A Tale of Just Desserts-
Edward Bukhman, ChE’23
I’ve always wondered why characters in fairy tales never seemed familiar with fairy tales themselves. Fairy tales, after all, could plausibly exist in their own settings. Would familiarity with fairy tales establish preconceived notions for the characters within them?
Once upon a time there was a ring of self-proclaimed fairies which lived on the edge of the Black Forest that happened to border a robust little village. For the most part these fairies were perfectly fine enjoying their freedoms outside of polite society, washing their untamed tresses in secluded streams and experimenting with mushrooms. However, as the leaves began to change from green to red, there was one autumn day blustery enough to knock down the fairies’ improvised nests , irreversibly scattering everywhere the twigs and down feathers they had stolen . At the moment, the comforts of village life seemed especially compelling.
“I’m sick of eating herbage!” one exclaimed. “What am I, livestock! I deserve to sink my teeth into a fattened sow! By my diet, you would think I were one!”
“Look at their fires!” remarked another. “Their fires feed slowly on thick logs allowing them to warm their resting feet. Meanwhile ours are hungry, always greedy for twigs and sprigs, giving us no ease! It is not fair that their flames roar while ours can barely manage a purr! Do we not deserve some cheer!”
The fairies faced a conundrum. While incanting into the moonlight was a perfectly decent way to extend an evening, it was not the sort of service that could be bartered at market for an abode, succulent viands or dry firewood. Refusing any feeling of defeat, the fairies resorted to more desperate measures.
Dressed in whatever foliage they could find, looking as forlorn and desperate as possible, they knocked on the door of the first dwelling through whose windows they could see flickering firelight. Without needing to knock twice, the fairies were answered by the weary patriarch of the cottage.
He, in truth, was not particularly keen on having guests. The year prior, a practicing sorceress disguised as an elderly woman appeared on his doorstep seeking shelter from a thunderstorm. At the time, his daughter opened the door expecting the familiar face of a friend or neighbor and, having a healthy fear of strangers, immediately shut it fast - waking her parents in her panic. Stunned at the perceived slight, the sorceress revealed her true nature and cursed the lass to live out her remaining days as a dormouse, forevermore rejected from doorsteps in what the sorceress deemed poetic justice. The loss made the patriarch deeply melancholic and the deficit in hands to tend the farm thrust the once prosperous family into poverty.
Primal fear of a repeat incident led the patriarch to reluctantly let the fairies into his home. He prayed that this were some morality test, a mere formality on the road to redeeming his daughter. To his dismay he saw the fairies gratefully accept his false hospitality and proceed to empty his pantry. Their jaws unhinged like those of a serpent and their stomachs seemed to have no bottom. There was no delicacy in their manners either as they raucously spilled the patriarch’s cheap ale and drowned their meals in enough sauce to confine mere mortals to the outhouse for hours.
The feasting attracted the attention of the patriarch’s son, who, having been raised to give utmost respect and deference to women, fetched more food and amused the fairies until dusk with tales of yore. The fairies felt as if they had found the cornucopia and wanted to return the favor, expecting to create an escalating chain of life-sustaining reciprocity.
“Young man!”, the ringleader fairy exclaimed. “You are strong, gentle and kind. In short, you show the makings of a fine chosen one. On the other side of the forest, a wise king has promised his daughter to the man who slays the fierce dragon that has taken over one of his major bridges and is not letting anyone cross. The princess’ hair feels like a cloud and her bright smile makes the sun squirm with envy. You are ideal for this job and glory will be yours!”
The patriarch begged his son not to embark on such a foolish and arduous journey, but the youth was already blinded by dreams of an idyllic noble life with his beautiful bride where neither would have to pick up a spade or scythe again. “After all,”, he thought, “if heroes in tales we tell around the fire do it, I’ll learn from them.” With a determined smile on his face, he began to reap the last of the autumn harvest and avoid the common questing error of leaving with insufficient provisions.
He traveled on foot because horses attract the attention of thieves, and by daybreak because he knew the trees would rearrange themselves while he slept. He refused to stop for any reason. He did not try to drink from the river where the mermaids would pull him under. He ran past the surprisingly well-dressed wolves who would pepper him with wily questions about his direction. He came upon a candy house in a clearing but remembered not to stop for a morsel. While it was unlikely for a witch to be home at this hour, that much candy would surely give him indigestion and it was suspicious that such a house should last so long uneaten in the first place.
Meanwhile, the fairies were spending their days going door to door foraging for food, having exhausted their fare at the first cottage. However, the patriarch had sent out a warning to the village and his neighbors, now wise to the fairies’ ways, would always pretend that no one was home until the marauders moved on.
The fairies resorted to chasing down the youth to relieve him of his new provisions. They would whine for days as he wended his way, but he would always reply “If I share my provisions now, we will all starve before I reach my destination and then no one will be around to stop the dragon.” The fairies would relent to maintain the sense of charity and politeness they hoped to foster. But eventually they grew tired of simple appeasement and so they warned him:
“Young man, it is disrespectful to leave your traveling companions this famished. You must promise that your first encounter with abundance will be dedicated to fulfilling our dietary demands above your own wants. And remember, a promise with the fey is magically binding, so heed it unless you want the Black Forest curse upon your soul!”
When the youth reached the kingdom, the fairies split off to try their luck with the new citizenry. Instead of rushing off into battle immediately after declaring his acceptance of the king’s quest, he went to the armory to ask advice of the king’s retinue of knights, to avoid repeating their mistakes.
He arrived to the sound of hoofbeats as he saw a knight whose plumes were ablaze dismounting his stallion. The knight, taking off his helm to stamp out the last flames, revealed a surprisingly wrinkled and world-weary face.
“What’s the matter?” inquired the youth.
The knight replied, “I have just been singed by the dragon of the great bridge. All the rumors you heard about her are true. She is the size of three naval barges laid bow to stern and her skin is just as impenetrable. If only I were 15 years younger and faster in the head, perhaps I might have felled her by now.”
“How unfair!” the youth exclaimed! The kingdom is sending its hoariest knights to handle such a colossus. I am young, spry and willing to help, if only you would let me.”
“You should give up” scoffed the knight, “I have never in my chivalrous career seen a dragon so adamantly refuse to budge. But I can tell from the conviction on your face that you are set on throwing your life away. So, take my armor, my blade, and my steed, that you may survive long enough to see the error of your ways and have time to flee as I did.”
“Thank you, good knight!” the youth said as they parted ways.
Carefully, the youth had planned his approach to take place at midday when dragons sun themselves. Noting the dragon’s deep slumber beneath the bridge, he took one last bite of his well rationed provisions as it was a knightly maxim to never do battle on an empty stomach. When he unwrapped his meal, the scent of cured meat woke the dragon from her rest. As he looked into the dragon’s crimson eyes, the youth’s life flashed before him.
“Please spare me!”, yelped the youth, “take my lunch instead!”
“I suppose something without a hard shell is a nice alternative to all of those knights,” the dragon mused, “bring it over, it’s too far for me to grab it myself. ”
Sensing the youth’s apprehension, she added: “Fear not. Unlike the others, you have done naught to provoke my wrath. Approach and leave unscathed.”
“Why, can’t you come over?”, the youth replied as he snapped out of his frightful stupor.
“Decades ago, I dug out a hollow in this chasm to keep my eggs safe. From across the earth, I could hear my hatchlings begin to peep and scratch within their shells and so returned to the hollow to amass a hoard of fruits, viands and sweetmeats, to shower upon them on the day of their hatching. The presence of a bridge near my hollow did surprise me, but that surprise paled in comparison to how I felt when I caught the fairies of the Black Forest inside my den. Not only did they have the audacity to enter uninvited under the cover of darkness and raid my stash, but they also tried burgling my unborn babes. Beneath me is my nest and I refuse to budge.”
“But I don’t understand.”, the youth quavered while passing the food, “Why would you attract unwanted attention to yourself and your nest by preventing people from crossing the bridge?”
“I was lucky to have rescued all of my brood from the fairies by driving them away and leaving unprotected eggs is a risk I am no longer willing to take. After the fairies showed up, it is never quite clear who bears the blade of a knight set on slaughter or the hooded lantern of a thief set on plunder. Standing guard has deprived me of prey and the temptation to dig into my children’s hoard grows with every passing day.”
“I think I know how to help! I must speak with the king straight away!” blurted the youth before galloping away on his borrowed horse.
The king listened to the youth’s rendition of his encounter with the dragon with an open ear and a more open mind. Initially, he gritted his teeth, trying to hide his dismay that his daughter would have to marry a peasant. However, as the youth continued, his Excellency quickly realized that a well-read man with a clever mind and compassionate heart would do more for his legacy than titles or coffers could. With the youth’s advice in mind, the king sprang into action, initiating diplomatic talks with the dragon and preparing for his daughter’s wedding.
The ceremony was everything the youth had dreamed of, with exquisite red roses and a 7-layer cake of white sugar centerpieced on the banquet table. The guest list was large, and the pair was inseparable as they waltzed into the long hours of the evening.
During the wedding feast his excellency proposed a toast, praising the compassion and ingenuity of his son-in-law. He announced with pride the dragon’s installation as the kingdom’s gatekeeper. As compensation for her services she was to be paid a toll in the king’s coin by those crossing the bridge. She could then exchange the coin at the passing merchant carts for whatever her heart hungered.
The affair was unfolding blissfully when, to everyone’s great surprise, the fairies descended with determination. He had sent out invitations, but had never received any reply. In truth, the king’s messengers, too accustomed to only his majesty’s roads, had succumbed to the Black Forest’s many distractions. The missing invitations disconcerted the fairies who alighted upon the wedding party in a retributive swarm, pillaging food regardless of whether or not they were invited.
“Young man!”, exclaimed the fairy ringleader, “Journeying here, your excuse was that you did not have enough to share. Now it is evident that you do.”
“You are right,” replied the youth, “please eat. I entreat you.”
During the first course, the fairies rejoiced as they did in that cottage. However, by third course most had eaten their fill and were refusing seconds.
“Absolutely not!”, insisted the youth, “During my journey, you begged for days. Now you will dine for each time you begged. I will not marry with any unsettled debts or the curse of the Black Forest hanging above my head! Now eat, or become the oathbreakers and may the forest’s curse be as unforgiving to you as it would have proved to me!”
After forcing down another four courses at the youth’s insistence, the gorging fairies bloated to the point where they could not move under their own weight. To this day, they remain as fixtures in the youth’s garden forever unable to eat anyone out of house and home.
In the end everyone gets their just deserts. Or, in this case, desserts.