The Village Pub was not the only pub in the village, but the name helped establish that distinction. After all, if you tell your friend you’ll meet at the village pub and you show up at The Village Pub and he shows up at The Pint or MacFrancis’s Boot or whatever he believed THE village pub was, then that’s just a waste of a drinking hour. So eventually, by the mutual desire to drink efficiently with one’s friends, the whole village silently agreed The Village Pub was THE village pub.
That, of course, was Ms. Cindy’s intention all along when she named The Village Pub The Village Pub.
Like many people in the village of Koobyrots, in the country of Storybook, Ms. Cindy started her career at the Koobyrots Shoe Factory. She was the one who came up with the idea for shoes to be a form of self-expression instead of just something you wipe horse manure off of at the end of the day. She made lovely color drawings of fantastical shoe designs and stuck them on the side of every cart leaving and coming. Soon everyone in the kingdom wanted not only the sturdy brown boots Koobyrots was famous for, but also slippers in easily-smudged shiny leather and high-heeled clogs that pinched your toes and inexplicably expensive “sandals” that were just a strip of leather with straps and guaranteed a parasite infection any time you stepped into a puddle.
Rumor has it one of her biggest fans was the Prince of Hapsland himself, who was so noble –his parents were simultaneously first, second, AND third cousins– that he had three feet. He was always seeking one more shoe, which Ms. Cindy discreetly provided with every order (and charged him for, of course).
So, the Koobyrots Shoe Factory got very rich, and Ms. Cindy with it.
Years later, Ms. Cindy took her wealth and opened The Village Pub, which eventually became THE village pub, as I explained. Over the years, it became a gathering place not only for the local villagers, but also for an array of travelers and adventurers who wandered out of the magical forest next to the village.
Today Ms. Cindy was in her back office as usual. Her pudgy bare feet rested on top of the imported mahogany table next to the usual pile of letters, bills, and news bulletins from near and distant lands. Under the desk, a row of shoes in different colors and styles stood like soldiers at attention. A notebook rested across her knees on which she was doodling plans for the expansion of The Village Pub: The Village Florist, The Village Pharmacy, The Village School, The Village Gift Shop…
Snow, The Village Pub’s bartender, kept an eye on the sparse afternoon crowd. Despite the strong drinks, anybody who was even thinking about being rowdy would freeze under Snow’s cold smile as she fingered the loaded rifle under the bar that she kept next to a dog-eared copy of Dismantling the Patriarchy: Volume 5.
Three timid taps came from the door. Ms. Cindy sighed. It was Zoe, The Village Idiot.
“Come in!” she called, not bothering to take her feet off her desk.
The door opened slowly and Zoe’s worried brown eyes peeked in. On most days, Zoe reminded Ms. Cindy of a mouse –small and brown and fragile. Sudden noises scared her. Sunlight dazed her. And if Ms. Cindy raised her voice, Zoe actually scurried.
“Mr. Haps is coming up the driveway, Ms. Cindy.” said Zoe, over Ms. Cindy’s brightly painted toes. The sun was setting, and the last gold rays rested on the girl’s head like a crown.
“Speak up, child” said Ms. Cindy. “I’m getting on in years.”
“The Prince of Hapsland is going to be here a half hour early!” she yelled.
“Thank you, Zoe.” Ms. Cindy sighed.
“Now, Zoe,” she said patiently. “When did you bring my breakfast this morning?”
“Two hours and twenty-three minutes ago, Ms. Cindy.”
“Two hours and twenty-three minutes. Alright. And do you know how long it’s been since I finished it?”
“Two hours and three minutes ago.”
“Very good. And in the last two hours and three minutes, is there something you’ve forgotten to do?”
Zoe’s large brown eyes darted frantically around the room. Ms. Cindy quickly continued before she could scurry away.
“The dishes, Zoe! You need to take the dishes away when I am done with them!”
Zoe turned to the breakfast table by the window and stared at the grease-smeared plate, bacon-y fork and spoon, and the half-empty coffee mug. She gingerly piled these on top of each other and held them with the tips of her fingers. She looked up at Ms. Cindy expectantly.
“You need to wash them now,” said Ms. Cindy. Then she realized something, “You know how to wash dishes, child?” It was always like this with Zoe. You think you could talk to her like any other villager –Awful weather we’re having today, isn’t it? Yes, it’s raining very badly. –and then suddenly, you realize there were gaps in what she actually understood. Why don’t you have your rain boots on Zoe? They got stuck in the mud. Why did you walk in the mud? It was a dirt road yesterday. You didn’t know dirt would turn into mud? No, Ms. Cindy.
“I will learn.”
Ms. Cindy sighed again. That was another thing Zoe said a lot. “I will learn.” Her brows would furrow and her chin would jut out and she would look at you with the purest of intentions. What can you say to someone genuinely committed to learning something that shouldn’t need to be learned in the first place?
The door burst open. Princess, the peasant girl Ms. Cindy hired, sashayed in wearing the latest, most fashionable clogs.
“Mr. Haps is here,” she declared, tossing her thick blonde hair over her thick bare shoulders.
“Knock before you come in,” said Ms. Cindy. She gestured to the pile wobbling in Zoe’s hands and added, “Take these dishes and wash them, Princess.”
The door slammed behind Princess’s swaying behind, the plates held firmly in her hands. Ms. Cindy eased her feet off the table. Prince Felipe Hapsland of Hapsland –the family named the country after themselves– was traveling “incognito” as Mr. Haps. He would only come so far from the capital for something urgent, she thought. She needed to radiate calmness, determination, but also warmth —
“The black leather boots would be best.”
Ms. Cindy jumped. Zoe was watching her from the corner, like a mouse.
“The recent recession in Hapsland has been exacerbated by the new tariffs that Storybook imposed in retaliation for Hapsland saturating the market on magical beans. As a result, the government has adopted very unpopular austerity measures. Royal spending is scapegoated and common folk are marching in front of the palace every week. The prince and even government members have taken to wearing the simplest fabrics in the most serious colors.” Ms. Cindy stared at her. That’s something else about Zoe. The child doesn’t know how to boil an egg but she can tell you the whole history of the Hapsland-Storybook trade wars going back three generations.
“So everyone around the prince has been dressed like they’re going to a funeral?” Ms. Cindy reached for a pair of knee-high peacock-blue boots with gold buttons along the calf. “You may know the latest news bulletins, child,” she said, as she pulled the shiny leather over her feet, “but you don’t know people.”
She stood up, steadying herself on the side of the desk.
“Go and talk to him for half an hour,” she said. “I need to read up on these new tariffs.”
Zoe was never fazed talking to important guests. Princess would laugh too hard and Snow would be aloof, but Zoe would smile with those big brown eyes and nod encouragingly for hours. She may be the Village Idiot, but she made a rapt audience.
“Wait,” said Ms. Cindy, as Zoe turned to scurry out the door. “How did you know Mr. Haps was the Prince of Hapsland?”
“I saw his carriage pull into town from my window. He had his curtains open. Somebody with eyes so…directionally different… and such a…distinctive… chin must be very…noble. And everyone knows the Prince of Hapsland is an old friend of yours.”
Zoe rattled off names of everyone who had told her just that. It seems every single person in the village had been gossiping about Ms. Cindy and the Prince to Zoe. Ms. Cindy wouldn’t be surprised if Zoe had talked to every single person in the village. She brought that out in people.
The first time Ms. Cindy saw her, Zoe had walked in from the forest covered head to toe in mud and who knows what else. She had sat down and ordered the daily soup and day-old bread. As she sampled the soup –which is nothing more than leftovers boiled overnight — she struck up conversation with the other customers and even with the taciturn Snow, who was behind the bar finishing Dismantling the Patriarchy: Part 4. By the time Ms. Cindy made her nightly rounds, Zoe had become fast friends with all the regulars. She didn’t seem to mind the hours going by. She didn’t seem to have anywhere to stay for the night. And she didn’t seem to be making any move to pay for her soup and bread. Ms. Cindy needed an extra pair of hands, and the village needed another Idiot (The last one left to be a poet). She offered Zoe a job and the spare closet behind the stove to sleep in. Zoe didn’t even ask for a salary. So Ms. Cindy didn’t offer one.
Ms. Cindy waved Zoe away when it seemed like she would actually name every single person in the village and recount each conversation they had about Ms. Cindy and the Prince. Then she called her back.
“Thank you, Zoe,” she said. Zoe looked at her, startled, and scurried away.
When Ms. Cindy emerged from her office a half hour later, the Prince was recounting every pothole he encountered on the road to Koobyrots. There were big potholes that nearly swallowed the whole carriage. There were little ones that made the horses dance and rattled the teeth of the occupants behind. There were ones filled with water and ones that were dry. He even saw a farmer’s wagon overturn when its wheel fell into a jagged pothole and broke off. Chickens and produce flew everywhere.
Snow ignored him. Princess said, “That’s so funny!” and “Oh, really!” at regular intervals. But Zoe listened with big eager eyes and an encouraging smile.
“Felipe!” Ms. Cindy walked towards them with open arms. “How are you, old friend?”
They embraced and kissed each other on the cheeks.
“I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see someone wearing color!” said the prince, admiring her bright boots. “The palace feels like a funeral”
“Ah yes,” said Cindy, sympathetically. “The austerity measures are so unfair.”
“Ah, but it is the people who suffer the most.”
“That is what I meant, of course. The austerity measures are so unfair for the people.”
They walked towards the back office arm in arm.
Snow poured herself a drink and settled down to re-read Dismantling the Patriarchy: Part 5. Last week, Princess had asked what a “patriarchy” was in the same tone she used when talking about last season’s clogs. Snow had given her such a chilly smile that Princess immediately went to The Village Library (Ms. Cindy was a founding member.) and got A Beginner’s Guide to Dismantling the Patriarchy. She started on that now. Neither of them noticed Zoe throw her cloak over her shoulders and slip outside.
At the top of a magical tower in the middle of a magical forest, Calvin the Squire was having a nightmare. There was an earthquake and he was about to be crushed. His teeth chattered. His heart pounded. He couldn’t breathe. There was a pain in his chest –sharp, localized, pain. He was being stabbed, just like the dragons Grant the Knight use to stab — He remembered the angry spearhead shattering the golden scales and dark coppery blood oozing and sizzling in the sun. He was the dragon now, being stabbed by ten Grants with ten pointy spears. He heard a growling and knew it came from himself.
Calvin opened his eyes.
The orange cat was on his chest, purring so loudly the bed shook. It was flexing and unflexing its claws into Calvin’s chest, its fuzzy little face scrunched up in sleepy happiness.
“Ow! Get off!” yelled Calvin. The cat gave him a golden-eyed glare and jumped off his chest with such force it winded him.
“It’s not the cat’s fault you’re sleeping in his favorite spot,” said Zoe, as she stepped through the window.
“Is it Sunday already?” asked Calvin, yawning.
“It’s easy to lose track of the days in here,” said Zoe, pulling off her muddy boots. “You have to keep a schedule. When I was trapped in here, I journaled every night and woke up with the sun.”
“I stayed up all night trying to understand this Quantum Reality for Children book you recommended.”
“I don’t think that writer ever talked to children,” said Zoe walking to the nearest bookshelf. She stroked the spines with her fingertips. “Try Quantum: A to Q.” She pulled out a thin book with a smiling toddler on the cover and tossed it onto Calvin’s stomach.
“Your parents’ package came this morning,” said Calvin, sitting up finally.
Zoe pulled a thick leather book out of a weather-beaten box by the bed.
“Gray’s Humanity,” she read.
“Oh, that must be for me. I wrote your mother about the time I had to set Grant’s dislocated shoulder. She told me she had done the same thing when your father fell off his horse on a hunting trip. Of course she went on a three page tangent about what she wore on the hunting trip, but in the end, she held your father down with her foot and pushed his arm back into the socket while their servants cowered around them.”
“Oh, I remember that day. My father can design the best saddles in three kingdoms, but can’t stay in one himself for five minutes. And he screams bloody murder at a paper cut.”
She pulled out a stack of letters from the box and settled down in her regular armchair to read them. The cat jumped into her lap, curled its feet under itself, and purred.
“Your parents don’t seem concerned that you’re working in a pub,” said Calvin.
Zoe shrugged, “They think it’s novel and exciting.”
“They also don’t seem concerned I’m stuck in here instead of you.”
She turned to him. A furrow appeared between her brows and her chin jutted out. Finally she said, “Thank you, Calvin.”
He looked at her, startled. Then he thought of something.
“Well, Princess, if you would –”
“Nope,” said Zoe, turning back to her letters. “I’m not marrying you. We’ll just have to find some other way to get you out.”
Calvin signed and opened Gray’s Humanity. The two of them read in silence as the sun set over the treetops.
When the faint outline of the moon started to appear, Zoe turned to him.
“Did you know,” she said, “the main road from Hapsland to Storybook is in shocking disrepair? My father never mentioned that in any of his letters. None of the news bulletins talk about it. Or any of these books on the history of trade between the two countries.”
“What does that matter?” asked Calvin. “Everybody knows that road is terrible.”
“Storybook and Hapsland both benefit from the trade enabled by that road. Yet Storybook pays more for the maintenance.”
She did some calculations on the back of an envelope.
“The tariffs will not cover the cost of an expansion, but we should at least fix some of the potholes first. Ensure that farmers from Hapsland can sell their chickens in Koobyrots without toppling into a pothole.” She looked up at Calvin.
“A pothole is just a hole, right? It’s not like someone is leaving cookware on the road?”
“Nobody is leaving soup pots on the road, Zoe.” Calvin rolled his eyes.
“Just checking,” she said. “I used a cooking pot for the first time this week. I can see how they can be quite dangerous if you stepped in one.”
Calvin shook his head and turned back to Gray’s Humanity. Finally, he thought, he had found a book both challenging and useful. If there were no distractions from disappointed knights hoping to find a princess at the top of the tower instead of a spotty-faced teenage boy, he might actually finish the book this week. He’ll ask the queen for another one. She seemed to enjoy having somebody to write to.
Zoe started a letter to her father, the king of Storybook, detailing a plan for fixing and possibly expanding the main road between Storybook and the neighboring Hapsland. “Wide enough for two chicken carts…” she mumbled to herself as she wrote, “but not enough for an attacking army…”
At the bottom of this week’s box was a contraption of metal and ivory, small enough to fit in her sleeve, dainty and dangerous in her hand.
“Thank you for…newest prototype from the armory….beautiful…quite unnecessary…”
To Be Continued…