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The Once Upon a Time Challenge that I recently signed up for includes, among other things, reading of a novel by Neil Gaiman Neverwhere, and I felt it would be appropriate to kick off my series of posts for the challenge with one of Gaiman’s short stories, Troll Bridge.

The story begins when a seven-year old boy walks onto an old bridge inhabited by a troll:

“He was huge: his head brushed the top of the brick arch. He was more or less translucent: I could see the bricks and trees behind him, dimmed but not lost. He was all my nightmares given flesh.”

Even though the troll seems translucent at first, as the boy’s fear of the troll grows stronger, so does the solidity of the creature:

“He became more and more solid to me, more and more real; and the world outside became flatter, began to fade.”

The troll wants to eat the boy’s life, but the boy manages to convince the troll that eating him at this time isn’t a good idea, and he promises to come back when he is grown and has more to offer.

The second chance encounter occurs when the narrator is 15 years old, but this time he is with a girl who he thinks he loves. The scene allows us a glimpse into the narrator’s self-centered interior: he doesn’t even blink to offer his friend to the troll to save his own life. But the creature refuses to take the girl, because she is innocent, and the boy is not. Again, using his power of persuasion and assurance that he’ll be back, the boy escapes unscathed, but his friendship with the girl ends abruptly, and he feels no regret.

The narrator never talks directly about how these encounters affected him, but I think that fear of the troll and everything he represented have become the narrator’s obsession and eventually left his life in a shambles, while unwise choices and lost opportunities added to that. The story ends with a twist that is not completely unexpected, but makes perfect sense thanks to the author’s masterful use of foreshadowing. After reading this story, I will certainly check out Gaiman’s other works.

Troll Bridge was first published in Gaiman’s short story collection Smoke and Mirrors.

“Neil Richard Gaiman is an English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre and films. His notable works include the comic book series The Sandman and novels Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. Gaiman’s writing has won numerous awards, including Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker, as well as the 2009 Newbery Medal and 2010 Carnegie Medal in Literature. He is the first author to win both the Newbery and the Carnegie medals for the same work.”   info from Wikipedia

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image by reflectionsinapuddle

“Today, my boy, I’ll give you your last lesson. I am getting old and frail; my health is no longer what it used to be even 80 years back; it’s time for me to move on. You want to say something? You have my leave to speak.”

“But where would you go, roshi? Isn’t this the only Sanctuary in the entire world? Why would you want to leave this magnificent mountain, with only snow leopards and eagles to keep us company?”

“What do you know of the world or beyond it, boy?”

“Whatever you taught me, roshi.”

“What I taught you is but a speck of dust on this great mountain. Don’t you fancy yourself a sage. Remember, you know nothing. But enough of idle talk. Brace yourself for your last lesson. Almost half a century has passed since you entered the Sanctuary as a brainless youngling. Half a century of hard work and learning the secrets that most mortals consider either lost or never in existence. Half a century of isolation and solitude… save for the company of this old fool… So let’s get to work. I’ll give you my final secret recipe that you must learn and you’ll be ordained to become the Great Master yourself. But first I must see what you are made of.”

“Yes, roshi. I am ready.”

“So you think, boy, so you think… Now, take a dash of the blackroot powder. Not that! The other box with a human skull on it. Right. Then add a few drops of the mountain toad venom. Slowly, don’t spill it. Very well. Now take a pinch of dragon grass and a viper’s egg, and don’t forget a good measure of snow leopard scat. Mix it all well. Good… Now you must read the incantation I taught you when the moon was full. Don’t look at me as if you have no clue what I am talking about. Just do it, or I’ll read it myself… Whisper, you oaf! You don’t have to shout it at the top of your voice for the whole world to hear…”

Roshi?”

“Yes?”

“What’s the recipe for?”

“Just give me the vial. Didn’t I tell you I am an old fool? Of course I forgot to tell you what it is. Nothing much. Just a recipe for disaster. As soon as it touches the rocks at the foot of the great mountain, it will bring about great suffering upon this world. But you needn’t worry, boy, for you’ll be spared.”

“Oh, no! Why would you do such a despicable thing, roshi?! Come to your senses I beg!”

But the one called roshi, a desiccated mushroom of a man, with a long white beard and gnarled limbs, left this heartfelt plea unanswered. He sprinted with the agility of a young cougar – in contrast with his withered appearance – and was already stooped over the room’s only window that opened up a vast panorama of a jagged mountain range, snowy tops blazing in the sun, an eagle soaring up high in the azure sky.

Holding the corked vial with the potion in his left hand, the old man reached out, unclasped his gnarled fingers and unleashed the vial on the unsuspecting world. At this very moment, his apprentice flung himself at the window, like a flash of lightning, and dove headlong into the cool air. The Great Master must have gone mad, but I can still catch the vial, he thought plummeting toward the earth, cutting through freezing air like a hot knife through butter, his cloak flapping violently in his wake. He could see the vial; he could reach it… There! He caught it and squeezed it in his half frozen palms, then shut his eyes so as not to see the sullen visage of rocks below barreling toward him. In a matter of seconds his body will become one with the somber landscape. And what about the evil potion? I can’t allow it to touch the rocks and obliterate the world! If only the Great Master taught me the magic of flight! If only I had wings!

At which moment his free fall slowed down and finally came to a halt, when his face nearly touched a massive boulder at the foot of the mountain. From this vantage point, it didn’t look as despondent as from above, covered with cheerful green moss and all. Still hovering over the rocks, the apprentice whirled himself out of his topsy-turvy attitude, and began to ascend, spiraling higher and higher, as if on a pair of invisible wings. And as he  took in the resplendent views around him, reveling in his newly acquired ability, he turned his gaze to the top of the great mountain, where the Great Master, still looking no bigger than a horsefly from down below, was bursting in paroxysms of hilarity.

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I wrote this short story for my creative writing class. The rule was to use an opening line suggested by the instructor. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. 🙂

———————————————————————————————

Chris began to question the wisdom of this trip. First, nothing went to plan. Second, his plane crashed.

It all came back to him now: the smell of burning rubber in the cabin, shrieks of a woman two rows behind him, cries for help, a deafening BANG! and an endless gut-wrenching scream above the din.

He jolted in his seat and gasped. Someone was tapping him on his shoulder. Chris opened his eyes. A young flight-attendant`s face was hovering above him.

“Are you Okay, sir? Would you like some water?”

Chris nodded, his heart still in his throat. The flight-attendant rushed to get him water.

“A bad dream, hon?” A soft voice asked.

He turned his head: a benevolent-looking elderly woman was peering at him from above her reading glasses. He recognized her at once. She was the old woman with the cat, and she was responsible for this mess. When they boarded the first time, the stupid cat ran off and hid in the cockpit among some stupid wires where no one could get at it for several hours. And when they boarded the second time, Chris was seated next to the woman, with her stupid pet tucked in a cat carrier under the front seat.

“I get them sometimes. Nightmares,” The old woman continued, ignoring Chris’s resentful stare. “I even scream in my dreams.”

The woman gave him a reassuring smile. Her teeth were white, in stark contrast with her saggy wizened skin covered with brown age spots. Dentures, no doubt. She looked like she could be 80 or 100. Her eyes though…

“Your water, sir,” the pretty flight attendant was back with a glass.

Chris swallowed water in one gulp and felt almost himself. He glanced furtively in the old woman’s direction. There was something vaguely familiar about her, but he couldn’t place it. He decided, she looked like a really aged Mary Poppins from the old musical. Besides, she had this really odd looking bag, and sticking out of the bag was today`s paper with the front page headline  “HUNDREDS DIE IN A HORRIFIC PLANE CRASH…”

“Excuse me, sir?” The flight-attendant was back.

Chris turned toward her. Why did she have to be such a nuisance?

“Would you like some lunch, sir? We have chicken and vegetarian lasagna.”

“Chicken, please.”

Now everyone was busy eating lunch. Chris searched for the bag with the newspaper, but the woman must have put it away. He ate his lunch, stealing glances at his neighbour, while she was daintily picking at her vegetarian lasagna, smiling to herself, as if it were a funny joke, her cat getting into the cockpit and causing all the commotion and delays. There were a lot of angry and tired people, who had missed their connecting flights and had been late for their meetings and conferences — all courtesy of the stupid feline. Maybe after this incident, they will ban cats, or any pets, in the cabin.

As if she’d heard his thoughts, the old woman dabbed her lips with a napkin, and said,“You are not a cat person, are you?”

“No, not particularly.”

“Are you a dog person then?”

“Uh… don’t know, never had a dog.”

“Would you like to meet Casper?”

Before Chris knew what was going on, the old woman looked around to make sure no one was watching, then reached under the front seat and pulled out the cat carrier.

“Casper – Chris. Chris – Casper.”

The carrier inhabitant was snow-white and fluffy. He gave Chris a cursory glance, squinting his bright-blue feline eyes, and yawned wide showing all his sharp teeth and a pink tongue. Then he rearranged himself inside the carrier, so Chris could only see his rear end with a bushy tail, which meant the audience was over.

“He is a special kitty,” the old woman said, putting the cat carrier back under the front seat.

“Oh yeah? What’s his specialty?”

“Oh…” The old woman suddenly looked hesitant. “He can perform… tricks.”

“Like the one he pulled off just several hours ago? How many hijacked planes does he have under his furry belt? And how do you know my name? I don’t think I’ve introduced myself.”

Oddly, the woman seemed relieved with the new turn in conversation. She produced a business card that read “Chris LaLonde, Business Development.” It was his business card.

“I must have dropped it,” Chris took his card and put it back in his pocket. He already regretted his angry outburst. Besides, the old lady and her fluffy, if a bit snooty, friend, radiated such peace and tranquility that his anger melted away.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s been a long day and I feel exhausted,” he said.

“No worries, hon. No worries.” The old lady purred.

Chris closed his eyes. Although he was quite spent, he didn’t want to fall asleep, lest he had the same horrible dream and screamed again. The dream seemed so vivid though, almost real, and the acrid taste of burnt rubber was still flickering on his tongue. Deep in his reverie, he missed the point when his thoughts turned from his nightmare to the old lady. Why was she traveling alone? Why would she bring her cat along? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone, including the cat, if it had been left at home? Cats can do that; they are not as attached to their owners as dogs are. Maybe the woman was moving in with her children, or grand children, and couldn’t leave her beloved cat behind. Something about her was still tugging at Chris. It must have been her eyes, so blue, so clear, so young, so out of place on her wizened face.

***

By the gate, waiting for him was Irene, young and pretty, beaming with joy, her lovely blue eyes deep with love and affection. She kissed him passionately and hugged as if they haven’t seen each other for an eternity.

“Let’s go home. I’ve a surprise for you.”

When they got to their little cozy apartment on a quiet street, Irene opened the door with her key, and asked Chris to cover his eyes. He heard rustling in the kitchen; then Irene moved to the living room and called out softly; then she was back and instructed him to open his eyes. He did. Staring at him were two blue buttons on a tiny ball of white fur. The furball yawned wide showing his pink tongue and tiny sharp teeth.

“Casper – Chris. Chris – Casper,” Irene announced and kissed the cute little creature on its face. “I found him on the doorstep last night. He is a very special kitten.”

***

Later that evening, when things quieted down a bit, and Irene was in the kitchen, doling out treats to Casper-the kitten, Chris searched the Internet for the news of today’s plane crash, the one he saw in the old lady’s paper. There was no mention of any plane crash on the Internet though. The only big news today was that of a cat wreaking havoc with the air traffic in early morning and delaying hundreds of passengers. One news website featured a photo of a white cat. It was Casper all right. And although the media said the cat was “scared and miserable,” he looked quite satisfied, almost smug.

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