"Meany and Pest"
a long story
"Meany and Pest"
a long story
“Let’s see. One crate of pomegranates. How much do I owe you?” Meanie asked.
“Same as usual,” answered Pest. “One blong. No. Wait. I’ll buy dinner here. Give me three seashells, two penguins, and a drum.”
Meanie wrapped tissue paper around Pest’s dinner and dropped it into a bag. “So I owe you half a blong for the pomegranates,” he said. He handed Pest the bag and a half-blong coin.
On his way out, Pest pointed at a large table. “I see you’ve added a moat.”
Meanie nodded. “I built it yesterday. Every castle needs defenses, don’t you think?”
Meanie the baker built sugar castles. Each castle totally covered the wooden baking table in Meanie’s bakery, Dulcet Dreams. Each castle stood high as the lantern hanging from the bakery ceiling. Pointy sugar towers topped the castles. Delicate sugar flags topped the towers. Sugar knights galloped on sugar drawbridges toward sugar gates.
Meanie also built sugar carousels, with parasol sugar roofs and dancing sugar swans and real music boxes in the middle. The carousels were as big as the castles. Meanie had to stand tip-toe on his hairy, moss-green feet to position a music box. If his bulbous head or bushy beard hit a swan, he had to set it up again with his three-fingered hands.
Sometimes Meanie made sugar gardens blooming with luminous sugar fruits and flowers and leafy sugar trees, and sugar ponds filled with sugar fish.
To build his castles and carousels and gardens, Meanie cooked sugar in a pot. If he mixed the liquid sugar with gelatin, he could wrap his moss-green hands around the paste and shape it into log cabins or platypuses or children. If he mixed the sugar with corn syrup, he could stretch the mixture into long ribbons or twist it into jungle gyms or blow it into hummingbirds with his cone-shaped mouth. He could add food coloring to the liquids or paint color on the finished shapes.
Everyone in the village loved Meanie’s confections. The sugar felt satiny smooth on their moss-green fingertips. It smelled irresistible to their small square noses. It melted like springtime in their cone-shaped mouths.
Meanie had practiced his sugar artistry since childhood. “He can make anything,” the villagers claimed. They believed this because every year Meanie designed a new sugar sculpture for the Annual Dessert Extravaganza. On Extravaganza day, everyone would gape in amazement at Meanie’s beautiful work. Then at sunset he’d break his creation into pieces to give everyone a taste. “What will you invent this year?” they’d ask Meanie all year long. “Can’t you give us a hint?” But he never did.
On regular days, Meanie made sugar treats for the villagers’ birthdays and anniversaries and as prizes for athletic competitions. He formed grizzly bears and baseball gloves, galaxies and tadpoles - all from sugar pulled or blown or shaped. “Elliott’s a sugar wizard,” everyone said. Elliott was Meanie’s real name. No one in the village called him Meanie.
Pest the farmer grew pomegranates. His pomegranate grove stretched from the rippling creek to the humpback hills. For hundreds of years Pest’s family had grown the most delicious pomegranates in the land. Inside each red fruit were dozens of tiny, shimmery, ruby pods, bursting with tart, sweet juice.
Pest tended his trees lovingly. He watered them every week, spraying carefully to protect his pale-blue cloak. The thick, cotton cloak covered him fully from head to ankles, ending just above his moss-green, hairy feet. The cloak draped across his forehead and lower face, leaving just a slit for his round black eyes. But Pest could see quite clearly. He pruned and shaped his trees, cutting gently as he peeked from under his droopy hood. He thinned the scarlet flowers with his three-fingered, moss-green hands. He harvested only the juiciest fruits.
Pest sent his round red pomegranates to kings and prime ministers and presidents throughout the world. Everyone who received Pest’s pomegranates wrote him letters. “We have never in our lives tasted such luscious fruit,” the letters read.
Pest gave some pomegranates to the other farmers who lived near him. In return, they gave him wheat and eggs and cotton. Pest and the other farmers traded with each other every day.
But Pest sold most of his pomegranates to Meanie’s village and to Meanie himself. The edge of Pest’s grove came exactly to the edge of the village square. The villagers adored pomegranates, so Meanie often squeezed juice from pomegranate pods into his party confections, to give them extra tang. He even sold whole pomegranates from his bakery.
“Quentin is the pomegranate prince,” declared the farmers living near Pest. Quentin was Pest’s real name. None of the farmers called him Pest.
At least once a month Meanie threw a party. “Everybody needs a little fun,” he always said. Meanie’s parties began in the village square at high noon. The villagers brought their own cotton napkins, and for lunch they ate poached eggs on toast. After that, Meanie served sugar pockets filled with sugar bugs, and then they all flew kites. By late afternoon the villagers went home, tired and happy and carrying leftover sugar bugs for supper. The villagers enjoyed Meanie’s parties so much that they signed a law inviting everyone to come.
Perhaps the kites distracted the villagers. Perhaps the food did. Either way, no one at the parties noticed the farmers huddled behind pomegranate trees, just beyond the village in Pest’s grove. The farmers, wrapped in their pale-blue cloaks, peered between the branches, watching the villagers eat and play. After each party the farmers gathered in Pest’s kitchen. “Listen, Quentin,” they told him. “We are weary of this. Meanie throws party after party for the villagers. Not once has he invited us. Not once has he offered us sugar bugs.”
“The village tailor buys my cotton,” said a farmer, “and sews it into napkins. All the villagers bring them to the parties. But the tailor never says, ‘See what sturdy napkins your cotton makes?’”
“The villagers buy my eggs,” complained another, “and eat them poached and lick their lips. Just once I wish they’d poach an egg for me.”
“Where do you think they get the grain to bake their bread?” inquired a third. “They’d have no toast if not for my wheat.”
“Half my pomegranates go to Meanie and the village,” added Pest. “I’d like to taste his pomegranate party treats. But I don’t go where I’m not wanted.”
Months passed. Meanie threw dozens of parties, and the whole village came. The farmers stopped watching from the trees. “You’re right, Quentin,” they decided. “We’re not welcome, so we won’t go. But we wish he’d invite us. It’s a shame.”
One day Pest decided to investigate. Marching into Dulcet Dreams, he faced Meanie across a glass showcase filled with sugar dandelions. “You never invite me to your parties,” Pest declared.
“True enough,” granted Meanie.
“Why not?” asked Pest. “Why don’t you invite me?”
Meanie looked surprised. “Why should I?”
“Because you invite everyone else,” Pest accused. “You invite the whole village.”
“The villagers are my friends,” Meanie replied. “But I don’t invite everyone in the world. I don’t invite you or the other farmers.”
“Don’t you think we like parties?” Pest wondered.
“How should I know?” Meanie answered. “Go have your own fun. Juggle some pomegranates. But keep away from my parties. It’s bad enough that you shop in our stores.” He turned to a village customer and inquired, “May I help you?”
Pest stomped out the door and returned home. “What did Meanie say, Quentin?” the farmers asked him.
“A lot of mean stuff,” Pest huffed. “Meanie’s a mean man. I’m so angry I could throw a pomegranate.”
That night, when the moon slid behind a cloud, an unripe pomegranate flew through the air and smashed the big front window at Dulcet Dreams.
In the morning, Meanie banged on Pest’s door. “Pest, I expect you to pay for this!” Meanie hollered, holding up a piece of broken glass. “And you ruined a whole shelf of sugar berries! Pomegranate sugar berries! Made from your pomegranate pods! What’s the matter with you? You are such a pest!”
“You deserved it, Meanie,” Pest said flatly. “You’re a meanie. And I’m not paying for anything. So go away.”
Meanie’s face reddened. “Well then, I’m not paying for the extra pomegranates you delivered to me last week!”
“You owe me three blongs!” Pest yelled.
Meanie loped away and shouted back across his shoulder, “Too bad, Pest!”
True to his threat, Meanie refused to pay Pest for the fruit. So Pest refused to bring Meanie his next order of pomegranates. The village grocer bought a crate of Pest’s pomegranates for a higher price. The villagers complained to Meanie. “Elliott! Why don’t you add pomegranate juice to your sugar turtles anymore?” they snapped. “We miss that old tang.”
“Pomegranates are hard to get these days,” he answered.
“The grocer has them, Elliott,” they countered.
“Yes, I know,” Meanie sighed. “I’ll try to find some. I like pomegranate turtles myself.”
Meanie did not want to talk to Pest or pay the higher price. He added lemon peel to the turtles instead. The villagers tried to eat the lemon turtles. But the tartness made the villagers’ cone-shaped mouths pucker. Annoyed, they bought plain sugar cubes instead.
His customers’ anger upset Meanie. He needed their business, and besides, he wanted them to like him. They’d been friends all their lives.
Reluctantly, Meanie sent Pest a letter. It read, “Pest: Meet me at five o’clock at the border, where the slate line divides your grove from the village. Bring pomegranates.”
At five o’clock Meanie stood on village land, with his hairy, moss-green feet a single step from the flat slate line. Pest stood in his grove, with his moss-green, hairy feet a step from the border, too. Meanie and Pest eyed each other across the line.
“I brought ten crates of pomegranates,” Pest began, pointing at the wagon next to him.
“Good,” replied Meanie. “Here are the three blongs I owe you for last week’s delivery, and ten more blongs for today.”
“Thank you,” said Pest. “Now tell me, why are we meeting at the border? I’ll be happy to pull my cart to your bakery as usual.”
“We’re meeting here,” explained Meanie, “because you are not allowed in the village anymore, ever. The other farmers cannot enter either. We villagers will trade with you at the border, but you cannot come in.”
Pest’s round black eyes widened. “Are you telling us to stay out of your stores? You know we buy our clothes in the village, as well as toys and tools.”
Meanie frowned at Pest’s cloak. “You call that pile of cotton your clothes? I’ve seen tree stumps better-dressed than you.” Meanie brushed powdered sugar off his work jacket and knee-length pants. “Yes, our stores are off-limits. Our streets are off-limits. Our houses are off-limits. Our village square is absolutely off-limits. We’ll buy your pomegranates, eggs, wheat, cotton, at the border. We’ll sell our fabric, bicycles, sugar treats, hammers, at the border. That’s all.” Tossing the ten crates of pomegranates into his own wagon, Meanie aimed it toward Dulcet Dreams and pulled.
Meanie continued throwing parties in the village square. The villagers continued eating poached eggs on toast, and wiping their mouths with cotton napkins, and flying kites. At every party Meanie brought out sugar pockets filled with sugar bugs, enough for everyone. The farmers no longer bothered huddling behind trees to watch the parties. But often Pest sat alone in his grove, sliding a pomegranate back and forth from one moss-green, three-fingered hand to the other. He could hear the villagers laughing as they ate.
One evening after the party ended and the villagers had left, Pest saw Meanie cleaning picnic tables in the village square. Breathing deeply, Pest walked to the edge of his grove, where slate rocks marked the square. He paused. Then he stepped across the line.
Meanie turned and spotted him. “What are you doing?” Meanie scolded. “The party’s done, and anyway you’re not invited.”
“You don’t have to invite me,” Pest announced. “I can come anyway. The village square belongs to me.”
Meanie blinked. “What do you mean it belongs to you? The village square belongs to the village.”
“Wrong,” Pest argued. “The village square sits on my land. The whole village sits on my land. Your bakery sits on my land.”
Meanie waved his arms. “Your land? Are you a pomegranate yourself? None of the village land belongs to you. You own pomegranate groves. The village is ours.”
“Ours? Who is ‘ours’?” Pest clenched his hands. “You mean people who dress like you?”
“Yes, actually,” answered Meanie, “people who dress like me. People who live in villages. People who run shops and build houses and sweep streets. Not farmers. Certainly not pomegranate farmers. Certainly not people who hide their heads inside their cloaks.”
“At least we don’t wear raggy short pants like you,” growled Pest, “and we don’t waste time squatting in bitsy shops when we can work outdoors. Anyway,” Pest declared, stretching himself as tall as possible, “growing pomegranates is honorable labor!”
“Of course it’s honorable,” Meanie agreed. “Everyone likes pomegranates. That’s why I buy them. As long as you work your pomegranate groves and stay off the village land, we’ll get along fine.”
“Stop telling me to stay off my own land!” Pest yelled. “My grandparents and great-grandparents farmed this land for a hundred million years till you villagers stole it from us!”
“Stole it?” denied Meanie hotly. “We let you use it, that’s all! Now we need it ourselves. You never owned it.”
“Says who?” demanded Pest.
Meanie smiled evenly. “Says the royal document,” he replied. “You know. You’ve seen the document. You’ve seen the purple seal. The royal document says this land belongs to the village.”
Pest hopped up and down. “Purple, twurple! That document is fake. That purple seal is a glob of wax. We grew the world’s juiciest pomegranates for centuries, and then you wrecked our groves and built your silly village. But the land is still ours.”
Meanie stuck out his chest. “Silly village? Silly? My sugar castles sell for eleven blongs apiece. A crate of your pomegranates sells for one teeny blong. That’s why the village has pinewood streets, and you pomegranate people have muddy tracks. We handle our land better than you pests ever did.”
“It’s not your land!” Pest thundered. “You meanies can’t keep us out! Pinewood streets don’t matter anyway! Go eat your royal document and your purple seal for supper!” Shaking with fury, Pest leaped back across the border and disappeared into his grove.
The morning of the Annual Dessert Extravaganza dawned sunny and warm. The villagers could hardly wait. For days they’d cooked and baked, frosted and decorated. All their desserts looked unbearably delicious, laid out in rows on picnic tables in the village square. Wandering from cakes to tarts to puddings, they exclaimed, “I must try some of that! And that! And this!”
Everyone brought at least one sweet treat to the Extravaganza. Most people brought eight or ten different kinds of goodies. To help them eat such large amounts, the villagers invited friends and relatives from other towns. Hundreds of hungry eaters kept spoons in their hands the entire day. Of course they flew kites and played games too, but desserts mattered more.
Best of all, on Extravaganza Day the villagers could view Meanie’s newest sugar art. He always set up his grand invention before sunrise, so the villagers would see it as they arrived. Pest and the other farmers could see it too, but only from Pest’s grove, as they were never invited to the Extravaganza.
This time, as the moon began to fade, Meanie erected a gigantic sugar cone. He positioned it upside-down, with its flat side on the ground. The cone stood taller than a person on another person’s shoulders, and wider than five carts. Moss-green, it glittered from peak to base with painted sugar cutouts of buds and flowers, leaves and vines. Sugar letters of frosty white circled the cone across its middle. The letters read, “Welcome to the Sugar Bowl.”
“Is it a garden?” the villagers asked, motioning at the vines.
“No,” Meanie told them, “it’s a cone-shaped mouth like ours. A big green sugar mouth. Get it?” He laughed hard.
The villagers did not get the joke. They enjoyed their cone-shaped mouths. But they laughed a little, to please Meanie.
“Just kidding,” Meanie said. “It’s a Sugar Bowl game. We’ll play it later.”
After a lunch of poached eggs on toast, followed by platefuls of desserts, Meanie summoned the villagers together. “Welcome one and all to the Sugar Bowl!” he cried. “Today, in honor of our great village, I present to you a game built out of sugar! We’ll have a tournament, and everyone can play!”
Grasping a flower-shaped handle on the cone, Meanie turned a crank. The giant cone swung open like a door. Inside, circular shelves filled up the cone. Upon each shelf sat pale-blue bowling pins, full-sized and made totally of sugar. The upper shelves held dozens of pins. The lower shelves held hundreds. Altogether the cone contained one thousand pins. And on the cone’s floor, nestled together, a thousand sugar pomegranates waited to be rolled.
The villagers gawked. “The Sugar Bowl is a bowling game?” they asked.
“Indeed!” Meanie grinned. “We will bowl till sunset. Then we’ll eat the balls and pins!”
“Won’t they break by then?” the villagers pressed. “When a sugar bowling ball strikes a
sugar bowling pin, won’t they both burst?”
“Yes!” exulted Meanie. “That’s half the fun! That’s why I cooked so many!”
“Well,” the villagers continued, “where shall we bowl? The village square is just a field of grass.”
Meanie pulled fat chalk sticks from his pockets. “We’ll make our own lanes,” he said. He handed pieces of chalk to several villagers, and they drew six bowling lanes, side by side. “Who volunteers to keep score?” called Meanie, and six people volunteered. Dividing everyone into groups of four, Meanie told them, "Time to set up your pins!"
The villagers approached the cone to take ten sugar pins per group. Grasping their pins, the villagers examined them close-up. Every pale-blue pin had a rim of moss-green along the base and six short, vertical stripes of moss-green midway up, three on the left, three on the right. Close to the top, each pin had two small circles near each other, round and black.
The village square grew silent. Then someone said, “These pins look like the farmers in their cloaks.” No one disagreed.
“They’re just bowling pins,” Meanie reminded them. “Blue like sky and green like grass, with birds up high. Let’s bowl!”
And so they bowled, all afternoon and till the sun sank low. Every villager rolled sugar bowling balls down chalk lanes to the sugar pins. When balls and pins collided, chunks flew off. If broken pins still stood, if balls still rolled, they went another round and lost more parts. The people tossed the pieces into baskets, to eat at dusk.
Now and then a villager gazed quietly at a pale-blue pin, then at the farmers in Pest’s grove. Mostly, though, the villagers and their friends and relatives bowled nonstop. They kept score, but they loved the game so much they didn’t care who won. They whooped and cheered and crushed the pins and balls. They giggled as they battered the game to bits.
One bowling pin, stronger than the others, got away. The bowling ball smacked it hard and knocked it off the lane, but it failed to break. Rolling and spinning, the runaway pin slid down the slope that led across the square and toward Pest’s trees. The villagers, with many pins to break, gave no thought to one that had escaped. Reaching the flat slate border, the pin stopped dead.
Pest picked it up. The farmers, wrapped in their blue cloaks, gathered round. They ran their moss-green fingers over the pale-blue pin. They touched the moss-green base, the three stripes left and right, the two black circles near the top. “It looks like us,” they said.
At sunset, Meanie raised his arms. “Game’s over,” he announced. “Time to eat the bowling balls and pins.” No ball or pin remained, just crumbs and chips. A few villagers squirmed and headed home. But most ate the pieces with delight.
“What an exciting Sugar Bowl game!” they complimented Meanie. “This Dessert Extravaganza was our best yet!”
The next night after work, Meanie did not go home. He knew some of the villagers had disliked the Sugar Bowl. He knew the farmers had watched the tournament and kept the runaway pin. Meanie’s stomach felt tight. He waited in the shop till darkness fell. Then he hid in a broom closet, leaving the closet door open a crack. Through the crack he could see his glass showcases and his sugar treats gleaming in the starlight. If anyone threw a pomegranate through his window tonight, Meanie would fly out and grab him. Hours passed. Meanie fell asleep among the brooms.
Suddenly he woke. He heard pairs of hairy feet skidding across the bakery floor. Peeping through the closet door crack, Meanie spied four cloaked figures. His front door was swinging on its hinges. The figures whispered to one another and then pulled fist-sized objects from their cloaks. Meanie feared for his bakery, but feared more for his life. He made no noise. As Meanie stared, the figures flung their objects round the room, crashing all the glass showcases, splintering all the sugar treats. They tipped over the baking table, wrecked the ceiling lantern, and threw a sugar carousel into the street. In minutes, everything in Dulcet Dreams lay destroyed.
The four figures slunk away. Meanie crept out of his closet, lit a candle, and surveyed his shop. Not a single sugary confection was still whole. Strewn around the floor were spilled bags of sugar, empty corn syrup bottles, bent baking racks, and piles and jumbles of candies mixed with broken glass. Meanie counted sixty unripe pomegranates in the muck.
Taking a broom from the closet, Meanie began to sweep. Then he set aside the broom and made a plan.
Pest had piled his wagon so high with pomegranates they were starting to fall out. Thirteen tumbled to the ground before his eyes. Pest picked them up, wedged them gently back into his wagon, and dragged the wagon home. On his front step waited a small silver box tied with gold string. Carefully Pest untied the string and opened the silver lid. He gasped.
Next to a tiny envelope, on a cushion of white silk, lay a single stone, from which shone every color in the world. Pest lifted it from the silk and held it high. In the sun’s rays he could see clear through the stone, through ruby, topaz, emerald, sapphire, all transparent. The colors glistened like a summer stream. The stone felt warm and smooth on Pest’s green skin.
Replacing the stone, he took the envelope and drew out a white card. Fancy letters read, “Please accept this gift as thanks for a most scrumptious feast. Your pomegranates are the finest on the earth. We hope to buy them every year. Your talents as a pomegranate grower earn you this prize. Best regards from the Joint Committee of Specialty Delectables Worldwide.”
Pest smiled. Giving one of his pomegranates a friendly pat, he carried the silver box into his house.
Meanie brushed the shattered glass from his inside window ledge. Usually he used his oversized ledge for holiday displays. Last year on Marsupial Day he’d put a life-sized sugar koala on the ledge, and it hadn’t fallen off. There was room enough, he knew, for what he wanted to cook next.
All that day Meanie cleaned his shop. The villagers came in as usual to buy sugar twists and sugar birds, but all they found was Meanie dumping fractured treats into the trash. The villagers’ mouths dropped open. “What a calamity!” they exclaimed, bending down to help pick up the shards. “What a disaster! Who would cause such trouble?”
“Only terrible, evil pests,” Meanie replied.
When nighttime came he locked himself inside his shop. Going to the bakery’s kitchen, he set his two largest pots upon the stove. Into the pots he poured sugar and more sugar, corn syrup in one, gelatin in the other, food coloring in both and sugar yet again. Then he stirred the mixtures as they warmed.
Meanie had seen gargoyles many times. In the village, gargoyles perched on all the oldest roofs, to keep evil demons away. On journeys to faraway lands he’d seen them too. The statues looked like beasts and men combined. Some had heads and bodies, some just heads, of wolves or lions or hawks or monsters. Often they stuck out their tongues, and always they seemed ready to attack. Everywhere their message stayed the same: Get out. Be gone. Leave and don’t return. You are not welcome here. The vilest demon would think twice before pestering a gargoyle.
Meanie planned to create the ugliest, fiercest gargoyle ever made. He would frighten Pest so badly that the pomegranate farmer would flee the village forever. Meanie could buy pomegranates elsewhere. Perhaps he’d switch to oranges; they cost less and tasted fine.
Pouring the melted mixtures from the pots, he spread the goo across a marble slab. Then he began to sculpt. With both three-fingered hands Meanie pressed and shaped the gel and paste together. He pried and stretched and crimped and looped and blew until he formed a gargoyle’s head.
Bigger than life and hideous it was - the crown a bulb, the throat a bulb, the center slim as wire. Atop the head, Meanie formed a ridge of sugar thorns from front to back, with baldness on both sides. Then trumpet ears he added, and a pinwheel snout, no eyebrows or mustache, but below creased lips a twizzle-stick beard, all prickery and gnarled. Only the round black eyes and moss-green skin looked like his own. Inside the hollow head he fastened a six-wick candle that glowed crimson red.
“Aha!” Meanie congratulated himself. “A gargoyle masterpiece. Pest and all his pesky friends will keep out of our village after this.”
Clouds hid the moon and stars that night. Not even fireflies lit the darkness. Every household slept, and not a cricket chirped. On the bakery’s window ledge the gargoyle sneered into the blackness. Red candlelight pierced its skin, its eyes, its ears and nose and mouth. It looked as vicious as a gargoyle could. Any villager who passed by would have screamed and run.
But Meanie did not sleep. Meanie crouched inside his Dulcet Dreams, behind a broken showcase, in full view of the ledge. If Pest dared come near again, he’d see the gargoyle, and Meanie would see Pest’s terror. Perhaps Pest would shriek, then faint. Perhaps he’d vault away so fast he’d sprain his feet. Perhaps he’d bellow until he popped. No matter - he’d go home and not return.
Not long ago Meanie had waited just like this, in his bakery late at night. The last time, his shop and his creations had been ruined. This time he would win. Meanie glanced at his pocket watch. It said one minute till midnight.
Meanie peeked at the smashed front window. He saw the gargoyle silhouetted in the dark. He did not see the lone cloaked figure stepping from a pomegranate grove into the village square. Creeping silently, the figure zigzagged among the picnic tables to the row of shops across from Meanie, and then it crossed the street. As the figure neared the bakery, Meanie heard its feet shuffling on the sidewalk. He waited a moment longer, then leaped from behind the showcase. Framed by the jagged window, the cloaked figure met the gargoyle face-to-face.
Pest sank to the sidewalk and buried his head in his arms. Then, slowly, he took hold of his cloak hood, pulled it away from his face, and let it fall backward. Rising, he glared at Meanie’s sugar gargoyle. The gargoyle looked exactly like himself. Hourglass head. Thorny ridge of hair. Browless eyes. Flaring ears. Spiral snout. Cracked lips. Twizzle-stick beard. Pest’s mirror image, his twin. Lifting his face toward the sky, Pest screamed, “I am not an evil demon! I’m your neighbor!”
The villagers heard Pest scream. Rushing from their houses, they spied the gargoyle’s crimson glow and scurried to Dulcet Dreams. Crowding on the sidewalk, they stared in shock. Back and forth they swung their heads, from Pest to gargoyle, gargoyle to Pest. Pest looked like no one they’d ever seen.
“How did you know?” a villager prodded Meanie. “How did you build a gargoyle shaped like him?”
“Once when the wind blew wildly,” Meanie explained, “it blew his cloak hood down. He had just delivered pomegranates and left my shop. The wild wind caught him as he passed the window, and I saw his face. Immediately he yanked his hood up, and I turned aside, pretending I hadn’t seen. But I wasn’t surprised. My grandfather told me long ago the farmers look precisely so.”
The villagers eyeballed Pest. One said, “All the farmers look like you?”
Pest craned toward the questioner. “Some of our snouts curl clockwise, some counter-clockwise. My head’s a trifle short compared to others. The number of creases in our lips can range from one to seven. My ears bend more than most.”
The villager blinked. “But are you people?”
Pest sighed. “Obviously you think not. That’s why we wear these cloaks. Our parents informed us you call us ugly beasts.”
The villagers murmured among themselves. “You’re not terribly ugly,” someone soothed. Your hourglass head looks odd though. Is it painful?”
Pest glowered. “Your cone-shaped mouth could siphon ants. Your balloon head looks ready to explode. Does it hurt you?”
“Not usually, though I have a headache now,” the villager admitted. “You share our moss-green skin, our three-fingered hands, our hairy feet, our round black eyes. Why not our mouths? Why not our hair?” The villagers seemed perplexed.
“Perhaps,” responded Pest, “for the same reason you lack trumpet ears and pinwheel snouts. We’re made the way we’re made. May I leave now?”
But no one moved. They asked, “Do you hear better than we do with those ears?”
“I doubt it,” Pest replied.
“Does your ridge of hair need cutting often?”
“No,” he answered. “I let it hold my cloak hood off my scalp. The air layer cools my head in summer and keeps me warm in winter.”
“Frankly,” interrupted Meanie, “I wish I had your twizzle-stick beard. My bushy beard gets tangled in sugar paste every week. One time it stuck so badly I threw an entire sugar castle in the trash.”
Pest regarded Meanie’s beard. “It is quite bushy,” he concurred. “Still, if you twizzled it tightly you could tie it to your belt.”
Meanie considered. “Yes, I suppose I could.” Then he stiffened. “Don’t change the subject! What matters is I caught you trying to wreck my shop again! The villagers are my witnesses. You broke our law. You came back to our village. And now you want to ruin Dulcet Dreams. You needn’t bother. It’s already ruined, thanks to you. You think I can afford a big new window? You think I can replace my baking table, my glass showcases, my ceiling lantern? How can I sell my sugar gardens and sugar carousels and sugar ponds if I have no shop? There’s nothing left here to destroy, you evil pest.”
Pest spoke softly. “I’m not here to cause you harm.” Reaching into his cloak, he pulled out a small silver box tied with gold string. Handing the box to Meanie, he said, “If you sell the stone, you should have enough blongs to repair your shop.”
Meanie opened the box and held the transparent stone near the gargoyle. Even in the crimson light he saw the stone’s pure colors - ruby, topaz, emerald, sapphire. “Indeed,” he breathed, “I’ll have more blongs than I need.” Meanie turned to Pest. “Any blong remaining after I restore my shop I will return to you.”
“Thank you,” nodded Pest. “That cheers me. I’ve been very unhappy lately.”
“I’ve been unhappy as well,” said Meanie.
A villager cleared her throat. “Does our law truly prohibit Mr. Pest from entering our village? If so, does that not go against the law inviting everyone to our parties?”
The villagers stopped and thought. “The invitation is a law,” someone affirmed. “The rule about not entering is rather mean, I think.” All the villagers agreed.
Meanie shifted his feet. “Alright. What shall we do? We’re in a mess.”
No one answered. Then another villager called, “I have an idea.”
“What is it?” they wondered aloud.
“Breakfast,” the villager proposed. “Let’s eat breakfast.”
“Now?” They sounded doubtful.
“No,” the villager retorted, “not now. When morning comes. Let’s meet, farmers and villagers, in the village square. Since nothing’s cooked, we’ll all bring our own food.”
“That’s it?” they queried. “That’s your grand idea? We eat? How does that fix the mess?”
“And tell stories,” the villager suggested. “We’ll tell stories.”
“Stories? What kind?” they asked.
“Your stories,” he said.
Breakfast began at eight o’clock. The villagers brought poached eggs, toast, and sugar shells. The farmers brought scrambled eggs, hot cereal, and pomegranate pods. Everybody brought cotton napkins. The farmers wore their pale-blue cloaks, but Pest and a few others let their hoods rest on their shoulders. At the picnic tables, villagers sat with villagers, and farmers sat with farmers. Still, they ate with gusto. Several traded their toast for cereal, their cereal for toast. “A little variety can’t hurt,” they allowed.
Soon every stomach filled. Conversations waned. People whispered to each other, “Are we done? Should we go home?”
The village tailor stood and raised her moss-green arms. “Attention, please.” The villagers and farmers quit their whispering. She continued. “Who would like to start the stories?” No voice spoke. “Very well,” she shrugged. “I’ll go first.”
The hourglass-headed farmers flexed their trumpet ears. The bulbous-headed villagers closed their cone-shaped mouths. All round black eyes focused on the story-teller.
“When I was a child,” she began, “I wished to see the world. So I decided to run away. I left my house, my yard, and skipped across the road to seek adventure. My mother, glancing from a window, spied me. Loudly she yelled, ‘Child, you come back here! You’re not permitted to cross the street.’ So I went home.”
The tailor sat down on a bench. The villagers laughed. The farmers laughed. People elbowed one another. “I remember running away myself,” they muttered. “I didn’t stay away long either.”
A poultry farmer rose and lowered his hood. “When I was growing up,” he said, “I learned a trick. First you open a door. Then you ask a friend to stick his thumb and one of his two fingers through the wide slit on the hinge side of the door. Then you place a whole raw egg between his finger and thumb. You ask, ‘Have you got the egg? If I let go, will it fall?’ When he answers, ‘I’ve got it,’ you release the egg and leave the room. Your friend will holler, ‘Don’t go! The egg might drop!’ You warn, ‘Then you’ll need to clean it up.’ Go to your friend and snicker a minute or two, but not too long. I played this trick on my brother, but he dropped the egg. It made a slimy puddle. We mopped it up together.”
The people smirked as they recalled, “My brother and sister and I played jokes, too.” The farmer took his seat. His hood stayed down.
Next the village grocer told a tale. “Remember the awful storm two years ago? The wood-shakes on my grocery roof blew off. Then a timber holding up the roof caved in, and the entire store began to sway. Yet before the storm finished, in hail and sleet and wind you villagers came to save my shop. You braced the walls and roof and nailed up canvas cloth to keep the groceries dry. I have my grocery store today because of you.”
The villagers blushed. Turning to a cotton farmer, the tailor said, “I made that canvas from your cotton.”
A pomegranate farmer spoke up next. “Last summer,” he began, “I got sick. I stayed in bed for days but didn’t heal. The queen of Obadonia wanted ninety of my best pomegranates for a feast. I was too sick to send the pomegranates. But I knew if I didn’t, the queen of Obadonia would tell the world’s prime ministers and presidents and kings I broke my word. The farmers living near me gathered ninety perfect pomegranates from my trees, plus three extras for good measure. They packed the fruits in padded crates and pulled them in their fastest wagon to the queen. Her guests ate pomegranate pie, thanks to my friends.”
This time the farmers blushed. The farmer who owned the fastest wagon remarked to the village smith, “I bought my wheels at your shop.”
Holding up a wounded dog, a villager strolled among the tables. “I have a sad story,” he announced. “The morning after a pomegranate smashed Dulcet Dreams’ front window, I walked my dog along the sidewalk there, not realizing shattered glass lay everywhere. The glass shards cut all four of my dog’s feet.” The villagers and farmers murmured sympathies. They offered cotton napkins as bandages. The dog’s owner accepted some napkins from farmers, some from villagers. Then he sat and cradled his dog.
“I too have a sad tale,” a farmer revealed. “All my life, I’ve been called ‘Ghost.’ No farmer calls me that, but villagers do. I wear my ghost-blue cloak to hide myself, because you wish I were not here. My name is Frederick, not Ghost. You may call me Frederick. I will no longer wear my cloak. I will use it to polish fruit.” He fell silent. A complete minute passed before anyone said a word.
Then someone chuckled. “I used to jump that slate line, back and forth, to make my parents mad.” They all stared at the villager who’d spoken. It was Meanie. “Remember?” He pointed at Pest. “We were only four or five years old. We hopped from one side to the other, grove to village, village to grove. We knew we shouldn’t, but we did. After they punished us, we sneaked back and jumped some more.”
“I remember,” Pest replied. “Sometimes we ran along the border, end to end. Our feet caught on the edges of the slate, and we went tumbling. You usually hurt your mouth.”
“You usually hurt your ears,” said Meanie. “Fun, wasn’t it?”
Pest nodded. “We had fun.”
After the villagers and the farmers told more stories, they arranged to meet again for lunch next day. Half of each group would bring poached eggs on toast. The other half would bring cereal and scrambled eggs. Meanie would provide sugar bugs in sugar pockets. Pest would supply pomegranate pods. Pest and Meanie waited in the square till no one else remained. Then they ambled toward the flat slate line.
“I still think your village stole our land,” insisted Pest. “I still say your royal document’s a fake. But I can see you’re here to stay. I’m tired of arguing, and I hate throwing pomegranates. It’s so mean.”
“We’ll never give you the land,” vowed Meanie. “It’s ours by royal grant. But yes, we shoved you out and gave you nothing in return. We’ve been such pests.”
“Could you invite us to your parties now and then?” requested Pest.
“We’re having one next week,” responded Meanie. “I hope you’ll come. But could you let us hike your groves and fields? We have no trails inside the village.”
Pest looked startled. “I never knew villagers liked to hike.”
“I never knew farmers liked to laugh,” Meanie replied.
“You villagers should join our weekly harvest,” suggested Pest. “Fruits are fresher and cheaper when you pick your own. You could walk the trails and tote your harvest home.”
“That would be pleasant,” acknowledged Meanie. “Listen, Quentin, the shop two doors from mine is vacant. Why don’t you open a farmer’s market there? You farmers could sell directly to the villagers. Deliveries to shops would be easier, too.”
“I like that plan, Elliott,” approved Pest.
“Here we are at the border,” observed Meanie. “I guess we’d best go home. Do you want to sign a document together, about the parties and groves and shops?”
Pest shook his head. “I’m not fond of documents. I’d rather take your word, if you’ll take mine.”
“I will,” said Meanie.
They paused. The same idea struck them both. Planting their moss-green, hairy feet at the borderline, they hopped over it in unison, village to grove, grove to village, three times each way.
© Suzanne Werkema