By John Thomas Tuft

His siblings gave him the derogatory nickname of Rumpelstiltskin. Short of stature, an unbecoming face, a hideous mole under his left eye, still able to wear young children’s clothing sizes, and not lucky in life by any stretch of the imagination, drove Rodgrigo to be a loner. Boys of all ages from 8 to 80 make a sport of comparing themselves to other males of the species as a way of attesting manhood by acclamation rather than maturation. If “humans are gonna feel alone when we go into the wrong room,” and if “what would I die for” becomes a Jeopardy category in a world where people feel more and more empty and unmoored, then courage becomes a precious commodity indeed in a world built by big people for big people—of all measure. The vast majority of us are fixer-upper human beings, except that there is no next tenant. We are stuck with ourselves. Perhaps that is a clue as to why so many remember how Rodrigo, aka Rumpelstiltskin, became the little lion man.

One day his grandmother, Leona, gave him a special gift, a gold scarf she had made herself. “I spun the gold threads from straw,” she teased. “For my little lion man. This scarf is your mane, and when you wear it you will become like a lion.” Then she gave him a big poster, the face of a mighty lion. Underneath his regal countenance were the words, “Prepare for the thing that won’t happen.” Rodrigo was puzzled. “What does that mean? A scarf doesn’t make me a lion. And prepare for what won’t happen? That doesn’t make any sense, Grandma.” She gave him a smile followed by a slow, knowing wink as only grandmas can do. “If it won’t ever happen, then there’s nothing to be afraid of, my little lion man. Prepare for it by not letting your fears tell you what to do.” Rodrigo still did not understand but he loved his grandma and trusted that she knew what she was talking about. Because, well, that’s why grandmas were invented, after all.

Every day Rodrigo wore the gold scarf around his neck. Others teased him. “Look at Rumpelstiltskin, thinks he’s better than us with that fancy scarf. Hey, Shorty, that scarf doesn’t hide how ugly you are. Maybe you should wear it over your face!” That always brought on a round of laughter from the others. And every night he would lie in his bed staring at the lion on the poster, wondering what was it that would never happen to him. From the look of things in the mirror he would never be tall. And maybe he would always be ugly. Prepare for being tall and handsome? Rodrigo laughed at that thought. When he did, he remembered Grandma Leona telling him that he had a beautiful smile. Was that what she meant? He didn’t know, and every day that is how it went: wear the scarf, get teased, feel humiliated, stare at the lion, wonder how to prepare for what won’t happen, and ask questions till he fell asleep. Over and over and over again. Never did he seem taller or more handsome.

Then one day Rodrigo came upon a bunch of kids teasing someone on the playground, a thin and nearsighted boy they called Freddie Foureyes. When one of them threw a rock that drew blood, Rodrigo moved in. As loudly as he could, he roared, “STOP. LEAVE HIM ALONE!!!” He ran through the group, straight to Freddie’s side. He handed him one end of the gold scarf, nodded and together they ran as hard as they could at the nearest tormentor, the scarf stretched out between them. When they knocked the boy to the ground, the others scattered. Rodrigo then used the scarf to bind up the cut on Freddie’s head and stop the bleeding. Of course, both were given detention that day—Freddie sitting there, head held high with the bloody scarf still wrapped around his head and Rodrigo, whose feet didn’t reach the floor–a band of brothers, a pride of warriors.

Rodrigo caught the late school bus home, riding with the other dispossessed of the day, including Mary with the buck teeth and early development, including the requisite acne, in detention for making an obscene gesture to a teacher. As Rodrigo followed her down the steps of the bus at their stop, Mary was on her cellphone. As they crossed in front of the bus, she tripped, and her phone slid out of her hand and under the bus. What happened next is a blur of milliseconds. Mary crawled toward the bus to get her phone. Rodrigo reached to his throat for his scarf to wave at the driver, but it wasn’t there. As he tried to roar “STOP! STOP!” to the bus driver, he heard the driver high overhead gun the engine and find first gear. As it lurched into gear, Rodrigo threw himself at Mary with the strength and ferocity of a full-grown lion, knocking her clear…

On the hill outside of town is a quiet spot. Folks said there were one hundred and thirteen cars in the procession for the little lion man, stretching all the way back to town and beyond. If you go looking, find the stone with the carving of the face of a roaring lion. No name is on it. None is needed. But you will know it’s the right one when you read the words: PREPARE FOR THE THING THAT WON’T HAPPEN. A call to courage to all of us humans of the fixer-upper variety…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.