Last week I looked at a few light-hearted short stories. This week I thought I’d bring to the foreground a few sly and clever short stories, the kind with trickster characters, humour, and absurd logic.
Tales of Polly and the Hungry Wolf by Catherine Storr is the sequel to Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, which most unfortunately I have not been able to beg, borrow, or steal [*ahem* temporarily and with every intention of returning… eventually], and takes up where its predecessor left off. The volume contains eight stories, in which the wolf, who is indeed very stupid, continually tries to trap Polly and devour her.
“Don’t let’s have any of this endless talk, girl. Eat up your nice globules and don’t argue,” the wolf said.
“But, Wolf, you haven’t counted. The globules will make me ten years younger.”
“Hurry up and swallow them, then. I’m hungry.”
“Wolf, I am seven years old,” Polly said.
“Seven. Eight. Six. What does it matter now?”
“You aren’t very good at numbers, Wolf. I am seven. If I eat these globules, and they make me ten years younger, how old do you think I shall be?”
“Two? One and a half? Six months? All good ages. Delicious ages. Just what I enjoy most,” the wolf said.
“You can’t count, Wolf. If you take ten away from seven, it leaves minus three.”
“What is minus?” the wolf’s voice asked suspiciously.
“It would mean that I wouldn’t get born for another three years.” (Tales of Polly and the Hungry Wolf, p. 40-41)
Polly, who is seven years old and (unlike Red Riding Hood) very clever with it, does her level best to not be eaten. The wolf applies knowledge gleaned from a book of fairy tales to his schemes. He buys magic spells and delivers them via the mail slot, sings songs his mother taught him (always about eating up small children), and digs pits for Polly to walk into. Polly uses Brer Rabbit-like persuasion, reason, and mathematics to keep herself (and her younger sisters) on the outside of the wolf’s stomach.
Then there’s “The Breath of Princes” by Alan Smale, found in A Wizard’s Dozen (ed. Michael Stearns). When the local dragon takes Stephanie, she is under no illusions about the length of her life span. But Stephanie hadn’t intended to stay in her village or marry one of the local louts, anyway. The dragon just gives her a bit more of a time crunch than she’d wanted for in making her plans happen. “The Way of Prophets” by Dan Bennett in the same collection adds a twist to the royal quest narrative with a neat and deliciously precise example of wordplay – and of being careful what you ask for, because you just may get it.
Instead of Three Wishes by Megan Whalen Turner contains seven stories of magic. Some are eerie (“The Nightmare” for example) and some leave the reader with semi-sweet ache (“Aunt Charlotte and the NGA Portraits”). All feature characters who use wit to win the day. In “A Plague of Leprechauns,” the publicity surrounding a leprechaun sighting brings more ill luck than good to an village in New Hampshire, where a canny innkeeper fends off the tourists and an absent-minded artist’s liability becomes an asset. In “Leroy Roachbane,” a homework assignment and a nasty slip on the ice send a boy to ancient Sweden to battle a scourge that has driven a king out of his hunting hall. “Factory” is bittersweet, and that’s all I’m going to say about it – no spoilers! “Aunt Charlotte and the NGA Portraits” had me researching Italian paintings, “The Nightmare” pits a boy against his worst enemy: himself, and a conquering tyrant sends the regency council of a small nation into fits in “The Baker King.”
My favourite of this collection is the title story, the very charming “Instead of Three Wishes,” which begins like this:
Selene and the elf prince met on a Monday afternoon in New Duddleston when she had gone into town to run an errand for her mother. Mechemel was there to open a bank account. (p. 73)
Selene helps the indeterminately-aged and conservatively-dressed elf prince, but refuses his proffered reward of three wishes. Mechemel tries time and time again to come up with a suitable reward for Selene, but his idea of “suitable” isn’t exactly in keeping with the times or with her situation. Selene and her mother, who live in a fictional town clearly based on Waterloo, Ontario (Canadian content via university! Woo!) are amused by the elf prince’s attempts, and continue with their ordinary life as a financially impoverished, loving family. Mechemel, meanwhile, is frustrated with his inability to repay a simple debt, which rather amuses his mother, the Queen. His debt only worsens when his elfin sweet tooth leads him to devour anything and everything that Selene bakes. This story has a particularly realistic situation for the humans, drawn lightly and surely, and therefore the conclusion is especially satisfying.
What are your favourite sly and clever short stories? Any beloved trickster characters?