Popo, a donkey with noticeably long ears, longer than the ears of most donkeys, followed several donkey-lengths behind Shammel, a magician who had stars and planets circling his head. Strapped across Popo’s slightly bowed back were two large wooden boxes, one of which was painted with the faces of zebras, lions, monkeys and elephants, and the other the colors of a rainbow. Being a very obliging donkey, Popo never complained about the burden he carried. He held his head high and kept his eyes on Shammel who had a tendency to wander off on paths and roads not marked with signs and not on any map. It was on a unmarked path that entered a dark forest that with some misgiving Popo silently followed Shammel. Unlike most donkeys, Popo knew when to keep his mouth shut.
Shammel wore a robe the color of a red candy apple. Its hem dragged on the ground leaving a trail of silver glitter as Shammel walked. In the darkness of the forest the glitter shone on the dirt path like twinkling stars in the night sky. Along the way, Shammel turned toadstools into shining lamps, and pine cones that hung from the trees into glowing Chinese lanterns.
Shammel stopped at the entrance to a stone bridge that crossed a fast flowing creek. He studied the way the stones were haphazardly arranged, and tried to peer into the complete darkness between the bridge’s two arches that held it up, but saw nothing. “It looks steady enough,” he said to Popo.
Popo also observed the bridge, but kept his doubts to himself.
As soon as Shammel stepped onto the deck of the bridge, a deep, booming voice echoed out from under the bridge. “Who goes there?”
Shammel stopped. “It’s a magic circus,” he said.
It was moments later before there was a response. “What kind of magic?”
“It depends on what kind of magic you need,” Shammel replied.
A gruff reply came back. “I don’t need any magic. If you have it in your mind to steal my bridge, be aware that the previous magician had his nose hairs plucked out one by one by a crayfish to teach him a lesson for trying to take my bridge.”
Popo wiggled his nose-hair filled nostrils and snorted in alarm.
“I shouldn’t like that at all,” Shammel said, “but believe me, I only want to cross your bridge to take my circus wherever this path leads.”
The voice remained silent for a few minutes, and then said, “It’s ill-advised to take paths if you don’t know where they lead to.”
Popo agreed wholeheartedly but refrained from speaking up. Being a donkey, keeping quiet took a great deal of effort.
“Although I usually prefer not to know, where does this path lead to?” Shammel asked.
“To the village of Roseberry Glen. I’ve never been there but I hear it’s far less pleasant than its name might lead you to believe,” the voice answered.
“Names are often misleading,” Shammel said. “I’d do away with them altogether, but it would make sending letters very difficult.” He looked down and watched a slug slowly crawl across the tip of his sandal. He waved his hand and put the slug on a bicycle the size that a slug could ride, and watched it pedal its way into the woods.
“May I cross your bridge?” he asked.
The voice answered quickly. “You can for the price of a bit of magic, but if you value your nose, you’ll proceed carefully.”
“I’ll be very careful,” Shammel said. “I like to see who I’m performing magic for. If possible, may I see you?”
There was silence from under the bridge for several moments, and then a troll slowly poked his head above the edge of the deck. He had a sprout of hair growing in the middle of his otherwise bald head. His skin color was pale green and he had round, owl-like eyes. His large, fleshy ears stuck out like fins of a fish. A single yellow tooth hung from his upper gum and over his lower lip. His fat upper lip was curved into a sneer. He threw one leg over the edge and then lifted himself onto the deck. He was very short and stubby and he stood on enormously large and dirty bare feet. His ragged britches and tunic were filthy. He wiped from his chin a piece of dried fish. “I’m told I’m the good looking one in my family,” he said as he rubbed green algae from his tooth.
He looked up at the galaxy whirling around Shammel’s head. “What’s that?” he asked.
“The heavens above,” Shammel said.
The troll locked eyes with Shammel. “That’s a most peculiar thing to have spinning around your head,” he said. “Now, do your magic.”
Having been with Shammel for a long time, Popo knew what to do. He walked up to the magician and turned so that the box with the rainbows was within his reach.
Shammel unbuckled the straps that kept the box closed and raised the lid. Several large baseball-size bubbles floated out and hung in the air. He gazed at them thoughtfully for a moment, shook his head, and then reached into the box. As he swirled his hand around, the sounds of tin pots clanking, dogs barking, train whistles blowing, and waterfalls cascading over cliffs, echoed out. He pulled his hand out. In his grasp was a very small box wrapped in blue paper with a silver ribbon tied around it.
“Another time,” he said to the bubbles. They quickly went back into the box and he closed the lid. He carried the box to the troll and handed it to him as if he was handling something very fragile.
“This small box is the magic you offer to cross my bridge?” the troll scoffed.
“The magic is inside the box,” Shammel said. “However, you must wait until there’s a full moon before you open it.”
The troll turned the box over several times, examining it. He glared suspiciously at Shammel. “I’ll let you cross my bridge, but if this some kind of trick, I’ll get you when you return if you don’t have your head separated from your neck along the way. This is the only way to and from Roseberry Glen.”
“It’s not a trick,” Shammel said.
The troll went to the edge of the bridge and climbed over it, leaving the stench of dead fish in his wake.
Shammel crossed the bridge. Popo followed behind, as always.
The dark woods ended at a good distance from the bridge. No longer blocked by the trees, the sunlight warmed the path and removed the shadows cast by the trees. Four sod huts with thatched roofs surrounded by mossy ground stood in a line a little ways back from the path. Smoke curled up from their round chimneys and hung like clouds above the roofs. Lace curtains hanging in the open windows fluttered in the moist, balmy breeze. Shammel stopped and gazed at the huts. The color of his robe changed to the color of pink cotton candy.
Popo was glad to stop also. His feet and back hurt, but as always, he thought it best not to whine about his aches and pains. He stopped for a brief snack of dandelions that had sprouted up along the path. He had a dandelion hanging from his mouth when a gnome came running out of one of the huts.
“You there, donkey, stop what ya be doin’ this very moment!” the gnome yelled at Popo.
Popo dropped the dandelion and looked at Shammel who had an amused smile on his face.
The gnome’s pointed red hat sat askew on his round head. Butterflies flitted around his bushy gray beard. He stopped at the border of the path, crossed his arms, and began to tap his foot. He glared first at Popo, and then Shammel. “Whatever ya be sellin’, we’re not likely to be interested,” he said.
“I’m not selling anything,” Shammel said. “I’m Shammel The Magician and I’m taking my circus to Roseberry Glen.”
“I’m Schmug, the head of this gnome-clan,” the gnome said. “What reason could you have for going to such a place as Roseberry Glen?”
“Because it’s on this path,” Shammel said, “and perhaps they need to see my circus.”
“A man and a long-eared donkey don’t make for much of a circus,” Schmug said.
Not needing to hear another word, knowing that Shammel would take what the gnome said as a challenge, Popo trotted to the magician and turned so that the box painted with animal’s faces was within the magician’s reach. Shammel unbuckled the strap around it and raised the lid.
The sounds of horns that beeped and horns that squeaked, those that honked, and those that blared, along with toot toots and ooga oogas, were emitted from inside the box. The sounds rose in the air, stopping birds in flight, ceasing the buzzing of bees, and halting the hum of hummingbirds. This was followed by calliope music so melodious and cheerful that Shammel couldn’t resist tapping his foot to it, even though he had heard it countless times before.
Male and female gnomes, young and old, came running out of their houses. They all wore pointed hats of varying colors that sat precariously on their heads. They joined the first gnome along the border of the path. “What is it?” they chorused.
“The one with the heavens circling his noggin says he and the donkey are a circus,” Schmug replied haughtily and with his arms crossed.
Few of them had ever seen a circus. Those that had uttered aloud that a donkey wasn’t a circus animal.
Popo took those comments more graciously than any donkey would, and although he felt like braying at such blatant effrontery, he kept his large teeth clenched and his tail down.
Shammel tapped the side of the box. One by one animals no larger than a piece of popped corn leapt out of the box. As soon as they touched the ground they grew to their right and full size. An elephant with a monkey sitting on his head stood on the path along with a brown bear holding a dozen helium filled balloons, a lion wearing a party hat, two seals balancing balls on their noses, dogs wearing pink tutus who stood on their hind legs, and a giraffe wearing tap dancing shoes. Shammel clapped his hands and each animal took turns doing something unusual for animals, except for in a circus. They hopped and danced, did tricks with objects, and the lion rode on a tricycle.
The gnomes clapped and cheered, stomped their feet, and slapped their knees.
When the animals shrunk to their original size, they jumped back into the box.
“The best is yet to come,” Shammel announced as he took bags of peanuts from the box and handed one to each of the gnomes.
As the gnomes broke open the peanut shells and shoved the nuts in their mouths, a wire strung between two poles rose out of the box, increasing in size the further it went high up in the air. Appearing on one end of the wire, an acrobat wearing a silk skirt and ballet shoes, and holding a blue parasol, balanced herself as she took small steps on the wire. Mid-way across the wire, and still holding the parasol, she leapt in the air, spun about, and then landed back on the wire. When the acrobat reached the other end of the wire, she, the wire, and poles returned to the box.
This was followed by trapezists who sprung from the box. They hung upside down from swings that became attached to the clouds and swung back and forth. The trapezists leapt from swing to swing, doing somersaults in mid-air and catching one another just when it seemed like one of them would fall to their certain death.
The gnomes were enthralled. Even Schmug was laughing and cheering.
After Shammel clapped his hands and the trapezists and the swings disappeared into the box, he closed the lid to the box, and bowed in front of the gnomes.
“More, more,” the gnomes shouted enthusiastically.
“I must continue on to Roseberry Glen and the day is waning,” Shammel said. “But before I go, I have a gift for each of you.”
He opened the rainbow painted box, and as bubbles rushed out and waited patiently in mid-air, he took out eighteen boxes wrapped in red paper and tied with green ribbons and gave one to each of the gnomes. “Don’t open them until the moon is full,” he said to the gnomes.
“We may never open them at all,” Schmug said. “The best part of getting a gift wrapped in a box is imaging what might be in it.”
“Perfect, it’s imagination that’s in the boxes,” Shammel said aside to Popo.
Shammel then directed the bubbles to return to the box. He closed the lid and buckled the strap. With the gnomes happily preparing to bury their gifts, as they did with all treasure, Shammel turned and continued on his way to Roseberry Glen.
Without a single hee-haw of protest, although he wished he had been offered a few dandelions to chew on during the journey, Popo followed behind.
In the waning light of day the high stone wall that surrounded Roseberry Glen was foreboding. All four of Popo’s knees shook and his teeth chattered as he stared at the barbed, spear-like rods of the closed village gate. It had a huge sign on it that read, “Stay Out Or You’ll Lose Your Head.”
“Don’t fear, Popo,” Shammel said. “Losing one’s head isn’t nearly as bad as losing one’s courage.”
Just then the gate swung open. Its hinges squealed and squeaked like bats and mice.
Shammel’s robe changed to the colors of a candy cane. The red and white swirled around the fabric. As he walked through the gate and up the cobblestone street, candy wrapped in different colored foils dropped from the hem of his robe. With every step he took, his sandals on the cobblestones made the sounds of drums being beaten and cymbals being crashed. As night began to fall, the stars around his head began to twinkle brightly.
Nervously, Popo followed behind. He was careful to keep his tail between his legs and out of harm’s way when the gate closed behind him. Like most donkeys, he was very protective of his tail.
Stone houses with shale roofs lined both sides of the streets. The windows were cracked and the doors were bowed. The overgrown yards were cluttered with broken toasters, dented bird cages and rusty banjos.
As the circus passed the houses, their inhabitants came out wearing their nightgowns and pajamas. They rubbed the sleep from their eyes and followed the magician and his donkey to the village square.
“Why did you wake us?” asked a man with a beard that reached the ground.
“The sun has barely set. Why do you go to bed so early?” Shammel asked.
“We almost never get out of bed,” a woman in a rumpled nightgown decorated with prints of sleeping fairies and drowsy-eyed cherubs, said. “Who are you?”
“I’m Shammel The Magician, and this is my traveling circus,” he said. “We come in friendship and hope to keep our heads, even if they are of questionable value, even to us.”
“We put up the sign on the gate, and spread the rumor that you will lose your head if you come to Roseberry Glen so that our slumber isn’t disturbed,” said a jolly looking man with a rotund belly and wearing a night cap on which laid a sleeping house cat. “But since you’ve awoken the entire village, may we see the circus?”
Much relieved that he was going to keep his head, Popo walked up to Shammel.
Shammel unbuckled the strap from around the rainbow box and lifted the lid. Bubbles arose from it and floated in the air. “Yes,” Shammel said to them.
Instantly the bubbles multiplied in number, and then doubled that, and then tripled their amount. They began to glow and surrounded the villagers, tickling the noses of the children, and dancing like round, transparent fireflies around the heads of the adults. As the bubbles burst, chocolate, maple flavored and walnut fudge fell from them into everyone’s hands.
Shammel then opened the other box and from it sprang a circus tent that enveloped everyone. In the center of the tent was a single ring large enough for all of the performances that would follow. The animals did their acts, and the tightrope walker did hers, followed by the trapezists. Just when the villagers thought there couldn’t be anything else that could keep them awake, a dozen clowns leapt out of the box. There were clowns with big, floppy shoes and clowns with red, bulbous noses. Some of the clowns wore pointed hats with polka dots and others wore no hats at all, but had bright orange hair that stuck out of their heads like hairy cauliflower. They chased each other with squirt guns and hit each other with spongy bats. They tumbled, did cartwheels, and leapfrogged one another. Shammel snapped his fingers and a small red car appeared in the middle of the ring. The clowns all crowded in, rode around the ring once, and then they and the car vanished.
Shammel went to the middle of the ring, held out his arms in a majestic manner, and bowed as everyone stomped their feet and clapped their hands.
Standing on the edge of the ring, Popo felt as sleepy as the villagers, all who left the village square after the tent disappeared back into the box, yawning as if they hadn’t slept in days.
At sunrise, after sleeping on piles of hay, Shammel and Popo quietly left the village. On their way out, Shammel left a box wrapped in paper and topped with a bow at the door of every house.
“I’ve left them pleasant dreams to accompany their sleep,” he said to Popo.
They took the path past where the gnomes lived, and arrived at the troll’s bridge late in the day.
Hearing them, the troll said from under the bridge, “So, you didn’t lose your head at Roseberry Glen. That’s a pity. I opened the box and it was empty.”
His robe the color of a moonbeam, Shammel said, “You were told not to open it until the full moon. I kept my part of the bargain to cross your bridge, but you didn’t keep your part.”
The troll climbed up onto the deck. “I’ll let you cross my bridge again if you give me another box,” he said. “This time I’ll be sure to wait until the moon is full.”
Shammel opened the rainbow colored box and took out a box wrapped in green paper and topped with a gold bow. He handed it to the troll. “Remember now, you must wait until the moon is full.”
The troll hugged the box close to his chest and climbed over the edge of the deck and disappeared from sight.
As Shammel and Popo entered the path still illuminated by the toadstool lamps and Chinese lanterns, Popo tugged on the back of the magician’s robe with his teeth.
Shammel stopped. “Yes, my faithful friend, I did leave him something in the box. The gift of kindness.”
Being a donkey who had never known anything but kindness from the magician, he understood the value of what the troll had been given.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 600 short stories – new and reprints –published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. A Map of Humanity, his eighth collection, published by Hear Our Voice LLC Publishers came out in January, 2022. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.