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The Storyteller Presents
A Short Story

Yesterday I was telling a marvelous tale of how the moon became round, and suddenly, as I reached the best bit, I couldn't remember what came next. I still can't. Staring at the expectant faces, I thought, What will I do when there are no more stories in me? When the well runs dry? What use a Storyteller without stories?
Yesterday I forgot a story, and that is why I went straight out and gave my supper to a Beggar. Now, of course, this will strike fools as foolish and Wise Men as wise. A fool eats his last potato. A Wise Man plants it. Apart from which, everyone knows Beggars are never what they seem. There was a time what I myself was forced to beg. A bad time, a cold time, when a great hunger was on the land and only the rich had bellies. And so it was that one morning I found myself in sight of a palace and in smell of a kitchen, drawn there by the sweet sweet aroma of roasting. I came to a door and stood deciphering each strand of, goose, lamb. Mmmmm. And just about to knock was I when a raggedy character came flying through the air, launched by the boot of a round red Cook.
"Out!" bellowed the Cook to the bewildered Beggar. "And stay out of my kitchen!" Then his hot face swiveled and noticed me, no Prince myself, in my torn green cloak of patches and my cheeks sucked in with hunger. Before he could bring his boot to my own threadbare pants, I introduced myself with a florish. "I have boiled men for wasting my time" was the Cook's inhospitable reply. I thought on this and then remarked on the wisdom of such a measure. I did not want to waste his time, I told him humbly. I simply wanted a little water make myself some soup. And with that I scratched a stone free from the ground and held it up. Stone soup, I explained, polishing it on my cloak.
The Cook puffed out his cheeks. "You can't make soup out of a stone," he scoffed. "Oh yes I can," I said, smiling, and winked at the poor Beggar on the ground besides me. Then, bowing and scraping, I plunged into the steamy delights of the kitchen, the Beggar slipping in with me, and while the Cook filled a large pot with cold water, I beamed to the old Beggar. "Master Cook is a fool," I whispered. "He cuts the meat and others eat," and we watched as the pot of water was placed over the scorching flames. "Now!" boomed the Cook, his face shining like an apple, his head wobblign pompously. "Let's see this stone soup."
With great ceremony, I dropped the stone into the water and put my ear to it, listening carefully, the Cook watching my every move with a suspicious glare. Then, satisfied, I straightened up and folded my arms. "How long is this going to take?" demanded the Cook. "Not long," I assured him. "About an hour." With that, I stuck a finger into the pot and sucked on the liquid. "Marvelous water," I pronounced it. And so it was that our friend the Cook stood over me for an hour as the soup boiled, while one by one all the kitchen boys gathered around us to see this marvelous recipe, a simple stone in bubbling water.
"Well?" the Cook bellowed as the hour was up. I stirred the water with a ladle and sipped. "Mmmmmmmm," I murmured, wearing by best smile, and "Oh yes!" The Cook wanted to taste. "Do you have a little salt?" I inquired politely. "Salt!" roared the Cook to his minions, who scattered, then returned with a dish. In went the salt, in went my ladle. "Mmmmmmmmm!" I reported, licking my lips. "Almost perfect." Then I allowed the smallest flicker of misgiving to cross my eyes, sharing my doubts, one cook to the other, as he waited for a sip. "Is there any stock? The tiniest drop?" "Stock!" and the minions were off again, and back with the juices in a jiff. And after stock I needed greens, and after greens I needed potatoes, and then a carrot, then an onion. In they all went, stirred round, bubbling up, my eyes darting from pot to Cook, then from Cook to Beggar, who looked on, his wise eyes twinkling with merriment. Finally came lamb, beef, a platter of best meat. The Cook shoveled it in, until I stopped him with a warning hand. "Careful!" I said gravely. "You'll drown the soup," and ate the last piece to prevent him from doing so. The stone soup was ready.
I carried the pot to the table and ladled out three bowls, the whole kitchen following behind me. We sat, Cook, Beggar, your man, drank it down. "Good," pronounced the Cook, "very good!" and had a second bowl, then a third, the Beggar and I matching him spoon for spoon. "Stone soup!" he muttered between each gulp, his head shaking in disbelief. "Marvelous." Ane the minions applauded, hoping for a taste. Full to the brim, I wiped my mouth, then fetched the scalding stone out of the pot with the ladle. "Keep this," I said, all generous, and lobbed it into the Cook's greedy fingers. He caught it eagerly and sat, happy, a man with a magic stone, until the treasure began to sizzle in his hands. "Owwwwwwwwww!" he screamed and fell back, spilling soup, stone, plate and all, landing in a furious rage on the floor. "Owwwwwwwwww!"
Moments later, I found myself in a sorry state, thrown to the ground in front of the count while the beetroot Cook, hand smarting, temper erupting in spits of bile, recounted my mischief to the King. A man with a full stomach can bear a great deal. I wasn't listening to them. I was listening to the sweet gurgles of my digestion. Let them rant and rave, I thought. I was working up a fine belch. For all I knew, the Cook would burst soon with his fury and that would be the end of it.
Meanwhile, he seemed to be stressing each point of his tale with a sharp kick to my ribs, not very nice. Enough, I thought, and then realized someone was speaking to me. "Answer the King, blockhead!" bellowed the Cook. Oh dear. I looked up and saw His Majesty waiting on a reply to a question I hadn't heard. Next to him sat the Queen, her long neck twisted in a question mark, and in front of their throne the Prince, a boy with the eyes of an imp, who carried a small stuffed toy in the shape of a teddy bear, whose head he twisted, staring at me. "Yes," I answered tentatively, hoping that might do. "What is your trade, fool?" demanded the Cook, with another swipe at my sore ribs. "It can be scratched on your gravestone." I didn't much like the sound of this.
"I am a teller of stories," I began, my eyes fixed on the head of the teddy bear as it twisted and twisted. "A weaver of dreams. I can dance, sing, and in the right weather stand on my head. I know seven words of Latin. I have a little magic and a trick or two. I know the proper way to meet a dragon, can fight dirty but not fair, and once swallowed thirty oysters in a minute. I am not domestic. I am a luxury, and in that sense, necessary."
There was a silence as the Cook looked to the King, who looked to the court, who looked at me, who looked to the King. The teddy bear's head turned full circle in the Prince's grip, the Queen's neck swung elegantly round, and the Cook glared, waiting for my sentence. Suddenly a laugh broke the hush, a gurgle, then a gush, then a full-throated cackle. It was the King. "Excellent!" he guffawed, delighted. "And you can make soup out of a stone! Excellent. And a monkey out of a Cook!" He laughed, and so, of course, the court laughed. Everybody laughed, including me, except the Cook, whose pink face went red, then puce, then purple, then maroon. "But, Your Majesty," he began in dismay. The King ignored him. "And stories, eh?" he continued, all interest. "Good stories? Funny stories?" I shrugged. "Some good, some funny." Then proudly, "Some indifferent."
The Cook was seething. Why was the King asking me about stories when he should have been talking about eye-gougers, racks, instruments of torture, or, better still, the boiling oil?
"Your Majesty," he wheedled, "the punishment!" The King looked at him vaguely. "Punishment." He frowned, and my heart caught in my mouth. "Yes," he decided, his voice solemn. "For your punishment, you must tell me a story every night for a year. And for each story I will give you a golden crown. Is that fair?" A golden crown! I want to dance, want to kiss him, wanted to yelp with glee. "It's my usual fee," I replied without blinking an eyelid. A golden crown! "Good." The King smiled, and the court smiled, your man smiled.
Then he began again, and the smile slipped slowly from my face and sizzled on the floor. "Of course," he said, "if you run out of stories for any reason, or repeat yourself-if there's one thing I hate, it's hearing the same story twice-if that were to happen, naturally I'd hand you over to the Cook and his boiling oil. Naturally." I swallowed. The Cook cackled. "Naturally," I said, gulping. The Prince, all innocent face and bubbly curls, giggled and pulled the head off of his toy, looking at me.
But of the balmy days that followed! The plenty! Much of this and much of that. Each day an inch on my belly and a story from my head. Imagine me then: a Royal commission, a servant, a feather bed, a suit of silk jingling with my gold pieces. Blissfulness. After supper, up by the fire, I would tell my tale to the rapt King. And he never fell asleep. What more could an artist want? Food to eat, money to spend, and his audience awake...each night a tick on the golden calendar and a snuggle wiht my new wife. Oh, that wife...Aye-ya. And how quickly the months came and went, shaking my hand, clapping my back. But there, even on my loftiest perch, I was still on my own behind....
The year passed, the final day last of sweet punishment, my wife all softness in our bed, the coins brimming over. And I woke up, full to the brim with life, and blow me-I couldn't think of a story! My mind raced through the store, but no, I'd told that one and that one and that one, and all I could think of was oil boiling. In a twink, I was up and pacing the gardens, that old crocodile, fear, leading me a merry dance. And it led me, sick to the soul, to the grate above the steaming kitchens where, looking down, I could see the pot bubbling, bubbling, bubbling. My mind was a terrible blank. Oil, it whispered; the oil is on the boil.
Slowly, sorrowfully, I trudged back to my terrace to seek solace in the sweet arms of my sweetheart. She was there, at the gate, waiting for me, her darling eyes smiling. I bowed my head mournfully. When I looked up, the Beggar was besides her, just as I had seen him a year before, rag and straggle, a Mr. Mischievous. A gold tooth, a white tooth, a yellow tooth, a gap tooth, all grinning at me. A black boot and a brown slipper and a coat of all the coats that ever were thrown away. In short, a fine fellow-me-lad of the road, with a smell to match.
Now I remembered him, as indeed who would not, but this was no time to relish the stone soup or savor old victories. I gave him a sharp smile and a short nod and offered him a piece of gold to be about his business. He didn't want my money, he said, and produced and leather purse that clinked. Inside, he said, were three hundred and sixty-four gold pieces, the same number that jingled in the chamber pot beneath our bed, the same terrible number that marked the days of my bliss, one short of a year, one foul fortune, one less freedom, one fewer than I needed of tales to keep my from the oil's fierce embrace. While I dwelt on the bitter nearly of the number, he opened up his purse and poured the pieces, every one, into a neat, shimmering pile at my feet. He would wage them, he announced, against my own.
Oh no, not them, though I was partial to a bet. Not then, though I was greedy for the gold. I turned away. But my wife whispered her beguiling whisper, "I warned him you were a devil with the dice," and hugged me, pulling me back to the pile. "Well, I am," I agreed. "But I can't be gambling for money. I am playing for higher stakes. I must find another story before nightfall, else I am boiled in the oil." My wife seemed unconcerned. She ran her fingers through the coins. "Oh, play," she urged. "Play." Her smile was as sweet as a honeysuckle. "You must surely win...."
I know. I shouldn't have. But the gold sparkled. I should have said no. But the gold glittered. Out came the dice and we settled down to play, the two of us kneeling to the game, my wife clapping her hands for each shake of the cup. Within an hour, my fortune sat with the Beggar's, my last coin gone, the morning wasted, all lost, all squandered. "Well, that's it," I sighed. "I have no story and no money."
The Beggar smiled his row-of-teeth smile. "Play on?" he asked, eyes twinkling under the mess of eyebrow. "With what?" I said pointing at my empty pot, his groaning pile. The Beggar laid his land on my darling. "Your wife," he suggested, shrugging. "Your wife against my winnings." I would not, and said so. "Never!" I declared. But my wife clapped her hands excitedly. "Yes!" she cried. "Go on! Play! I'm sure you'll win." But the thought of losing her was unbearable. "I'll not. I'll not give you up," I insisted. "I may forget stories, I may lost my fortune, I may boil, but I'll not lose you." Again came the squeeze on the arm, followed by the tenderness of kisses. The last she ever gave me. The thought of her voice still grieves me.
"Play," she said. "I know you'll win."
I didn't want to. The dice fell cold in my palm. I rolled them along the flagstones. Two sour dots. Two. I had lost. I had lost my darling.
My wife let go of me and hurried across to the Beggar, taking him in her arms, kissing and cuddling him with great relish. My poor heart heaved. "What's this?" I cried. My wife looke up from her billing and cooing. "The Beggar is now my husband," she told me, her lips, her lovely lips, planting sweetness on the Beggar's grizzled cheeks, "and I must love him." I was ready to plunge into the oil.
The Beggar picked up the dice. "Again?" he inquired, beaming. "With what?" I whispered. "There is nothing more." The Beggar offered his wager. "I'll stake everything," he offered, "wife, winnings, everything, against your own self." He picked up the dice. "Third time lucky," he suggested, all friendship and encouragement. "Stake my own self?" I replied. "Why not? You have it already anyway." The bargain struck, he rolled the dice, which hurried along the stones, rushing to their triumphant display. Two sixes..."Two sixes!" trilled my wife, delighted, hugging the Beggar, from whom lice fell and fleas flew.
"Two sixes." I observed, my heart empty, my head aching. "Well, sir, I am your servant on this dismal day." The Beggar nodded and produced from nowhere on a long lenght of rope looped in an ominous noose, which he slipped over my head. "Am I to be tied up like a dog?" I cried, dismal, dazed, and despondent. "No, my friend," sniggered the Beggar. "Like a hare." And with that he pulled tight on the noose. Something happened. I shrank. I shriveled. I shook. I shuddered. Whiskers sprouted, ears flopped, my hands curled into tiny paws. I jumped, my legs jackknifing, and a terrible squeal came out of my mouth. I was transformed into a hare!
The terror of my torment! Dogs appeared, great, fat, hungry hounds, their lips slavering, their teeth snapping, their barks booming. I ran-no I flew-streaking off into the gardens, the dogs baying in pursuit, my wife's cruel cackles ringing in my ears. "Help!" I cried. "Help! Help!" I dashed headlong in my new body. "Help me!" But no words came out, only a squeal, a sqeal only. The dogs closed, panting, nearer and nearer, closing for the kill. The gardens I had strolled dailly, preparing my stories, were suddenly a deadly course hidden chasms and unexpected mountains, of thorns and nettles and obstacles. My four tiny legs carried me for all their worth, bobbing away from the brutal teeth. I had no beath, I had no breath...I was done for!
I circled back onto the terrace, and with a final leap I launched myself into my wife's arms just as a snapping jaw tore at my fur. Next minute, she held me by my ears and dangled me over the hounds, swinging me to and fro, my wife did this to me, lowering me inch by inch, each swing a whisker nearer to the hot beath of the hounds, she laughing, me squealing. Horrible! Horrible! "Do you like our games?" she chirped. "No, I don't!" I squealed. "Help me!" But they couldn't hear me. "Loving every minute!" the Beggar decided on my behalf. "Good, because I have a better spot in store." He picked me up, pooring shivering hare, and slipped the noose back round my throat. "But not in that shape," he muttered, pondering my fate. "I wonder..." "Don't wonder!" I squealed helplessly. "Help me!"
But the Beggar paid no attention to my pleas. He was too busy relishing my wife. "You choose, madam," he said, stroking her beautiful red hair. "Can you do anything?" she asked, believing he could. And he nodded. "Anything," he affirmed. "But it must be small for my purposes." I hung, a hare, swinging over the hounds while my wife considered my destiny. "A flea?" she asked, wondering. The Beggar showed her his white, gold, yellow, and gap. "A flea," he said, "is possible." No sooner said, no sooner done. The Beggar tugged on the rope until I thought I must surely choke. My heart pounded, my head ached, and I was there-or, rather, wasn't there. I looked down at myself-a tiny, dancing speck of a flea, lost in the folds of the Beggar's cloak. A flea...nice, I could be popped between fingers. If you itch, think of me.
The Beggar turned and blew a kiss to my darling. "It's best you stay here, madam," he told her. "We shall return." And without more ado he strode off. Where he carried me, I knew not. This morning a man blessed; by midday a flea. It did not bode well for the evening.
You get a view on life as a flea. The human body is a hot home for the poor parasite: to drink the goblet of sweat, to nibble dirt, to weed the armpit-this is our lot. On my friend the Beggar, I was in good company. He took us all to the kitchens, and for a terrible moment I feared the worst, saw my wretched life sizzling away in the pot. He knocked purposefully at the door, and out came the Cook, all greased and lathered. My companions flew off to a feast. I stayed where I was, perferring the devil I knew. The Cook knew nothing, though he itched; saw nothing, though he scratch. No, my dears, all he noticed was the gold, spilled out onto his chopping board. The Beggar had a wager for him. Gold was the bait. The Cook bit.
The Beggar laid three straws in front of him. The Cook watched carefully. "Now," he began, "you say you can blow away two of these straws and leave the middle one where it is?" "My Gold says I can," challenged the Beggar. "A meal says I can't." The minions gathered to watch this, the Cook leering at them, relishing the coins, furiously counting them. "Go on, then!" he cried eagerly, rubbing his fat hands together.
The Beggar smiled and bent forward, placing the a finger on the outer straws and blowing on the middle one. It shot off the table. "That's cheating!" roared the Cook. "That's cheating! I could do that!" The Beggar shrugged, throwing me across his shoulders. "Try," he told the Cook. "Go ahead." The Cook, snarling, deceived, replaced the middle straw and did as the Beggar had done, planting a finger on the outer straws and blowing hard on the middle one. And, indeed, the middle straw flew off, landing in the bubbling pot of oil. Trouble was, my dears, so did his two fingers, flying in and disappearing with a terrible sizzle.
"My fingers!" screamed the unhappy Cook, staring at his hand and counting, one, two,, two, three. The Beggar beamed. "Not so easy," he said cheerfully. "Another game?" The Cook was in shock. "My fingers, my fingers!" he moaned, hopping distractedly from foot to foot, his lip jutting out far enough for a baby to sit on. "This is simpler," the Beggar tempted. "I wager all my gold that I can move one ear but not the other." "That's impossible," muttered the Cook, clutching his unfortunate hand. "But I'll not bet." Tears dripped down his red cheeks.
"Fetch a doctor!" he bellowed at his boys. "Fetch needle and thread. My poor fingers!" The Beggar began scooping the gold coins back into his purse. "As you wish," he said, jingling the pieces. The Cook could not bear to see them go. How could the Beggar move one ear without the other? It was impossible. He was losing the gold for no reason. It was unfair.
"No, try," he blurted out. "I want the gold. Try, and curse you." The boys held their breath, the Cook loomed over the Beggar, the put his hand to his ear and wiggled it. The Cook was outraged. "That's cheating!" he roared to the onlookers. "He's cheating." The Beggar disagreed. "No," he said. "I said I'd move one ear and not the other, and that is what I've done." The Cook wiped his three-fingered hand across his mouth, a snarl replacing it. "You'll not make a fool out of me," he warned. "I'll do it myself." And, so saying, he yanked on his ear and pulled it clean away. There it was, pink and perfect, not by his cheek where it lived, but in his hand, where it didn't.
"My ear! My ear!" he howled, hopping around the kitchen, beside himself. "Oh no! My fingers! My ear!" Then he erupted, his rage terrible, his roar trumpeting. "I'll kill you! I'll kill you for this!" And he would have had not the Beggar disappeared, his gold with him, your man clinging on for dear life. "Where's he gone?" demanded the Cook, carving the air with a cleaver. "Where's he gone?"
Where indeed? I do not know and cannot tell. The day passed in a turmoil and a whirl and a wind, more wonders than I can remember, more frights than I can forget. And then, as night drew up its hood and the appointed hour came when the King would want his story, I found myself carried to the court on the coat of the Beggar. Inside, the King grew impatient and my appearance. A servant stepped forward to inform him of the Beggar's arrival. "Sire," he said, "there is a man outside who would entertain you." Short shrift the King had for his message. "I don't want an entertainer!" His Majesty barked. "I loathe entertainers! I want my story and I want it now!"
The Beggar would not be discouraged. He heard all this, waiting in the shadows, but stepped forward unabashed. "Majesty," he said, bowing, "allow me to present myself, ragbag that I am." The King's son, sniffing, complained noisily. "He smells!" The Beggar smiled. "I am a Beggar, sire," he explained. "It is my business to smell. But I am capable of much. I am capable of offense not simply to the nose. And I can throw a rope in a special way." Once again, from nowhere, the magic rope appeared, and with a single flourish the Beggar threw it into the air, where it hung as if held from above by an invisible hand, its tail resting on the King's great table.
"That's clever," said the King, suddenly interested. The Prince excited. "Do something else!" he demanded before turning to the King: "Can he do anything else?" "I can," said the Beggar, and indeed he could. From the folds of his cloak, he produced a round turquoise ball, which hummed and shimmered and glowed, spinning in his palm. As the court watched, enchanted by the ball's drone and turn, the Beggar removed his hand and the ball floated gently to the ceiling, where it promptly disappeared.
"Where's it gone?" said the Prince. "I want it. Where's it gone?" The Beggar shrugged his shrug and smiled. Now the Queen intervened, he swan's neck craning forward. "The Prince wants the ball," she told the Beggar curtly. "Please oblige." The Beggar opened his hands innocently. "It's at the top of the rope," he said, as if that were a sufficient reply. The Prince leapt onto the table, squinting into the dark of the ceiling. "Can I get it?" he pleaded. But his mother refused, "He can't climb a rope," and his father agreed, "You'll fall." Ever helpful, the Beggar stepped forward, grasping the rope and pulling apart the strands, the hemp teased out into steps, so that now, when the dumbfounded court looked, they saw a ladder pointing up to the roof. Without further ado, the Prince climbered up, higher and higher into the shadows. Every head in the room twisted up to watch the Prince's progress. Up and up he climbed until the could no longer see him. There was a long silent pause. Then, with an ominous slap, the rope tumbled to the floor. I winced. if fleas can wince, and waited for the crash that must surely follow as the Prince came plunging after it, but it never came. The Prince had vanished. Then, with a spin and a hum, the turquoise ball reappeared, sailing down. All eyes followed it as it landed and bounced. Once, twice, three times. The room hushed. Silence. Then a babble of muttering and whispering, pointing, glares and indignation, all aimed at the smiling Beggar, all drowned by the terrifying roar of the King: "TO THE OIL!"
And with the guards threw themselves on the Beggar and carried him aloft to the kitchens, a mad procession bayed on by the crowd, the Queen screaming rage, the King bellowing, "To the oil! To the oil!" I was there in the thick of it, buried in the Beggar's undergrowth. I shouted for help, but no noise came out. How many fleas screaming for rescue have we so ignored? How many ants have tried to warn up before the foot comes down with its crushing squelch? Look out! Look out! But we don't see them. They didn't see me. No, headlong we hurtled, the dark passages of the palace, the winding stairs, helter-skelter to the oil.
In we flooded, knocking pots and pans before us, to where the Cook stood, working up a fine froth, purple, panting for revenge. I couldn't watch. I couldn't speak. To go like that-a flea, a nothing. To sizzle. Horrible. I closed my tiny eyes as the Cook ranted. "Oh yes, Mr. Ragtag, here we are!" he welcomed as the Beggar was carried toward where the oil simmered. "Come to the pot, so terrible hot, come for a boil in the boiling oil!" And, wiht a terrifying chorus, they lifted us, Beggar and Storyteller, lifted us above the cauldron. "IN!" they roared, "IN!" they chanted, and flung us pell-mell and without so much as a by-your-leave, tossed us into the smoking pot, flung us into the scalding oil....
Nothing happened. I held my breath, I said my prayers, I mouthed my goodbyes to the mortal coil, but nothing happened. The oil wsa as cool as a fine shower in the summer. We went down, then came up, the Beggar whistling, washing himself in the bubbles. The court gaped, the Cook blustered. "That's not right," he muttered, frowning at the King. "That's not meant to happen, sire. It's boiling." Poor Cook. "It's boiling, you see," he explained to the bewildered crowd, who stared, dazed, amazed, and confounded as the Beggar washed and whistled.
Even as he spoke, the Cook stuck a hand to test the temperature. There was a horrible rush of bubbles to the place where his hand had plunged, a billow of smoke, a foul sizzle, and a curdling scream from the Cook as he pulled out his hand in agony. "Ooowwwwww!" he screamed, weeping pitifully, clutching his fingers. Gingerly, his brow furrowed, he uncurled his fist to inspect the damage. Then he realized...he blinked, his mouth puckered, he began to count in a whisper, one, two, three, four, five!
"They're back!" he cried, flexing his hand, holding it up to the crowd. "My fingers! They're back!" Hardly daring to hope, he put his hand in place where his ear had been, and felt. It was there! "My ear!" he said, tears of joy coursing down. "It's here! My ear is here!" And he danced a dance of pure joy, tugging on his fingers, tugging on his ear, a man restored.
The others, King and Queen, confused and astounded, looked from estatic Cook to steaming pot, waiting for what was to come next. The Cook settled, the steam cleared, the all stared. There was nobody there. Before they could gasp, before they could guess, the surface broke again and a figure appeared. Not the Beggar, nor yours truly. It was the Prince, not even wet, not even sorry, not even delighted. "Where's the ball?" was all he managed. "Where's the ball?"
And where was the ball? you might ask-or, for that matter, the Beggar? Or, most urgent, where was I? Of ball and Beggar, I cannot speak. Of myself, the rest is odds-bod and strange to tell. I was no longer a flea, I was no longer anything. An idea. Moving through mist, moving through air. I liked being me better than a hare, a hare better than a flea, a flea better than this. I was above the palace, swirling, an element, nothing more. Until a sudden drop, hurtling down, the ground rushing up to meet me...oooooooooooooh!
My wife walked along the path to greet me as I shook myself and looked around me. There was my hands, there was my feet, here was my face, my coat, my breeches, my terrace, my wife-all my bits about me. I'd been dreaming. None of this had happened. I'd been dreaming. "I've been dreaming!" I told by wife, who smiled her sweet smile and ruffled my hair while I sighed the longest sigh you can imagine. Imagine it and it was twice that long. Then I heard a march and a clatter of armor and turned around to see the King's Guards approaching. "His majesty wants his story," said one, and my heart sank. What could I do? I had no story. I looked at my wife. I gazed into her river eyes, her lake eyes, her tender eyes, and whispered a goodbye. I never saw her again.
"It approaches midnight and I've heard no story," said the King, sitting on his throne, the Queen beside him, the Prince in front, the court behind. "Do you remember the conditions?" "I do," I muttered, fear muddling my thoughts. "Well?" continued the King sternly. "Have you a story to tell or not?" I couldn't think. All I knew was that the day had gone, the last day-if only I hadn't gambled, if only I hadn't fallen asleep, if only this, if only that. One story more and there I'd be, released, intact, in clover.
The King drummed impatiently. The Cook stepped forward, glee bulging his eyeballs. "He hasn't, sire," he chortled, rubbing his fat hands, those hands I'd dreamed singed and unfingered. "He doesn't have a story, the pig, let me have him!" I shuddered. The Prince bobbed up and down until I wished him back on the ceiling. "Is there going to be a boil?" he asked his father, his smile terrifying. "I haven't got a story, sire," I admitted, and the court fell silent as I began my sorry tale.
"Let me tell you what happened to me today. I woke up, it was the last day of our agreement, my wife lay beside me, the sun streaming in, never was a man so happy, and then...and then I just couldn't think of a story, not a single one, and so I went out into the gardens and then things began to go very wrong. First of all I met a Beggar..."
And so I told the King of my adventures, of hares and fleas and mysteries, the worst day of my life, my wife's cruelty, the boiling oil...and what a tale it was, my dearies, how the tears coursed down my cheeks and the King's and the Cook's and the court's. And when at last I finished, there was silence. A terrible silence. I bowed my head and resigned myself to what must surely follow. "And so, Msjesty," I said, sad and woeful, "you see why I have no story to tell." The King blew his nose, the Queen mopped his tears with her handkerchief, tiny drops of water ran into my mouth and splashed my boots. So I stood until, finally, the King spoke.
"But that is the best story I ever heard," he said, his lips quivering. "And me," said the Queen, nodding. "And me," sniffed the Cook. I looked up. I looked around me. Suddenely the whole court stood and cheered and clapped my back and made me say again from start to finish the best story they'd ever heard, and then I understood what the Beggar had done. He'd given me a story. When I was a story short, he'd made me one.
As for my wife, she went off with the Beggar. She was enchanted, I think, otherwise, it would have been cruel to have kissed him so, to have made me a flea. No, she was under his spell. Definite. And still is, I suppose. She was so taken by his magic, she set off in search of him. I never saw her to this day. She was a lovely. Lovely red hair. As for the Cook, he threw out the pot of oil, and kept the stone instead. Whenever a poor unfortunate came a-begging, he would make them the most delicious soup. And they would go on their way with a full belly, telling of a kind Cook who could make a soup from a stone.
So that is how a story was lost and then found. And is still told to this day, for the King will hear no other. Only it's changed now. The wife comes back to the Storyteller. The Storyteller becomes King. You know how it is in stories....


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