Helen was born wrong. Her daddy wanted a son who'd grow up to take over the family manufacturing business. Helen didn't qualify. Mommy wanted a dainty little girl. Helen wasn't dainty. She was round as an onion with stick-out hair and knees that knocked as if they wanted to change places. "I don't think she's ours." She heard Mommy say once to Aunt Vickie. "I've often wondered if the hospital gave us the wrong child." Hearing that, Helen's heart cracked like a Christmas walnut and she put her arms through the sleeves of an invisible gray coat which she buttoned tight.
"When I grow up, I'm going to fight dragons," Helen said under her breath as she regarded a pile of cooked kale lying on her breakfast plate. She was certain anyone who fought dragons wouldn't eat kale.
"Don't mumble," Mother said from behind the morning paper. Helen repeated herself. "There are no such things as dragons and even if there were, girls wouldn't fight them." Mother was wrong, Helen would. She was quite sure with the right equipment she could do it too. Not that Greenwich, Connecticut was overrun with dragons or even had a dragon-in-residence. But if a bunch of them turned up to cause trouble, she'd volunteer to help. "Another bite." Mother said eyeing Helen's plate. Mother had read in a magazine; kale was a superfood and key to good health. Helen considered lying about having eaten her two bites but didn't. A knight was truthful or at least the good ones were.
"If you ate more kale..." her mother said looking over the newspaper. The unfinished thought hovered between them. If you ate more kale you wouldn't be so fat. More than anything, Helen wanted her parents to be proud of her and forced a small bite through her unwilling teeth. When she became a dragon-fighting-knight, she'd ban kale from Connecticut and let everyone eat as many muffins as they wanted.
Free at last, Helen sat in her favorite spot between the two oak trees at the end of the yard and got to work making up rhymes. Rhymes made her happy. You could count on a rhyme to rhyme. Stuffing an Oreo cookie into her mouth, filched from the pantry, she wrote, A horse called Morse and smiled.
A bee buzzed past her nose. Helen's eyes followed it as she chewed. She and bees usually got along. She didn't swat and they didn't sting. This bee was gold.
"You're not a flowerzzz," the bee buzzed in her ear as if not being a flower were her fault. She'd never had a bee talk to her before. It made her nervous. She put another cookie in her mouth. "If you're not a flowerzzzz, I'm going to sting you." Helen sat very still and chewed faster.
"Leave her alone Buster." A little girl about her own age stepped from behind the oak tree and smiled. The girl was string bean thin with flashing gold eyes and a long red and blue braid slung over her shoulder. She walked as if she wore a crown. "Don't mind him, he's a tease. He knows you're not a flower and he won't sting you." She said the last part to the bee in a way that meant business. "I am Delphine the Magnificent." Delphine was indeed magnificent. Helen wanted to curtsy. "What is your name?"
"Helen." Her voice cracked with cookie crumbs.
Delphine made a face, "No, what's your real name? The one that says who you are?" Helen blinked. "The one that says what you're known for?"
"I'm not known for anything." Well not for anything good. Nana Belle who lived with them for part of the year knew Helen as a stealer of cookies having caught her multiple times with a hand in the cookie jar. It was something neither of them discussed.
Delphine paced. "Hmmm," she said as she paused to look at Helen before continuing her pacing. "Hmmmm," she said again. All this hmmming was making Helen anxious. She didn't like being the center of attention. She was better not being noticed, preferring the back of a classroom to the front, or up against the draperies to the middle of the living room. Helen squirmed then tried not to. The problem with squirming is once you start it's hard to stop. Delphine rephrased the question. "What do you want to be?"
"I want to be a knight and fight dragons," Helen said quickly. "And I'd like to be an astronaut so I could go to the moon and look at the earth from far away and come back to tell everyone how pretty it is so they'd be nicer to each other." Helen looked straight into Delphine's golden eyes and grinned.
"Oh, so you're Helen the Adventurer, Helen the Peacemaker, Helen the Teller of Tales."
Could these really be her names? They sounded too good to be true. She waited for Delphine to laugh at her like the girls at school. Say it was a joke. Say how Helen was only a chubby nothing and how could she think she could be an adventurer, or a peacemaker, or a teller of tales? Delphine smiled in a nice way and Helen gulped down her fear and said, "I don't know how."
"You mean how to get from here to there?" Helen nodded. "Well, everything starts with knowing your real name."
Helen straightened her shoulders and said the three names silently to herself. They sounded good in her head. She mumbled them out loud, then louder and prouder. By the fourth time, the invisible gray coat she'd been wearing for ever so long, tumbled to the ground. Helen gave it a good kick.
"That's the way," Delphine said nodding. "Now, what adventures have you had so far?" Delphine sat on the grass as if she were getting ready for a long and interesting story.
Helen sat too. "Well," she said studying her bitten-off fingernails. Nana Belle painted them with a bitter-tasting nail polish that was supposed to keep her from biting them but didn't help at all. She slid her index finger into her mouth and chewed at a piece of skin. "Well, you see, it's like this..." She was nine years old and hadn't done anything. She hadn't climbed a mountain, or sailed an ocean, or even rescued a kitten. She certainly hadn't confronted any dragons.
Buster buzzed, "She hasn't had any adventurezzz."
Delphine the Magnificent glared at the golden bee. "Hush up, I didn't ask you."
"He's right. I haven't done anything."
"Yet!" Delphine said. "You haven't done anything yet. Which is very different. Actually, it's perfect we're meeting before you're famous. Getting in at the ground floor, so to speak. We'll be able to say we knew Helen the Adventurer, Helen the Peacemaker, Helen the Teller of tales at the beginning. And isn't that the best place to start?"
Helen nodded and remembering her manners offered Delphine the last Oreo cookie which the Magnificent accepted with queenly grace. Helen decided right then and there she was going to be exactly like Delphine and sat up straighter. Could she make her short, mousy brown hair turn red and blue like Delphine's?
Buster buzzed her ear, "It'zz not going to work you know. There's only one Delphine the Magnificent." The bee was reading her thoughts, which was as rude as Helen reading the comics over Nana Belle's shoulder.
"What are you talking about Buster? Of course, there's only one of me," the Magnificent said with a laugh.
"She'zzz trying to be like you," he buzzed. Helen cringed, ashamed.
"Helen is perfect exactly as she is." Helen's eyes filled with tears. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said about her. Delphine stood. "I think it's time we had an adventure, don't you?"
Helen got to her feet swiping at the tears that had insisted on running down her cheeks. "Yes, I'm ready."
"Let's go," and Delphine the Magnificent led her between the two oak trees to a little gate Helen had never noticed.
Through the Gate
The gate was waist-high made from old wood and rusted hinges that creaked when Delphine pulled it open. Helen wondered why she'd never seen it. Something about the gate made her uneasy in a twitchy, excited sort of way. Delphine the Magnificent stepped through with Buster buzzing at her ear. Helen hesitated. The gate didn't look like much. Even so, wasn't that how real adventures started? You'd be walking down an empty path, up an old staircase, having a normal Tuesday and then bam! you were smack in the middle of something exciting. Or that's what Helen imagined adventures were like since she'd never had one of her own. She wiped her sweaty palms on her shorts. "You coming?" Delphine asked from the other side of the gate. She looked taller than she had on Helen's side. Buster buzzed in a way that sounded as if he was saying "Helen the gutlesszzz." Well, she wasn't gutless. She was Helen the Adventurer, Helen the Peacemaker, Helen the Teller of tales. Squaring her shoulders, she put her hand on the creaky gate and tugged. It didn't open. She tugged harder. It creaked but stayed closed. Helen grabbed the handle with both hands, leaned back and pulled with all her might. She would have an adventure. The gate opened a third of the way, and before it could snap shut- the gate seemed to be an independent thinker- she stepped through. Helen gasped. This wasn't the back of their neighbor's garden. Here was a long sweep of meadow laid out like a carpet rolling to a skyline of dark purplish buildings. Helen looked behind her. The gate stood alone.
"Do you want to go back?" Delphine said. "You can, you know."
"No thanks. I'd like to have an adventure."
"Good, me too." Delphine started off towards the purple city. She took long steps.
Helen wondered if the adventure had already started. "Where are we?" she asked, and ran to catch up with Delphine.
"Mazel Tov," Helen rolled the words in her mouth. They reminded her of taffy. She'd heard the words before but never knew they were the name of a place.
"It means good luck. Can you think of anything you'd want more than good luck on your first adventure?" No, Helen couldn't. Good luck was always good, although thinking about needing it made her nervous.
In the Meadow
Helen was sweaty and tired. It felt as if they'd been walking through the meadow for hours. The purple city was as far away as ever and her feet hurt. Adventures were harder than she'd thought. Maybe having them wasn't such a good idea after all. She rooted around in the pockets of her shorts for something to eat and found a small handful of fuzzy Raisinets. Brushing off bits of fuzz she popped them in her mouth one at a time. You can munch a lunch, she thought, pleased with the rhyme and added, eating is fleeting, which pleased her even more.
At the top of a small hill, Helen stopped to wipe her sweaty face on her shirt. She was out of breath. Delphine the Magnificent was so far ahead she was only a tiny outline with a bright glint of gold at her ear. The glint of gold had to be Buster. Helen peered over her tummy at her dimpled knees. Everyone knew adventurers didn't look like her. No, she was a fat girl who ought to be home. Who was she kidding? She'd never make it. The city was farther away than ever.
"Hey there, sweet lips." Helen whirled around. A coyote gazed at her with yellow almond eyes. "Long way to go?" he said smiling. The coyote had a narrow snout and long, skinny legs. "Probably too far, don't you think?" His breath smelled like old cat food. Helen nodded. Mother always said not to talk to strangers. She'd already broken that rule. Not only had she talked to Delphine, she'd followed her through a gate she'd never seen before. "Ohhhh, Delphine the Mag-ni-fi-cent," the Coyote said dripping sarcasm. "She's a big one for getting innocent people into messes." Helen darted her eyes down the path. Maybe she could retrace her steps back to the gate. It wasn't a big gate. Would it be hard to find? The Coyote chuckled. "That Delphine. Did she promise you riches? Excitement? Something to spiff up the old ho-hum?"
"Adventure," Helen mumbled. Mother hated when she mumbled.
"Ah adventure." The Coyote nodded as if he'd seen it all before.
"I told her I wanted to be an astronaut." The moment Helen said the word, astronaut, she felt ashamed. She was fat and stupid and there was no way she would ever be an astronaut or go to the moon or tell people how beautiful earth was from space so they'd be nicer to each other.
The coyote laughed like the girls in her class. "You want to be an as-tro-naut," he said the same way he'd said Delphine the Magnificent. Helen felt her face turn hot. "Helen, Helen, Helen," he said and shook his head as if a fly had flown down his ear. How did he know her name? "What you're going to be is a big, fat, invisible nothing."
Helen's insides shrank. The happiness she'd felt finding her real names drained away. She couldn't remember even what they were. Did it matter? The coyote was joined by other coyotes who laughed and laughed as the first coyote told them how fat, stupid Helen wanted to be an as-tro-naut. She nodded her agreement. How could she ever be Helen the Adventurer, Helen the Peacemaker, Helen the Teller of tales? No, she thought, wait. These were her true names and she felt a tiny flush of pride. Helen said them to herself again, and then again.
With a flick of a whisker, the coyotes vanished. In their place, a hare with tall dark ears sat in the grass. The hare seemed both wise and brave. It was one thing to be brave when you had long sharp teeth and big claws. It was quite another when you were small with teeth made for chewing roots. The hare nodded his approval and with a twitch of his nose disappeared into the grass.
When she looked up, she saw Delphine the Magnificent was only a few steps ahead and the city was nearly upon them. Helen was no longer tired and felt as if she could walk for days. With a laugh, she ran to catch up to her friends. Delphine grinned, "Hello, Helen the Adventurer."
The Glass Bridge
To get into the city they had to cross a bridge across a wide river of blue-gray water. It was a bright, gleaming bridge that sparkled in the sunshine. The toll man tipped his cap. "Six Raisinets, if you please." Helen patted her pockets.
Buster buzzed her ear. "What did you think they were for?" he asked in a rather mean tone.
She ignored him. "I'm sorry, I don't have any." Delphine looked amused. Helen squirmed. "What do I do if I don't have the toll?"
The toll man scratched his chin and resettled his cap, "Well, you have to pay something. What have you got?"
Helen had nothing. "Could I cross the bridge now and pay you another time?"
The toll man pushed his chin up, "No sorry. Can't do that. Rules you know."
"I guess this is as far as I go." She bit her lip trying not to cry. Buster buzzed in a circle of annoyance.
Delphine laughed. It was such a nice laugh, full of tiny tinkling bells, that it made Helen giggle in spite of herself. The toll man chuckled then guffawed so hard his cap fell off which made them laugh harder. A yellow butterfly swooped around their heads and then another and another until there were so many flittering and flying, they couldn't count the silly things. Helen was laughing so hard she tumbled to the ground and the toll man dropped to his knees, trying to catch his breath. When at last they quieted, they sat in the thick grass taking deep breaths, gulping in the sweet, warm air.
"Ah miss, that was lovely," the toll man said patting his chest. "I haven't laughed like that in a long time. Feel ten years younger." He stood, picked up his cap, and set it on his head. "Toll paid in full for all of you."
"Thank you," they shouted and just like that they were on their way to the shadowy city. Delphine the Magnificent and Helen the Adventurer, Peacemaker and Teller of tales, skipped onto the bridge with Buster the golden bee buzzing by their ears.
Halfway across, Helen paused to look down at the river. The bridge was made of glass and nothing was hidden. The river sparkled and sang. Tiny wavelets caught the sunshine making the water look as if it were made of diamonds.
On the other side, it took hardly any time for them to reach the edge of the city. The city was loud with harsh hollow sounds that echoed and banged. Helen heard voices shouting complaints. She grabbed Delphine's arm, "Why are we going here?"
"Why not?" Delphine said with a smile.
"It sounds scary."
"Then shouldn't we stay away?" Delphine shook her head. Helen tried again. "Why would we go someplace scary?"
"Because how else will we find out if we need to be afraid of it?"
"It could be dangerous."
"Yes, we'll need to be careful," Delphine said.
Buster buzzed, "Adventurezzzz."
Delphine regarded her, "You don't have to come. It's your choice. But you did say you wanted to fight dragons."
Yes, Helen had said that, but she hadn't expected dragon fighting to be so soon and had thought it would entail special dragon fighting equipment. As far as she could tell, she had nothing.
In the Purple City
The city's buildings leaned against each other like crooked teeth blocking the sun. This wasn't like New York City where Helen's Great Grandmother Susan and Aunt Vicki lived on Park Avenue. That city had wide-open streets with flowers planted down the middle. Helen had visited Park Avenue many times and assumed all of New York was like it.
"You don't have to do this," Delphine said again.
"I want to." Helen stepped forward. Her voice sounded small against the city noise.
Delphine the Magnificent grinned, "Good. No one ever said you couldn't be brave and scared at the same time." Helen had never thought heard that before and hoped it was true.
Buster buzzed her ear, "Dragonzzzz." Helen ignored him. Biting her thumbnail, she followed Delphine's shiny red, and blue braid down the block.
The city was rough and loud. A lady yelled at a man who yelled back and slammed a door. A mother slapped her little boy saying, "Quit your yapping," and the boy screamed in protest. A tall man with whiskers pushed past Helen making her stumble without saying, excuse me. Helen didn't like it here. She missed home. "Where are we going?" she asked more a whine than a question.
"Don't know," Delphine the Magnificent answered.
Helen stopped. "Do you know where we are?" They'd gone down so many streets turning this way and that, it was a jumble. Delphine looked amused. Helen was angry. This wasn't funny, they could be lost. Delphine was the one who'd dragged her to this awful place. It was all Delphine's fault. "Do you even know what we're looking for?" Helen stamped her foot.
Delphine studied Helen before answering. "No, I don't know."
"You don't know? Then what are we doing?" Helen shouted. She didn't care if people heard her.
"I don't know because this is your adventure. You're going to have to tell us when we find it." A car honked and Helen jumped.
"I hate it here." Helen looked at the ground, she was breathing hard. "I never should have come. I'm not an adventurer. I'm a big, fat nothing." She wanted the invisible gray coat back. She wanted to be home under the oak trees making up rhymes.
A sad, sweet thread of music drifted past the city's hard clamor. Helen felt it brush her face like a soft breeze. She looked into Delphine's golden eyes. They were kind eyes. Delphine smiled. "Let's find the music."
The Saddest Music
A man sat on a box playing the accordion. A little black and white dog lay by his side looking bored. There was a hand-lettered cardboard sign that said, Please Help Me. The man was dressed in an old blue shirt and worn dungarees. "What a sad song," Delphine said when he finished playing.
"The world's a sad place," he said. Helen hadn't known that before but now she did. "I lost my job and my little boy is sick and needs medicine." Helen wished she had something to give him.
"I'm sorry for your troubles sir," Delphine said.
The man smiled, "Thank you," and started playing another song. This one was even prettier than the first. Delphine put a small, golden coin in his box.
"Be well," she whispered.
"Softy," Buster buzzed as they walked away. Helen had the impression he approved.
They turned down narrow street after narrow street. Everywhere people sat on the pavement or pieces of cardboard. Some stared into the distance, others mumbled or shouted. A few looked as if they were trying to sleep. Helen thought it must be hard sleeping on a cold sidewalk with strangers walking past. She'd never thought what it would be like not to have a bed. She wouldn't like it. An old woman in rags called, "Girlie you got a quarter? I need a quarter." Helen shivered and shook her head.
At the corner, Delphine gave Helen a silver dollar, "For lunch, you must be hungry." Helen was hungry. It was way past lunchtime. They continued walking down the block in search of a sandwich shop and Helen's adventure.
"Wait," Helen said, and ran back to where the old lady sat. Up close she smelled bad.
"I used to live in a nice house. I had a piano," the lady said.
Helen was surprised. The lady's eyes were blue like her Nana Belle's. "Here." Helen handed her the silver dollar. "I'm, I'm," she started to say and then stopped. She felt bad and guilty and wrong but not in the way she usually did. This was a different kind of wrong. Like she'd stumbled onto the winning dodge ball team and didn't deserve to get a medal. "I'm sorry you lost your piano," she managed to say. Helen took piano lessons but wasn't very good.
"Thank you girlie." The lady smiled. She was missing a tooth. "You have a nice day."
Helen ran down the street to her friends, her knees knocking and feet flaring to the sides. "No lunch for you," Buster buzzed. Helen shrugged; she wasn't that hungry.
The friends continued wandering through the shadowy city. Buster buzzed a window box of red geraniums. "Can't be too picky," he said when he caught up with them. He tucked himself inside Delphine's beautiful braid. "Wake me when we get someplace adventurzzzome."
At a big brick building surrounded by a chain-link fence, Helen said, "That's a school," and felt oddly proud. "My school looks a lot like this one except we have grass in parts of the yard." She put her hands on the fence and leaned against it.
A bell rang and a flood of kids poured out of the building. They walked and ran and laughed and talked, threw balls and joked around. A commotion caught her attention. A big girl was picking on a little girl. "I told you, Marcia, I don't have any money," the little girl said. The big girl, Marcia, pushed her to the ground and laughed. The little girl tried to get up and the big girl pushed her back down. Marcia had wild dark hair and a mean mouth. Helen watched, afraid. She knew girls like this one. She'd been shoved to the ground and made fun of plenty of times. Helen could practically hear them calling her fatty, dumbo, lard face.
Delphine whispered in her ear, "Dragons come in all shapes, Helen the Adventurer, Helen the Peacemaker, Helen the Teller of Tales."
Helen swallowed and wiped her sweaty palms on her shorts. If she turned away the big mean girl wouldn't see her, but the little girl would be at her mercy. There was a crowd gathering around them. No one did anything to help. Marcia spit on the little girl and without thinking, Helen shouted, "Stop it." She stomped past the gate and through the crowd of kids shouting "Stop it," until she was in the middle of everything.
"Who's the fatty?"
Everyone looked at her. Helen didn't know what to do. She'd never confronted a dragon and now face-to-face with a real one felt unprepared and under-equipped. "Are you okay?" she said to the little girl who was wiping the spit off her face. The girl's lip was bleeding.
"Hey fatty!" the big girl said.
"You're mean," Helen said, and because good knights always tell the truth, shouted at the group of kids watching. "She's only mean because you let her."
The big girl grabbed Helen's hair and pulled so hard it felt like her scalp was going to rip off. Helen screamed and swung her arms, trying to get free. One of her swings connected with the big girl's face. Marcia let go and put her hand to her nose, it was bleeding. "You big, fat cow!" Helen caught a glint of gold buzzing towards them as the big girl shoved her hard. Helen fell back and the world went black.
"Are you okay?" the little girl asked. She was shaking Helen's shoulder.
Helen pushed herself up on her elbow and felt a lump on the back of her skull. There was a lot of yelling and shouting. A teacher was pulling a bunch of little kids off the big girl. "Thank you for helping us. No one's ever stood up to Marcia before. I'm Cindy, by the way."
Other teachers were running to help. "We better get out of here," Delphine said, touching Helen's shoulder.
Free of the schoolyard, Delphine stopped running. "You did great."
"I got knocked down." The back of her head throbbed.
"Slaying dragons doesn't always look as nice as it does in the fairy tales."
"I thought adventures would be different."
"Each one is."
"I was scared."
"And you were brave."
"Buster helped me."
Delphine nodded, "That's what friends do."
"You inzzzzspired me," Buster buzzed, and took a victory flight around her head. Helen's face heated with pleasure.
"What's the tale you'll tell?" Delphine asked.
"It's about a bunch of little kids who were bullied by a mean girl and a fat kid showed them they didn't have to be scared."
"I'd say, it took a brave kid to show them." Helen nodded, yes that was better. "You still want to put on that invisible gray coat?"
"Not so much," Helen answered as they walked to the edge of the city.
"Good," Buster buzzed. "Flowers aren't gray."
The walk home was shorter than the walk to the adventure had been. It seemed they barely crossed the glass bridge, took a few skips through the meadow and they were back at the little gate. "Thank you for my first adventure," Helen said to Delphine the Magnificent.
"You're very welcome."
"Can we do it again?"
"Any time you want," and Helen was quite certain she saw a crown shining on the Magnificent's head.
Buster buzzed her ear, "They don't call her the Magnificent for nothing."
At dinner that evening, no one had to tell Helen not to mumble. She sat up straight and looked her dad in the eye when he asked her a question. Her mother seemed startled and wanted to know what she'd been up to. "Nothing much," Helen answered. "But I have been working on a story, would you like to hear it?"
Her mother gave her father a surprised look. It was Nana Belle who jumped in and said, "Yes, tell us a story." And Helen the Adventurer, Helen the Peacemaker, Helen the Teller of Tales, told them a very good story about a golden bee.