A new year in a new decade always has me looking back at my own personal history and what inspired me to fashion a lifestyle of creativity. A lifestyle so full of uncertainties. It begins with my parents, of course, both artists who exposed their children to music, art, dance, theatre, literature, architecture and just about anything that was about the beauty and the emotion of it and not just the bottom line dollar. But my passion had its true birth in books. My earliest memories of a world full of imagination came in the words of Lewis Carroll, Maurice Sendak, J.M. Barrie, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Dr. Seuss, Aesop's Fables, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Perrault's Fairy Tales and The Arabian Nights.
My beautiful copy of Arabian Nights, which still sits on a bookshelf in my home, was part of the Illustrated Junior Library of 1978, published by Grossett & Dunlap (New York) and illustrated by Earle Goodenow. It was a universe filled with a rich history, exotic places and foods and story-telling that mesmerized and transported the reader. And these stories were credited to a young woman named Scheherazade, saving her life every night from a distrustful Sultan, by telling him another story.
Bewitching fables with life and death, sunshine and darkness, love and sadness, and a great heroine was all I needed to imagine worlds within my own creation. So it is that my brief but quirky history of the arts begins with my own version of 'Once Upon A Time'....
Once upon a time there lived a little girl who was the only child of a very wealthy merchant. The merchant spared no expense in pleasing his young daughter since she had lost her mother while she was still a baby. But while she was given anything she could have ever asked for, the little girl was sweet-natured and kind and always did what she was told. Each time the merchant closed his shop in town and drove by the old church, he would thank God that he had been blessed with a child that was so pretty and so good.
Holidays were grand affairs in the merchants home, considered the largest one on the outskirts of town, and he would often throw parties and dinners and invite many of the townspeople to share in his good fortune. The little girl's favorite holiday was Halloween and this year, much like the years before, the merchant would open up his home for all the children in town. There would be live music and dancing, food and candy, bobbing for apples and pumpkin carving and not one of the children could resist playing 'hide-and-seek' through the garden maze that had hedges over 10 feet tall.
It was the morning of the day before the party and the little girl was standing in front of the mirror in her room, trying on her costume before she had even had breakfast.
She was going as a fairy princess, dressed all in white, the skirt of her dress made up of yards and yards of white tulle with little crystal flecks throughout and a sparkly pink rhinestone wand and matching tiara. There were white and pink wings hanging in her closet that would be attached with cleverly hidden snaps and hooks. It had been decided that the housekeeper, Mrs. Flynn, would help her put them on before the party. The dress was handmade by her fathers tailor. He had taken her to the tailor's shop the month before to pick out the fabric and have a proper fitting.
The little girl was examining the hem of her dress touching the tips of her white satin shoes when the merchant walked into the room. She had not noticed him and so he stood silently watching her. His eyes rested on her long red curls and the freckles on her nose and cheeks.
She is so lovely, he thought to himself. She looked up into the mirror and saw her father standing in the doorway.
"Is it not so beautiful, daddy," she exclaimed as she twirled around in circles so her father could see every inch of her dress.
"Yes, my little Princess Penny, you are perfection.
"You must use my full name, daddy. I am of royal blood."
"Of course, your highness. Princess Penelope."
Penelope smiled a huge smile and was about to twirl again when she noticed her father was carrying a black velvet box, no larger than a cigar box, that was wrapped with a white satin ribbon.
"Is that for me, daddy," Penelope squealed. "What is it? What is it? May I open it?"
"Come sit next to me and we shall open it together," the merchant replied.
Penelope followed her father to the divan next to the fireplace across the room from her bed and was careful to straighten out the fabric of her dress while she sat down. The merchant placed the box on her lap. She looked up at her father, who nodded his head, and then she pulled the ribbon off the box. Hidden under the ribbon was a latch with a lock. Before Penelope could say a word, the merchant reached over with a small silver key that was attached to a long silver chain and placed it into the lock.
"Open it,"he told her.
Penelope turned the key, felt the latch come undone and opened the box. Inside, the box was lined with satin and in the middle was a round black furry object, the size of a ping-pong ball.
"What is it, daddy?" Penelope asked as she leaned in closer to take a better look.
"This is my gift to you, that was given to me by your grandfather and to him by his father and has been in our family for over 100 years," the merchant said with pride.
"But what is it? What does it do?" Penelope asked again.
"It is called a darkling. It will always look after you. It will keep you safe. And it is yours now so you can name it whatever you like."
"It is so small, daddy. May I touch it?"
"Pick it up in your hand and put it on the floor, Penny," the merchant instructed.
Penelope scooped up the darkling into both of her hands, her father lifted the box from her lap and she placed it on the rug in the middle of the room. Suddenly the darkling began to roll back and forth and around in circles and as it moved it grew bigger and bigger. Two furry arms and two furry legs shot out from the furry circle and the circle stretched out into an oval. As it stood on its long furry legs and its furry arms dangled from its sides, a head popped out of the top of its oval body and two large eyes blinked open and stared down at Penelope. And then a large mouth opened and inside were rows and rows of small pointy white teeth.
Penelope darted back towards her father, startled by the big toothy grin and buried her face against his vest inside his suit jacket.
"Don't be frightened, my little Penny," the merchant said soothingly. "It will not hurt you, it is your friend and your protector."
Penelope turned around to look at the creature once more. It stood almost seven feet tall, covered from head to toe in thick black fur and while its mouth seemed giant and menacing, its big brown eyes looked down on her with pure devotion. She walked slowly towards the creature and reached out to touch its left arm. The fur was soft, softer than the white sable cape the merchant had given Penelope for her birthday, and the creature smelled like spun sugar.
"It is so soft, daddy, "Penelope whispered. "The softest thing I have ever touched."
"Now listen carefully," the merchant began, "The darkling belongs to you now. So while it will always be with you and do what you ask, you must take care of it as well."
"Does it speak, daddy?"
"No child, it has no voice, but it does understand everything you say and in time, you will learn to communicate with it in your own way."
"And it will do anything I say?"
"Yes, Penny, it will and that is why you must pay close attention to what I am about to tell you."
Penelope could sense the seriousness in her father's voice. She turned to look at him.
"We are very blessed, Penny," the merchant continued, "Life has been good to us. And we have more than enough of everything we want, do we not, child?"
"Yes, daddy," she replied.
"And so you must not ask for silly little things or really anything at all or there will be consequences. Let it protect you and you care for it and you will get along nicely.
"What are consequences, daddy?
"Unpleasant things, Penny, bad things. But you need not worry about bad things if you follow the rules. You must not bring it to school. You must not tell anyone about it or show anyone except me and Mrs. Flynn. You can leave it in the box for as long as you like, but when you take it out, you must feed it breakfast, lunch and dinner. And most importantly, are you listening, Penny, you must always put it away in its box, locked up, before you go to sleep. Never ever leave it out before you go to sleep."
Penny wondered what would happen if she left it out, but was too afraid to ask. She started to feel her head hurt which happened whenever she began to worry herself too much with questions.
"How does it fit back in the box, daddy?" Penelope asked.
"When you ask it to go back in the box, it will, "the merchant replied. He got up from the divan and walked over to the little girl and the creature and placed the silver key on the silver chain around her neck.
"Wear this at all times. Do not lose it and always remember to lock the box when you put it away. Now, you must name it."
Penelope looked down at the key dangling against her white dress and looked up at the creature.
"I shall name him, Prince Henry!" she exclaimed.
"Splendid," said the merchant.
The merchant left after breakfast to go to his shop in town and since Penelope's school was closed for a teachers conference, she would have the entire day to get to know Prince Henry. For the rest of the morning, Penelope and Prince Henry played card games in the window seat of the library. She was surprised how well he played Gin Rummy and War. In the afternoon they ate tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches that Mrs. Flynn made, but had to eat in Penelope's bedroom while the other help came to set up the decorations and extra tables and chairs for the party. Penelope laughed at how Prince Henry ate twenty sandwiches to her one. Mrs. Flynn told her several times to stay out-of-sight with the creature because no one must know, but Penelope and Prince Henry snuck out the back and ran through the garden maze so she could try and find the best places to hide once all the other children arrived the next day.
Penelope was thrilled to have a constant companion since sometimes it would be lonely in the big house with just her and Mrs. Flynn. And Prince Henry was gentle and soft and liked to hold hands and hug. And when she tickled him, he would giggle even though no sound came out.
She told the creature all about school and the party and Edward Fellows. Edward was a boy at school that she liked more than anything and she wanted him to like her too. But he was with the snooty Rebecca Gillens. She hoped and wished that after the party tomorrow, Edward would see how they were meant to be together and he would be hers.
When the merchant came home that evening, and all the extra help had already left, Mrs. Flynn served her famous pot roast with green beans, potatoes and gravy. Prince Henry was fed too, but since he was too big for the dining room chairs, he sat at the big wooden table in the kitchen while Mrs. Flynn served him plate after plate after plate of the meat she made just for him.
That evening, after eating big bowls of ice cream, stuffing their faces with popcorn and playing twelve games of checkers in which each had won six and so they decided to declare themselves Co-Rulers of the Checkers Universe, Penelope and Prince Henry were told by Mrs. Flynn to get upstairs and go to bed and that Penelope best not forget to brush her teeth after all that junk she was eating.
Penelope brushed her teeth and her hair and told Prince Henry to turn around and look away while she changed into her nightgown. And then she and the creature crept down the hall towards her father's study. The door was open and Penelope could see her father reading at his desk.
"Daddy, please come read Prince Henry and me a story," Penelope pleaded.
"You take Prince Henry and tuck him away and I'll be there in a moment," the merchant replied without looking up.
Penelope took the creature's hand and led him back to her room. She took the box down from the top of her dresser and placed it in the middle of the room, opened.
"You heard daddy. Time to put you to bed too. And I promise tomorrow you will have all the candy you want. Now go in your box, Prince Henry."
The creature gave Penelope a big smile and placed one of his large feet onto the lining. Slowly the creature began to shrink down, his arms and legs and head disappearing into his body, and his body shrinking back down into the ping-pong sized ball that it had been that morning.
Penelope closed the box, wrapped the white ribbon around it and put it back on her dresser. The merchant came into her room and while Penelope got into her bed and under the covers, he pulled down her favorite book from one of the book shelves and sat down on the edge of her bed.
"Is Prince Henry put away, the way I told you, child?"
"Yes, daddy. And I love him so. We had the best day ever. Thank you, daddy."
"I knew you would, my shiny little Penny."
The merchant read his daughter a tale about a prince and a princess and a dragon in a far away land, until she closed her eyes and began to breath the breathe of a sleeping child.
Early the next morning, the day of the big Halloween party, Penelope woke up to the sound of several voices outside her window and the heavy front door slamming shut. She heard her father's footsteps coming up the great staircase and she felt a slight chill even though she was still under her covers. The footsteps were now on the upstairs hall and coming closer to her bedroom door. Penelope sat up in bed just as her father opened the door.
The merchant walked into the room, already groomed and dressed in his standard grey three-piece suit and looked into Penelope's eyes. She saw he was not happy. He walked towards her dresser and she looked over to see that the black velvet box and white ribbon were on the floor. The box was open. The creature was not there.
"I asked you last night if you put it away, did I not child? Now we have a problem."
Penelope jumped out of her bed and ran over to her father and the box. She looked on top of her dresser and under, she got down on her knees and looked under her bed, she ran around the room looking throughout.
"I closed the box, daddy, I know I did. And I wrapped the ribbon around it tight," she cried.
"Did you lock the box," demanded the merchant. "Show me the key."
Penelope put her hand to her neck and realized that the chain and key were not there.
"I found it outside at the entrance to the labyrinth, foolish child."
Penelope began to look around her room again, in her closet behind the fireplace screen, inside her toy chest.
"Prince Henry," she called. "Oh, please show yourself, Prince Henry. Come here to me."
"Prince Henry is downstairs in the kitchen. Put your slippers on and follow me," said the merchant.
Penelope followed her father back downstairs into the kitchen. Prince Henry was sitting at the big wood table, sipping hot cocoa with marshmallows while Mrs. Flynn dipped apples in hot caramel and placed them on a tray lined with parchment paper.
"Tell her what you know, madam,"said the merchant.
"Well, I got up this morning like I always do to light the fires downstairs and put on a kettle. It felt colder than usual. And when I came into the kitchen, I saw that the door was wide open and the wind was blowing something fierce. And when I shut the door, I notice there are mud tracks all over the kitchen floor, the floor I had just washed last night. And when I look about some more, I see that hairy creature curled up in the corner by the pantry, fast asleep and snoring loud enough to bring deaf ears back to hearing."
"And what else?" asked the merchant.
"Well, I noticed there was some blood on it and figured it might be hurt so that's when I went and woke you up, sir, seeing that you had just passed it on to Miss Penelope and she may own it now but wouldn't know what to do."
Mrs. Flynn calmly grabbed a bowl of crushed peanuts and began to roll a caramel-covered apple in it.
"While your father was getting dressed, I drove into town to go grab some bandages from the store for that creature, and who comes running up to me? Mrs. Gillespie, the old busybody, and she tells me how everyone in town is in such a fright since news is going around that the young Fellows boy has vanished from his house in the middle of the night on Halloween. The police are looking for him everywhere, not sure if they want to call him a runaway or say he was abducted. I know you say twelve is the age to take the thing, sir, but I just didn't think Miss Penelope was ready. She's such a carefree child and so..."
"Thank you, madam. I know your feelings on the matter," the merchant interrupted. "Penny, do you understand what has happened? The police came by this morning and we had to do everything in our power not have Prince Henry discovered. Do you remember what I told you about consequences, unpleasant and bad things. Well, something very, very bad has happened and I am afraid young Edward Fellows has paid the price."
Penelope felt tears well up in her eyes.
"What happened to Edward, daddy,"Penelope cried out
"Is it not it obvious, child. He is dead. Prince Henry ate him," said the merchant.
"Why?" screamed Penelope in terror. "Why?!"
"It was hungry, Miss Penelope," replied Mrs. Flynn. "It's always hungry."
Penelope could not hold back the hot tears from streaming down her face. She looked at the creature.
"You are a dreadful beast! A naughty, cruel horrendous monster! I hate you, Prince Henry! I hate you!" screamed Penelope.
The creature looked up at Penelope with sad eyes. It pushed away its bowl of hot cocoa and hung its head down low.
The merchant stepped over to Penelope and grabbed her wrist.
"You must not yell at Prince Henry," he said. "I told you to be careful. I told you to take care of it. I told you to lock the box at night. And I warned you not to ask for anything."
"I did not ask for anything, daddy," cried Penelope. "All we did was play."
"Miss Penelope, you must have told it something," said Mrs. Flynn.
"No, no, I did not. All I said was that I liked Edward and I hoped he would like me at the party tonight."
"Coveting. Thou shalt not covet," Mrs. Flynn whispered.
"Please, daddy, please, what does she mean? I did not ask for anything," Penelope pleaded.
The merchant let go of Penelope's wrist, grabbed her shoulders and pulled her close to him.
"I am sorry, my child. It is not your fault, my sweet little Penny, "the merchant said sadly. "How could you know this would happen? I should have taken more precautions."
"You should tell her about the Missus," said Mrs. Flynn as she continued to roll caramel apples in the peanuts.
The merchant took Penelope by the hand and sat her at the big wooden table next to the creature.
"When I was a boy of twelve, my father, your grandfather, gave me the creature. When it was mine, I called it Montague and it was my closest companion all through my school years until I left for University. During those years, and for many years after while I traveled and worked, Montague stayed in its box in the upstairs of this very house, and slept for a very long time. I met your mother, fell in love with her and convinced her to be my wife. I brought her home with me so I could take over your grandfather's business. I thought my life was complete until the day you were born. I never knew love like that and I looked forward to the years ahead with your mother and hopefully more brothers and sisters for you."
"I had told your mother about Montague, and even showed it to her, always mindful and careful of locking it up before we went to sleep at night. She grew very fond of the creature and it seemed to like her as well. I should never have been so foolish as to forget that Montague was a monster that only had allegiance to me and our bloodline."
"One evening, while you were still a mere baby, I was working late and your mother was here alone. She put you to bed and must have decided to let the creature out, thinking it would never harm her. When I came home, your mother was gone, the only trace of her was her wedding band and a slipper on the floor by the box in my study. I found the creature sleeping under your crib."
"I knew what I had done. I had wished aloud that your mother would be mine forever. I had wished aloud that I could have the power to give life like she could. I wished aloud and the creature heard my wish and it coveted for me. It took what I wanted. And I was the fool that left the key in the house, instead of keeping it with me"
The merchant put his tired hands on the wood table and sighed. His left hand was closed like a fist and he opened it to reveal the silver key and chain. Penelope stared at him, her eyes wide open, teardrops still hanging on her cheeks. She took a deep breathe, wiped her face with her hands and silently grabbed the chain and put it around her neck.
"I am sorry, daddy, "Penelope whispered as she leaned her head against his arm. "And I am sorry I yelled at you, Prince Henry."
The creature lifted up its heavy dark head and looked at Penelope with hopeful eyes and a huge grin full of shiny sharp white teeth.
Mrs. Flynn placed the tray full of caramel-peanut apples onto the kitchen table and the merchant and Penelope watched as Prince Henry ate each and every last one of them.