THE DARK CASTLE

By John Thomas Tuft

It was the weekend of the annual Ramps Festival in the town of Sabbath Rock. For the uninformed, ramps are an extremely pungent version of wild onion plants that can be deep fried, if you are so disposed, or otherwise consumed. Be forewarned, however, that the event is known locally as the Stink Fest, celebrating the arrival of spring, particularly in mountain communities, with a malodorous mix of wild onion and garlic unleashed. Booths are set up outside the volunteer fire department, the VFW, American Legion, and each church, as well, gets to be part of the Stink Fest. Sabbath Rock is carved into the side of Hutchins Mountain, deep in the Smokies near the state lines of Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Ramps are harvested from their shady hiding spots and the regency of pungency begins and folks follow the old ridge runner trails into town from near and far to partake, the incessant blinking through watering eyes notwithstanding.

At one end of Main, sitting high up the slope is the old Cooper place, otherwise known as the dark castle. Old Man Cooper died in 1973 and the huge gothic mansion sat empty ever since. Townspeople say it is haunted so, ipso facto, it is inhabited by wandering spirits artfully disguised as kids from town sneaking in at night on dares and teenagers seeking solace together in activities best described elsewhere. Shortly before this year’s Stink Fest a new spirit moved into the dark castle, under the cover of night, one Richard III, Jr., sporting an eyepatch and an army overcoat with one empty sleeve and an imaginary pet dragon, Pete. “Nobody knows how to get back home, from the darkness to the dawn!” Richard III, Jr. would cry as he took Pete for a walk through the empty hallways, stopping to dance with the dragon in the empty ballroom, the two burning candles casting eerie shadows along the walls of the dark castle.

Richard III, Jr. had left his Fair Lady to go fight in a war. Which one is of little consequence, because it broke him. Missing an arm and an eye and having a dragon for a best friend while living in a dark castle are all anyone knew about this wandering knight in Sabbath Rock. But his limitations did not deprive Richard from having an open heart, as all good knights must, even errant ones. Now, as someone once said, “an honest tale speeds best, being plainly told…” The weekend of the Stink Fest, the crowds showed up, enjoyed the ramps and the games of chance, watched the children play and the young couples dance, swayed to the music of the high school band and cheered when the steel drums played ‘Hotel California’ till it threatened to get out of hand. Every organization took in a lot of cash, but a dispute arose over where to keep the locked box of treasure.

While they were gathered in front of the Town Hall, shouting and gesticulating over who was more trustworthy, which was safer–the churches or the mayor’s house, the safe at the general store or in the jail in the sheriff’s office–Richard III, Jr. swooped in, grabbed the box of money and jumped up on one of the tables. “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! You herd of humans, now is the winter of your discontent,” he cried. “You shall have no treasure until you look in the mirror and see love.” With that he mounted his dragon Pete and retreated to the dark castle, his one eye glowing fiercely and his empty sleeve flapping in the wind. The townsfolk grew exceedingly angry at this theft of their labors and intentions and outraged that this misfit could take it away from them.

As darkness fell, the crowds surged toward the dark castle. When they arrived, they laid siege to it, as one does with castles. Local pastors took turns praying over the mob, asking for divine intervention on the side of reclaiming their treasure, whatever it might take. Then they prayed for the leaders, seeking divine strength for giving the people what they wanted. Then they prayed for the strong men who prepared fire and weapons to breech the walls and burn out the infidel within. They prayed for local business leaders, asking that all might prosper from the bounty of the Stink Fest. When Chester Jones hurt himself trying to chop down the doors, they prayed for healing and comfort. As they began the prayers for wisdom in victory, a child in the crowed shouted and pointed to the highest gable on top of the dark castle. There perched Richard III, Jr., holding his coat tight around him, scrabbling to hang on to the ledge, begging Pete to be there to catch him.

The people broke through the doors and stormed inside. They flooded into the great ballroom, screaming and pushing to get to the treasure first. But everywhere they looked they saw only mirrors, hundreds and hundreds of mirrors. And as they rushed about, they kept tripping over each other as they were certain that they found the one, true way out of this maze of their own reflections. Meanwhile, high above, Richard III, Jr., grew tired and weaker. He finally had to let go, dropping through the darkness, trusting that Pete the magic dragon would be there to catch him…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.