Once upon a time, there was a family with three sons. The oldest two were strong, hardworking men with just enough intellect to be dangerous. The youngest was called Simpleton, because he sat behind the stove and contributed nothing to the household. Luckily, the older two loved him enough to feed him.
And thus begins every moral tale, with three sons, the youngest of whom, however unfit, is destined for great things. Apparently there is a trove of wisdom to be learned crouching among the ashes.
But then, the fourth was born.
Fifteen years passed, with no changes whatsoever, except of course that the baby grew while the others remained in perfect stasis.
Meanwhile, the king had also been aging (though his daughter had not) and woke up one morning with deep-seated aches in his bones, gnawing at his hips and stabbing through his thighs as he attempted to stand. This sudden realization of his fleeting lifespan was unnerving, and he pondered what to do for his daughter once he was gone. Since he had no sons, he decided the best option was to secure himself a proper grandson.
Unfortunately, all the princes were taken, off on adventures, or just plain dead.
Luckily for the king, his advisors had written a series of tests to determine the best of all his subjects.
“Whoever can bring us back,” the scheming advisors said, nodding emphatically, “The Water of Life, the Helm of Power, and the Magic Mirror should get to marry the princess.”
“Those do sound nice, I suppose,” replied the king, and the psychology of nodding won him over.
The princess was not consulted on this, and anyway was in the throes of passion with the gardener’s boy when the king sent out his criers to announce the good news.
The news—somehow, for Simpleton’s home lay well-off the beaten path—made its way to the ear of the previously mentioned peasant family, and threw the children into a tizzy (the parents were long dead, of course).
“It doesn’t matter,” Simpleton said, behind the stove, “we aren’t destined for anything.”
“Oh, hush,” Allan, the oldest, said. “Don’t you want what’s best for us? If we had a kingdom, we wouldn’t have to eat our pets in the wintertime.”
“If we had less children,” Devon said, looking at Simpleton, “we wouldn’t have to eat our pets in the wintertime.” (Devon, being the second-born, was allowed to be crankier, since he had the leisure time for it.)
Simpleton glared at Hannah, the fourth.
“Well, we should certainly try for it,” Hannah said, because they’d eaten her pet pig Hamlet last winter, and the experience had been traumatizing. She hadn’t even gotten the best bits.
“Very well,” said Allan. “But who shall go first?”
“You’d better,” Hannah said. “Everyone says you’ve got the best jawline in the kingdom.”
“Shouldn’t I, though?” Devon asked, because he was afraid of falling into the Rule of Fairy Tales, where he and Allan would inevitably fail, while Simpleton would win through no conceivable merit, but by virtue of being the third son. The birth of Hannah had relieved his fears slightly, but the king’s quest was giving him a queasy feeling. It was best to break the pattern early.
“No, Allan should definitely go,” said Simpleton, who was also keenly aware of the Rule.
Allan stroked his blindingly handsome jaw and considered. “I will go. Don’t eat Gregor while I’m gone.”
“Who?” Hannah asked.
“Simpleton,” Devon replied.
Allan packed up his things and left straightaway, hoping to beat at least a quarter of the other contestants to the palace. He was mugged almost immediately, and by the time he arrived at the palace, he was covered in dirt and had no shoes.
Luckily for him, the tests the king’s advisors had devised were arduous in the extreme, and no one had yet beaten them and won the princess’ hand. The king was beginning to think about revising the tests to just let someone win, but he felt it would be cheating.
Still, as he looked down from his throne at Allan, whose jawline still shone through his filthy exterior, he wondered if he should make an exception.
“Should I make an exception?” he said.
“Maybe,” said the princess, also seeing the jawline.
“Probably not,” said the advisors, who really wanted those magic objects.
The king, easily swayed by the majority, sent Allan on the first task.
Allan, unfortunately, had been so weak from hunger and dehydration in the presence of the king that he didn’t remember a word of the conversation. As he struggled to piece together what quest he’d been sent on, he found himself in the middle of the Enchanted Forest.
“Oh dear,” said Allan, looking about at the faces in the trees, “I’d best watch out for Karma.”
Karma’s name was legend, known in every corner of the kingdom. The monster haunted the depths of the Enchanted Forest, tracking those who ignored the greatest Law of the forest: offer everyone your help. If any dared to break the Law, Karma would bite them in the ass.
At that moment, Karma, was hunting an arrogant first son who’d insulted the Wise Middle-Aged Woman, who lived in the middle of the Enchanted Forest. Karma let out its nasal hunting hum, shaking the branches, and setting the birds to flight.
Allan hurried his pace.
After waiting an entire month without word, the three remaining solemnly toasted Allan’s memory with a bit of stale bread. Devon set out to retrace his steps, since he couldn’t pry Simpleton from behind the stove.
Meanwhile, so many peasants had attempted the king’s quest in the hopes of a better life that the number of workers had plummeted, causing a shortage of labor, the beginning of an economic crisis, and murmurs of a rebellion. The king wished he’d made an exception for that man with the fantastic jawline.
“Hello, Your Majesty,” said Devon, who was covered in bandit blood. He’d fared better than Allan.
“Revolutionaries!” shrieked the king.
“I’m not a revolutionary!” shouted Devon, as the guards closed in.
“No, wait!” cried the advisers, who wanted their tasks completed before the kingdom collapsed.
“Oh,” said the king, from his hiding place behind the throne. “You must be here for the quest.” He poked his head out and cleared his throat. “Peasant, go to the top of Mount Deadly, and retrieve the Water of Life from the monstrous guardian there.”
Devon raised an eyebrow at Mount Deadly. “I’m not here for the contest. I’m here to inquire about my brother Allan? You may remember his jawline?”
But the king was feeling a bit faint from the sight of all that blood, and Devon was hustled out and set on the road. He made a rude gesture back at the palace, and set off in the direction of Mount Deadly, hopefully to find Allan.
“Look, it’s my turn,” Simpleton said, the day after Devon left.
“It’s only the two of us left,” Hannah argued. “How am I supposed to survive on my own?”
“Eat Hamlet Jr.,” Simpleton replied, and hurried out the door. Sister or not, he couldn’t pass up his chance at destiny. He had to push through a crowd of peaceful protestors when he arrived, bearing signs like LIVING WAGES and DEMOCRACY, but he persevered by not making eye contact.
“Are you the peasant negotiator?” the king asked, from behind his throne. He had a cozy little nest complete with blankets, cushions, and wine, since he spent so much time hiding there.
“No, I’m here for the contest.”
“I’m done with the contest!” the king cried. “It’s caused me nothing but grief.”
“But Your Majesty!” the advisors wailed, “We need magic more than ever to put down the revolt!”
“It’s my destiny, Your Majesty,” Simpleton announced. “My brothers have already come and failed, but I will return victorious.”
If the king squinted, he could see a hint of Allan’s jawline in Simpleton, and so he sighed and sent him off on the same task.
Simpleton didn’t take the direct route, that was far too plebeian for him. He headed off towards the Enchanted Forest, first: he’d heard there was a lady handing out magic swords in a lake.
Hannah was feeling rather left out of the whole affair, and anyway, she didn’t want to kill Hamlet Jr. with her own hands. So, a few days after Simpleton left, she packed a bag, and headed for the palace.
Since Hannah was young, Devon had taken great pains to impress upon her the narrative in which they existed, and more so, how she had broken it. With Allan’s help, he had funded her educations, stuffing her brain with philosophy and psychology, until Hannah felt that whenever destiny did come for her, she was prepared to argue through it.
So, when she got to the palace, and saw the crowd of peaceful protestors, Hannah realized her purpose.
An hour later, she stood before the king and the princess, who were holed up in the highest tower with the king’s advisors, and on their hundredth chess game of the day. Hannah and the princess stared at each other.
“I’m here about the quest,” said Hannah, unable to tear her eyes away from the princess. She was gorgeous, and so clean!
“Do you even like girls?” the king asked his daughter.
“I like lots of things,” the princess replied, twirling one of her raven locks. She winked at Hannah. Hannah blinked, which was the best she could do.
“Fine,” sighed the king, and laid out the first quest.
“You don’t need the Water of Life,” said Hannah, gathering her wits. “What you need are immediate solutions to the societal problems you’re facing, to prevent wide-scale, violent rebellion.”
“Are you threatening me?” asked the king.
“No,” said Hannah, “I’m offering solutions.”
“We don’t need solutions,” the advisors said. “We need the Water of Life.”
“Hush, you,” the king snapped. “Go on, peasant.”
“Well, first,” Hannah said, looking venomously at the advisors, “I will explain why you don’t need any magical objects.”
“Make it quick,” the king demanded. Hannah took a deep breath, and began explaining the terrors of immortality.
Allan found a handy axe, just sitting in a stump in front of the statue of a man made all of tin. It was practically gift-wrapped, and Allan whistled as he went on his way. He was thoroughly lost, of course, but you weren’t supposed to know where you were going in the Enchanted Forest.
A little way ahead, he heard screaming.
Allan, noble soul that he was, headed directly towards the danger. However, he was not wholly without cunning, and moved on tiptoe. As the screaming continued, he found a lovely little cottage, chimney gently smoking, smack in the middle of the forest. It looked very out of place. It was also the source of the noise.
Looking through the window, Allan was just in time to see a pair of feet disappearing down the gullet of an enormous wolf wearing a nightgown and frilly nightcap. The wolf burped, patted his writhing stomach, and yawned. Allan ducked underneath the windowsill.
Snores shook the cottage a moment later, and Allan cautiously got to his feet. He peeked in the window again, debating what to do. The wolf was truly enormous, its stomach frighteningly distended. Allan considered walking away.
Then he thought about the terrible monster Karma, and how difficult life would be without a rear end.
He grumbled, hefted his axe, and eased open the door.
Devon stood on the top of Mount Deadly, having found no trace of Allan anywhere. The guardian flared its pink-and-purple frills at him and hissed through its seven mouths.
“Look,” said Devon, “I don’t care about the Water of Life. I was just wondering if you’d seen my brother.”
“Eh?” said the terrible guardian, blinking its seventeen gem-like eyes.
“Yeah, I don’t want to marry the princess. I wanted to be a scholar, but we never had the money.”
“Tell me about it,” the terrible guardian replied, sitting on its furred haunches. Devon sat on a nearby stone.
The guardian nodded, and Devon’s story spilled out.
“I’ve known since Simpleton was born that we’d be destined to be nothing but peasants, and Allan and I would fail at whatever we tried at. I thought it’d be different when Hannah came along, you know? But then this whole quest thing happened, and Simpleton’s going to win the princess’ hand, and Hannah will have to suck up to him to get anything. It’s just not fair.”
“I know that feel,” the terrible guardian said sympathetically, and patted Devon’s shoulder with a bat-winged appendage. “But you still have your whole life ahead of you, you know? You don’t have to give in to the narrative. Take me, for instance. I write romance novels.”
“They make a killing in airports,” it nodded.
“You’ve opened my eyes,” said Devon, “I can be anything I want to be! Thanks, terrible guardian!”
“Godspeed,” said the terrible guardian, shedding a single tear.
Devon, having learned his trite moral lesson, climbed down the slopes of Mount Deadly, and made his way to the nearest city.
Simpleton had not found the magic lake. His hair was full of twigs and mud, and his clothes were torn, and when he spotted the modest little cottage tucked into a little clearing, he made a beeline for it.
“The cottage of the Wise Old Woman!” he murmured to himself, “As long as I’m polite, I’ll get whatever I want. This’ll be a cinch.”
A middle-aged woman opened the door when he knocked.
“Hello, grandmother,” Simpleton said, before he could get a good look at her.
“What!” the woman cried, “I know I’m hardly young, but grandmother?”
Simpleton backpedaled, and she slammed the door.
“Hey!” he yelled, “Open the door!”
Well, Simpleton was nothing but persistent.
“And that,” finished Hannah, “Is why you don’t need the magic mirror that tells you who the fairest is.”
“You’re right,” said the king, scratching his beard. “I didn’t need any of those things. I never particularly wanted them in the first place, either, but now they sound downright terrible. Not to mention, they’ve nearly caused an economic meltdown. Who suggested I get those things?”
“Your advisors,” said the princess.
The advisors were already packing their bags, brightly colored travel guides hanging from the sleeves of their voluminous robes. They thought Paris sounded nice, but they were willing to settle for something cheaper if it meant escaping a beheading.
“You’re all fired,” the king shouted, as they fled the hall.
“Does that mean I win?” asked Hannah. “My throat’s rather dry after all that philosophizing.”
“Well,” said the king, “I do find myself in need of a new royal advisor…”
After his axe simply bounced off the sleeping wolf’s neck, Allan discarded the axe for a carving knife, and slit open the wolf’s stomach. To his horror, the inside of the wolf appeared entirely hollow. He tried not to think about it as an old lady and a little girl, both covered in digestive juices, slid out.
“Ugh,” said Allan, covering his nose. The two proceeded to shake themselves all over him.
“Thank you for saving us,” the girl said, wringing out her red cape. The wolf’s stomach juices had bleached the color in patches.
“It’s not over yet,” the old lady said, a gleam in her eye. “Let’s go get us some river stones.”
Devon arrived in Chicago and found work as a writing professor, philosophizing that his entire life was a story, and so why shouldn’t he be able to teach it? He rose in the ranks quickly, soon becoming the head of his department, and lived happily in his self-made destiny.
“Look,” shouted Simpleton through the door, “it’s my destiny!”
“No, it’s not!” The wise woman yelled back.
“I’m the third son!”
The wise woman opened the door for a moment, glaring. Simpleton puffed out his chest.
“I’m not a wise old woman. I’m a writer.”
“What?” Simpleton demanded.
“I’m writing a nice story,” she said, “About a lot of people dying of plague. I would read you the best bits, but you’re starting to get on my nerves.”
“You’re in the Enchanted Forest,” Simpleton said desperately, “If you don’t offer me your help, Karma will get you.”
The woman slammed the door again, and a moment later, tossed a biscuit out the window.
“There! I’ve offered you my help. Now get off my lawn!”
Simpleton skulked off into the Enchanted Forest. The last anyone heard of him, he was living as a hermit, and handing out nonsense prophecies to lost princes.
Allan did the gruesome work of sewing up the wolf with river stones, and escorted Red Riding Hood back home. Her mother, Barbara, instantly fell in love with his jawline, and the two were married within a month.
“I don’t think we should send Red to Grandmother’s anymore,” Allan said.
“But then,” Barbara said, “I would never have met you.”
“I suppose so,” he replied doubtfully.
Allan never left the Enchanted Forest again.
Hannah married the princess after two years of awkward flirting. After the king died, she deconstructed the feudal system, and moved back home to Hamlet Jr.
They all lived happily ever after.
Maria Schrater is a second year Fiction major at Columbia College Chicago. She has previously been published in the Lab Review. Maria has an extensive knowledge of interesting but useless facts about ancient literature, and lives in Chicago with two actors and an ungrateful cat, Horatio Stormalot.