New material will eventually make its way onto this blog. In the meantime, here’s yet ANOTHER story I wrote and then forgot about until just now. THE RUSTY KNIGHT is a short story I wrote as part of a class called “creative writing in the community.” We were all tasked with writing a poem or short story aimed at a younger audience, and then paired with a young student (grades 4-7, I believe) to help mentor them in writing their own story or poem. At the end of the class both our work and the work of our young student were compiled and printed in a book and given to the families of the students.
The Rusty Knight
Tommy was a perfectly ordinary boy who lived in an ordinary house with a perfectly ordinary family. He went to a perfectly ordinary school where he learned perfectly ordinary things with his perfectly ordinary friends. Everything about Tommy was perfectly normal, except for his uncle Lermin. Tommy’s uncle Lermin was his mother’s brother, and he traveled around the world. He had a great mane of gray hair that stuck up wildly because he never bothered to comb it, and he wore a great big patchwork coat, like a quilt with armholes. Tommy’s father disapproved of him, and his mother was embarrassed by him. Tommy, however, loved him. On his infrequent visits, Uncle Lermin would always bring Tommy some kind of gift from his travels, and tell him all sorts of wonderful tales about his adventures.
Tommy’s 12th birthday was on a Tuesday. Since that was a school night, his parents scheduled his birthday party for the following Saturday. It was a perfectly ordinary party, with cake and balloons and fun party games. However, when it was time to open the gifts, piled on top of each other like a brightly patterned Mount Everest, a hush fell upon the party. It seemed like a natural thing, one of those lulls in conversation that are wont to happen from time to time, except that it happened with such rapidity and wholeness that it took many of the guests aback. And as if taking that silence as an invitation, a cold gust of wind blew through the party, smelling faintly of distant oceans and loamy forest floors, and suddenly, there was Uncle Lermin.
“Lermin!” Tommy’s mother exclaimed, “What are you doing here? When did you get in town?”
“Lermin, you can’t just barge into someone’s home unannounced—“ began Tommy’s father at the same time.
Uncle Lermin ignored both of them, heading straight toward Tommy, seated at the head of the picnic table.
“Tommy, boy, how old are you now? No wait, don’t tell me….14!”
“I’m 12, Uncle Lermin.” Tommy giggled.
“12? Boy, you are much too tall to be 12! No, you must be 14. You must have missed some birthdays somewhere. Don’t worry; I’ll keep an eye out for them.”
Tommy giggled again. His uncle always made him laugh. “Will you stay for the cake, uncle?”
“I’ll take one for the road.” He said, depositing a large slice of chocolate cake into one of his voluminous pockets, “I have to catch a flight to Cairo in-” he glanced down at his bare wrist, “-12 and-a- half gerkins! My! Where does the time go?”
“What’s a gerkin, Uncle Lermin?”
“Oh, it’s how they tell time in Yrdu-hurdu, really quite a brilliant device, but that’s a story for another time. I just came by to give you your birthday present!” He flourished a beaten old wooden box from within the depths of his quilt-jacket.
Before his mother could object, Tommy grabbed the beaten old box and excitedly opened it. Inside was a remarkably unremarkable toy knight. It was made of metal, inlaid with patterns of blue and red. It might have once been very beautiful, but time had worked her wicked magic on him and his once brilliant breastplate was now plagued with rust. It did not flash, whirr, talk, or move like other toys, it simply stood there and looked blankly upward at Tommy through its helmet. Tommy loved it.
“Thanks Uncle Lermin! What’s his name?”
Lermin ruffled his hair affectionately, “I don’t know boy, he wouldn’t tell me.”
He turned and left then, as suddenly as he appeared, and the party resumed its perfectly ordinary course to its wonderfully mundane conclusion.
When it came time for bed, Tommy wanted to take the knight (whom he had named “Arthur,” after the famous one) to sleep with him. His mother, who had tried the whole day to get the old thing away from him, finally put her foot down.
“Absolutely not. You’ll poke your eye out in your sleep, and then where will you be?”
No matter how much Tommy begged and cajoled, his mother could not be budged. He finally managed to negotiate at least keeping it on his nightstand, propped up against his lamp. After making sure his mother got Arthur settled “just right,” he allowed her to kiss him goodnight and shut off the light. Tommy went to sleep with a smile on his face, his head full of thoughts of knights and adventure.
Tommy woke to the sound of a lamp crashing to the ground.
“Where am I now? Bloody wizard said he had the spell figured out this time…”
Standing at the foot of Tommy’s bed was his knight, only now it was no longer a foot-tall figurine, but a grown man in rusty platemail. He had his helmet in the crook of his arm and he was peering around the dark room. His hair was dark gray and cropped close to his head. Below that sat a weathered face, filled with dips and wrinkles. Two enormous bushy eyebrows perched above his eyes, to compliment the drooping mustache that dangled from his upper lip. His nose was large and bulbous, seemingly too big for his face. The whole effect, while he dramatically peered around an ordinary suburban bedroom, as if expecting goblins or bandits to jump out at any second, was quite comical. Tommy couldn’t help but laugh. The knight whirled around at the sound.
“You there! Child! Do you know who I am?”
“Why, you’re my knight.”
“Oho? What’s my name then?”
“Arthur!” the knight exploded. His voice creaked and croaked like his rusty armor. “That’s a terrible name for a knight! That can’t be my name!”
“Then what is your name, Mr. Knight?”
The knight drew himself up stiffly, “I don’t know. I am on a quest to find out who I am.”
“Well I can’t just call you ‘knight,’” replied Tommy. “What’s wrong with ‘Arthur’?”
The knight considered this. Grudgingly, he agreed that “knight” is no proper name, and agreed to go by Arthur for the time being.
“Now come!” he said, “We have work to do!” He turned around and marched out of Tommy’s room. Curious as to what his parents would say to a strange man in armor clanking around their house, he followed him. At first, he couldn’t see Arthur at all, only the hallway with its sea-blue carpet. Then Arthur’s voice came from his left, “Are you going to stand there all day? We must be off!”
Suddenly, Tommy wasn’t in his house at all, but in a large grassy field. Tommy gaped in amazement. Where had this come from? The sky was a brilliant blue, much brighter and bluer than any sky really had the right to be. In the distance, a wall of trees rose up from the flat land to greet the sky. Clumps of wildflowers dotted grass, bright splotches on a smooth sea of green. They filled the air with their sweet scent. Tommy inhaled deeply, enjoying the playful breeze that tugged on his hair. There was a small brook burbling happily nearby, filling the air with its gentle chatter. Arthur had mounted a mighty white stallion, and beside him stood a smaller brown pony for Tommy. He was beckoning impatiently for Tommy to join him. Still in a daze, Tommy hesitantly approached the pony. It eyed him without much interest before returning to the patch of grass it had been grazing on. The pony smelled strangely like brussel sprouts. On its saddle sat a small helmet, which Tommy placed snuggly on his head before climbing onto the horse. Soon he and Arthur were trotting along the brook towards the distant forest.
“Where are we going?” Tommy asked, head constantly swiveling to take in all the sights.
“Why we’re going to defeat an evil witch! Don’t you know anything, boy? I’ve been cursed to lose my memories; there must be an evil witch behind it. And evil witches,” he smiled with a sort of prideful satisfaction, “always live in foreboding forests.”
Tommy had in fact not known that, but not wishing to appear stupid in front of the knight, he simply nodded his head knowingly. The forest didn’t look terribly foreboding to Tommy; the trees were tall and straight and displayed a wide range of lush green leaves. Still, he trusted that his rusty companion knew what he was doing. Despite the rather inviting appearance of the forest, Tommy still felt a spike of fear as they passed over the first few branches. Within the forest, everything became a patchwork of light and shadow. They got a few more feet in before a strange creature dropped out of the branches. It had the head of a woman, but the body of a lion. Tommy recognized it from the Adventures in Egypt book his mother had bought him for Christmas.
“You’re a sphinx!” he exclaimed.
“That’s the witch that took my name!” exclaimed Arthur, drawing his sword. “Have at you!” The sphinx smiled, amused at the poor knight’s attempts to get his horse to charge at her.
“The boy is correct; I am not a witch, merely a sphinx a very long way from home. I tried to tell you that the first time, but you wouldn’t listen then either.”
“I know a witch when I see one!” the knight roared, “You stole my memories from me!”
“I won your memories,” she purred, curling up in a patch of sunlight. “And if you wish to have them back, I’m afraid you’re going to have to play my game again.”
“What game is that?” Tommy asked. He liked games.
The sphinx eyed Tommy lazily. She had green eyes, but the pupils were slits.
“Riddles, my sweet child!” she said, “I love riddles. I shall ask you three, and for each one, we will wager a memory: your name, your home, and the thing most important to you. If you win, I will return the knight’s memories, and you two can go on your way. But if I win, I will take your memories too.” She smiled, her needle-like teeth glinting in the sunlight. “Shall we play?”
Tommy nodded bravely. He was good at riddles. Last year, his father had bought him a book of riddles, and he had solved all of them, and he had only needed to peek at the answers in the back twice.
“No boy! It is too risky!” Arthur said, placing a mailed hand on Tommy’s shoulder. “We will find another way.”
“It’s too late!” the sphinx said, “He has already accepted my game. The spell has been woven. If he refuses to answer now, I will take his memories anyway.”
“He is only a child! He does not know what is at risk!” the rusty knight protested, his mustache bristling with indignation. “Have you no honor?”
“First riddle,” she said, ignoring the knight’s protests. Tommy swallowed, suddenly nervous. “I have one eye, but I cannot see. I am faster and stronger than any man, but I have no limbs. What am I?”
“A blind Cyclops.” Arthur answered promptly.
“No way, because then he would have limbs,” said Tommy, annoyed. Arthur hadn’t even thought before saying it. No wonder he had lost the game.
Tommy thought about the riddle carefully. What had one eye, but couldn’t see? The riddle was difficult, and Tommy was getting frustrated. How could something move faster than a person without legs? A gust of wind blew through the forest, rustling the leaves. It sounded almost like rain. Rain…suddenly, Tommy got it.
“Do you have an answer?” asked the Sphinx.
Tommy smiled broadly. “A hurricane. The center of one is called the eye, and it’s faster and stronger than any man, even though it doesn’t have arms or legs.”
The Sphinx gave a small smile. “Very good.”
Nothing around them changed, but suddenly Arthur gave a loud gasp, his eyes opening wide.
“Donal…my name is Donal,” he whispered.
Tommy was happy for his friend. Feeling much more confident, he said, “Next riddle!”
If the Sphinx was annoyed that he had solved her riddle, she didn’t show it.
“Next question,” she said, “Say my name, and I disappear. What am I?”
Tommy was stumped. What disappeared when you called for it? His friend Ryan would vanish when his parents called for him to do chores, but somehow Tommy didn’t think Ryan was the answer. Arthu- Donal was brooding over the return of his memory, Tommy wasn’t sure he had even heard the Sphinx speak. The forest was completely silent as Tommy thought, as if it were holding its breath in anticipation for his answer. The more he tried to think about it, the more frustrated he became. What could it be? He was on the verge of giving up when a piercing shriek shattered the silence. A football- sized hawk landed on the branch above the Sphinx’s head. It glared at Tommy with one golden eye, gave another shriek, and took flight off into the depths of the forest. The birdcall had shaken Donal from his thoughts.
“What a bloody great bird that was!” he exclaimed, “I’ve never seen one quite so large!”
Donal continued to remark on the bird as Tommy tried to concentrate. It was useless, the silence was broken. Tommy paused. The silence was broken…
“Silence! You’re silence!” Tommy cried. “When you say the word “silence”, it isn’t silent anymore!”
The Sphinx smiled, and bowed her head. Donal gasped as another memory was returned to him.
“I…I was heading home. I live on the other side of these woods. There is something terribly important there…”
Tommy let out a huge sigh of relief. That had been scary, but at the same time, he could feel his body trembling with excitement. A grin slowly carved its way across his face. The Sphinx swished her tail rhythmically back and forth, watching Tommy with her head slightly tilted.
“Are you ready for your final riddle?”
“Bring it on!”
“My life can be measured in hours, I serve by being devoured. When I am thin, I am quick, when I am fat, I am slow. The wind is my foe. What am I?”
That wiped the grin off of Tommy’s face fast enough. What in the world could that possibly be?
“Aha! I know the answer to this one!”
“Are you sure?” Tommy asked cautiously, the memory of Donal’s first answer still fresh in his mind.
“It’s a cow! It serves us by being devoured for food, and if it is thin, we will eat through it
quickly, but if it is fat, it will go slowly!” Donal’s chest swelled with pride and confidence.
“But…the wind isn’t a cow’s foe, and a cow’s life is measured in years, not hours.” Tommy pointed out.
Donal deflated. “I’m a warrior, I’m no good at riddling,” he confessed.
Long seconds dragged into minutes as the two of them sat there trying to puzzle out the answer. The only sound that could be heard was the quiet clanking as Donal irritably shifted his weight around, growing more and more impatient as no answer presented itself.
“Blast it all!” the knight finally burst out, “This is getting us nowhere. If only we had some candles and scrolls!”
“That’s stupid, why would we need candles and scrolls?” snapped Tommy irritably. The pressure of trying to answer the riddle was starting to affect him. He liked knowing his name; he didn’t want to lose that memory. He wiped his sweaty palms on the front of his shirt, trying to think of the answer, but Donal had fixated on the candle and scroll idea.
“I remember that all the smart thinking-types would always be hunched over some scrolls with some candles burning. I don’t know, maybe if we had a bunch of candles and scrolls, it would improve our thinking and we could figure out this blasted riddle!” He struck his thigh for emphasis, causing a harsh clang to echo out into the forest.
“Even if the answer were in some stupid old scroll you would only need a couple of candles to look through them all because candles burn for so long!”
The Sphinx yawned, her long pink tongue lolling out like a tired snake. “I grow bored of your arguments. Do you have an answer for me?” She feigned disinterest, but her sharp green eyes never left Tommy’s face.
“Uh…um…” Tommy hemmed and hawed, trying to buy time. Something was wriggling in the back of his brain, something important about what Donal had said, if he could just figure out what…
“I’m afraid you are out of time,” the Sphinx said, almost apologetically. She began to pad forward toward Tommy in a lazy saunter.
“Stop fiend!” shouted Donal, trying to dismount and intercept her, but he caught his foot in the stirrup and ended up in a snarl of metal on the ground. Tommy squeezed his eye shut, concentrating with all his might. Think think think think think! For some reason, his birthday cake kept appearing in his mind.
He opened his eyes. The Sphinx’s face was mere inches from his own. He could smell her breath, it smelled of pinecones and warm milk.
“A candle,” he said. “A candle’s life can be counted in hours, and you consume it when you use it, and if it’s a fat candle it will burn longer and a skinny one will burn out faster. And,” he smiled, “you use wind to blow out a candle.” He sent a tiny puff of air into her face to demonstrate, causing her thin brown hair to sway gently.
The Sphinx blinked, then smiled widely. She sprang backwards.
“Playing with you was fun. Let’s play again some time.” She said, as she turned and vanished into the woods.
“We did it! We did it!” Tommy shouted in jubilation, punching the air in celebration. He turned toward the old knight and saw him standing there in his rusty armor, shoulders slumped, tears streaming down his weathered face.
“I am a king. I have a wife and a young boy. How could I forget? It’s…it’s been so many years. Will they even recognize me?”
Donal seemed to have forgotten about Tommy completely. With one smooth fluid motion, so unlike his stiff clanking motions before, he swept back onto his horse and took off down the road in a gallop.
“Hey, wait up!” Tommy shouted, snapping the reins on his pony to try and catch up. It was useless, the mighty stallion outpaced Tommy’s pony with ease, and soon Tommy was left trotting though the forest alone. Thankfully, there only seemed to be one road through the forest. Tommy anxiously stretched forward, trying to catch a glimpse of the old knight ahead. What if he had fallen? Or been attacked by another monster?
After what seemed like an eternity, he finally emerged from the woods into another clearing, only this one had a great big white shining castle in the center of it, towers soaring up into the sky, surrounded by a sparkling blue moat. In front of it was Donal, hugging a weeping old woman and a young boy around Tommy’s age. Noticing Tommy emerge from the forest, he turned toward the boy smiling broadly through tears.
“Dear boy, you have given me the greatest gift I could possibly receive. I now name you a prince of this land! Come live with us and have grand adventures every day!”
Seeing the old knight with his family reminded Tommy of his own family. He guiltily wondered if his parents had noticed he had disappeared. He realized that, while he had a lot of fun in this strange and wonderful place, he missed his parents and his friends, and even his comfy bed.
“Thank you,” Tommy said, embarrassed, “that is a very kind offer, but I think I would like to go home now.”
“Stay!” Donal insisted, “We will have so much fun! Every day we will do something new and exciting!”
Tommy chewed his lip. It sounded really tempting, but he thought of his father and his mother, and he knew what his answer must be.
“Sorry, but my mom and dad are waiting at home.”
“Excellent!” boomed out a voice from behind Tommy.
Standing behind him was indeed his uncle, in the same old patchwork coat as before. “Wizard! What are you doing here?” exclaimed Donal.
“Wizard?” Tommy asked his uncle.
His uncle simply gave him a wink and gathered him into his large coat. “It’s time to go home, Tommy.”
Tommy wasn’t sure what happened next, one moment he was next to the great castle waving goodbye to Donal and his family, the next he back in his room, everything the way he had left it. Lermin helped Tommy back into his bed and tucked him in. Tommy let out a big yawn and sleepily said, “Uncle Lermin, I don’t think I could ever be you.”
“I should hope not, because then who would I be?”
Tommy smiled, feeling his eyelids growing heavy. “No, I mean…traveling and stuff all the time, like you do. I would miss home too much.”
Lermin smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “The wanderer’s life is not for everybody, my dear Thomas. Now, to bed with you, lest the pixies steal your dreams before you can have them.”
Tommy wanted to laugh, but he was simply too tired. He felt his uncle’s large warm hands smoothing back his hair as he drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, Tommy woke up and had a perfectly ordinary Sunday with his family, except for a trio of small figurines sitting on his nightstand: a shiny knight, a smiling mother, and a young boy.