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Is the Queen of Hearts demanding "Off with their heads!" or is she pressing the start button on the FAX machine? Illustration by John Tenniel

Is the Queen of Hearts ordering “Off with their heads,” or is she pressing the start button on the FAX machine? Illustration by John Tenniel

“FAX!” Simplia yelled. “Just the FAX, Ma’am! If there is anything else you want sent to Bleary in Bloomington about Doing or Dying or Off with His Head, bring it on, now!”

“There are just a few letters left,” said Sagacia, rounding the corner, sliding through the office door, across the floor, and skidding to a halt right beside her friend.

“I’m sure Bleary will want to read this one from Csenge Zalka, she said, catching her breath.

Using this element in stories largely depends on my mood and on my audience. I mostly use it as a technique to raise the stakes, and give gravity to the hero’s bravery and determination. It depends on the challenge, though. If the challenge is likely to kill the suitor anyway (dragon!), I don’t think there is a need for it at all.

“Sure!” Simplia agreed. “Facing a dragon is a plenty threatening task in itself, unlike–oh, for example–having to guess what kind of skin a tambourine is covered with!”

“When was that?” Sagacia asked.

“You know, in ‘The Flea,’ that Spanish fairy tale.”

“Oh, yeah. But if the suitors had bothered to read the title of the story they were in, they would have known!” Sagacia replied, smirking proudly.

Simplia fed the letter into the tray.

“And then there is this one from Megan Hicks,” Sagacia continued, unfolding another letter.

So all the poor slobs who tried and failed somehow deserved what they got? Success = worthiness? That’s a sentimental, romantic notion, but grim when you consider that every poor slob whose head is impaled on a stake is some mother’s son. This kind of thinking is the reason why I cannot watch slasher flicks or read horror stories. I can’t suspend my disbelief enough to dismiss each victim’s rich, full back story and the circle of grief and despair that must inevitably follow their grisly demise.

“A big-hearted woman that one is!” Simplia sighed. “I get that way myself, sometimes, though. With movies; not with Fairy Tales.”

Sagacia looked at her friend oddly.

“I guess that’s what she said, huh?” Simplia said softly.

“Yes, and here’s another from Csenge,” Sagacia said. “Hm-m, taking on Developmental Psychology. Listen.”

A lot of people argue that children don’t see death the same way adults do. For children, for example, if the villain doesn’t die in the end, they have anxiety that it will come back (I had several experiences). In the same way, the story doesn’t invoke the same level of excitement and involvement if the punishment does not sound severe enough. Children don’t usually think of the suitors’ death in gruesome graphic terms, or think of them as people. They are too focused on the hero at that stage.
That doesn’t mean that there is no other way of doing it; I am just still wracking my brain to think of what it is. Sometimes I feel bad about it in the middle of a story, and then I go: “And the King thundered: BUT BEWARE, BECAUSE IF YOU FAIL… um… YOU WILL BE SENT AWAY!”

“Now that is absolutely true!” Sagacia affirmed, handing the letter to her friend. “And she has a good idea, too! Just make the threat funny to take the edge off the gore–not so much for the children, maybe, as for the parents and teachers sitting in the back. Or say, ‘If you fail, you’ll have to go to time out!’”

Simplia giggled and guided the last letter into place on the tray. She punched in Bleary in Bloomington’s FAX number and listened as the machine began to hum it’s busy song.

Murzik purred along.

All was well. Well, well, well.