A Modern Day Fairy Tale, based on something Grimm 6.25.
I. I had just buried my parents, the cemetery receding in the rear-view mirror of my car as a collection of miniature Stonehenge monoliths, their meaning dim to me. The stones were diminishing in size but that was not decreasing the pain in my memory. I had been very close, and the health care at the end had drained not only my emotions, my beliefs, but also my finances. So there was nothing to do but stop for a drink at a tavern on the way home. He was there, you see, at the bar. Well, you don’t see him there now, for he only appears to the forlorn or the foolish at the moment of tripping over themselves. “Hello”, he said, running his hand over his slicked back hair, thick with that crusted wet look. He looked at me with eyes lit up by the fires of a thousand suns. I could not tell his age as he had one of those timeless looks to him. “You have had some tragedy in your life recently, I see.” The words were spoken by a voice that made the sound of sacred and profane sands blowing on the evening dirge of a windstorm.
“Too bad.” I turned to my other side, and there was a woman, dusky with beauty that was shadowed by the lack of light in the bar, dark hair falling to shoulders that were bare and immediately called to parts of me that were not supposed to be in play at this juncture of my life, at least at this moment. “Too bad, my friend,” she said in a voice that reminded me of a train pulling into a station with the hiss of a thousand loved ones left behind. She reached out to touch my arm as she said this. It was all I could do to look away. The man took up the slack in the conversation, as my head swiveled dumbly back to him. “Are you down on your luck, financially, too?” He shook his head, and sipped his drink. “A shame.” I nodded, not really knowing if I wanted to agree with him or not, and drained my beer, leaving foam to lick at the corners of my mouth. I licked back. He nodded, finishing his whiskey. “I have a solution for you. Would you like to hear it?” He didn’t look at me. I spoke for the first time. “If you buy me another beer, I will be your captive audience.” He smiled, his teeth seeming a bit too white for someone selling something innocuous. “Very good, sir. Very good. So here’s your deal. Very simple, really. All you need to do is spend seven years wearing nothing but a white robe, and you cannot shave your beard, trim your nails, bathe, or pray. I’ll give you more than enough money to live comfortably with for those seven years. If you survive the seven years, I will give you immeasurable wealth for the rest of your life. If you don’t survive, your soul is the devil’s.” The man drained his drink, cocked his head, and smiled while he looked at me, waiting for his answer. The woman leaned forward, laughing, looking between us back and forth, back and forth. I barely heard the music in the tavern as I tried to comprehend what had been offered. I played the offer over in my head. I took my new beer and downed it in one gulp, and nodded. “Show me the money…put the immeasurable wealth in some sort of trust that goes to me in seven years, unless I die, in which case it goes to some charity. Then, sure. I’ll do it.” The man’s eyes went wide. “Very good, Sir. Very good. I’ll draw up the documents, and we shall meet back here in one week. All shall be arranged.” The woman laughed and they both got up from their barstools. He grabbed her arm in a very old country, courtly manner, and left. One week later, I was back at the tavern, and saw the same man and woman. They were waiting for me. I had a lawyer with me, though he seemed to be there against his good judgment. The legal documents for the deal were drawn out and reviewed. My lawyer
shook his head but said the documents were legal, all except the part about the soul going to the devil. “Not even lawyers can make that happen.” The man and woman sniffed and giggled to themselves. The lawyer shook his head, looked at me, and asked if there was anything else for which he was needed. I dismissed him. The documents signed, we went out to the man’s car where he had the robe. I changed and was handed a debit card which was to an account to which I was assured would pay for my needs. “One thing,” I asked. “Where did you get this crazy idea? And how do you know I will keep my end of the bargain?” The old man nodded. “A good point. Hmmm…I suppose we shall have to check up on you.” We made arrangements to get my key copied at once so they could check on me unannounced. “As to the idea, why, I read it in a fairy tale you know. Der Bärenhäuter by Gebrüder Grimm.” He smiled. II. I spent the next seven years as prescribed. Enrobed, bearded, slovenly, some would say. All my needs were cared for, however, as promised. I even upgraded my computer, home theater, books, whatever I wanted I bought. I also most carefully read the Bearskin tale by the Brother’s Grimm. In that tale, a soldier, destitute and home from the war, made a deal with the devil. However, during his seven years he gave freely to people so they would pray for him, and eventually through a beauty and the beast sort of thing, found his bride. Now that I knew the rules, I endeavored to copy the hero’s behavior. Thus, I made many withdrawals of money to give to people in need. I watched bulletin boards and telephone poles advertising barbeques to raise money for cancer victims who had no health insurance. I would pay for their care. I donated toys at Christmastime for orphans. I put my arm around homeless men holding up cardboard signs saying they would work for food, and took them home, fed them, and loaded their pockets with money. One day, I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘Why, I look rather like Jesus, what with the beard, hair, and robe.’ Or were we culturally acclimated to assume anyone with beard, hair, and white robe looked like Jesus? I shrugged. I almost felt like Jesus. However, unlike in the story, no widowed father offered me the hand of his daughter in thanks. Still, coming up on my sixth year, I was fairly used to the routines I had now, and actually somewhat happy. So it was that I made my regular trip to an ATM, before heading home for the night. I withdrew as much money as the machine would let me. Waiting for the money to be offered by the machine, I nodded to the gentleman in a cap with some racing car symbol on it, smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk a few feet away. He nodded back, that barely perceptible guy nod that says, “Yep.” His eyes, however, took in my robe, which was quite discolored, my beard, and grin. He shook his head, looked away, and took another drag on his cigarette.
I put the wad of money from the ATM into my robe pocket (yes, this robe had pockets… very handy), and walked home. It was a nice night, warm with a breeze and a full moon. Humming to myself and looking forward to one more small year, before being free of everything, I shook my head in that free joy we sometimes get and feel overwhelmed by. I wondered if I would keep up the charity giving. No, I decided, this was a good thing to do, to keep giving to people. Perhaps nothing much would change at all in the future, other than the clothing I wore. ‘Perhaps nothing,’ I thought as I came to my house door and entered, not needing a key as I had quit locking the door a long time ago. Turning on a light, I sat in a chair, closed my eyes, and smiled to myself. It wasn’t a bad life, really. It had some plusses like – Stopping in mid-thought at the sound of the door shutting quietly, I opened my eyes to see a man wearing a cap with a racing car symbol on it. He was grinning and shaking his head. “What the hell, this is too easy,” he mumbled. Suddenly, a glint of light flashed from a drawn blade. Calmly, “What do you want?” A dumb question from me, coming from the ATM as we just had. He sneered. “You’re as dumb as you look stupid.” I thought to give him the money…what did it matter to me, what was in my pocket, I could get more?....and so rose, shaking my head as I did so. My visitor moved fast, however. “Hey!” I panicked, looking from the visitor’s face which was now inches from my own, down to my robe, which even discolored as it was became darker with a stain that spread. Beginning to lose strength, I even began to lose some feeling somewhere, and sat back in the chair, drifting… III. I wasn’t really there the next day when they arrived to check on me, unannounced. My body was, slumped in a chair, and unmoving. The white robe was clearly brown now, stuck to my body not because of dirt. Had I become naïve? Was it worth it? If my body could wonder there, it might ponder that even though I had died I had helped people in life…even saved lives…through my generous giving. However, my body couldn’t wonder. I was not there. I am told, however, it went down like this… The man with slicked back hair shook his head, and then ran his fingers over his hair. “Such a shame. He was going to make it! I really thought he was going to make it. He had the right ideas, you know. But to have it end like this! Such a shame.” He shook his head, took out his handkerchief, carefully shaking it into its full square, and then using that to protect his gentleman hands, shut my eyelids against eternity.
The woman looked at him. “You did it, you know. You made the seven years. Why did you want to see if someone else could do it, as well?” She giggled, not as loudly or as long as she had at the bar. She cocked her head in that female way that shows empathy as she stared at me. The daylight showed how pretty she was. “I just did. Partly, I was bored, my good wife. Partly, I wanted to see what would happen in this more modern age. Partly, to be nice to someone, I guess.” “So, does the devil get him, then?” She continued to stare at me. With my eyes closed, I didn’t stare back. “That’s for the lawyers to decide. Come on, let’s go. We have eternity to live, still.” With that, Bearskin grabbed his wife’s arm, and they left the house, leaving the door open. “Say, would you like to go get some iced tea somewhere? It’s a hot day.”
(The author gave himself permission to use his own picture of a statue in a cathedral in Germany as the picture at the beginning of this story.)