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Ernest Griset’s illustration for “The Villager and the Viper” a Fable of Jean de La Fontaine.

A circle of magical friends were huddled in the Fairy Tale Lobby discussing the latest query from Carefully Clairvoyant in Cleveland.

Resting his arm on the mantel, Richard Martin said, “The poet Charles Causley wrote that a poem can be analysed just as a living bird can be dissected. We see everything that is inside, but at the end of the process the bird can no longer fly.”

Draped over the armrests at one end of the Chesterfield, Simplia beamed.

“Charles Causley!” she mouthed toward Sagacia, draped over the opposite armrest.

“Yes!” her friend whispered back with a grateful smile.

Richard nodded kindly and went on. “Without ignoring what is inside a fairytale,” he said, “CC’s post is a timely reminder of the dangers of suffocating it.”

Nick Smith set his laptop on the end table and inquired, “Wasn’t it Robert Frost who was quite surprised to be lectured by an academic about what one of his poems meant?”

Sagacia and Simplia looked at each other and shrugged.

“But, Robert Frost!” Sagacia whispered, bobbing her head appreciatively.

“On the other hand,” Megan Hicks injected, “D. H. Lawrence is reputed to have said you can’t trust authors to tell you what their writing is about. You can only trust the writing.”

Simplia was impressed. “D. H. Lawrence!” She mouthed silently to her friend.

“It seems to me,” Nick continued, “that a story means whatever the listener thinks it means. If a story doesn’t resonate with me, then it doesn’t matter to me how deep someone else thinks it is. If a story changes MY life, it doesn’t matter to me that someone else perceives it as trivial, or interprets it differently.”

“I straddle the fence on that one,” Megan confessed.

“But Carefully Clairvoyant in Cleveland isn’t really asking about the BIG meanings, anyway,” Mary Grace Ketner insisted. “The life-changing meanings. The poetic or philosophical meanings. She wanted to know about the little meanings, the behavioral advice, the attitudes, the things your mom told you over and over when you were growing up.”

The other magical friends looked puzzled.

“Like ‘Don’t cry wolf,’ you know,” Mary Grace continued. “From the story about the shepherd who set off the wolf alarm twice when there was no wolf? Then when there really WAS one and he called for help, no one came?” she pressed. “They didn’t believe him, because he’d lied before. One of my mom’s favorite cautions: always tell the truth. If you ever lie, people will never believe you again.”

No one said anything. Mary Grace looked pleadingly toward Priscilla Howe in the wingback, snipping away at some After Eight dinner mint wrappers with her tiny scissors.

“Oh!” said Priscilla. “Uh, okay.”

She took a deep breath. “The snake is freezing in the road and begs a man to warm him inside his coat. The man doesn’t want to, but the snake promises not to bite. Once the snake is warm, he bites the man, who says, ‘Hey! You promised not to bite me!’ The response comes to mind from time to time: ‘You knew I was a snake when you picked me up.’”

“Okay, what y’all are saying is true, but those two stories are fables,” said Megan. “They’re intended to shape behavior; that’s their main point! CC was asking about the little meanings in parts of folk and fairy tales, not the main point of the whole story.”

“Oh, okay,” said Mary Grace. “Maybe this is one. When I tell ‘The Tinker and the Ghost,’ and Esteban is sitting there in the dark castle waiting for the other shoe to drop – or the head or arms or whatever is next – I say that he was afraid but he had courage and kept right on fixing his breakfast, acting normal. Then I say, ‘because you know, courage doesn’t mean that you’re not afraid; it means you ARE afraid but you do the right thing, anyway. You just, well, keep on doing whatever is necessary.’ I want kids to know that people who do brave things still feel afraid on the inside. They’re not too stupid to know the danger, they just push on past it. Like Esteban.”

The circle of friends seemed reflective.

“I’m actually reminding myself, too,” she admitted. “So maybe I’ll speak up when something is wrong or try to do something about it, even though I’m afraid someone will get mad at me or something.”

Several friends nodded in recognition.

“And that’s not the point of the whole story at all,” she concluded. “It just applies to that one little part: waiting for the ghost. That’s what CC wanted, right?”

As the magical friends began to speak and share tales again, Sagacia put her own teacup onto the tray and stood up. Simplia took her cue, gathering up the empty plates and following her friend into the kitchen.

“My what savvy, literary folks our magical friends are!” Simplia said as the door swung closed.

“Oh, yes!” said Sagacia. “They know stories and books . . .”

“And writers and poets,” Simplia added.

“And they deserve another cup of tea!” Sagacia added, turning the burner on under the kettle.

“And another slice of pecan pie,” Simplia added, picking up the knife. “I can hardly wait to hear what the others have to say!”