Dave’s Anatomy: My History as a Writer #140: Precision Marching and “Oh-E-Oh”: “The Witch’s Guard.”
When you are small The Wizard of Oz could give you some real scares. A lot of kids are frightened by the flying monkeys; the Witch is pretty scarry; but for me it was the green, stern, grim-faced guards in the witch’s castle with their bearskin hats, dangerous-looking halberds, and the deep-throated song they sang as they marched with intricate, complex movements. When I saw a call for submissions based on The Wizard of Oz, my mind went to those particular characters. Who were they? How did they get into the service of the witch? And why were they happy when she is melted—so much that they even help Dorothy after they have chased her down, growled at her, and threatened her with their weapons? The matter called for some fictional investigation.
The story centers on Drustin, whose family works mining granite. He gets to know a girl from a family his family is friendly with. The girl, Noreen, has only a passing interest in Drustin until she finds out that he loves words. He does not read well, but when he charms her by telling her how he likes the way certain words—dawn, mist, ignoramus—sound and feel in his mouth when he says them, she teaches him to read well. The two eventually come to love each other. Then Drustin is taken in the annual levy of children the witch enforces on the people over whom she rules. He goes to the palace to become a guard. He laments that, like everyone who goes there to serve, he will eventually forget his love for family and will become a mindless follower of the witch. Noreen tells him a way he prevent this from happening to him. “Read,” she says.
Conscripted, Drustin is taken away. On the march to the castle, he is assaulted to two older boys. Being strong from years of wielding pick-axes and hauling stone, he kills one of them and disables the other. He wonders if the guards will kill him for this, but they complement him and say if he behaves in such a bold manner he will “go far” as a guard in the Witch’s castle. When he is settled in his place as a guard, he becomes one of the most formidable younger soldiers; the other recruits his age are afraid of him. He also learns that the longer you are in the castle, the more you forget your ties with family and home. One can tell the degree of this by the color you turn: you might turn green or blue or purple. Drustin manages to not succumb to the influence as much because he manages to find books and read.
He is given a leave and goes home. His family is astonished that he even wants to come home. He tells them he has fought against absorption in the witch’s evil rule because he reads. He also find, to her dismay and horror, that Noreen has been conscripted and will come to the castle to work as a comfort woman—a prostitute.
On his return, he finds the Witch is terrified of a young girl named Dorothy, who has killed her sister and is reportedly coming after her. She captures Dorothy, but Drustin notes, her three companions overcome some of the guards, steal their uniforms, and infiltrate the castle: A lot of people wonder how they overcame the soldiers, but think about it. A lion (however cowardly) is a formidable beast. A man made out of metal is something to be reckoned with. The Scarecrow, though not strong, displayed adroitness; his soft, straw-filled body could only be harmed if you tore it apart, as the monkeys had, or burned it. My soldiers did not discern as much. They threw down their hauberks because the Witch had ordered intruders captured so they could be tortured for information. Mistake. The trio of Dorothy’s friends made short work of my men, put on their uniforms, and infiltrated the castle.
He is amazed when Dorothy slays the witch not with magic or a weapon, but with a bucket of water. Norella has not yet arrived to assume her role in the witch’s household. And the soldiers, no longer under the spell of her evil magic, revert back to the way they were. They show kindness and, slowly, begin to fade to whatever color their skin was before her enchantments affected her. The monkeys revert to their wild forms. The people from near-by villages come. They leave the guards alone but take vengeance by killing the Witch’s bureaucrats and pulling down her castle.
Drustin returns home, he and Noreen are married and live happily ever after.
The story appeared in Non-Binary Review, which has now ceased publication. The magazine recommended it for a Pushcart Prize. It did not win one, but merely being nominated is an honor. This is one more to add to the list of stories I ought to submit once again.
For a good read this season, get a copy of The Last Minstrel. Music, we are told, can sooth the savage breast. But can it overcome an evil goddess? You might be surprised. Get a copy here.