Wishful Thinking

A Very Loud Voice

Stephanie had begun to regret her decision to head into the swamp after seeing some of the local flora and fauna. The swamp was unusually hot and humid compared to the rest of the Labyrinth. It was also dank and dismal, and reeked of a blend of sickly sweet smells and the stench of rotting meat and flesh.

At first, Stephanie thought it was perhaps from the slime that was still clinging to her or that something had died, but she soon discovered that the plants were to blame. Each possessed a scent that was equally as strange as its appearance. Although this was clearly a swamp or marshland, many of the plants seemed tropical and were very colorful and oddly shaped. It was only after looking very closely that she was able to determine what many of them were supposed to be: from stringy red moss and brightly colored fungi, to black flowers that looked like bats and orchids that looked like skulls, to plants that looked like they had corpse’s fingers hanging from them and cone-shaped flowers as tall as human beings, to various pitcher plants and mutated Venus fly traps and other carnivorous plants, to flowers with eyes and cabbage-like plants with actual teeth—all ranging from average to unbelievable sizes. And then there were the insects, which more than a few of the plants snapped at with a greedy hunger. Not only was the air buzzing with your run-of-the-mill mosquitos, treehoppers, and lantern flies, but there were also some real freaks of nature fluttering around. Describing the majority of them would be far too upsetting. Aside from these strange plants and insects, not much else seemed capable of living in this harsh environment. In short, the place was an absolute horror show.

It was just as well she had to keep her eyes on the ground in front of her to make sure she avoided any puddles of acid that may have seeped to the surface. The corrosive substance that had made such short work of the metal gate and garbage sludge seemed to be everywhere. The soil was damp with it in most areas, so she could never escape it completely, and it had begun to eat away at the soles of her shoes.

Stephanie paused when she heard a suspicious rustling sound behind her. She glanced over her shoulder, and then promptly took off running as fast as was possible while avoiding acid puddles and snapping plants. What Stephanie had failed to notice up until this point, was that the small trail of blood drops dripping from her wounded hands had not gone unnoticed, and she was, even now, being pursued by a creeping mass of suspicious vines and tendrils that had been sent out in search of food by an unseen predator. Whatever it was, Stephanie had no intention of finding out. She had no doubt that if the vines seized her, she would be dragged back to their source and devoured.

She was able to put a fair distance between herself and the mysterious predator, but her escape route was abruptly cut off when the path she was on, framed by two free-standing stone statues at disparaging heights, ended right at the edge of what appeared to be an enormous lake of acid.

When she skidded to a halt, a small rock tumbled into the water with a soft plunk and a sizzle. Panting and desperate, she was about to turn and attempt to go around it, even though there was no end to it in sight, when a voice spoke.

“Don’t disturb the water!”

Stephanie blinked and glanced back at the two statues. Looking more closely, the grotesquely carved figures appeared to be holding objects that vaguely resembled musical instruments, but none like she had ever seen before. The short and squat statue was grinning cheekily at her, while the tall and bony one watched her with a dour expression.

It was the tall, bony one who spoke. “The Swamp Beast lives in there, girl!” he said in alarm. “He’s your worst enemy in those waters.”

The short and squat one spoke next. “Well, we say water, but it’s really acid. He’s the only beast that can survive living down there, and he’s your only way to the other side. You are looking to cross the lake, right?”

“Of course she is,” the bony one said. “Why else would she be here?”

“Why the long face then?”

“How should I know?”

“I know, maybe she’d like to hear a joke,” said the squat one. “So an E-flat, a G-flat, and C-flat walked into a bar, and the bartender said: ‘I’m sorry, we don’t serve minors here.'” The two statues burst into laughter, slapping their thighs.

“That struck a chord!” crowed the skinny one.

“Be careful of those puns, they’ll get you in treble.”

“But they’re key to my humor.”

“And very note-worthy.”

Stephanie shifted nervously and glanced anxiously over her shoulder at the creeping vines. A chill went up her spine. They were catching up.

“You know, I think she’s being chased,” the bony one said, obviously the sharper of the two.

“Why didn’t she say so, then?”

The two statues looked at Stephanie and watched as she held up her arm, with the sleeve pulled up, so they could read what she had written on it. Her memo pad had been ruined by the sludge. On her arm was written: “I’m mute. How do I cross the lake?”

The two statues squinted to read the note. “Well, that explains it,” the squat one said, with a nod.

“Yes,” the bony one agreed. “Like we said before, if you want to cross, you’ll need the beast. Now, he’s a vicious one—he’ll swallow a little thing like you whole without so much as a second thought.”

“But music soothes the savage beast,” the squat one added with no small amount of pride. “Only our music, if you catch my drift.”

“But we won’t play for just anyone,” the bony one said seriously. “You have to answer our question first. Get it wrong, and you’re on your own.”

Stephanie, trembling with fear of the ever-approaching vines, gestured quickly for them to get started.

“All right, here it is: ‘Without music, life would…?'”

Her mind already racing with thoughts of danger and potential violence toward her by plants, Stephanie did her best to calm down and think rationally. At once, her mind flooded with a myriad of possibilities, but only one in particular seemed to fit in this case. They were musicians, after all, and they seemed to like puns.

The vines were only a foot or two away from her heels now. Stephanie hastily scribbled down the answer on the back of her hand and held it out for them to see.

“Let’s see,” the bony one said, preparing to read it aloud, “Without music, life would… ‘B-flat.'”

The squat one grinned at her. “Well done, my dear! Such a clever girl. You’d be surprised how few get it right.”

She decided right then and there that she would never again say another word against the music puns that her school’s drama teacher liked to tell.

With their question correctly answered, the two musicians began to play a low, mesmeric tune. Stephanie flinched when the great Swamp Beast suddenly surfaced. It was so much larger than she had imagined.

The tone of the statue’s song changed to a haunting lullaby.

With a deep, guttural growl, rather like a menacing purr, a humongous creature that looked like a plesiosaurus emerged from beneath the acid and stretched itself out—from tail to neck, from shore to shore—to form a living causeway across the entire span of the lake. Intimidated, she hesitated for a moment, but when she felt a tendril tickle the back of her ankle, Stephanie wasted no more time hopping onto the immense creature’s back to sprint her way across. The vines were still on her trail and had followed her onto the creature’s back, but the moment she reached the opposite shore and jumped down from the great beast’s snout, the song changed again, and with a deafening roar, the Swamp Beast sank back into the depths of the lake, taking the vines with it. As they burned and dissolved in the acid, an unearthly shriek of pain echoed from far off in the distance.

Panting, Stephanie straightened up and looked back towards the statues across the lake. She paused for a moment and waved at them to show her gratitude, then continued on her way. The trees were so dense that nothing could be seen through the dark canopy of vegetation above her head. With no idea whether she was still headed in the right direction, the only way to find out was to keep moving.

Meanwhile, once they had left the Wise Man, Sarah and Hoggle found that by walking forward they could move ahead. It made a nice change. Not, however, any more than a nice change, because the maze of hedges turned them left and right and back again so often that it was impossible to make any progress toward the castle. Frequently it could be seen, its spires and turrets looming in the distance above the hedges, but no matter how far and fast they walked, it remained in the distance.

Sarah was still thinking about the Wise Man. “Hoggle,” she asked, “how do you tell when someone’s talking sense and when he’s talking rubbish?”

Hoggle shrugged impatiently. “How should I know? All I knows is we’re going to get ourselves well and truly lost in this place. Let me go back.”

“Not on your life. You’re sticking with me now until we get there. I need to find Stephanie again,” Sarah said, wondering how much time they had left.

Hoggle said, “Huh,” rather noncommittally, she thought.

Well, she still had his precious string of baubles. He wouldn’t get that back until she had found her sister and Toby, and she judged that nothing would induce him to abandon her while she still had his treasure.

Alley, turning, alley, dead end, stone pillar, alley, ornamental shrub, turning, on it went, leading nowhere. Sarah wondered whether it wasn’t a closed system, no exit but its entrance, that urn. It was just the kind of puzzle that Jareth would set, to waste what time she had left. But if that were so… She shuddered. Would she have the courage to go back into the urn, and down that ladder, and start over in that awful subterranean passageway?

Down, down, down, down…

She remembered the hands, and the oubliette, and the way Stephanie had suddenly dropped, and that terrifying slashing machine, and Jareth in the beggar costume. She recalled a sentence that their mother had once read aloud to her from a book, as she liked to do when something caught her fancy: Mind what you say to a beggar, it might be God in disguise. When she saw her mother again, she would tell her: Or it might just be the King of the Goblins.

She shrugged. How could she be expected to have any respect for Jareth? He was dangerous and powerful, obviously, but he was too aware of it—a show off, really—and mean, and a cheat. He had a certain style to him, she could concede that much. He was not unattractive. But how could you respect, still less admire, someone like him? The best word she could think of to describe him was cad.

Alley, turning, alley… on they trudged. Hedged in as they were, they couldn’t see that they were not completely alone in the maze. The head and coils of a sea serpent rode along above a hedge quite close to them, though had they actually encountered the beast they might have spotted three little pairs of goblin feet running along beneath it, and heard the grunts of goblins supporting the parts of the serpent. Several times they narrowly missed meeting a mounted goblin, with a lance and flag, who had been sent out by Jareth to look for them and spent an hour galloping at random.

Hoggle was quiet for some time. Then he asked, “Why did you say that about me being your friend?”

“Because you are,” she told him candidly. “You may not be much of a friend, but you’re the only one I’ve got in this place.”

Hoggle thought about it for a while. Then he said, “I ain’t never been no one’s friend before.”

An enormous blood-curdling roar from somewhere nearby froze the two of them in their tracks.

Hoggle spun around. Pausing only to say, “Keep the stuff!” he started to run back, away from the roar.

Sarah ran after him and seized hold of his sleeve. “Wait a minute,” she said angrily. “Are you my friend of not?”

While Hoggle hesitated, another air-trembling roar made up his mind for him. “No! No, I’m not. Hoggle ain’t no one’s friend. He looks after hisself. Like everyone does.” He wriggled his sleeve free. “Hoggle is Hoggle’s friend,” she heard him yell, as he dashed in the opposite direction from the roaring and vanished into the maze.

“Hoggle!” Sarah called. “You coward!”

She heard another frightful roar, but stayed where she was. The monster, whatever it was, did not seem to be getting any closer to her. “Well,” she said, speaking out loud to reassure herself, “I’m not going to be afraid. Things are not always as they seem in this place—that’s what the Wise Man said.” The sound came again, like pride of starving lions roaring in unison. “It could be some tiny creature,” Sarah told herself, “perfectly harmless… just that it happens to have a very loud voice…” After all, by far the loudest person at home was Toby, and he couldn’t do you any harm. Was there some law she had never grasped, something to do with the smallest creatures making the most noise? Did dinosaurs roar? She decided not. They would have made a low growling noise. But what about ants, then? Probably they made a terrible noise, somewhere beyond the range of human hearing.

As she was not going to run away, the only alternative was to proceed in the direction they had been going, with some shred of faith that forward meant onward. And so, crossing her fingers for luck, she moved tentatively along the hedge alley. She wished Stephanie was still with her.

When she reached a gap in the hedge and peered cautiously through it, she saw that things were, indeed, not always what they seemed. The roar was coming from a terrifyingly huge beast, but the animal was upside down, suspended by one leg lashed to a tree. It was roaring with pain, because four goblins were tormenting it with nipper sticks, long poles with small, fierce creatures on the end of them that bit like piranhas whenever they were given the chance.

The great beast, who was covered with shaggy, ginger hair, flailed out haplessly at the goblins, but the only result was that its body swung to and fro. That improved the game for the goblins, giving each of them the opportunity to dart in ahead of the others and get in a cruel thrust with the nipper stick before the bellowing, frantically swatting beast had completed its swing back. They were clearly having the time of their lives. They vied with each other in how soft a part of the beast’s body they could reach, and how long they could hold the nipping teeth in there before they had to jump out of the way of its desperate arms. So absorbed were they that Sarah was able to leave the hedge and come closer without any risk of their noticing her.

She was appalled by the scene. “The little beasts!” she muttered to herself. She had no doubt that if Stephanie was there, too, she would have taught them all a lesson they would not soon forget.

She looked around for a weapon and found some small rocks. She picked one up, took careful aim and threw it at the nearest goblin. It hit him on the head, knocking the visor of his helmet down his eyes.

“Hey,” the goblin exclaimed. “Who turned out the lights?”

He lurched around sightlessly, still swinging and thrusting out his nipper stick. The vicious creature on the end of the stick was glad to bite anything within its reach. When it made contact with another goblin, its teeth sank in.

“Ouch! Ouch!” the bitten goblin shrieked. “Hey, stop that, you.”

“Stop what?” asked the first goblin, still prodding out unseeingly.

The second goblin was now under furious assault. “Aargh. Dog weed! Rat’s meal!” Spitefully he retaliated by deliberately using his nipper stick.

It was the blinded goblin’s turn to wail. “Help! Who’s attacking me? Where are the lights?”

The other goblins had paused in their tormenting of the beast. This was even better fun. They nudged each other and snickered as they watched the fight.

“Go to it!” one of them shouted.

“Get him!” yelled the other, hopping up and down in his excitement.

Sarah had armed herself with another little rock, and now she threw it. She was astonished at how accurate her aim was today. The rock hit one of the other goblins on the helmet, knocking down his visor. He staggered into his companion, and that one’s visor slammed down, too, with the impact.

“Help,” cried one.

“It’s gone dark,” squealed the other.

“What’s happened?”

“Lights! Where are the lights?”

Meanwhile the first goblin, still visored and unable to see who was nipping him, decided that his only recourse was to take to his heels. Running blind, he crunched straight into the two others, who were both staggering now. His nipper stick seized its opportunity.

Sarah watched with tears of laughter in her eyes as three goblins dueled with each other, helmets over their faces, while the fourth went on cursing his wounds.

“Ouch! I’m being nipped.”

“Help! Lights!”

“Ow. Stop it!”

“Worm rot! Teazel rash!”

The uproar faded as the pack of them pursued each other, yelling and yelping, crashing into hedges, falling over roots.

Sarah wiped her eyes, and her face became serious as she gazed at the great dangling beast. Having delivered it from its tormentors, she had half a mind to leave well enough alone and steal away. But the pity she had felt for the monster was still working in her. She approached it cautiously.

What the shaggy brute saw was another tormentor coming. It let out a terrible roar and aimed a great blow at her.

She was careful to remain just out of reach. All the same, even to stand there and face this gigantic, inverted creature took more courage than she thought she had. She remembered having read somewhere that you have to speak firmly and with confidence to wild animals. So, in her most perfect schoolteacher voice, she told it, “Now, stop that.”

Another great roar was on its way from the depths of the monster’s body, but the beast stopped mid-roar when it heard itself thus addressed. “Murh?” it said.

Sarah clicked her tongue. “Is that any way to treat someone who’s trying to help you?”

The monster still had its doubts. It tried delivering another bellow and aimed a swipe, but there was not much conviction in it.

“Stop it, do you hear?” Sarah was beginning to enjoy herself. It was a role she played well, having had plenty of time to study those who played it every day in the classroom. It was one of the parts she had liked to perform for her mother’s amusement.

The monster answered, “Huh?”

“Now do you or do you not want me to get you down from that tree?”

The monster hung there for a bit, reflecting on what its options were. It craned its neck to look up at its tethered ankle, reflected again, then turned its face to Sarah.

“Ludo—down,” it said.

It’s voice had become almost deferential. Its face was still fearsome, thought—ox-like horns on its head, sunken eyes, an enormous jaw with a fang protruding at each end, and a broad gaping mouth that looked grim.

Sarah steeled herself to approach closely. She felt its warm breath on her face as she stood beside the beast and twisted herself down from the waist to get a look at it the right way up. What she saw surprised her. The great mouth that had looked so grim, with its turned-down corners, had actually been, of course, smiling sweetly at her. Gosh, she reflected, it must often be like that for poor Toby, when people lean over him from the pillow of his crib.

Not only was the monster grinning at her, it now blinked in a goofy sort of way, which could just mean, I-am-in-a-pickle-aren’t-I-but-all-the-same-how-d’you-do-and-thanks-for-being-nice-to-me. Sarah returned a cautious smile. She was not going to credit this monster with being, uniquely in this place, what it seemed to be.

“Ludo—down,” it repeated.

“Ludo,” Sarah asked, “is that your name?”


“Uh-uh. I’ve had people say that to me before. So I’m not taking anything for granted. But…” She shook her head and more to herself than Ludo, concluded, “Your eyes are just like Merlin’s.”

Feeling safer now, she ruffled Ludo’s ginger head, between his horns. He smiled, and sighed.

She straightened up and looked at the knot tethering Ludo’s leg to the branch. It was a simple bowline, which she could release with one tug. With her hand raised, she paused, and looked down at Ludo. “I do hope you’re not going to turn back into a raging monster the moment I let you down from here.”

Ludo’s response was another roar that made the rocks tremble.

Sarah leaped back. “I knew it! I can’t trust anyone in this place.”

But then she saw that Ludo, far from aiming a blow at her, was using his paws to rub one or two of the most tender places where the goblins had bitten him with their nipper sticks. “Ludo—hurt,” he moaned.

Sarah looked more closely at him. He was covered with little bleeding wounds, under his fur. “Oh,” she cried, “you poor thing!” Quickly she reached up, tugged at the rope, and released him. He hit the ground with a mighty thump.

With deep little groans, he sat himself up, and began to rub his wounded head and the sores inflicted upon him. She watched him, even now uncertain whether she should expect him to thank her or eat her.

“Goblins—mean to Ludo,” he grimaced.

“Oh, I know that.” She nodded, with more assurance than she felt. “They were terribly mean to you,” she told Ludo. She moved closer to him and patted his arm. “But it’s all right now.”

He sniffled, still rubbing. Then his face broke into the most endearing big dumb smile she had ever seen, bigger and dumber even than in any cartoon. “Friend!” Ludo declared.

“That’s right, Ludo. I’m Sarah.”


“Yes, I am.” She couldn’t smile big and dumb like that, but she gave him the best she could do. “And,” she added, “I want to ask a favor of you, Ludo.”

“Huh?” I have to get to the castle at the center of the Labyrinth. Do you know the way there?”

Ludo shook his great head, still beaming at her.

Sarah sighed, and her shoulders sagged. “You don’t know the way either?”

Again, he shook his head, with a small frown of apology.

“I wonder if anyone knows how to get through the Labyrinth.”

Sarah rested her chin in her hand, philosophically. He was a dear monster, and likely to prove much more trustworthy than that runty, cowardly pipsqueak, but she could have done with a guide. Well, if no one was going to help her, she would find out what she could do on her own.

She stood up. Ludo stood with her, massively towering over her. ‘He may be no guide,’ she thought, ‘but it’s nice to have him on my side.’

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