Wishful Thinking

Which Is Which

Taking another deep breath, Sarah and Stephanie began to run. The only difference now was that the walls revealed their endlessness more quickly. They ran faster, skidding in mud, banging against the brick sides of the passage, faster and faster, and the walls stretched out ahead of them without turning or feature or end, until the walls began to spin above their heads, and the girls realized that they were collapsing, exhausted, with sweat running down their faces.

They lay together in a heap, gasping for air. Sarah knew she probably would have been sobbing if Stephanie hadn’t been with her. A clump of lichen nearby stared down at the girls sympathetically, its eyes boggling.

When the girls recovered, they opened their eyes very slowly, hoping they would see something different this time: a corner, a door, anything but more of the same. All there was to see were the two walls.

With a yelp of frustration, Sarah beat her fists upon one of the walls.

As though answering a doorbell, a tiny wormlike creature with large eyes popped its head out from between the bricks where Sarah had pounded. ” ‘Allo?” it asked in a cheery voice.

Woebegone, Sarah and Stephanie both looked at the worm.

“Did you just say, ‘hello’?” Sarah asked.

“No, I said ‘ ‘Allo,'” it answered, “but that’s close enough.”

Upon realizing it really had spoken to them, the two sisters exchanged a glance. A talking worm, they reflected; yes, they should never have taken it for granted that a worm can’t talk. Stephanie thought it was actually strangely cute, especially in that little scarf it was wearing. It reminded her of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, but without the bad smoking habit. The two sisters exchanged a look and shrugged. If a worm could talk, perhaps it could give them some advice. In a low voice, Sarah asked it, “Do you know how to get through the Labyrinth?”

“Who, me?” It grinned. “No, I’m just a worm.”

Sarah and Stephanie nodded. They might have expected as much.

“Come inside and meet the missus,” the worm invited them.

Stephanie found the idea amusing. Two worms playing house? She would have liked to see that, if they weren’t so pressed for time.

Sarah managed a faint smile. “Thank you,” she told the worm, “but we’ve got to get through the Labyrinth. And there are no turnings, or openings, or anything.” She blinked away hot tears. “It just goes on and on.” Stephanie placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Ooh,” the worm said, “you ain’t looking right, you ain’t. It’s full of openings. It’s just that you ain’t seeing ’em, that’s all.”

Stephanie furrowed her brow slightly in confusion and looked around again. Sarah gazed around in disbelief. The walls stretched away forever on either side.

There was no logic to it. Or maybe there was nothing but logic, and that was the trouble: all logic and no reason.

“There’s an opening just across there,” the worm went on. “It’s right in front of you.”

They looked. Brick wall, damp mildew, clump of lichen, nothing else. “No, there isn’t.”

The worm sniffed, and in a kind voice said, “Come in and have a nice cup of tea.”

“There isn’t an opening.” Sarah’s voice was insistent. But, at this point, Stephanie was willing to try anything.

“You try walking that way, over there,” the worm said, with a nod of encouragement. “You’ll see. But first, why not have a nice cup of tea?”

“Where?” Sarah looked at the blank wall again. Stephanie stood up and brushed herself off.

“I got the kettle on.”

Stephanie appreciated the offer, but the worm’s hospitality was wasted on them. “That’s just wall,” Sarah muttered. “There’s no way through.”

“Ooh,” the worm observed, “this place, oh dear. Things aren’t always what they seem, you know, not here. Not here, no. So don’t you take anything for granted.”

As he was saying this, Stephanie approached the wall and began to exam it more closely. Sarah gave the worm a sharp glance. How was it that he had the same script as Hoggle? And in her mind she heard Hoggle’s voice again. “Me? I wouldn’t go neither way.”

Neither way. Right in front of you. What else was there to do? She would try it. Sarah looked up and saw that Stephanie was way ahead of her, already very tentatively and flinching in anticipation, walking into the wall, and through into another passage way.

Stephanie beamed back at her sister. There was a way through! The appearance of a solid wall was only an optical illusion.

Sarah was delighted. This passageway, too, stretched out infinitely to either side, but it was at least a different one. The sisters turned back gratefully. “Thank you,” Sarah said to the worm, while Stephanie smiled brightly. “That was incredibly helpful.”

They had begun to walk along the new passageway when they heard a little shout behind them. “And don’t go that way!” the worm was calling. He looked up at the lichen, whose eyes were worried as they watched the sisters. The worm gave the lichen a cheerful grin, but the lichen just went on boggling anxiously after the girls.

Sarah and Stephanie halted, and then came back, with Sarah panting. “What did you say?”

“What I said,” the worm told her, “was, don’t go that way.”

“Oh,” Sarah nodded. “Thanks.” She immediately set off in the other direction. Stephanie was tempted to ask “why,” but seeing as she couldn’t, she simply shrugged, nodded at the worm, and hurried off after her sister.

The lichen watched them go again, and sighed with relief.

“Whew.” The worm rolled his eyes. “That was close. If they’d gone that way, they’d have walked straight into that dreadful castle.”

In the stone chamber of the Goblin King, Toby, still in his red-and-white-striped pajamas, had his mouth wide open and was howling. His little fists were clenched tight, his face was scarlet, his eyes were shut, and he was putting out a din that would have made Sarah groan aloud and Stephanie sigh internally.

Jareth watched him with an amused smile. In that place no one else took much notice of Toby. Horned or hairy or helmeted goblins racketed around the place, across the filthy floor, over the steps of the throne, up on the ledges of the room, some chasing chickens or a black pig in a helmet, some squabbling over a tidbit, some peering into any vessel in the hope of finding something to eat, some just sitting and gnawing on bones, others staring balefully at all the rest through crazed eyes. The place was littered with half-finished platefuls of food, rotting bits of meat and vegetable matter, garbage and junk. A small pterodactyl flapped around, taking its chances. The curved crown mounted heraldically above the throne, decorated with ram’s horns, had been appropriated by a vulture for its nest. Or perhaps Jareth had installed the vulture there for his own amusement.

He needed something to keep him amused here. The goblins were, frankly, a bore. They were so stupid they couldn’t find their own way through the labyrinth. They were without wisdom or wit. In the old days, when many babies had been offered to him, Jareth had been more tolerant, reckoning that soon he would certainly find one who could be trained as a worthy companion to the throne, one whose young blood would serve to refresh Jareth’s, whose high spirits would dispel the thoughts of aging that oppressed the King of the Goblins. As calls upon him to steal a child became rarer, so Jareth sank deeper into dejection. He avoided mirrors and reflecting water. He could feel that the corners of his mouth had tightened, and he needed no proof of the wrinkles that creased his brow when he did not deliberately narrow his eyes to tauten his skin.

Lounging in his draped throne, which was in the form of an interrupted circle, Jareth looked at the bawling figure of Toby. With any luck, he might grow up to be an intelligent goblin. He might make some jokes, or anyway see he point of Jareth’s. He might be of some help in ruling this ramshackle empire. At the very least, he might have some fresh ideas about mischief. Two-headed sheep, curdled milk, banging pans, snatched nightclothes, barren fruit trees, shifted tables, moldy bread—Jareth had seen it all, much too often. But this lot, rooting and pratfalling around all day, still found such tired old clichés a perfect riot every time. Pitiful, they were.

Jareth yawned, and looked wearily around the room. The walls had been decorated with skulls and bats. ‘Dear god,’ he thought. ‘Skulls and bats yet. How jejune could you get?’ He looked hopefully at the clock. Half past three, the sword-shaped hands indicated. Another nine and a half hours to wait, until the goblin striker struck the thirteen. He would have to do something to pass the time.

He stood up from the throne, stretched his arms and paced restlessly. Another goblin came dashing past. Jareth reached down and picked him up by the scruff of the neck. The goblin’s eyes boggled at this.

“You’re a boggling goblin,” Jareth said, with a forced laugh.

The rest of the goblins howled with merriment. Jareth had been their king for as long as they could remember, which was about four seconds at best, and they hoped he would be king forevermore.

Jareth winced with the pain of it all.

Sarah and Stephanie were wandering along brick corridors. They were still high and forbidding, but at least they didn’t stretch out to the end of space and time, and sometimes there was a flight of steps, which made a nice change. Whenever they came to a fork or turning and made a choice, Sarah had found a sensible way of ensuring that they did not wander in circles: with the lipstick she had put in her pocket at home, she and Stephanie took turns choosing and made an arrow on a brick at each junction, to show where they had come from. And whenever the girls put the lipstick away and walked off down their new corridor, a little creature would lift the marked brick, turn it upside down, and replace it, so that the arrow was not visible.

After they had marked eighteen arrows, a piece of the lipstick broke off as Sarah was doing the next one. Determined to remain calm, she screwed another length out, and the girls went on their chosen way, up some steps, into a chamber. Across the end of the passage a squad of goblins rushed by, but Sarah and Stephanie’s eyes were fixed on what lay ahead and they did not see them.

The chamber was a dead end. The girls peeked in every alcove and behind the buttresses, but there was definitely no way out. They shrugged, and retraced their steps to the nineteenth arrow. When they reached the corner, they looked for their arrow and could not see it. That’s odd, they thought. They were sure it was right here, at this corner, on that brick there. The bricks were blank. The sisters frowned and looked about them. On the floor Stephanie spotted the broken-off piece of lipstick. She pointed it out to Sarah. They looked again, hard, and could still see no arrow. That proved it, then. Something fishy was going on. Sarah threw down the rest of the lipstick. “Someone’s been rubbing out our marks,” she said loudly, certain that the culprit must be close enough to hear her. “What a horrid place this is! It’s not fair!”

“That’s right,” a voice behind them said. “It’s not fair!”

Both girls jumped, and whipped around.

Behind them, in the chamber that had been a dead end, they now saw two carved doors in the wall, and a guard posted in front of each door. At least, they thought, they must be guards, since they stood foursquare and were emblazoned with armor. But as Sarah and Stephanie studied them, they were not so sure. The guards were quite comic, really. Their enormous shields, which were curiously patterned with geometrical figures and scrolls and devices, looked extremely heavy, which would account for the straddle-legged stance each of them had. ‘Poor things,’ the girls thought, ‘they have to stand like that all the time just to stay upright.’ The one to their left had incredibly shifty eyes beneath his helmet, and Sarah said to herself that she would call him Alf, after an uncle of her and Stephanie’s with eyes like that; but then she reflected that his not-quite-identical twin to her right (she couldn’t see his eyes at all because his helmet was too big for him) should therefore be called Ralph (R for Right, you see), and so mentally she corrected the spelling of the first one’s name to Alph (not that it mattered to anyone, because she wouldn’t be writing these names down).

Having settled, in her mind, the business of names, she noticed the most remarkable thing of all, which was that from underneath each shield peered another face, upside down, a little like a jack of spades gone wrong. The upside-down characters, whom she named Jim and Tim (the first rhymed pair that came to her mind), seemed to be hanging on to their uncomfortable positions by the great gnarled and horny hands she could see gripping the bottom of the shields. They must have added yet more to the burdens under which Alph and Ralph staggered.

Of course, Stephanie noticed all of this herself, but she decided on a set of names much faster. Being a Dr. Seuss fan, she thought to herself to call them, in order from left to right, across the top, and then the bottom: Thing One and Thing Two, Thing Red and Thing Blue (coordinating with the colors of their shields, not that it matters much since the rest of the narrative text will be using the names Sarah thought of).

It was Jim Upside Down who made the jump by addressing Sarah. He added, “And that’s only half of it.”

“Half of what?” asked Sarah, twisting and ducking her head with Stephanie to get a good look at Jim’s face. It would, they felt, have been faintly rude to remain upright. You had to adjust to people you met, even here.

“Half of twice as much,” Jim replied.

“Half of twice as much of what?” Sarah was exasperated.

“Twice as much as half of it.”

Stephanie cocked her head to the side in confusion. ‘Again, what was it,’ she wondered, ‘supposed to be?’

“Look.” Sarah raised a finger and pointed to the back wall of the chamber. “This was a dead end a moment ago,” she said.

“No.” It was Tim Upside Down speaking now. “That’s the dead end, behind you.”

The girls stood upright again and turned around. He was right. The way by which they had come in here was indeed now barred by a solid wall. “Oh!” Sarah exclaimed indignantly. “It’s not fair. This place keeps changing. What are we supposed to do?”

“It depends who’s doing the supposing,” Jim said.

“Not half,” Tim agreed.

“Try one of the doors,” suggested Jim.

“One of them leads to the castle,” Tim told the girls in a cheerful voice, “and the other leads to certain death.”

Sarah gasped and exchanged a look of nervous excitement with Stephanie. “Which is which?”

Jim shook his upside-down head. “We can’t tell you.”

“Why not?”

“We don’t know!” Jim crowed triumphantly.

“But they do.” Tim nodded confidently at Alph and Ralph. That took some doing, upside down, Sarah and Stephanie thought.

“Then I’ll ask them,” Sarah said.

Before she could say anything more, Ralph was speaking in a very slow, pedantic voice. “Ah! No, you can’t ask us. You can ask only one of us.” He appeared to have difficulty in getting the words out at all, especially the C’s and K’s.

“It’s in the rules.” Alph’s voice came fast and sneering, and at the same time his eyes shifted uneasily. He was tapping a finger on some ciphers on his shield, which were presumably the rules. “And I think I should warn you that one of us always the truth, and one of us always lies. That’s a rule, too.” His glance flickered at Ralph. “He always lies.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Ralph said, sententiously. “He’s lying. I’m the one who tells the truth.”

“That’s a lie!” Alph retorted.

Jim and Tim were snickering behind their shields, rather insolently, the girls thought. “You see,” Tim told Sarah, “even if you ask one of them, you won’t know if the answer is true or false.”

“Now wait a minute,” she said. “I know this riddle. We’ve heard it before, right?”

Stephanie nodded. She remembered it well. All they had to do was ask one of the guards what answer the other would give, and then do the opposite.

“But I’ve never figured it out.”

Stephanie almost slapped her forehead. She reached for her memo pad again, but Sarah stopped her.

“It’s all right,” she said. “I can do this. I want to do it.” Stephanie left the memo pad in her pocket.

They heard Ralph muttering to himself, “He’s lying.”

Sarah was scratching her brow. “There’s one question I can ask and it doesn’t matter which one of them I ask it.” She clicked her tongue, impatient with herself. “Oh, what could it be?” Stephanie bit her lip. She was getting antsy, wanting to say the answer, but unable to.

“Come on, come on,” Tim said tetchily. “We can’t stand around here all day.”

“What do you mean, we can’t?” Jim snapped. “That’s our job. We’re gatekeepers.”

“Oh, yes. I forgot.”

“Be quiet,” Sarah ordered. “I can’t think.”

“I tell the truth,” Ralph declared pedantically, from under his helmet.

“Ooh!” Alph answered mechanically. “What a lie!”

Sarah was trying to work it out logically for herself. With a finger thoughtfully in the air, she reasoned, “The first thing to do is find out which one’s the liar… but, no, there’s no way of doing that. So… the next thing to do is to find a question you can put to either one… and get the same answer.” Stephanie nodded in approval.

“Oh, that’s a good one,” Tim was guffawing. “One of us always tells the truth and the other one always lies, and you want to find a question we’ll both give the same answer to? Oh, that’ll be the day. That’s a good one, that is. Oh.”

Sarah narrowed her eyes. She thought she might have gotten it. “Now,” she said, “whom shall I ask?”

Alph and Ralph pointed at each other.

With a little smile, Sarah said to Ralph, “Answer yes or no. Would he,” and she pointed at Alph, “tell me that this door,” she pointed at the door behind Ralph, “leads to the castle?” Behind her, Stephanie pumped her fist in the air victoriously. She got it! Sarah had finally asked the right question.

Alph and Ralph looked at the girls, then at each other. They conferred in whispers.

Ralph looked up at Sarah. “Uh… yes.”

“Then the other door leads to the castle,” Sarah concluded. “And this door leads to certain death.”

“How do you know?” Ralph asked slowly. His voice was aggrieved. “He could be telling you the truth.”

“Then you wouldn’t be,” Sarah replied. “So if you tell me he said yes, I know the answer was no.” She was very pleased with herself. And rightly so. Stephanie, grinning, held one of her hands up, and the two sisters exchanged a high-five.

Ralph and Alph looked dejected, feeling that they had obscurely been cheated. “But I could be telling the truth,” Ralph objected.

“Then he would be lying,” Sarah said, allowing herself a broad smile of pleasure. “So if you tell me that he said yes, then the answer would still be no.”

“Wait a minute,” Ralph said. He frowned. “Is that right?”

“I don’t know,” replied Ralph airily. “I wasn’t listening.”

“It’s right,” Sarah told them. “I figured it out. I could until now.” She beamed at Stephanie. “I may be getting smarter.”

They walked to the door behind Alph.

“Very clever, I’m sure,” Jim remarked disappointedly, and stuck his tongue out at the two girls.

Sarah stuck hers out back at him as she pushed open the door. Over her shoulder, as she moved to pass through it first, she said, “This is a piece of cake.”

She stepped through the doorway, and fell straight down a shaft, along with Stephanie, who had grabbed ahold of her sister in an attempt to save her, only to be pulled down with her.

Sarah screamed. Stephanie opened her mouth, but no sound came out. The top of the shaft was a fast-dwindling disk of light.

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