Not so long ago, in the land of ten thousand lakes and just as many mosquitoes, there lived a young lady named Heidi Svedsgaard who had eyes as green as the emerald needles of the Norway pine. After the death of her beloved mother, whose last words had been, “Stay sweet, stay smart, and I’ll be watching you from the Big Sky,” her father took a new wife. Heidi welcomed her two new stepsisters, Elsie and Gretchen Olsen, but they did not share her enthusiasm for the new family bonds. Although both girls were pretty enough to be crowned Dairy Princesses in the state-wide Milky Way Beauty Pageant, they were also as cold-hearted as a snowball coated in slush until it has frozen to stone. Also, since they hailed from the Twin Cities, they considered themselves superior to Heidi, who had been raised in the small town of Fergus Falls and knew little of city life.
Heidi’s father knew nothing about their jealousies, and so when he had his heart-attack from eating too many fried cheese curds, he trusted that his new wife would love his daughter just as he had. But that was not to be the case. Mrs. Svedsgaard wanted the farm to herself, so she banished Heidi out to the dusty old barn to sleep in the hayloft above the sheep and goats. The stepsisters teased Heidi and nicknamed her Dusty, and the disgraceful name stuck. They told her if she wanted to stay on the property, she would have to earn her food and electricity. She found herself serving them breakfast, washing their laundry, and scrubbing their bathrooms. Also, since Mrs. Olsen and her daughters knew nothing of farm life, the burden of the barn chores fell to Dusty.
Now, you must know that Dusty was a juggler, and a very good one at that. Her mother had left the circus when she married Mr. Svedsgaard, but her love for juggling never diminished. She shared her passion with her daughter. In fact, by the time Dusty was nine years old, she could toss three beanbags as easily as an experienced circus artist. By the time she was twelve, she juggled with the ease of a seasoned casino performer. And so you can imagine how delighted Dusty was when she learned that Mrs. Olsen and her daughters were actual performers. But they refused to practice with her. In fact, they even stole her equipment to use for their own rehearsals, and poor Dusty got left with nothing but some threadbare beanbags. Mrs. Olsen grew so jealous of Dusty’s great talent that she kept Dusty too busy to practice at all.
Despite the extra responsibilities, Dusty still managed to graduate from the community college with top grades. Never once did she complain, not when the chickens pecked her fingers as she collected eggs, not when Elsie and Gretchen demolished her valuable possessions, and not when the snow fell thick and almost buried her alive out in the cold barn. No, like a good Minnesotan, she bore her burdens stoically. But she was also human. On the day that Mrs. Olsen announced their entry into the elite International Juggler’s Festival and forbade Dusty from attending, our wretched young lady broke down and cried until her voice echoed off the cold cement walls of the barn. “Stay sweet, stay smart,” she wailed. “Mama, I’m trying. But what’s the point?”
“What’cha crying for?” asked a furry voice.
Dusty was surprised to find herself staring at a large brown river otter who stood on his two hind feet. She wondered if she suffered from exhaustion. After all, she usually awakened before the sun came up, and she often went to sleep when the chores were done, well after midnight. Besides, it was freezing in the barn; maybe she was succumbing to the hallucinations of hypothermia. “Did you speak to me?” she asked.
“You betcha,” said the otter. “Who else? Don’t let those girls get you down. You have more important things to worry about right now. The Festival starts on March first. That gives us just a week to get you ready to compete.”
“The Festival,” she whispered. “I’m not allowed to go!” She burst into fresh tears.
The strange little otter crawled into her lap and let her sniffle all over his fur until she was cried out. “So they’ve kept you too busy to practice, have they?” he said. “Well, you’re old enough to decide for yourself. I suppose they didn’t tell you the special event of this year’s festival, either, now, did they?” He patted her cheek with his fuzzy paw. “The Prince of Jugglers himself is looking for a female counterpart for his act in Las Vegas. It’s an audition.”
“So that’s why they had me pressing those costumes,” Dusty gasped. She knew all about the Prince from reading her mother’s Kaskade magazines. He had a name, of course – Antonio Gatti – and had been a protégé since the tender age of five. The last she read, he held the world record for 8 clubs, 9 balls, and 12 rings. “If only I could win, I could get out of this town! Maybe even earn enough to buy back the farm…” She stood up and glanced over to her own set of broken clubs, which stood covered in dust and cobwebs in a corner of the goat pen. “But I haven’t practiced all winter. How could I possibly compete?”
The river otter smiled, if curling up his top lip and exposing his tiny, sharp teeth can be interpreted as a smile. “We have a week,” he repeated. “My friends will help. Let’s start with these.” So saying, he wiped some of her tears from her cheeks and flicked them into the sawdust on the floor of the sheep pen, and then mixed the dust and tears until they formed a sort of mud. Quicker than you can say ‘Paul Bunyan’s Blue Ox,’ he shaped the mixture into seven of the most delicate juggling clubs you’ve ever seen. They were clear like crystal, with little sparkles inside, and when held up to the light they produced rainbows of color. “Plus they’re perfectly balanced for your hands,” he said with huge modesty, “so you’ll be hard put to fumble or even drop outright.”
Dusty smiled for the first time in weeks. “Oh, for sweet.” She gave her otter a squeeze.
Fortunately, Mrs. Olsen and her daughters hated the barn and so they never visited. If they had, they would have been shocked to discover that eggs being collected by cheerful chipmunks, and that the goats got milked by the clever fingers of some friendly raccoons. The house-chores got done in stealth by some squirrels who thought doing laundry was a fabulous new game. Even the timber wolves got their turn to help, providing dinner by bearing baskets of stolen but delicious foods like hot cherry pie and cheesy hamburger hotdish, no doubt snatched from window sills as they set to cool.
The week passed quickly. It took a few days for Dusty to regain strength in her wrists. But the little crystal clubs truly seemed enchanted, for she rarely dropped. In fact, she discovered that she could juggle better than ever before.
On Friday, early in the morning, Dusty was summoned into the house.
“We’re leaving now,” said Mrs. Olsen, “and we’ll be back Sunday evening.” She gestured to the living room, which was littered with glitter and gold thread – evidence of last-minute touches to their costumes. “Be sure everything is spotless for our return. Elsie, tell Gretchen we’re leaving without her.”
“Please,” said Dusty, but her ‘please’ caught in her throat.
Mrs. Olsen raised a thinly-penciled eyebrow. “Yes?”
“If I can get the house clean in ten minutes, will you take me with you?”
Mrs. Olsen laughed. “You think you can clean every last sequin in ten minutes? Very well, you may try. But stay out of our way. And make that five minutes.”
She and Elsie carried their duffle bags out to the mini-van. Dusty’s animal friends appeared and carried away every trace of sewing mess. It only took them a minute, so that when Mrs. Olsen and Elsie returned, the entire living room was spotless.
Mrs. Olsen’s face grew red with anger. “What’s this? How is this possible?”
“I hurried,” Dusty said, holding up the trash bag as evidence. “Now can I come with?”
Mrs. Olsen stood up. “What a hoot. Of course you can’t come with. Besides, you don’t even have a costume. You would embarrass us.”
Dusty’s green eyes misted. “But… you said…”
“Gretchen! We’re leaving.” On the way out, Mrs. Olsen snatched Dusty’s car keys. “You can have them back when we return. On Sunday.”
Dusty wilted like a spring snowman. The animals surrounded her, patting her with soft claws of compassion.
“It would be a shame to waste such quality sequins,” said the river otter. “Whatcha say we make you a costume?”
“What good would it do me?” she sighed. “I can’t walk to Fargo.”
“First things first,” said the otter. He poked his furry whiskers into the trash bag, and then stuck his little paws in as well. “Aha!”
It will amaze you to know that he created a stunning costume out of a mere few sequins and some black swatches of fabric. The costume fit Dusty perfectly, of course, the definition of elegant simplicity. In fact, those sequins looked a lot like diamonds.
“Yah, sure, I know you love it,” said the otter as Dusty cried out in joy. “Now, how do you want to get to the Festival? I can summon golden eagles to carry you in their talons. We can hitch some black bears to a cart. Shoot, you could even ride in style up in the antler rack of a giant moose.”
“Sounds cold. And complicated,” said Dusty.
“Well, if you want to be boring…” A twitch of the whiskers, a tiny sneeze, and there it was – a Ski-Doo snowmobile with a full tank of gas. “Keys are in the ignition, now. Go on!”
Words couldn’t capture the gratitude in Dusty’s heart, so she planted a heartfelt kiss on the otter’s head.
“Bundle up.” He produced a warm snowsuit that matched Dusty’s black-and-diamond ensemble. “And make me proud!”
An hour later, Dusty found herself at the registration table, surrounded by fellow jugglers all tossing and joggling and having a good time.
“You’ll want to practice in the gymnasium,” said a sponsor, “and be on the lookout for the Prince. He performs Sunday night, but he’ll be scouting for potential candidates all weekend. And you’re young enough and pretty enough to catch his attention.”
“But is he witty and handsome enough to catch mine?” replied Dusty. At the sponsor’s shocked expression, she smiled sweetly and excused herself. The enormous purpose of the Festival struck her. Would the Prince be a harsh taskmaster like her stepmother? “I won’t work for him if he’s not kind,” she decided, “not for all the money in Vegas.”
As if thinking about evil things made them appear, she suddenly heard Mrs. Olsen, her voice as shrill and haunting as a common loon. Panicked, Dusty ducked into a dark hallway to wait until they had passed. Even after they were gone, however, she stayed. “This is silly,” she said aloud. “What can they possibly do to me?”
“Are you in trouble?”
“Oh!” She turned around and found a young man her age also hiding in the shadows. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you. I was just… avoiding someone…”
“I know how you feel.” Then, after a pause: “Do you need help?”
“I’m fine now,” she replied, surprised at his old-fashioned response to her damsel-in-distress situation. She couldn’t see him since he stayed in his corner, but he had a pleasant and trustworthy voice. “Look, I want to practice before I go out there. It’s my first competition. Do… do you mind if I stay a while?
“Feel free.” He gathered up some of his props, which were scattered on the floor.
Even in the low light, Dusty could count eight clubs and at least a dozen beanbags. “Can you juggle all of those?”
He shrugged. “I’m still working on it.” Then he turned his back as if he wished to be left alone.
Dusty took the hint. She walked toward a sunbeam at the end of the hall. By the time she got there, she noticed that her duffle bag felt much heavier. When she opened it, she found her little crystal clubs plus all the beanbags, balls, rings, and clubs she could possibly need. That little darling thought of everything, she thought.
At first it was difficult to ignore the stranger. But since he seemed to be ignoring her, she focused on rehearsing. She began with beanbags – three, four, six, seven – and then moved on to rings and clubs. Confidence surged through her with each passing minute. She forgot her nerves about the competition, forgot her family sorrows, forgot herself, and gave herself entirely to the arcs and soft rhythms. She ceased to simply juggle; her entire body became an expression of joy and grace as she entered an almost mystical state of existence. Even the sunbeam danced on her hair as if lending its elegance to her performance. She didn’t know what a pretty picture she made to the young man.
“Come on, Tony, it’s time,” said a short, stocky man. His gruff voice startled Dusty, and she dropped her crystal clubs. He picked one up off the floor and held it out to her. “Huh. You auditioning for the Prince?”
“I’m scheduled for tonight,” she replied. “Doesn’t give me much time to polish my act.”
At his confused expression, the young man held up a finger. “You’ll do fine tonight,” he told her. “You’re one of the better jugglers here.”
Dusty blushed. She wanted to say something clever, but she had little experience with flirtatious small-talk. Instead, she just picked up the rest of her fallen clubs.
“Stupid, stupid!” she told herself when he was gone. “I should have asked where he was going. How will I find him again? I didn’t even see his face. Stupid.”
To take her mind off the mysterious stranger, she gathered the courage to go out into the Festival. So many things to see! Red, green, and blue foil flashed all about her as partners practiced their passing patterns. There were booths to buy cigar boxes, corners where women would take your measurements for goofy hats, speeches and discussions to attend, and activities to play. Dusty found herself invited to a match of Combat Juggling, where the last person left juggling won. She left with bruised fingers and a tiny silver trophy.
At last the hour of the auditions arrived. “Sign in,” a sponsor told her. “Take your name tag and your arm-band. And don’t lose that arm-band, dearie. The Prince is bad with remembering faces, but he’ll recognize talent when he sees it.”
As she was standing in line, waiting for entrance into the sealed-off gymnasium, she felt a cold hand on her shoulder.
“You!” snarled Elsie. “Mom!”
Mrs. Olsen’s eyes practically glowed from fury. “How did you get here? And where did you get that costume?”
“Are those my sequins?” Gretchen snatched at the jewels adorning Dusty’s shoulders and pulled until they popped off.
“Is that my fabric?” Elsie tugged so hard on the neckline that it split open.
The girls fell to reclaiming their rightful property with such vigor that Dusty had to flee for cover, lest she be left naked. But they followed her into the ladies’ bathroom.
“Where did you steal these?” asked Mrs. Olsen, peeping into Dusty’s duffle bag.
“Not my clubs!” screamed Dusty, but she could not stop the girls from smashing her equipment into tiny fragments.
“Now how will you audition?” After high-fives to each other, they returned to the auditions.
It hurt too much to cry. Dusty just sat there, shocked and silent, and waited. And waited. For what, she did not know. For her life to fix itself? For her courage to come back? For the shame to go away?
The otter didn’t appear. Her mother was dead and couldn’t offer comfort. Her father was gone and couldn’t give advice. After a time, Dusty grew tired of looking at crystal fragments. She gathered up the pieces and dumped them into her bag, and then left everything beside the trash can.
She looked at her reflection in the mirror. “So do I quit?” Her makeup was still straight; she her arm-band was still intact; there was really no reason to skip the audition except for hurt feelings. She was glad that she had bought a T-shirt earlier that day, although “I Dew Drop” was not quite the message she wanted to wear during the audition. Still, jeans and a t-shirt were better than shreds. “I’m worth the chance,” she told herself.
The Olsens were surprised to see her back in line, but her name got called before they could reach her.
Eerie silence filled the gymnasium, which has been packed full of people and noise earlier that day. Now only five people remained, sitting in foldable chairs, facing a marked-out space on the floor that would serve as the arena. She wondered which one was the Prince. Probably the middle-aged man with gray at his temples. He looked confident and professional. Then again, so did all the judges. They all held clipboards, except for a young man with brownish hair, who sat back in his chair with his arms crossed. “Begin when you’re ready,” they told her.
Panic! Dusty forced herself to stammer: “I don’t have any equipment… can I borrow some?”
The judges did not seem pleased, but the young man shrugged and pointed to some equipment neatly lined up against the wall. “You can use anything over there.”
His voice sounded familiar, but she didn’t have time to think about that just then. She collected some props and then stepped back into the arena. Her hands shook as she began her routine. After rehearsing for so long with props that were custom-designed, these borrowed items felt awkward and unbalanced. She knew her smile was too forced but she just couldn’t seem to regain her confidence. Although she only dropped once during the entire four minutes, she felt like crying in the end. She took a bow.
“Thank you,” said the middle-aged man, but he did not smile. “Wait with the others.”
She knew she had been dismissed, so she returned the equipment and fled. A sponsor directed her to the far end of the gym to sit with the other candidates, all of whom looked jealous and worried and tense. Nobody returned her friendly, “Hello.” In fact, it seemed that they were all intent on ignoring each other. So she sat down and mulled over her certain doom.
The last two to perform were her stepsisters. Gretchen’s performance was smooth but bland, and Elsie did a lot of fancy tricks but she also dropped a lot. Then it was time to wait while the scores were tallied.
In the end, nobody seemed to catch the judges’ special attention. A heated discussion at the other end of the gym seemed to echo off the cold walls as the judges began a heartfelt disagreement. The young man left the gym. After a few minutes, the lady judge approached the group of young women. “There will be a short recess,” she told them. “Get some water. We’ll be announcing our decision in fifteen minutes.”
Hoping to avoid contact with any of the Olsens, Dusty slipped out. The other girls spilled toward the concessions stand, but she headed toward a secluded corner where she collapsed into a little heap. Her nerves got the better of her, and two little tears leaked onto her cheeks.
Just then, the young man walked in. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “I was just looking for a place to… Do you need help?”
“I’m fine,” said Dusty. She got her tears under control very quickly.
He gave her an odd glance. “Have we met? You seem familiar.”
She looked up at him, into his face. “I don’t think so. I mean, you saw me a few minutes ago… ” Her voice trailed off as she realized how handsome he was. He had clear hazel eyes and a lean physique. She felt her heart flutter, so she ripped her gaze away and picked at a fingernail instead.
“Oh. I’m bad with faces,” he said. “I meet so many people. Unless a person is important, I don’t try to remember them. Anyway, I don’t really care about faces. I care about talent.”
Dusty looked up at him again. “You mean skill.”
Unaccustomed to talking to attractive young men, she felt herself begin to stammer. “Skill, not talent,” she gasped. “Skill is what someone does with a talent. Skill is all the hours it takes to practice your talent. Talent can be wasted; skill has been perfected.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “Exactly.” He studied her for a minute, and then shook his head. “Well. I have to get back inside. Nice to meet you. Good luck.” And then he left, without even shaking her hand.
Dusty thought he looked familiar as he was leaving. She had seen so many people today… yet… ah! The young man from this morning! He was one of the judges? Well, if that was true, then he knew she could do better! If she was invited to the callbacks, maybe she could prove herself after all!
Just then, the river otter appeared, dragging a large bundle. “How’s your day going?”
“Uff-da,” she replied. “Have you brought me new clubs?”
“New clubs? Now, why would you need those? What’s wrong with the others?”
“They got shattered,” said Dusty.
“Impossible. They’re unbreakable.” The otter seemed so confident in his words that Dusty didn’t have the heart to contradict him. “I got to thinking about your costume. No self-respecting otter would allow his friends to go dressed in something as simple as that, so I spent the day weaving sunlight and pine-needles to bring you something more worthy.” He revealed an emerald green costume with gold trim that would match her eyes exactly. “It’s never too late for a second chance. Go change. And bring me your bag.”
Well, it fit just perfectly, of course, and in such a manner that it flattered her figure and made her eyes shine even greener. She was dismayed to find her bag had disappeared. “Maybe the cleaning crew can help me find it,” she thought. The new costume brought new confidence, though, so even if she didn’t find her special clubs, she hoped she could still impress the Prince.
She hurried back to the gymnasium to wait with the other young women. When everyone had regrouped, the stocky man brought his clipboard over to them.
“You, you, and you,” he said, pointing to three of them, “You’ve been invited for callbacks. “And you,” he said, pointing to Dusty, then double-checked her arm-band, “the Prince says he’s not convinced, but you can try again, too.”
“He was really looking for the gal with the crystal clubs,” said the lady judge. “Do any of you know where she is?”
Elsie gave Gretchen a look of horror. Dusty was stunned. Then, one of the girls cried out, “You mean, my crystal clubs? These here?” At her feet was Dusty’s duffle bag, open, to reveal the props in perfect condition.
Before Dusty could react, Elsie shrieked, “You thief! Where did you get those clubs? Give them back to me!”
There was a sudden rush as the young women realized that the crystal clubs were their ticket to the Prince’s heart, and soon everyone claimed the clubs. The judges worked frantically to regain control.
“Ladies, ladies, please! The only thing to do is to audition again. Give me those clubs, thank you. Now get back in line! Back in your original order, please. And quiet down, or we’ll have you removed!”
There seemed nothing to do except to allow every single girl try the crystal clubs. The auditions had already lasted two hours, and it seemed that now they would last another two. But Dusty’s worries evaporated as she watched the girls, one by one, attempt to juggle her clubs and fail miserably. Truly they seemed enchanted; nobody could hold them for more than thirty seconds without dropping.
Elsie and Gretchen knew that if Dusty had her turn, their fates would be forever sealed. So when Dusty’s number was called, Elsie jumped ahead of her – and failed to hang onto the clubs, of course. Gretchen was a bit smarter. Expecting defeat, she dropped the crystal clubs so hard that they shattered. Only one remained intact. “Can’t juggle with just one,” smirked Gretchen.
Dusty sank to her knees, horrified. She was upset, yes, but now a new emotion surged through her: anger. Why should she be treated so badly? How could humans do such awful things to each other? “Enough,” she growled. “It ends here.” She snatched up the one remaining club and handed it to a judge. Then she collected the shards and fragments and put them into the bag. She may have appeared as calm as Lake Superior on a windless day, but inside she was really as turbulent as the high waterfalls on Pigeon River. She wasn’t sure how it worked, or how long she was supposed to wait, but after several long seconds she opened the bag and withdrew the mended clubs.
With grim determination, she dropped a curtsey to the middle-aged Prince, and then delivered her routine with flawless finesse. As she lost herself in her routine, the crystal clubs began to glow in reflection to her inner delight. When she finished juggling, all the girls whispered that she was The One.
Everyone shuffled outside in silent, unanimous defeat. Even the judges stayed silent, as if afraid to break the magic of the moment with mere words.
Mrs. Olsen had no such respect, however. “She can’t be the winner,” she shrilled. “You don’t want her! She’s untrustworthy, and lazy, and rude… and she’s… she’s…”
“She’s skilled,” said the young man. “And now I see why she’s been hiding.” He gave a nod to the other judges, who promptly removed the Olsens from the gym.
Dusty watched, unsure, as the middle-aged man departed. “Doesn’t he want me?” She turned to the young man. “Wasn’t it good enough? Is he coming back?”
Puzzled, he furrowed his eyebrows. Then he understood. “This really is your first Festival, isn’t it? And you don’t recognize me… wow, that’s refreshing!”
“You?” Dusty’s lips parted in surprise. “I thought you’d be older!”
“Come on.” He took her hand and led her to the chairs. “We have a lot to talk about.”
Imagine what you like about the Prince and his new Princess, but I’ll tell you straight what happened with the Olsens. In payment for their evil deeds and unrepentant hearts, our favorite otter (there’s a huge statue of him now at Grotto Park in Fergus Falls, you know) summoned the Malaria Squad, a special hoard of mosquitoes, to visit the Olsens. Hospitalized for weeks, Mrs. Olsen fell behind on her house payments, and so Dusty was able to reclaim her family’s property after all. Happily ever after? Not for the Olsens! But for Dusty, splitting her time between Vegas and her beloved farm remains her dream come true.