Gruelling Times and Three Other Tales

Gruelling Times

Once upon a time, there was a town that was as round as a doughnut, in the middle of which lived a Baker. The town was surrounded by a high and thick wall, at either end of which was a gate – one for coming in and one for going out. The gates were joined together by the main street, which sliced through the town. It was along this street that the Baker, a big and strong man such as do not grow on wheaten bread alone, had his shop.

One morning, just after the bakery had opened, the town’s physician, a real medical doctor, entered.

“Good morning, Baker! I am sorry to raise you so early,” the Doctor said upon entering.

“Good morning, Doctor! Don’t worry, I was only loafing around,” the Baker said. “Would you like something?”

“No thank you, Baker,” said the Doctor, who was a soft-spoken and careful man.

“Oh, so you have not yet had time to have your gruel for breakfast,” the Baker said.

“No, I haven’t,” the Doctor replied, “but many others have.”

“I am sure they have. Gruel made from my flour is well known throughout the land,” the Baker boasted. “One day it will be famous!”

“It already is, or infamous at least,” the Doctor said. “Certain strange cases have arisen and that is why I have come to see you. Would you please follow me?”

Although the Doctor’s words were once again as cryptic as his handwriting, the Baker decided to follow him, in case anyone saw the Doctor leaving his bakery and thought he had been there on health-related business. Then who would buy his products? So the Doctor led the way and the Baker followed, until they reached a certain house. A terrible shouting and moaning could be heard from inside, and a large group of well-meaning citizens had gathered around the house, as always in cases of accident or misfortune. The Doctor, however, stepped right in, and the Baker followed.

“Ah, here is the scoundrel!” cried out the lady of the house, threateningly pointing an oven peel at him. “Just look at my husband! Have you ever seen such a stomach on him?”

The Baker did recall the man of the house having had a rather large belly before, and it did not seem to have diminished but, rather, grown – which seemed all the more natural to the Baker. But the lady’s demeanour was so intimidating that the Baker had to agree, despite his bewilderment.

“I have never seen such a stomach on your husband,” he said.

“So you admit your guilt!” the lady screamed. “The culprit has confessed! He is a real flour weevil, he is!”

“Now look here, that’s a bit thick! I am branded guilty even though I don’t even understand what you are talking about,” the Baker said.

“How dare you mock me! My husband’s unnatural roundness is due to your gruel! Ask the Doctor if you don’t believe me! It is, isn’t it, Doctor?”

The Doctor was a serious man who did not like to be rushed, so he felt it necessary to explain everything.

“This morning the esteemed lady of the house prepared her husband some gruel from flour she had purchased from our town’s Baker. Having eaten his plateful, her husband gestured his satisfaction, as usual, until suddenly his paunch began to expand until it became the globule we see before us – and hear,” the Doctor added, as the man had not stopped moaning for a moment.

The Baker started to feel a bit anxious about the possibility of his guilt, so he decided to carry out his own investigations. This is why he asked the woman: “Madam, what did your husband add to his gruel?”

“Honey,” she replied.

“Well, as you know, sweets will make you fat, so perhaps that’s what it is,” the Baker said.

“He only had one spoonful of honey,” the lady of the house fumed, “so that cannot be the reason! And anyway, what should he have flavoured his gruel with, black pepper?”

“If I may interject,” the Doctor said, “I have met other similar cases this morning, and each of them added something different to the gruel, so the ill effects do seem to be caused by your flour, sir.”

This was a rather embarrassing situation for the Baker, but he forced himself to sound as cool as a cucumber sandwich when he said: “You’ll hear from me yet!” And then he left.

That day, no customers came into the bakery, as the Doctor’s words were passed on word for word from ear to ear, and those who hadn’t heard were told at the latest by the time they reached the Baker’s door. All the freshly made, warm breads and cakes went uneaten and cold. “Tomorrow they will be yesterday’s bread,” the Baker sighed.

The next day, the Baker baked another full batch of products, but there were no buyers in sight. A single customer came in during the day, but she only seemed to want to touch and feel all the products and left immediately when the Baker offered her a cinnamon bun on the house.

The day after that, the Baker baked once more but as no one had bought anything for two days he had three days’ stocks on his hands and some of it had gone stale.

Suddenly seven town councilmen, all elected fair and square by democratic election – although one or two of them may have inherited their posts – entered in single file: first three gentlemen wearing top hats, then three in felt hats and finally a hatless one, who held the door open for the others. They announced that they had come to conduct a health check and got briskly down to the task. They munched away.

“Not bad,” said the first top hat.

“Not bad at all,” said the second.

“No, not at all bad,” said the third.

“Nothing to complain about here,” commented the first felt hat.

“Quite satisfactory,” said the second.

“Rather edible,” said the third.

The hatless man said nothing, but conducted his duties with even more vigour than the others.

When they had gone through all of the Baker’s products, the councilmen said in unison: “We shall not touch the gruel, we have a doctor’s warning about that!”

Having said this, the councilmen exited the bakery in single file: first the top hats, then the felt hats and finally the hatless man, who closed the door behind them.

And so the Baker’s products, with the exception of the gruel, had been declared fit for consumption, but despite this no one else entered his bakery. The Baker was forced to eat his own breads and cakes for comfort. Finally he had to close up shop. On the town, people pointed their fingers at him, and those who had swollen-bellied gruel-eaters in their families glared at him with particular malevolence. Some threw clumps of dough at the Baker, shouting: “Our gruel is smoother than yours!”

Then came the war. A general sent word that the town must surrender or be attacked. The townspeople decided to fight back and locked all the gates. In response, the General ordered his troops to surround the town all around and began to prepare for the attack. They set up camp and soldiers trudged around in diverse formations. Pennants streamed in the air and a marching band played cheerful marches. Trumpety trump! Trumpety trump! They blew their own horns.

Despite his short stature, the General was a great military commander. Having always beaten his adversaries, he had a terrible reputation. What was one small town compared to him?

“Nothing,” said the General. “My cannons will bash down those walls, but we’ll leave the gates standing so that they will be forced to open them for us!”

Soon the cannons were booming. First their aim was rather poor, and cannonballs were plopping down all over the place – even within the town, where those with swollen bellies laughed ruefully. No harm was done, they thought, by having such things on the ground; after all, they had to carry them around in their stomachs! But after a while, the cannons had been aligned so that soon there were no parts of the wall that had not been hit. And, although the wall was soundly built, so it came to be that  it could not hold up forever. First it creaked a little as the cannonballs made their impact; then it groaned, and finally great thunderclaps were heard as small crevices turned into large cracks, which threatened to become huge openings.

It was at this point that the Baker had an idea. He began to boil some gruel. Having cooked up a large cauldron of it, he carried it over to the nearest fissure in the wall. A townsman saw him.

“Look at the Baker, he has been making his disgusting gunge again! As if there weren’t more important things to do right now!”

A group of citizens got their hands on the Baker and were giving him a good hiding until one suddenly noticed what he had done with the gruel.

“One moment, fellow citizens! There was a large crack in the wall just there, but now I can no longer see it.”

The man who had first taken hold of the Baker lunged at him again. “Tell us immediately what you have done with the crack!” he howled.

“I will be very happy to,” said the Baker, calmly. “I filled it with my gruel. In fact, I planned to do the same to all the cracks in the wall.”

The men poked and prodded at what had been the crack and found that it was just as hard as the original wall – if not harder. At that moment the Baker became a hero and the townspeople’s courage grew in line with the amazement of the enemy, as the fissures and cracks in the wall disappeared one by one. Suddenly there was demand for all of the Baker’s products, although his gruel was the most popular.

This could have gone on for years, nay, centuries, but according to the unassailable truths of war, before long something had to run out – either the cannonballs or the flour. Due to the besiegement of the town the Baker was unable to obtain more flour and therefore he could only cook so much gruel. It followed that one day a crack was blasted into the town wall that could not be repaired. On that day, the town surrendered.

“What a sorry lot,” the General said derisively to the citizens, as they were lined up by the soldiers. “That’s what happens when you make war. My cannons were made of stronger stuff than your sorry wall!”

Before stalking off, he said: “I will decide on your fates later. For now, I order the town’s useful tradesmen to make themselves known. The tailors and seamstresses are to sew uniforms for my soldiers, while the shoemaker will fix their boots! The baker is to attend to my orders for the feast to be held for my men this evening!”

The Baker had no choice but to report for duty. He would have to get to work, while the General would provide the ingredients and materials. “But all this is for tonight. My men must eat during the day, too. Something must be made for them at once!”

The Baker’s face lit up.

“How about some gruel, sir?”

The Baker found a large pot and cooked up such a large batch of gruel that there was as much there as anyone could eat. And those soldiers could eat, every man right up to the General. Soon after the meal, however, a terrible shouting and moaning began to be heard in the camp, as the men’s bellies began to swell up. They swelled into big balloons, so that all the townspeople had to do was to roll the entire battalion, including the General, into the river, whose the current swept them away out of sight.

Some time after this fortunate end to the war, the town had been rebuilt and the wall had been repaired, even stronger than before. It was peacetime. The people spent their days happily, and that included the Baker. His bakery was located in its old spot along the main road, and outside hung a golden ladle donated by the grateful citizens. The sign by it said: “Here lives the town’s Master Baker and Master Builder.”

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