from A Grandpa's Notebook, Meyer Moldeven

Suzanne and Roger raced toward where I waited under the date palm.

'How far did you run?' I asked.

'Dunes,' gasped Roger, leaning against the trunk of the banana palm.

'...and back,' added Suzanne, running in place as she spoke.

'Ready for the last part of the story?' Roger's gasping slowed to regular breathing.

'Whenever you are,' I answered.

Suzanne stopped running in place and flopped down onto the sand next to her brother.

'Your turn,' Suzanne pointed at Roger as she leaned against the tree. 'I'll rest and listen.'

***

'OK, everyone,' the Little Old Man calls out. 'Jump up and down a few more times and then gather round and take your places. The sun is starting its downward journey into evening. We'll finish in time so you can hike back to your campsites and have your dinners.

He sits slowly, and places his cane beside him. He looks around.

We're all in our places and quiet, waiting for him to go on with the story.

***

'We left the Princess, you and me in the enchanted, tangled forest. We've passed through the web of Cyril the Spider and are now back on the narrow, twisty trail. Up ahead is the steep hill. Near the top of the hill the narrow, twisty trail disappears into a tunnel.

'We climb the slope to the tunnel's entrance. We look in, but can't see beyond a few feet. It's really dark in there.

''We have no choice,' the Princess says. 'We must pass through the tunnel to the other side so that we can get to our ship.'

'We search the ground under the trees for fallen branches. There are many to choose from. We make clubs and torches. I light the tips of the torches with my trusty fire-matches.

'Into the tunnel we go. It's wet and cold and damp. Under our feet the mud is squishy. As we round a bend the light from the tunnel's opening behind us disappears. It's dark ahead of us and dark behind us. We step carefully, our torches lighting the way.

'We walk for more than an hour. The end of the tunnel is still not in sight. Our torches are getting short. We didn't expect the tunnel would be this long, and we're wondering if we'll ever make it to the other end.

'Up ahead is a dim glow. We walk faster. Maybe it's the end of the tunnel.

'The light gets brighter. It's coming from around the next bend. We're especially careful now, and as we come to the bend we lean over to peer around and beyond.

'A piercing shriek cuts the air behind us.

''We gotcha!' a voice roars.

'We whirl around, staring into the darkness, ready to fight. We see nothing at first. After a moment, we make out tiny gleams, in pairs and close together. Eyes-many eyes-staring at us.

''Oh no, you haven't got us,' I shout. The Princess, you and I stand close. 'Come on,' I whisper, 'let's make a run for it.'

'We turn and dash around the bend. We stop in surprise.

'The tunnel ahead of us opens into an enormous cavern. Lighted torches along the walls cast shadows in all directions. The center of the cavern is taken up by a huge black box, and next to it, staring at us are-now, be ready for this. Are you ready? Elves! Elves, I say! Yes, Elves!

''Oh, no,' cries the Princess, 'we escaped from Trolls, and now we're among the Elves. Not again!'

'We whirl back to the narrow tunnel. We must escape. From the tunnel rush more Elves. They're the ones who sneaked up on us and shrieked 'We gotcha.' My goodness, they sure gotcha'd us. We're surrounded!

'Standing back to back, we raise our clubs, ready to protect ourselves against attack. I must say, though, Elves are not at all like Trolls. These Elves don't look fierce, as Trolls do, nor do they look like they would really want to fight with us, or with anyone.

'Out of the crowd near the black box steps an old, old Elf. Stooped over, he leans on a cane. Slowly, he comes closer, peering at the Princess through tiny eyeglasses perched on the tip of his nose. He points his cane at her.

'Who are you?' he wheezes.

'I am the Princess,' replies the Princess and points to you and me. 'These are my friends,' she says, 'who have come to take me back to the King and the Queen who are my father and mother who love me very much and whom I love very much. We miss each other and I want to return home so I can be with them. The narrow, twisty trail to the cove where our gallant ship is waiting led us into this tunnel. We have no choice but to follow it. Please let us pass.'

'The ancient Elf has not taken his eyes from the Princess.

'Do you bake?' he wheezes.

'Do I bake?' cries the Princess. 'What do you mean by that? Are you going to bake me?'

'The Princess, you and I raise our clubs. No one is going to bake our Princess. No siree, not if we can stop it.

'There is a long silence. The ancient, stooped Elf stares at each of us. We stare back at him. The crowd of Elves closes around us.

'The old, old Elf smiles.

'I don't mean, do you bake, but only do you bake? No, that doesn't sound right, does it? Can you bake? Can you bake bread and rolls? There, that's better.'

'Huh,' I say.

'Huh,' you say.

'The Princess looks puzzled. 'What do you mean? Can I bake bread and rolls? Why do you ask?'

'Everything changes. Instead of being ready to fight for our lives, we're talking about baking bread and rolls. I mean: baking stuff! Now really! How about that, all you boys and girls sitting here round and about? How about that, all you Moms and Dads and Grandparents sitting alongside your children?

'Well, we are really astonished, and although we're relieved, we're still very suspicious. We keep our clubs ready.

'The Princess looks at me. I look at her. She looks at you. You look at her. You and I look at each other.

'The Princess's face breaks into a gentle smile as she says to us, 'I think these Elves will not hurt us. I'll speak with this little old man and try get his help.'

'We lower our clubs, but hold on to them, just in case we do need to defend ourselves.

''Yes, I can bake bread and rolls,' the Princess says, turning back to the little old man.

'Whispering sounds chase each other among the Elves crowding close.

'She says she can bake bread.'

'Do you think she really can?'

'Well, she says she can.'

'and rolls?'

'Yes, and rolls.'

'She can, really?'

'From someone in back, 'I'm willing to believe her. I'll say, yes, she can.'

'The Elves chant, 'She can. She can. Oh, yes, oh, yes, she can. The Princess can bake bread and rolls. Oh, joy, oh joy! The lovely Princess can bake bread and rolls. Beautiful bread and rolls. We are saved.'

'They dance. Round and round they go. Holding up colored cloths they form first a line, and then a circle, then many smaller circles, and circles inside of circles. They dance and they dance and they laugh and they sing.

'The ancient Elf leans heavily on his cane. He looks very worn and tired.

'Please,' he says. 'Our baker is very, very old, just as I am, and now he is also very sick. He is too weak to bake any longer or to tell us how to do the baking ourselves. So we have neither bread nor rolls. Please bake some bread and rolls. Then, lovely Princess, teach us how to bake. In that way you will save us from hunger.'

'The ancient Elf points to the big black oven.

'We have a good oven, but we don't know how to prepare it for baking. Show us how to heat the oven for baking. When we are no longer hungry, we will help you. We will have the strength to guide you to the cove, and to help you to get to your gallant ship. Then you will depart across the stormy seas to the King and Queen, who are your father and mother who love you and miss you very much.'

***

The Little Old Man stops talking. He pulls his big red checkered handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes away a tear.

'Well, boys and girls and mothers and fathers,' he says, 'you can imagine what happens after that. The Princess shows the Elves how to prepare the oven, and she has them bring flour and water and yeast and salt. She shows them how to mix and knead the dough.

'After the dough has risen, the Princess shows the Elves how to roll it out and shape it into loaves and rolls. Everyone is busy. The Elves place the loaves and rolls on baking trays and pans. They lift the trays and pans over their heads and form a line from where they made the dough to the oven's door.

'The Princess stands beside the oven as the Elves follow her instructions and slide the trays and pans inside. The oven is enormous, and there is room for all the trays and pans.

'We sit in a half-circle in front of the oven, waiting. Soon, the cavern fills with the aroma of baking bread. Everyone, the Princess, all the Elves, and you and I, breathe in the warm soft fragrance that always comes from well-prepared bread and rolls baking in an oven.

'When the Princess thinks enough time has passed, she says, 'It is time to take the trays and pans from the oven.'

'The Princess opens the oven door. A gasp and a shout rise from the Elves standing on their toes and stretching to see. Before them are dozens of loaves of bread and hundreds of rolls, all baked to a glorious golden brown. It is a beautiful sight.

'Using long-handled scoops, the Elves draw the bread and rolls from the oven and set them aside to cool. While the bread and rolls are cooling, the Princess tells the Elves again how the dough should be prepared, and how the oven made ready for baking.

'When the Princess is satisfied that her instructions are understood, she says, 'Now, as all good people do, let us eat bread together.'

'We all stand silently, looking at the bread. The ancient Elf rises from where he sits and, leaning on his cane, walks slowly to where the bread is cooling. He places his hand on a loaf and looks at it for a long time, speaking very softly.

'He pinches off a piece of bread from the loaf and from that piece pinches off another. Leaning on his cane, he walks slowly to where the Princess stands, watching him, and gives to her the pinch of bread.

'We were in need,' he says, 'and you helped us. By helping those in need you have shown us that you, too, deserve to be helped.'

'You and I nod in understanding. The meaning behind the words of Omar the Oak and Cyril the Spider are now clear.

'The ancient Elf points to a tunnel opening in the cavern's wall. 'From here the tunnel has many branches, and many have turns that lead deeper and deeper into the enchanted, tangled forest. By yourselves, you would have lost your way. We will guide you through the tunnel to the cove where your ship waits.'

'The Princess and the ancient Elf silently eat the bread they hold in their hands.

'The other Elves crowd around and thank us for showing them how to bake bread and rolls. They wish us well on our journey home.

'We wave good-bye, and with ten stalwart Elves carrying lighted torches to lead the way, we walk along the tunnel. After many turns into branch tunnels and an hour of climbing ladders and stairways we are out again into daylight. We see the cove. A lively offshore breeze is blowing.

'The Elves drag a boat from among nearby reeds. We take seats in the boat and our escorts row us out to our ship. We climb aboard, and wave farewell.

'I turn away and shout to my crew, 'Hoist the sails.'

'The sails rise, catch the offshore breeze and fill out. Our gallant ship turns gently and moves gracefully out of the cove. We are on our way home.'

***

The Little Old Man slowly stands. He is stooped, and leans on his cane with both hands. He looks tired and a little sad.

'That is the end of the story,' he says. 'I recall that the voyage across the sea was stormy, but we did reach the other shore safely. The Princess was happy to be back with her mother and father, whom she loved and who loved her and they had indeed missed each other very much.

'For many years afterward the Princess enjoyed baking bread and rolls for her father and mother and for friends who came to visit. In time, she married, and baked for her family. Every day, before dinner, she and her children carried baskets of bread and rolls and other foods from the castle and gave them to her people. The people all loved the Princess as much as she loved them.'

***

The Little Old Man slowly straightens and waves his cane at us. We all stand.

'Good-bye, good-bye,' he says. 'The sun is low in the sky. It is time for you to return to your campsites. I will see you all again another time, and we'll all go on another voyage across stormy seas to strange lands and strange people, and even stranger Things. Good-bye, good-bye. I wish you well.'

The Little Old Man turns and, leaning heavily on his cane, goes into his tiny hut and closes the door. The story of the Princess's escape from a land of enchantment has ended.

***

We hike back to our campsite. It is late evening when we arrive. We have a quick supper and slip into our sleeping bags.

'This was really a good vacation,' I say to Suzanne. 'Tomorrow morning we'll sail back to our home at Three Palms. I'm glad we're going home, because next week we start school.

Suzanne is sound asleep.

***

And so these stories of Suzanne and Roger at Three Palms are finished. We stand and stretch. A gull swoops in from the sea, lands, and pecks about among strands of seaweed that had washed on to the shore. It is late afternoon.

Leaving the beach we head for our homes. At the top of a low rise we stop to look back. There, against the background of blue ocean and darkening sky the fronds of our three palms wave gently in a soft and gentle breeze.

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