Once upon a Time is the intellectual property of ABC and Disney.
A friend of mine asked the Internet to entertain her while she was sick. Be careful what you wish for.
I'd been reading a lot of about Planescape, and then I watched "The Thing You Love Most" and "Snow Falls." No spoilers.
There would be no nonsense in this ward, not with her in charge. The janitors were never lazy—that big one with the great hanks of hair was slow, but he wasn't lazy—at least not where she could see. The nursing staff did their duties and kept their complaints behind their teeth. Even the patients had ceased to give trouble. The brunette in room three had been a handful for a time, but oh, she'd quieted down.
Eyes like a hawk, she had. Twenty-twenty even at her age (to which she would never admit) and sharper ears than anyone ever realized, sharp as the seams on her perfectly pressed uniform. She heard what they called her when they thought she couldn't hear, and oh they'd paid for it, every one.
Technically, this was a mental ward, but it was cozy as a button here underground. she knew how to keep people mannerly, even when they didn't want to be where they were. And this was a civilized place. It wasn't as if they were held in pits and guarded by night beasts. It wasn't as if they were in great wooden cages hung from dead trees, waiting for the cauldron to be just right.
Some said that the ill needed sunlight to put their minds in order, but that was a myth. Deep down, she knew that a person could go for years with only the light that slipped through stitches and be right as rain, her limbs as strong as twisted snakes beneath unpretentious gray rags. And power. There had been power.
She had earned her position; no one ever questioned that. And if she could not remember precisely what troubles she had overcome to do so, it did not matter. She was here now.
But there were dreams from time to time, dreams of trees twisting like a fortress, of bonfire smoke, and sacrifice.
"And we'll be happy?" she'd asked intently.
A voice like honeyed nightmares spoke with smiling lips. "I guarantee it."
This place had been a cavern once, but the roof had fallen in, leaving it half-open to the moonless night sky. There was still a stalagmite here and there, now streaked with moss and lichens, living and dead. The earthen floor had been beaten smooth, and the walls absorbed the echoes from the drums. The guests had arrived one by one, trailing finery, rags, miasma and mist.
It was hard to get a ticket to the Bad Fairies Ball. But if you wanted that special something for that special someone, then that was the place to be.
It turned out that some fairies were as fascinated by humans as humans were by fairies ...by the good, pretty, I-can-help fairies, that was. Snow rolled her shoulders. It had been a long, rough while in the woods since she'd done this, but seventeen years of deportment lessons didn't go away when you stopped bathing.
It was hard to get a ticket—but far easier to sneak in with the help.
She did as Widow Lucas had warned her to do, eyes down, smile on, don't touch the food, and never, never speak.
Snow held the platter over her right shoulder and wove through the crowd without looking up. It was all about listening tonight. Now and then, someone would take a poison mushroom or a cup of what she dearly hoped was pig blood off her tray. It never emptied.
She stood on tiptoe for a tall man, thin as a stick and hollow as a reed who was telling a hovering pile of grave mold of a curse he'd placed on a farmhouse. The new lambs had been born dead, with tiny hands in place of hooves. No good.
She went down on one knee for a woman the size of a dwarf as she danced with a blue-eyed raven. So light on her feet, so happy about the way frogs and toads dropped from the mouths of an arrogant human lass. No good.
The tiny man in the cap was standing atop a rock the size of a spaniel, but she still nearly lay her tray on the ground to let him seize a morsel half his own height and boast of a gleam-armored hero who'd thought a tiny gnome no threat. One spray of this dust, he said, and he'd still had armor of a sort, and six matching legs to boot. Then ...squash!
Good, Snow thought. Very good.
It was wise to keep your own counsel. People didn't think he was wise, but he was.
It was cold down here, with the AC always blowing. Time to time people thought he was a patient, but the hag at the ward desk would set them straight, and he'd go on pushing that mop back and forth and back and forth, and he watched. Carefully. People didn't think he noticed, but he did.
Time to time the boss man said he should cut his hair, but he didn't like no scissors. He didn't like no knives. And he didn't like cutting off his hair.
Creature didn't need to speak to know what's what. Just listen. Just listen real careful and just watch and you learn all sorts of things. Things that men don't want you to know. Things that not-men didn't want you to know. Just because you were big and slow, just because you didn't need no knife to take off a man's head, didn't mean you couldn't know things.
Don't talk. Just listen. Then take your part or don't. Sometimes he had dreams of being even bigger than he was, a giant with a giant club, being noticed only when it meant being feared. He remembered the thump in his guts of feet running away. And he remembered the taste.
There was someone offering victory and happiness, but there was something missing. There could be neither happiness nor victory without power.
And he'd walk home after work and he'd write down everything he'd seen on the inside of his eyes: Which of the staffers drank on the job. Which guard fell asleep on duty and when. Which man left a female patient's room with his clothes out of order, looking side to side and never noticing a quiet man.
He could ruin any of them, at any time, bite the heads off their lives and watch their legs kick.
People didn't think he had power, but he did.
With the right hook, you could catch anything. The bait hardly mattered if you knew what you were doing. He didn't remember buying the boat or the nets but he prized each and every single hook. No one brought in the catch the way he did. Dead waters, they called them, but he could draw them up into the net, silver with innocence, right toward him.
Sometimes people wondered how they'd come to be in this little corner of the world, but he didn't. He'd always been doing this. He'd always found the gape-mouthed little spirits no matter how they hid under murky water or waving weeds or globs of flesh and skin.
"Here, here," he'd think as he baited the hooks. With worms. With old meat. With the heads of other fish. With garbage. There was nothing so satisfying as watching them trade their shining lives for garbage. Some would nibble cautiously at first, but they all eventually held onto the hook as if it were beauty or wealth or death pushed back a few pathetic years.
Most he'd sell—that was how it worked—but he'd always pick a few. The fighters. The tiny ones who'd thought they'd make it. The old ones who'd never made a single wrong move in their long lives and had thought they were so good and clever. He'd cut away their bones and skin and fry them up. Or he'd boil them until their stupid little eyes gaped. Either way they'd be in his belly and there was nothing better in the world than that.
Sometimes he wondered if there was something better than fish. He'd see the people walking by and know, just iknow/i that he could coax and lure them this way and that if only he had the right hooks. But he'd lost them somewhere.
The nagging feeling would take the shape of a bonfire and a woman, and he would feel his own dark spirit drawn left and right until his fight was worn out of him. Had the shadow of a boat passed over his head, long ago?
The nagging feeling would pass. No. No. It had never been.
(Props to ST, WW and the CL who told us about them.)