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A Funny Thing Happened
(On the Way to Emerald City)
(This is a fantasy I began about ten years ago,
I think I’m ready to call it finished now. Hope you like it.)
Every writer wants to get to Emerald City. That is their
ultimate goal. The trouble is, the only way to get to Emerald City is by going
through the woods.
Little Dorothy Scrivener was on her way to Emerald City because that's where the
publishers were, but first she had to go through the woods. She gripped her
manuscript tightly to her chest and took her first step.
There was no yellow brick road to guide her, and she didn't have anyone for
company, no tin man, no scarecrow, not even a white rabbit. She was alone in a
dark wood of words. Words were printed on every leaf of every tree -- strange
words, words like "disingenuous," "specificity." How was she to know which of
these words to use or when to use them, or whether to use them at all?
She almost stumbled over a sign with an arrow on it. Someone had knocked the
sign over so she didn't know which way it was supposed to point. It read, "This
way to the Quagmire of Cliché." "What was a cliché, and furthermore, what was a
quagmire?" she wondered.
On a tree in front of her, someone had nailed a "No Hunting" warning. It said:
$200 Fine for Shooting Oxymoron's
"I wonder if a quagmire is anything like an oxymoron," she thought. Then,
somewhat nervously, she said, "I'll be glad when I get to Emerald City."
"But you've just arrived, my dear!" The voice came from behind a tree and almost
frightened Dorothy out of her wits.
"Pardon me, sir ... I must have spoken aloud," she tried to explain.
A pear-shaped man emerged from behind the tree, he was wearing a velvet suit
with a high starched and somewhat yellowed collar that had seen better days. He
wore large bottle bottom glasses and carried books under each arm.
"It will not do to be hasty, young lady. I don't mean to question your
credentials, but you appear to be, perhaps, fourteen or fifteen years of age.
The publishers in Emerald City are insensitive in the extreme and you will find
yourself disgraced and back here in no time if you're not properly prepared." He
seated himself on a fallen log and peered over his glasses at Dorothy.
Dorothy was worldly wise for her age. She was well acquainted with the story of
Little Red Riding Hood, and the honeyed words of wolves in general. This
elderly, rather professorial looking gentleman didn't look like a wolf ... but
you can't be too careful, especially of men wearing velvet suits.
"My name is Virgule, young lady. Professor Virgule. It is an assumed name, let
me assure you. It is assumed because my father chose to call me James Joyce ...
a name I knew I would never live up to despite his assumption. Do you know what
a "Virgule" is, my child?"
"I'm sorry, no, I don't ... is it one of the muses?"
"Dear me no ... what do the public schools teach the young these days? A virgule
is the slash between the and/or ... I invented it. Now that you know all about
me, don't you think you should tell me your name?"
"I am Dorothy Scrivener, Professor. Can you show me the way to Emerald City?"
Virgule removed his glasses and slowly shook his head. "Dear little Dorothy
Scrivener," he began ... "why do you think this forest exists? Thousands of
years ago the publishers of Emerald City planted these trees and named the
leaves ... each one differently. Then they created the Quagmire of Cliché and
many more wonders. There are worlds of words you have yet to see."
Dorothy stamped her foot in exasperation, "I am not interested in wonders, or
words either for that matter," she shouted petulantly, "I want to see the
"You are not ready, NOW," Virgule explained. "Repeat for me the rule of
capitalization of titles ... I dare you."
"Why should I," Dorothy bristled.
"Suppose I was a publisher and I asked you to recite the rules for
capitalization of titles ... would you recite them?
"Well, I ... er, I guess," Dorothy stumbled.
"You don't know them, do you?" Professor Virgule smiled knowingly.
"I'll tell you ... the rule is as follows: all words are
capitalized except articles, prepositions and conjunctions, therefore an example
might be Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Virgule emphasized each capital letter by
drawing them in the air as he spoke.
"There," he peered closely at Dorothy, "you've learned something already. The
publishers will ask you things like that. Can you repeat the exceptions?"
"Oracles, propositions and conjectures," Dorothy mumbled reluctantly.
"You have a long way to go, my Dear," sighed Virgule. "Follow the sign, it will
show you the way."
"There is no sign," complained Dorothy.
"Good God you're an impatient child, aren't you! I haven't put it up yet. When I
put it up it will show you the way." He produced a sign from behind the tree and
pounded it in the ground with his stack of books.
Dorothy stamped her foot again, "Well ... which is this way? This sign doesn't
tell me a thing ... " Her voice trailed off when she discovered Professor
Virgule had disappeared. Indeed, he had his fill of Dorothy Scrivener, and as he
plodded through the woods angrily kicking the leaves aside he could be heard to
grumble, "fresh young whippersnapper." He paused a moment to look up
"whippersnapper' in his Funk and Wagnalls.
"Hummph," he muttered, "a cracker of whips -- how strange."
Dorothy decided to follow the sign anyway. It was as good a
way as any.
"After all, Professor Virgule knew I was looking for Emerald
City ... maybe this is the way."
She hadn't gone more than a hundred yards before she found herself in a forest
clearing. In the center, three witches were seated on the ground before a
boiling pot. One was very tall and thin the others were short and stout ...
hardly more than lumps of rags.
"Are you that obnoxious Scrivener girl?" The tall one glared at Dorothy and
threw a leaf into the pot.
"I'm Dorothy Scrivener, but I'm not obnoxious at all. I just want to get to
"No matter which way you go through the woods, that's the way you get to Emerald
City -- my pretty," the tall one grinned. "But, first you go through the woods.
Where's your manners, child ... don't you want to know our names?"
"All these delays" sighed Dorothy. She shifted her heavy manuscript and said,
"Okay, who are you?"
The tall one, every bit as tall as Dorothy even though she was sitting by the
fire, said, "I am in charge. My name is "Fraudulence". My sisters are, from your
left to your right, and from my right to my left,
"Flatulence" and "Frustration". Our mother loved me best."
Dorothy could understand that. The two short ones had not even raised their eyes
from the fire. Fraudulence was the only witch who paid her any attention.
"What are you cooking," Dorothy asked.
"Leaves, my dear. Leaves with the words of the trees that bore them. From the
brew we shall pour our afternoon literature tea." She extended a cup to Dorothy.
"Have some with us, dear."
"I'm not thirsty, thank you," Dorothy answered. "Besides, the cup is cracked and
doesn't have a handle."
"You have no need of words then," Fraudulence smiled. "That manuscript you carry
is perfect I presume."
"As perfect as it has to be, I've been writing for three years and I certainly
don't need any help from a tree."
"I suppose it's a novel," Fraudulence snickered. "Does it have a title?"
"It's called, "A Night in Arkansas," it's fiction based on fact."
"The proper word is 'faction' then. Faction is your genre. I sense problems
already," Fraudulence said ... "Read the opening words, the dynamite words,
those that will grab the reader by the seat of his pants and make him your slave
until the final page."
"All right," boasted Dorothy, "what do you think of this ... It was a dark and
stormy night ..."
Flatulence and Frustration immediately roared with laughter and rolled over
backwards. Flatulence was perilously close to the fire and Fraudulence rolled
her away just in time. "That was a close one," she said.
"You are the fifty millionth budding author to start a story
with those words. You've made the same mistake they all do. Tell me please, how
can 'it' be a 'dark and stormy night'? It, can only be 'it,' nothing more,
nothing less. A far better introduction would be, "The night was dark
Flatulence stood up, adjusted her hat and dusted herself off. "Or, the old house
creaked and groaned in the rising wind ... huh? How about that!?"
Frustration said, "How about ... lightning threw lurid shadows across the face
of the old man lying on the library floor?"
"I think you're being spiteful." Dorothy was close to tears.
"Won't you stay for word tea, dear ... a little word tea will help to make the
feedback go down." Fraudulence held out a cup, but Dorothy turned away.
"Well then, if you must go, promise us you will see Doctor Paradox before you
leave the forest.
Flatulence piped up, "If you don't, the publishers will make you dance naked in
the board room?" Frustration added, "You'll be lucky if they don't feed your
manuscript to the shredder!"
Dorothy turned and flounced off. She didn't care whether she met Doctor Paradox
or not. She was going to find her way out of this stupid forest on her own.
As she disappeared into the woods, Flatulence turned to Fraudulence and asked,
"What was the word on the last leaf you threw in the pot, sister?"
"Obnoxious," Fraudulence answered.
"Suppose it read 'adorable', would you have called little Dorothy, adorable?"
"No," replied Fraudulence, "I would have called her 'obnoxious'
The woods grew denser and denser. The only living things she
saw were two noisy Oxymoron's perched high in the branches overhead shouting to
each other, "I'm clearly confused" squawked one. "Act naturally," called the
other. She could hear Clichés calling to each other in the swamp to her left.
She didn't want any part of that nonsense so she turned abruptly to her right.
"A writer! A writer with paper! Oh, you must be a very great writer. Let me see.
Oh, yes beautiful white paper, I'll bet you have a fountain pen too?"
Dorothy cringed as this strange figure advanced on her. Dressed in rags, his
feet wrapped in burlap every pocket in his shabby clothing was stuffed with
leaves. He carried a sack full of leaves and he had leaves in his straggly hair.
"Pardon my enthusiasm, child ... my name is Paradox, Professor Paradox ... well,
I suppose I'm still a Professor though it's been thirty -- no, forty -- well,
ages anyway, since academia. I mentor now. Yes mentor. You know what a mentor
is, don't you? Someone who gives you advice whether you want it or not. Someone
who does it for nothing, for the love of mentoring. Someone who needs to mentor
more than the mentoree needs mentoring." These last words were spoken at
breathtaking speed, so quickly that Dorothy only heard half of them. Paradox sat
on a stump and mopped his brow with a handful of leaves.
He looked so helpless that the initial shock of his appearance quickly
dissipated. Her first question of course, was, "Do you know the way to Emerald
"Oh, young as you are you must be a very fine author. A manuscript ... words on
paper, how exciting. Forgive me for not recognizing you, dear lady, but I have
been in these woods a lifetime. I've read nothing, met no one and the only
writing that comes to me now are the words that fall from the trees ... the pity
of it all, I had such promise."
"My name is Dorothy Scrivener, Professor. I must get out of these woods
"Yes, a great author with a manuscript and a fountain pen cannot waste her time
in this wood ... I know all the authors up to and including James Joyce, tell
me, madam are you as famous as he?"
"Who is James Joyce?" Dorothy asked.
Some of the breathless bloom faded from Professor Paradox's eager smile. "Is he
so soon forgotten then, oh dear, fame is so fleeting! Where are you going when
you leave the wood, my dear?"
"I told you, Emerald City!" Doesn't anyone listen to me? Doesn't anyone know the
"Have you been there before, Miss Scrivener? I ask the question because it is a
cruel and inhuman city, not a place for artists of the written word, especially
those with lovingly prepared manuscripts written in ink on one side only.
Publishers sit in board rooms smoking cigars and drinking bourbon whiskey ...
agents prowl the streets of the city untethered. Why, an editor seeing you with
that manuscript might reduce it to ribbons."
"But this is my masterpiece, "A Night in Arkansas". I'm sure it will be a
classic." Dorothy was warming to her subject, "It starts off, 'It was a dark and
stormy night as Paula knocked on the door of room 323 of the Hotel Little Rock."
"Fascinating, Miss Scrivener; but I shudder to think of what may happen to that
opening in the hands of a bloodthirsty editor. I have been to Emerald City, they
are a heartless lot. May I mentor you, Madam? There will be no charge -- you
will be interested in what I have to say, I promise you."
More delay, thought Dorothy. She sighed ... "Go ahead, mentor me if you must."
"I walked into these woods many years ago with my two greatest novels. One was a
dark sea story of a one legged captain of a whaling vessel who lost his life and
the lives of his crew in the vain search for a white whale with a crooked jaw. I
met a struggling young author somewhat older than you, his name was Melville. He
was unsuccessfully trying to drown himself in the Quagmire of Clichés. In the
nick of time I rescued him, gave him my story to assuage his melancholy and sent
him on his way. The other was a story of the civil war ... I remember it so well
' .... lawsee me Miss Crimson, Melody's a-birthin' and Leslie's had his head
blown off at Antietam! Oh fiddle-dee-dee Tabatha, I'll think about it tomorrow,
I'm on my way to Baskin Robbins!' -- It was written on the whitest of paper in a
flowing hand." The Professor threw a handful of leaves into the air and read
them as they came down. "Where was I? Oh, yes, I gave this novel to a lovely
southern lady of no particular talent who ran off to Emerald City as if the
devil was after her."
"But, but that was plagiarism." Blurted Dorothy.
"Do you really think so? But all art is plagiarism, is it not? Creativity is
handed down from teacher to student like an inherited disease. Have you ever
written anything you haven't read before?"
"I'm sure 'Moby Dick' and 'Gone With the Wind' are original -- and so is 'A
Night in Arkansas' I'll have you know."
"My dear lady, we have learned differently. When Herman walked into the offices
of Simian & Shyster Mr. Simian called in a squad of editors and they cut and
pasted for twelve days. The upshot was that they, not Herman, and certainly not
I, created "Moby Dick," Herman was given a check for $350; it was a tidy sum in
those days, Miss Scrivener. Then they shooed him back into the forest. I see him
occasionally in the autumn of the year when the leaves fall, that's the best
time to find new words." As Professor Paradox spoke he scattered some leaves at
his feet and shuffled them about. "Throw the horse over the fence, some hay.
There, that's not bad for an ex-academician is it young lady?"
Dorothy was incredulous, "I simply cannot believe 'Moby Dick' was written in
this manner, and even if it was, Mr. Melville had no right to call it his own."
"A man without a fountain pen and paper! How could he be a plagiarist?" The
Professor looked upward at the late afternoon sky. "It will soon be dark Miss
Scrivener, the publishers will shut their doors. Why don't you spend the night
here in the forest with us and continue your odyssey in the morning?"
Dorothy, her mind in a whirl, did not want to spend the night in this absurd
forest. No one could be trusted, no one could possibly be who they said they
were. "Thank you Professor Paradox, you've been more than kind but before this
night is out I will be in Emerald City!"
"We shall be here when you return," the Professor sighed, "We will wait here at
the edge of the wood." He walked Dorothy to the forest's edge and from there she
could see the minarets and spires of the city gleaming in the late afternoon
"Oh! isn't it beautiful?" she cried. "If I hurry I can still be there before the
publishers lock their doors for the night."
Professor Paradox watched Dorothy's figure grow smaller and smaller as she ran
toward Emerald City. At last he could see it no longer. He sighed deeply and
said, "There goes another one." He took a hunting horn from his ragged waistband
and sounded a plaintive note.
The sound echoed throughout the enchanted forest and from every secluded corner,
every cave and grotto, from every leafy nest the forest creatures gathered at
the edge of the wood. Furry little participles, tiny verbs, playful synonyms and
graceful italics all clustered at the feet of Professor Paradox.
"We must wait for her," he cautioned. "She will return, and we must be ready
with a comforting word."
Morning found the forest creatures still gathered about
Professor Paradox. They had not slept nor had they eaten anything but the few
apostrophes that grew at the edge of the wood.
The Professor had eaten nothing at all. "I should have been more persuasive," he
chastised himself. "She will be devoured in Emerald City, they will tear her and
her 'Stormy Night in Arkansas' to shreds. Why can't people be content with the
words that fall from the trees. Why must they think of new things to say. All
there is or ever was is written on the leaves of the trees."
It was dawn now, and a filmy mist drifted over the grassy fields that separated
the forest from Emerald City. "I'll bet she now comes," dangled one of the
participles. "Keep a sharp time piece," warned a synonym. Sure enough, a tiny
figure could be seen running from the gates of the city.
"It is she!" cried the Professor. "Let us prepare a feast, kill a fatted calf,
gather vegetables. Let music sound and roll out a keg of our best marmsey."
They cleared the glade that the witches had lately occupied and set up a table.
Cliches from the quagmire, hearing the preparations, and sensing a party in the
offing, came running in their best attire, "Age before beauty," cried some, "The
exception proves the rule," others laughingly responded. Dorothy would be
welcomed with open arms. In her short stay in the forest she had acquired a
family who loved her as deeply as her mother and father did back home in Kansas.
As she staggered into the forest, Professor Paradox caught her in his arms and
eased her gently to the ground. She was bruised and battered, her manuscript was
no longer with her, there was a "kick me" sign stuck to the seat of her jeans.
But -- and a very big "BUT" it was, there was a check peeping out from the torn
pocket of her blouse.
"What have they done to you, Oh gifted child of letters?" The Professor fussed
over her, he dressed her wounds with leaves, each with its own message of
Through her tears she sobbed, "Oh, Professor, I have witnessed things I cannot
repeat, cruel things. It is a city of demons, nothing is sacred there. The
blinding inspiration and golden thread of prose, the lilting meter of verse ...
there is no respect ... it is stuffed through the meat grinder like pork
"Hush, child, you are no less a person today than you were yesterday. I should
have made a greater effort to keep you from their clutches." He did his best to
cheer her. "Come, my dear, you must be hungry We have prepared a fabulous feast
for you with wine, dancing and song. All is not lost. I see your manuscript has
been taken from you, but I also see a check. I would suggest you get to the bank
as soon as you can."
"But, Professor," Dorothy moaned. "My novel, my novel, they wrested it from my
grasp. They gloated and got out their scissors. They said this is grist for the
"Star" and the "Inquirer," it must hit the supermarket checkout counters by
"Come, have a cup of marmsey, my dear. There is nothing like a sweet red wine to
make the editing go down."
The check was examined carefully and found to be fully negotiable. It was made
out for $350,000 -- fully a thousand times superior to that given Herman
Melville for "Moby Dick". A branch of Citibank was conveniently located not too
far from the banks of the quagmire and the feast was put on hold until 9 A.M.
when it opened.
"May I stay here in the forest with you and the other creatures of the wood?"
Dorothy asked. "I cannot go home to Kansas and write again. I dare not write for
fear of being violated by those fiends in Emerald City."
"By all means, stay with us, Dorothy. You need fear no one here."
Such was not to be. Shortly after the check was cashed and
the first of the wine was poured, the sky darkened, a flash of lightning blinded
them and a clap of thunder split the heavens.
"It's the Lord God Etymology!" shouted Professor Paradox, "On your knees
"Does that include me?" Dorothy asked nervously.
"I don't know, I don't know -- " the Professor was close to panic.
"Maybe you'd better, it can't hurt."
Arrival by balloon for a festive occasion is an effective entrance practiced by
both Princes and Popes. The altitude lends authority to those of short stature
and if you're Lord God of anything you must have people look up to you. Goodness
knows, in the Pantheon of Gods, the God of Etymology is pretty small potatoes.
But it was a beautiful balloon, red, blue and gold, resembling those depicted in
French prints of the eighteenth century from which gentlemen in tall silk hats
gazed down through their lorgnettes at the peasantry below, the same peasantry
who would later behead them. The thunder and lightning machine was working
flawlessly and the entire paraphernalia set down gently in the center of the
The seat of honor, which was intended for Dorothy was hastily placed at the head
of the table to welcome the Lord God of Etymology, who stepped from the gondola
and smiled tolerantly at his forest subjects. He remained standing but motioned
for everyone to sit. A speech was obviously forthcoming.
"I needn't ask which of you is Dorothy Scrivener, need I?" he began.
"Dorothy, you are the only human at this festive board. The
rest of us are shadows. We take the words that are scattered among us from on
high and from them a patchwork emerges, tales told by idiots, full of sound and
fury, signifying nothing.
"And Dorothy you want to stay with us? That cannot be permitted. You have free
will, you have work to do, you have a lifetime to live, and you must live it.
You will be the center of a family. Children at your feet. You will know
tragedy, despair and bliss beyond measure. Here, there is nothing for you but
the dry dust of semantics. Go home Dorothy. Live your life and write it well.
Stay out of this forest of enigma and never return to Emerald City."
"I understand you've just salted away a tidy sum, my dear. It will see you
through Harvard -- I trust you will major in the humanities, and after Harvard
you will have no need of Emerald City or this unweeded garden that has grown to
Professor Paradox would have preferred Dorothy to stay, he had developed a
fatherly interest in her, and his mentoring instincts had been thwarted again.
But the good Lord God of Etymology was usually right -- after all he had nothing
else to do.
Dorothy was not entirely satisfied either. After her shocking experience in
Emerald City she wanted to curl up and hide in somber obscurity. The forest was
an eiderdown of warmth reminiscent of the safety she still remembered in the
sweet embrace of her mother's arms and the bristly, cigar scented cheek of her
father. Couldn't that immunity last forever, or must it wear off as time and
life grind it down?
She looked at Professor Paradox, the three weird sisters and Doctor Virgule. She
looked above her at the circling oxymoron's, she could hear their plaintive
cries, "virtual reality" -- "friendly fire." Somehow their senseless chatter
summed up all she had been through the past twenty four hours. The good Lord was
right, she must move on. There was a lot of living to do.
She wore no ruby slippers. There were no magic mushrooms and the road back to
Kansas was dry and dusty, but she was under the clear blue sky. No words hung
from the trees or drifted idly for the picking. Like the rest of her life, the
words would be her own.
©Harry Buschman 1997
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