martes, 11 de julio de 2017

A MONSTER CALLS - STORIES WITHIN THE STORY

INTRODUCTION: YEW KNOW


SCHOOL
He could already taste the blood in his mouth as he got up. He had bitten the inside of his lip when he hit the ground, and it was what he focussed on now as he stood, the strange metallic flavour that made you want to spit it out immediately, like you’d eaten something that wasn’t food at all.
He swallowed it instead. Harry and his cronies would have been thrilled beyond words if they knew Conor was bleeding. He could hear Anton and Sully laughing behind him, knew exactly the look on Harry’s face, even though he couldn’t see it. He could probably even guess what Harry would say next in that calm, amused voice of his that seemed to mimic every adult you never wanted to meet.
“Be careful of the steps there,” Harry said. “You might fall.”
Yep, that’d be about right.
It hadn’t always been like this.
Harry was the Blond Wonder Child, the teachers’ pet through every year of school. The first pupil with his hand in the air, the fastest player on the football pitch, but for all that, just another kid in Conor’s class. They hadn’t been friends exactly – Harry didn’t really have friends, only followers; Anton and Sully basically just stood behind him and laughed at everything he did – but they hadn’t been enemies, either. Conor would have been mildly surprised if Harry had even known his name.
Somewhere over the past year, though, something had changed. Harry had started noticing Conor, catching his eye, looking at him with a detached amusement.
This change hadn’t come when everything started with Conor’s mum. No, it had come later, when Conor started having the nightmare, the real nightmare, not the stupid tree, the nightmare with the screaming and the falling, the nightmare he would never tell another living soul about. When Conor started having that nightmare, that’s when Harry noticed him, like a secret mark had been placed on him that only Harry could see.
A mark that drew Harry to him like iron to a magnet.
On the first day of the new school year, Harry had tripped Conor coming into the school grounds, sending him tumbling to the pavement.
And so it had begun.
And so it had continued.
– • –
Conor kept his back turned as Anton and Sully laughed. He ran his tongue along the inside of his lip to see how bad the bite was. Not terrible. He’d live, if he could make it to Form without anything further happening.
But then something further happened.
“Leave him alone!” Conor heard, wincing at the sound.
He turned and saw Lily Andrews pushing her furious face into Harry’s, which only made Anton and Sully laugh even harder.
“Your poodle’s here to save you,” Anton said.
“I’m just making it a fair fight,” Lily huffed, her wiry curls bouncing around all poodle-like, no matter how tightly she’d tied them back.
“You’re bleeding, O’Malley,” Harry said, calmly ignoring Lily.
Conor put his hand up to his mouth too late to catch a bit of blood coming out of the corner.
“He’ll have to get his baldy mother to kiss it better for him!” Sully crowed.
Conor’s stomach contracted to a ball of fire, like a little sun burning him up from the inside, but before he could react, Lily did. With a cry of outrage, she pushed an astonished Sully into the shrubbery, toppling him all the way over.
“Lillian Andrews!” came the voice of doom from halfway across the yard.
They froze. Even Sully paused in the act of getting up. Miss Kwan, their Head of Year, was storming over to them, her scariest frown burnt into her face like a scar.
“They started it, Miss,” Lily said, already defending herself.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Miss Kwan said. “Are you all right, Sullivan?”
Sully shot a quick glance at Lily, then got a pained look across his face. “I don’t know, Miss,” he said. “I might need to go home.”
“Don’t milk it,” Miss Kwan said. “To my office, Lillian.”
“But Miss, they were–”
“Now, Lillian.”
“They were making fun of Conor’s mother!”
This made everyone freeze again, and the burning sun in Conor’s stomach grew hotter, ready to eat him alive.
(–and in his mind, he felt a flash of the nightmare, of the howling wind, of the burning blackness–)
He pushed it away.
“Is this true, Conor?” Miss Kwan asked, her face as serious as a sermon.
The blood on Conor’s tongue made him want to throw up. He looked over to Harry and his cronies. Anton and Sully seemed worried, but Harry just stared back at him, unruffled and calm, like he was genuinely curious as to what Conor might say.
“No, Miss, it’s not true,” Conor said, swallowing the blood. “I just fell. They were helping me up.”
Lily’s face turned instantly into hurt surprise. Her mouth dropped open, but she made no sound.
“Get to your Forms,” Miss Kwan said. “Except for you, Lillian.”
Lily kept looking back at Conor as Miss Kwan pulled her away, but Conor turned from her.
To find Harry holding his rucksack out for him.
“Well done, O’Malley,” Harry said.
Conor said nothing, just took the bag from him roughly and made his way inside.
THREE STORIES
He lay in his bed that night, wide awake, watching the clock on his bedside table.
It had been the slowest evening imaginable. Cooking frozen lasagne had tired his mum out so badly she fell asleep five minutes into EastEnders. Conor hated the programme but he made sure it recorded for her, then he spread a duvet over her and went and did the dishes.
His mum’s mobile had gone off once, not waking her. Conor saw it was Lily’s mum calling and let it go to voicemail. He did his schoolwork at the kitchen table, stopping before he got to Mrs Marl’s Life Writing homework, then he played around on the internet for a while in his room before brushing his teeth and seeing himself to bed. He’d barely turned out the light when his mum had very apologetically – and very groggily – come in to kiss him good night.
A few minutes later, he’d heard her in the bathroom, throwing up.
“Do you need any help?” he’d called from his bed.
“No, sweetheart,” his mum called back, weakly. “I’m kind of used to it by now.”
That was the thing. Conor was used to it, too. It was always the second and third days after the treatments that were the worst, always the days when she was the most tired, when she threw up the most. It had almost become normal.
After a while, the throwing up had stopped. He’d heard the bathroom light click off and her bedroom door shut.
That was two hours ago. He’d lain awake since then, waiting.
But for what?
His bedside clock read 12.05. Then it read 12.06. He looked over to his bedroom window, shut tight even though the night was still warm. His clock ticked over to 12.07.
He got up, went over to the window and looked out.
The monster stood in his garden, looking right back at him.
Open up, the monster said, its voice as clear as if the window wasn’t between them. I want to talk to you.
“Yeah, sure,” Conor said, keeping his voice low. “Because that’s what monsters always want. To talk.”
The monster smiled. It was a ghastly sight. If I must force my way in, it said, I will do so happily.
It raised a gnarled woody fist to punch through the wall of Conor’s bedroom.
“No!” Conor said. “I don’t want you to wake my mum.”
Then come outside, the monster said, and even in his room, Conor’s nose filled with the moist smell of earth and wood and sap.
“What do you want from me?” Conor said.
The monster pressed its face close to the window.
It is not what I want from you, Conor O’Malley, it said. It is what you want from me.
“I don’t want anything from you,” Conor said.
Not yet, said the monster. But you will.
“It’s only a dream,” Conor said to himself in the back garden, looking up at the monster silhouetted against the moon in the night sky. He folded his arms tightly against his body, not because it was cold, but because he couldn’t actually believe he’d tiptoed down the stairs, unlocked the back door and come outside.
He still felt calm. Which was weird. This nightmare – because it was surely a nightmare, of course it was – was so different from the other nightmare.
No terror, no panic, no darkness, for one thing.
And yet here was a monster, clear as the clearest night, towering ten or fifteen metres above him, breathing heavily in the night air.
“It’s only a dream,” he said again.
But what is a dream, Conor O’Malley? the monster said, bending down so its face was close to Conor’s. Who is to say that it is not everything else that is the dream?
Every time the monster moved, Conor could hear the creak of wood, groaning and yawning in the monster’s huge body. He could see, too, the power in the monster’s arms, great wiry ropes of branches constantly twisting and shifting together in what must have been tree muscle, connected to a massive trunk of a chest, topped by a head and teeth that could chomp him down in one bite.
“What are you?” Conor asked, pulling his arms closer around himself.
I am not a “what”, frowned the monster. I am a “who”.
“Who are you, then?” Conor said.
The monster’s eyes widened. Who am I? it said, its voice getting louder. Who am I?
The monster seemed to grow before Conor’s eyes, getting taller and broader. A sudden, hard wind swirled up around them, and the monster spread its arms out wide, so wide they seemed to reach to opposite horizons, so wide they seemed big enough to encompass the world.
I have had as many names as there are years to time itself! roared the monster. I am Herne the Hunter! I am Cernunnos! I am the eternal Green Man!
A great arm swung down and snatched Conor up in it, lifting him high in the air, the wind whirling around them, making the monster’s leafy skin wave angrily.
Who am I? the monster repeated, still roaring. I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that breathe the wind! I am the wolf that kills the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the butterfly! I am the stag, the mouse, and the butterfly that are eaten! I am the snake of the world devouring its tail! I am everything untamed and untameable! It brought Conor up close to its eye. I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.
“You look like a tree,” Conor said.
The monster squeezed him until he cried out.
I do not often come walking, boy, the monster said, only for matters of life and death. I expect to be listened to.
The monster loosened its grip and Conor could breathe again. “So what do you want with me?” Conor asked.
The monster gave an evil grin. The wind died down and a quiet fell. At last, said the monster. To the matter at hand. The reason I have come walking.
Conor tensed, suddenly dreading what was coming.

Here is what will happen, Conor O’Malley, the monster continued, I will come to you again on further nights.
Conor tensed, suddenly dreading what was coming.
Here is what will happen, Conor O’Malley, the monster continued, I will come to you again on further nights.
Conor felt his stomach clench, like he was preparing for a blow.
And I will tell you three stories. Three tales from when I walked before.
Conor blinked. Then blinked again. “You’re going to tell me stories?”
Indeed, the monster said.
“Well–” Conor looked around in disbelief. “How is that a nightmare?”
Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt.
“That’s what teachers always say,” Conor said. “No one believes them either.”
And when I have finished my three stories, the monster said, as if Conor hadn’t spoken, you will tell me a fourth.
Conor squirmed in the monster’s hand. “I’m no good at stories.”
You will tell me a fourth, the monster repeated, and it will be the truth.
“The truth?”
Not just any truth. Your truth.
“O-kay,” Conor said, “but you said I’d be scared before the end of all this, and that doesn’t sound scary at all.”
You know that is not true, the monster said. You know that your truth, the one that you hide, Conor O’Malley, is the thing you are most afraid of.
Conor stopped squirming.
It couldn’t mean–
There was no way it could mean–
There was no way it could know that.
No. No. He was never going to say what happened in the real nightmare. Never in a million years.
You will tell it, the monster said. For this is why you called me.
Conor grew even more confused. “Called you? I didn’t call you–”
You will tell me the fourth tale. You will tell me the truth.
“And what if I don’t?” Conor said.
The monster gave the evil grin again. Then I will eat you alive.
And its mouth opened impossibly wide, wide enough to eat the whole world, wide enough to make Conor disappear forever–
He sat up in bed with a shout.
His bed. He was back in his bed.
Of course it was a dream. Of course it was. Again.
You thought I might be here to help you, the monster said.
Conor stopped.
You thought I might have come to topple your enemies. Slay your dragons.
Conor still didn’t look back. But he didn’t go inside either.
You felt the truth of it when I said that you had called for me, that you were the reason I had come walking. Did you not?
Conor turned round. “But all you want to do is tell me stories,” he said, and he couldn’t keep the disappointment out of his voice, because it was true. He had thought that. He’d hoped that.
The monster knelt down so its face was close to Conor’s. Stories of how I toppled enemies, it said. Stories of how I slew dragons.
Conor blinked back at the monster’s gaze.
Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?
In A Monster Calls, there is a frame and there are three stories within the story, told by the titular monster, a sentient humanoid yew tree (who looks at least a bit like Groot). These are tales in which morality is eschewed, and which are meant for asking deep philosophical questions.
The stories do encourage to reflect on the nature of morality and selfishness, they pose questions more than giving answers.


  • Deconstructed Trope: Of happy endings, for the three stories. Conor thinks each story will work out fine. Instead, the characters get exactly what they deserve, even if they're a murderer or just plain nasty.
  • Exact Words: The monster describes the stories before telling them. When, at the twist, Conor claims he's been cheated, the monster repeats the description, that it's technically correct.
  • Humans Are Flawed: One of the main themes of the book, and particularly of the first story.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Harry manages to strike a nerve in Conor and is in turn beaten down horrifically by the Monster. But it is later said that Conor himself was the one who beat down Harry.

Yew=you, at once toxic and healing, like the power of stories themselves. Yew can be left with any afterthought after reading these three stories... Here are my own musings:

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THE TALE OF THE WITCH-QUEEN

The story:


Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?
Let me tell you a story of when I went walking, the monster said. Let me tell you of the end of a wicked queen and how I made sure she was never seen again.
THE FIRST TALE


Long ago, before this was a town with roads and trains and cars, it was a green place. Trees covered every hill and bordered every path. They shaded every stream and protected every house, for there were houses here even then, made of stone and earth.
This was a kingdom.
Nevertheless, it was a kingdom, small but happy, for the king was a just king, a man whose wisdom was born out of hardship. His wife had given birth to four strong sons, but in the king’s reign, he had been forced to ride into battles to preserve the peace of his kingdom. Battles against dragons, battles against black direwolves with red eyes, battles against armies of men led by great wizards, or by great warlords armed with more advanced weaponry.

These battles secured the kingdom’s borders and brought peace to the land. But victory came at a price. One by one, the king’s four sons were killed. By the fire of a dragon or the teeth of a werewolf or the spear of a pikeman. Or a crossbow bolt. One by one, all four princes of the kingdom fell, leaving the king only one heir. His infant grandson.

(You would not say that it is fairytale-ish you heard the screams of a man killed by a spear. Or his cries of terror as he was torn to pieces by wolves. Now be quiet.)


By and by, the king’s wife succumbed to grief, as did the mother of the young prince. The king was left with only the child for company, along with more sadness than one man should bear alone.
“I must remarry,” the king decided. “For the good of my prince and of my kingdom, if not for myself.”
And remarry he did, to a princess from a neighbouring kingdom, a practical union that made both kingdoms stronger. She was young and fair, and though perhaps her face was a bit hard and her tongue a bit sharp, she seemed to make the king happy.
Time passed. The young prince grew until he was nearly a man, coming within two years of the eighteenth birthday that would allow him to ascend to the throne on the old king’s death. These were happy days for the kingdom. The battles were over, and the future seemed secure in the hands of the brave young prince.
But one day the king grew ill. Rumour began to spread that he was being poisoned by his new wife. Stories circulated that she had conjured grave magicks to make herself look far younger than she actually was and that beneath her youthful face lurked the scowl of an elderly hag. No one would have put it past her to poison the king, though he begged his subjects until his dying breath not to blame her.
And so he died, with still a year left before his grandson was old enough to take the throne. The queen, his step-grandmother, became regent in his place, and would handle all affairs of state until the prince was old enough to take over.
At first, to the surprise of many, her reign was a good one. Her countenance – despite the rumours – was still youthful and pleasing, and she endeavoured to carry on ruling in the manner of the dead king.
The prince, meanwhile, had fallen in love.
The prince had fallen in love. She was only a farmers' daughter, but she was beautiful, and also smart, as the daughters of farmers need to be, for farms are complicated businesses. The kingdom smiled on the match.
The queen, however, did not. She had enjoyed her time as regent and felt a strange reluctance to give it up. She began to think that perhaps it was best that the crown remained in the family, that the kingdom be run by those wise enough to do it, and what could be a better solution than for the prince to actually marry her?
The prince also thought marrying the queen was wrong. He said he would die before doing any such thing. He vowed to run away with the beautiful maiden and return on his eighteenth birthday to free his people from the tyranny of the queen. And so one night, the prince and the farm girl raced away on horseback, stopping only at dawn to sleep in the shade of a giant yew tree.
The prince and the maiden held each other close in the growing dawn. They had vowed to be chaste until they were able to marry in the next kingdom, but their passions got the better of them, and it was not long before they were asleep and naked in each other’s arms.
They slept through the day in the shadows of my branches and night fell once again. The prince woke. “Arise, my beloved,” he whispered to the farmers' daughter, “for we ride to the day where we will be man and wife.”
But his beloved did not wake. He shook her, and it was only as she slumped back in the moonlight that he noticed the blood staining the ground.
The prince also had blood covering his own hands, and he saw a bloodied knife on the grass beside them, resting against the roots of the tree. Someone had murdered his beloved and done so in a way that made it look like the prince had committed the crime.
“The queen!” cried the prince. “The queen is responsible for this treachery!”
In the distance, he could hear villagers approaching. If they found him, they would see the knife and the blood, and they would call him murderer. They would put him to death for his crime.
There was nowhere for the prince to run. His horse had been chased away while he slept. The yew tree was his only shelter.
And also the only place he could turn for help.
Now, the world was younger then. The barrier between things was thinner, easier to pass through. The prince knew this. And he lifted his head to the great yew tree and he spoke.
(He said enough to bring me walking, the monster said. I know injustice when I see it.)
The prince ran towards the approaching villagers. “The queen has murdered my bride!” he shouted. “The queen must be stopped!”
The rumours of the queen’s witchery had been circulating long enough and the young prince was so beloved of the people that it took very little for them to see the obvious truth. It took even less time when they saw the great Green Man walking behind him, high as the hills, coming for vengeance.
The subjects stormed the queen’s castle with such fury that the stones of its very walls tumbled. Fortifications fell and ceilings collapsed and when the queen was found in her chambers, the mob seized her and dragged her to the stake right then to burn her alive.
The story, however, is not yet finished.
THE REST OF THE FIRST TALE
“It’s not? But the queen was overthrown.”
She was, said the monster. But not by me.
“You said you made sure she was never seen again.”
And so I did. When the villagers lit the flames on the stake to burn her alive, I reached in and saved her.
I took her and carried her far enough away so that the villagers would never find her, far beyond even the kingdom of her birth, to a village by the sea. And there I left her, to live in peace.
Conor got to his feet, his voice rising in disbelief. “But she murdered the farmers' daughter! How could you possibly save a murderer?” Then his face dropped and he took a step back. “You really are a monster.”
I never said she killed the farmers' daughter, the monster said. I only said that the prince said it was so.
Conor blinked. Then he crossed his arms. “So who killed her then?”
The monster opened its huge hands in a certain way, and a breeze blew up, bringing a mist with it. Conor’s house was still behind him, but the mist covered his back garden, replacing it with a field with a giant yew in the centre and a man and a woman sleeping at its base.
After their coupling, said the monster, the prince remained awake.
Conor watched as the young prince rose and looked down at the sleeping farm girl, who even Conor could see was a beauty. The prince watched her for a moment, then wrapped a blanket around himself and went to their horse, tied to one of the yew tree’s branches. The prince retrieved something from the saddlebag, then untied the horse, slapping it hard on the hindquarters to send it running off. The prince held up what he’d taken out of the bag.
A knife, shining in the moonlight.
The monster closed its hands and the mist descended again as the prince approached the sleeping maiden, his knife at the ready.
“You said he was surprised when she didn’t wake up!” Conor said.
After he killed the farmers' daughter, said the monster, the prince lay down next to her and returned to sleep. When he awoke, he acted out a pantomime should anyone be watching. But also, it may surprise you to learn, for himself. The monster’s branches creaked. Sometimes people need to lie to themselves most of all.
“You said he asked for your help! And that you gave it!”
I only said he told me enough to make me come walking.
He had done it for the good of the kingdom. That the new queen was in fact a witch, that his grandfather had suspected it to be true when he married her, but that he had overlooked it because of her beauty. The prince couldn’t topple a powerful witch on his own. He needed the fury of the villagers to help him. The death of the farm girl saw to that.
He was sorry to do it, heartbroken, he said, but as his own father had died in defence of the kingdom, so did his fair maiden. Her death was serving to overthrow a great evil. When he said that the queen had murdered his bride, he believed, in his own way, that it was actually true.


“He didn’t need to kill her. The people were behind him. They would have followed him anyway.”
The justifications of men who kill should always be heard with scepticism, said the monster. And so the injustice that I saw, the reason that I came walking, was for the queen, not the prince.
“Did he ever get caught? Did they punish him?”
He became a much beloved king, who ruled happily until the end of his long days. 
“So the good prince was a murderer and the evil queen wasn’t a witch after all. Is that supposed to be the lesson of all this? That I should be nice to her (Grandmother)?”
You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons? the monster said. You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?
No, no. The queen most certainly was a witch and could very well have been on her way to great evil. Who’s to say? She was trying to hold on to power, after all. She was not a murderer.
It is a true story. Many things that are true feel like a cheat. Kingdoms get the princes they deserve, farm daughters die for no reason, and sometimes witches merit saving. Quite often, actually. You’d be surprised.
LONG STORY SHORT:
In a medieval fantasy realm, a retired warrior king who had rid the realm of monsters and villains (dragons, wizards, direwolves, enemy armies) when he was young and strong decades ago is left alone with an orphan grandson of but a couple of years old, after all the young men of the royal house have been slain in battle and all its women have succumbed to grief.
He decides to remarry and chooses another royal bride, who is actually a witch crone who uses potions to maintain the appearance of youth.
Also, a yew grows in the palace gardens.
Then, suddenly, the old king dies ostensibly of an illness, leaving his second wife as regent... and a series of whispers among the subjects that she had poisoned her husband using yew berries.
In due time, the prince is a gallant warrior about to come of age and betroths himself to a farm girl, with whom he appears to have fallen in love. The commoners praise the marriage, but the step-grandmother regent is against it, and she proposes to the crown prince so she can be his queen consort. Of course the young man spurns his step-grandmother as a prospective bride.
Then, one day, the prince and his peasant fiancée elope to marry in another land and live under assumed names until the death of the regent, at which point the young couple will return home as king and queen. They go to sleep under the stars, their horse tied to a tree trunk, and when the prince awakens he finds his bride's throat slit, a dagger by his side... and his own hands and doublet stained with blood.
Returning to the realm, he rallies the people to arms against the wicked witch-queen who had killed his fiancée in the dark of the night and made it appear that he had been the real culprit. The commoners storm the castle and tie the regent to a stake to burn her for sorcery.
However, right then, the yew tree comes alive as a monster and swoops down to whisk the queen away --right as she was to be executed-- to a coastal village in another land, where she lives the rest of her life in peace under an assumed name.
The prince, however, becomes a much beloved king, who rules happily until the end of his long days.
The truth is that the prince was the real culprit: he wanted to claim the throne from his step-grandmother, whom he saw as an intruder; he slit his own fiancée's throat (and presumably seduced/cajoled her right from the start) to scapegoat the queen for a beloved commoner's death and rally the people to his side, for he could not overthrow his guardian on his own.
He had done it for the good of the kingdom. That the new queen was in fact a witch, that his grandfather had suspected it to be true when he married her, but that he had overlooked it because of her beauty. The prince couldn’t topple a powerful witch on his own. He needed the fury of the villagers to help him. The death of the farm girl saw to that.
He was sorry to do it, heartbroken, he said, but as his own father had died in defence of the kingdom, so did his fair maiden. Her death was serving to overthrow a great evil. When he said that the queen had murdered his bride, he believed, in his own way, that it was actually true.
The questions raised:
He is a prince, but is he a good prince or a wicked prince?
She is a witch, but is she a good witch or a wicked witch?
She is a witch, as seen when she preserves her youth, but not a murderer --the rumour of poisoning her husband is never confirmed.
No, no. The queen most certainly was a witch and could very well have been on her way to great evil. Who’s to say? She was trying to hold on to power, after all. She was not a murderer.
Right and wrong are in the eye of the beholder, "good" and "wicked" being facetious labels. Most people are a mixture of the two, like the queen and the prince here.
It is a true story. Many things that are true feel like a cheat. Kingdoms get the princes they deserve, farm daughters die for no reason, and sometimes witches merit saving. Quite often, actually. You’d be surprised.

This is a monster that wants to help humans, even if it sometimes does so in a really weird way. For this guy, it's always opposite day in storytelling land, and his fables' morals often throw our poor Conor for a loop.
Take, for example, the first story. After the monster tells Conor that it chose to save the queeny witch (or is it witchy queen?), Conor is straight up flabbergasted. When he asks the monster how it could save a murderer, the monster says, "I never said she killed the farmers' daughter. I only said that the prince said it was so" (9.8). And get this: the monster also lets the prince, who's the real murderer in this scenario, go on ruling his kingdom.
What's up with all this nonsense? What happened to the black hats getting their just desserts, and the white knights riding off into the sunset?
  • The Bad Guy Wins: In-universe, the prince murders his girlfriend to stir a riot from the people, frames his stepmother queen for the murder, and successfully overthrows her.
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THE TALE OF THE VICAR

The story:


It is about a man who thought only of himself. And he gets punished very, very badly indeed.
THE SECOND TALE
One hundred and fifty years ago, this country had become a place of industry. Factories grew on the landscape like weeds. Trees fell, fields were up-ended, rivers blackened. The sky choked on smoke and ash, and the people did, too, spending their days coughing and itching, their eyes turned forever towards the ground. Villages grew into towns, towns into cities. And people began to live on the earth rather than within it.
But there was still green, if you knew where to look.
On a field of green, overlooking a valley of metal and brick.
Along the edge of this green lived a man. His name is not important, as no one ever used it. The villagers only ever called him the Apothecary.
Apothecary was an old-fashioned name, even then, for a chemist.
But the name was well-earned, because apothecaries were ancient, dealing in the old ways of medicine, too. Of herbs and barks, of concoctions brewed from berries and leaves.
Many a day the Apothecary went walking to collect the herbs and leaves of the surrounding green. But as the years passed, his walks became longer and longer as the factories and roads sprawled out of town like one of the rashes he was so effective in treating. Where he used to be able to collect paxsfoil and bella rosa before morning tea, it began to take him the entire day.
The world was changing, and the Apothecary grew bitter. Or rather, more bitter, for he had always been an unpleasant man. He was greedy and charged too much for his cures, often taking more than the patient could afford to pay. Nevertheless, he was surprised at how unloved he was by the villagers, thinking they should treat him with far more respect. And because his attitude was poor, their attitude towards him was also poor, until, as time went on, his patients began seeking other, more modern remedies from other, more modern healers. Which only, of course, made the Apothecary even more bitter.
(The mist surrounded them again and the scene changed. They were now standing on a lawn atop a small hillock. A parsonage sat to one side and a great yew tree stood in the middle of a few new headstones.)
In the Apothecary’s village there also lived a parson–
(“This is the hill behind my house,” Conor interrupted. He looked around, but there was no railway line yet, no rows of houses, just a few footpaths and a mucky riverbed.)
The parson had a wife and two daughters, who were the light of his life.
(Two young girls came screaming out of the parsonage, giggling and laughing and trying to hit each other with handfuls of grass. They ran around the trunk of the yew tree, hiding from one another.)
Yes, fine, on the parsonage grounds, there also grew a yew tree.
(And a very handsome yew tree it was, said the monster.)
Now, the Apothecary wanted the yew tree very badly.
(The yew tree is the most important of all the healing trees. It lives for thousands of years. Its berries, its bark, its leaves, its sap, its pulp, its wood, they all thrum and burn and twist with life. It can cure almost any ailment man and woman suffer from, mixed and treated by the right apothecary.)
In order to harvest these things from the tree, the Apothecary would have had to cut it down. And this the parson would not allow. The yew had stood on this ground long before it was set aside for the church. A graveyard was already starting to be used and a new church building was in the planning stages. The yew would protect the church from the heavy rains and the harshest weather, and the parson – no matter how often the Apothecary asked, for he did ask very often – would not allow the Apothecary anywhere near the tree.
Now, the parson was an enlightened man, and a kind one. He wanted the very best for his congregation, to take them out of the dark ages of superstition and witchery. He preached against the Apothecary’s use of the old ways, and the Apothecary’s foul temper and greed made certain these sermons fell on eager ears. His business shrank even further.
But then one day, the parson’s daughters fell sick. First the one, and then the other, with an infection that swept the countryside.
(The sky darkened, and Conor could hear the coughing of the daughters within the parsonage, could also hear the loud praying of the parson and the tears of the parson’s wife.)
Nothing the parson did helped. No prayer, no cure from the modern doctor two towns over, no remedies of the field offered shyly and secretly by his parishioners. Nothing. The daughters wasted away and approached death. Finally, there was no other option but to approach the Apothecary. The parson swallowed his pride and went to beg the Apothecary’s forgiveness.
“Won’t you help my daughters?” the parson asked, down on his knees at the Apothecary’s front door. “If not for me, then for my two innocent girls.”
“Why should I?” the Apothecary asked. “You have driven away my business with your preachings. You have refused me the yew tree, my best source of healing. You have turned this village against me.”
“You may have the yew tree,” the parson said. “I will preach sermons in your favour. I will send my parishioners to you for their every ailment. You may have anything you like, if you would only save my daughters.”
The Apothecary was surprised. “You would give up everything you believed in?”
“If it would save my daughters,” the parson said. “I’d give up everything.”
“Then,” the Apothecary said, shutting his door on the parson, “there is nothing I can do to help you.”
That very night, both of the parson’s daughters died.
(“What?” Conor said again, the nightmare feeling taking hold of his guts.)
And that very night, I came walking.
(“Good!” Conor shouted. “That stupid git deserves all the punishment he gets.”)
(I thought so, too, said the monster.)
It was shortly after midnight that I tore the parson’s home from its very foundations.
THE REST OF THE SECOND TALE
Conor whirled round. “The parson?”
Yes, said the monster. I flung his roof into the dell below and knocked down every wall of his house with my fists.
The parson’s house was still before them, and Conor saw the yew tree next to it awaken into the monster and set ferociously on the parsonage. With the first blow to the roof, the front door flew open, and the parson and his wife fled in terror. The monster in the scene threw their roof after them, barely missing them as they ran.
“What are you doing?” Conor said. “The Apotho-whatever is the bad guy!”
Is he? asked the real monster behind him.
There was a crash as the second monster knocked down the parsonage’s front wall.
“Of course he is!” Conor shouted. “He refused to help heal the parson’s daughters! And they died!”
The parson refused to believe the Apothecary could help. When times were easy, the parson nearly destroyed the Apothecary, but when the going grew tough, he was willing to throw aside every belief if it would save his daughters.
“So?” Conor said. “So would anyone! So would everyone! What did you expect him to do?”
I expected him to give the Apothecary the yew tree when the Apothecary first asked.
This stopped Conor. There were further crashes from the parsonage as another wall fell. “You’d have let yourself be killed?”
I am far more than just one tree, but yes, I would have let the yew tree be chopped down. It would have saved the parson’s daughters. And many, many others besides.
“But it would have killed the tree and made him rich!” Conor yelled. “He was evil!”
He was greedy and rude and bitter, but he was still a healer. The parson, though, what was he? He was nothing. Belief is half of all healing. Belief in the cure, belief in the future that awaits. And here was a man who lived on belief, but who sacrificed it at the first challenge, right when he needed it most. He believed selfishly and fearfully. And it took the lives of his daughters, and nearly his wife's and his own.
Conor grew angrier. “You said this was a story without tricks.”
I said this was the story of a man punished for his selfishness. And so it is.
LONG STORY SHORT:
It's the Victorian era in the UK; factories, towns, and railroads engulfing the whole isle... but still there is greenery here and there, if yew know where to look.
In the same village dwell an apothecary, or herbalist, a bitter curmudgeon whose traditional trade is running down due to the rise of science and the loss of nature, and thus, raising the price of his remedies (giving him a reason to be bitter)... and a young fire-and-brimstone preacher with his wife and twin daughters, and this vicar breathes especially a lot of fire upon the herbalist's "sorcery/superstition," being, in spite of a clergyman, also an enlightened child of his times (positivism, Comte, Darwin...).
Also, a yew grows in the vicarage gardens.
The yew is toxic, but, in the right hands, it can yield many a drug and remedy.
The apothecary asks the Reverend for permission to fell the yew tree, but the clergyman stubbornly denies.
However, soon an epidemic swoops across the region, targeting especially the most vulnerable and leaving the few children who survive bedridden and in a pitiable state... including the vicar's daughters. Only a yew-based drug can save the few survivors, Victorian scientific medicine being unable to save them.
So the Reverend goes to the herbalist's cottage and knocks on his door to ask for forgiveness and a way to save his little girls. The apothecary, however, will not help the clergyman for denying him to fell the yew and driving his customers away.
The desperate vicar pleads that he will bring the flock back to the herbalist's side, anything for the children's sake... "I will give you anything you ask for!"
"Even your beliefs?"
"Even my beliefs," the Reverend replies. "Anything to save my girls."
But the apothecary coldly slams the door right in his face.
That night, the daughters of the vicar and his wife die of the epidemic. The yew tree comes to life as a monster and uproots the vicarage, husband and wife and all, from the ground --presumably destroying them.
The questions raised:
Why would the monster do such a thing?
The clergyman doubted/condemned the herbalist when times were easy, but was ready to sacrifice his beliefs in the hour of need.
The monster would have been killed when the yew tree was cut down, but a lot of childrens' lives would be saved in exchange.
Can a person be unpopular and still do/say what is right?
Can a person be popular and still do/say what is wrong?
Are, in this case, "right" and "wrong" still facetious labels?

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THE TALE OF THE INVISIBLE BOY

This is a pretty short story. No one pays attention to an invisible boy, he has no friends, no one to trust... so he simply asks the yew monster to make him visible, because he wanted to make people see him... so he called upon a monster. The yew monster in the framing story.
At this point upon telling the last story, the yew monster possesses Connor, the boy he was telling the tales, making him vent his frustrations upon the popular, blond school bully Harry who regularly beat him up through physical aggression, and was harassing Connor right then.
This story within the story entwines with the frame because Connor is the invisible boy in the tale.
In the end, coming to from his fit of rage, he is visible, but his reputation is in tatters and he deeply regrets having hurt another person (he broke Harry's nose and left arm; he was made visible when punished by the Headmistress -- and is nearly expelled from school:

Please, Conor thought as he stared at his still full lunch tray. Please.
Two hands slapped down hard on either side of the tray from across the table, knocking Conor’s orange juice into his lap.
Conor stood up, though not quickly enough. His trousers were soaked in liquid, dripping down his legs.
“O’Malley’s wet himself!” Sully was already shouting, with Anton cracking up beside him.
“Here!” Anton said, flicking some of the puddle from the table at Conor. “You missed some!”
Harry stood between Anton and Sully, as ever, his arms crossed, staring.
Conor stared back.
Neither of them moved for so long that Sully and Anton quieted down. They started to look uncomfortable as the staring contest continued, wondering what Harry was going to do next.
Conor wondered, too.
“I think I’ve worked you out, O’Malley,” Harry finally said. “I think I know what it is you’re asking for.”
“You’re gonna get it now,” Sully said. He and Anton laughed, bumping fists.
Conor couldn’t see any teachers out of the corner of his eye, so he knew Harry had chosen a moment when they could bother him unseen.
Conor was on his own.
Harry stepped forward, still calmly.
“Here is the hardest hit of all, O’Malley,” Harry said. “Here is the very worst thing I can do to you.”
He held out his hand, as if asking for a handshake.
He was asking for a handshake.
Conor responded almost automatically, putting out his own hand and shaking Harry’s before he even thought about what he was doing. They shook hands like two businessmen at the end of a meeting.
“Goodbye, O’Malley,” Harry said, looking into Conor’s eyes. “I no longer see you.”
Then he let go of Conor’s hand, turned his back, and walked away. Anton and Sully looked even more confused, but after a second, they walked away, too.
None of them looked back at Conor.
There was a huge digital clock on the wall of the dining hall, bought sometime in the seventies as the latest in technology and never replaced, even though it was older than Conor’s mum. As Conor watched Harry walk away, walk away without looking back, walk away without doing anything, Harry moved past the digital clock.
Lunch started at 11.55 and ended at 12.40.
The clock currently read 12.06.
Harry’s words echoed in Conor’s head.
“I no longer see you.”
Harry kept walking away, keeping good on his promise.
“I no longer see you.”
The clock ticked over to 12.07.
It is time for the third tale, the monster said from behind him.
THE THIRD TALE
There was once an invisible man, the monster continued, though Conor kept his eyes firmly on Harry, who had grown tired of being unseen.
Conor set himself into a walk.
A walk after Harry.
It was not that he was actually invisible, the monster said, following Conor, the room volume dropping as they passed. It was that people had become used to not seeing him.
“Hey!” Conor called. Harry didn’t turn round. Neither did Sully nor Anton, though they were still sniggering as Conor picked up his pace.
And if no one sees you, the monster said, picking up its pace, too, are you really there at all?
“HEY!” Conor called loudly.
The dining hall had fallen silent now, as Conor and the monster moved faster after Harry.
Harry who had still not turned around.
Conor reached him and grabbed him by the shoulder, twisting him round. Harry pretended to question what had happened, looking hard at Sully, acting like he was the one who’d done it. “Quit messing about,” Harry said and turned away again.
Turned away from Conor.
And then one day the invisible man decided, the monster said, its voice ringing in Conor’s ears, I will make them see me.
“How?” Conor asked, breathing heavily again, not turning back to see the monster standing there, not looking at the reaction of the room to the huge monster now in their midst, though he was aware of nervous murmurs and a strange anticipation in the air. “How did the man do it?”
Conor could feel the monster close behind him, knew that it was kneeling, knew that it was putting its face up to his ear to whisper into it, to tell him the rest of the story.
He called, it said, for a monster.
And it reached a huge, monstrous hand past Conor and knocked Harry flying across the floor.
Trays clattered and people screamed as Harry tumbled past them. Anton and Sully looked aghast, first at Harry, then back at Conor.
Their faces changed as they saw him. Conor took another step towards them, feeling the monster towering behind him.
Anton and Sully turned and ran.
“What do you think you’re playing at, O’Malley?” Harry said as he pulled himself up from the floor, holding his forehead where he’d hit it as he fell. He took his hand away and a few people screamed as they saw blood.
Conor kept moving forward, people scrambling to get out of his way. The monster came with him, matching him step for step.
“You don’t see me?” Conor shouted as he came. “You don’t see me?”
“No, O’Malley!” Harry shouted back as he stood. “No, I don’t. No one here does!”
Conor stopped and looked around slowly. The whole room was watching them now, waiting to see what would happen.
Except when Conor turned to face them. Then they looked away, like it was too embarrassing or painful to actually look at him directly. Only Lily held his eyes for longer than a second, her face anxious and hurt.
“You think this scares me, O’Malley?” Harry said, touching the blood on his forehead. “You think I’m ever going to be afraid of you?”
Conor said nothing, just started moving forward again.
Harry took a step back.
“Conor O’Malley,” he said, his voice growing poisonous now. “Who everyone’s sorry for because of his mum. Who swans around school acting like he’s so different, like no one knows his suffering.”
Conor kept walking. He was almost there.
“Conor O’Malley who wants to be punished,” Harry said, still stepping back, his eyes on Conor’s. “Conor O’Malley who needs to be punished. And why is that, Conor O’Malley? What secrets do you hide that are so terrible?”
“You shut up,” Conor said.
And he heard the monster’s voice say it with him.
Harry backed up another step until he was against a window. It felt like the whole school was holding its breath, waiting to see what Conor would do. He could hear a teacher or two calling from outside, finally noticing something was going on.
“But do you know what I see when I look at you, O’Malley?” Harry said.
Conor clenched his hands into fists.
Harry leaned forward, his eyes flashing. “I see nothing,” he said.
Without turning around, Conor asked the monster a question.
“What did you do to help the invisible man?”
And he felt the monster’s voice again, like it was in his own head.
I made them see, it said.
Conor clenched his fists even tighter.
Then the monster leapt forward to make Harry see.
PUNISHMENT
“I don’t even know what to say.” The Headmistress made an exasperated sound and shook her head. “What can I possibly say to you, Conor?”
Conor kept his eyes on the carpet, which was the colour of spilled wine. Miss Kwan was there, too, sitting behind him, as if he might try to escape. He sensed rather than saw the Headmistress lean forward. She was older than Miss Kwan. And somehow twice as scary.
“You put him in hospital, Conor,” she said. “You broke his arm, his nose, and I’ll bet his teeth are never going to look that pretty again. His parents are threatening to sue the school and file charges against you.”
Conor looked up at that.
“They were a little hysterical, Conor,” Miss Kwan said behind him, “and I don’t blame them. I explained what’s been going on, though. That he had been regularly bullying you and that your circumstances were … special.”
Conor winced at the word.
“It was actually the bullying part that scared them off,” Miss Kwan said, scorn in her voice. “Doesn’t look good to prospective universities these days, apparently, accusations of bullying.”
“But that’s not the point!” the Headmistress said, so loud she made both Conor and Miss Kwan jump. “I can’t even make sense of what actually happened.” She looked at some papers on her desk, reports from teachers and other students, Conor guessed. “I’m not even sure how one boy could have caused so much damage by himself.”
Conor had felt what the monster was doing to Harry, felt it in his own hands. When the monster gripped Harry’s shirt, Conor felt the material against his own palms. When the monster struck a blow, Conor felt the sting of it in his own fist. When the monster held Harry’s arm behind his back, Conor had felt Harry’s muscles resisting.
Resisting, but not winning.
Because how could a boy beat a monster?
He remembered all the screaming and running. He remembered the other kids fleeing to get teachers. He remembered the circle around him opening wider and wider as the monster told the story of all that he’d done for the invisible man.
Never invisible again, the monster kept saying as he pummelled Harry. Never invisible again.
There came a point when Harry stopped trying to fight back, when the blows from the monster were too strong, too many, too fast, when he began begging the monster to stop.
Never invisible again, the monster said, finally letting up, its huge branch-like fists curled tight as a clap of thunder.
It turned to Conor.
But there are harder things than being invisible, it said.
And it vanished, leaving Conor standing alone over the shivering, bleeding Harry.
Everyone in the dining hall was staring at Conor now. Everyone could see him, all eyes looking his way. There was silence in the room, too much silence for so many kids, and for a moment, before the teachers broke it up – where had they been? Had the monster kept them from seeing? Or had it really been so short an amount of time? – you could hear the wind rushing in an open window, a wind that dropped a few small, spiky leaves to the floor.
Then there were adult hands on Conor, dragging him away.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” the Headmistress asked.
Conor shrugged.
“I’m going to need more than that,” she said. “You seriously hurt him.”
“It wasn’t me,” Conor mumbled.
“What was that?” she said sharply.
“It wasn’t me,” Conor said, more clearly. “It was the monster who did it.”
“The monster,” the Headmistress said.
“I didn’t even touch Harry.”
The Headmistress made a wedge shape with her fingertips and placed her elbows on her desk. She glanced at Miss Kwan.
“An entire dining hall saw you hitting Harry, Conor,” Miss Kwan said. “They saw you knocking him down. They saw you pushing him over a table. They saw you banging his head against the floor.” Miss Kwan leaned forward. “They heard you yelling about being seen. About not being invisible any more.”
Conor flexed his hands slowly. They were sore again. Just like after the destruction of his grandma’s sitting room.
“I can understand how angry you must be,” Miss Kwan said, her voice getting slightly softer. “I mean, we haven’t even been able to reach any kind of parent or guardian for you.”
The Headmistress sat back heavily in her chair. “School rules dictate immediate exclusion,” she said.
Conor felt his stomach sink, felt his whole body droop under a tonne of extra weight.
But then he realized it was drooping because the weight had been removed.
Understanding flooded him, relief did, too, so powerful it almost made him cry, right there in the Headmistress’s office.
He was going to be punished. It was finally going to happen. Everything was going to make sense again. She was going to exclude him.
Punishment was coming.
Thank God. Thank God–
“But how could I do that?” the Headmistress said.
Conor froze.
“How could I do that and still call myself a teacher?” she said. “With all that you’re going through.” She frowned. “With all that we know about Harry.” She shook her head slightly. “There will come a day when we’ll talk about this, Conor O’Malley. And we will, believe me.” She started gathering the papers on her desk. “But today is not that day.” She gave him a last look. “You have bigger things to think about.”
It took Conor a moment to realize it was over. That this was it. This was all he was going to get.
“You’re not punishing me?” he said.
The Headmistress gave him a grim smile, almost kind, and then she said almost exactly the same thing his father had said. “What purpose could that possibly serve?”
– • –
Miss Kwan walked him back to his lesson. The two pupils they passed in the corridor backed up against the wall to let him go by.
His classroom fell silent when he opened the door, and no one, including the teacher, said a word as he made his way back to his desk. Lily, at the desk beside him, looked like she was going to say something. But she didn’t.
No one spoke to him for the rest of the day.
There are worse things than being invisible, the monster had said, and it was right.
Conor was no longer invisible. They all saw him now.
But he was further away than ever.
Maybe becoming visible was not the best decision at the end of the day. Or maybe it is, for being punished equals becoming visible...
And closing the circle of violence only perpetuates it -- this is a circle that needs to be broken.
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CONOR'S NIGHTMARE


Conor went out into the hospital corridor, his thoughts racing. Medicine made from yew trees. Medicine that could properly heal. Medicine just like the Apothecary refused to make for the parson. Though, to be honest, Conor was still a little unclear about why it was the parson’s house that got knocked down.
Unless.
Unless the monster was here for a reason. Unless it had come walking to heal Conor’s mother.
He hardly dared hope. He hardly dared think it.
No.
No, of course not. It couldn’t be true, he was being stupid. The monster was a dream. That’s all it was, a dream.
But the leaves. And the berries. And the sapling growing in the floor. And the destruction of his grandma’s sitting room.
Conor felt suddenly light, like he was somehow starting to float in the air.
Could it be? Could it really be?
--------------------------------------------------------------------------

"Stories don’t always have happy endings.”
This stopped him. Because they didn’t, did they? That’s one thing the monster had definitely taught him. Stories were wild, wild animals and went off in directions you couldn’t expect.
NO TALE
“Can you heal her?” Conor asked.
The yew is a healing tree, the monster said. It is the form I choose most to walk in.
Conor frowned. “That’s not really an answer.”
The monster just gave him that evil grin.
“Can you heal her?” Conor asked again, more firmly.
The monster looked down at him. It is not up to me.
“Why not?” Conor asked. “You tear down houses and rescue witches. You say every bit of you can heal if only people would use it.”
If your mother can be healed, the monster said, then the yew tree will do it.
Conor crossed his arms. “Is that a yes?”
Then the monster did something it hadn’t done until now.
It sat down.
...
WHAT’S THE USE OF YEW?
“I’m going back to the hospital, Conor,” his grandma said, dropping him off at his house. “I don’t like leaving her like this. What do you need that’s so important?”
“There’s something I have to do,” Conor said, looking at the home where he’d spent his entire life. It seemed empty and foreign, even though it wasn’t very long since he’d left.
He realized it would probably never be his home again.
“I’ll be back in an hour to get you,” his grandma said. “We’ll have dinner at the hospital.”
Conor wasn’t listening. He was already shutting the car door behind him.
“One hour,” his grandma called to him through the closed door. “You’re going to want to be there tonight.”
Conor kept on walking up his own front steps.
“Conor?” his grandma called after him. But he didn’t look back.
He barely heard her pull the car out onto the street and drive away.
– • –
Inside, the house smelled of dust and stale air. He didn’t even bother shutting the door behind him. He headed straight through to the kitchen and looked out of the window.
There was the church on the rise. There was the yew tree standing guard over its cemetery.
Conor went out across his back garden. He hopped up on the garden table where his mum used to drink Pimm’s in the summer, and he lifted himself up and over the back fence. He hadn’t done this since he was a little, little kid, so long ago it had been his father who’d punished him for it. The break in the barbed wire by the railway line was still there, and he squeezed through, tearing his shirt, not caring.
He crossed the tracks, barely checking to see if a train was coming, climbed another fence, and found himself at the base of the hill leading up to the church. He hopped over the low stone wall that surrounded it and climbed up through the tombstones, all the while keeping the tree in his sights.
And all the while, it stayed a tree.
Conor began to run.
“Wake up!” he started shouting before he even reached it. “WAKE UP!”
He got to the trunk and started kicking it. “I said, wake up! I don’t care what time it is!”
He kicked it again.
And harder.
And once more.
And the tree stepped out of the way, so quickly that Conor lost his balance and fell.
You will do yourself harm if you keep that up, the monster said, looming over him.
“It didn’t work!” Conor shouted, getting to his feet. “You said the yew tree would heal her, but it didn’t!”
I said if she could be healed, the yew tree would do it, the monster said. It seems that she could not.
Anger rose even higher in Conor’s chest, thumping his heart against his ribcage. He attacked the monster’s legs, battering the bark with his hands, bringing up bruises almost immediately. “Heal her! You have to heal her!”
Conor, the monster said.
“What’s the use of you if you can’t heal her?” Conor said, pounding away. “Just stupid stories and getting me into trouble and everyone looking at me like I’ve got a disease–”
He stopped because the monster had reached down a hand and plucked him into the air.
You are the one who called me, Conor O’Malley, it said, looking at him seriously. You are the one with the answers to these questions.
“If I called you,” Conor said, his face boiling red, tears he was hardly aware of streaming angrily down his cheeks, “it was to save her! It was to heal her!”
There was a rustling through the monster’s leaves, like the wind stirring them in a long slow sigh.
I did not come to heal her, the monster said. I came to heal you.
“Me?” Conor said, stopping his squirming in the monster’s hand. “I don’t need healing. My mum’s the one who’s…”
But he couldn’t say it. Even now he couldn’t say it. Even though they’d had the talk. Even though he’d known it all along. Because of course he had, of course he did, no matter how much he’d wanted to believe it wasn’t true, of course he knew. But still he couldn’t say it.
Couldn’t say that she was–
He was still crying furiously and finding it hard to breathe. He felt like he was splitting open, like his body was twisting apart.
He looked back up at the monster. “Help me,” he said, quietly.
It is time, the monster said, for the fourth tale.
Conor let out an angry yell. “No! That’s not what I meant! There are more important things happening!”
Yes, the monster said. Yes, there are.
It opened its free hand.
The mist surrounded them again.
And once more, they were in the middle of the nightmare.
THE FOURTH TALE
Even held in the monster’s huge, strong hand, Conor could feel the terror seeping into him, could feel the blackness of it all start to fill his lungs and choke them, could feel his stomach beginning to fall–
“No!” he shouted, squirming some more, but the monster held him tight. “No! Please!”
The hill, the church, the graveyard were all gone, even the sun had disappeared, leaving them in the middle of a cold darkness, one that had followed Conor ever since his mother had first been hospitalized, from before that when she’d started the treatments that made her lose her hair, from before that when she’d had flu that didn’t go away until she went to a doctor and it wasn’t flu at all, from before even that when she’d started to complain about how tired she was feeling, ever since before all that, ever since forever, it felt like, the nightmare had been there, stalking him, surrounding him, cutting him off, making him alone.
It felt like he’d never been anywhere else.
“Get me out of here!” he yelled. “Please!”
It is time, the monster said again, for the fourth tale.
“I don’t know any tales!” Conor said, his mind lurching with fear.
If you do not tell it, the monster said, I shall have to tell it for you. It held Conor up closer to its face. And believe me when I say, you do not want that.
“Please,” Conor said again. “I have to get back to my mum.”
But, the monster said, turning across the blackness, she is already here.
The monster set him down abruptly, almost dropping him to the earth, and Conor stumbled forward.
He recognized the cold ground under his hands, recognized the clearing he was in, bordered on three sides by a dark and impenetrable forest, recognized the fourth side, a cliff, flying off into even further blackness.
And on the cliff’s edge, his mum.
She had her back to him, but she was looking over her shoulder, smiling. She looked as weak as she had in the hospital, but she gave him a silent wave.
“Mum!” Conor yelled, feeling too heavy to stand, as he did every time the nightmare began. “You have to get out of here!”
His mum didn’t move, though she looked a little worried at what he’d said.
Conor dragged himself forward, straining at the effort. “Mum, you have to run!”
“I’m fine, darling,” she said. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Mum, run! Please, run!”
“But darling, there’s–”
She stopped and turned back to the cliff’s edge, as if she’d heard something.
“No,” Conor whispered to himself. He pulled himself forward some more, but she was too far, too far to reach in time, and he felt so heavy–
There was a low sound from below the cliff. A rumbling, booming noise.
Like something big was moving down below.
Something bigger than the world.
And it was climbing up the cliff face.
“Conor?” his mum asked, looking back at him.
But Conor knew. It was too late.
The real monster was coming.
“Mum!” Conor shouted, forcing himself to his feet, pushing against the invisible weight pressing down on him. “MUM!”
“Conor!” his mum shouted, backing away from the cliff’s edge.
But the booming was getting louder. And louder. And louder still.
“MUM!”
He knew he wouldn’t get there in time.
Because with a roar, a cloud of burning darkness lifted two giant fists over the clifftop. They hovered in the air for a long moment, over his mum as she tried to scramble back.
But she was too weak, much too weak–
And the fists rushed down together in a violent pounce and grabbed her, pulling her over the edge of the cliff.
And at last, Conor could run. With a shout, he broke across the clearing, running so fast he nearly toppled over, and he threw himself towards her, towards her out-reaching hands as the dark fists pulled her over the edge.
And his hands caught hers.
This was the nightmare. This was the nightmare that woke him up screaming every night. This was it happening, right now, right here.
He was on the cliff edge, bracing himself, holding onto his mother’s hands with all his strength, trying to keep her from being pulled down into the blackness, pulled down by the creature below the cliff.
Who he could see all of now.
The real monster, the one he was properly afraid of, the one he’d expected to see when the yew tree first showed up, the real, nightmare monster, formed of cloud and ash and dark flames, but with real muscle, real strength, real red eyes that glared back at him and flashing teeth that would eat his mother alive. I’ve seen worse, Conor had told the yew tree that first night.
And here was the worse thing.
“Help me, Conor!” his mum yelled. “Don’t let go!”
“I won’t!” Conor yelled back. “I promise!”
The nightmare monster gave a roar and pulled harder, its fists straining around his mother’s body.
And she began to slip from Conor’s grasp.
“No!” he called.
His mum screamed in terror. “Please, Conor! Hold on to me!”
“I will!” Conor yelled. He turned back to the yew tree, standing there, not moving. “Help me! I can’t hold on to her!”
But it just stood there, watching.
“Conor!” his mum yelled.
And her hands were slipping.
“Conor!” she yelled again.
“Mum!” he cried, gripping tighter.
But they were slipping from his grasp, and she was getting heavier and heavier, the nightmare monster pulling harder and harder.
“I’m slipping!” his mum yelled.
“NO!” he cried.
He fell forward onto his chest from the weight of her and the nightmare’s fists pulling on her.
She screamed again.
And again.
And she was so heavy, impossibly so.
“Please,” Conor whispered to himself. “Please.”
And here, he heard the yew tree say behind him, is the fourth tale.
“Shut up!” Conor shouted. “Help me!”
Here is the truth of Conor O’Malley.
And his mother was screaming.
And she was slipping.
It was so hard to hold on to her.
It is now or never, the yew tree said. You must speak the truth.
“No!” Conor said, his voice breaking.
You must.
“No!” Conor said again, looking down into his mother’s face–
As the truth came all of a sudden–
As the nightmare reached its most perfect moment–
“No!” Conor screamed one more time–
And his mother fell.
THE REST OF THE FOURTH TALE
This was the moment when he usually woke up. When she fell, screaming, out of his grasp, into the abyss, taken by the nightmare, lost forever, this was where he usually sat up in his bed, covered in sweat, his heart beating so fast he thought he might die.
But he didn’t wake up.
The nightmare still surrounded him. The yew tree still stood behind him.
The tale is not yet told, it said.
“Take me out of here,” Conor said, getting shakily to his feet. “I need to see my mum.”
She is no longer here, Conor, his original monster said. You let her go.
“This is just a nightmare,” Conor said, panting hard. “This isn’t the truth.”
It is the truth, said the monster. You know it is. You let her go.
“She fell,” Conor said. “I couldn’t hold on to her any more. She got so heavy.”
And so you let her go.
“She fell!” Conor said, his voice rising, almost in desperation. The filth and ash that had taken his mum was returning up the cliff face in tendrils of smoke, smoke that he couldn’t help but breathe in. It entered his mouth and his nose like air, filling him up, choking him. He had to fight to even breathe.
You let her go, said the monster.
“I didn’t let her go!” Conor shouted, his voice cracking. “She fell!”
You must tell the truth or you will never leave this nightmare, the monster said, looming dangerously over him now, its voice scarier than Conor had ever heard it. You will be trapped here alone for the rest of your life.
“Please let me go!” Conor yelled, trying to back away. He called out in terror when he saw that the tendrils of the nightmare had wrapped themselves around his legs. They tripped him to the ground and started wrapping themselves around his arms, too. “Help me!”
Speak the truth! the monster said, its voice stern and terrifying now. Speak the truth or stay here forever.
“What truth?” Conor yelled, desperately fighting the tendrils. “I don’t know what you mean!”
The monster’s face suddenly surged out of the blackness, inches away from Conor’s.
You do know, it said, low and threatening.
And there was a sudden quiet.
Because, yes, Conor knew.
He had always known.
The truth.
The real truth. The truth from the nightmare.
“No,” he said, quietly, as the blackness started wrapping itself around his neck. “No, I can’t.”
You must.
“I can’t,” Conor said again.
You can, said the monster, and there was a change in its voice. A note of something.
Of kindness.
Conor’s eyes were filling now. Tears were tumbling down his cheeks and he couldn’t stop them, couldn’t even wipe them away because the nightmare’s tendrils were binding him now, had nearly taken him over completely.
“Please don’t make me,” Conor said. “Please don’t make me say it.”
You let her go, the monster said.
Conor shook his head. “Please–”
You let her go, the monster said again.
Conor closed his eyes tightly.
But then he nodded.
You could have held on for longer, the monster said, but you let her fall. You loosened your grip and let the nightmare take her.
Conor nodded again, his face scrunched up with pain and weeping.
You wanted her to fall.
“No,” Conor said through thick tears.
You wanted her to go.
“No!”
You must speak the truth and you must speak it now, Conor O’Malley. Say it. You must.
Conor shook his head again, his mouth clamped shut tight, but he could feel a burning in his chest, like a fire someone had lit there, a miniature sun, blazing away and burning him from the inside.
“It’ll kill me if I do,” he gasped.
It will kill you if you do not, the monster said. You must say it.
“I can’t.”
You let her go. Why?
The blackness was wrapping itself around Conor’s eyes now, plugging his nose and overwhelming his mouth. He was gasping for breath and not getting it. It was suffocating him. It was killing him–
Why, Conor? the monster said fiercely. Tell me WHY! Before it is too late!
And the fire in Conor’s chest suddenly blazed, suddenly burned like it would eat him alive. It was the truth, he knew it was. A moan started in his throat, a moan that rose into a cry and then a loud wordless yell and he opened his mouth and the fire came blazing out, blazing out to consume everything, bursting over the blackness, over the yew tree, too, setting it ablaze along with the rest of the world, burning it back as Conor yelled and yelled and yelled, in pain and grief–
And he spoke the words.
He spoke the truth.
He told the rest of the fourth tale.
“I can’t stand it any more!” he cried out as the fire raged around him. “I can’t stand knowing that she’ll go! I just want it to be over! I want it to be finished!”
And then the fire ate the world, wiping away everything, wiping him away with it.
He welcomed it with relief, because it was, at last, the punishment he deserved.
LIFE AFTER DEATH
Conor opened his eyes. He was lying on the grass on the hill above his house.
He was still alive.
Which was the worst thing that could have happened.
“Why didn’t it kill me?” he groaned, holding his face in his hands. “I deserve the worst.”
Do you? the monster asked, standing above him.
“I’ve been thinking it for the longest time,” Conor said slowly, painfully, struggling to get the words out. “I’ve known forever she wasn’t going to make it, almost from the beginning. She said she was getting better because that’s what I wanted to hear. And I believed her. Except I didn’t.”
No, the monster said.
Conor swallowed, still struggling. “And I started to think how much I wanted it to be over. How much I just wanted to stop having to think about it. How I couldn’t stand the waiting any more. I couldn’t stand how alone it made me feel.”
He really began to cry now, more than he thought he’d ever done, more even than when he found out his mum was ill.
And a part of you wished it would just end, said the monster, even if it meant losing her.
Conor nodded, barely able to speak.
And the nightmare began. The nightmare that always ended with–
“I let her go,” Conor choked out. “I could have held on but I let her go.”
And that, the monster said, is the truth.
“I didn’t mean it, though!” Conor said, his voice rising. “I didn’t mean to let her go! And now it’s for real! Now she’s going to die and it’s my fault!”
And that, the monster said, is not the truth at all.
Conor’s grief was a physical thing, gripping him like a clamp, clenching him tight as a muscle. He could barely breathe from the sheer effort of it, and he sank to the ground again, wishing it would just take him, once and for all.
He faintly felt the huge hands of the monster pick him up, forming a little nest to hold him. He was only vaguely aware of the leaves and branches twisting around him, softening and widening to let him lie back.
“It’s my fault,” Conor said. “I let her go. It’s my fault.”
It is not your fault, the monster said, its voice floating in the air around him like a breeze.
“It is.”
You were merely wishing for the end of pain, the monster said. Your own pain. An end to how it isolated you. It is the most human wish of all.
“I didn’t mean it,” Conor said.
You did, the monster said, but you also did not.
Conor sniffed and looked up to its face, which was as big as a wall in front of him. “How can both be true?”
Because humans are complicated beasts, the monster said. How can a queen be both a good witch and a bad witch? How can a prince be a murderer and a saviour? How can an apothecary be evil-tempered but right-thinking? How can a parson be wrong-thinking but good-hearted? How can invisible men make themselves more lonely by being seen?
“I don’t know,” Conor shrugged, exhausted. “Your stories never made any sense to me.”
The answer is that it does not matter what you think, the monster said, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day. You wanted her to go at the same time you were desperate for me to save her. Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.
“But how do you fight it?” Conor asked, his voice rough. “How do you fight all the different stuff inside?”
By speaking the truth, the monster said. As you spoke it just now.
Conor thought again of his mother’s hands, of the grip as he let go–
Stop this, Conor O’Malley, the monster said, gently. This is why I came walking, to tell you this so that you may heal. You must listen.
Conor swallowed again. “I’m listening.”
You do not write your life with words, the monster said. You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.
There was a long silence as Conor re-caught his breath.
“So what do I do?” he finally asked.
You do what you did just now, the monster said. You speak the truth.
“That’s it?”
You think it is easy? The monster raised two enormous eyebrows. You were willing to die rather than speak it.
Conor looked down at his hands, finally unclenching them. “Because what I thought was so wrong.”
It was not wrong, the monster said, It was only a thought, one of a million. It was not an action.
Conor let out a long, long breath, still thick.
But he wasn’t choking. The nightmare wasn’t filling him up, squeezing his chest, dragging him down.
In fact, he didn’t feel the nightmare there at all.
“I’m so tired,” Conor said, putting his head in his hands. “I’m so tired of all this.”
Then sleep, said the monster. There is time.
“Is there?” Conor mumbled, suddenly unable to keep his eyes open.
The monster changed the shape of its hands even further, making the nest of leaves Conor was lying on even more comfortable.
“I need to see my mum,” he protested.
You will, the monster said. I promise.
Conor opened his eyes. “Will you be there?”
Yes, the monster said. It will be the final steps of my walking.
Conor felt himself drifting off, the tide of sleep pulling against him so hard he couldn’t resist it.
But before he went, he could feel one last question bubbling up.
“Why do you always come at 12.07?” he asked.
He was asleep before the monster could answer.
SOMETHING IN COMMON
“Oh, thank God!”
The words filtered in before Conor was even properly awake.
“Conor!” he heard, and then stronger. “Conor!”
His grandma’s voice.
He opened his eyes, sitting up slowly. Night had fallen. How long had he been asleep? He looked around. He was still on the hill behind his house, nestled in the roots of the yew tree towering over him. He looked up. It was just a tree.
But he could swear that it also wasn’t.
“CONOR!”
His grandma was running from the direction of the church, and he could see her car parked on the road beyond, its lights on, its engine running. He stood as she ran to him, her face filled with annoyance and relief and something he recognized with a sinking stomach.
“Oh, thank God, thank GOD!” she shouted as she reached him.
And then she did a surprising thing.
She grabbed him in a hug so hard they both nearly fell over. Only Conor catching them on the tree trunk stopped them. Then she let him go and really started shouting.
“Where have you BEEN?!” she practically screamed. “I’ve been searching for HOURS! I’ve been FRANTIC, Conor! WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?”
“There was something I needed to do,” Conor said, but she was already pulling on his arm.
“No time,” she said. “We have to go! We have to go now!”
She let go of him and actually sprinted back to her car, which was such a troubling thing to see, Conor ran after her almost automatically, jumping in the passenger side and not even getting the door closed before she drove off with a screech of tyres.
He didn’t dare ask why they were hurrying.
“Conor,” his grandma said as the car raced down the road at alarming speed. It was only when he looked at her that he saw how much she was crying. Shaking, too. “Conor, you just can’t…” She shook some more, then he saw her grip the steering wheel even harder.
“Grandma–” he started to say.
“Don’t,” she said. “Just don’t.”
They drove in silence for a while, sailing through give way signs with barely a look. Conor re-checked his seatbelt.
“Grandma?” Conor asked, bracing himself as they flew over a bump.
She kept speeding on.
“I’m sorry,” he said, quietly.
She laughed at this, a sad, thick laugh. She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t?”
“Of course it doesn’t,” she said, and she started to cry again. But she wasn’t the kind of grandma who was going to let crying get in the way of her talking. “You know, Conor?” she said. “You and me? Not the most natural fit, are we?”
“No,” Conor said. “I guess not.”
“I guess not either.” She tore around a corner so fast, Conor had to grab onto the door handle to stay upright.
“But we’re going to have to learn, you know,” she said.
Conor swallowed. “I know.”
His grandma made a little sobbing noise. “You do know, don’t you?” she said. “Of course you do.”
She coughed to clear her throat as she quickly looked both ways at an approaching cross-roads before driving right through the red light. Conor wondered how late it was. There was hardly any traffic around.
“But you know what, grandson?” his grandma said. “We have something in common.”
“We do?” Conor asked, as the hospital lurched into view down the road.
“Oh, yes,” his grandma said, pressing even harder on the accelerator, and he saw that her tears were still coming.
“What’s that?” he asked.
She pulled into the first empty spot she saw on the road near the hospital, running her car up onto the kerb with a thudding stop.
“Your mum,” she said, looking at him full on. “That’s what we have in common.”
Conor didn’t say anything.
But he knew what she meant. His mum was her daughter. And she was the most important person either of them knew. That was a lot to have in common.
It was certainly a place to start.
His grandma turned off the engine and opened her door. “We have to hurry,” she said.
THE TRUTH
His grandma burst into his mum’s hospital room ahead of him with a terrible question on her face. But there was a nurse inside who answered immediately. “It’s okay,” she said. “You’re in time.”
His grandma put her hands to her mouth and let out a cry of relief.
“I see you found him,” the nurse said, looking at Conor.
“Yes,” was all his grandma said.
Both she and Conor were looking at his mum. The room was mostly dark, just a light on over her bed where she lay. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing sounded like there was a weight on her chest. The nurse left them with her, and his grandma sat down in the chair on the other side of his mum’s bed, leaning forward to pick up one of his mum’s hands. She held it in her own, kissing it and rocking back and forth.
“Ma?” he heard. It was his own mum talking, her voice so thick and low it was almost impossible to understand.
“I’m here, darling,” his grandma said, still holding his mum’s hand. “Conor’s here, too.”
“Is he?” his mum slurred, not opening her eyes.
His grandma looked at him in a way that told him to say something.
“I’m here, Mum,” he said.
His mum didn’t say anything, just reached out the hand closest to him.
Asking for him to take it.
Take it and not let go.
Here is the end of the tale, the monster said behind him.
“What do I do?” Conor whispered.
He felt the monster place its hands on his shoulders. Somehow they were small enough to feel like they were holding him up.
All you have to do is tell the truth, the monster said.
“I’m afraid to,” Conor said. He could see his grandma there in the dim light, leaning over her daughter. He could see his mum’s hand, still outstretched, her eyes still closed.
Of course you are afraid, the monster said, pushing him slowly forward. And yet you will still do it.
As the monster’s hands gently but firmly guided him towards his mum, Conor saw the clock on the wall above her bed. Somehow, it was already 11.46 p.m.
Twenty-one minutes before 12.07.
He wanted to ask the monster what was going to happen then, but he didn’t dare.
Because it felt like he knew.
If you speak the truth, the monster whispered in his ear, you will be able to face whatever comes.
And so Conor looked back down at his mum, at her outstretched hand. He could feel his throat choking again and his eyes watering.
It wasn’t the drowning of the nightmare, though. It was simpler, clearer.
Still just as hard.
He took his mother’s hand.
She opened her eyes, briefly, catching him there. Then she closed them again.
But she’d seen him.
And he knew it was here. He knew there really was no going back. That it was going to happen, whatever he wanted, whatever he felt.
And he also knew he was going to get through it.
It would be terrible. It would be beyond terrible.
But he’d survive.
And it was for this that the monster came. It must have been. Conor had needed it and his need had somehow called it. And it had come walking. Just for this moment.
“You’ll stay?” Conor whispered to the monster, barely able to speak. “You’ll stay until…”
I will stay, the monster said, its hands still on Conor’s shoulders. Now all you have to do is speak the truth.
And so Conor did.
He took in a breath.
And, at last, he spoke the final and total truth.
“I don’t want you to go,” he said, the tears dropping from his eyes, slowly at first, then spilling like a river.
“I know, my love,” his mother said, in her heavy voice. “I know.”
He could feel the monster, holding him up and letting him stand there.
“I don’t want you to go,” he said again.
And that was all he needed to say.
He leaned forward onto her bed and put his arm around her.
Holding her.
He knew it would come, and soon, maybe even this 12.07. The moment she would slip from his grasp, no matter how tightly he held on.
But not this moment, the monster whispered, still close. Not just yet.
Conor held tightly onto his mother.
And by doing so, he could finally let her go.
THE END.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
SUMMING UP:
Twist Ending: More or less the point of the stories, used for deconstructive purposes.
  • In the first story, the stepmother, who has become queen, was indeed a witch, but she did not poison the king like the villagers believed. Nor did she murder the farm girl the prince was dating. Rather, the prince was the murderer, who did so to inspire the villagers to overthrow the queen.
  • In the second story, the apothecary's healing traditions are fuelled by belief. When the parson, a man of belief, promises to recant his beliefs even if it means getting his daughters back, the apothecary loses his source of belief, and is unable to treat the two daughters because of it.
  • In the third story, an invisible man, tired of not being noticed, summons the monster so everyone would see him. The people see... something grotesque.

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