrived. The manor did have its lights on. He knocked on the doors, but no one answered. “Open, by order of your prince,” he said in his most official voice.

The door creaked open. No one was there. He stepped inside and the door closed behind him. He heard footsteps coming down the hall. A tall man entered. He was hairy and horribly disfigured, but dressed neatly.

The prince smiled.  “Hello, I am Prince Ferdinand and I am hoping to meet with the baron. He hasn’t been seen in some time and the local villagers are worried.”

The tall man huffed. “I am he.”

“Are you all right? Has something happened?” Ferdinand asked.

“Do I look all right? Have you not seen my face?” The man’s large hands were tightened into fists and he was nearly roaring the last few words.

Not for the first time, Prince Ferdinand considered the merits of spending the money to hire a personal guard. If he made it home, he’d have to speak to his advisers. Hiding his fear, he spoke in a calm, cold tone. “You claim to be a baron, yet you are yelling at your prince.”

The man seemed to shrink into himself. “I apologize. Please, come to my study and I will tell you what happened.”

They sat in the study. The prince heard the strange story and nodded. “Cursed to look like this until you fall in love with someone and they with you?” The baron looked down at his hands. “Well that’s not going to happen if you continue to stay hidden in your manor.   Come back to the castle and I’ll throw a ball. My mother will be delighted to spend the money.”

The baron looked up. “But my hideous appearance?”

“Fine, it can be a masquerade ball.” The prince smiled.

‘I don’t think this will work, but it would be nice to get out for a bit.”   The Baron sighed. “Come, you must be hungry. Let’s have dinner.”

They left the next day. The baron wore a cloak with a large hood. Luckily, the weather was still chilly, so no one seemed alarmed. The trip home was uneventful. They held the ball a month later.

By then, the baron had grown a little more hopeful. He still refused to look in the mirror, but he’d regained some of his confidence. He enjoyed speaking with the palace scholars and spent a lot of time in debate with the advisers in charge of defense and finance.

The ball was lovely. The queen had been so happy to throw a party again that she’d spent every moment she could on the planning and preparation. “Perhaps you’ll find someone too, Ferdinand,” she said.

“Perhaps,” Ferdinand said. “Thank you for your hard work. It looks great.”

The baron spent most of his time with a girl that had arrived late. They only danced with each other. Ferdinand hoped that the midnight unmasking wouldn’t crush the baron’s hopes.

When midnight chimed, the girl ran away. Strangely, she ran before the unmasking. The baron ran after her, but came back alone.

“What happened?” Ferdinand asked.

“I don’t know. She just left. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.” The baron sighed and pulled off his mask. His face was no longer furry and disfigured.

“She loves you,” Ferdinand said.

“She couldn’t. She left,” the baron said.

“Come here and look.” Ferdinand led the baron to a mirror. “Look.”   The baron looked at his feet.   Ferdinand sighed. “As your prince I command it. Look at the mirror.”

The baron looked up and patted his face with much smaller hands. “She loves me.” His eyes were wide.

“Perhaps she left early because she’s ashamed of her own looks. Would you love her if she’s ugly?” Ferdinand asked.

“Yes. But how will I find her?   I don’t know what she looks like.”   He slumped into a chair and then stood again and pulled something out of his pocket. He smiled.   “She left this slipper. We can try it on all the girls in the kingdom. I’ll marry the girl it fits!”

“That’s ridiculous. Lots of people have feet that are the same size or nearly so. Plus, do you know how long that would take?” The prince smiled.

The baron slumped again. “You won’t help me?”

Prince Ferdinand patted his shoulder. “Of course I will.”

A voice came from the mirror and a hazy face appeared. “You mean, you’ll ask me where to find her, of course.”

The baron looked behind them, then back at he mirror. “Is that a talking mirror?”

“I’ll tell you another time. It’s a long story. Just write down what he says,” the prince said.

The baron and one of the prince’s lawyers left the next afternoon. The lawyer returned alone. “I assume it went well then,” the prince said.

“The girl’s father died without a will. The stepmother was treating the girl like a servant. She ran because she didn’t want the stepmother to know she’d come to the ball against orders,” the lawyer said.

“That’s terrible. I assume the baron swooped in to help?”

The lawyer smiled. “He proposed on the spot. I’m certain you’ll be invited to the wedding.”

“Well, that’s good.” The prince frowned. “I suppose I need to send out another reminder about the importance of estate planning. And seeking immediate help in the event of being cursed.” He sighed. “I’ll make a note of it. Time to go back to the paperwork again.”

Charlie’s Room: The Pocket

Isaac looked at himself in the mirror. He smiled and smoothed down the front of his new coat. It was a little silly to buy a new coat in the middle of winter, just as the weather was starting to warm up a little.  Especially since he already had a perfectly good coat. But he liked this coat, and it had been such a good deal.

He’d gone to the store for milk, but there was a display of marked down clothing near the register. As he hurried by, he saw the arm of his new coat sticking out from between a baby blue hoodie and a neon pink vest, as if calling out for help. He’d chuckled and taken it off the rack, planning on moving it to another spot where it fit in better.

Removed from the rack he could see the coat better, and it was soft and gray and soothing. It was his size. He tried it on and it was like wearing a hug. Somehow, he took it with him as he rushed away to find the milk.

It had tags, but no price sticker. They couldn’t find it in their computer. The employee, new to her job, gave up and called the manager. The manager tried to find the coat in the computer. It just wasn’t there.

Isaac almost told them that he didn’t really need a new coat anyways.   Then he looked down and it was reaching out an arm towards him, as if pleading for him to be patient. He waited. In the end, the manager pulled the hoodie off the clearance rack and rang that up instead.

Everyone at work complimented his new coat. Isaac was in a great mood by the time he got home. As he reached to take his coat off, he found an inside pocket that he hadn’t noticed before. How had he missed that?

It was the perfect size for his car keys. This way he wouldn’t forget where he put them. He slipped the keys inside the pocket and hung up the new coat. He gave it a fond pat as he turned to leave the room. Maybe Charlie would want to play a round of Scrabble?

That evening, they decided to go to see the latest dinosaur and space ships movie.   Isaac pulled on his new coat and checked the pocket. The keys weren’t there. He checked the other pockets. He checked the floor. The dresser. The hallway. The car.

Charlie and Marianne were already waiting by the door when he came back inside.   “I seem to have misplaced my keys.   Have you seen them?”

“Sure,” Charlie said. “They were on my desk. I’ll go get them.”

How strange. Had he taken them with him when he asked Charlie for a Scrabble game? He couldn’t quite remember. Charlie came back with the keys. The movie was excellent. The dinosaurs saved the earth from the alien invaders. Again.

When they returned home, Isaac almost put the keys back in his coat pocket.   He paused. He put them on the dresser instead. The next morning he forgot all about losing his keys.

As Isaac was leaving work the next day, a coworker was handing out candy to celebrate the birth of his daughter. Isaac smiled and congratulated him and tucked the candy in his inside coat pocket to give to Charlie later. Then he cooed over the pictures of the new baby and remembered when Charlie was that little.

Charlie met him at the door with a hug. “Thanks for the candy, Dad,” he said. “It was a nice surprise. You’re the best.” He grinned. “Maybe we can play Scrabble again when I get my homework done.”

Confused, Isaac reached into his inside coat pocket. The candy was gone. He checked the outside pockets. His keys and gloves were still there. This called for an experiment.

Carefully, he put his keys in the inside pocket. He patted the coat. The keys were still there. He waited a minute and patted the coat. Still there. Another minute. They were gone.

Walking past the kitchen, he could hear Marianne and Charlie talking. He continued down the hall and looked into Charlie’s room. His keys were sitting in the middle of Charlie’s desk. Well, that answered that question. His new coat was amazing.

The next day, before leaving work, he wrote a note. “Dear Charlie, I love you. I’ll see you soon. Do you want to play Scrabble again? Love, Dad.” Then he folded it up and slipped it into his inside coat pocket.

 

Mirrors and Dwarves

Prince Ferdinand’s adviser on international relations came stumbling into his office. “What happened?” Prince Ferdinand asked.

“I tripped over this pile of paper outside the door. Who left it there? It’s quite unsafe,” the adviser said.

Ferdinand looked out the door. “More paperwork? And of course they just left it and ran off, the cowards.” He picked up the stack of papers and closed the door. “Please sit down. I hope you have something that needs my immediate attention. I’ve been trapped in here all week doing paperwork.” He dropped the papers on his desk with a sigh.

The adviser smiled. “Actually, I might. A neighboring kingdom is in an uproar. The queen regent and her stepdaughter have both gone missing. They’ve asked us for help in finding them. Failing that, they’d like our help determining a successor.”

Prince Ferdinand smiled. “That does sound like a challenge. Let them know I’m on my way.” He left the next morning, riding on his fastest horse.

Once he arrived at the castle, he asked to speak with the queen regent’s most trusted adviser. A page showed him into a room with a mirror. “When will the adviser be able to meet with me?” he asked.

The page opened his mouth, but before he could speak, a voice came out of the mirror. “If my counsel you will heed, no other adviser you will need.”

Prince Ferdinand turned. The mirror was no longer reflecting the room. Instead, a fuzzy, pale face looked back at him calmly. “That’s unexpected. A mirror adviser. Do you have to speak in rhyme?”

“No, but it sounds more impressive,” the mirror said.

“It’s not necessary,” the prince said. “I’m already impressed. So, do you know what happened to the queen?”

The mirror hummed for a moment. “She died after attacking the princess.”

“And the princess?”

The mirror hummed again. “She’s near death, but not dead yet. She’s in the forest with a group of dwarves. The royal huntsman knows which forest.”

Prince Ferdinand grinned. “That’s amazing. How would I find a mirror like this?”

The mirror smiled. “We’ll talk again after you save the princess.”

“Of course,” the prince said.

He found her in an impressive stasis chamber. She looked a little blue around her lips. With the dwarves’ permission, he opened the chamber and checked.   She had a pulse, but wasn’t breathing.

He sat her up and gave her a hard slap on the back. She coughed up a piece of apple and started gasping for air.   The dwarves cheered.

“You’ve saved her! How can we repay you?” one of the dwarves asked.

“Please tell me more about this stasis chamber. Is it some new form of technology?” Prince Ferdinand asked.

“That’s a secret of the dwarven kingdom. We could put in a good word with the king and maybe he’d be willing to discuss opening trade with your people,” the dwarf said.

“That would be excellent. Let me tell you how to reach me.” He pulled out some paper and scrawled out detailed directions. “Now I need to get the princess back to the castle. Her stepmother is dead and she has a kingdom to run.”

The princess fluttered her eyelashes. “I may need some help with that,” she said.

Prince Ferdinand smiled. “Lucky for you, you have a mirror adviser.”

Before he left for home, he talked to the mirror again. “So, could I make a mirror like this?” he asked.

“Not without risking insanity,” the mirror said. “There is one other mirror I am linked to. If you had that mirror, I’d speak to you when you called.   Simply using the mirror wouldn’t be at all harmful.”

“Where is it?” Prince Ferdinand leaned forward.

“It belonged to a rather scary old woman who lived in a hut that walked on chicken legs,” the mirror said. It frowned. “I think she was crazy before she made the mirror, honestly.”

“I’ve heard of her. We recently arranged to provide her with sheep so she’d stop eating people. In return, she patrols the borders for us.   It came out of the defense budget.”   The prince scowled.

“I’m surprised she was allowed to go free.”

“There was some curse that would befall the nation if she was tried for her crimes. The legal department said our hands were tied somewhat, as long as she stopped eating innocents. Does she still have the mirror?” The prince asked.

“No, a young girl took it and threw it to the ground along with a comb.   They had protections that turned them into a lake and wood to hide them. The old woman never returned for them, so I believe you are free to keep them.   I’ll give you the coordinates to find them and the spell to return them to their original shapes.”   The mirror smiled.

“Will the spell make me crazy?” The prince raised an eyebrow.

“No, and I cannot lie,” the mirror said. ‘But you are welcome to check with your royal wizards first if you’d like.”

“All right then. I suppose I’ll talk to you again soon,” the prince said.

After arranging trade agreements with the new queen, Prince Ferdinand headed home. He stopped for the mirror and comb on his way. As he approached his home he sighed. He just knew the paperwork would be terrible. Well, perhaps the dwarves would come visit soon and he’d be able to escape his office for a day or two?

 

Everything is Bigger in Giantland

“Mom, I’m home,” Jack said.

“So what did you find up there?” Jack’s mom asked.

“In Giantland?”

“It can’t really be called that.” Jack’s mom folded her arms.

Jack smiled. “Who cares?   It’s what I’m calling it. The giant lives in a huge house.”

“Of course he does. What’s inside?”

“I don’t know. I wasn’t going to go inside to check. A giant lives there!” Jack laughed.

The door behind him opened a little wider. Jack’s mom looked down and screamed. She ran forward with a frying pan in hand. Jack snatched the thing up in his arms. “Stop, mom! It’s a ladybug. She can play catch and shake hands and fly. I’m pretty sure she’ll eat dog food. Can we keep her?”

Jack’s mom set the frying pan on the table beside her with a sigh.   “Jack, we couldn’t afford to keep a cow, and that was useful.”

“Why don’t you sell your famous applesauce? Or some apple butter or apple pies?” Jack asked, patting the giant ladybug on the head.

She sighed. “Jack, you always were a silly child. We don’t have any apples.”

“I brought some apples back with me,” Jack said. “The squirrels helped me bring them down.”

Jack’s mom sat down and put her head in her hands. “Giant squirrels, I suppose?”

“That’s right. They can communicate with hand signals for now, but I should probably teach them to talk too. I told them they could make a nest in the barn now that Bessie’s gone.” Jack smiled. “I’m sure they wouldn’t mind helping around the house or fetching more apples.”

“Why do they want to move here? We have nothing here,” Jack’s mom said.

“The giant really likes squirrel soup.” Jack set the ladybug down. It flew around him in a loop and then out the door. “Would you like to see the apples?”

“Jack, won’t the giant notice the apples are gone and find the beanstalk and come after us?”

Jack patted her shoulder and held out a hand. When she took it he pulled her up out of her chair. “The squirrels say he sleeps in late.   As long as he doesn’t see us, we should be fine. He doesn’t count his apples, and he has lots.   Maybe we could get some of the wildflowers to sell at market too. They were amazing.”

He pushed the door completely open and she followed him out. The apples were each as big as their little barn.   Jack’s mom started feeling hopeful.   With the flowers to sell first, she could get the extra ingredients and supplies to jar and sell applesauce or make pies.

She tripped over something and looked down. “Jack, is that a golden plate?”

“Oh, yeah, the squirrels gave me some pocket change the giant dropped.   So, can I keep the ladybug? She won’t be any trouble. Watch.” He crouched in front of the ladybug and held out a hand. “Shake!”

The ladybug held out a leg and Jack shook it. Jack grinned. Jack’s mom sighed. “That’s fine Jack. Why didn’t you tell me about the gold first?”

“I really don’t know how we’d sell it without explaining where we got it,” Jack said.

Jack’s mom laughed. “Jack, everyone from miles around can see the beanstalk.”

“Yes, but if they don’t know about the gold, they won’t be trying to take the beanstalk from us. Big flowers that you have to climb for an hour to get are a lot less appealing than gold. Especially if you have to get through giant squirrels to get to the beanstalk.” Jack threw a stick and the ladybug flew after it.

“Jack…that was surprisingly clever. You’re right. We’ll have to find a way to sell the gold in smaller pieces and not very often…” Jack’s mom sat on a bucket and started to mutter to herself.

Jack grinned again as the ladybug flew back and dropped the stick at his feet. “Mom, I think I know what I’ll call her.”

Jack’s mom looked up. “What?”

“I’ll name her Spot,” he said.

Jack’s mom laughed. “I guess you’re still my silly boy after all.”

Museum Trip

Mariah was so excited. Today they were going for a long ride in the car! Mom said they were going to a museum. She said it was a place for people to look at pictures. Mariah imagined a giant refrigerator. That could be interesting.

“It’s going to be a long drive Mariah. Here are some fruit snacks and I’ll play your favorite music, all right?” Mom said.

Mariah had finished the fruit snacks before they were out of the driveway.   She tossed the wrapper on the floor.   “More?”

Mom sighed. “Wait a bit, Mariah.”

“Pwease?” Mariah clasped her hands together and made a sad face.

“Fine, fine,” Mom said. She stopped and gave Mariah another packet of fruit snacks.

Mariah ate more slowly. She wasn’t really sure if she wanted them. She put them down next to her leg in the car seat and looked out the window.   There was a bird. “Biwd,” she said.

She saw the moon. Why was the moon out in the daytime? “Why moon?” she asked.

“Why are we going to the museum?” Mom said. “It’s a discount day and it’s good for us to learn new things. At half price.”

Mom made no sense sometimes. Mariah looked out the window and watched the moon. Mom turned on her music and Mariah was clapping in time to “hot cross buns.” This was fun.

By the time they arrived at the museum, Mariah was screaming to be let out.   This was so boring. She was going to die of boredom. This trip was an awful idea.

Mom finally stopped the car and unbuckled the car seat. Mariah slid out of the seat unhappily. Her head hurt. “Mariah,” Mom said. “You didn’t finish eating your fruit snacks and they melted all over your car seat and your outfit. Where are the wipes?”

Mariah endured having her leg scrubbed, but she was really ready to get out of the car. Mom finally decided she needed to change Mariah’s outfit, and then finally they were walking down a sidewalk with an interesting pattern of bricks. They went zig-zag, zig-zag like stairs or waves.   Mariah tried to turn her feet to follow the bricks.

“Stop spinning like that,” Mom said. “You’re going to fall over.” Mariah sighed and took Mom’s hand. They went inside a nice warm building full of people standing in a long line.

The carpet had a funny design of lines. Mariah wanted to walk along them and pretend they were paths. “Don’t wander off Mariah,” Mom said. She handed Mariah a book.

Mariah tried to sit and look at it, but the line kept inching forward, and she couldn’t sit for long before it was time to move. It was too hard to hold the book open and walk. She hit the book on her leg and sang “Eensy Weensy Spider” instead. She couldn’t remember all the words, but that didn’t really matter.

They finally got to the front of the line. Mom paid some money, and she and Mariah got stamps on their hands.   It was a blue star. Mariah rubbed on it to see if it would smear.   “Stop that,” Mom said. “Hold my hand.”

Mom lifted Mariah up to see some of the pictures. She’d point out a cat or a bird. Mariah would agree that there was a cat or a bird there, then they’d move on. There were things in glass cases they couldn’t touch. There were statues missing arms or legs or clothes or bodies. They just kept walking and walking and walking and looking.

At lunch, Mom held Mariah up so that she could drink out of the drinking fountain. The water was so cold and it went up and then down like a rainbow. Mariah put her hand in the water to see what was holding it up like that.   “Don’t play in the water,” Mom said.

“Why up?” Mariah asked. How did the water do that?

“I held you up so you could reach the water,” Mom said.

“No, water up,” Mariah said.

“No, no more drinks Mariah. Let’s go eat lunch.”

That sounded good. Mariah followed Mom to a park bench. They had cheese and crackers and grapes. A sad looking bird hopped up close. Mariah wanted to share her crackers with the little bird, but Mom said no.

Mariah tossed it one when Mom wasn’t looking. The little bird pecked at it. It looked happy. Mariah smiled. “Mariah,” Mom said. “I told you no. I guess you’re done eating. Let’s go back inside.”

Lots of walking later, Mariah was being buckled back into the car seat, despite her protests. “Come on, Mariah, we need to go home. Your yellow bear is waiting for you.”

Mariah stopped struggling. It would be nice to see Yellow Bear again and tell him about her day. “Beaw now,” she said.

“Not until we get home. Did you like the museum? What was your favorite part?”

Mariah thought about it. “Watew.   Biwd,” she said.

“I’m not sure which painting that was,” Mom said. “Was there a boat too?”

Mariah sighed. Then she yawned. Maybe it was time for a nap.   It had been a strange day and she was tired. And she never did see the big refrigerator.