Rumpelstiltskin III and the Reasonable Reanimation
Rumpelstiltskin wasn’t quite sure how he had ended up in an oversized bag, but he had lost patience with the lack of response to his cries. After pushing out with his knobby arms, Rumpelstiltskin finally found the top of the zipper above his head and tried to pull it apart from the inside. Luckily, he was strong enough to provide the tension necessary to start the zipper on its path, and it did not take long before he was able to sit up and take note of his surroundings.
“This… is not where I fell asleep,” Rumpelstiltskin mused as he looked around the dark laboratory, and when he looked over the edge of his table, he found the floor to be a little too far for him to comfortably climb down. However, looking over the edge betrayed his center of gravity, and the imp tumbled off the table and onto the tile floor with an audible smack.
“…why does that always seem to happen?” Rumpelstiltskin asked in dismay, nursing his forehead for the bruise that would eventually appear. Still, it was better than a cracked cranium, so Rumpelstiltskin crawled out of the oversized black bag, unaware that it was meant for larger bodies than his. When he was finally able to stand—the crown of his head only a few inches above the table where he had awoken—Rumpelstiltskin realized he was not alone in the dark room.
“Oh! Hello! My name is Rumpelstiltskin the Third, and I am glad to meet you…” Rumpelstiltskin began with his usual exuberance, even going so far as to extend his hand, but that was when he realized the seated man had duct tape over his mouth. In fact, there were quite a few curiosities about this man sitting alone in the darkness; his dark eyes reflecting his intelligence, his grey-green skin, a pair screws holding his skull within a metal cage, and it would not be complete without the wool-lined restraints holding his wrists and ankles to a rigid, steel frame.
Instead of feeling endangered, Rumpelstiltskin felt quite rude for trying to initiate conversation with a man who could not return the favor.
“Oh, dear, I’m very sorry for that, Mister. I didn’t even think about, well, all of that,” Rumpelstiltskin apologized before rushing up to the seated man, who grunted beneath the silver tape holding his mouth shut. At once, Rumpelstiltskin took hold of a corner of the duct tape and frowned at his newest acquaintance.
“Are you ready?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, mistook the fear in those black eyes to be hearty assent, and then yanked the adhesive away from the man’s mouth.
“I’m sorry for the pain. I know how it is since people keep doing the same thing to me, but after a lot of experimentation, I’ve found that a quick yank is the best way to go about it,” Rumpelstiltskin explained against a backdrop of agonized moans, but he finished his tirade before even realizing that something heavy was hanging from the sticky side of the tape. Confused, Rumpelstiltskin walked over to the doorway and found the light switch after a moment. Standing up on his tip-toes to flick the plastic switch, Rumpelstiltskin fell back to his heels and then inspected the tape in his hands.
When he saw an inch of flesh that should have been a full-grown man’s lip, Rumpelstiltskin realized his new friendship was in jeopardy.
“No! Oh, Mister, I’m so sorry—” Rumpelstiltskin started as he whipped around, but he did not see a fountain of blood flowing from the stranger’s face as he expected. Instead, there was a simple hole in the man’s face where his top lip was supposed to be, revealing the tops of teeth that should have remained hidden, his head screwed into the metallic halo propped up on his shoulders. More curious than anything, Rumpelstiltskin returned to the tiles bordering the restrained man and tried to understand why the man was getting along so well without a piece of his face.
“Are you… wait, are you… undead?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, getting more excited than a normal person should. However, only hearing tales of voodoo and hoodoo had left Rumpelstiltskin ravenous for an undead experience, and although he had followed Sir Death on his rounds of reaping, this was the first time the imp had seen something outside of the realm of defined life.
Unfortunately, the man could only moan in his seat, which left much for Rumpelstiltskin to desire.
“You must be in pain, right? Or, wait, can you feel pain?” Rumpelstiltskin said, crossing his arms as he leaned back, but when he saw another flicker of fear in the man’s black eyes, Rumpelstiltskin came to a decision reserved for the silliest of horror movie clichés.
“Here, let me help you,” Rumpelstiltskin said, moving round the undead man and grabbing a screwdriver from an assortment of tools on the counter behind him. As the imp went to work taking the screws from the zombie’s metallic halo, he saw the scars and stiches along the man’s scalp, interrupting an amalgamation of a hairline from at least three people. When he rid the undead of the first screw, Rumpelstiltskin rounded the living corpse and relieved its skull of the second with his trusty screwdriver.
Unmoored from the halo, the zombie’s head fell down without proper neck support, and Rumpelstiltskin winced until the undead finally raised its head and allowed eye contact. Their pairs of black eyes met, and in that instant Rumpelstiltskin saw the fear depart. Pain still hid behind the zombie’s pupils, so Rumpelstiltskin nodded and then crouched so he could free the man’s ankles.
It was not long after he pulled out the length of wool-lined leather that the undead tentatively placed a grey foot on the cold tile. Rumpelstiltskin panicked at the thought of the cool contact, but then he realized that a zombie probably wouldn’t care all that much since there wouldn’t be any difference in temperature between his feet and the tile. Nodding at the dead man’s fortune, Rumpelstiltskin picked himself up and then undid the restraint on the zombie’s left wrist.
“Almost there, Mister,” Rumpelstiltskin said, batting away the man’s weak hands as he went about the last restraint. He heard a clack to his right, but he did not realize it was the zombie’s teeth snapping against empty air. Rumpelstiltskin only cared about freeing his new friend, and he was very pleased with himself when he stood back and placed his hands on his hips.
“There you go! Now we can try again! My name is Rumpelstiltskin the Third and it’s really nice to meet you! What’s your name?” the imp asked, extending forward a gnarled hand to the confused zombie. Not realizing it could stand, the zombie leaned forward and grabbed Rumpelstiltskin’s paw with mismatched hands, but only so it could lunge forward with its teeth.
Rumpelstiltskin, however, thought the zombie was trying to kiss his hand, and although he understood that was a popular custom across the sea, he was less inclined to have someone place their lips on his leathery skin. He could only imagine that it would drive away his new friend if he had to feel the texture of a gnarled hand upon his lips.
“Please don’t,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he yanked back his hand, feeling more than just embarrassed. “We’ve only just met and that makes me kinda… uh, uncomfortable. It’s just not something I’m used to, you know?”
Rumpelstiltskin had been busy grinding his heel into the ground and avoiding eye contact, so he had not noticed the zombie’s rise from the chair, or how he had shambled forward. When the imp looked back, he saw the zombie falling on him from above, his maw open and ready to devour whatever part of Rumpelstiltskin’s body would yield.
Fortunately for our imp, his curse of immortality had rendered his skin impenetrable to anything serious, and so the zombie’s front teeth yielded to Rumpelstiltskin’s skull and fell harmlessly from his gum line.
“Hey! What was that for?” Rumpelstiltskin asked as he jumped back, leaving a confused zombie in his wake. “Here I am, trying to be friends with you, and you go and bite me? Do I look like a meal? Well, what are you waiting for? Answer me!”
“Ffff…” the man murmured, the letter stalling on the gap in his lip. When he turned black eyes onto the imp, recognition seemed to filter past the haze of death. “Fffffriend?”
“Yes! Of course!” Rumpelstiltskin explained, mad, but ready to forgive his hunched-over acquaintance. “It’s hard to make friends, so I don’t turn down any of them!”
“Hhhhh…” the zombie said, cocking its head as it turned to face Rumpelstiltskin, but that could have been because of a lack of strength in its reclaimed neck muscles. “Hhhhard… ffffriends.”
“Yeah…” Rumpelstiltskin said, crossing his arms as he looked away. “People… they’re always afraid of me for some reason. I don’t know why… I always try to be friendly.”
“That’s right. Always try to be friendly. The world’s harsh enough, Mister,” Rumpelstiltskin said as he turned back to the zombie standing a foot away from him. “No need to make it worse, you know? Everyone should be able to… to just live and be happy.”
“L—live… hhhhappy,” the zombie replied, and that was when a smile crept across the imp’s face.
“Yeah. And that’s why I’m always friendly,” he replied, seeing a nod from the reanimated man. “That’s because everyone could be a friend, if you just try. That’s why I always introduce myself and try to shake their hands, because that makes us friends. That’s what I’ve learned along the way.”
“Shake… ffffriends…” the zombie murmured, shocking Rumpelstiltskin when he raised a black hand and held it out in front of him. It was enough to bring a tear to the imp’s eyes.
“You… you want to be friends?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, not waiting for a response before rushing forward and wrapping his knobby paws around the preserved hand and shaking vigorously. He was ecstatic until the activity loosened the man’s stiches, which gave way and left Rumpelstiltskin shaking a disembodied hand.
“Oh, oh no!” Rumpelstiltskin exclaimed, realizing that he had already ruined his new friendship, but when he looked back at the zombie, a half-smile was on his face. It should have been a full smile, but Rumpelstiltskin’s previous stunt with the duct tape had taken away the connective tissue that would have allowed the smile.
“Fffffine…” the zombie said as he bent down to pick up his hand, just so he could place it on a nearby table. “Fffffriend… not mean… to.”
“Y—yeah, yeah, I didn’t mean to,” Rumpelstiltskin muttered, bewildered by the zombie’s changed demeanor.
“No… hhharm,” the zombie said, pointing at his teeth with his only hand. “Even… fffffor earrrrlier.”
“I—I don’t know about that.”
“I… do,” the zombie said. “Fffffriend not eat… ffffriend. I… sorry.”
“Don’t—don’t worry about it,” Rumpestiltskin said in shame, but he realized they couldn’t keep talking in this room for much longer. If nothing else, he was starting to get bored, and Rumpelstiltskin knew that was a sorry state of affairs for everyone involved. “So… umm, what should I call you?”
“Call…” the zombie paused, whether from thought or just undead hesitation was unclear, but then his black eyes shined toward Rumpelstiltskin. “Herrrr… bert.”
“Easy… say,” Herbert said, half-smiling again as he shuffled to the door. “Plus… can remem… rememmmber.”
“I guess that’s fair,” Rumpelstiltskin mused as he followed, agreeing with both points. He had forgotten his name only once in his many centuries, but it had been more than just bothersome every time he had tried to make a new friend and couldn’t even introduce himself. When he saw how Herbert trudged forward, Rumpelstiltskin thought it looked entertaining, and so he mimicked the dead man’s shuffle with great aplomb.
“Hunnnn…” Herbert grumbled, and Rumpelstiltskin thought the zombie had lost his vocabulary again, but he was just having difficulty with pronunciation. “Hungry…”
“I could use a snack, too,” Rumpelstiltskin commented, laughing at his friend’s earlier antics. “Though I usually don’t try to eat strangers.”
“Cra… craved,” Herbert emphasized as they shambled their way through the dark hallway. After a few more steps, Herbert swayed his head before explaining. “Meat in… head.”
“Head meat?” Rumpelstiltskin asked, frowning at Herbert’s desire. “You wanted to eat my brain? Why?”
“Don’t… know…” Herbert confessed, shrugging as he shambled. When they reached the end of the hallway and the door blocking them, Herbert looked up in dismay. “Couldn’t…. rrr… rrrresist.”
“Well, you have to, Herbert,” Rumpelstiltskin replied, stepping forward to help his friend through the door. Pushing it open to find a well-lit lobby, Rumpelstiltskin turned back to Herbert and scolded him with a wag of his knobby finger. “It’s not nice to eat people’s brains.”
“But huuunnn… huunnnngry!” Herbert shouted, and while Rumpelstiltskin could understand the crankiness that comes with hunger, he could not approve of the increased volume. As he prepared to scold his new friend further, Rumpelstiltskin did not notice the receptionist behind him, rising out of her seat in alarm.
“Doesn’t matter! People need their brains, Herbert, even if most humans don’t use them,” Rumpelstiltskin lectured, proud of being on the right side of reason for once, but then a scream interrupted him. Confused, the imp turned to see the receptionist climbing over the counter of her desk and then fleeing toward the automatic doors.
“Z—zombies!” she screamed on her way out of the building, and Rumpelstiltskin only just realized he should be offended for being lumped in with poor Herbert. Frowning, the imp looked back at Herbert to see him pointing after the woman with his finger.
“She… needs brain?”
“Yes, Herbert,” Rumpelstiltskin said, turning his back on the zombie before walking into the lobby. “She might be very rude, but she needs her brain.”
“Who doesn’t… need?”
“I—” Rumpelstiltskin faltered, turning back to Herbert without any reasonable alternative. “Everyone needs it.”
“Then… hhh—hooowww can… Hhherbert eat?” Herbert asked as they reached the automatic doors, stumping Rumpelstiltskin. As they stumbled into the chill, night air, the imp did not have an answer for his friend.
“I don’t know, Herbert. Are you sure you don’t just want a sandwich, or something like that?” Rumpelstiltskin suggested, pointing at a diner across the street. “I don’t usually have any money, but if I smile real big, they might give me some moldy bread and some old lettuce.”
“That’s fair. I usually have to hold my nose for that kind of sandwich,” Rumpelstiltskin said while shoving his hands into the pockets of his ancient jeans. They were Osh Kosh B’Gosh, which even he thought was a ridiculous name, but they had served him well. Sighing, Rumpelstiltskin continued down the sidewalk with his zombambulistic friend, oblivious to the swerving cars rushing past them. “What do you think you could eat?”
“Creatures need their brains, Herbert. Even rats and elephants and lizards. There once was a lizard that needed two brains.”
“Don’t think so, since they were as big as walnuts,” Rumpelstiltskin said, wagging his finger again. He liked teaching Herbert things, and the imp felt smart even though he was just remembering things he had seen on a wall in a museum. “Either way, I don’t think we should be killing anything.”
“But they’ll die without them.”
“I know!” Rumpelstiltskin unintentionally snapped, groaning as they walked into outer rim of light from the fluorescents of a gas station. “We just need to find something you can actually eat.”
“Other things… sick,” Herbert replied, and Rumpelstiltskin turned back to see a dismayed zombie. The imp wished better for his friend, but if the movies had taught Rumpelstiltskin anything, Herbert wasn’t lying. They were known for their cerebral affinity, and Rumpelstiltskin didn’t know how to reconcile his friend with a world where people needed their brains.
“Zombies!” a cry arose, and Rumpelstiltskin turned back to the gas station to see a panicked man dive back into his car. It was a full minute of flustered and frantic action before the man was able to put his sedan into gear and drive away, and Rumpelstiltskin wondered briefly if the driver actually needed full access to his brain. If it was possible for Herbert to just get a snack, maybe he wouldn’t have to go hungry.
However, the idea immediately decomposed on him, since Rumpelstiltskin had witnessed a full spectrum of tragedies when there was simply an extra hole in a human’s head. Knowing that he could not help his friend, Rumpelstiltskin turned to explain, but Herbert was looking into the distance with apparent understanding.
“World… affffraid of Her… bert.”
“Rrrrumplestilts… kin know,” Herbert interrupted, waving at the fleeing driver with his only hand. “Fffear… powerfffful.”
“That’s true, yes, but if you give them a chance…” Rumpelstiltskin started, but one look from Herbert’s black eyes were enough to stop the argument.
“Not get chance… fffffrom them,” he said, looking at the sidewalk beneath them. “Shouldn’t have… chance.”
“Now, there’s no need for that,” Rumpelstiltskin attempted, earning a half-scowl from his reanimated friend.
“Hungry ffffor… head meat,” he stated. “Human need… head meat. Her… bert… bad fffffor human.”
“Yes, he is, Rumpelstiltskin,” a familiar voice interrupted, and the imp turned to see Sir Death standing behind them, the fluorescents of the gas station transforming the reaper into a haloed silhouette.
“Sir Death!” Rumpelstiltskin shouted, so overjoyed at new prospects that he immediately disregarded the reaper’s statement. “You could help us figure this out.”
“What I can do is reap the poor man, Rumpelstiltskin,” Sir Death said as he stepped forward and drew back his hood, exposing his gaunt face. Kind in his winter years as always, Sir Death nonetheless carried with him his usual flair for the macabre. This time Rumpelstiltskin understood the reaper’s words, and he shook his head in defiance.
“No! I just became friends with him, Sir Death!”
“He’s not supposed to exist, Rumpelstiltskin.”
“So? Neither am I!” he replied, catching the reaper off-guard. After a moment to gather his thoughts, Sir Death turned back to the zombie watching from behind the imp.
“He doesn’t want to exist, child,” Sir Death commented, Rumpelstiltskin immediately raising issue along with his finger.
“Hah! Shows what you know. Herbert only just woke up, and we’re just figuring out how he’s going to fit in with this world.”
“Can’t fffffit,” Herbert said, sounding much to Rumpelstiltskin like it was a declaration. Whipping around to face the zombie, Rumpelstiltskin’s heart broke just a little bit. Sir Death was right, Herbert seemed ready to leave this world, but the imp wouldn’t have it.
“Yes, you can, Herbert! We just need to find some sort of… brain… substitute,” Rumpelstiltskin tried, but then he felt Sir Death’s hand on his shoulder. Looking up at his guardian, the gravity of the situation finally weighed down Rumpelstiltskin’s tiny frame.
“Remarkably, child, you were able to reach through to Herbert. By nature, he is driven to consume brains, but after a short time with you, he has chosen to deny that nature.”
“Why? Why does he need brains?”
“Because he is unnatural, child,” Sir Death explained, stepping forward and holding his scythe near the beginning of the blade. “There is no sense of vitality in him—no soul—because he was created from a collection of bodies, by a butcher who only chased the soulless objective of his science.”
“He hungers for soul, Rumpelstiltskin,” Sir Death said, making eye contact with the imp before returning his gaze to the sentient zombie. “The brain collects within it endorphins and memories and the lingering electricity of life. By consuming the brain, Herbert can feel some remnant of life, which his body only imitates.”
“I don’t understand,” Rumpelstiltskin said, shaking his head and beating at his temples with tiny knuckles. The imp was still rapping against his skull when a coarse, cold hand lifted his chin. Upon seeing Herbert’s black eyes, Rumpelstiltskin’s tantrum stopped.
“I do. He… does,” Herbert said while nodding at the reaper, but unfortunately his neck gave out and his head fell to rest on his left shoulder. “Not here… on purrrrpose.”
“We need to let him rest, child,” Sir Death stated, and Rumpelstiltskin turned back to him pouting.
“He only just woke up, Sir Death.”
“It’s not fair.”
“We can help him.”
“That’s exactly what I’m offering, child,” Sir Death concluded, extending a hand toward Herbert.
When the zombie shuffled forward and Sir Death wrapped his hand around the preserved shoulder, Rumpelstiltskin felt betrayed, but then he made eye contact with Herbert’s dead gaze. At once, the imp realized he was being selfish. Before the reaper’s arrival, he had tried to think up ways for Herbert to find his place in this day and age, but the world was not ready for a sentient corpse. Those they had met had fled in the first instant, there was no way to feed Herbert, and the authorities had not even been involved, yet.
In the too-bright light of the gas station fluorescents, Rumpelstiltskin realized he was forced to say goodbye in the same breath he had said hello.
“I don’t like to lose friends so fast…” Rumpelstiltskin said as he looked at the cement underneath, and he saw the dark pattern of his own tears falling. Then he saw the pallid flesh of Herbert’s feet fall on the ground and looked up to find his reanimated friend giving his half-smile.
“But Herbert was ffffriend,” he said, standing up as straight as his decomposing spine would allow. “And Rrrumm… Rrrruumplestiltssss….kin was Her…bert’s ffffriend. Only.”
“You should have more.”
“No,” Herbert said as he backed away and into the reaper’s outstretched arm. “But lucky imp was there.”
“I’ll miss you,” Rumpelstiltskin said, Herbert’s face stuck in that same smile.
“Makes… worth it,” Herbert said while looking back at Sir Death, who nodded before turning his gaze on Rumpelstiltskin.
“I’m sorry, child, but this is for the best.”
“That’s what you say,” Rumpelstiltskin said, intending it for it to hurt, but once he saw the effect of Sir Death’s face, he regretted the intent. “I’m sorry… I just…”
“I know, child. I’ll return shortly,” Sir Death replied as he tore through space and time with the blade of his scythe. Light flared out and swallowed them, leaving Rumpelstiltskin alone with his thoughts in the outer edge of a gas station.
Rumpelstiltskin knew better, of course, but as he walked over to the curb and plopped down on his rear, he wished it had turned out some other way. Herbert seemed like such a good zombie—especially after all the movies Rumpelstiltskin had seen—but brains were just too hard to come by. He saw the sense in Sir Death’s motivation, in Herbert’s choice, but some part of Rumpelstiltskin was determined to find some alternate way of keeping his undead friend in the world.
However, when Sir Death reappeared within a flash of light, Rumpelstiltskin had not discovered that alternative.
“He is at peace, now, child.”
“How? You said he didn’t have a soul, Sir Death,” Rumpelstiltskin argued, wiping snot from his oversized nose before burying his head between his forearms and bent knees. “Where do people go if you reap them without a soul?”
“Oblivion, is my guess,” Sir Death replied, groaning as he joined Rumpelstiltskin on the gas station curb. When he had fully settled and set his scythe beside him, Sir Death turned to look at this immortal ward. “For him to gain a soul in such a short time… I doubt it.”
“So nothing is better than life?”
“What Herbert had was not life, child,” Sir Death sighed out the words before looking at the sparse cars flying past the gas station. “The undead… they come into this world in pain and leave in pain. They have to act as parasites, draining life from the creatures around them, until someone or something finally ends their life.”
“And today that was you.”
“Today that was me. Yes, Rumpelstiltskin, I am the one who ended Herbert,” he said before turning back to Rumpelstiltskin and earning the imp’s glare. “I ended his pain.”
“He was smart, Sir Death. He knew better than to eat brains.”
“Yes, and you taught him that. In that manner, Herbert was exceptional, but I’m inclined to believe you played more than a significant part in his choice.”
“I don’t regret that.”
“I don’t think anyone here does, child. I think Herbert was very grateful that you taught him before it was too late.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, Rumpelstiltskin,” Sir Death paused, worrying over the particulars of his explanation. “There is a level of guilt that comes with… that dependence. Herbert never got to experience that guilt, and so he left this world without that burden. It… it was the best possible result.”
“It doesn’t feel that way.”
“I’m sure it doesn’t,” Sir Death said, laying a rigid hand on Rumpelstiltskin’s shoulder and squeezing before trying to rise to his feet. With an audible creak from his joints, Sir Death reached his full height and looked down at his favorite imp. “I saw a man in pain, Rumpelstiltskin, and I helped him escape it. Nothing can, in fact, be better than something. If you are upset with me, I understand, and I can lea—”
“No, don’t,” Rumpelstiltskin interjected, clutching at the reaper’s black robes even as he refused eye contact. When Sir Death halted his departure, Rumpelstiltskin sniffed back a fair amount of mucus. “I don’t want you to leave. I’m not upset with you.”
“The contrary seems obvious.”
“I’m just… upset. Not at you. Just upset that I got to meet Herbert and… and he’s already gone.”
“It… even when I have them for weeks, or even years,” Rumpelstiltskin started, finally looking up at his mentor. “Even when I have them for years and years, it always feels like I’m losing them so fast.”
“Herbert was fast, too fast, but it always seems like I have less time with my friends… each time, it feels like less.”
“That’s… that’s the nature of life, I’m afraid,” Sir Death said, weaving his hands through Rumpelstiltskin’s scraggly hair. “And… unfortunately… immortality tends to make it worse.”
“Is there ever going to be a friend,” Rumpelstiltskin hesitated, sniffing back tears and failing. “Will I ever have a friend where it feels like enough?”
“I… I don’t know, child,” Sir Death said, kneeling down so he could be the same height as the imp. “I could be that friend, I think. We’ve had enough years by now, I think.”
“No,” Rumpelstiltskin immediately replied, shaking his head and looking concerned. “All the years aren’t enough for you and me. I’m most… I’m most worried about you.”
“About me?” Sir Death asked in shock, almost falling onto his back. “Child, I’m eternal.”
“And that’s not enough! Or… at least it doesn’t feel like it,” Rumpelstiltskin said, this time bringing a tear to a reaper’s eye. With a smile, Sir Death leaned forward and wrapped his arms around his favorite imp.
“Trust me, child,” Sir Death murmured, closing his eyes and feeling grateful for the opportunities this world had given him.
“I would never leave you unless you were ready.”
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