Once upon a time in a grand country mansion lived a couple and their young son Douglas. The father was a studious man who had a large library filled with books that he’d collected from around the world. The three spent hours in the library together reading novels, biographies, travelogues and poetry. Before he left on his next journey, the father promised to bring back another book. But alas, he never returned, for his ship was dragged to the bottom of the ocean by a giant squid.
Life became very difficult for the mother after that. The mansion was large and required much maintenance to keep up. Soon there wasn’t enough money to pay the servants, and one by one they left. She tried to repair things that broke, but none of her repairs lasted long. Though Douglas was young, he did his best to help. Finally, as the estate began to fall into ruin, and she sunk further into debt, she realized she had only one choice left.
She woke early and put on her prettiest dress. She combed through her long hair until it was smooth and silky and then pinned it under an attractive hat. She rubbed rouge on her cheeks and cleaned her dirty fingernails. When she emerged from her chambers, Douglas thought she looked just as pretty as when his father was alive.
“Take care of the house while I am gone,” she said, giving him a big hug. “I am going to the city to find you another father.”
With a lump in his throat, the boy watched her ride away, hoping that she too wouldn’t disappear and leave him completely alone.
A few days later, a carriage pulled up to the mansion. Douglas stood outside to receive it. When the carriage door opened his mother stepped out, looking radiant and wearing a flattering new dress. She ran to her son and swung him around. “Things worked out even better than I imagined,” she said. “Come and meet your new father.”
A large man exited the carriage, and Doug’s mother introduced them. The man smiled and seemed kind enough. “And I have another surprise for you!” said Doug’s mother, beaming. From behind the man stepped two boys, both a year or two older than Douglas. “Now you have brothers! Isn’t this wonderful? Everything is going to be much better for us now, my sweet son. You shall see.”
The big man swept Doug’s mother into his arms and carried her into the house. Douglas looked at his two new stepbrothers. “Welcome to my home,” he said with a smile, even though he didn’t feel like smiling.
The older of the two sniffed, spit on the ground, and said, “You mean our home.” Then they shoved Douglas out of the way and walked inside.
Doug’s mother was right—everything was much better, at first. His new stepdad had money to get the house repaired and he was mostly kind. He hired new servants and bought new horses and a new carriage. All of them received new clothes. And although his new step-brothers teased him now and then, his step-father would always put a stop to it, and Douglas felt grateful for his fatherly protection. Best of all, he had not seen his mother so happy in a long time, and he and his mother spent the evenings in the library staying up late and reading the way they used to.
But after a few months Douglas noticed a change in his mother’s countenance. Her eyes, which were always filled with light, gradually filled with shadows. Bluish bruises appeared on her arms and sometimes her face. When Douglas asked her about it, she laughed and said she had fallen. She stopped eating at dinner and soon became so weak that she stayed in bed all day. One rainy night she called Douglas to her side. She looked so feeble that he hardly recognized her. She took Doug’s hand as tears welled in her eyes. “My son, I have made a grave mistake, and I don’t think your father will ever forgive me. I’m so very sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“I am sorry that I have made things worse for you.”
He squeezed her hand. “No, you haven’t, mother.”
“Yes, I have. You will see.”
Two days later his mother died.
After the funeral Douglas went to his bedroom to be by himself, but the door was thrown open and his stepbrothers barged in.
“This is my room now,” said the eldest brother. “It doesn’t make sense for me and my brother to share rooms anymore.”
“No, this is my room,” said Douglas. “Just ask Father.”
The stepbrother scoffed. “My father is the one who told me I could have your room.”
Douglas didn’t believe this, and he went downstairs and told his stepfather what was happening.
The man shook his head and chuckled. “Oh Douglas, don’t be so sensitive. Can’t you see? You don’t need such a large room. The other boys are bigger. It is time for them to both have their own rooms.”
“But where will I sleep?”
“You can sleep in the barn. It will be warm in there, and you can have the place all to yourself.”
Douglas marched back upstairs, hurt, confused, and fuming.
“What are you doing back here, Dougie?” said the eldest stepbrother. “Get out. This is my room.”
“I’m just coming to get my things,” growled Douglas.
“These aren’t your things. They are my things.”
“No, they aren’t!”
“You want to fight about it? Hit me, little boy.”
Douglas was so mad that he didn’t really think about what he was doing. Making a fist, he pulled back and punched his stepbrother in the stomach. But his brothers just laughed. “That’s not a punch. You want to know what a real punch feels like?”
That evening Douglas stumbled into the barn and crawled into a bed of straw, every muscle aching with pain from the beating he’d received from his two stepbrothers. He pulled an old quilt over himself and wished he could die.
The next morning the barn door was thrown open and his stepfather shook him awake. “Get up, boy. We need wood chopped for the fire.” And from that time onward, Douglas was treated as the lowest servant at the mansion, emptying chamber pots, tending fires, and chopping wood.
As the years went by, the stepbrothers spent piles of money on fancy clothes, horses and carriages, and attended a different ball each week. It wasn’t long before men in black suits and grim faces came to the mansion, demanding money. Douglas recognized these men; they were creditors. The house again fell into disrepair and the servants left. But instead of making repairs and keeping the house clean as his mother had done, all was left to ruin. The rooms were never swept or kept in order, dust layered the shelves, cobwebs filled the corners, food was strewn about the house and bedrooms, for his stepbrothers never cleaned up after themselves, and rats and cockroaches roamed freely, night and day.
As each servant left, Douglas was forced to take on their duties. He tried to make the food (for his stepbrothers were ravenous eaters), and keep the kitchen somewhat clean, to wash the dishes and the windows and milk the cow, but as soon as he started a task, his stepbrothers demanded he work on something else, so nothing was ever completely finished. And when he didn’t do a task well enough his stepfather called him lazy and beat him.
He spent most of his time chopping wood. Every morning and every evening, in the sun, in the rain, and in the snow. Ironically, he always felt better after he chopped a pile of wood, for at least it gave him a way to release the frustration he wished he could inflict on his tormentors.
His only other respite was in the evenings after his stepbrothers retired or left for another ball. He would sit in the library and read from his father’s books until his stepfather banished him to the barn.
One day he noticed a row of books missing from the library. “What happened to these books?” he asked his stepfather.
“We sold them,” he said with a shrug. “How else am I to pay for all the food you eat?”
After that, each day Douglas took care to take one book from the library and hide it in the barn.
One day, while Douglas was outside chopping wood, a royal messenger rode up to the mansion and knocked on the door. When the stepfather answered, the messenger read a royal proclamation.
“Hear ye, hear ye! An announcement to every household in the land. The princess has come of age and it is time for her to marry. To find the most suitable young man, the king is holding a tournament of stealth, strength and stamina. All men of good character are permitted to enter, but only one will win. The competition will be held one month from today, on the castle grounds.”
“Well, boys, how would you like to become royalty?” asked the stepfather when the messenger had gone.
The eldest rolled his eyes. “I could win this tournament with both hands tied behind my back.”
The second brother laughed. “I’d like to see you try. I’ll take over once you’ve made a fool of yourself in front of the princess, and I will be the winner.”
The boys continued to bicker until one punched the other and it turned into a fist fight. Douglas shook his head and went back to chopping wood.
The stepbrothers spent the next few weeks getting ready for the tournament. They bought new clothes that they didn’t have money for, while Douglas washed their dirty ones. They practiced their archery skills with targets posted to trees and sent Douglas into the woods to shoot deer for their dinner. And each day, while they lay on the sofas, bragging to each other about who was the strongest, Douglas carried load after load of wood upstairs to their bedroom fireplaces.
Late one evening when Douglas was in the library reading the very last book, his brothers strutted in, wearing their new clothes. “Tomorrow is the tournament, Dougie. What do you think of my new clothes? Don’t you think the princess will swoon when she sees how handsome I am?”
The other brother rubbed his knuckles against Douglas’s head. “I bet you wish you were going to the tournament, don’t you?”
“Not really,” said Douglas, his eyes still on his book.
“That’s good, because the princess wants someone strong and manly. Not a wimpy little bookworm like you.”
Douglas ignored them and turned a page.
Doug’s indifference angered the older stepbrother. He snatched Douglas’s book. “See how manly I am!” With a roar he ripped the book in half and tossed the pages around the room.
After they left, Douglas gathered the pages, placed the damaged book together, and carefully tied it with string. That night he took it to his secret book stash in the barn.
Douglas woke early the next morning to get the horses and carriage ready for his stepfamily. They climbed in, and with a flick of the whip they were off, leaving Douglas in a cloud of dust. “Next time you see me, I’ll be a prince!” one of them called out before being whacked by his brother.
Douglas knew there was much to be done before his stepfamily returned, but instead of attending to his duties he walked into the house and sat in the quiet library, stared at the empty shelves, and scowled.
“Don’t you want to go to the tournament?” said a voice.
Douglas turned and saw a man with a white beard sitting in his father’s favorite chair.
“Who are you?”
“I am your hairy godfather.”
“My . . . hairy godfather?”
“Yes, and I have the power to make wishes come true. If you want to go to the tournament, I can make that happen. The only question is, do you want to go?”
“Yes, but for all the wrong reasons.”
The man leaned forward. “Please expound.”
“I want to go and see my brothers lose. I want to see them humiliated.”
“That isn’t very noble,” agreed the man. “T’would be more noble if you went for the purpose of winning the princess’s hand.”
“No, it wouldn’t,” said Douglas. “It would be more noble to court the princess in a way that gives her a choice.”
The hairy godfather scrunched up his lips. “Yes, that is actually more noble, you are correct. But perhaps the princess has more choice in the matter than you think. And perhaps she may need help knowing which suitors are real men and which are brutes. Perhaps she may need to be warned.”
Douglas lifted his head.
“Imagine if the princess ended up with one of your stepbrothers.” His voice grew quiet. “Imagine if your mother had someone who warned her.”
Douglas’s jaw tightened. He stood, filled with resolve and determination. “I will go, if only to warn the princess.” Then his shoulders dropped. “But I have no horse.”
The hairy godfather snapped his fingers at a passing rat, which immediately transformed into a black steed.
“I have no proper clothes.”
The hairy godfather snapped his fingers and Douglas was dressed in a clean muslin blouse, leather vest and riding pants with boots, belt, scabbard and sword.
“I have no . . . idea what to say to her.”
“You won’t need to say anything,” said the hairy godfather. “All you have to do is be yourself. But with your stepbrothers there, you might have more luck with a disguise.” He snapped his fingers and a black mask appeared over Douglas’s eyes. He snapped his fingers again and a cunning mustache and goatee appeared around Douglas’s mouth. “That’s more like it. Even your sweet mother wouldn’t recognize you. I must warn you, however, that my magic will only last for the day and will vanish by midnight tonight. After that you will be dressed in rags and riding a rat.”
Douglas nodded. “Thank you so much. I hope to be worthy of your gifts.” Not wanting to waste any time, he led the horse outside and mounted.
“One more thing.” The hairy godfather said as he stood in the doorway. He snapped his fingers and a small book appeared in his hand.
“What is that?”
“This is a book of poetry, written by a fellow named Shakespeare.” He handed it up to Douglas. “You might find it useful. Did I not tell you I would bring you a book back from my travels?”
He snapped his fingers once more and was gone.
TO BE CONTINUED . . .