Friday, 11 October 2013

The Old Man and The Gauntlet, a fairytale written by me

photo by Dave Greene 
I was inspired to write this fairytale while we were on holiday in Iceland last autumn. We were visiting the Thingvellir National Park which has been home to Iceland's open-air Parliaments for centuries. (This link goes to +Wikipedia if you'd like to learn more.) As well as the political history, the site is also the only place on Earth above the sea where tectonic plates meet - the North American and Eurasian plates - which we were both excited to see. There is this imposing cliff, huge fissures and crevasses, waterfalls and the river, and we had the place almost to ourselves. It was bitterly cold and the white on the rocks in this first photo really is frost. Check out the blue sky though!

Returning to the fairytale, I have started several versions in the past twelve months but none were quite right until now. I'm happy with this version and believe it's time to stop editing and put the story 'out there'. Big thanks to Dave for the gorgeous photographs.

I hope you all enjoy reading my tale of The Old Man and The Gauntlet ...

Tiny purple heather flowers huddle together low to the ground, clustering around the bases of dry bleached stems which spear upwards, white as old bones. Dark leafed shrubs lean over at crazy angles. They have all been trained into similar silhouettes by constant winds, their branches reaching for the setting sun. A sheer rock cliff rises imposingly maybe half a mile away and continues further than sight both to right and left. Its few threads of tumbling water appear stationary with no clue as to the force pushing them on. The wide valley is surprisingly silent. A lone bee absent-mindedly hums to itself as it potters from flower to flower, but there are no engines, no conversations, no birdsong. The summer is over and, although the sun is still warm at noon, shallow streams and pools freeze to their banks at night. The waterfalls will soon freeze too, their spray already treacherously frosting any rocks close by.
An old man skips across hassocks. Tall and slender, he nimbly leaps each crevasse that waits to trip him, knowing instinctively where his feet will land safely. There is joy in his dance as he descends from the road towards the river. He has come to this ancient place almost every year of his life, as a child and as a young man, with his own children and after they had moved away. He has seen the place packed out with thousands of people and he has been here alone. He is nearly alone today. A tourist couple are wandering on the other side of the river and, at the base of the cliff, a woman is packing away a camera with a ridiculously oversized lens. The old man cannot see anyone else. The woman will soon leave but he thinks that the tourists will stay a while longer. They are only half way to the Parliamentary Stage, avidly reading every informative placard and pointing out sites to each other. To the old man they are a vintage silent movie. He cannot hear their words but can tell the gist from the direction of their gloved fingers. He judges that they have around four hundred years left.
A flash crossing the path ahead catches the old man’s attention and he cautiously steps closer, softly crunching small gravel chips. His watery brown eyes flicker and dart until they spot his prey. A solitary ptarmigan stares out from beneath a shrub. Oblivious to its already whitened plumage, it believes itself invisible, perfectly camouflaged and therefore safe from the human towering above. While it does not move, it cannot possibly be seen. The old man is amused and copies the bird. Both remain absolutely still for several minutes. Eventually the ptarmigan decides that danger has passed and struts away confidently into shadowy undergrowth, its white tail as obvious as a flag.
photo by Dave Greene 
Chuckling to himself, the old man selects a patch of coarse grey grass and settles down to wait. He eases worn rucksack straps over bony shoulders and fumbles with a rusted clasp. The bag is not much younger than its owner and is faded and patched. He extracts a garish plastic lunchbox, outgrown by his daughter, and pops its lid to reveal an apple, a slab of pale cheese and several sweet biscuits. He will have the cheese now and save the biscuits. The apple is bruised and wrinkled. It won’t be eaten today, but will soon be discarded and replaced with a fresher one, the doctor’s advice to have more fruit being wilfully misinterpreted. Then the old man snoozes until he is sure the place is deserted. It is wise to be discreet. By dawn, he will have more money than he could hope to spend in his lifetime. He will fly south like a bird and never be miserably cold again.
Awoken by a barking fox, the old man huddles into his parka. The night is perfect. A bright moon shines strongly from clear skies. Millions of stars are breathtakingly beautiful and the old man lies gazing up into them, hypnotised, until dull pains in his back become too insistent to ignore. Rubbing his joints to ease their stiffness, he pulls himself to his feet and retrieves his rucksack. His cropped grey hair reflects glints of moonlight as he walks silently beside the path making his way towards a stone bridge over a deep dark pool. Sited at the entrance, between the car park and a rebuilt white church, the pool is a dead-end offshoot of the river that snakes away from the cliff. Already stately as it flows past, no movement at all can be discerned under the bridge. English visitors do not think to play Poohsticks here. But everyone must cross the bridge and most cast a coin into the water, a traditional splash for good luck.
The pool is perhaps ten feet wide. Perfectly clear and delicious, its glacial water is dangerously deceptive. Jagged rocks many feet below the surface appear only inches away. Glittering treasure cries out to be snatched but childhood experience taught the old man respect for this optical illusion. He still clearly remembers a sudden toppling, ice clamping his lungs and his mother’s desperate shrieks. He still feels the same overwhelming desire. The wealth here is more than anyone could carry but only the oldest, deepest coins are his prize. They must be incredibly valuable. No one cares if he stoops to grab a discarded krone from a busy Reykjavik pavement. Is this remote wishing pool any different?
Previous night visits with long and longer handled nets had been virtually fruitless. He had retrieved pocket money precariously balanced near the banks, but the deep rich well remained untapped. Unguarded by dogs or alarms, the pool is safer than a vault. The old man needed a new idea. Setting his mind to invention had resulted in hours of reading and days of deep thought. False starts and failed experiments littered his home and the old man had almost abandoned hope before the answer finally fell at his feet, a slim Victorian book of electricity and magnetism tumbling from a dusty bookshop shelf. For its author, the then new power was exciting and limitless. Anything could be achieved! The old man believed every word and eagerly set to work. He bought fine leather and cut it into curved shapes. He twisted shiny copper wire into coils. He sewed and hammered, riveted and soldered, and finally his creation was a reality – a thick leather gauntlet, as long as his arm from fingertip to shoulder, lined with soft wool and supporting a magnificent array of buckles and coils. Thick wires led away to a squat black cube, the store of power with which the old man would work his magic. The gauntlet was perfectly moulded to his arm and even jointed at the elbow, although not the wrist. Double-stitched straps secured it across his shoulders and he was confident that it could not fall off.
By the pool, the old man loops a blue rope around his ankles and ties it off around a slim tree. ‘Safety first’ he thinks, parroting his daughter. He kneels on the bank and cautiously leans forward, balancing himself and taking deep calming breaths. Braced and secure, the old man reaches to the black cube and flips a switch. Every nerve tingles with anticipation as he gazes into the dark pool. He leans further and the gauntlet breaks the surface of the water. Now his whole hand is submerged, now his wrist, now his forearm. The limb appears gruesomely distorted at the water line. Are the wire coils shining in the moonlight or glowing with electricity? The old man cannot tell. The coins remain still. The old man reaches back and twists a dial. The black cube begins faintly to hum. He returns his intent stare to the pool, placing the gauntlet a little further in, a little further. Then it happens. He sees coins jump! Just briefly. Twitch and settle. The gauntlet works!
Amazed at success, the old man starts back. He uncurls his stiffening spine and heaves the gauntlet from the water. His heart is racing and his eyes sparkle like a child’s. Giggling impulsively, he rocks himself on his heels and gleefully hugs his chest with his bare left arm. The gauntlet really works! Unable to wait any longer, he twists the dial up to 'eleven'. The hum rises to a protesting whine. Returning to the pool, he thrusts his arm downwards. Ripples career across the surface to upset low-lying plants on the farthest bank. Coins flash, silver and gold. The old man stretches but cannot reach far enough. He jerks his body, now lying flat instead of kneeling, but his long arm is still not long enough. He wriggles forward. First his head overhangs the pool, then his shoulders, then his chest. Then disaster. With a sickening lurch, the old man feels the bank crumbling beneath his waist. His arm is too heavy to pull back. The gauntlet drags him forwards and he plunges headfirst into the pool. Thick wires drag the cube in too, doubling the weight on the old man’s arm. He screams in silence, ice water filling his lungs, his eyes bulging in panic. Strung tightly between the gauntlet and his roped ankles, he scrabbles with freezing fingers. He cannot unbuckle the gauntlet. The slim tree is bent almost double as the taut rope quivers.
photo by Dave Greene 
The young tree is strong and it holds firm against the strain. The rope is weaker. It snaps. As the tree is flung back and frayed rope slashes through the air, the old man has no choice. He dives, flying like Superman, but thrashing his legs and churning the water to froth. Dislodged coins dart alongside him, leaping and tumbling. He crashes to the bottom of the pool amidst a tumult of silver and gold, and lies perfectly still, unaware of having reached his goal. The water calms and the coins slowly sink. They land all over the old man, a blanket of treasure that gently and completely obscures his body. If anyone looked, they might discern his shape but would believe it to be a trick of the light, a coincidence of nature. By morning, the only signs of anything untoward are a frayed blue rope around a tree and a discarded old rucksack. No one comes to discover them. Inside its lunchbox, the apple rots.

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