Editor's note: Although I'm still hard at work on a fairy-tale related project, I found time to publish our first July winning work (way past overdue on my part). Packed with action and detail, "The Candlestick Kid," will appeal to kids and adults alike.
Once upon a time, at the edge of the wide and thick Magin Forest, lived a poor man and his young son. The man, Julius Rivener, had gotten on his years. His legs had been weakened by years of labor and now could take him no further than a nearby stream. His wife Mathilda had died a few years ago when she accidentally drowned in Evergreen Lake. So, to make ends meet, young Jerry Rivener had to grow up quickly and put away the things that betrayed his boyhood.
He became known as Little Jerry the Candlestick Kid because that’s what he sold: all kinds of skinny, fat, scented and unscented tapers, pillars, votive and luminaria candles from forest home to forest home. He carried them around in a wicker basket, stopping anyone he met to try to sell them one or two. In Magin Forest, currency could be gold or a kind word. It didn’t matter as long as both parties agreed it was sufficient for services rendered.
One day, dressed in his typical black shorts, white shirt and soft leather shoes, he decided to venture into a part of the forest he’d never been before. As he was having bad luck with his usual surroundings, he thought it best to try somewhere new.
As he traipsed along, he began to notice trees, flowers and shrubs that he’d never seen before. He even thought the ground beneath his feet felt softer as if it was made from the downy feathers of eider ducks. Suddenly, he heard someone crying just off the trail.
“Who’s there?” he asked.
When no one answered, he asked again.
Again, hearing nothing but the sobs, he decided to investigate.
Walking towards its sound, he crossed over downed trees, carefully sidestepped burly roots, and parted low lying branches and found a turtle the size of a tuffet sitting in a clearing. It was crying, shaking its head from left to right.
“Excuse me, sir,” Jerry began, “are you in trouble?”
“If you will look at my back,” the turtle explained, “you will see it’s cracked.”
Cautiously, Jerry studied the turtle’s back. He did, indeed, see a large crack running lengthwise across the top of the little fellow’s traveling home.
“How did this happen?” he asked.
“I was fast asleep down by the glen,” he answered, “when a branch fell off a tree.”
“The branch broke your shell?”
“No. It fell close to a bank of rocks and its branches loosened a few. Some of those rocks tumbled down and broke the shell.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Jerry offered. “Does it hurt?”
“It irritates is more like it! Now my body is exposed to the elements! What should I do?” He started crying again.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked. “I’m Little Jerry.”
“The Candlestick Kid,” the turtle added. “I know. I overheard two sparrows talking about you. My name is Pod.”
“Hi, Pod,” Jerry greeted him. “I think I can help you.”
“You can?” The turtle’s countenance lit up immediately. “How?”
Jerry looked around quickly for some vines, found some thin but strong ones, and brought them over to Pod. Then, remembering how his father used to knot cords of wood together, he deftly wrapped the vines over and under the turtle, pulling tightly till the crack on the top shell became just a thin line. Then, fashioning a Boy Scout-type lighter out of twigs, he set some dry leaves on fire, ignited a taper, and dripped the oil along the length of the turtle’s crack.
“Oh, that is a clever thing you did!” Pod laughed. “I feel whole again.”
“No turtle should have a cracked shell.”
“I have nothing to pay you with,” Pod admitted.
“I did it because I wanted to,” Jerry stated. “It was a good thing.”
“Then take this,” the turtle offered.
He brought out a green whistle and gave it to Jerry.
“If you’re ever in trouble,” he explained, “just blow it and I’ll come help you.”
“Thank you, Pod,” Jerry smiled then cheerfully continued on his merry way.
After one hour, he started getting hungry. As his legs were also getting tired, he figured it was time to rest. Eyeing a stump, he walked over to it and sat down. Taking a bun out of his basket, he ate it gingerly. As he was finishing, he started hearing a cry, a faint one, like the cry of a tiny animal.
Getting up, he looked closer for the sound. Who was making it? As he walked further, the sound grew louder and closer. Finally, he found what he was looking for: a red parrot with green and yellow wings. It was tangled in some vines near the branches of an acacia tree.
“Help me!” cried the upside down bird. “I’m stuck.”
The parrot had a muffled voice which Jerry noticed. He went over to him and looked up.
“Quite a predicament you’re in, bird,” he commented. “You sound funny.”
“My name is Dow,” the parrot corrected him, “and I can’t move.” He started crying again.
“I’ll help you,” Jerry promised.
“You will?” Dow wondered. “How will you get up here?”
“I’m a boy. Don’t you know we’re good climbers?”
“Let’s hope you sing the same tune if a wolf came by!”
As it turned out, the trunk of the tree was much too thick for Jerry to climb up.
“You can’t do it!” the parrot moaned.
“Oh, I don’t give up that easily,” the boy cautioned. “Just watch.”
Remembering the tree climbing apparatus his father used to make from vines and twigs, Jerry fashioned one from the same materials, tied it between his ankles, and shimmied up the acacia. Carefully, he untied the bird’s knots and freed him. It was then that he noticed that Dow’s beak was broken.
“So that’s why you sound funny,” Jerry smiled.
“These things happen,” Dow warned, flapping his wings while trying to stay within speaking distance. “I was trying to break a hard nut open. I guess I used too much force.”
“Let me get down and I’ll fix it.”
“You will?” Dow asked.
Once on the ground, Jerry took off the apparatus and rubbed his legs. They were a little sore from the climbing, but at least they were only scraped a little, not bleeding outright.
“My name is Little Jerry,” he introduced himself.
“So you’ve heard of me?”
“Sure. There were two wrens talking about you some time ago.”
“Word gets around quickly in the forest.”
“Yes, it does.”
Jerry stripped some threads from his shirt.
“Hold still,” he ordered the bird.
Carefully, he placed the dangling portion of the broken beak back in position and used the threads to wrap it in place. As before, he created a fire, lit one of the candles, and used the drippings to seal the beak.
“Oh, that is a clever thing you did!” Dow laughed. “I feel whole again.”
“No parrot should have a cracked beak.”
“I have to admit: I am a poor bird,” Dow groaned. “I can’t pay you.”
“Your joy was payment enough.”
“Then take this,” Dow offered.
He brought out a red whistle from his wing and gave it to Jerry.
“If you’re ever in trouble,” he explained, “just blow it and I’ll come help you.”
“Thank you, Dow,” Jerry smiled then merrily continued on his cheery way.
It was around mid afternoon when Jerry realized he was lost. Since he hadn’t sold or traded one candle all day, he thought he should just find his way home and try his luck the next day. That was easier said than done, however, as there was no clear path back to his home. He looked for something familiar – a juniper bush in bloom, a hollow birch’s trunk, a winding stream or a proudly aligned row of cypresses – anything to let him know he was close to home. He thought about following the sun, but since it was overhead, he couldn’t tell his direction.
Continuing further, he started getting more and more nervous. The sound of wolves could be heard in the distance. A little farther on, he heard the unmistakable sound of crying coming from off the side of his new trail. As he got closer, the crying became louder. He thought about leaving whoever was crying to soak in their own tears because he feared the wolves could catch up to him. But because he had a good heart, he stepped off the path, waded through thick underbrush, and saw a sobbing white unicorn sitting on the floor. He also immediately saw why the animal may have been crying: its horn was broken and simply dangling from the piece protruding from the middle of its forehead.
“Can I help you?” Jerry asked.
“I don’t know,” the unicorn lamented. “What am I to do? Look at my horn!”
“Does it hurt?”
“No, but it’s the shame and lack of usefulness I must bear.”
“How did it happen?”
“I was besieged by a pack of wolves not too long ago. I fought them off, but as they left, I accidentally tripped over a tree trunk hidden in fallen leaves. I lunged forward and my horn got stuck in a tree. I used a lot of force to free myself, but I pulled too hard, whipped around, and hit the horn against another tree where it snapped in two.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Jerry admitted. “Now you’re defenseless.”
“Yes, I am,” the unicorn cried.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked. “I’m Little Jerry.”
“The Candlestick Kid,” the mythical horse said. “Yes. I’ve heard of you. I overhead two starlings speak of you not too long ago.”
“My! Word sure gets around quickly in Magin!”
“My name’s Bow,” the unicorn said. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jerry greeted him back. “I think I can help you.”
“You will? That would be fantastic.”
“It’ll give me great pleasure.”
“So how will you do it?”
“Easy,” Jerry responded, “but it requires you to lie down and be very still for a while.”
“I can do that,” Bow agreed. “I don’t have to worry about the wolves because they won’t come near me for some time.” He lied down.
“Good,” the boy nodded.
Again, ripping some threads from his shirt, he brought the dangling horn back up into place and secured the two pieces with the thread. Then, using his fire device, he lit some dried leaves, ignited a long slender taper, and carefully dripped the wax along the horn’s seam.
“Will you surely remain still till it heals?” he begs.
“I can do that,” Bow affirmed.
“Then I think it will work.”
The unicorn stared at his new horn with amazement.
“Oh, that is a clever thing you did!” he laughed. “I feel whole again!”
“No unicorn should have a broken horn.”
“I’m sorry to admit it,” Bow regretted, “but I have nothing to pay you with.”
“That’s okay,” Jerry smiled. “It pleases me all the same.”
“Then take this,” the horned stallion offered.
Using his forelegs, he nudged forward a white whistle on the ground towards Jerry.
“If you’re ever in trouble,” he explained, “just blow it and I‘ll come to help you.”
“Thank you, Bow,” Jerry smiled and walked away.
As he kept walking through the forest, it became clear to Jerry that he was lost. No tree formation, streamlet or flower bush was recognizable to him. The sun was starting to disappear in the west. A thin mist slowly began to appear.
“I’ve really wandered off too far,” he whispered to himself. “Nothing looks familiar.”
The sounds that were now emanating from the woods scared him. Amidst the whistle of the wind howling through the trees, the eerie chirp of field crickets, the croaking of frogs and the constant song of the nightingales, there was one particular sound which gave him pause: the sound of wolves baying in the distance.
“Where am I?” he asked himself. “I will be a feast for the wolves tonight!”
Just then, the sound of the baying wolves grew louder. Fearing them to be close, he picked up his pace. When he heard the sound of footsteps rustling through the woods, he started running.
Looking back, he saw the molten eyes of the wolves.
“I’m doomed!” he cried, running even further.
As the wolves closed in, he saw a tall thin house through the fog.
“Help me!” he screamed, racing towards the structure.
With the wolves on his tail, he darted up the short flight of stairs. Just as he was about to knock on the door, he quickly glanced back at the wolves. No longer in pursuit, they actually appeared frightened. Suddenly, they turned and ran back into the forest, howling as if ghosts were on their tails.
“How odd!” Jerry thought.
As he was about to knock on the door, it opened. Slowly, he entered. There’s was no one there to greet him. He slowly came to realize he’d never seen such an abode in his life before. It was basically one large room with a door in the back. There were lit candles perched on every wall. The stuffed heads of animals adorned every vertical surface all the way up to the top of the building. All the furniture - couches, chairs, tables and cabinets - were crudely constructed from branches. A huge black cauldron sat in a gigantic fireplace.
“Hello?” Jerry called out? “Is anyone here?”
He heard the door at the far end of the room slowly creaking open, making his heart leap in his chest. Then, he saw a hunched backed old woman in a black dress walking with a cane appear. As she came closer, Jerry could smell her clearly for she had the odor of rotten cabbage about her.
“Heh-Hello,” he stammered. “I’m lost.”
“What is your name, sonny?” she asked”
“I’m Jerry Rivener, son of Julius the woodsman.”
“Ah,” the old woman smiled, “you’re the Candlestick Kid.”
He nodded and held out his basket of taper, pillar, votive and luminaria candles. She studied them.
“Such a festive collection!” she smiled. “They would look beautiful on these drab walls. Do you agree?”
“Yes, they would.”
“What would you like for them?”
“Um…all of them?”
“They’re so lovely,” she admitted. “I couldn’t just buy a few! I fear the dear ones I have will soon die out.”
“Okay,” he shrugged.
“I’ll be right back,” she promised. Taking the basket, she returned to the back room. A few minutes later, she returned with a cup of tea and buns on a platter and placed them on the table.
“These are for you,” she explained, “for you’ve come a long way.”
“Thank you, Miss…”
“Oh, they call me many things in these parts,” she admitted, “the woman with the gold, the lady of the lake, the haggard old spinster, the witch with no name…ignore them all. What people don’t understand, they despise. But, here…” she continued, reaching in a pocket in her dress, “here is your payment.”
Jerry reached out his hand and took the coin from her palm.
“That’s a fortune in pure king’s gold,” she claimed.
“Thanks!” Jerry beamed. “I’ve never seen a real gold coin before. Father would treasure this.”
He glanced at the food on the table.
“May I have a little bread before I leave?” he asked her.
“Certainly!” she smiled. “Sit down and help yourself!”
Famished, he placed himself at the table, ate some of the bread, and drank a few sips of tea.
“This is good,” he nodded. “Um, do you live here alone?”
“Just me and these decorations,” she answered.
Jerry, for his part, wasn’t so sure he could live in a house decorated by the heads of stuffed dead animals.
As he ate a little more, his body began to feel heavy. His legs seemed to take on a weight of their own. Even his eyelids felt heavy.
“I…” he managed to emit, “I…”
Before a full word could pass his lips, he passed out on the table.
The next morning, he woke up with a slight headache. Still groggy, he looked around in confusion. He soon discovered that not only was he still in the old woman’s house but he was also tied to one of the handmade chairs. He struggled to free himself but it was in vain. His bonds were too strong and too tight.
Just then, the old woman came walking out of the back room with a large jar in her hands.
“Did you tie me up?” he asked her.
“Be quiet!” she shouted. “Argh! The sound of boys do my ears despise!”
“Let me go!” he cried. “I want to go home!”
“Your journey ends here!” she declared.
He struggled again to free himself. Like before, it was a waste of time. She held out the jar towards him.
“Do you know what’s in here?” she asked rhetorically.
Reaching in the jar, she brings out a handful of black threadlike substance.
“Bats’ wings!” she beamed. Jerry gasped.
He gasped again when, now that it was daytime, he could see just how black, crooked and rotten her teeth were.
“Don’t look so shocked, little boy,” she smiled with malice. “It’ll all be over soon.”
“What will?” he wondered.
“Breakfast,” she answered.
“But I’m not hungry,” he pleaded.
“Oh,” she explained, pouring out the bats’ wings in the cauldron simmering in the hearth, “but I am!”
“What are you having?” he asked, staring at her. She pointed a bony finger at him.
“Help!” he shouted. “Help!”
“No one can hear you,” she grinned. “You are much too far, too deep in the forest, I fear. Not even the wolves touch my doorstep.”
“You’re a mad woman!”
“Thank you, Candlestick. That’s the best compliment I’ve had all year. Actually, it’s the only compliment I’ve had all year!”
She turned and walked towards the backroom.
“Just you sit still,” she cautioned. “I’ve learned in the past a nervous boy does a bad meal make.”
As she entered the backroom, Jerry struggled with his bonds again. As before, they wouldn’t budge. He then tried to drag the chair to the fireplace only to realize it had been nailed in place.
“Help me!” he yelled. As before, there was no response.
Suddenly, he remembered the whistles in his pockets. Using a lot of effort, he was able to bend over to his pants and cause a whistle to slide out half way. Seeing the green whistle, he picked it up with his mouth, twisted it cleverly so it was aligned the right way, and blew into it with all his might. He became puzzled when it emitted no sound.
“Is it broken?” he wondered.
He blew it again. Like before, it made no sound. Annoyed, he spit it out on the floor.
Bending down again, he wriggled the red whistle out of his pocket and caught it in his mouth before it fell.
He blew into it. It produced no sound. He blew into it a second time but, again, it made no sound. He dropped it on the floor.
“Another broken whistle!” he whispered to himself.
For the last time, he bent over and brought out the white whistle given to him by the injured unicorn.
Taking a deep breath, he blew into it with all his might. Like the others, it made no sound. He blew into it again but it produced nothing. Angry, he spit it out.
“These animals have tricked me!” he lamented. “I should have known better that to trust them. Now, look at me. Look at this house. So many times I’ve heard father say beware the den of inequity. I thought it never existed. I should’ve believed him.” He started crying.
The old woman came out of the back room with a loaf of bread on a platter and laid it on the table.
“Soon,” she remarked, “I will have my fill. For so long I’ve hungered for the taste of a young ‘un. Finally, my that day has come.”
As she turned to stir the huge ladle in the cauldron, the front door was suddenly thrust open. Standing in the door were the three animals Jerry had helped before – Pod the turtle, Dow the parrot, and Bow the unicorn. Both Pod and Dow were on Bow’s back.
“Arrgghh!” the old witch yelled, grabbing the hot ladle. “I will add all of you to my stew!”
She rushed towards them. Dow flew up and Pod jumped to the floor. Bow lowered his head and thrust his horn towards her. In one deft and unerring motion, he impaled her, then racing over to the cauldron, threw her in. She screamed as she started melting.
Pod used his sharp strong beak to chew through the binds around Jerry while Dow perched himself on the table near the bread.
“Don’t touch that!” Jerry warned him. “Everything here is poisoned.”
“Yes,” Bow agreed. “This is the lair of the black witch.”
“The scourge of Magin Forest!” Dow agreed.
“She sure had many names,” Jerry wondered, “but how did you guys know I needed help?”
“We heard your whistles,” Bow informed him.
“The whistles!” Jerry exclaimed. “But they’re broken!”
“To you,” Pod explained, “they may seem that may because you can’t hear them.”
“But believe me,” Dow added, “they’re quite loud!”
Just then, a bright gleam of light caught their eye from high up on one of the walls. Curious, Dow flew up towards it. Seconds later, he brought down a small basket.
“What is that?” Jerry asked.
Dow laid the basket on the table. It was overflowing with shiny gold coins.
“Yay!” they shouted collectively.
“We shall divide this evenly,” Jerry proposed.
Within minutes, they parted the gold four ways and left the house.
Pod built a home for himself and has family and had enough gold left over to live comfortably the rest of his long life. Dow built an estuary, a safe area where birds lived in peace without fear of predators like wolves. Bow had always wanted to see the world so he and some friends built a caravan and traveled as far as their legs could take them. Jerry and his father built a large safe home in Magin Forest which contained a courtyard where locals could come to trade, tell stories, and reminisce about the dark old days living in fear of the black witch.