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Long Beach, CA

Forgotten Folk Tales: The Backwards Wizardy of Terapin Tillabee

Terapin Tillabee was not a great wizard.  In fact, truth be told…he was lousy.  His spells usually rebounded off whatever tree he was practicing on, and, more than once, he thought he had knocked his eyebrows off.  But the boy did know how to persevere.  He was persistent, tenacious…some might say recklessly dense and hard-headed.  Mostly, Terapin just wanted to be great.  He was clever and honest enough to know that he would probably never be a terrific wizard.  But, he was not willing to admit that out loud.  Not yet.

In fact, at night, before he went to bed, Terapin would stare--his body relaxed but arched forward to the edge of his chair--at an etching of Bearflynn, the greatest wizard of his generation (so many said, anyway).  Of course, wizards were not common now as they were in Bearflynn’s day, so becoming “the greatest” should not quite be so difficult.  Yet Terapin was far from being considered even “the middling-est” wizard.  Besides, who believed in wizards anymore?  Not many, and that made the practice of wizardly all the more difficult.  If people did not believe, they had a way of shutting the door, not only on a wizard’s confidence but on his actual ability.

You might say, however, that fate has a way of opening doors.  And you would be right.  Especially for the persevering, the tenacious, the densely hard-headed.  At least, such was the case for Terapin.

                        * * *

Terapin liked to be by himself when he was practicing spells.  Number one, those who did not believe in wizards would likely not be able to see his magic, so he would just look like a crazy boy flailing his arms about.  Number two, if they could see his magic…well, they would see he was not very good at it.

One day, after a secluded practice in the woods, Terapin walked into town to buy a loaf of bread for his mother.  He was just walking out of the baker’s shop when he thought about turning around and saying, “I don’t know that any stew could soften this rock.”  But he said nothing, and, with a sigh, his feet were just scuffling the cobbled pavement when he heard screaming and shouting up the street.


A thief? thought Terapin, looking all about.  Where?!  Where’s the thief?!

“Thief!  Thief!  Thief!”  The street echoed with the accusation, and Terapin darted his eyes all around before looking up and realizing that the thief was looking at him.  And coming close, bearing down on him.  Running right towards him actually. 

He wasn’t much bigger than Terapin, and without stopping to think, Terapin waved his arms above his head and prepared to level a spell.  He did, and CRACK, the air popped with light (from Terapin’s perspective anyway; those around him just saw a boy strangely swinging his arms forward).  But the spell fell to the ground like a wounded bird, and the thief ran right past Terapin.

“Ha ha, see you!” sneered the thief over his shoulder.

“Ratso!” cursed Terapin.

“Hey, boy!” said the baker.  “Why didn’t you at least try to trip that thief rather than standing there, flailing your arms, watching him get away?”

Terapin felt himself blushing, both from embarrassment and from anger.  The embarrassment was for himself, and he wasn’t sure who the anger was meant for.

                        * * *

It was a long walk home, and Terapin kicked rocks all along the way, his head bowed down as he seethed with frustration.  At the pond, he sat down and picked at tiger-lily tails.  Then something happened which surprised Terapin.  He started crying.  He was not much of a crier, but something was boiling over within him and finding its way out his eyes.  The tears came as great drops that rolled like snowballs, gaining speed all the way down his cheek, plopping onto the dirt beside the log.

“Hey!  Hey, you!  Will you watch what you’re doing?!  Some of us are trying to clean our wings!”

Terapin heard the voice through his quiet sobs and immediately stopped crying, trying to locate whose voice it was.  Wiping his eyes with his sleeve, he looked about, wondering if a bat had flown into his belfry.  Then he thought that maybe it was a bat that was talking to him, for there on the ground beneath him, between his feet, was a tiny creature with wings twice as long as her body.

Terapin gasped.  “Are you…I mean….wait, you can’t be…but are you…a fairy?”

“No, smartie, I’m a bat.  Of course, I’m a fairy!  And I’m one very wet fairy thanks to you.  Do you know how long it’ll take me to dry these wings?”

Terapin tried to think of something—anything--to say.  “Do your wings have to be dry for you to fly?”

“Well, no, but I don’t particularly enjoy the extra weight.”

“Ah, yes…well, that makes sense,” said Terapin.

“I’m so glad,” said the fairy.

“Sorry about getting you wet, then.”

The fairy looked up and Terapin even thought she smiled.  Then she started flapping her wings again, presumably to dry them.

“Well, that’s okay,” said the fairy.

“What’s your name?” asked Terapin.


“Goldie?  Really?  Because that seems like…well, wouldn’t every one expect your name to be Goldie?  Or Trixie?  Or something like that?”

“You’re saying my name is common?”

Terapin had to think.  “Well, yes, I guess I am.”

This seemed to amuse the fairy, because now Terapin was sure she was smiling.

“Yeah, I guess it is.  Take it up with my parents.  You sure know how to charm a girl, don’t you?”

Terapin blushed.  “Oh, I didn’t mean to be ru—“

“Oh, hush up, I’m just teasing you.  Why are you crying, anyway?”

Terapin sighed.  “Well, I don’t know, really.  I just…” and Terapin explained everything—and not just the incident at the baker’s.  He told her that he wasn’t a good wizard, and that he knew it. 

Goldie had climbed up onto the log next to Terapin, and when he had finished telling her about his failed spell and what the baker had said, she looked away for a moment, her lips pursed.  Then she nodded her head and looked up into Terapin’s eyes.  “But you see, Terapin,” she said.  “You see that you’re wrong, don’t you?”

Terapin cocked his head.  “What do you mean?”

“Well, you can see me, can’t you?”

“Yes, I can see you.  And I don’t think I’m dreaming.”

“There, don’t you see?  I mean—pardon the pun--you can see me, so you must have something great inside you.  Not every one can see me, you know.”

“Yeah, but…”

“No ‘buts!’” said Goldie.  “Trust me, Terapin.”  She winked, and the way she winked, Terapin knew he had to believe her.  “Trust me…I’m a fairy.”

Terapin had nothing to say and so he said nothing, and Goldie sat with him, quietly, as the sun set over the woods.

“Well,” said the fairy, after a good while had passed.  “A girl needs her beauty sleep.  Will I see you tomorrow, Terapin the Wizard?”

“Oh, well…yes, that would be lovely.”

“Great, then it’s a date.  You know where to find me.  I’ll be staying at this log for a while, I should think.”

“Very well, then.  Well…goodnight, Goldie.”

“Goodnight, Terapin.”

And with that, Goldie disappeared into the hollow of the log. 

                        * * *

It did not take Goldie and Terapin long to become fast friends.  They met at the log every day until they could no longer count the days.  They skipped stones on the pond, and though Goldie could only throw the tiniest pebbles, Terapin never once said that she threw like a girl.  Goldie sort of thought that Terapin threw like a girl, but she never said so.  There was too much she liked about Terapin, and more than once she wished he was smaller, or she was bigger, or that they were both medium-sized.  He was not much younger than she was, anyway.  Just a few years.  She wondered why she kept thinking about their ages and their sizes, but she never let herself wonder too hard about it.  That’s a wonderful thing about being a fairy: you are pretty good at not wondering too hard.

Terapin, on the other hand, was not only a wonderer, but a worrier.  Yet he found himself worry-free from the moment he met Goldie.  What was it about her?  Her golden hair?  The way she pursed her lips when she was concentrating?  How she scrunched into a ball when she was laughing too hard?  All Terapin knew was that he had found a friend, and something had changed because of it.

So when Terapin showed up to the log one Thursday morning, excited to see Goldie, it took him a few moments to realize that something was wrong.  He spent a few minutes calling “Goldie?  Goldie?” before he saw the footprints in the mud, and the fingernail scratches on the log.

“Goldie?!” Terapin yelled, spinning around, looking in every direction.  “Goldie!”

He spent the night huddled up on the log, freezing, but with no thought of leaving.  Maybe Goldie would come back.  Clearly there had been a struggle.  Best as he could tell, Goldie had been pulled away by at least two other…fairies?  Trolls?  Ogres?  Their footprints were much larger than Goldie’s but still smaller than Terapin’s.  Who knew who—or what—had taken her.  Despair was suffocating Terapin when he saw it.  In the smallest corner of his eye, he saw the faint glimmer on a blade of grass.  He couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a resting firefly or a bit of overambitious starlight, but as he approached the stalk of grass, he became sure.  It was fairy dust all right, shimmering in the moonlight just as fairy dust did.  Goldie’s arms must have been free enough—and her mind quick enough--to rub some dust from her wings onto the grass.  This, then, must be the direction in which she was carried!

Terapin looked ahead and, sure enough, there was a glint of a glimmer ten yards ahead, and then, about twenty beyond that, another faint streak.  Terapin was off, running into the woods, screaming like a madman, “Goldie!  Goldie!”  But screaming turned out to not be the best idea, and he never saw the club that bopped him on the head.  Only saw the light fading around him as he fell to the ground with a flat thud.

                        * * *

When he awoke, Terapin thought he was on fire.  Then he saw he was but feet from a cast-iron cauldron steaming above a large campfire.  As his eye returned from the fog, he saw Goldie, bound and tied, on the far side of the fire.  She was gagged, but her eyes clearly revealed her terror.

"Goldie!" he cried, trying to jump up.  But his feet and his hands were tied.

“Shuddup!” gruffed a voice, and Terapin felt a rock crash against his head.  “I’m tired of hearing people yappin!  Yap-yap-yap!  Shuddup!”

So…it was trolls.  Smallish trolls, but trolls in any shape or size were bad news, and these seemed particularly ill-tempered.

“If any one talks around here, it’ll be me!” continued the troll.

“Or me!” said the second troll, stepping into the light of the fire.

“Yeah, or him!  Now,” said the troll, turning to Terapin.  “You’re the one whose been helping our little Goldie, eh?  Our little Goldie whose been so naughty.  Our little Goldie who…wait, but you don’t know the things she’s done, I reckon?  No, I reckon she ain’t told you any of that.  About what a thief she was.  And how she stole until she got caught and thrown in fairy gaol.  Then we bought her, and her freedom…dead to rights, we bought her.  Got a contract for her, we do, me and Beenard.  But she slinks away and goes runnin’ off, not caring a bit ‘bout our rights to her.  Ain’t that right, Goldie?  Why didn’t you tell your little friend about all your thievin’?”

Goldie said nothing and dropped her head onto her chest.

“Ah, did Olif hurt your feelings?”  The troll laughed and kicked a piece of wood in Goldie’s direction.

“We’ve got big plans for this little fairy,” continued Olif, clearly pleased with and enjoying himself.  “And you waked up just in time to see all that Goldie is going to do for us.  We need her wing dust to make our special potion.  So we can’t be letting her get away.  Not now anyway.  She’s got to give us that dust, then we’ll make her go away for good, see what I mean?  And maybe we’ll find out what potions we can make with you.  And if not, you’ll make a good stew!”  Olif laughed again, and his toothy grin and heinous breath—not to mention the mucus falling in clumps off his teeth—made Terapin shudder and turn his face.

“What kind of potion?” asked Terapin, his face still turned away, trying to think of an idea.  Of any idea.

“Enlarging potion,” said Olif, turning back to the fire.  “We’ve been scrapping and saving to get the ingredients, and once we have it, we’ll enlarge ourselves, and we’ll bust into Barbadee Bank, and we’ll teach this amateur what thievin’ really is.  Now for that dust.  Beenard!  Bring me the dust.”

Beenard dampened a sponge and rubbed it several times across Goldie’s wings.

“That’ll be it!” said Olif, brushing the collected dust into the cauldron.

Terapin remembered the rock thrown against his head.  If Olif had a penchant for throwing things, perhaps Terapin could get him to throw whatever was nearest to hand.

“Oh, I do love the woods, high-ho!” sang Terapin.

“Shuddup!” cried Olif.

“And to the woods I like to go!” continued Terapin.

Sure enough, Olif grabbed a stick of firewood and Terapin felt the wind rush from his lungs as the stick struck his chest.  He grimaced in pain and curled into a sort of ball, though his hands were still bound behind him.  But he could roll over just enough to get his hands on the stick.  It was too big, too bulky, but still…just enough of a point, just enough of a wand.  It would have to do.

“Tier-ee-ama!” cried Terapin, slinging the stick forward as much as possible.

Olif jumped back in alarm, but nothing happened.  Not so much as a flicker.

Then Olif started laughing.

“Was you trying to charm us!  What was you going to do, jinx us?!  Oh-ho-ho.  You’ve got to be the worst wizart I’ve ever seen!  Wait a minute!  Now I know it.  I have seen you before.  You’re that boy I ran past on the streets.  You flailed your arms at me ooga ooga booga.  You was trying to spell me then.  Oh-hoo!  So that’s twice you’ve failed!”

Olif saw the confusion on Terapin’s face.   “Oh, yes, it was me.  Watch this.”  The troll ran over to his pack and retrieved the crude mask of a human face.  “Oh, this makes the stew I’ll make of you all the sweeter!  Beaten you twice, I have.”

Olif was delighted now, and Beenard had come over to slap him on the back.  They were leaning over each other, holding each other up, belly-laughing just by the fire.  Terapin saw his chance and rolled forward, swinging the stick as he went, with no charm, no jinx attached to it.  He flung it like a staff, and it caught Olif right below the knee.  It was enough to throw the troll off his guard and off his balance, and, with Beenard right on top of him, they fell against the cauldron and into the fire.  The entire batch of enlarging potion went with them, first flying into the air and then landing on the trolls faces.  At the same moment, Terapin swung the stick again and yelled, “Inverso!”  The spell hit both trolls in their chests.

Goldie had covered her head in horror, waiting for the trolls to grow taller than the trees, but instead, to her shock, in a few fits and jerks, they grew smaller and smaller until they were no more than the size of large toads.  They jumped out of the fire and were scrambling to get away, but Terapin was upon them.  He scooped them up and threw them into a burlap sack which he quickly cinched into a makeshift prison.  From the sack little troll voices, shrunken into strained and pathetic pitches, rose into the air. 

Terapin turned to Goldie and, arms akimbo with joy, and cried, “Ha!  Did you see that?  Right?  Right?”

“Why Terapin Tillabee,” said Goldie.  “How on earth did you do that?”

Terapin shook his head.  “I don’t know!  It just came to me.  It’s a backwards charm.  An inversing charm.  It reverses whatever magic is being done.  Makes it go opposite.  Maybe I’m only good as a backwards Wizard!”

“I guess!” said Goldie, as Terapin cut her bonds.

“Or maybe,” said Terapin, not thinking, just speaking.  “Maybe I just really wanted to find a way to save you.  That’s been known to help a wizard.  Sometimes if you love someone…”  He sucked in a breath of air and looked down.  “I mean, if you care for them, that is…”

It was hard to see Goldie’s cheeks, for she was very little, but Terapin, stealing a few glances at the fairy, thought that maybe she was blushing.  If fairies blushed.  Terapin was certainly red, and it wasn’t the light of the fire that did it.  They sat on the ground and no one said a word.

“But…” said Goldie, after a long while, “…I’m a bit—well, actually, Terapin, I’m very disappointed.  If we only had some of that potion…”

“What?” asked Terapin.  And now he was sure that even if Goldie was not embarrassed, she was certainly feeling shy.  It melted him.  

“Well,” said Goldie, “we might be able to find the right dose…to make me… your size.”

Biographers will tell you that this was the moment when Terapin became so much more than a middling wizard.  In that moment (so they say), all of the resolve, all of the strength, all of the skill for which Terapin would one day be so famous, were born.  For something deeper than oceans welled up in Terapin’s heart.  He said nothing, but in one quick motion he rolled up his sleeves and picked up the stick which had become his wand.  Then he closed his eyes and felt something streaming through his belly.  If his heart was a tree, then the earth around its roots churned, and waters surged up like a flood within Terapin.  If Bearflynne had stood wand to wand against him, that wizard might have dropped his arms and walked away, very slowly.

“Terapin?” asked Goldie.  “What are you…”

“Stand up, Goldie.”  His voice was almost a whisper, but his eyes thundered.

She did.  Then Terapin wheeled his arms back in the air, just as he had at so many trees, all of which had escaped unharmed.  He swung them just as he had at a burglar, weeks ago, the same burglar who had escaped to steal another day.  But as Terapin’s arms sailed through the air, trees and forests, thieves and armies would have fled before him.  Yet Goldie stood still, even as the spell exploded from Terapin’s wand.  She smiled, in perfect surrender, as the lightning broke around her.  And she was untouched.  She never heard Terapin’s cry—“Oliphantos!”

Then all grew dark again, save for the dying embers of the fire.  On its pale light dust danced in the air, for dirt had been kicked up as the spell broke the ground all around Goldie.  All was quiet, too, for a moment.  But then the air seemed to unzip.  Perhaps it was the weight added to the ground, perhaps it was the rush of air pushed up and outward.  But before Terapin, Goldie stood.  Full-sized.  Or, at the very least, no longer fairy-sized.  And in the subtle light of the fire, Terapin could see her smile.  At that moment, the fire burned into darkness, but not before Terapin saw Goldie learning in, learning in to his face, his cheek, his lips.

Of Terapin’s deeds and exploits, those are tales for other stories.  But he and Goldie, his wife, knew this: love it was that wrote them all.