The old man sat down slowly, listening to his joints crack as he eased into his chair. He wasn’t sure he should be doing this. He had never been very good at speaking to children, but his daughter, the city librarian, had insisted, begging him to come and tell stories to the children gathered at the library for summer vacation. Mothers thanked him, grateful for the small break it gave them to shop, catch up on chores, or just take a nap. His daughter was excited the kids were doing something besides sitting in front of a video screen. Only the old man was struggling, unsure of what he would tell them. Should he try to tell a story? He had some story books he could read, but they didn’t appeal to him much more than the pack of noisy, restless ankle biters that confronted him. Yet, he didn’t know many stories. Actually, he only really knew one, and that one was so outrageously unbelievable, he did not want to tell it. As he creaked into his rocking chair and faced the squirming horde of children, he didn’t know where to begin. So, he took a deep breath and began with a question.
“Well, now my dears...” he began. His tone of voice changed, and he slipped into the magical mode he automatically moved into when addressing a group of people. He moved closer to them and bent down slowly, studying them until he had captured every gaze. Then, speaking in a slow, deep voice, he asked, “Do you know a story about dragons?”
He was immediately answered with a chorus of loud replies, some excited, others frowning and revealing their exposure to a virtual world where everything existed. One obnoxious little child, with a tight smile, started to mock the old man but was stunned to silence when he rumbled in a stern commanding voice, “No, I mean a real dragon.” The group fell instantly quiet.
“My momma said there is no such thing as real dragons,” touted a little tot with dark braids.
She said this in such a tentative way that the old man immediately responded, “And she is right, little one. There are no more dragons now. But there were. This story only has one dragon in it, and it’s really not about the dragon.”
“So, what is it about?” the same little girl asked.
The old man smiled and said, “It is about a princess who forgot she was beautiful.”
“Really? How did she do that?” a curly-haired darling with wide, brown eyes asked.
“Was she hurt?” a pigtailed, little freckle-faced cutie wanted to know.
“Did she get hit on the head?” a rambunctious little boy laughed, then stopped for a moment to hear the answer.
“Well, let me tell you about her,” the old man said, leaning forward in the old rocker. “Once upon a time, there was a princess who forgot she was beautiful, so she didn’t act like she was beautiful. Towns-folk always lavished her with compliments, telling her she was a beautiful young woman, who at sixteen should know how beautiful she was and should act accordingly. But she could not believe them. She was the princess, so of course they would say such things, so instead, she acted poorly. She spat on her maids, said bad words, got into fights, laughed at inappropriate times, and generally made a nuisance of herself. And that was just the beginning of her troubles… but I am getting ahead of myself. Now, where was I?”
“She was spitting and acting mean,” answered the big-eyed little girl on the front row, her gap-toothed smile beaming.
“Oh yes, she was a mess and headed for bigger messes … until she met the boy who had forgotten how to be brave. But I’m still getting ahead of myself, and that’s not in the best tradition of stories is it? Now, where was I? Yes, the princess had forgotten she was beautiful. How could such a thing happen, you might ask?”
“Are you sure she wasn’t dropped on her head?” a busy little boy with blue teeth from sucking a lollipop asked. “My sister was a cheerleader, and her squad threw her into the air and then dropped her. She couldn’t remember anything for a whole day!”
The old man shook his head, looked down his reading glasses and frowned. “Everyone knows that princesses are always beautiful. But she had forgotten because the people she loved never told her. They rarely spoke to her. You see, her parents were so busy running the kingdom and doing royal things that they didn’t talk to her much. When they did, it was always: How are your grades? Are you minding your manners? –and such as that. She didn’t remember sitting on her father’s lap or at her mother’s knee. She didn’t remember being told she was so pretty by an adoring father or having her hair combed by a preening mother. She had never even ever, ever been told a goodnight story, so quite naturally, she forgot she was beautiful.
“Now many unscrupulous young men tried to tell her she was pretty, but they often stammered out such things as ’I like me and want you,’ or ‘I would look good with you,’ and other things not suited for this story. Their words came out garbled but true. The princess’s fiery godfather had given her a gift, a simple jeweled ornament. It was a discern-ornament. It would make anyone who spoke to her have to say what they meant, even if they didn’t mean to say it.
“So, no one told her she was beautiful until one day when the princess was strolling through the town market visiting at all the little shops and vendors. The market vendors were selling everything from chickens to toys that made bubbles, when, all of a sudden the princess heard a loud clamor, then a clatter, then squealing and screaming and more clamor!”
“Excuse me... excuse me,” the little girl on the front row interrupted, raising her hand and demanding to be seen. “Excuse me!”
“Yes?” the old man peered over his glasses, stopped the story, and stared at her. “What is it...?”
“What’s a clamor? I never heard of it before.”
The old man looked at her, stroked his chin, and wiped the itch off his mustache. Then, forcing a frown in front of the smile that hid in his eyes, said, “Clamor means bellow or bawl or a holler. It can mean an uproar, commotion, or racket … understand?”
“No sir,” she said quietly.
A little boy in the back stood up quickly to laugh at the young girl and accidently knocked over a small bookcase. Books went flying, children went sprawling, and finally when the commotion had settled down, and the librarian and the old man had gotten everybody’s attention back, the old man rubbed his temple and sighed, “Young lady, that was a clamor.”
She looked up at him and smiled brightly showing the gap in her baby teeth and said, “Oh.” Then like a royal princess addressing a court jester, she said, “Carry on, please.”
Caught off guard by her imperial ways, the old man laughed aloud, “I’m trying,” then began again. “The commotion in the market was so great the crowd merged like a muddled river. The townsfolk ran, walked, and stumbled in the direction of the noise. When the princess was finally pushed and shoved to the center of the racket, she heard the loud squeals of a full-grown piney woods rooter.”
Several small heads tilted like a puppy convention, and the old man stopped and asked, “You mean you don’t know what a piney woods rooter is?”
The snaggle-toothed spokeswoman addressed him so shyly he almost laughed. “No sir, we don’t.”
“It’s the dragon, isn’t it?” the little boy who had knocked down the bookshelf yelled. “It’s a dragon. I know.”
The old man looked at him and said, “Of course not! If it were a dragon, the market would have been engulfed in flames! It was an escaped boar hog. A huge, five-hundred-pound big, bristle-back, sharp-tusked, angry pig! It seems a local farmer had wanted to sell the animal and brought him to market in a most unusual fashion. The hog was so big, its pen would not fit in the back of the farmer’s wagon. So, ingenious fellow that the farmer was, he kept the pig in its pen, but carved out some places for the animal’s feet to fit through, and then walked the squealing pig inside his mobile cage to market.” The old man squealed, “SQWEEEE, EEESQWEEEEEE!” and the children laughed and laughed, tried to mimic him, and asked him to teach them how to make that sound. Of course, they upset a few chairs in the process, and finally, once again, settled down, and the old man continued the story.
“But the pig was so big, and the pen so flimsy, that when the piney woods rooter got to market and smelled the roasting pork and frying bacon, he panicked, began to buck, rammed the boards that held him, and broke out of his fragile pen! Squealing and snorting, the pig ripped through the market, upsetting tables with his great tusks. He knocked people down and smashed through fruit stands. Finally, the pig’s deep-set beady little eyes sighted a poor young man. The pig grunted fiercely, lowered its head, and charged the boy, who tore down the street running for all he was worth, but still, the pig trapped the boy against a vendor’s fruit table. With great twist of its head, the pig dug its snout into the young man’s pants and nipped. The boy screamed and twisted away, leaving a large portion of his pants behind. The pig jerked up, the rear of the boy’s pants hanging from its mouth, and looked for its prey. Tossing its great dome about, he caught sight of the young man burrowing under a fruit table and shoved again, forcing his big, slobbery pants-full mouth under the table. The pig’s squeals and the boy’s cries ended suddenly.
The young man, tired, angered, embarrassed, and unwilling to be humiliated anymore, reached up and grabbed the big pig by his nose…” The old man halted in mid-sentence compelled by the confused faces of audience. “You see, the boy had been brought up on a farm and knew how to get a large hog’s attention by pinching it on the nose and climbing on its back. With one arm still wrapped around the beast’s snout, and two fingers in its nose, he pushed the hog’s great head out from under the table and then proceeded to jump on its back.”
“Yuck! That is nasty,” the little girl on the front row frowned, then turned to see a studious young man seated next to her with his fingers in his own nose trying to figure out the proper hog-taming technique. The little girl gagged and leaped away from her companion shrieking, “Boogers!”
The old man, chuckled, shook his head, ignored the turmoil, and continued his narrative.
“The young man did just that and began riding the hog back through the market to the farmer. The gallant hero, caught up in the moment, concentrated on getting the hog safely back to the farmer. He’d forgotten the appalling state of his britches, which were gaping wide open from the tear of the hog’s tusks. The market vendors, appreciative of the young man’s efforts, applauded. In response, the unthinking lad, reveling in the attention of the crowd, bowed, proudly revealing his battered bottom to the unmerciful mob, which erupted in laughter. Suddenly, aware of his deplorable condition, he reached behind him, and without looking, seized the closest person to him, and shouted, ‘Shield me!’
“The princess, who had been walking up to the young man at just that moment, obeyed. When the young man bowed, she was the closest person to him and wound up being nabbed for the duty of backside covering. The crowd roared in laughter at the young man’s discomfort. He still had not noticed who he had grabbed to shield his backside. He was facing the crowd, carefully walking backwards, causing the princess to walk backwards with him.
“Together they’d nearly cleared the central market, moving like a pair of crabs cautiously retreating from a net, when one of the market vendors recognized the princess and gasped, ‘Your majesty!’ The young woman quickly tried to hush the man, but it was too late. The whole crowd took up the cry. The back-peddling pig warrior stopped, turned red as a beet, closed his eyes, and gently shook his head in unbelief. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the princess behind him.
“The princess grimaced at his discomfort, embarrassed for him. He had been holding her tightly to him to cover his ripped pants and bare backside. Suddenly, the young man realized the awkward and presumptuous way that he was holding the princess. Jerking his hands away like she was a hot coal, he brought his hands around to cover himself, and glowing bright red, turned to face her.”