Daze of the Weak
"Well, fellas, let's get going! The sooner we finish this job, the sooner we can head back home. Great breakfast, as usual, Hap!”
Ralph Hale pushed away from the table, the legs of his chair scraping with a painful “Eeeee!” against the worn linoleum.
Ralph, head of the geological survey project at Grimm's Gulch, was hardworking and capable. Somewhat of a fatherly type, he cared about his team and was always trying to do something for them. Everyone liked him.
Everyone except for Farley Moon, who didn't like much of anything. He was pessimistic, sarcastic, and generally disagreeable.
In passing, Ralph gently patted the shoulder of Ben Bland, whose eyes were closed. Trying to sleep in a bunkhouse didn’t improve Ben’s insomnia.
"Bad night again?"
"Mmm," grunted Ben. "Had to take two doses last night."
He drained his coffee mug, set it on the table with a “Clink”, and reluctantly stood up.
"Tonight I'll give you an herbal sleep remedy to try if you want," offered Ralph. "I don't know if it will help, but it won't hurt."
Rodger Lamb, to one side of Farley, heard his cantankerous coworker grumble something sourly under his breath, about “Doc and his cache of curative compounds”.
Ben, on Farley’s other side, took his time completing a gargantuan yawn and thorough stretch. He scratched the back of his neck, chuckled, and drawled,
"You're such a crosspatch! You know Doc works harder than any of us! He's the one who keeps us going."
"Hmmmph!" Farley snorted, pushing back his own chair. He left the table singing off-key, "Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work we go..."
<•> <•> <•>
The magnificently executed sneeze rang out across the gulch, reverberating in Rodger's head and interrupting his thoughts. His workmate and buddy, Guthrie Thorstein, had chronic hay fever and indulged in unrestrained sneezing.
His temperament was almost completely opposite Rodger's; he was loud, brash, and "touchy-feely".
At first those traits had made Rodger uncomfortable, but Thorstein — who preferred to be called by his last name — was such a goodhearted character that the two had become close friends.
Now, as they hiked along together, their boots scuffed the earth and sent up little puffs of red dust.
Thorstein let loose another string of sneezes. Concluding with a satisfied "Aaa-HOOO-ahhh..." and a mighty rasping sniff, he flung his arm across Rodger's shoulders in a companionable gesture.
Rodger flinched a little in psychological discomfort, but he made an effort not to withdraw himself.
"Rodge, buddy, when we get back home I want to introduce you to my sister-in-law," Thorstein informed his friend, whacking him on the shoulder for emphasis. "She's coming to visit for a while, and I think you'd get along well..."
He rattled on amicably, while Rodger mentally cringed and tried not to think about the awkward prospect that undoubtedly lay in store for him. He even started formulating excuses to get himself out of the inevitable invitation.
Ralph and Farley, some distance away, heard the signature "Aaahhh-CHOOO!" of Thorstein resounding across the gulch, echoes bouncing after it.
"There's old Sneezy," muttered Farley, not quite under his breath.
Ralph laughed to himself. Privately, he had assigned his team the name "The Seven Dwarfs". After all, he himself was sometimes called Doc; their cook was known as Happy; Farley was most certainly Grumpy. “Sneezy” fit Thorstein, and it wouldn't be inappropriate to cast the remaining three as Bashful, Sleepy, and Dopey.
All they needed was a Snow White!
<•> <•> <•>
Rodger, who had moved a little way off from Thorstein, spied something that didn't fit into the rugged landscape. It could be merely a pile of colorful material, but he was unsure.
Moving closer to investigate, he was startled to realize that it appeared to be a body.
Cautiously he approached, stepping softly. Should he go back and fetch Thorstein? What if ...
He found himself going over several "what ifs", but he continued on. He was rather inept socially, but his valiant heart was emboldened by an able imagination.
A few feet away from the mysterious heap, Rodger determined that it was indeed a human form — smallish, possibly female. As to the condition of the person, he couldn't be sure.
He warily crept a little closer and stood observing the crumpled figure. Was that a slight breathing movement… ?
"Aaaa-CHOOooo! Hey, Rodge, where'd you go?" called Thorstein.
His feet crunched on a patch of rocky ground as he searched for his colleague.
Rodger turned and held his finger to his lips as Thorstein came into view.
The gregarious man stopped, looking in puzzlement at his mild-mannered friend. His mouth opened.
Rodger tapped his own lips to indicate a need for silence. He gestured toward his discovery and motioned for the other man to join him.
"What is it?" whispered Thorstein hoarsely.
"A person..." Rodger mouthed, tiptoeing toward the unfortunate individual.
Thorstein followed, quiet for once.
As Rodger inched closer to the inert figure, he noticed a lock of long — no, not raven; that was too cliché, he decided — ebony hair draped across the pale face. He arrived at her side (she was, indeed, a young woman) and gazed down at her, unsure of what to do next.
A sudden muffled explosion rent the still air -
Rodger jumped a little, even though he knew it was Thorstein uncharacteristically attempting to muffle a sneeze.
The young woman's body quivered a bit. Her eyelids fluttered, then opened to reveal deep turquoise eyes. Her black eyebrows drew together questioningly, her eyes fixed on Rodger.
Ralph approached, unnoticed by the other two men until he exclaimed softly,
"It's Snow White!"
<•> <•> <•>
Rodger Lamb, who was always sure that no one noticed him — and at the same time, afraid that someone would, was disconcerted by the unwavering raptness of those unfathomable eyes. There was a question in them, and he felt as if it were directed at him — though neither had yet spoken a word.
Thorstein could keep silent no longer.
"Who are you?" he asked, in a tone much softer than his usual hearty one.
"How did you get here?"
The young woman turned her head slightly to glance at him, then, without answering, returned her gaze to Rodger.
"Don't worry," Rodger heard himself almost whispering to her. "We'll help you."
He looked up at Ralph, and it was then that he realized he was kneeling in the dirt beside the young woman.
"Yes, we will. I'll go and round up the others; you two stay here."
The men had all been through first-aid training before coming to this wilderness area. Thorstein carefully checked the limbs of the young woman and was able to determine that nothing seemed to be broken.
Suddenly, she opened her mouth as if to say something. She closed it again, paused, and tried a second time. Her speech was hesitant, almost inaudible.
"M- My... Prince...?"
She was looking directly at Rodger. He was nonplussed.
"I — ahhh... Ah-hmm..."
He cleared his throat, closing his eyes to break her gaze, and inhaled deeply. He held his breath for a second, then let it out slowly and opened his eyes again.
"Sure!" Thorstein broke in, "You're Snow White — he can be your prince!"
Rodger was mortified, not least because he remembered what happened next in the well-known fairy tale...
The prince kissed the seemingly lifeless maiden!
Despite his discomposure, the shy man felt unable to leave the side of this distressed damsel.
Could he be her knight — or her prince?
He felt as if she had instantly formed an attachment to him, perhaps because he was the first person she saw when she opened her eyes. Given to flights of fancy, he embarked on one of them now. He began to imagine a future with her...
His flight was cut short, and he returned to earth with a bump. Thorstein was waving and calling out a greeting to the advancing group of men.
"Over here, guys!"
They helped her sit up a little, propping her against some tool bags.
"Can you tell me what happened?" Ralph inquired.
She opened her mouth again, but no sound came out. Licking her lips, she murmured,
"I — there were... " she trailed off, then took a deep, shuddering breath.
"My horse... I was riding... they came..."
She stopped and shook her head.
"You were riding your horse, and something spooked it?”
"And you fell off." It wasn't a question this time, but she nodded again.
"Can you tell us your name?"
"My... I..." Her eyes widened.
"I don't know!" she burst out.
"Maybe she has anemia," offered Damien.
Farley snorted derisively.
"Like that makes sense!"
Ralph and Thorstein simultaneously amended,
They transported the young woman back to the bunkhouse in relays. When they arrived, they settled her carefully on the lumpy old couch.
Rodger sat awkwardly nearby, trying to think of something to say.
"Something ran in front of your horse?" he asked. That was a stupid question, he thought. We’ve already gone over that.
She nodded, her eyes once again fixed on him.
"What's your horse's name?"
She bit her lip and whispered, "Prince."
He felt deflated — he wasn't her prince after all...
He started to get up, but she put out her hand and touched his arm softly. He felt goosebumps rising on his arms, and a hot flush creeping up his face.
"Please — don't go..."
Maybe he could still be her knight.
Who was this anonymous beauty? They had found no identification on her, nor had there been anything in the way of personal possessions at the site where Rodger had discovered her.
Where had she come from? How did she end up unconscious at a remote spot?
She couldn't answer these questions for them; at least, not at this point.
Hap prepared a simple meal of soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. The young woman inhaled the enticing aroma as Rodger and Thorstein helped her to the table and settled her between them.
She felt bruised, scraped up, and... hungry. In fact, her appetite seemed to be in much better condition than her memory — and comfort food was just what she needed.
"Start out slowly," cautioned Ralph, as the young woman lifted her soup spoon to her mouth. She smiled and nodded silently. She could see why the others called him Doc sometimes.
As she ate the meal, flickers of memory darted through her mind like lightning bugs. Every time she almost caught one it was extinguished.
Her reverie was interrupted by a powerful, "Aaa-CHHrrf," the finale of the sneeze stifled by a napkin.
One of the men, whom she had privately labeled as "Grumpy" because of his many snarky comments, looked up from his soup to stare pointedly at Thorstein.
"Have a little respect for the lady, why don'tcha?" he growled.
Ralph realized his near faux pas in time to turn it into throat clearing. "Farley, he did control it."
"That reminds me," he murmured, almost to himself. Digging into his pocket, pulled something out, and offered it to Thorstein. "Try this — it may help."
Thorstein accepted the lozenge and poked it into his own pocket. He winked at Ralph, intoning,
"Side effects may include loss of appetite from disgusting taste... Thanks, Doc — I'll try it when I'm done here."
His mock disclaimer set a lighter tone, and the men kidded one another as they finished their food.
The give-and-take was punctuated by Thorstein's periodic sneezing and Ben Bland’s occasional prolonged yawns.
“Whatsamatter, kid — cat gotcher tongue?” Farley demanded of young Damien, who was sitting quietly.
The boy, Ralph’s nephew, was just a teenager. He was with the team on a summer internship, and was very unsure of himself. Rodger felt sorry for him.
Damien answered Farley, "I just don't have the brain power to barter right now."
The others exchanged confused looks, and then Rodger — looking at no one — said in a low voice,
Everyone looked at him. That’s what happened when he spoke up.
He took a deep breath and repeated,
"Banter. He doesn't have the brain power to banter."
"We need to get back to work, boys," Ralph reminded them.
Their guest looked first down at the floor where she had dropped her spoon, then over at Rodger. Her eyes were wide as she clutched his wrist.
"Don't — "
Rodger, glancing at Ralph, made a wry face and shrugged. Ralph winked and told him,
"You stay and look after your — " ('Please don't say "Snow White"!' Rodger mentally implored-) charge," he finished, smiling.
<•> <•> <•>
She was nestled back on the couch, a cup of hot tea in her hands. Staring into space, she unexpectedly said,
"I can never remember the names of all seven dwarfs. Doc, Happy, Grumpy, Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey..." She looked at him expectantly.
Rodger thought perhaps she was delirious, but after a pause he answered, "Bashful."
"That's right! You're Bashful, aren't you?" She gave him a small smile.
"Umm — yes," he acknowledged. Then, plucking up some courage from he knew not where, he smiled back at her and went on -
"And you're Snow White!"
The lightning bugs glimmered again.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, sloshing her tea. She stared past him, her mouth slightly open.
"You're right, I — remember my name now!"
Rodger was confused.
"What is it?" he asked eagerly.
"I'm Branca. Branca de Neve." She drained her tea, set the mug down, and looked him in the eye. "It means — "
Rodger held up his hand.
"Don't tell me — Snow White?"
"Yes! Well, actually ‘Branca’ is ‘white’ and ‘de Neve’ means ‘of snow’. My mother is a little fanciful," she laughed.
"I think I'd like her," Rodger said solemnly.
The two sat companionably quiet for a while, until Rodger realized he was feeling a faint vibration. Were they having an earthquake?
At the same time, Branca sucked in a breath and her turquoise eyes widened.
"Shhh..." she whispered, putting a finger to her lips, "Listen!"
A thrumming, rhythmic sound grew louder and louder. It was familiar, yet not immediately recognizable to Rodger .
Then he heard another sound that put the pieces of the puzzle together.
"Your — Prince?"
<•> <•> <•>
When the crew arrived back at the bunkhouse, they were amazed at the scene.
Rodger and the young woman were seated on the porch. A white horse, tied nearby, was contentedly grazing.
Their guest, who was introduced by an unusually self-assured Rodger, looked much revived.
She chatted vivaciously with them, occasionally addressing the horse.
"We've met some wonderful new friends, haven't we, Prince?"
“Fprrrrr!” the horse snorted joyfully.
"We don't want to go away and forget them, do we, Prince?
"Nnneighhh," answered the horse.