Death & Taxis (Cont’d)

Full Story Here

Tom blew his car horn as a squat, cube-shaped car switched lanes in front of him. “Self-driving HOOEY!” he muttered.

“You have self-driving cars?” said Kaylen. “We are just now getting that sort of technology in America. That is so cool!”

“Cool?” repeated Tom. “Yes, if that’s what you want to call it. Take a look, though!” Tom pointed to the car that had just cut in front of him.

The car had four wheels but otherwise looked alien to Kaylen’s eyes, unlike any automobile she had ever seen. It was a box-shaped car with vertical windows on all sides, akin to a gondola, and the wheels were small and appeared to be able to go in any direction, similar to the wheels of a dolly. Despite this modern design, the car seemed to trundle along in a very uncertain fashion. It moved a foot into Tom’s lane and then stopped and readjusted. On the top of the car was a reflective orb suspended like a bell from a small frame, and above this belfry was an antenna that pointed upward. The car continued moving very cautiously forward, stopping abruptly as a sheet of paper blew across the roadway.

Tom honked again. “These self-driving cars are so flighty. It’s amazing that they move at all. They are so sensitive to interruptions, that they can barely move above 5 miles per hour.”

“Well, new technology always has hiccups when it’s first introduced,” noted Kaylen.

“Spoken like someone who has witnessed the unveiling of many new technologies!” said Tom brightly. “You should have seen the first prototype of these cars. They were the opposite of now. They were forever bursting with energy, so they would routinely be bumping into cars in front of them. Just a sort of persistent tap in the rear as we were moving forward in stop-and-go traffic. Very annoying. So the manufacturer of the car reprogrammed them to be safer. Now, the cars of petrified of moving at all!”

Kaylen listened to all this, absorbing the sight of the timid car. It completed its lane change and seemed to settle down somewhat, having for the moment reached an equilibrium. “I’m sure they will work out the glitches before too long.”

Tom shrugged. “Maybe. Everyone is chattering about innovation, but innovation here always seem to hit some snags.”

“The point of purgatory,” continued Tom, “As you may have read in certain religious texts, is purification, or expiation. It’s not the fire of hell—it’s the fire of purification. And what better way to expiate and make someone suffer…than by making them sit in traffic.” Tom said this last part as his cab slowed to a complete stop. To the right, a giant billboard displayed a map of the traffic circles, with each circle colored brightly in either yellow or red colors. As Kaylen watched the billboard, the outer circle’s color turned from yellow to red.

“Hmm. Want to get a bite to eat?” said Tom. “There’s a pub not far from here that has exquisite Caribbean-inspired street tacos.”

Kaylen looked at the tightly interlocked cars all around them. “But, how will we get there?”

“Come with me!” said Tom, putting his car in park and opening his door to get out. “This jam will take at least an hour to sort out. We have the time.”

To be continued…

A Fine Line of Length and Style

As their definitions quickly make clear, short stories, novelettes, and novellas are all short pieces of prose fiction.  What, then, differentiates these different literary categories?

Short Story

Short stories are the briefest of these three prose genres.  While most definitions do not include a word limit, Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary says in its description that the general rule is that short stories are typically no more than 10,000 words (“Short Story”).  An article from places the cap for a short story at 7,000 words (“The Novella”).  To put these estimates in perspective, a short story of 10,000 words would be about 40 pages of text if written double-spaced with a basic 12-point font.

One unique element of the short story is that it tends to include few characters and focus on one theme.  This creates the “unity of effect” that is characteristic of this genre, according to the definition from the American Heritage Dictionary (“Short Story”).

The short story in action: “Signals” and other works by Tim Gautreaux, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Alan Poe


Short Story, Novelette, and Novella word counts
While there is no set word count for the these genres, these ranges from the Nebula Awards rules may be a useful guide.

While novelettes lack a prescribed length, just like short stories and novellas, they tend to be between 8,000 and 15,000 words long (“The Novella”).  A work of 15,000 words would be about 60 pages, using the same formatting listed above.

According to the Collins English Dictionary, common characteristics of the novelette are that it is “slight, trivial, or sentimental” (“Novelette”).

The novelette in action: “Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle, “—That Thou art Mindful of Him” and “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, and “The New Atlantis” by Ursula K. Le Guin


A novella is longer and more complex than a short story.  This type of prose fiction often includes a moral lesson or satirical elements.  In an article for The New Yorker, columnist Ian McEwan likens the novella to a movie and estimates that a typical screenplay averages 20,000 words, which he indicates is the normal length of a novella as well.  An estimate from an article on the website Writers Digest by Chuck Sambuchino and from puts the length of a novella between 20,000–50,000 words, with 30,000 as the average (“The Novella”).  This means that the novella is twice the length of a short story in its briefest form.

Like a movie, a novella is more complex than a short story and may include one or two subplots and some rich character development, but within the constraints of a more abbreviated space than a novel would allow (McEwan).

The novella in action: Candide by Voltaire, The Decameron by Boccaccio, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

Works Cited

McEwan, Ian.  “Some Notes on the Novella.”, 29 Oct. 2012,

Nebula Awards: Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.  “Nebula Rules.”  15 Nov. 2019,

“Novelette.”  Collins English Dictionary, 12th ed., HarperCollins, 2014,  

Sambuchino, Chuck.  “How Long Is a Novella?  And How Do You Query Agents for Them?”, 18 Nov. 2008,

“Short Story.”  American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,   

“Short Story.”  Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, Random House, 2010,

“The Novella: Stepping Stone to Success or Waste of Time?”,

Lilies in Water

“Good news!” called the Intern, as his boss, the museum’s director, finally emerged from her meeting. “The object labels for the Monet exhibit are finally here, and are being installed right this sec!”

“It is 4:00 p.m. the day before the exhibit opens!” the Director exclaimed. “How could they just now have gotten the object labels to us?”

The Intern shrugged his shoulders apologetically. “I wish I knew. I got them the info over a month ago, and I’ve been calling all week, and they just kept saying it was ‘taking longer than expected.’”

The Director sighed. “Well, at least they made it in time, if just barely. Let me know when they’re done installing them – this is an incredible exhibit for us, and we’re expecting almost a thousand people tomorrow at the opening. I’d like to take a look at the finalized display before I leave.”

“You’ve got it, Boss!” the Intern mock saluted.

An hour later, all the signs were installed, and the Director, followed by her intern, walked into the gallery and gazed around admiringly. There they were, over 50 of Monet’s famous water lilies and other assorted garden paintings, all together under one roof – her own museum’s roof. She smiled, and turned to the first painting’s placard.

Water Lilies with a Lot of Froggy Green Rather Than Blue in the Water (1917), it read. 

It took a moment for the Director to register what she was reading. “Um, Josh,” the Director called, with an unusual tremor in her voice. “What is this?” she pointed a slightly shaking finger at the title. The Intern trotted over, but without waiting for an answer, the Director turned hurriedly to the next painting.

This one said: Water Lilies Where the Water Looks Kind of Brown (1917). Water Lilies Where All the Flowers are Purple-ish (1918), said the next, and the one after that: Water Lilies Where the Flowers Are Purple-ish Again but There’s Also a Willow Tree (1918).

“Josh, you sent the label info over to the printer, what…” the Director struggled to find words that were calm and non-accusatory, but all that came out was: “What did you do?”

The Intern apparently failed to sense the displeasure in his boss’s inquiry. He beamed “Oh, well, Monet really wasn’t very inventive with his painting titles. They were literally all just Water Lilies or The Japanese Bridge and I thought, like, how are visitors going to talk about which ones were their favorite, you know? ‘Which one did you like’ ‘Oh, I liked Yellow Irises’ ‘But which one?’ So, I added some description to all the titles, some color commentary, if you’ll pardon the pun. Problem solved!”

“All the titles,” the Director repeated, numbly.

“All the titles!” the Intern repeated, enthusiastically.

Indeed, as the Director wandered blankly around the exhibit, every title had some alteration. Water Lilies that look like Monet was Experimenting with Finger Painting (1921), The Biggest Water Lily Painting (1920), Weeping Willow with a Whole Lot More Orange than the Others (1920). They’d never be able to reprint them all before the exhibit opened.

It was The Japanese Bridge that Doesn’t Look at All Like the Japanese Bridge (1923) that finally caused the Director to snap. Later in his life, Monet had developed cataracts in his eyes, and he’d painted that particular picture of the Japanese bridge that didn’t look very much like the Japanese bridge when he could barely see anything.

“Josh.” The Director turned to the Intern, and looked him dead in the eye. “You’re fired.”

Unfortunately, the satisfaction of saying that was nothing compared to the chagrin the Director felt the next morning, when she overheard a museum patron talk about how their favorite painting was definitely “Water Lilies with a Lot of Froggy Green Rather Than Blue in the Water.”

How Did Those Boots Get There?

The boots hung from the power line like a pair of condemned convicts. They rotated limply in the humid breeze, savagely strung up four years ago and hanging by their laces ever since. The feat was remarkable—thirty feet of air stood between the ground and the power line, so the person who placed the boots up there had both good aim and a good arm.

The feet must also have been remarkable because the boots were size 14½ boots, extra wide. They were brown, tarnished by sunlight but disturbed by little else. They had observed as thousands of cars had passed underneath over the course of their time there.

The boots themselves didn’t mind, of course: they chatted often about how they didn’t miss deployment, as they called it, at all. Ryan, the left boot, and Candace, the right boot, talked frequently about how they missed their retail days when all they had to do was sit shiny on a shelf and wait to meet a new person. Ryan and Candace found themselves lonely sometimes—after all, the demand for size 14 ½ boots was minimal. But they had a happy life in their own way, cheering as their friends—the Johnston & Murphy loafers two shelves over for instance—departed to find their place in the world.

But Ryan and Candace didn’t obtain a good owner. A tall, thuggish man who smelled like grease and two-day-old-Old-Spice purchased the plus-sized couple. This man had taken them home and shocked Ryan and Candace at how he mis-handled them. The original coating of polish covering Ryan and Candace wore quickly off and was replaced with scuff marks and a handful of deep scratches.

All of this to say, on the night that Dank-Spice-Man decided to go out, drink one too many drinks with his buddies, hop in the back of their car, then halfway home complain he needed to use the bathroom NOW, Ryan and Candace were all too happy to lead Dank-Spice-Man out into the woods, before being involved in a bet where the man and his friends each began attempting to toss the boots onto the power line. It was Dank-Spice-Man’s friend Arnold who finally succeeded.

Arnold won $10 that night. Ryan and Candace? They won their freedom.

Remembering Rockwell—Snapshots of the Ordinary

I wish Norman Rockwell had been there.  Scenes like those were the stuff that inspired him, I think.  The little moments in life.  Something so ordinary it resonated with audiences and became extraordinary.  Rockwell had an eye for those moments.  He captured the humor, the sweetness, the tenderness.  Then he, or a Saturday Evening Post editor, enhanced the image with a simple but fitting caption.

I wish I were artistic or had my camera when those moments happened.  Instead, all I can do is snapshot the scenes in my mind, trying to imprint every detail for later recall.  I realize now that I have a mental scrapbook of moments like these.  And while it can be a delight to peruse them, I wish I could free them from those solitary pages to share with others.  But like dreams, these pictures and their emotions can rarely be brought to light without losing the meaning that I feel so keenly.  A glimmering quality is lost in translation.  Words can’t capture the entirety of what I try to communicate.  I doubt even the best writers communicate a thought or a picture as perfectly as they want—at least not often.

If people gave up because they knew perfection were impossible, though, where would we be?  Only by trying will we improve, so here I am.  Spilling my thoughts and stretching out the moments until I make the jump.  Here I go.

Getting Acquainted

“Look, Elaine.”  My sister and I had just slid into her car after a brief shopping expedition.  I was pointing across the parking lot.

“I wish I had my camera and could capture moments like these,” I commented wistfully, as my sister looked too.  “Isn’t that sweet?”

What had caught my attention was a uniformed police officer.  Standing at a corner of the sidewalk, he was approaching a woman who was walking her German shepherd mix dog, and by his body language, I could tell he was asking if he could pet the dog.  The woman agreed, and the officer bent down and tentatively reached out to introduce himself to the canine, who appeared to be a bit uncertain about the acquaintanceship.  It was a moment of vulnerability for both.  An ordinary scene that I had never seen before.  The dog obliged and let his head be petted as my sister and I drove away.

Here was a little moment in time where a police officer was an ordinary guy who liked dogs.  I wish I could have shared that occurrence with others as vividly as I experienced it.

A silly, optimistic part of me imagines that this Rockwell scene could change people’s perspectives and combat their prejudices.  But the moment these scenes become publicity, they tend to lose their credibility.  I think that was part of the appeal of the moment.  The people didn’t know they were being watched, which made the scene that much more touching.

Rainy Day Melancholy

I was eating a meal with some friends when something beyond the cafeteria window caught my eye.

“That’s so sad, isn’t it?” I commented, pointing out what I had just noticed to my friends, who turned to see for themselves.

“It’s the picture of finals week,” I continued.

“Yeah, that is pretty sad,” one of my friends agreed.

Trudging past the window was a dripping college student.  A bedraggled black umbrella drooped from his hand, almost unidentifiable.  It looked more like a kite than an umbrella, its tines bent and fabric torn into triangle-shaped scraps.  The student gazed at his umbrella with an attitude that seemed to mimic the mournful appearance of the umbrella.

I felt so sad for him when I saw his expression as he contemplated his ruined umbrella.  I hoped that his day improved and that what I saw in passing didn’t summarize how his finals were going.  Despite my sympathy, though, I admit there was something comical in the scene.  What I saw was the weird juxtaposition that Rockwell would capture, where a scene walked the tightrope between sorrow and humor, where perhaps one person took something a little too seriously when others wouldn’t.  It was just an umbrella, after all.  But I think I understand.

The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done

This is the story of the worst thing I’ve ever done.

Okay, fine. This is not the story of the worst thing I’ve ever done; this is the story of one of the worst things I’ve ever done. And, obviously, it’s not even really all that terrible, because I have no qualms telling any of you about it, ye anonymous internet reader, ye not-so-anonymous internet reader, or ye rando I’m swapping anecdotes with at a party.

So here it goes. When I was a sophomore in college, I semi-routinely went two-steppin’ with a group of friends at the local dance hall. Not for any great love of country/western music, as I actually dislike the genre. I can claim no higher motives than that all my friends were doing it, I’m a bit of a social caterpillar, and dancing can be objectively fun, especially with people who are good at it. Also, the guy I was into at the time sometimes made an appearance, so I was always hoping to run into him.

This one time, though, this time I’m telling you about, it was just me and a friend. We’ve lost touch since then, this friend and I, for a few valid reasons, but I still think fondly of her. She was, well, the fun friend. Some of you will know what I mean by this very simple description; for others, you should know that she was charming, clever, cheeky and opinionated, extremely generous and also incredibly impulsive. Arguably flighty, and openly flirty, she was fun, and she persuaded me to accompany her and her alone to the dance hall one night, because no one else could go, but she still wanted to go dancing.

It was she who would be the victim of that very bad thing I did, which occurred between the hours of 10 and 11 p.m., on the left-hand side of the first dance floor in the building.

We, two unaccompanied girls, stood on the edge of the shuffling couples, thereby signalling that we were ready to jump in at a moment’s invitation. We didn’t want for partners (well, she especially didn’t). Like most country/western halls, I gather, the atmosphere was congenial, and you, a male, could ask unknown females to dance without being inherently creepy. Unless, of course, you yourself were creepy.

This is the juncture where I will introduce the third player in the upcoming scene: Fedora Guy. In the spirit of charity, I should state that “creepy” is perhaps too strong a word for him. In all of this that I am about to tell, I never felt threatened, and he was perfectly polite in every interaction. But, he was…weird.

First off, he was wearing a fedora, a buttoned vest, slacks, and a pair of dress shoes that had, I think I recall, slightly pointed toes. Not to belabor the point, but this was a country/western dance hall, meaning that jeans and cowboy boots were the unofficial dress code, and if a hat was worn, it was obviously also a cowboy one.

Secondly, it was the way he danced. He danced much as I imagine an oily octopus might. He oozed his way rhythmically across the floor, attempting to exude what he thought was pizzaz while draping his tentacles as best he could around his partner.

Being that partner dancing with him was exactly as awkward as it looked. I know this, because I danced with him when he asked me that one time. I attempted to make small talk with him as we slimed our way across the floor. I thanked him for his trouble when we were done, though it was really all mine. I was determined to never dance with him ever again.

So, on that night out dancing with my Fun Friend, it was with quite a bit of panic that I watched Fedora Guy seep his way over until he was in front of us, and faux-suavely hold out his hand between the two of us, mutely asking: “Do either of you want to dance with me?” And so at last we come to it: the moment of the kind of bad thing I did.

I picked up my friend’s hand, and placed it in his.

He sucked her into his eight-legged orbit, where she remained for the next three to four minutes, while I went and hid.

Afterwards, she was, honestly, pretty much fuming at me, and she did not appreciate my defense at the time: “You said you needed a wingwoman, and look at me! I think I’m being a pretty great wingwoman – I just got you a guy to dance with!”

Postscript: I actually met Fedora Guy a couple years later, outside of the dance hall, at a wedding. Turns out he was good friends with both the bride and groom, who were also friends of mine. He was not wearing a fedora at the time, and he seemed pretty, well, normal. Thus, I’m not really sure whether the moral of this story is “Know when it’s worth it to throw your friends under the bus,” or “don’t wear fedoras.”

Poboys and Pugilism

We start at the end. The beginning is a dull place to start. Everyone says to start in the middle (in media res), but everyone can be wrong.

Mark got up and punched his friend in the face.

The End.

Okay, we can back up now. Maybe then, Mark’s behavior will seem more sensible. Maybe.

Mark tore a big bite out of his poboy. It was a roast beef poboy, sloppy with gravy but undeniably delicious, and it guaranteed Mark’s frequent presence at Poboy Corner.

Between slurps of soda, handfuls of sauce-dipped fries, and wads of poboy, Mark looked up to see a basketball game on a TV above him. Iona and UNC, playing a game. Mark watched with lazy interest–his interest was not in the teams but in the sport. Looking at the screen and watching the players proved distraction enough for a moment.

A voice interrupted Mark’s sports-y reverie. “Mark? Is that you, man? I didn’t know you ate here!”

Mark didn’t like to be bothered when he was eating. This was not because he didn’t like other people’s company. In fact, the opposite was true–Mark rarely felt lonelier than when he sat down to lunch.

But also, Mark had a dark secret.

Have you heard of people who, feeling the ache in their stomachs when they are hungry, become angry in their ravening for food? Laymen call this being “hangry.”

Well, Mark had the opposite of this condition. When he was satisfied, content from eating a ridiculously good meal, then he would become angry.

Because Mark knew his nature, he chose to eat alone. That is also why it was so unfortunate that Mark’s friend hailed him that day.

Stories from a Small Town

The sun shone over the trees and sparkled on the river.  Emily squinted and shaded her face.

“Come on, Emily!” Hannah exclaimed, tugging on Emily’s elbow, “Mrs. Harris says the tour’s about to start.”

Down the sloping riverbank road, a green dragon clattered and smoked towards the school group as Emily’s class gathered around Mrs. Harris and prepared to board.  Well, it wasn’t really a dragon, but as the trolley lurched to a stop in front of Emily, she thought the diesel fumes and throaty engine were dragonish.

Emily mounted the tall trolley steps behind Ben and Hannah.  The steps weren’t built for short legs, but Emily managed to struggle up.  She followed Hannah past Mrs. Harris, who was perched on the front seat, and plopped down on a bench.  The trolley shifted into motion, and a costumed girl stood up at the front, swaying and clutching papers in one hand and a handlebar in the other.

“Hello, my name is Elisabeth—” the girl’s next words were drowned out as the trolley struggled uphill and leveled off on Front Street.

The girl smiled and spoke even louder, “Although our town is small, it is brimming with 300 years of history and people, places, and stories which make it special, and I’m going to tell you about one particularly extraordinary person.

“Do you see the building on the right?  At one time this was the art studio of Alicia Benoit.  Miss Benoit was born without arms, yet she was extremely talented.  Not only could she paint and draw, but she could also feed herself, type letters, play the piano, thread a needle, and embroider.  Because Miss Benoit did all this with her feet and toes, she wore pumps so she could quickly slip her shoes off and use her toes like we use our fingers.

“As a child, Miss Benoit attended—”

Hannah nudged Emily and whispered, “I know a family whose last name is Benoit. Maybe they’re related.”

“Ssshh!  I’m trying to listen.”

 “—As an art teacher and as a person, Miss Benoit impacted everyone around her.  Even those who didn’t know her personally remember her.  One city resident saw Miss Benoit at many concerts at the college and recalls observing Miss Benoit retrieve money from her shoe.

“Throughout her life, Miss Benoit’ family cared for her, and it seems likely that family and community support helped her overcome her handicaps and become the inspiration she is today.”

Smiling, the speaker finished her story and handed Mrs. Harris two papers to pass around.

When the papers reached Hannah and Emily, they saw the pages contained black-and-white photos of a smiling lady surrounded by artwork.

Emily spotted something in one of the photos as she turned around to pass them on.

“Look, Hannah!  The lady is only wearing one shoe like the girl said.  I wonder what she was doing when the photo was taken.”

Emily didn’t have time to take another look, for just then the trolley slowed to a stop, and Mrs. Harris said, “Time to go, everyone!”

Once all the children had disembarked, they followed Mrs. Harris and a costumed stranger along the sidewalk.  The sun had risen even further, and the cool morning was quickly turning muggy.

“Where do you think we’re going next?”  Hannah asked, peering up at the old buildings that loomed over them.

“I don’t know, but I hope it has air conditioning,” Emily replied, fanning her face, “It’s hot.”

“It’s not hot,” Hannah said.

“Well, it’s going to be, and I’m already sweating.”

“I must be a bit coldblooded,” Hannah mused, eyeing the ground and hopping over the cracks in the pavement.

“You can’t be coldblooded.  Only snakes and things like that are—” Emily began to explain, but broke off as her class passed through the creaking wooden doors of a castle!  No—it was just an old church.  Emily’s sudden excitement was extinguished.

If only the trolley really were a dragon and this church a castle, Emily wished.

The story about the armless lady had been interesting, but Emily doubted if her town could hold enough stories to justify a half-day historic tour for children.  Still, it was fun to be out of school with her friends.

Emily gazed into the gloomy church.  A high ceiling peaked over dark, squeaking floors which vibrated as a bell tolled in the church tower.

Mrs. Harris led the class to the front of the nave where a group of costumed children told stories about ghosts and dead people, but Emily wasn’t really paying attention because her glance caught onto a large object in a corner of the church.  It was dark brown, upright, and curved, with a giant space in its center crossed by dozens of parallel lines.  A girl in a long red dress sat on a bench behind it.

When the ghost stories had finished, Emily was glad to see that Mrs. Harris and the tour guide were leading her class to the interesting object.

The girl stood up and welcomed the class, and the children sat down.  Emily was absorbed in gazing at the object, which she now realized looked like a musical instrument.

“This is a harp,” the speaker said as she motioned to the instrument beside her, “The harp has many parts.  These are the column, the soundboard, the strings, and the pedals.”  As she named each part, the girl pointed it out.

“The harp is most often associated with the glissando.”  The harpist ran her thumb down the strings and then pulled back up with her forefinger.

Emily gasped at the lovely sound, as did Hannah and most of the other girls.

“I am now going to play a piece for you based on a medieval call to prayer for peasants working in the fields.  Listen for the six bell tolls that repeat throughout the song.”

Sitting down behind the harp, the girl thumped on the pedals for a moment and then pulled the instrument back to rest on her shoulder.  She began to play, and the notes sounded like fairy music to Emily.

When the song was over, the girl stood up again and said, “I hope you have enjoyed learning about the harp.  Are there any questions?”

“How many strings does the harp have?” Mrs. Harris asked.

“My harp has 44, but some harps have 47 strings.”

Ben’s hand shot up, and he asked, “Does your finger bleed when you play and have a cut on your finger?”

“I don’t actually know.  I’ve never had that happen before,” the girl replied with a smile.

Then it was time to go, and as Mrs. Harris rounded up her class, Emily slipped nearer the harpist, and looking up, asked timidly, “Could you teach me how to play?”

The girl looked surprised and a little amused, but said, “I don’t know.  You would have to ask your parents first.”

Before the class crowded out the door, Mrs. Harris turned around, and she and the class thanked the harpist.  Then Emily was blinking once more in hot sunshine, headed towards the next tour stop, and wondering what her parents would say about harp lessons.

Swinging the screen door shut with a bang and slipping off her shoes as she hopped into the hall, Emily rushed into the kitchen where her mother was chopping onions.

“How was your school trip today, Emily?” Mama inquired.

“It was lots of fun!  Have you heard of a harp before?  I saw one this morning, and there was this girl who talked about it and played it.  I want to learn how to play the harp.  May I?  Oh, and did you know an artist named Miss Benoit who didn’t have arms lived here?  She painted with her feet!”

Emily’s mother laughed and said as she wiped her hands off, “I never would’ve guessed our little town had a harp teacher.”

“Now,” Mama continued, sitting Emily down, “I want to hear all about your day from the very beginning.  We can have lemonade and sugar cookies while you talk.”

As Emily began describing the dragon trolley, Mama poured lemonade, piled sugar cookies on a plate, and sat down at the table.  They sipped, snacked, and chatted for a while, and supper may have been a little late that evening, and Emily might have described her day a second time to her two older brothers and her sister and a third time when Daddy came home, but no one was bored, and no one went hungry.

When Mama came to tuck Emily into bed that night, Emily whispered, “I’m glad I have arms, ‘cause otherwise I couldn’t hug you.”

“I’m glad, too,” Mama smiled as she turned out the light.

Falling asleep, Emily realized she was worn out with excitement and happiness—and plans!  Maybe tomorrow she would try painting with her feet, and maybe soon she could learn to play the harp.

Queen Spider: An Apocryphal Anecdote

‘Tis said that her majesty Queen Elizabeth I of England was taking a stroll in the garden, accompanied by her chief advisers. As they often did, these men were urging her majesty to wed. The Queen merely brushed off their concerns like flies. At length, one of the men demanded of her outright:

“But why will her majesty not marry?  Surely a husband would be of great use to her majesty.”

Elizabeth walked a few more paces, then stopped near the branches of a small tree. She gestured to two thin twigs. Woven between them was a large web, in the middle of which sat a huge spider.

“How many spiders do you see on this web?”  she asked.

“Only one,” replied the advisers, puzzled.

“I am like this spider,” said the Queen. “As she rests in the center of her kingdom, perfectly capable of snaring her own prey and feeding herself, so am I. See how she dexterously maneuvers herself from one thread to another; a mate would only get in her way.”

One of the advisers spoke up: “And yet, your majesty, the spider needs that mate to produce offspring.”

“True,” said Elizabeth, “and when he has fulfilled his part, the female spider will entrap and eat him, as if he were no more than the customary fly. I would not wish such a fate on any man.”  Then, smiling, she calmly took her leave of her councilmen, whom afterward never did press the issue of marriage quite so enthusiastically.

Please Sign Here for the Princess

Though it had been an excessively long, mildly inconvenient journey, here it was at last: the great palace of the kingdom of Lira. As his aide-de-camp pulled the horseless carriage round the grand driveway in front of the palace, Prince Albert of Forint couldn’t help but lament (to himself, of course) upon noticing all that scaffolding clinging to the entirety of the east wing of the building. That was the older part of the palace, he knew, and considered hopelessly old-fashioned, but of a style that Albert privately still quite liked. Those thin, clear windows mass-produced nowadays might be more practical, but could they hold a candle to the ornate, handcrafted stained glass of the past centuries? Maybe not, however, Albert reminded himself, he was not there to critique windows.

The carriage came to a halt, and Albert removed his goggles. His aide-de-camp hopped out, darted round to open Albert’s door, assisted in removing the voluminous duster that covered Albert’s shining gold armor, and produced a handkerchief that banished any stray flecks that had managed to get through said duster. A Liran official rushed forward – sedately, of course – to provide honored-to-welcome-yous and right-this-ways, and, following that way, Albert strode up the stately steps, his armor flashing in the brightly shining sun, looking every inch a king’s son come to win the hand of a fair princess. Which, of course, he was.

Admittedly, by the time he reached the top of said stately steps, Albert was not over-fond of said brightly shining sun, as the former was very long and the latter very hot. Once inside, had anyone asked his opinion on the subject, he might have said the temperature in the palace itself was untowardly warm, especially in the throne room, where he was received. Otherwise, it was all that was splendid, with the well-dressed courtiers of Lira seated in ornate chairs of dark wood on either side of the room, and the King of Lira seated in an ornate chair of gold on a dais at the far end of the room.

The official Albert was following stopped about halfway up the aisle and began howling out may-I-presents and of-that-names. Albert might have moved a bit closer to the dais himself, as, when the king spoke his own welcome in a voice of average volume, Albert had to strain just the slightest to catch every word. But, while Albert thought that stepping forward slightly as he gave his reply showed a bold spirit, any more might be taken as presumptuous.

At any rate, Albert didn’t really need to hear all that much, as he had memorized the words of the ceremony for the Winning of the Hand of the Fair Princess since he was old enough to do so, and had seen it take place for several of his own sisters. As was custom, the Princess of Lira herself was not present in the room. However, he’d heard of her as a kind, virtuous, accomplished young woman, qualities which of course meant nothing individually, as everyone said that of most princesses. But, taken together, they meant that she wasn’t a madwoman, at least. More importantly, he’d seen a photographic portrait of her, and had been pleased to discover it wasn’t entirely unlike her painted one. So, with confidence, he responded with gusto to the King’s scripted hast-thou-come-to-win-the-hand-ofs and dost-thou-accept-the-tasks-set-forths.

And so, at long last they came to the very end of the ceremony. Now all that was needed was for the King to say, “Verily, I see thou art a man of great heart and courage. Go forth, with my blessing,” and Albert would be shown to his guest room. There’d be an opulent ball this evening, where he would meet the Princess – along with all the other suitors, poor fools – and then he’d actually go forth and complete the tasks the following morning. Said tasks were fairly standard stuff – find this mystical jewel, slay that marauding dragon – he’d review them again in the morning.

But, only, the king didn’t say what he was supposed to stay. Instead, he said: “Verily, I see thou art a man of great heart and courage. Now, all that is needed is for you to acknowledge the Terms and Conditions.”

Albert let a good thirty seconds go by while he 1) heard what the king said 2) realized it wasn’t what the king was supposed to say 3) realized that he didn’t understand what the king said 4) realized that, because it wasn’t what the king was supposed to say and he didn’t understand what the king said, he didn’t know how to respond to what the king said 5) waited to see if the king or anyone else would say anything else to explain what the king said 6) realized no one was going to explain what the king said and 7) spent ten seconds coming up with something to say in response to what the king said. Those ten seconds produced this: “Ah, I beg your pardon, your majesty?”

The king merely repeated what he said: “Verily, I see thou art a man of great heart and courage. Now, all that is needed is for you to acknowledge the Terms and Conditions,” but this time Albert was a bit more prepared.

“Your majesty, might I inquire what these Terms and Conditions are? Lest your majesty mistake me, let me state that I know of the concept of Terms and Conditions. I merely inquire as to what these specific terms and conditions are. And, if I might be so bold, what their place is as a part of this ancient, most hallowed ceremony for Winning of the Hand of the Fair Princess?”

The King waved his hand, a bit more dismissively than Albert would have thought appropriate. “Our legal representative shall explain the Terms and Conditions momentarily. As to their place in this ancient ceremony: my daughter may wish to grant her hand via traditional means, but we are a modern monarchy living in modern times, are we not?”

There was another uncomfortable silence, during which Albert gradually realized he was expected to respond. “Ah, yes, sire.”

“Then,” continued the King, “We must take modern precautions.” He clapped his hands. “Honored Beatrice, if you please?”

A woman, whom Albert was forced to assume was Honored Beatrice, rose from the crowd and came across the room towards him, holding a large stack of papers, on top of which rested an inkwell and pen. While there was as yet no gray in her hair, she was of such an age that Albert would have been comfortable referring to her as a spinster. Nevertheless, she wore an elaborate ebony gown, which gleamed like fish scales, with an excessive number of drape-y bits that wafted behind her like wings.

“Your grace.” She inclined her head respectfully, but with a smile he couldn’t place and didn’t like. “Allow me to present the Terms and Conditions, as well as a Medical and Bodily Injury Waiver, for your detailed perusal and signature.” She held out the stack of papers.

It took Albert a moment to realize that she meant him to take them, and he grabbed at them very awkwardly once he did comprehend this, as he was, of course, still wearing his golden gauntlets.

“Take as much time as you need,” Beatrice assured him. “There are fifteen sections, each of which require your signature. You can also opt to have the conditions read out loud by Winston over here, if you would prefer.” She motioned to the official who had shown him in, who had now taken a seat.

“Ah, no, that won’t be necessary,” Albert responded. Beatrice smiled, and went back to her chair.

Somehow, and he wasn’t quite sure how, even as he did it, Albert managed to position it so that he was holding the pen and inkwell in the crook of his elbow, while one gauntleted hand uncomfortably held the stack of papers, and the other clumsily turned the pages of Section I: General Disclaimers, which numbered seventeen pages. However, this method for safekeeping the pen and inkwell proved his undoing when it came time to affix his signature to the end of Section I. He read the closing paragraph twice just so he could strategize how he was to do it. He was keenly aware, more so as every second passed, that 1) they had not given him a table or anything remotely of the sort to utilize 2) he was actually the only person standing in the room 3) everyone in the room was looking at him and 4) it really was very hot in there.

He eventually decided to abandon a slight bit of dignity and place some items on the floor, reaching for them when the time came. Dignified, perhaps not, but better than ink-spotted armor.

Only, the ink was all dried up.

“Ah, Honorable Beatrice,” he spoke up. “Might I trouble you for a renewed supply of ink?”

“Of course,” she replied. And then they waited for a good five minutes while a serving man ran off to find, and then back again with, a new inkwell.

“Thank you,” Albert said.

The silence as he signed was deafening, save for the scratch of the pen. Perhaps…he spoke before he could lose his nerve. “Honorable Beatrice, mayhap it would be best to have these Terms and Conditions read aloud, for the benefit of those assembled here.” He realized, after he had said it, that that last part made very little sense, but, well, no takebacks now.

“Of course,” Beatrice assented. She produced a second copy of the documents from somewhere in her robes and handed them to Winston.

Winston then began to read, for the next hour, the Terms and Conditions and Medical and Bodily Injury Waiver in the fastest monotone Albert had ever had the misfortune of hearing. He really only understood a word or a phrase here and there, such as “agree,” “the Princess’ sole discretion,” and “hold harmless,” intermixed with a steady barrage of legal gibberish, such as “indemnify.”

Nevertheless, he signed everywhere they said to sign. And, once that was over with, the King mercifully gave his blessing, and everything was back on track.

Or so Albert thought, all through the ball and his many dances with the Princess, who did seem to be gracious and accomplished and did not look unlike her photograph. And all through the many tasks he undertook to win her hand, and all through his many triumphant completions of said tasks. And right up until he found himself seated in a small room, in front of a desk, behind which sat the Honorable Beatrice in a pair of spectacles, again with that same smile he couldn’t put a name to but didn’t care for.

This was no way to treat a champion like himself, he who had won the Princess’ hand. For won it he most assuredly had. For sure, a few slobs had come close to beating him at a few tasks, and to his chagrin, one personage – not even a prince, simply the second son of a duke – had even somehow bested him at one particular challenge. But, never mind that. Albert had won 10/11 of the tasks. He had scaled the monstrous mountain to defeat the terrible troll, dived to the depths of the devilish lake to fish out the priceless pearl, sprinted across the scorching desert to defeat the sniveling snake, etc. So why, then, was he cooped in this dark room with the Honorable Beatrice, and her bat wings, and not being paraded into the grand hall to wed the Princess right then and there?

“Well,” began the Honorable Beatrice. “I’ll just come right out and say it: you did not win the hand of the Princess.”

And so it was that Albert experienced yet another shocked, awkward silence at the hands of the Liran monarchy.

“I beg your pardon?” he nearly gasped.

“You did not win the hand of the Princess,” repeated the Honorable Beatrice.

More silence. That was apparently all she was going to say, so Albert managed to choke more words out. “But, but how could that be? Did I not scale the monstrous mountain to defeat the terrible troll? Did I not dive to the depths of the devilish lake to fish out the priceless pearl?” He was becoming bolder and louder as he went along, remembering all that he had suffered. “Did I not sprint across the scorching desert to defeat the…”

“Yes, yes, you did all that,” the Honorable Beatrice interrupted him. “But, well, the simple fact is…the Princess doesn’t like you.”

“I must beg your pardon, once again?”

“Well, you, like all the other participants, were given the chance to interact with the Princess at the Questing Eve Ball, and, apparently, you, em…” She paused a brief moment, and appeared to check some notes. “You talked about historical architecture, specifically the techniques by which you create multi-colored glass, for a solid hour and fifteen minutes. Whereas, this other fellow, the Duke of Shilling’s son, was apparently much more agreeable, simply by virtue of talking about different sorts of muslins for two minutes.”

Albert once again allowed his incensed-ness to fuel him: “The Duke of Shilling’s son? Is that the one who has won the hand of the Princess?”

Beatrice grew tight-lipped. “I can neither confirm nor deny the final winner of the Princess’ hand. I can, however…”

Albert dared to interrupt: “I demand to know how this is even possible. I won the tasks, I must win the hand of the Princess. Such it is and such it has been, throughout Winning of the Princesses time out of mind. You are saying that these tasks counted for naught, and that the winner was decided at the very beginning of this…charade.”

“Actually,” interjected Beatrice, “If you reference page thirty-five of the Terms and Conditions which you signed, you will note that it clearly states that the final winner of the Princess’ hand is up to the discretion of the Princess, who may take into account the winner of the tasks, but is not obligated to do so. And, actually, there was the potential for the winner to be decided at any point during the Winning of the Hand of the Fair Princess, up to and including the end of the final task. But, yes, it just so happened it was decided on the first night.”

Albert had never heard anything like this in his life, and he said so.

“Well, your grace,” Beatrice smiled that smile again, which he was now able to recognize for what it was: condescending, and perhaps a tad dash of cruelty. “I know that you come from Forint, where they are, perhaps, a tad more attached to the old-fashioned ways of doing things than we are. We are…”

“…a modern kingdom yes, yes, yes, I have heard this word used a thousand times in my presence during this charade,” now that he’d found the word, he didn’t want to stop using it. “But,” he forced himself to calm, for a moment. “Will you not take under consideration the great love I have for his majesty’s daughter. My feelings…”

“…are entirely legitimate, I am sure,” said Beatrice with faux-sympathy. “Here is what you do: ‘Feelings,’ you say, ‘I have no further use for you. You are simply cluttering up my mind, and tripping up my thoughts. Goodbye now.’ And then, you toss them out.”

“Well, madame,” responded Albert after a biting pause. “While my feelings for the Princess are strong, I can see but one recourse: you will be hearing from my father’s lawyers.”

That smile again, but not condescending, merely…hungry. “I look forward to it.”

And so, as Albert turned to walk out of the room, he wondered how he had ever thought her shining scales to be those of fish or her wings those of a bat. No, it seemed there was a new kind of dragon abroad in the land, standing between noble princes and their fair princesses: Lawyers.