Discover more from A Flash in the Pan
Be careful who you open the door to. They might change your life.
Issue #13, Sunday 24 July 2022
Once upon a time, there was a knock on my door.
It was late, almost midnight, and I had stayed up to correct homework from my English class at the local secondary school. I had been thinking sour thoughts as I went through the barely literate stack of essays on my desk. It was a hell of a come-down for someone like myself. At one time I had been a tenured professor at a major university. Now …
Then came the knock, and I straightened up in surprise. It was raining outside, raining hard. Who on earth would be visiting me so late on such a lousy night? It could hardly be someone collecting for a charity. And as for friends, well I didn’t have any. The police? But why?
I went to the hallway and turned on the porch light. Then I opened the front door, leaving the wire security door still closed and latched. This was becoming a rough neighbourhood, and I took no chances.
It was a dwarf. Or, at least, someone very short. He had on a thin plastic raincoat, wrapped around his shoulders and dangling to his feet. No beard, but a grizzled stubble on his chin. On my covered porch he was now out of the rain, but water was still streaming down his face. He looked cold and thoroughly miserable.
“Dr. Longman?” he asked in a hoarse voice. “Dr. Andrew Longman?”
“Yes?” I replied, completely baffled.
But he persisted. “Dr. Andrew Longman, author of Conjectures?”
At that, my heart sank. That book. That damned book, which had wrecked my career, split up my marriage, and almost completely destroyed my life. That book.
“What about it?” I snapped in anger. “And who the hell are you?”
“Dr. Longman, I need your help. Your book … is a great work. I read it some months ago. I have travelled a long way to meet you, and I have something important to show you. I assure you that you will find it well worth your while.” He coughed wetly. “Can we come in? It’s damned cold out here.”
He looked up at me. “I have a … a friend with me. You might find him a little alarming at first. I assure you that he will not harm you.”
By now I was thoroughly disturbed. “Let me see him,” I said coldly. What on earth was going on here?
The little man called out. “Grong! Here!”
Around the corner of the house, where he must have been standing in the pouring rain, came the biggest man I had ever seen. He had an ugly, lumpy face, and was as tall as any basketball player. But unlike them he was bulky, somehow thick all over. He came up onto the porch wearing some kind of heavy greatcoat, streaming water. Together, the dwarf and this huge man made a ludicrous couple.
Reluctantly, I opened the security door. If there had been anyone in the house but myself, I wouldn’t have done it. But my life was a mess, and the dwarf had me intrigued.
I led them into the kitchen, where they proceeded to drip water onto the tiled floor. The dwarf shucked off his raincoat and sat down at my kitchen table with a weary sigh, but the big man continued to stand. Truth to tell, he seemed too thick to be able to bend. He had ducked as he came through the door and now his head brushed the ceiling. “Food!” he said, in a deep, deep voice with a strange foreign accent. It was the first word he had spoken.
“Can you give him something?” asked the dwarf, apologetically. “He eats a lot, damn him.”
I opened the refrigerator and took out a loaf of sliced bread and a one-pound chunk of cheese. Before I could set them down Grong plucked them from my hands, unwrapped and swallowed the cheese in two gulps, and then proceeded to grab handfuls of bread slices and stuff them into his mouth. I watched in amazement.
“He’s an ogre,” said the dwarf in a weary tone. And then, at my exclamation, he went on, “Yeah, I know, he’s neither jolly nor green. He’s the real thing. Acts as my bodyguard.”
“Bodyguard? Why do you need … ?”
The dwarf gave a shrug. “There are some people I’m trying to avoid. Debt collectors, you know the kind of thing.”
I did, only too well. But I hadn’t been able to afford a bodyguard. I noticed that despite his matter-of-fact tone the dwarf’s hands were trembling on the table-top. Perhaps it was just the cold.
I shook my head. An ogre. Was this some kind of hoax? Five years ago, after the book came out, I could imagine someone trying to trick me like this, just for the laughs. But now? Now I was nothing. No-one around here even knew about the book, and I wanted to keep it that way.
“What’s this all about?” I asked eventually. It sounded, and felt, weak. “Who are you two? What do you want?”
The dwarf rubbed the stubble on his chin and managed something like a smile, but it was fleeting. His eyes kept flicking nervously around the room. “You can call me Hans, if you like. You’ve met Grong. The reason we’re here, the reason we came to find you, is that book you wrote, Dr. Longman.”
I was silent for a long while. “What about the book?” I said at last, when I had my anger under control.
“You wish you’d never written it,” said the little man. “I can see that now. I’m surprised. It was a very good book, maybe a great book. Grong and me, we’ve been here for nearly a year now, without having much luck. But then I found your book in a discard bin. When I read it I knew that you were the man I had to talk to. Where I come from they would find it very interesting. You would be famous there.”
“And where is that?” I was guessing somewhere in Eastern Europe. The dwarf had just the trace of an accent which could be Slavic, and the … ogre … had sounded positively Russian.
Hans the dwarf shook his head. “Not yet. I’ll tell you soon, but not yet. How would you explain your book, Doctor?” Again with the formal use of my title, one I never used myself these days. I shook my head. I was damned if I was going to give this little creep an opening to make a fool of me.
He laughed. Not a very cheerful laugh, a bitter laugh. “Very well,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I think it’s about, and you can tell me where I’m wrong. Conjectures on the Reality of Imagined Worlds, that’s the whole title, right?” I nodded, and he continued. “I didn’t understand a lot of it. All that quantum stuff, I’d never heard about it before. But you said that your wiz … your scientists, they believe that there are an endless number of worlds, is that right?”
I don’t understand much of the ‘quantum stuff’ myself. I am—or was—a psychology professor with a particular interest in literature and the creative writing process. I had picked up what I knew of quantum mechanics and cosmology from academic friends who worked in those disciplines.
“Yes,” I said reluctantly. “Scientists have come to the conclusion that the universe is infinite. Some say that every possible decision, every possible random choice, is played out in every possible way in some parallel world.”
“Dice,” said little Hans. “I understand dice. Each time you throw a die, there are six different worlds created.”
“Something like that,” I said. I looked up at the huge Grong, who wasn’t even listening. He had finished the entire loaf and was now looking hungry again.
“And so in your book, you say that every possible world, even imagined worlds, even those in your literature, your drama, must really exist somewhere, and so must every imagined event?” Hans was eager now, his eyes gleaming.
“Yes, provided those worlds and events are physically possible, of course.”
Hans sat back and gave a short, harsh laugh. “You would be surprised, Doctor, about just what is physically possible.” He seemed to have lost his nervousness for the moment. “And your book, it was popular?”
Popular? It had been published initially in a small run by my university’s academic press, but then it was picked up by a mainstream publisher. I hadn’t checked the contract closely enough and despite my protests the book was reprinted with a racy title and a lurid cover. It became an instant best-seller, and made me a laughing stock among my academic peers. As a result, soon after, I lost my job and couldn’t find another. My wife left me, citing the book in the divorce papers. And I came here, to this remote rural town, where no one had heard of me or the book.
“Yes, it was popular, for a while,” I said grimly. “But most people laughed at me. Said that I was trying to show that fairy tales were real.”
Hans was silent, but a huge grin spread slowly across his face. I stared at him in growing astonishment, and then up at the looming form of the ogre. The ogre.
“No,” I said weakly.
“No? You don’t even believe in your own ideas? I am disappointed.” He leaned forward. “But what if I could offer you proof, real, tangible proof, Doctor? What then?”
My throat was dry, and my head was spinning. It couldn’t be true. “What kind of proof?”
“Certain … artefacts. I was a collector of sorts. Yes, a collector.” He seemed pleased with the word. But then, as suddenly as a cloud passing over the sun, his face sagged and his nervousness returned. He glanced around, edgily, and then went on.
“There are ways of travelling between the worlds that you discuss in your book, Doctor. I found one of those ways, and Grong and I came here, to your world. I had hoped to sell some of my collection here, but I have not been able to find a buyer who will take me seriously.”
Here it comes, I thought, with a sinking feeling. The sting. The demand for money.
“Hans,” I said, “I am a poor man. The book ruined me. It sold well at first, but I lost my job and all of the profit from the book went as part of the divorce settlement. I can’t buy whatever it is that you are selling.”
The dwarf nodded seriously. “Yes, I found that out about you. But I can make you famous, make those who laughed at you eat their words—that is the phrase, yes? I will allow you to prove your ideas. And then, when your new book comes out there will be a demand, a clamour for items from my world. This is why I need your help.”
“What sort of proof?” I asked again. “What sort of artefacts?”
He smiled broadly. “Grong,” he called out. “Go get the stuff.”
It was still raining outside, but it was slackening off. Grong lumbered outside and we watched him from the front porch. Around the corner, almost out of sight of the house in a side street, was a beaten-up old panel truck, painted black. “You drive that?” I asked.
Hans shrugged. “No, my legs are too short. Grong drives. Very badly. He does not, of course, have one of your licenses. We have been lucky so far. Before the truck, we had a wagon. But the horse died.”
Grong returned, carrying a huge wooden crate effortlessly under one arm. We went back inside, to my lounge room. At Hans’ command, Grong set the crate down on the carpet. With his bare hands, he pulled off the nailed-down lid as though he were a child tearing open a cereal packet. Inside the crate were a dozen packages of various shapes, each wrapped in rough cloth.
I sat down, my legs suddenly weak. The dwarf leaned over the crate and pulled out one of the packages, which I now saw had labels sewn onto their wrappings, in a language I didn’t know.
The dwarf struggled with the large bundle as he unwrapped it.
It was an oval mirror, with a golden frame. The reflections it made were murky and strange.
“A magic mirror,” said Hans. “The very one which Snow White’s step-mother had on her wall.”
I laughed out loud. This was really too ludicrous for words. A hoax, then, after all. For a while I had been starting to believe this absurd little man. It was actually a disappointment.
“And if I ask it ‘Who’s the fairest of them all’, what will it say?” I asked sarcastically.
Hans did not smile. “The enchantment has gone for now,” he said. “But come now, Doctor. It is no ordinary mirror, is it?”
There was something very odd about the way it was reflecting the light. And the elaborate gold ornamentation was unlike anything I had ever seen before in any culture. I shook my head, though, unconvinced. “What else do you have?”
He pulled out another bundle, a smaller one this time. Unwrapped, I saw that it was a wooden harp, with an angelic figure carved into the column and crown.
“The singing harp which Jack stole from the castle he reached after climbing the beanstalk,” Hans said proudly. I opened my mouth to once again express my unbelief, but Hans strummed the strings of the harp. And suddenly the harp began to play itself, and the carved figure came to life and began to sing.
It was astonishingly beautiful, and unlike any music or song I had ever heard before. The little wooden face moved smoothly as its mouth shaped the foreign words. I sat there with my mouth agape for a long while, until the beautiful music had ceased and the harp was once again still.
I started to speak, but my voice failed me. I tried again. “How did you get this?” I croaked out at last.
Hans looked sly. “Jack himself died some years ago. I … acquired … the harp from his widow.”
I wasn’t sure that I dared to look at the other things in the crate. I found that my hands were shaking. If these things were real … then Hans was right. I could reveal them, convince the sceptics who had laughed at my ideas. I would be famous. And Hans would make a fortune auctioning off these items. “How much … how many things do you have?”
He shrugged. “Another three crates. Lots of things, of various value. The seven-yard length of Rapunzel’s hair that the witch cut off. Two pairs of seven-league boots. The belt made by the valiant little tailor, reading ‘Seven With One Blow’. Cinderella’s glass slippers, one of them unfortunately with a broken heel.”
I could see that he was prepared to go on cataloguing his whole collection, like some shady auctioneer tallying off the lots in his sale room.
“But,” I said, “people will claim that these things are just clever fakes, some kind of mechanism in the harp, for instance. Don’t you have anything which couldn’t be a fake?”
Hans shuddered a little, and gave a sigh. He was agitated again, glancing out of the window at the dark night. “I do have something,” he said slowly, “but it is dramatic, and might attract unwelcome attention.” He sighed again. “But I thought it might be necessary to use them.” He reached into his pocket and brought out a small cloth bag. Out of it, he spilled a handful of dried beans.
“You don’t mean … ?”
“Yes. I tracked down the little old man who bought the cow from Jack with beans like these. We will use one of them, but you will have to be quick. We cannot allow the plant to grow tall. Do you have an axe?”
We went into my back garden and I fetched the axe I use for chopping wood. It was still raining, but lightly now. Hans held up one of the beans, paused, and then plunged it into the soil.
Almost instantly, a green shoot pushed up through the ground, twisting and thickening as it rose. It was unbelievable how quickly it was growing and how tall it was becoming. I could hear Hans yelling at me, but I was paralysed, shocked. Then, as the beanstalk rose above the roof of my house, Grong the ogre seized the axe from my limp hands and chopped hard at the stalk, blow after blow until the shaft was severed and the huge beanstalk toppled. It smashed my garden shed to pieces and broke down my back fence with a smash.
Open-mouthed, I stood looking at the wreckage, wondering bizarrely how I would explain this to my insurance company.
“I told you,” said the dwarf in an angry voice, “to be quick. Is this proof enough?”
I could only nod, speechless. We went back inside and I poured myself a large whisky, gulped it down with shaking hands. It was true, then. All true. My book was validated. I would be famous, perhaps even rich, I remember thinking. Maybe my wife would even come back to me.
That was before we heard the thumping.
The first thumps were in the distance, and at first I thought it was thunder, but it was felt through the ground and not the air. The glasses in my bar cabinet rattled against each other.
Hans, who had been lying back in one of my armchairs, sat up in sudden alarm. “Grong!” he called out. “Go look!”
The thumping kept coming, getting stronger, getting louder. Grong stomped to my front door and pulled it open. It had been locked, but he wrenched it open regardless, without even noticing the splintering of wood as the lock tore loose.
Cursing inwardly at this further damage, I went to join the huge man at the now open door. Hans hopped off his armchair and followed us.
The thumps now shook the whole house. Down the dark street, I could see a car’s alarm had been set off, heard its insistent honking and saw its lights flashing. And in the brief flashes of yellow light, I saw something like a moving tree. Two moving trees. Were they … could they be legs?
As I watched, the shape reached a street light, bending it over as it brushed by. But before it failed I could see a huge figure. A man with legs like great tree trunks, a man as tall as any dinosaur. A giant. And on his shoulders rode several smaller figures.
“Grong!” cried Hans. “It’s them! They’ve found us!” He shook the big man’s arm, but Grong seemed to be frozen on the spot. Hans cursed in a language I didn’t know. “That damned beanstalk! I knew it was a bad idea! Grong!”
“Who … what?” I managed, as Grong finally moved, his eyes wide and rolling with a kind of ogre-ish terror.
“Who do you think?” the dwarf spat out angrily. “The people I stole the stuff from, of course! Grong! Curse you! You have to protect me!”
Grong finally was galvanized into action. He bent down and simply picked up Hans and shoved him under one arm. He lumbered into the lounge room, seized the open crate and tucked it under his other arm, and kept going out into the back yard.
I was stupefied, but before I could make a move, there came a great crash from out front. The giant had arrived, far quicker than I had guessed it could. The crash was the noise it made stepping on to my car, squashing it flat.
The giant spoke in a voice so deep it rattled my teeth.
“Fee!” it said.
“Fo!” it said.
“Fie!” it said
“Fum!” it said.
It stepped onto my front porch. Not into, onto. The porch was smashed into ruin before my eyes, and I started to run.
I ran out the back, just in time to see Grong running along the length of the fallen beanstalk, over the smashed fence, and into the woods beyond.
I would have followed them, but two steps into my yard I slipped and fell face-first onto the muddy ground.
Behind me I heard an awful noise of destruction, and then a vast foot thumped down, only inches away from my face. All I could see was an enormous boot and felt the impact in every molecule of my body. Then a second foot came down, half-way to the fence, then the first foot lifted and went on, crashing heavily through the trees, following Hans and Grong.
I lay there, quite still, for half an hour or more, as the crashing became more and more distant. I wondered, quite idly, as I lay there in some kind of shock, whether the two would escape.
Eventually, I pushed myself up and wiped off some of the mud. I looked back at the house. Not much of it was left.
As I stood there, I realised something, with a kind of dead feeling.
I wasn’t going to live happily ever after.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved
About this story
This one was done for a writing competition in 2012. One of the theme categories was “Fairy Tales”, so I thought up a different kind of spin on that idea (I’d also been reading about the “Many Worlds” hypothesis to explain quantum mechanics). It didn’t win the competition, but I confess that I’m rather fond of the story nonetheless.
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