Once Upon a Time


Nadine Gordimer

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on Once Upon a Time makes teaching easy.

The narrator, a writer, receives a letter from a man asking her to contribute a story to an anthology for children. When she declines, explaining that she doesn’t write for children, this man insists that all writers should write a children’s story. The narrator doesn’t feel like “ought to” write anything. She then recalls the events of the previous night.

In the middle of the night, the narrator is awoken by the sound of footsteps on creaking floorboards. Her heart racing, the narrator strains to hear if the footsteps are approaching her bedroom. She already feels like the victim of a crime—she doesn’t have a gun for self-defense or security bars on her windows, but she’s just as fearful as the people who do. She recalls violent crimes that recently happened near her house.

The narrator soon realizes that the creaking sound isn’t from an intruder. Thousands of miles below her home’s foundation is a series of mines, and occasionally the hollowed-out rock walls collapse and crash down to the earth below, causing the narrator’s house to shift and groan in response. She imagines that the mines are either out of use or that they’re now a gravesite for all the miners—probably migrant workers—down below. Unable to fall back asleep, the narrator resolves to tell herself a bedtime story.

Her story begins with a man and a woman who are happily married. They have a little boy whom they love dearly, a trustworthy housemaid, a skilled gardener, a pool that’s safely fenced in to prevent the little boy from falling in and drowning, a Neighborhood Watch sign to deter intruders, and all sorts of prudent insurance policies. Even though the family is insured against things like floods and fires, they aren’t insured against riots, which are currently raging outside the city. To comfort his anxious wife—and because he knows how violent the riots are—the husband installs electronic gates at the front of the house. The little boy is mesmerized by the speaker system, which allows visitors to communicate with someone inside. He and his friends use it as a walkie-talkie.

When burglaries begin happening in the family’s suburb, the couple installs security bars on the doors and windows as well as an alarm system. The little boy’s cat sometimes sets off the alarm, and the neighbors’ alarms are often set off by rodents or pets, too. The shrill sirens become so commonplace that they begin to sound more like cicadas or frogs humming in the background. Intruders often time their robberies for when the alarms are going off so that their comings and goings won’t be heard.

Over time, unemployed black people begin looking for work in the suburbs. The woman wants to send food out to them, but her husband and the housemaid firmly caution her against it, insisting that the people outside are criminals. The family decides to make the wall in their garden even higher. However, the robberies continue throughout the neighborhood at all times of day and night. One day, watching the little boy’s cat deftly scaling the wall of the house, the husband and wife decide to affix some sort of security system to the walls, too. A stroll around the neighborhood reveals all sorts of options: lances, spikes, and concrete walls studded with shards of broken glass. Meanwhile, the little boy happily runs along with his dog.

The couple settles on the most threatening security system of them all: a series of metal coils notched with razor blades that ascend the house’s exterior walls. Once an intruder begins to climb through the coils, there is no way out—the jagged metal will rip the intruder to shreds no matter which way they move. The security system, which looks fit for a concentration camp, comes from a security called Dragon Teeth. The next day, workmen install the coils on the couple’s house, and the metal shines aggressively in the sun. The man assures his wife that it will weather over time, but his wife reminds him that the metal is weather-proof. They hope the cat is smart enough to not scale the wall.

That night, the woman reads her son the story of Sleeping Beauty, wherein the brave Prince must fight his way through a dense thicket of thorns in order to save Sleeping Beauty. The next day, the little boy pretends to be the Prince and decides that the metal coils encasing the house will be the thorns he must climb. But the second he wiggles his way into a metal coil, the blades pierce his skin, and he writhes and screams in pain, ensnaring himself deeper and deeper into the wire. The housemaid and gardener come running, and the gardener tears up his hands trying to rescue the boy. The husband and wife run out in a panic as the house alarm—likely set off by the cat—begins to blare. Eventually, the little boy’s bleeding body is removed with heavy equipment. The man, the woman, the housemaid, and the gardener are beside themselves as they carry the boy’s remains into the house.