The Passing of the Quill

Submitted into Contest #88 in response to: Write about an author famous for their fairy tale retellings.... view prompt


Fantasy Contemporary Fiction

No one is gonna believe this story, but I'll write it anyway. I was in the library doing some research for a story I was writing. My internet was down so I went there for the free Wi-Fi. Hadn't been inside of a brick-and-mortar library since the pandemic started. The first night I was there, I saw the ancient character hunched over in the corner and thought he was a homeless guy just getting in out of the cold. Boy, was I mistaken!

Each night for the next several weeks, I'd see him there scribbling in an old notebook. That book looked about as old as he did. Over the course of my visits, I would gradually move closer and closer to where he sat. For some reason, I was intrigued by the odd fellow. I could hear him mumbling to himself. It seemed he couldn't get the words written down fast enough.

I wish I had that problem. I was facing a serious case of writer's block. I knew my subject, I just couldn't get inspired. The blank screen mocked me. The cursor winked at me, daring me to type something. I wanted some of whatever that old man was drinking.

After the first week, I built up my courage to speak to him. "What are writing over there, Old man, the great American novel?" I pegged him for a writer on my third visit. That look in his eye, the far-away look showing that while he may be cooped up in this musty old library, his mind was free!

"What, hmm? Yes, writing...I'm writing. No, not the American novel...but every story! Come closer," He stammered out, lowering his voice, speaking like a conspirator. "Let me tell you a story." The old geezer looked crazed. His eyes focused on me, really looked at me. He seemed to look through me. I felt embarrassed, I don't know why, but I knew this man could see into my very soul. He knew my story.

So began our friendship. Not a friendship, more like my education, my apprenticeship. At that moment, I knew I would become a great writer. And over the next few years, I learned to never have writer's block again. Allow me to explain.

"What do you mean, you're writing ‘every’ story?" I asked incredulously. "By the way, who are you?" I finished after introducing myself. Figured if we're going to have this discussion, let's start it off right.

"I go by many names," the old man began, "Some know me as Shakespeare, others as Twain. I've gone by Bradbury or Asimov when considering the future. Poe when feeling melancholy, Wodehouse when whimsical, and King when in a frightful mood. I told you, I write all the stories." He finished with a wry grin.

We talked late into the night and I hated to leave. The next day's classes were a blur. I couldn't stop my mind from racing back to the old man in the corner of the library. Every author my professor referred to now had that old man's face attached to it! I took my dinner with me to the library; I knew it was going to be another late night.

He showed me how to finish my story in record time. The introduction flowed out of me as naturally as if I were breathing. My characters were perfectly balanced throughout as if I were walking a trail. Each chapter logically following the previous one. And my conclusion was as refreshing as the feeling you get after a hearty meal.

"You see," the old man said, "every story, every fairy tale, every screenplay, pretty much falls into just a few categories. I just tell and retell them with different characters or settings. How is King Arthur's tale of Excalibur that much different than Luke's story with his lightsaber? And what about Ulysses' trip to faraway lands compared to Dorothy's experiences in Oz?"

We spent weeks dissecting various themes and storylines and each time he proved his incredible insight into each tale, and he would retell them to me in different ways. I was like a sponge; I couldn't absorb enough. He told me how he was in the process of retelling Humpty Dumpty's tragedy as a cautionary tale of workplace safety.

"Listen to me,” he said excitedly, "with all the litigation and legislation, safety is where it's at!" He continued, "Humpty's story has profound implications for anyone concerned about the sanctity of life!" I wanted to hear more, but it was late. He waved me goodbye and said, "To be continued..."

The next time I saw the old man, his outline was complete. He spoke over my shoulder as I examined his work. "You see, the wall Humpty was sitting on had no record of ever being inspected. It was an unsafe environment!" I had to agree. My minor was in Health and Safety inspections.

Once he learned of my expertise, we were able to identify that Humpty should have been wearing a harness. We also found that "all the king's horses and all the king's men" should have been properly trained in first aid. "Who knows," the old man said, "Mrs. Humpty wouldn’t be a widow today if one of those horses knew CPR."

By the next month, we had retold Little Red Riding Hood's story. It was now a scandalous expose' of workplace sexual harassment. Residual sales came from handbooks that had to be written clearly demonstrating that no matter what she's wearing 'No means no.'

I dropped out of school and worked with the old man as we brought all the old stories up to date for education and entertainment. We were making money hand over fist. They say, "riches are in your niches." Well, my niche was safety. I wrote about footwear safety at social gatherings by retelling the tale about the peasant girl who lost her shoe at the ball. We added in the subplot of how a real prince of a guy found her on "and they lived happily ever after."

We wrote about food safety and the danger of poisoning apples, or any fruit for that matter. And this led to a sequel about the dangers of oversleeping and the propriety of waking strangers with kisses. The best of intentions doesn’t excuse violating personal boundaries.

I could go on and on. The old man told the stories, and I would modify and update them for the 21st century. We worked well together, so well that it became hard to distinguish between teacher and student. We were like two hands playing a piano, both providing what was needed to make beautiful music together.

But sadly, all good things come to an end. "My story is ending," the old man told me late one night. "Yours still has many chapters left." I heaved a sigh of relief at that bit of knowledge, but my heart ached at the thought of losing my dear friend. "Keep writing," he said, "keep the stories alive. There are really only a few stories, told and retold. There's the hero's journey, the love story, the scary story, a few others..." His voice trailed off. The library seemed empty as a tomb once he was gone.

I had been a diligent student. I had written down all the genres that he had shared with me over the years. And now, I write the stories. Never mind my name, I go by many. Just keep reading my stories. Are they true? That's unimportant. Just keep reading them. Why? Because they are necessary. We need them. As someone once said (who knows, it could have been me) "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us dragons exist. It's because they tell us dragons can be beaten."

So, if you ever see an eccentric old man scribbling in a corner, come closer. "Let me tell you a story..."

April 09, 2021 21:13

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Susan Joy Clark
21:55 Apr 12, 2021

Nice! Your Humpty Dumpty retelling made me smile. There were several other clever fairy tale references after that, but Humpty Dumpty surprised me, because I didn't foresee things going that direction of retellings relating to safety. And I love the fairy tales quote at the end. G.K. Chesterton, I think?


Chris Culpepper
21:17 Apr 16, 2021

Thank you so much...I really appreciate your input. I'll be looking at some of your stories as well


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply