A soft sound, not unlike the whimper of a person tucked cozily in for a dreamless sleep, awoke Alice just as she was about to swoon in the arms of the dark, handsome stranger on horseback who’d rescued her from dancing and leaping ruffians—in her dreams of course. For she was only eighteen, starry-eyed, and had only the company of Mrs. Maud Stickle, in whose house she stayed in the capacity of paying guest, and sometimes not paying. And then there were her books, so many of them, lining the windowed shelves on her walls.
Rubbing her eyes, she slid open the door. It seemed heftier than usual, and as it moved, something scraped the wooden floor behind it. Alice nearly stepped on a squishy and warm thing as she put a foot to the floor in the dark passage. She flicked on the switch and found a grey, furry ball curled up beneath. It was like a tangle of dandelions, or a clump of fluff blown in by the damp, icy winds. She gingerly put a foot out and pushed it away. The thing suddenly uncurled, and came to life. Rising to its top height, a full, indignant, five fuzzy inches of it, it cast a pale, one-eyed look of scorn upon her.
“My, my, what have we here,” Alice exclaimed, squinting at it.
“Never seen a Fugwheel before, Miss? A Fugwheel from Floeness,” the tittle replied, bowing ever so slightly at the waist.
“A talking one—most certainly not! Aren’t you far from home, Mr. Fugwheel?”
“I am headed thither, Miss, after concluding some business here, but strange mythical creatures are at large abroad. Why, I nearly got squashed under Sisyphus’s rolling stone. There should be a law against Greek refugees!
And orange kitties chasing me, it’s a downright insult,” he said gravely. “I am quite all right with frost-breathing dinosaurs with snuggly snouts, but color-changing snowmen taking me home for their babies to play with my nerves can just about not take!”
“Oh my! I must let you spend the night here then. How did you manage to get in?”
“Through the dog flap.”
“But I don’t have a dog!”
“It would appear so, Miss. You don’t seem a dogs-person.”
“That Mr…. is rude, for I love dogs, no less than cats, or mermaids. But why are you all grey? Aren’t you supposed to be crimson and green?”
He shook himself, spraying off a shower of frost and white flakes. He looked instantly better, less grey and more green and a bit of such cute pink that Alice wanted to ink herself. He had green fur, a pink belly, and baby-soft twiddly toes. “There, is that better?”
“Ah, you must be cold!” Alice clasped her fingers to her agape mouth.
“It’s not the cold that bothers me much, it’s stimulating company, hot caterpillar soup, and a good book to curl up with that I miss most. And if you would allow me for the night a safe place next to your door, under which I can receive the warm air from the fireplace, I shall be much obliged and be on my way in a day or two.”
“Most certainly so. I am Alice, by the way.”
“Mr. Pompeii—the pleasure being entirely mine.”
“Mr. Pompeii? As in—”
“Do I, Miss, cross my arms across my chest, raise the chin, look down my nose at a humble speck, and mouth, ‘Alice? Alice—as in wonderland?’ No, I do not! I am Pompeii Von Snoot—Mr. Pompeii to my friends.”
“All right, Mr. Snoot, good night!” Alice stepped back into her room and shut the door on her visitor, who she imagined, was not entirely regarding her with approval.
The next morning Alice discovered the Fugwheel gone. She’d almost looked forward to seeing him again. He was so old-world, proper and cross, someone out of the Victorian classics she was reading for her semester exams. And she knew almost nobody else in this new neighborhood.
She reported the visit to Mrs. Maud over a breakfast of fresh-baked buns, rich and velvety scrambled eggs, and a mug of hot chocolate.
“Them Fugwheels never brought anyone any peace. They are bad omen; they only bring on ill fortune like moths to a flame. Stay him out,” the kindly landlady warned.
“He couldn’t harm a fly if he tried, Maud, but I will not entertain him again.” Alice pecked Maud on her cheek and rushed out to University. She watched out for rolling stones and baby Graeae but found only happy kids throwing snowballs at each other and trudging through the fresh snow to school.
That night, Alice had half a mind to stay awake till Mr. Snoot arrived and firmly tell him off, but luckily for him, he was late. She yawned and switched off the lights, tucking away the hardcover Mansfield Park under her pillow. The icy wind had set up an eerie howl and was now screaming over the frozen brook bed. On second thoughts, she got up, tiptoed to the kitchen, and collecting some breadcrumbs, dunked them into parsley soup and left the plate outside her door. Then, with an impish smile, she removed the Mansfield Park, and placing it next to the plate, turned in for the night. In no time, she was stargazing on a picnic blanket out on the greensward with her love: in her dreams, just in her dreams.
Using a piece of coal, this is what Mr. Snoot had to scribble on the back page of her book:
“I quite enjoyed reading MP again, though have never liked it near so well as P&P or S&S. I couldn’t agree with Ms. Austen more when she described her book as too light, bright, and sparkling.
“P.S.: Thank you for the thoughtful nourishment. A good meal it might be for a skinny, eighteen-year-old. For a full-grown, man-size Fugwheel with a healthy appetite, though, it was rather frugal, wouldn’t you think so?”
Alice snorted. A little gratitude would have been more in order, she thought. She checked herself in the mirror, searching for the loveliness people said she had. But skinny—that was something new. Mr. Snoot, you could please stay out, thank you very much!
But her generous, Christian spirit got the better of her again that night. She snuck out of a warm bed to fetch leftover meat pie and lemony kale salad for her uninvited visitor. Fugwheels could eat three times their body weight, Maud had said. And as just deserts, she also threw in with the goodies, Ulysses, Canterbury Tales and The Castle. She hoped he wouldn’t find them “light reading.” She didn’t want him leaving soot on her books so she brought to the pile a notebook and pencil too.
A loud slurping noise awoke Alice just when her dream boyfriend was kissing her on the Ferris wheel in the starlit sky. With a grunt she shook off the quilt and opened the door. There, on the floor, leaning in regal poise against the wall, Mr. Snoot was scraping away with his pink toes the last of the pie, while making notes in The Castle. He was reading as if climbing a hill, his frown changing from a smile to a definite scowl of disapproval. The other two books, probably finished already, were piled in a far corner with the salad bowl, sparklingly empty as well.
“You look well,” Alice remarked. “No canker blossoms or malt-worms to tease us tonight, Mr. Snoot?”
“Quite. No gonad-shattering noises of mugwumps singing out of tune tonight. But my labors have been in vain I am sorry to say.”
“I am unable to collect enough sap of poppy wood, which my people need to make tonics and brews. I must return empty-handed, and a failure, I’m afraid, and no further must I impose myself on your hospitality.”
Alice laughed. “Where will you find poppy wood in this season? Everything is buried under the snow!”
“Then I must return, a looser weeper.”
“Don’t be so harsh on yourself! I’ll help you in your search for wood poppies, howsoever crazy that might sound!”
“Really, you will?” the Fugwheel wrung his twinkly toes in despair.
“Yes, Mr. Snoot!”
White were the far-off leas, and white the fading woods grew as they set out in quest for the sap of poppy wood. The bare trees loomed wraithlike into the dun sky. The hedges dwindled and the knolls were flecked slowly out. The snow fell constantly, settling soft and slow, like a dull weight, on garbs and trees. The dusks deepened and the hoary folded closer the earth and sky. They plodded stoutly on. Stem and spur and blade and bristle, all were in an icy still, forlorn.
Mr. Snoot found what he was looking for, what with his fervor and her faith.
But the adventure took its toll on our fragile Alice, and she was laid low with the chills, night sweats, and malaise.
“No good ever came of hobnobbing with odd creatures. My poor, pretty lambkin, see how you shiver and rack! I am going to put an end to this wheeling, wheedling madness,” Maud said as she rubbed camphor mixed with goose grease on Alice’s chest and tucked her in and bade her stay in.
She taped the dog flap, nay, nailed it, in. “There, that’s done,” she said, surveying her work with a smirk. “I must be gone, sweetie, to fetch supplies from the town, for we have run out of most. A bottle of Mrs. Winslow’s trusted syrup I shall leave by your bed. Now be good, and have it three times a day, and stay out of harm’s way. And don’t worry, I’ll hasten back.”
Kissing Alice on the burning forehead, Maud Stickle wiped away a worried tear, and checking that she’d left enough hard salted cheese, dried bread, and pickled pork over the hearth, she set out for town.
She was gone two days and nights and Alice grew worse. She dreamt of Mr. Snoot throwing snowballs at her window and crying out her name. But she was too fevered and weak to get up and investigate. Finally, on the third night, there was a knock on her door. Thinking it must be Maud, she barely managed to murmur an audible “come in.”
It wasn’t Maud. It was the handsomest young man she’d ever laid bloodshot eyes on, eyes that she rubbed now in disbelief. A gentle voice wafted through the delirious haze. The young man felt her forehead with his palm, checked her pulse, and drew a chair next to her bed. “Please don’t,” he begged as she tried to rise on her elbows. “Lie still.”
“Good evening, dear Alice,” another kind voice emanated from the floor. She looked down. It was Mr. Snoot. It wasn’t a dream after all. She smiled at him and reached down her hand, to smoothen the burrows on his forehead. “I am indeed sorry to get you into trouble for my sake,” he said.
“You haven’t gone back, Mr. Snoot? I thought you’d found what you wanted.”
“How could I, without saying goodbye? I was worried when I couldn’t see you for two days; I knew you were in. I took the liberty of fetching this gentleman of medicine, to accompany me to correct the situation.”
The doctor nudged open Alice’s mouth and poured some powder and water down her throat. “You will be fine in no time,” he said, propping some pillows under her tousled head. He couldn’t help taking in her fine features and ivory complexion charmed a ruddy rose with the flushing.
“You have a fine collection of the written word,” the doctor observed. “I am quite fond of them myself too.”
“Why don’t you go ahead and take a look,” insisted Mr. Snoot, ignoring the surprised look Alice gave him.
“It is quite late, Mr. Snoot, to trouble the gentleman so,” she protested.
“Lachlan, Miss,” the doctor said. “A pleasure making your acquaintance! Do you mind?” As Alice shook her pretty head, Lachlan rose and began to peruse the row upon row of books. He rummaged through her collection like an animated child, flipping pages here and there.
“Why don’t you read out to her?” Snoot asked.
“I absolutely must insist—” Alice began to rally but was silenced by Lachlan’s comment.
“I would enjoy it very much.”
Lachlan read out in a mellifluous voice well into the night, till both his companions were lulled into slumber. Then, finding a warm shrug on a chair, he pulled it over his knees and fell asleep himself.
For the first time in many days, Alice didn’t dream that night, but an astral smile flickered ever and anon on her face as if she did.
In the morning both Lachlan and Snoot had gone. She felt better already, enough to tend to her wavy locks and correct any imaginary blemishes on her glowy beauty. It was in good time as well, for a knock at the door had brought Lachlan back to her life again. “Here,” he said, shyly holding forth a small bouquet of get-well roses and lilies.
Alice drew a foot behind and curtsied handsomely.
“If you are up to it, perhaps a walk will flatter your complexion and cure the blues.”
She smiled and, slipping a hand through the arm he offered, set out into the bracing light of day. “I am afraid I can’t pay your fees, not right now in any case,” she blurted out and then immediately covered her mouth for the tactlessness.
“Not to worry. Mr. Snoot made the payment, much against my wishes,” Lachlan said, showing her a bright yellow sapphire nearly as big as her palm.
“It’s like the yellow sap of wood poppies,” she observed, holding up the stone in the balmy sunlight.
They walked about the sun-washed streets, listening to the winter wren’s songs, immersed in each other, till it was lunchtime. As he left her at her doorstep he asked,” Alice, can I visit you again? Not as a doctor, for you look quite well already.”
“Do you really want to?” She blushed.
“Certainly, if you have no objections.”
“Are you for real,” she asked him, swaying ever so slightly at the hips. She would have broken into song and dance but for the very awkwardness of it.
He drew her face in his palms and kissed her. Had she not gripped the doorpost, she would have fainted. He smiled and turned on his feet, wading through the garden path still unswept of snow.
Mr. Snoot didn’t visit her again. This is what Alice had to say in her diary:
“In life, often we do not know what’s good or bad for us, except in hindsight. Round, furry, huggable fug balls are called wheels, because unless we let them come full circle, we do not know what delights and good luck charms are hidden within the seeming ill fortunes they bring to our lives.”
Nidhi studied English Literature at Delhi University. She has a number of published works, novels, as well as nonfiction work, which includes essays on Bollywood, and commentaries on Sikh scriptures.
Her short stories have appeared in Romance Magazine, Under the Bed, and Nebula Rift.
She lives near the sea in Kutch, India.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Fugwheel of Floeness”
Author Nidhi Singh brings us an enchanting piece of fantasy in “The Fugwheel of Floeness,” a story that not only delights, but holds the message that kindness does not go unrewarded and sometimes we find friends (and more) in the most unlikely of places.