Read Charming, Volume 2 Online
Authors: Jack Heckel
Once Upon, Once Again
“ONCE UPON A TIME,”
everyone can agree, is a fairly inaccurate way of marking time. “Once upon a time when?” one might well ask. Of course, most fairy tales live in their own blurry and disconnected time, neither now nor exactly then, and so the relative “when” of the story doesn't matter. But in Charming's tale, where you inconveniently have more than one “Once Upon a Time,” it can be important to know whether any particular “Once Upon a Time” came before or after any other “Once Upon a Time” that had been or is to come.
And soÂ .Â .Â .
Once upon a time, at about the same time that the recently disowned Charming wandered lost in his own melancholy, Elizabeth Pickett awoke from a muddled dream about the Prince, little men, and fairies as a badly metered Âcouplet was running through her head. She lay in bed staring at a short man perched atop a tall stool. His back was to her, and all she could see of him, apart from a waistcoat of garish purple, was a thin head of wild white hair. He had his arm cocked back and seemed on the verge of throwing a small leather book he was holding through the open window where a rainbow flock of songbirds chirruped loudly.
She had no idea where she was.
Liz sat up. As she did, the birds fell silent and stared at her. For his part, the strange little man spun about quickly, nearly unseating himself. As he struggled to regain his balance, she studied him. Putting aside his size, he was most singular. He had a white beard that matched the disorder of the hair on his head, and he wore a tiny pair of wire-Âframe glasses that perched unsteadily on his long thin nose.
Finally reseated, he smiling and said, “The poet speaks, the lady stirs .Â .Â .”
She started to say that poetry could be deadly in the wrong hands when
pair of eyes, sitting just above a short fat nose and topped by a head of curly black hair, appeared above the foot of the bed. The eyes of this second little man narrowed, and then a deep voice boomed, “HEY, EVERYONE! .Â .Â . THE BROAD'S AWAKE!”
This announcement provoked an alarming racket from the room beyond. There was an explosive sneeze, something heavy crashed to the floor, then crockery shattered and someone with a high, wheezy voice let loose a remarkably colorful curse, all followed by the sound of booted feet thundering unseen through the door. Then, like gophers in a field, four more heads popped up over the edge of the bed's footboard. Red hair and yellow, hatted and bare, thin nosed and broad, and each with the same sharp beetle-Âblack eyes. Liz mouthed silently as she counted out the number: .Â .Â .
four .Â .Â . five .Â .Â . six.
Six little men. No!
Not little men .Â .Â . dwarves!
Her head felt strangely foggy, so when she spoke, it was without thought. “Wait a minute, I've heard of you. You're dwarfs! Or is it
?” Both words sounded wrong to her.
“Actually,” said the white-Âhaired dwarf on the stool in a pedantic tone, “the etymology of the plural of
has been the subject of debate for some time. Of course, a morphologist would tell you that words ending in a fricative should be pluralized by the simple addition of an
.” He concluded by nodding his head sharply as though that brought the matter to a close.
“I disagree,” smiled a very happily disagreeable fellow to his left. “There are plenty of examples of irregular fricative pluralizations, like loaves and thieves.”
From atop his stool, the bespectacled dwarf frowned down at him. “I'm not saying it's a universal rule. There are no universal rules in morphophonemics. There is only quasi-Âregularity, and you know it.”
The grim-Âlooking dwarf that had earlier called her a broad frowned. “Well, I think the problem is that you are using the term
too loosely. Are we talking about spirant or strident fricatives?”
“Don't be an idiot,” snapped the white-Âhaired dwarf gesturing violently at his fellow debaters with the book. “How could
be a strident fricative; there's no tongue involved.” He demonstrated by over-Âenunciating the word
. “It's spirant fricatives we're talking about, so stop trying to complicate the matter.”
“Oh,” said the angry dwarf. “So I'm an idiot now, am I? Is that it?” He took a menacing step toward the seated fellow.
The white-Âhaired dwarf held up his hands. “Now, now, you know that's not what I meantâÂ”
A dwarf with a violently red nose interrupted. “Actually,
is a voiceless labiodental fricative, and a word like
can be pluralized
, depending on whether you are talking about a group of Âpeople or a walking stick .Â .Â . so .Â .Â .”
This was too much for the white-Âhaired fellow, who chucked his book across the room. It hit red-Ânose square on his red nose, eliciting a loud sneeze from the victim and a roar of laughter from the other dwarves.
The white-Âhaired dwarf straightened his glasses unnecessarily. “Now that that is settled, we can have a civilized discussion about the issue .Â .Â .”
Liz was finding it very hard to concentrate and, besides, felt they were getting slightly off topic, so she simply cut to the point she'd been going to make. “The point is, if you
the dwarfs .Â .Â . dwarvesâÂwhateverâÂ if you are the fellows from the story, you know the one, aren't there supposed to be seven of you? WaitâÂwait, let me guess your names .Â .Â .” She studied the arc of faces. There was one with a bright red nose, and one that seemed to be continuously flushing and who, at her glance, slipped behind a nearby curtain to hide. Another was snoring soundly and softly at her feet. She laughed. “Well, he's obvious,” she said, pointing at the sleeping figure. “He fell asleep right in the middle of our introductions, so he must be SleeâÂ”
The bespectacled, white-Âhaired dwarf interrupted her before she could finish. “Now, wait. You see .Â .Â .” Clearly uncertain how to continue, he stopped.
The smiling dwarf took up the thread in a high-Âpitched squeak. “We don'tâÂ”
“âÂthat's right,” said the bright-Ânosed fellow in a nasally voice, “we don't .Â .Â .”
The angry-Âlooking fellow glared at the other dwarves in disgust. “Don't hurt yourselves.” He climbed up onto the foot of the bed, straddling the sleeping dwarf, put his hands on his hips, and growled, “Listen, lady, we don't appreciate being reduced to one-Âdimensional caricatures. How would you like it if I decided to call you Clumsy for falling down a perfectly obvious ravine and breaking your arm, or Trampy because you are apparently perfectly comfortable receiving six men into your bedroom dressed in next to nothing?”
Liz looked down. The odious little man was right. There she was, covers around her waist, wearing nothing but a sheer shift that, in the morning light, was, at the least, immodest. She pulled the blanket up to her chin. The angry dwarf kept haranguing her about the evils of stereotyping, but she didn't hear any of it. Her mind was fully engaged, trying in vain to remember how she had gotten into this bed, why her arm was covered from elbow to wrist in plaster, and what had happened to her dress. Liz blushed when the inevitable answer to the last question came to her.
“ .Â .Â . I mean, now for instance, I could just as well call you BlotchyâÂ”
The white-Âhaired dwarf interrupted the lecture with a frown. “Steady on, Grady, steady on.”
Grady returned the frown. “Well,
,” he said with a one-Âeyed sneer at Liz, “I expect more manners from someone we saved from certain death, carried a good five miles over rocks and through caves, all the while enduring the threats and slanderous insults of her lunatic boyfriend. But, maybe, I'm old-Âfashioned.” He ended by shrugging dramatically and bristling his prodigious brows at Liz.
The sleepy dwarf half opened his eyes at this and yawned. “Besides, narcolepsy is nothing to laugh at.”
“Exactly, Sloane,” Grady spit, “that's rightâÂ”
“Allergies aren't either.” The red-Ânosed fellow sniffed. “I'm normally not this bad, by the way,” he said in an aside apparently meant for Liz. “Only .Â .Â . Only .Â .Â . OnlyâÂ
! I'm terribly allergic to lavender.”
“Precisely, Sneedon,” Grady exclaimed “You seeâÂ”
“Or maybe it's the pollen in the air,” Sneedon continued. “You know, Âpeople don't know how deadly springtime can be. Spring, and nuts of course. Oh. And berries, not to mention shellfish. And then, there's gluten andâÂ”
Grady reached over and tweaked Sneedon's nose roughly.
“Dammit,” Grady complained. “We don't have time to run through a list of your allergies. We'll be here until next week. The point I'm trying to make isâÂ”
“Actually, I think narcolepsy is pretty funny,” giggled the cheerful fellow.
“Me too,” said a whisper of a voice from behind the curtain that must have come from the now-Âhidden dwarf.
“Hayden and Baldwin have a point,” Dorian said. “We have used Sloane as a pretty regular punch line in our plays.”
“Yeah,” sniffed Sneedon, who still looked a little hurt that the topic of his allergies had been dropped so quickly. “Like our humorous adaption of
.Â .Â .” He sneezed again. “ .Â .Â .
. Come to think of it, didn't you script it so I was to sneeze every time I said Rumpelstilt .Â .Â .” Achoo! “ .Â .Â . skin?”
With rising irritation, Grady said, “That's entirely different Sneedon .Â .Â .”
“Or, the send-Âup we gave him in
The Dwarf and the Pea
,” suggested the hidden dwarf.
“All right, Baldwin, you've made yourâÂ”
,” Sloane murmured with another wide yawn.
“Well, that was justâÂHEY, WAIT A MINUTE!” shouted Grady. “We've never done a play called
The hidden dwarf, whose name Liz thought was Baldwin, giggled. “No, but it is a really good idea.”
Grady raised a finger to the sky and opened his mouth to argue, but stopped short and, lowering his hand, said, “Granted, but we're getting off topic. The point is .Â .Â .”
Liz was finally awake, at least partially from having to shift her gaze this way and that to keep up with the six-Âway debate, and had come to the conclusion that enough was enough. “The point is, I have been a terribly ungracious guest. For this I apologize. I am clearly deeply in your debt. But, could you indulge me a few questions?”
She paused a moment to see if the talkative Grady would continue his sermon. He did not, but looked none too pleased at having his monologue interruptedâÂagain. Liz nodded and raised her forefinger. “Where am I?” She raised her middle finger: “If you are not the Seven Dwarfs, then who are you?” She raised her ring finger: “How did I get here?” She let those questions linger for a heartbeat, and then raised her pinkie emphatically: “And where are my clothes?”
The five visible dwarves blushed from neck to forehead. Even Sloane woke up long enough to turn a bright cherry red before falling asleep again. They all looked at Dorian, who was sweating so profusely, Liz was afraid for his health. He put a finger under his collar and pulled. Then gulping air like a landed fish, stuttered, “W-ÂWell, you see .Â .Â . now then .Â .Â . that is .Â .Â . what I mean to say .Â .Â . well, we .Â .Â . ahhhh .Â .Â . er, that is, I had to, um, examine you.”
“Examine me?” Liz said, her voice raising several octaves.
“I am a doctor,” he said gravely.
“Of literature .Â .Â .” the voice of Baldwin whispered from his hiding place.
Dorian glared in the direction of the curtain. “Yes, well, regardless, I did bandage your head and fix your arm.”
“I still .Â .Â . still say her arm didn't look all that bad,” Sloane said between yawns.
“How would you know?” Dorian asked. “You slept through the whole thing.”
“I did not,” Sloane said with a lazy blink. “I was .Â .Â .” He yawned violently, and Liz found that she couldn't help but follow suit. After a sleepy smack of his lips, Sloane began again, “ .Â .Â . watching andâÂ”
But that was as far as he got. A gentle snore erupted from the dwarf and a visibly relieved Dorian continued. “The point is, your arm was broken. A fracture of the humorous, if you must know.” He wiggled his glasses at her in what could only be described as a professorial manner.
Liz had broken her arm as a child. The way she could wiggle her fingers without pain made her think the little man was exaggerating. “I think it is pronounced
, Dorian,” she said. “And, it doesn't feel broken.”
“That's because it wasn't broken,” Sloane said with eyes so heavily lidded that it was impossible to know if he was awake or talking in his sleep.
“Right,” Dorian said, ignoring Sloane's comments. “So, with your arm broken and your head bashed in, IâÂ”
“Removed my dress!?”
Dorian blushed again and Grady decided to answer. “Some gratitude. I told you we shouldn't have helped her, Dorian.” He shook a finger at Liz. “Look, lady, we find you at the bottom of a ravine, your arm bent all wrong, and your head bleeding, and all you can do is complain about your modesty?”
“It's not so much my modesty,” Liz lied, “and more a question of whether any of you are qualified to
young women? I mean, you'reâÂ ”
“What? Miners?” Grady reddened around the neck and squinted at her. “There you go making assumptions again. We're dwarves so we must be miners, eh? I'll have you know we are artists, and you, Miss, are not that young.”