idol season 11 | week 16 | 1544 words
The Streisand Effect
Off in a land far, far away, beyond the Lost Sea and the Hollow Hills, there was a fairytale forest known as the Lollipop Woods.
Those woods might have had secret powers, or even a talking animal or two, but they were named primarily for the fact that they were full of witches who lived in candy-covered gingerbread houses.
No one quite remembered how it had all started, let alone who'd been at fault, but for several hundreds of years the rules had been these: the only building materials permitted in the Lollipop Woods were gingerbread, icing, and candy. Anything else would result in immediate exile.
There were obvious drawbacks to these restrictions. The realities of weather required the witches to craft and maintain a considerable number of spells against the effects of heat and rain. The realities of people—filthy opportunists with no manners whatsoever—meant that the houses were in constant danger of being eaten.
After one or two unfortunate incidents, the children of the nearby villages mostly learned to leave the houses alone, but there was nothing to stop other children from happening by now and again. Indeed, the forest seemed to have become a sort of dumping ground for incompetent step-parents. Hungry wood-cutters and lost princesses came as well, and the witches were often plagued by errant knights who believed themselves deserving of whatever food or drink or serving-wench they encountered.
Still, any witch who suggested that wood, stone, or thatch might prove useful for building—as they were in other communities—was immediately encouraged to live elsewhere.
In this and all other matters, the woods' neighborhood association was strict and unforgiving. There were bylaws on design and upkeep, and an extremely pesky 'originality' clause that even applied to prior incarnations of the same owner's house. Worse, no amount of damage was too minor to ignore. All it took was the theft of a single gumdrop, and some poor witch's house would be flagged as non-compliant. Then she was forced to bake herself a new house and start all over again, right down to the design proposal and the endless paperwork required for approval.
One of these witches was a grandmotherly sort named Elsie. Elsie took great pride in her home. Whenever she embarked on a new creation, whether by circumstance or by desire, she spent weeks crafting the appropriate use and placement of various types of candy to produce just the right effect in height, color, shape, and texture. Elsie's houses were her life's work, her art, her most satisfying hobby.
They were certainly more entertaining than slogging through any of the ghastly reading selections that always seemed to be nominated by the other members of the forest's book club.
When she wasn't designing and redesigning her next house, Elsie gardened and knitted, and even made batches of her own candy to be certain the colors were as vivid as she needed. But mostly, she schemed about ways to keep her poor little house from being eaten.
Elsie had tried and rejected many solutions over the years.
First, she painted the sides with icing like a sort of whitewash, and then limited the candy decorations to the roof. No one bothered the house for months, but the aesthetics were so dissatisfying that she grew bored with it and soon petitioned to update the design. Elsie had no sooner finished re-icing and decorating the doors and window frames when she was called away for an emergency All-Wands meeting, and came back to find all of the red sour-cherry balls missing.
"Drat!" she said.
She then tried adding black pepper into the icing, which made it lumpy. Red pepper was no good either, as the color leaked into the icing and formed irregular orange streaks over time.
"Hideous!" she shuddered.
Elsie tried coating the house and candy with bitterwort, which gave everything a sickly yellow-green hue and caused the other witches to snicker behind her back.
She even cast spells to make the house invisible, but then there was no one to admire it or to be made jealous by Elsie's artistry, and some other witch's house got 'Best in Forest' that year instead of Elsie's. It was all very distressing.
The shame of it all was that no spells that might harm—or even deter—human beings were permitted. Animals could not be harmed either, of course, but at least Elsie could use magic to prevent birds and squirrels from stealing her candy decorations, and to stop rats and foxes from gnawing on the siding, and to keep roving donkeys from destroying absolutely everything whether by teeth or haunch or hoof. Honestly, donkeys were the worst.
No, the only defenses Elsie had against ravening humans were persuasion, trickery, and disgust.
Thus far, she had little to show for that last one. If she ever grew too tired to keep building and rebuilding, she supposed she could decorate her house with candied bats and black licorice, but then that would also be the house she had to live in, which was a depressing thought.
Perhaps trickery or persuasion could help? Or better yet, deceit?
She tried placing signs all around the garden claiming that trespassers would be turned into toads. The village boys immediately made it a rite of passage to sneak into her garden and break off pieces of her house to bring back as proof of their bravery.
Elsie put up signs in the forest surrounding her house instead, signs that read, "Nothing to see beyond this point." But no one believed her—they came anyway, and then said, "Ooh, doesn't that house look delicious?" It was maddening.
In desperation, Elsie changed tactics and instead posted signs pointing to other witches' houses and advertising the tasty treats that lay in store. That earned her a five-year banishment from the book club, and she discovered that the only thing worse than trying to get through all those the dreadful books she was expected to read was not being allowed to be in the book club at all.
"Skunk buckets," she muttered, and then considered a variation on that idea for all of two seconds before realizing she would be affected by the horrible smell too. Double drat!
What to do, what to do? She sat in her garden, wondering how she might protect her house from its next impending round of destruction. Bees droned from flower to flower, and she could hear the sounds of far-off witches cackling over her fate as they made their way to Hagatha's house to eat her prized blueberry tarts and to talk about the club's current book, 'The Lusty Lutenist.'
There was a crash and a whinny off to her left, and a bedraggled young man appeared, leading a black horse by the reins.
"I'm terribly sorry," he said. "I'm afraid I may have fallen into part of your fence. I hope I haven't damaged it."
"I'm sure it will be all right, don't give it a second thought," Elsie said, anxious to be rid of him.
"I cannot offer you money for it," the young man said, "but I give you my word that I shall return a few weeks hence, and labor to repay my debt. My name is William of Warwick."
He glanced over Elsie's head as he spoke, and froze at the sight of the house. "Oh, my. I don't suppose any of that is edible? It's been days since I've eaten." Then he blushed. "No, no, I shouldn't have spoken. It would be a shame to spoil something so beautiful. The colors are astonishing—unlike anything found in nature! Please forgive my suggestion of eating it, I'm sure I'll come across some nuts or berries soon."
Elsie was shocked. It had been decades since anyone had even thought to ask permission before simply snatching off whatever part of the house looked most appealing. But it also gave her an idea.
"Do rest for a moment, and I'll find you something to eat," she said. "I have extra ingredients lying about, and I can offer chocolate drops or candy canes. Or perhaps you'd prefer a bit of cheese with the barley bread I baked this morning?"
"If it wouldn't be too much trouble," William said. "Bread and cheese would be most welcome, and perhaps a cupful of water?"
"My pleasure," Elsie said. She went into the house to gather the food while William tied his horse to a tree far from the garden's flowers and vegetables.
They dined in the shade of a walnut tree, and Elsie sent him on his way with more bread and a few red apples.
Then she went into the house and gathered up baskets and ribbons and her sign boards.
She put candy in each of the baskets and decorated them with ribbons, and then she set them around the property where they could easily be seen. Then she put new messages on the signs, and placed one next to each basket:
Over the next few months and years, she was pleased to see that the baskets were seldom touched.
As for the house itself, it remained beautiful and intact, and it was only ever rebuilt as a result of boredom.
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