Stark skeletal fingers reaching up into a darkening grey sky, barren trees cast lengthening shadows all about a lone, hunched, ragged figure as he slowly trudged his way down a leaf-strewn, root-riddled trail. A grumble escaped his lips each time he caught a toe on one of those protrusions, causing him to stumble in his already slow progress. His complaints were lost in the low, mournful murmur of a wind that swirled dry leaves around tree-boughs and ankles alike, and in the brief moments between gusts, found competition with the rumblings of his empty belly.
He hadn’t eaten in days, not since he was chased from the town where he’d thought he was going to find a new life. How wrong he’d been about that. He’d show them, though. He wasn’t sure how, but he would. First, though he had to find some food, and a place to lay his head that wasn’t out of doors.
He shivered as the piecing wind chilled him to the bone. The sky darkened, the tree’s grasping fingers seeming to stretch and interlock, and the long shadows merged as night fell. An icy drop of water splattered against the tip of his nose, and then another his forehead, and his cheek, and soon he found himself in a frigid downpour that soaked his wretched frame to the bone. The ground turned to mush, and the covering of leaves slick as they soaked up the falling rain. He found his tooting to become even more treacherous, and he lost it more than once before he finally fell, arms flailing, face first into the muck.
As he pushed his arms under himself for purchase, his hands found two stone-hard cubes, one under the center of each palm. He grimaced as they rolled and bit into tender flesh, and curled up each hand to collect whatever they might be. Picking himself up, he tried, vainly to scrape the muck off the two small shapes, but was covered in so much of it himself, he merely managed to just spread it around, and perhaps to exchange on bit of filth for another.
Nonetheless, he brought them before his eyes, squinting in the darkness in an effort to make out what they were. He couldn’t see well enough to tell, but he thought he could make shallow depressions on each side of them. With an idea as to their nature, he stuffed them into the one pocket he had that didn’t have holes.
More wary this time lest he end up with another mouthful of mud, he trudged onward.
Eventually, he thought he spied a dim blue glow ahead. Certain it wasn’t his imagination, he picked up his pace, hoping against hope he’d find some charity ahead, someone who would help quell the growling of his stomach. The light slowly swelled until it encompassed him. As he approached its source, he found it in a clearing: a dingy, almost dilapidated, unpainted wooden structure, the shape and size of a farmhouse, but with no windows except for on the front face, and those only dimly lit. Above freely swinging, creaking front double-doors buzzed blue illumined words: Wonderland Bar.
“What devilry is this?” He exclaimed aloud, “Lightning captured as words upon the eaves.”
Never before had he seen such a thing, nor heard something hiss so, that wasn’t cat or snake. But, unlike most the louts from that previous town, he could read, and bar meant, perhaps, a bit to eat, if he could but appeal to the sense of compassion of those within.
Out of habit, he thrust his hands into his pockets, seeking coins, only to find nothing but holes in one and the two hard cubes in the other. Reminded of their presence, he withdrew them again for examination, holding them up in his palm to let the rain wash away their concealing grime. Slowly, a muddy pool formed around them in his cupped hand, leaving behind white faces bearing black pips: as he had suspected, they were dice. This gave him an idea – perhaps he didn’t need to rely upon charity to feed himself. Perhaps instead, he might wager against the dice, and earn some coin by that means. He grinned, and looked at his ragged clothes, frowning only momentarily. He might look the pauper, but at least the shower had washed clean his clothes as it had washed clean the dice.
He pushed through the doors.
Immediately, he found himself immersed in a cloud of smoke, lit in a shade of blue far paler than the cerulean of the sign outside. Murmuring conversations wafted towards him from all directions, mingling into a soft babbling gibberish, every now and then interspersed by a sharp clack coming from a billiards table he spied off to his left. If he couldn’t make out the meanings of the various dialogues, at least their sounds were familiar, and found a proper place in these environs. Of their participants, he could not say the same. Seated around circular wooden tables, upon circular wooden stools, standing around the green felt table, or crowded into booths, almost all in groups of three, he took them all in, and boggled at what he saw. Even in the pageantry of travelling troubadours, he had never seen such a bewildering cacophony of costumes. Some had the looks of lords and ladies, all bedecked in richly coloured velvets, silks, and lace, other of peasants in more humble earth tones of wool and cotton, others in what he took to be their smallclothes, and yet others whose garb he couldn’t even begin to fathom, though it all seemed too tight and to reveal far too much of their figures. He quickly turned his eyes away from the latter.
The short, stocky, red-shirted man behind the bar, he hardly noticed. He was no immediate concern of his – at least no until he found someone to part from their money. He eyed one of the groups of nobles and considered them, then changed his mind, realizing that in his bedraggled looking state, they would hardly take him seriously. Scanning the room, he found his decision made for him as a man in a group of similarly bedraggled looking peasants smiled and waved at him, shouting above the din.
“Ho, you there, come have a seat!”
He, along with four others, was in a circular booth, and they all slid to make room for just one more.
He raised a hand in greeting, grinned, and made his way over, sliding into the empty spot on the booth bench. Introductions were made, and before he knew it, he somehow had bread, sausage, and a rich, dark brown Guinness before him. He dug in with gusto, barely giving himself the chance to note he’d never had such delectable fair in his life. They pulled him into their laughter and discourse, and he almost made to feel as though he’d been there an eternity. He almost wanted to stay with them forever. Almost. He couldn’t forget what those townsfolk had done to him. Or forgive. He still wanted his revenge.
He told his newfound companions of that travesty, sparing them no tiny details. They grumbled, sighed, shook their heads, and slapped him on his back, commiserating with him in that way that only the best of drinking companions can.
“It just ain’t right,” said one.
“Not at all, not at all,” said another.
And yet another, “Well, you know what my grandpappy always said. A great man, my grandpappy. Always, just the right words of wisdom, he had. What he said, my grandpappy, he said that the best revenge is to become successful, he did.”
I considered what this last one had said.
“You are absolutely correct, my good man!” He wholeheartedly agreed, bouncing dishes and large earthen mugs off the table as he smacked it enthusiastically. Then he raised his mug high and pointed to his empty plate, shouting “keep it coming!” over his shoulder at no one in particular. Quaffing what was left in his stein, he slammed it to the table before wiping the froth from his lips with his shirt sleeve. He grinned and produced the two ivory cubes from his pocket.
“How about we toss the bones a spell?”
At this, his booth mates all cheered heartily, clearing a space for rolling and lining some mugs together in a wall for a backstop. Though he had no coins to wager, of this no one said a word. But it soon did not matter, as he won far more often than not and a growing pile of coin built before him. Time began to blur for him, one toss rolling into another into another, win after win after win. A small crowd began to gather around their booth as their raucous cries over his improbably luck attracted other patrons from around the tavern. Some switch with the occupants of the booth, bring both some motley and some fresh coin to their group. And though no wait-staff ever seemed to part the crowd or interrupt their game, his beverage and food constantly refilled, fresh and plentiful, feeding his never-ending appetite.
But as the night wore on, and his winnings piled higher, he felt the pub to grow stuffy, becoming increasingly more crampt and giving him the feeling of being walled in. His companions seemed to shrink in stature – he more and more felt a giant amongst them. Eventually, he could take the claustrophobic feeling no more, and stuffed his pockets with coin before putting the dice away.
Great groans and moans of disappointment surrounded him as the crowd cried for more and those still in the game begged a chance to win back their losses.
“Alas, ‘tis time for me to be off, my friends,” he said as he rose from his seat, stuffing a sausage into a roll as he stood. He made his way to the door, food in hand, and found he had to stoop to pass under its frame. This perplexed him, as he didn’t remember the doorway being so small on his way into the establishment. He shrugged and chalked it up to the blurring of the senses that so often comes with the consumption of so much drink as he’d had. His stomach rumbled, reminding him of the wurst he had in hand. Taking a bite, he strode away, heading in the direction of what he hoped was a new town, and a new beginning. He didn’t pause to contemplate how the rain had stopped and the sky cleared to reveal a moonless star-lit night.
He was only on foot for some few hours before the forest thinned, yielding slowly to pastureland, and houses began to dot the countryside at either hand, the signs of a coming town. They were good to see, too, as his belly felt hollow and he’d long since devoured the last crumbs of his sausage and roll. The buildings approached the road and gathered closer together, and soon he found himself striding down a broad cobblestone lane with two and three story buildings kissing each other on either side to form an urban crevasse. He was too preoccupied to notice there was not a single doorframe in sight through which he’d not have to stoop to enter.
First thing’s first, he thought to himself, he must obtain new clothing and rid himself of his current rags. Finding a tailor, he shoved through the low door without hesitation and thrust a handful of silver and gold coins into the small man’s hands. Gaping first at his customer’s rags, and then at the coins in his hands, he took in this new client’s dimensions. The big man’s size did nothing to help the tailor close his open mouth. Nonetheless, for that amount of money, he could close shop for months if he so chose. And so he set to, and it was only an hour or so later that the formerly ragged man left his shop, this time bedecked in deep blue brocade pants with matching silk shirt and silver-buttoned brocade coat, with copious amounts of silver lace peeking out at collar and cuffs.
It didn’t take him long after that to find the next thing he sought – another tavern, this one with an outdoor area of several tables inside a square of bevined white cross-thatched fences and trellises. He chose a long table already occupied by a few patrons, and, after some smiling introductions and handshakes, took his seat amongst them. They were all rather richly garbed, just as he, which is precisely why he chose that particular group. Soon he had hearty food and stout drink before him, and he guided their conversation in a direction more boisterous, and thereby more predisposed to his plans. After a spell, the dice came out and coins began to flow his way.
Just as at the Wonderland Bar, his food and drink never emptied, and his winnings never ceased. He lost only just enough to avoid suspicion of weighted dice, though that was by no means his design. And just as at that previous pub, a plethora of people soon crowded about to witness the spectacle of his astonishing fortune, and some to try their hands at seizing it for themselves. But his luck held, and his shining hoard grew, and he grew. Oh, there was no doubt of it this time. With each victorious roll of the dice, with each scoop of new-won coins to his pile, he grew in size, bit by bit. At first, he thought it was just his imagination, that perhaps this was just a town populated by shorter people, but by the time these same folk who had at first at least come as high as his shoulder, only reached to the bottom of his ribs, and his swelling girth began to crowd the person next to him so that one fewer could sit with them all, there was no denying the fact that he was somehow growing fast as baked bread rises.
The game ended when he had swelled to such proportions that the legs of the bench beneath him gave out, dropping him to the floor, and, in so doing, turned the bench into a seesaw that flung the people on the other end up into the air. Laughing at this turn of events, he cried:
“Well, I suppose that does call an end to our gaiety for the evening!”
Rising to his feet, he again stuffed his pockets full of wealth, stuffed this time three wursts into three rolls, and happily left the ruined bench and disappointed crowd behind him, though three did follow on his coattails with offers of service and queries of where he might be staying the night.
He gladly accepted their service, quite enjoying this turn of events from outcast to man of stature, and he probed to discover whether any properties in town were up for sale – he’d certainly made more than enough in this evening’s winnings to acquire a rather handsome parcel. Indeed there was, they all scrambled to inform him one above the other, and one suiting his means, and size, to boot – a veritable palace on the other side of town, with plenty of land to build. And indeed he did have more than enough to purchase this property, so he discovered when once he tracked down the seller. Far more than he needed. Enough so he was able to buy a local mill and the tavern at which he’d made his small fortune, as well.
And indeed it was quite a palace, taller than any other building in town, with numerous rooms whose vaulted ceilings more than accommodated his incredible new-found height. And doorways he could enter without ever needing to stoop. To say its grounds were palatial would not only be redundant, but a near understatement, as they covered an area almost the size of the town itself. Many beautiful gardens filled the grounds, some with ponds or fountains, a hedge maze or two, and even a small lake filled with a dazzling variety of fish.
He moved in that very evening, sleeping in the grandest, plushest, most heavenly bed in which he’d ever slept, but not before setting his servants to work preparing the biggest meal he’d ever eaten. And eat he did, enough to feed three families – tender roast boar and succulent grouse dripping in a plum sauce and garnished with carrots and peas and sided by gravy drenched potatoes followed by three kinds of fruit-laden pie. But as much as he ate, he still went to bed that evening with a growling stomach.
The mill and the tavern did quite well, bringing him more coin than he’d invested – enough so that he bought an inn. And then a foundry. And a fishery. Wealth kept pouring in, and he kept gobbling up business after business until he owned the whole town, and still he was not satisfied.
And just as the gold continued to pile up, so did he eat. His kitchen staff soon numbered in the scores, and they labored around the clock to keep up with his unquenchably voracious appetite.
And he continued to grow.
Until, in some few weeks, he outgrew his bed, and his head began to bump the high vaulted ceilings of his palace, and he had to stoop to pass beneath its oversized doors. And so he set his servants to building an even larger palace to accommodate his ever increasing bulk.
His greed for wealth went unchecked – when there were no more businesses to buy, he bought all the farms. When there were no more farms to buy, he sent representatives abroad to acquire the business and wealth of other towns.
His hunger remained insatiable – the size of his meals grew as ever did his gigantic frame. Soon, he was consuming livestock whole and stripped produce right from the trees. His staff could not feed him fast enough, and so he began to roam his lands, consuming everything in sight. He emptied his ponds and lakes and rivers of fish first. And then he stripped all the orchards bare. The vineyards were next, and then all the chicken coops, followed by all the herds of cattle and swine.
By the time he’d engorged himself on all the possible livestock he could find, and rendered barren all the fields, he towered above all the buildings of his town, even his new enormous palace. And with nothing more to eat, and hunger still gnawing at his gut, he eyed the fleeing frightened forms of the townsfolk - his servants all.
He plucked one up between finger and thumb and popped the screaming man into his mouth like no more than a piece of popcorn, chewing only a few times before swallowing. Not bad, he thought, and so he went about town scooping up as many people as he could catch, tossing them into his maw in ones, twos, threes, and fours. And when there was no one left to eat, he strode out of town, towards that other town that’d first rejected him.
And he ate the all as well.
And everyone in the next town.
And the next.
Soon there was nothing left to eat.
No game in the woods.
In a way, he’d had his revenge. He owned everything, everywhere his eye could see. And he’d consumed the very ones who’d hurt him.
But he was still hungry.
It gnawed at him, and he had nothing left to eat.
And so he sat down amidst the ruins of his town, his clothes turning to rags, and his belly’s growl competing with the thunder in the hills.