The Stranger With a Strange Name
Charles C Cole
I stood as Calendula, my receptionist, escorted a client out of my chambers. That’s when I felt a sudden dizzy spell, as if I was looking out a high window in a swaying building or I’d returned to land after a day on rough seas in a small vessel.
The door locked behind Calendula on its own volition. The clock on the wall stopped ticking. The city’s white noise ceased. Walls faded away and a forest filled the space around me. I “merged” with a dusky outdoor world, sitting on bare ground.
I sat inside a small circle of large rocks, a personal-sized Stonehenge, far from my office. The ground was damp with dew, and there was a dense mist just beyond the ceremonial circle. A three-foot high hobgoblin in a clay-brown hooded poncho danced around a fire. His shoulders, arms and legs substantially more muscular than my own.
“I’m gonna stand, if it’s alright with you.” I got to my feet and brushed myself off.
An image of a window floated in the smoke of his fire, the same window I looked out every morning at the crazy city I loved. My host shook his head but left the image hovering in the air, maybe as some small comfort of familiarity for me.
“My turn.” He snapped the fingers on his right hand, down at his side. The sound was like a starting pistol. “Joe Avery, I’m Rumpelstiltskin. Apologies for the abduction but, to be honest, your world overwhelms me.”
I felt my mouth move in response but heard nothing.
“I’ll go first, then you go,” he said. The manikin had my attention. I swayed, an audience of one, and the dizziness from my funky travel mostly settled down. He took another moment to glance at the industrialized world. “It’s prettier from afar. I know you want to speak; humans love their own voices! But I’d like a few moments.” I nodded; there was little else I could do.
“The miller’s daughter had a deal. In exchange for my generating cryptocurrency out of straw and, therefore, her winning the avaricious king’s hand, she was supposed to offer me access to a child, not give me a child. With an out: If she guessed my unique name, she could walk away without payment.
“I live alone. I wanted a companion to teach and train. What do I care for wealth? It was finally happening! I got drunk and giddy, threw caution to the wind, and sang a sarcastic song about my life-changing success to come. But I was overheard by a throne spy! Little did I consider the overflowing resources of a new queen!”
I spun my two hands under my chin, like the pedals on a bicycle: Keep going.
“Words unspoken have energy. Whereas my name shouted by so many laughing humans, like a punchline to a crude schoolyard joke, drained me of my power. I’ve lost my mystique.” Not again! The last celebrity victim was Cupid.
I reached out both hands, palms up. “Right,” he said. “You’ve been very patient. Just promise: not to say my name.” I nodded. He snapped.
“Your house, your rules.”
“I have a real house, with a roof, but I like the fresh air and the stars. And I can make bigger fires here with bigger shadows.”
“Speaking of, can I ask for a bigger fire, for creature comfort?” I think he liked my vulnerability.
The fire crackled, brightened, grew. Not like wood dropped from the sky, just that it bloomed. The ceremonial circle and Rumpelstiltskin grew as well, the flames dancing in his eyes. He stepped toward me. We remained eye-to-eye even as I stood! “Better?” He was definitely taller. Whether magic or an illusion, the look was intimidating.
I stayed focused: “Have you tried talking to the miller’s daughter?”
“Never again! Your kind always wants something for nothing. Maybe you, too, will want some reward.”
“Not me,” I said. “I spend my life trying to build bridges between two nations. The work is its own reward. But I have a crazy idea. In my world, you can legally change your name. Pick something unique between you and the city clerk. If the new moniker leaks out, change it again. Stay ahead of the mobs. Hold on to your mystique, if that’s the root of your power. Unless you’d rather remain the husk of a powerful hobgoblin.”
He responded with an arched eyebrow. With another snap of his fingers, the manikin formerly known as Rumpelstiltskin created two more bonfires. A full mug appeared in each of his hands. He began to jig happily, like he’d already had a few drinks before my arrival. He was accompanied by bouncing and dancing shadows that might have been alive.
“Merrily this toast I’ll make. Today I’ll be brewed, tomorrow baked; Merrily I’ll dance and sing, For next day will a new name bring.”
Though I begged him not to, he shared his proposed new name. Or was he testing me? I promised not to reveal it.
I made a brief speech: “You can never go wrong when letting humans solve their own problems.”
“Step into the fire,” he said. “The first fire.” I hesitated. “Trust goes both ways.”
The fire lifted into the air and came to me! There was no heat now, just very bright, near-blinding light. I squinted closed my eyes and sensed a dimming. I looked around my office, and
the clock on the wall resumed ticking and my beloved city’s white noise resumed its hum.
Almost immediately, Calendula could be heard hip-checking the locked door, when it unlocked on its own and swung inward. She looked around. “I heard voices! Did someone slip by me?”
We both noticed the collection of small muddy footprints on top of my desk. Perhaps in some way Rumpelstiltskin had merged into my world as well. “Just the usual unusual,” I said, intentionally vague.
“You’ll tell me when you want to.”
Eventually, I’d share details, but not everything.