Robert Carlyle is, to my view, one of the greatest actors in the world today. For seven seasons he appeared as Rumpelstiltskin in ABC's Once Upon a Time, a series Kye and I love, but one that was beset by massive plot-holes and poor writing, especially during seasons five, six, and seven. The show, quite frankly, should have ended at the conclusion of season six, but limped on into a seventh before finally and mercifully being cancelled.
Rumpelstiltskin, like Rebecca Mader's Wicked Witch, was given short shrift over the final two seasons. That, and his story was utterly mangled to boot. The writers worked tirelessly to de-fang and suburbanize him in order to appeal to suburban audiences. They also mangled in the process any adult discussion about morality and good versus evil. It outraged me to the point that at the end of season six, I stomped around the TARDIS for an hour afterward raging about poor Rumpel's plight.
I don't just let things like that go, of course. I'm a writer! And so I decided to write my own happy endings for the Wicked Witch, and now for arguably my favorite character on any television series I've ever watched, Rumpelstiltskin.
Belle has been changing. After an outburst at Granny's, Rumpelstiltskin, her devoted husband, decides to investigate. What he discovers will change his life forever. Read on!
The Freedom of a Lily
It seemed that little had been untouched by his rage, including his person. After a time, and with painful effort, he uncurled and pushed himself to a sitting position. He leaned heavily against the part of the glass cabinet that hadn’t shattered and worked at getting a hold of himself.
How long had he lived? Time couldn’t touch him. He could die, but killing him was, to put it mildly, a difficult proposition.
More accurately, somebody else killing him was a difficult proposition.
He let that notion settle over the destruction like a cold, wet blanket and closed his eyes. Blood ran from his gashed forehead next to his ear and under his collar without care.
Some time later he woke. His butt and lower back were asleep. The gash on his head had clotted over, making any movement of his face sting fiercely.
It was early morning—past three o’ clock. No one had come to check up on him. Not a single person in this backwoods village ostensibly full of history’s most shining fairy-tale heroes. They were probably too busy enjoying their happy endings. He let the bitterness of that settle into his colon like hot coal. He chuckled, and the pain of it responded by urging him to stand. He did.
His legs were asleep. It made moving around the counter problematic. He stumbled like a zombie, and tripped just before making it to his destination—the painting which provided cover to his enchanted wall safe.
He got back to his feet and waved his hand.
The painting dissolved, revealing the safe. He waved his hand again and the heavy door clicked slightly open. Grabbing the handle and pulling it open all the way, he reached deep inside and withdrew a long mahogany box with ornate black and gold etchings. Another wave of his hand and the safe closed, the paintings rematerializing.
He hadn’t looked at this box in almost five years—the longest in his entire centuries-long life. He hadn’t looked at it for her. She had insisted that he put it up, and he had acceded. He had actually kept his word.
But it didn’t matter. None of it had actually mattered.
“If you love me, Rumpel, you’ll do this. For me.” She had said that countless times during their courtship, and then countless more during their marriage. Like some sort of enchantment, he had caved each time, and had, at least for a little while each time, done what she asked.
Of course, the enchantment always wore off, and he went back to his “wicked ways,” as she called them. The only two times he hadn’t failed her, in fact, were, in order, his wedding vows to be faithful, and not long after that his fervent vow to stop handling the Dark One Dagger.
Which lay in the mahogany box he held right now.
It wasn’t that she changed overnight. That would have been infinitely preferable. She had changed slowly, almost unnoticeably, over the course of the previous two years.
Of the changes he did notice, he thought them good—at least at first. She stopped nagging him. With that came the end of the specific nagging to have a child. She had always wanted one, but now was wavering. She had even picked out the name—Gideon. When asked what she wanted to name a daughter, she replied, “Oh, I don’t think I’ll have a daughter. I’m convinced it’ll be a son. That is, if I have kids at all. I’m not sure now.”
They even spoke of leaving Storybrooke and moving to the Edge of Realms, where, it was rumored, the Dark One—he—would finally be able to end the dagger’s hold over him (according to just one of many prophecies, most of which were total rubbish) and he, ostensibly, could be free of the darkness for good and forever. They were happy.
At least, he thought they were.
There was nothing to be alarmed about until Friday night at Granny’s, the night before last, when she polished off a bottle of chardonnay like it was strawberry Kool-Aid. Near the end of it she glanced up at Granny herself, who busied herself by collecting their dishes, and said, “You know, Granny, that lasagna tasted like a pack of dogs gang-fucked it, devoured it, then puked it up on the front porch.”
“Excuse me?” demanded Granny, justifiably outraged.
“Belle?” he’d asked in stunned disbelief.
“Oh, come on, Rumpel, you thought it tasted like shit too. You told me!”
He glanced up at Granny, who looked ready to bash Belle’s head in with a plate. “Please forgive her. She’s had a little too much to drink tonight.”
“Don’t make excuses for me! I’m not sorry!” snapped Belle. She threw her napkin at him and scooted out of the booth. She stood and glared at Granny, who glared right back. “I’ve always hated this horrible place!” With that she stumbled for the back exit. “I’m going to the bar! You two can go to hell!”
“Forgive her,” he offered, standing quickly. He reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a hundred-dollar bill from his wallet. “Keep it,” he said. The tab for the meals and the wine ran only fifty-five bucks, but he didn’t care.
Granny snatched the money without comment.
He hurried off after his wife.
She was walking—stumbling, actually—down the street. He hurried to catch up to her, then decided against it. With a flick of his wrist she disappeared in a cloud of crimson smoke. He’d sent her home, to bed. With another flick he put her out. One more and he was instantly home, too.
Changes. Yes. He glanced down at her as she lay sprawled across the mattress. He peered at her dress, which was even shorter than usual. And her heels, which were probably another half-inch longer. And her makeup, which was applied a skosh more assiduously, thickly, and garishly than before. But the changes until then hadn’t concerned him, which seemed utterly unlikely, because he never missed details or what they potentially might signify. It was what had made him so formidable through the years: always having a grasp of the loopholes; always having a handle on what people were actually doing rather than what they said they were doing. Most of all, never, ever taking anything for granted. Like he had been for far too long now with her.
He opened her closet and took out her clothes—all of them—and examined them. He could actually put them along a time spectrum, and did. The latest fashions were increasingly slutty and revealing, black or red or hot pink, and low-cut. Why hadn’t he noticed until now?
He went through her underwear drawer. Once full of pretty, flowery whites, pinks, and blues, her lingerie had steadily morphed into red, hot pink, and black, and, like her outerwear, increasingly skimpy. A black G-string actually said FUCK ME on the front.
Why hadn’t he noticed?
He put her undies back, closed the drawer, and went downstairs. He opened the liquor cabinet and took everything out.
One thing became immediately clear: there was a lot more booze than he had ever realized or enjoyed himself! Many of the bottles were close to empty. But he didn’t remember ever drinking Jack Daniels or
or buying a bottle of Everclear or Night Train, or six-packs of cheap beer! Ezra Brooks
He angrily flicked his wrist and the booze, all of it, dissolved into nothingness.
He glanced at the stairs. What was going on?
He slept on the couch. He knew what was coming in the morning. It wasn’t going to be pleasant. And he knew where he needed to start.
He made a full breakfast for her and waited patiently. She typically rose at 6 so that she could exercise, eat breakfast, shower, dress, and get to the library by opening time, which was 9. But by 10 she was still asleep, and her breakfast was getting cold. He put her portion in Tupperware (he’d long since eaten his) and then the fridge. He waited in the living room and read the local rag. He thought of opening the shop, but decided against it.
At 11 he heard movement coming from the bathroom upstairs, and then the shower turning on. At 11:45 she walked down the stairs. She was wearing black jeans, a Van Halen T-shirt (one he’d never seen before), and boots, and had a backpack slung over her shoulder. He glanced up from the book he was reading (Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit).
She glowered. “I want a divorce.”
He put the book down. “Because you didn’t like the lasagna last night?”
“Because you magicked me from where I was going after I left that shit-hole, and because you knocked me out! I wasn’t even tired!”
He stood. “Belle ... I’m sorry. But you’re not yourself. You’re ...”
She went to answer, but he waved a hand at her, and she froze. Her face had gathered into a furious retort of 100-decibel profanity, her eyes like blue spears.
He shook his head as though it were full of obscuring smoke. “Why ... why am I only seeing this now?”
He gazed at her. The anger building in him threatened to eclipse anything her frozen face displayed. “Of course,” he spat under his breath. “Of course!”
He stalked into the kitchen and began casting around. “Of course! Who this time? Come on, dearie, come on now.... I’ll find you. You know I will!”
He didn’t find anything until two more hours had passed. By then he had torn through not just the kitchen, but the study, the library, the cellar, and the attic. He ended up in the master bathroom. There he came across his daily supplement container. He opened up every day and poured the pills and tablets out on the countertop next to the sink and began examining them one by one. When he got to his daily multivitamin, he gazed at it with suspicion, then hurried downstairs with it in his grip. Once in the library, he retrieved a magnifying glass and flicked on the desk lamp. He brought the vitamin beneath the bright yellow circle of light, and bent to examine it.
Close-up, he could see tiny blue flecks that didn’t belong there. When he removed the glass, the flecks disappeared.
His lip curled with rage. His picked up the vitamin with his thumb and index finger; with his other hand he waved at it. Everything that was the vitamin disintegrated.
At that point, he should’ve been staring at nothing but air.
Instead the blue flecks remained floating like ...
“... like bloodsucking fleas,” he growled, thinking of another group of the same, much larger, that he should have disposed of ages ago.
This was their handiwork, he suspected. He opened his palm, and the blue flecks obediently floated over it. “And what are you little beauties exactly?”
He would need to break out some of his equipment to find out.
Belle was waiting just as he’d left her. She’d not remember anything, and wouldn’t tire while being frozen. He thought of giving her dummy memories when he released her, but decided against it. He promised her he would never do that to her. Then again, he had promised never again to use magic against her. And for years now he had been true to his word. Before he could stop himself, he muttered, “And look where that got me.”
But—was she at fault? Perhaps she was a victim. Perhaps she was clueless as to what was happening to her, and therefore to him. That was possible. He’d have to determine that as well, and that required she stayed where she was. But first ...
He gazed at the magical blue particulates hovering almost invisibly over his left palm.
“First,” he snarled, “let’s find out what exactly you are, and exactly who wanted me to ingest you—as if I don’t already know.”
He flourished his free hand and a moment later reappeared in his shop.
The spell that created them turned out to be incredibly complex. There were spells nested within spells nested within more still. Many were dummy spells—spells designed to lead the investigator down endless paths that ended inevitably in failure or a morass of even more potential dummy spells. Other spells came with “firewalls” that he was certain were designed specifically for him, for they were far more powerful than necessary, even for the “Savior,” Emma Swan. Several tried invading his mind and prompting great guilt or revulsion in him. Another nearly succeeded in getting him to destroy both his investigative efforts and the dust itself. He had to start over when he realized what was going on.
Several tried to put him to sleep. And one was an astonishingly powerful memory charm. He barely liquidated it before it got to him.
The longer he worked, the madder he got. Whoever (and he definitely knew now who) created this curse put in tremendous effort, time, and magical energy. This magic was as sophisticated as he’d ever seen, even compared to his own.
He glanced at the clock. It was past 1:30 in the morning. He had been at this now for half a day. Thankfully he was making inroads, however grudging and slow they were. He believed he had found the spell’s authentic bits. Dutifully and painstakingly he followed them to their source. All spells had a source, a kernel, a seed. Find that, and he would likely find the means to eliminate it.
He put his work down, then flourished his hand and disappeared back home. He was hungry and needed a bite to eat. Hungry, yes—but not tired. Outrage had energized him in a way he hadn’t felt in many moons. When he finally discovered what the spell was designed to do, he’d—
He had reappeared in the living room. He glanced around.
Belle was gone.
That was impossible! Someone had actually come into their home and had released her from the freezing spell! From his freezing spell!
Who was that powerful? The fleas, who had created the cursed vitamins? Swan?
Regina? Hook? Who?
Dumbfounded and even angrier, he went through the possibilities.
The fleas or their leader? Again, maybe. But this wasn’t the same as cursing vitamins. This was next-level magic, and he was certain they didn’t have it in them.
Hook? Not without serious aid—a talisman or an accomplice very (very) skilled in sorcery.
He growled self-reproachfully. He was asking the wrong question. The right one was:
Who would have the idiot courage necessary to break into his and Belle’s home?
A better one: Who could have possibly known that he had frozen her?
It was difficult to think past his skyrocketing anger.
No one—NO ONE—pulls a fast one on ME! NO ONE!
It was possible to put a magical trace on a person. But in his trust and desire to be the kind of man Belle insisted that he could be if he just tried, he had desisted in putting one on her. He wanted her to know that he had changed.
Clearly, someone had put a trace on her, one that had informed the perpetrator that she had been frozen. They then came and released her or possibly just magicked her frozen self somewhere else.
Something occurred to him then.
He bent his head and closed his eyes. Very slowly and deliberately, he raised his hands to shoulder level, palms facing each other, and focused.
The magic didn’t respond at first. It couldn’t get past his rage, which at this point was directionless and so behaved as a block to anything intentional. On the fifth try he achieved success. A glowing yellow light formed between his hands and quickly expanded.
It resolved. Standing before him was a translucent, slightly glowing figure—him.
It wasn’t a reflection. It nodded even though he didn’t. It was the nod he was looking for. Or a shake of the head. Either would’ve sufficed.
The nod angered him even more.
He stepped into the ghostly image, and it disappeared.
To keep a lid on his anger, he began pacing the room and talking to himself.
“Let’s review, shall we? My wife begins changing back to Lacey, through the effort of the fleas. That’s known now. Oh, it’s slow at first, that change, but then becomes more rapid and obvious—clothes, attitude, habits, booze, the works.” He got to the hearth, lifted a finger and ran it along the top of it, examining the light streak of dust. He turned on his heel and began marching back. “Change is good ... change is evolution ... change means life and growth—or death and decay.” He lifted that same finger. “But no matter, because I have learned through the centuries to spot change and to use it to my advantage. It didn’t matter if it was good change or bad, I could make it work to my advantage. Yes, indeed.”
He felt proud of himself. He was doing something right now that he had never in his life done before. In the past, had someone as important to him as Belle disappeared or been snatched from him, or put under the influence of a nefarious spell that regressed her to her cursed self, as she clearly was at this point, he would have instantly gone on a relentless hunt both for that person and their abductor, and would not stop until he had found both. But here he was instead, fighting every instinct to do just that. Here he was, forcing himself to think instead of going straight to the fleas and squashing every last one of them. He got to the opposite wall and the end table and wheeled about, his finger still in the air.
“They were thorough. I notice Belle’s changes back to Lacey but somehow don’t care about them. I notice them but don’t care about them. Today I find out why. Because the fleas have been dosing my daily multivitamin with a spell designed to keep me from caring about them.
“Just a minute ago I discover that I too have a trace on me, which means they know precisely where I am at all times.” He got to the hearth and spun around. “The problem is, trace magic is very difficult, even for me. The fleas couldn’t have put one on me. They don’t have the skill or the power. I barely do! No one in this Happily Ever After Plothole of a town has that kind of ability.”
He turned at the wall. “So who, dearie? Who?”
He stopped mid-step. “I’m still missing something. Indeed.”
He flourished his hand and reappeared in his shop.
Once again he found himself on a search. But this time his quarry didn’t take long at all to find. Forty minutes after starting, he held up a half-empty vial of what should have been turquoise-blue sleeping potion that was now, against all reason, purple. It had been poorly hidden under a loose corner floorboard he knew Belle knew about. He picked the vial up and, while still kneeling, took a long look at it. “Now this is quite interesting....”
He stood and went to the back office and flipped on the desk lamp to get a better look.
In a day and a half of outrages, one after the other after the other, one more at this point did little to affect his temper, mere snowflakes settling on
He found himself feeling the still relatively new sense of gratitude that no
one had interrupted him or walked into the shop, because then the “Old Rumpel,”
as his wayward wife called him numerous times, would be ready to strike, and he
hadn’t murdered anyone with gleeful capriciousness in a long time. Mt. Everest
As he very much wanted to right now.
He forced himself to focus on what should be sleeping potion, now almost certainly not. Should he investigate further? What magical properties did this fraud of a potion contain, and how were they created to aid in manipulating him to be utterly ignorant and at-ease with his wife’s slow changes back to Lacey that culminated in her leaving him yesterday morning? The fleas and someone else—someone immensely powerful—had successfully pulled the magical wool over his eyes for a very long time. Their planning had to have been painstaking, meticulous, and most skillfully and patiently executed. It was, he had to admit, a masterful job, a thing of beauty.
He threw the vial into the wall, where it shattered and the potion spattered over the cabinet.
It didn’t matter now what he discovered. He’d been royally had. He’d been conned. Belle was gone; and it was a sure bet that she was going to be very difficult to find. Anyone with the skills to put this curse together wouldn’t have forgotten such an important detail.
What was most painful, however, wasn’t that the curse had defeated him, the Dark One, but this: Belle hadn’t had the courage to come to him, to be honest with him, to share with him that she was dissatisfied and longing for something else in her life.
His old cane was in the corner next to the loose floorboard, which was still up. He looked around, only now becoming cognizant of the fact that he had come back into the store proper. He went to the floorboard and kicked it down, then grabbed the cane.
His temper, which had been safely contained to that point, boiled over.
He opened the mahogany box and stared down at the blade which had stayed nestled here in darkness and safety for half a decade: