Sunday, 7 December 2008
The Ogre of Coney Island
It was a long time agon in Ney York City, so my friend Leo tells me. Just about the time of the Gread Depression when poor people struggled to find work and food. Out near Coney Island that Christmas, there were so few people who could afford to go to the Island that the funfair was shut down for the duration. This was before Leo was born of course. His father Nathaniel is the hero of this story.
He was a little boy then, about the age of 12 and he had a sister called Lilian. He lived in an apartment on the 9th floor with his parents and his mother's parents who were old then. His grandma was frail and sat in a big armchair with her Sunday best dress on and a fine hat with a pair of feathers in it. His grandpa had been ill and was laid off, but he sat up in his bed reading the paper and commenting on world affairs. He may have been stuck in his bed, but he wore his white shirt, black pinstriped suit and his black English bowler hat. He always said that there was no excuse for a man not to be smartly dressed.
Nathaniel's mother Gloria had been a showgirl in a theatre and was used to living on 'a dime, a dollar and all you can eat!' Of course, a dime and a dollar wouldn't get you all you could eat, but it used to when she was a showgirl. Nat's father Solomon Bernstein was a tall, slim man with black hair and a ready smile for his son and daughter. He used to say, "Nat and Lily, Nat and Lily, finest kids from here to Philly!" before he would go out looking for work.
He had once been a businessman with a big shop on 5th Avenue selling all kinds of fancy things. But with the Great Depression, the business went bust and Solomon was forced to pay off all his staff and get out while he still had some savings left. He and Gloria moved into the small apartment, which he didn't mind, after all he'd come from poverty and one day he would climb straight back up out of it again.
Every morning, Solomon would kiss his mother-in-law and wife goodbye, shake hands with Grandpa Goldman and walk Nat and Lily to school where he would kiss them goodbye and tell them both,
"You two kids are the best in the world and I love you like Lady Liberty."
Nat knew Lady Liberty was the statue in the harbour with her book under one arm and a torch in the air. Sometimes he wondered if she'd ever get around to reading that book, but she just stood and watched.
"Don't you love us like you love mum?" Nat would ask.
"Of course I do, but I like Lady Liberty and I love your mother. So what you gonna say Nat?" Sol would ask.
Then Nat, Lily and Sol would hold their clenched fists together and chant,
"Nat and Lily, Nat and Lily, finest kids from here to Philly!" even though Nat didn't feel like a kid any more.
Now way back when Grandpa and Grandma Goldman had come from Europe a big ogre had also come, hiding away on a big ship deep down in the hold. He had a good singing voice, but his songs were all horrible ones. Occasionally he would eat a sailor or three when he got hungry on the voyage. One night he crept up on deck and reached down into the sea to grab a handful of sharks that he ate before sneaking back down into the hold of the ship. He would quietly sing among the huge crates of spices and cloth and all kinds of things from the Old Country.
"Sailor man, sailor man,
Baked in a pie with beans
From a can!"
This usually meant that he was going to be eating a sailor before too long. Before he ate the sharks he'd been singing,
"Shark fin soup is what I like,
But the rest of the shark makes a tasty bite
Sharks can snap, sharks can bite,
I bite them back that's what I like!"
But most of all, what this ogre loved was a big ogre handful of children. He loved to eat children the way your mama loves chocolate or ice cream, or your dad likes a cool beer. When he got to thinking about the taste of children his eyes lit up like green stars and the hair all over his body, for he was a very hairy ogre, stood on end and quivered. Then he would sing his favourite song and it was bad luck for any child that happened to be around because they wouldn't be around long, let me tell you!
Well this ogre came ashore and went straight to Coney Island to the funfair. He stood very still during the day and snoozed with his eyes open for although ogres are mostly night creatures, they can stare down the sun if they want to. Your great-grandparents may have seen him, or even your great-great-grandparents, if they had ever been to Coney Island funfair one summer before the Depression hit. Most people thought he was a big hairy statue and sometimes he would remind them that he wasn't by curling up his toes and flicking the passers by clear over Coney Island into the ocean. He may have been snoozing, but even a snoozing ogre is not to be messed with. Nobody ever saw him flick those people into the ocean, he was able to get by there, but those who went flying over Coney Island never went back there - just in case, you understand.
At night, the ogre would stroll down to the sea and reach into the waters until he had grabbed a fistful of fish or a passing fishing boat. Then he would eat the lot. It wasn't the same as children, but it kept him going.
That Christmas, the snow began to fall. It fell in big soft flakes and the first lot melted and made a grey, dirty slush all over the city. The second lot fell and made a paler, softer colder coat for the city and the third lot made a thick freezing coat so that there were strange shaped white lumps all over the city and even the street thieves didn't go out because it was too cold. Still, every morning right up to the Christmas holidays, the children had to go to school and every morning, Solomon took Nat and Lily to school. They would come home on their own, but Lily would walk to her friend Sadie's house and Nat would pick her up from there. They would walk home together through the snow. With all that snow, Nat would have to get in a snowball fight and Lily would yell, "Get 'em Natty, get 'em good!"
Then it would begin to get dark and they would get hungry. Nat would take Lily home and they would climb the stairs a bit at a time because Lily would get tired. At the 7th floor, Nat would give her a piggyback up to the apartment because she was not only his sister, but an ok sister at that. She would not only cheer him on in the snowball fights, she would also sing loudly with him on the way home. They were taught all the songs Gloria thought were decent and that she'd sung on the stage. People would sometimes give them money on the way home and Nat always divided it into three; some for him, some for Lily and the rest for mum and dad. Solomon thought this sweet and it made him very proud of his children.
Lily was saving her pennies because along their street were three of her favourite shops. There was a doll shop with a French doll in the window with dark hair and big blue eyes and a dress of pink satin with lace. Further down was a bakery where Mr. Edelwitz made the most wonderful bagels and cakes. Sometimes Lily would stand in the doorway and just breathe in, because the scent of warm bread and baking was so welcome and comforting. She would ask, "Whatcha bakin' Mr. Edelwitz?" and he would smile at the little girl with the dark serious eyes and answer,
"Sugar and spice and all things nice sweetheart, just like you!"
Then if he was feeling generous he would give her a warm bagel or a cake to share with her brother. Lily wanted to go in there and buy the biggest chocolate cake ever and she knew Mr. Edelwitz could make it because he was the best baker she knew. Sometimes when the singing was good and the money came to them, she and Nat would go and buy some small cakes and bagels for the family with their share of the money. It made them feel good to see their mother's weary eyes light up and watch her smile.
On the corner past Mr. Edelwitz's bakery was a toyshop. In the window was a teddy bear with a red hat and a gentle smile sewn on. Lily wanted that bear and though she did not know it, Nat was saving up to buy it for her.
One evening when Lily and Sadie were walking back to Sadie's apartment building through the fog and snow, they heard a sort of low humming. At first, they thought it was the trams, but when they stopped to listen they could hear a sort of a tune. Then it stopped and they heard a small cry that also stopped very suddenly.
The next day, Charlie Larsen wasn't in class. He wasn't at home either, or on the street. He wasn't staying with his grandma and grandpa and he wasn't with friends in the Bronx. The police sought high in the apartment buildings and low in the subways, but there was not a sign of Charlie anywhere. His mum and dad didn't know what had happened to him and the police didn't know either.
Two days later, the 7th Avenue Irregulars, a gang at Nat's school disappeared altogether too. They weren't at home or on the street. They certainly weren't staying with anybody's grandma and grandpa. They definitely weren't with friends in the Bronx. They weren't up in the apartment buildings or down in the subways, because the police looked. There was not a sign of them anywhere. Not even in Poughkeepsie.
Suddenly all of New York City was in a panic, but then a rumour started to come about that singing had been heard before the 7th Avenue Irregulars had disappeared. The rumour came from Luke Williams in Nat's class. He had once had dark hair and brown eyes, but now his hair was white and his eyes were green. He told Nat,
"I heard this voice see, it was low and sweet like the Church choir on a Sunday, but it was singing this song about eating children by the bunch."
"G'wan!" Nat teased him and laughed.
But Luke didn't laugh, he started singing in a low scared whisper,
"I likes to eat children,
I eats 'em by the bunch.
I likes to hear the little bones,
Crunch, crunch, crunch!"Nat thought of Lily and Sadie and he shivered. Then he considered Luke and asked,
"Is that when your hair went white and your eyes went green?"
"Betcha sweet life! But my parents don't believe it. They reckon I was playing about with chemicals or something," Luke told him.
Nat didn't say a word to Lily, but he held her hand tightly when they walked home that night. When he got home he thought, Grandma Goldman is an old lady and she always knows what to do about everything. Grandma goldman had, like her daughter before her been on the stage and knew songs from before the century was young. She knew about all kinds of things. She could tell a vampire from just looking and how to protect yourself from one. She knew about faeries and witches and giants. She had learned it all from her grandma.
So after supper, when Lily had gone to bed, Nat sat next to his grandma and told her what Luke had told him. Grandma did not smile or hoot with laughter like an owl. She didn't pat Nat's head and tell him not to frighten Lily with such a tale. She looked as serious, as a preacher on a Sunday morning before he's had his coffee.
"Not a word to Lily, you understand Nathaniel? This is work for big people with nerves and strong hearts. For princes who fight dragons and dare everything for a princess. Not a word - it's between you and me. You go to school and let me thing about what to do. Then tomorrow evening, I'll tell you what we'll do. But you listen to me Nathaniel," and she wagged a bony finger at him, "If you hear that voice, if it sounds sweet and low, you just keep right on going back home. Don't follow it and don't mock it. Sing one of the songs your mama or I taught you and keep coming home, you hear me?"
Nat nodded and crossed his heart and hoped to die if he didn't.
"You will too if you don't." Grandma Goldman said softly.
Solomon and Gloria thought Nat was being told a tale, so they said nothing to break the spell of it and after Nat had hugged his grandma and kissed her goodnight, they also hugged and kissed him goodnight telling him to sleep well.
The next evening, when Nat and Lily were near home, they heard singing and Nat clutched Lily's hand tightly and kept walking.
"Somebody's singing sweet and low, Nat," Lily said.
"Don't you listen Lily, we gotta get home for supper now."
Then, because he felt that he might upset her, Nat suggested singing a song themselves. So they sang 'Kemp town Ladies' just as loud as they could, Nat with his voice like a violin and Lily's voice like a piccolo, sweet and harmonious like two birds. They heard the strange song suddenly stop and a short, sharp yell. After that all they heard was the soft snow falling around them. Nat lifted Lily onto his back and ran home with Lily clinging onto him with one hand and her hat with the other, just like Lady Liberty in the harbour.
When they got home, Lily threw her schoolbag on the floor and went to see her friend Juliette on the 4th floor. Her mum yelled after her, "Don't be late for supper!" and Lily yelled something back as she went out the door.
Nat immediately went over to Grandma Goldman and asked her if she'd had any ideas about what to do. She got up out of her chair and took his hand in hers. Then she led him into his and Lily's room.
"I've been doing some thinking Nathaniel," she said and Nat was worried now, because she only ever called him Nathaniel when she was very serious and wanted him to know it.
"I remember my great-great Grandma telling me about an ogre who lived in the Austrian forests once. He had a song like that, but he disappeared and nobody knew where he went. I think he's in New York City now.
"What's an ogre, grandma?" Nat asked her.
"Why an ogre is a great big hairy giant that eats people and the best kind of people an ogre likes is children because they are young and tender and their little bones are easy to swallow. Now a tough old lady like me an ogre wouldn't like at all. I'm too skinny and my bones are tough, buy your sister would be a dish for him and so would you," Grandma Goldman answered.
Nat knew she was serious because she was holding his arms and looking straight into his eyes. She never looked like that when she was just telling him stories.
"We'll have to tell the police, Grandma. They'll shoot him stone dead and all the children will be safe in the city," Nat said.
That was not strictly true because New York City like all cities is a dangerous place for the innocent and the unwise. Only the tough survive in the City and New York City children are among the toughest in the world because they have to be. A New York City baby can open a tin of milk with its teeth if it needs to, that's how tough they are! But Grandma Goldman was tactful enough not to mention this to Nat.
"No, Nat, the police don't believe in ogres, they'd think you were pulling their legs and get cross with you. Ogres are very old Nat and most modern people don't believe in them any more. That's why they survive. They believe in tigers and crocodiles, so when one of them goes after a kid, the kid's mum and dad hunt the animal and kills it. But nobody believes in Ogres so nobody kills 'em," Grandma told him.
"But then what are we going to do about it, Grandma?" Nat asked.
"Nat, how much money did you and Lily make tonight?" she asked him.
Well, they had done alright that night, they had sung lots of fun tunes even though most people didn't feel much like fun without having jobs or much money. But along the way, people saw two poor kids singing their little hearts out and New Yorkers are a generous lot, even when they're poor. After all, at that time they were all poor together. So the folks passing them on the way home had given them a penny here and a penny there because they didn't have much to give. So altogether, Nat and Lily had gathered up about three dollars between them and were feeling pretty rich, even though sharing it out was going to be difficult because Lily wasn't that good at math yet and Nat just didn't much care for it. But Nat gave Lily a dollar, kept one dollar for himself, which left the other dollar for the family. So now he handed over the dollar for the family and the one dollar he had himself.
"One dollar was for the family Grandma and I was saving that one dollar for a present for Lily, but if that ogre carries on like that, he may just eat up Lily and no present will matter."
It was kind of funny he should say that, because when Lily had said she was going to visit Juliette, she wasn't. She couldn't help it, but that sweet low voice she'd heard on the street seemed somehow comforting and sad all at once. More than that, it just reached right down into her shoes and called to her. Lily's shoes had cardboard soles and they were wet from the snow, but she could feel that voice right down in her bones. Her little tender bones. So she went down to the street and listened. She couldn't hear the song clearly, but she could hear the tune of it and it had a kind of a jolly lilt to it. It went,
"Ha hum-hum-hum da dum-dum,
Ah dum-dee-dum-dee dum-dum
Pom, pom, pom!"
It went over and around Lily's head and deep into her mind so that after a while, she was humming it too without knowing the words. It kept calling and calling to her until she found her own words for it and sang them quietly to herself, standing in the snow looking up the road towards Coney Island.
"I wanna sing a sweet song,
Sing it soft and low
A song about the children
Yo, ho, ho!"
And all this time, Grandma and Nat were working out their plan to kill the ogre of Coney Island. Grandma had taken over the kitchen and was making bagel dough. Nat and she put lots of pepper and poppy seeds on the dough and half-baked it quickly before Grandma put a little of something she'd got 'from the insides of a firework once', but she didn't tell Nat what it was. It didn't mind the heat that finished off the baking, but Grandma was sure that inside an ogre's throat it would mind very much and probably go something like - KA-BOOM!
Now down on the street, Lily was sure that she was just standing in the snow singing along to that tune all by herself, but slowly and surely she was walking all the way to Coney Island. When she got nearer to the gates of the funfair, she found a catapult and it looked familiar. But by then the voice had stopped singing, because the ogre could smell child... a sweet and tender little girl. Lily looked at that catapult and she said to herself,
"B'golly! I do believe this is Charlie Larsen's catapult! He must be around here somewhere."
Now if all you found was a catapult and no sign of a little boy with it, that would be a sign that something was very wrong. Because no little boy will ever let go of his catapult unless he has to or he is in big trouble and I mean BIG trouble. But Lily didn't know that because she wasn't a little boy. So she didn't run and she didn't scream and, she didn't holler "PO-LEECE-MAN!"
Instead, she squeezed through the partly open gates and yelled, "Char-leee! Charlie, where aaarrre yooou?"
That was all she yelled because suddenly a huge hairy hand grabbed her and the voice started singing again and this time it wasn't sweet and low, but loud and scary and it went - yep, you guessed,
"I likes to eat children,
I eats 'em by the bunch,
I likes to hear the little bones,
Crunch, crunch, crunch!"
Then that ogre hauled Lily under the old rollercoaster where he lived and swallowed her whole because she was only a little girl and he had a very big mouth, even bigger than the Holland Tunnel. So Lily screamed all the way into his mouth and she reached up as she went. A hand reached out for hers and grabbed her. It was Charlie Larsen, hanging onto the ogre's tonsils by his belt. He pulled Lily up and held onto her. She handed him his catapult and asked what had happened to the 7th Avenue Irregulars.
"Kid," said Charlie firmly, "Trust me when I tell ya, you don't wanna know, but it was not nice."
Then Lily hung onto the ogre's tonsils too and wished she was home with her family. Then a great booming sound came up from the ogre's throat and he started singing again. This time his voice was not so good because of the two children hanging onto his tonsils.
Meanwhile, Nat and Grandma had baked the bagel and Nat was given instructions on what to do. He stuffed cotton wool into his ears and went downstairs to the street with the bagel in his pocket. When his mama asked where he was going, Grandma told her,
"Now Gloria, he's just going to get his sister in for supper. Come on, I'll help you with the rest. Don't fret honey, the bagel was necessary - trust me."
Gloria knew better than to argue with her mother so she sighed and said ok and they got back to the kitchen. She did not see Grandma give Nat a wink as he went out, for good luck. Nat dashed down the stairs and into the street. There was no sign of Lily anywhere, but her footprints were in the snow and he followed them. Lily wasn't by the doll shop and she wasn't by the bakery, even though it smelled warm and comforting. She wasn't by the toy shop either, although the teddy bear was still there. Nat followed the footsteps all the way to Coney Island and by then he was tired and cold. His nose was red and his feet were chilled.
When he got to the gates of the funfair he pulled out the bagel from his pocket and unwrapped it before leaving it in the snow. He heard a deep low humming in his ears coming through the cotton wool, but he couldn't tell what it was all about. It seemed warm and deep as if it were going all the way through to his chilled feet, but he did not move. He did not run or scream and he did not holler, "PO-LEECE-MAN!"
Instead he hid down by the shadow of the ticket booth and waited. Suddenly a big hairy hand came out from under the rollercoaster and prodded the bagel. Nat took the cotton wool from his ears and watched in amusement as the huge hairy fingers picked up the bagel and a sigh was heard.
"Well I suppose it will do for an appetiser," the ogre said in a deep sad voice.
"You can have me for afters!" Nat yelled out.
But he did not move from the shadow of the ticket booth and the ogre sniffed deeply. He smelled another child with tender bones and sweet like honey.
"That's mighty nice of you I'm sure," he said, "But how do I know you're not just trying to trick me?"
Nat thought frantically and shouted, "My girl dropped me for another guy and I just don't care about nothin' no more. But I thought you'd want a proper meal so I brought a bagel too."
There was silence for a moment before the ogre pulled the bagel to him and Nat heard him crunching away. First the pepper made the ogre sneeze which made Charlie and Lily shoot from his mouth towards the Empire State Building. Nat quickly put his hand over his mouth because he was so surprised to see them. The poppy seeds made the ogre choke and cough but then the firework powder went KA-BOOM! and the ogre exploded all over the funfair. When Nat peered around the ticket booth all he could see was a big green stain underneath the rollercoaster. There was no sign of the 7th Avenue Irregulars and they were never seen again.
Nat ran all the way to the Empire State Building and when he arrived he saw Lily and Charlie being shown out of the building by a security guard. They both smelled pretty awful and were wet and cold too. Lily took some snow off a car bonnet and washed her face and hands with it. So did Charlie. They walked home, but on the way, the police met them and Nat told them what the explosion was.
"Oh sure, happens all the time," one of the officers said, rolling his eyes.
They took the three of them to the police station and Nat refused to say another word until they fetched his Grandma and his mum. A car was dispatched and soon Grandma Goldman and Gloria arrived. When Grandma saw Nat she gave him a big smile and a big hug. Gloria would have done the same to Lily but she and Charlie really did smell quite bad having been hanging onto the tonsils of the ogre with Charlie.
Charlie's mom and dad arrived in a police car too and insisted that Charlie and Lily be taken away and washed. A very nice policewoman took them away and they were cleaned thoroughly. Meanwhile Nat and Grandma told the police everything. They scoffed at first, but Lily who was brought in wrapped in a towel rushed into the room and told them it was all true, describing the ogre to the police. When they asked Charlie, he backed Lily up, so the police went to the funfair and checked for themselves.
Nat and Lily were sent home with mom and Grandma. Charlie was sent home with his mum and dad. The next day, a police car came to Nat and Lily's apartment and the whole family were taken to the Mayor's office where they were awarded $500 for services to the city. Nat was given a medal too, which he passed on to Leo his son. Leo showed me the medal and told me the story. Now Leo is not given to telling fibs, so I believe him. If you ever saw the stain under the rollercoaster before they cleaned it up, then you'd know Leo wasn't fibbing either. As Charlie Larsen said, "Trust me when I tell ya, you don't wanna know, but it was not nice!"