He had left on a ship, but Rumpelstiltskin came back to England on the back of an oversized albatross. The bird had complained the entire time—accusing Rumpelstiltskin of weighing far more than he had promised in their initial negotiations—but carried him just the same. Well, until they were over a haystack, which is when the albatross turned over and forced Rumpelstiltskin into freefall.
If it had been someone else, they likely would have died—and Rumpelstiltskin briefly wondered if the albatross would even care—but the imp was no normal boy. When the haystack did almost nothing to stop his fall and Rumpelstiltskin hit the ground and snapped his neck, he was not worried in the slightest.
After he fell over and his legs touched the ground, Rumpelstiltskin pushed himself to his feet and regained his balance just in time for his spine to crack back into place. After yawning and a moment of stretching stubby arms in front of him, the imp looked at his surroundings and thought them somehow familiar.
As he wandered into the nearby street, Rumpelstiltskin didn’t bother thinking about his invulnerability. This had always been his life and nature, and he would question it just about as often as you or I might question breathing.
“Wait, did that scoundrel drop me off back in France?” Rumpelstiltskin asked as the street opened up to show docks off to his left and a cozy seaside community stretching along the coast to the right. It was far too familiar, and the imp was about to curse the albatross and his horrid luck when a fishmonger walked by with a wheelbarrow full of unappetizing wares. “Sir!”
“Sir? Whaddoya want, creature?” The man had scars along his face that would have caused anybody else to reconsider conversation, but Rumpelstiltskin thought he looked like a reputable sort.
“Could you tell me where we are? My transportation was quite rude and I believe he may have decided
to abscond with my rare flounder.” Rumpelstiltskin had decided against telling the man every detail about how he had to dive a hundred feet below the surface just to find the mystical fish. He figured the fishmonger would only be confused by the outlandish story.
However, despite that act of mercy, the scarred man still looked at Rumpelstiltskin like he belonged in every outlandish story.
“Don’t know what transportayshon or abs-kawnd means, brat, but yer in Seatown,” the man said before picking up his wheelbarrow and pushing it past Rumpelstiltskin.
“Seatown? What a strange name…” The imp followed his new friend and bounced along the path. “Is it near England?”
“Wot? You sane, imp? This is England,” the man said, spitting in front of Rumpelstiltskin as a way to keep him from following. Such aggression would be obvious to a regular person.
“This is England? I thought you said this was Seatown,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he stepped directly into the man’s spit, as if it was nothing. To the imp, it was essentially nothing, anyway.
Upon seeing the results of his obvious failure, the fishmonger set down his wheelbarrow and turned to Rumpelstiltskin so he could wrap wiry fingers around the imp’s upper arms.
“This is all England, and I’m not gonna explain it further!” Then he picked Rumpelstiltskin up by the arms and placed the living annoyance on the path behind him, patting his shoulders once the imp was on the ground. “You get to whateva hole you crawled out of or whereva they’ll take you, but you get out of my sight.”
“But we only just met!” the imp cried, but the fishmonger batted his own nose and waved away something in a cruel gesture unknown to Rumpelstiltskin.
“And I’m hoping we never meet again,” the man said, leaving Rumpelstiltskin to stare after the object of his spurned affections. He would have been more upset at the way this new friend exited his life, but then he heard something far too shocking for him to focus on what a fishmonger might think of him.
Muffled by the walls between them, Rumpelstiltskin heard the yowl of Mr. Prince.
Standing up straighter than he ever had before—and cracking two still-healing vertebrae in the process—Rumpelstiltskin realized that he had spent many weeks in this coastal town. This was, in fact, where he had been separated from his very first friend among the living.
Ahead and to the left was the ruins of a dock where he had departed with Captain Stone, who was still out smuggling god-knows-what to god-doesn’t-know-where. Behind him was the marketplace where he and Mr. Prince had been shooed away like they were common pests. So that meant that their familiar burrow—where they accessed their hideout—should be just to his right and underneath the foundation of the nearby building.
Which was exactly where it was.
Diving forward and scratching his unguarded knees as a result, Rumpelstiltskin threw himself into the crawlspace, not even bothering to talk to the descendants of the bugs and grubs he had been fortunate to meet on the last visit to this town. The only thing he cared about was the grey cat who was most assuredly waiting on the other side, licking his paw and pretending like he did not care to see Rumpelstiltskin. They would laugh about it, of course—maybe start another snoring contest—but the imp was sure his friend would welcome him and purr just the same.
“Mr. Prince, I have so many stories for you,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he neared the entrance to their little grotto, a smile on his face even though flecks of dirt had gotten in between his teeth. “I’ve been on so many adventures, and I don’t even know where to start. In fact, it might be better for you to start, Mr. Prince.”
Rumpelstiltskin pulled himself out of the crawlspace and then wiped off the dirt from his tunic. If the cat had taken the time to groom himself recently, it was highly improbable he would sit down in Rumpelstiltskin’s lap and dirty himself again. Royalty was stuffy like that. However, when the imp was finally able to look at their old corner, he did not see the lively and stubborn prince he had always known.
Lying in the corner, his eyes barely open, was a scrawny, drooling creature who was barely able to lift his head to look at his prodigal subject. When the cat was finally able to look toward the imp—wheezing through his nostrils in order to have some clue as to who had come to visit—Rumpelstiltskin’s heart broke. Mr. Prince’s eyes were red-rimmed, caked with some brown gunk along the edges, but the grey clouding the cat’s pupils was most telling. Once he was able to take in a few painful sniffs, the cat sneezed and let out a low hum of a purr.
“Mr. Prince, what happened to you?”
Rumpelstiltskin rushed forward, sliding on his knees until he was just within arm’s reach of the ailing creature. Just as he was about to touch the top of Mr. Prince’s head, the imp jerked his hand back and realized he could possibly hurt his old friend. Mr. Prince looked so weak, so diseased, and Rumpelstiltskin did not know what to do. He wanted to wrap his arms around the little thing, who had been so young and healthy when he had last seen him.
Rumpelstiltskin could not understand.
“Why are you so hurt, Mr. Prince?” he asked softly, tentatively extending a hand and hoping his friend would not do anything drastic. Once wrinkled fingertips met the top of the cat’s skull, the creature jerked its head back, but then the purr started again and it leaned forward, allowing Rumpelstiltskin to stroke his fingers through grey, matted fur. Although he was glad Mr. Prince recognized him, the imp could tell that even his hair had become brittle, nothing like the glossy sheen it could have after a full afternoon’s personal grooming. As he stroked Mr. Prince behind the ear—a soft whine accompanying the purr and making it sound like a mournful chirp—a tear rolled down Rumpelstiltskin’s face.
“We were supposed to come back here and share our stories of adventures, Mr. Prince. I had a lot. A lot, a lot, Mr. Prince,” Rumpelstiltskin said, sniffing once he saw the cat try to make eye contact with him through cataracts. The imp didn’t entirely understand, but some part of him could grasp the finality of the moment. “Did you have lots of adventures while I was gone, Mr. Prince? Did you get to see any more of the world?
“I’m sorry I didn’t come back sooner,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he looked away from his friend, pain building in the back of his throat. It felt strangely enough like the time he had tried to swallow a frog, but this time was not nearly as amusing. It just felt like he couldn’t get out a thorn that was tearing at him from the inside. “I thought I had more time to run around and have adventures with you. I thought there was plenty of time for us to trick more old people.”
“There’s never enough time, Rumpelstiltskin,” a familiar voice said from a few feet away, and the imp turned to see a silhouette of a man holding a scythe. Knowing just who had come to interrupt their reunion, Rumpelstiltskin backed himself into the corner and took Mr. Prince’s frail body into his arms, guarding his friend against what was coming next.
“No, it can’t be,” Rumpelstiltskin said, shaking his head and trying to make the universe listen to him. “I didn’t know him long enough!”
“I know, child. I know that all too well,” Sir Death said as he approached, using his scythe as a walking stick until he was standing just a few feet away. “Mr. Prince was a good friend for you, and it always hurts when we have to finally say goodbye. However, nothing lasts forever, Rumpelstiltskin.”
“That’s not true!” Rumpelstiltskin said he petted the creature in his arms, snot bubbling at the end of his crooked nose before he used one of his rough sleeves to wipe it away. “Some things last forever! Some things don’t die! I don’t die! You don’t die! You’ll always be here!”
“Perhaps, and that is my curse.” The reaper crouched down on his heels, holding onto the handle of his scythe with his right hand as he used the other to draw back his hood. When he did, Rumpelstiltskin could see the same gaunt, miserable face that had greeted him on the first day he could remember.
“There might never come a day when I depart from this world.”
“Yeah, well, that seems like a pretty good deal for you,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he looked back down at the cat in his arms. Even though he didn’t have the strength to fight against the imp’s hold, Mr. Prince had just enough willpower to look back up at his friend. “There’s too much in this world to see in one
“Truer words, child,” Sir Death said as he put out his free hand and touched the side of Rumpelstiltskin’s face. Although the imp had expected it to be cold, warmth flowed from Sir Death’s pale skin, and comfort with it. Briefly, Rumpelstiltskin leaned into the affectionate touch, but then he shook his head and held
Mr. Prince closer to his chest.
“I don’t die, Sir Death. I don’t die, so why does Mr. Prince have to die?” He looked back up with tears streaming down his cheeks, which caused the reaper’s face to twist in anguish. “Can’t you save him?”
“No, Rumpelstiltskin, but I would not, even if I could. It is the nature of living things that they must die eventually. The beauty of life is that it is temporary. This way, there will always be something new to find, something new to share with your friends, your family… with those who matter to you. Without any goodbyes, we would never know what it is like to lose, to gain, to never see again, and so we would never appreciate what we have. And even though he is small, and he may not know as much as us, I am sure Mr. Prince would agree.”
Sir Death reached down and settled spindly fingers along the cat’s back, and even Mr. Prince seemed comforted by his touch.
“Then why… then why do I get to live, Sir Death? Why do I not get to die like all the rest?” Rumpelstiltskin said, his beady, black eyes shaking and betraying all the pain he felt inside. “If I get to live—or have to, whatever it really is—why is it just me? Why do all my friends have to go before me?”
“That…” Sir Death balked, biting his lip as his eyes moistened.
“I cannot explain that to you without… I never intended for this to happen to you, child. The fates were cruel when they spun your thread,” he said before breathing out heavily. “Now it is too late to take your pain, your curse. This is… this is the first of many, Rumpelstiltskin. You have a long life ahead of you, and you will meet many friends. You will love many people, but you will not be able to take them with you.”
“Why not?” Rumpelstiltskin shouted, hugging his friend close. It was so tight that Mr. Prince let out an agonized whimper, and immediately the imp released his grip and sat down so he could set the grey cat on his lap. “Why do I have to be the one that lives? Why do I have to be alone?”
“You’re not… I’m sorry, Rumpelstiltskin, but you are not alone,” Sir Death said as he set his hand on the imp’s shoulder, causing Rumpelstiltskin to look at him through teary eyes. “I will always be here for you, and you will never be alone as long as I live. Even though you may not see me, may not hear my voice, I will always be watching out for you.”
“Sir Death,” the imp muttered, realizing that the somber, far-too-formal reaper was trembling with emotion.
“And as painful as this is, Rumpelstiltskin, you will have so many friends along the way. I know this; I can see it within your spirit. So cherish them while you have them—love them while they are here—for one day, they won’t be. Eventually, you will see them as they leave, their eyes shutting last one time. Think of it…” The reaper faltered, hesitating as he tried to console the perpetual child. “Think of it like the last time they go to sleep. And after this, Rumpelstiltskin, they will dream. Some for a short time, some for much longer, but they will see a world you cannot imagine. In a way, they are luckier than you and I will ever be.”
“Really?” the imp asked, a smile breaking through his misery for just a moment. “Mr. Prince will have a good dream?”
“I think so, child. I really do,” Sir Death said, a tear breaking from his eyes and falling down his face.
“And I believe it’s time he got to see it for himself.”
“It’s… it’s time?” Rumpelstiltskin asked as he looked back down at Mr. Prince. The cat was still purring, but every single breath seemed painful for him. At once, Rumpelstiltskin knew the reaper was not being mean or stealing his friend away. Mr. Prince was in pain, and someone needed to help him.
“Yes, child. If you let me take him, I can give him the rest he needs.” Sir Death reached out to take this agony from his cursed ward, but Rumpelstiltskin shook his head, smiling even as the tears ran down his ugly face.
“No, Sir Death. I need to tuck him in. Everybody,” he said, sniffing as he stroked the cat’s head one last time. “Everybody sleeps better when they get tucked in, and if this is the final sleep, Mr. Prince deserves to get tucked in by his best friend.”
“Rumpelstiltskin…” the reaper muttered, shocked by the strength of this insane, little boy.
“I’ll hold him close, and maybe when he dreams, he’ll get to have a ton of adventures, and then he’ll get to tell me later if I… if I finally get to go to sleep, too.” Rumpelstiltskin hugged Mr. Prince close, feeling the warmth radiating from his royal friend. “Can he go to sleep like this?”
“Yes, child, he can go to sleep like this,” the reaper said as he lowered his hand and rubbed the grey cat behind the ears.
For a moment his hand glowed blue, and they both heard Mr. Prince purr loudly, sweetly, but then the breath emptied from his tiny lungs and Rumpelstiltskin was left holding a body already going cold. Sir Death was about to take the corpse, but Rumpelstiltskin surprised him and brought his gnarled lips to Mr. Prince’s forehead so he could kiss the dirty, grey fur.
“It was very nice to know you, Mr. Prince. I’m glad I was here to tuck you in for your last goodnight,” he said before looking to the cloaked reaper, who was staring at Rumpelstiltskin in awe. “Can I ask you a favor, Sir Death?”
Then Rumpelstiltskin stood up and walked over to the crawlspace so he could nod back at where he had
“Can you make a grave for Mr. Prince? I know your scythe isn’t for that, but I don’t want to just leave him here,” he explained, but midway through the request, Sir Death carved through the ground and dug out a suitably-royal grave for Mr. Prince.
“Of course. You did not need to ask.”
Rumpelstiltskin smiled at Sir Death before walking over to Mr. Prince’s favorite corner and laying the small, grey body within the dirt. He then knelt and pushed loose dirt over Mr. Prince’s body, humming as he did. When he was finished, Rumpelstiltskin got to his feet and wiped the tears from his eyes, using his sleeve as a snot-rag once more.
“Sir Death,” he said as he turned to the specter, a bittersweet smile on his face. “Do you want to go on an adventure? Just a small one?”
The reaper’s heart broke again for this cursed boy, but then a smile stretched his face and seemed to bring color to his pale cheeks. Extending his hand, the reaper turned toward the exit of the alleyway.
“Of course, Rumpelstiltskin. We can go on a short adventure,” he replied, and the imp took his hand and started swinging it as they walked. Just as they reached the entrance of the alleyway, Rumpelstiltskin blew his nose on his sleeve one last time and took a big breath.
“Let’s make it a good one. It’s gonna be a long time before I’m ready to go to sleep.”