Somehow an endless stream of calm runs through Balthandar. He is ever steady, and inserts himself into the most volatile of moments in just such a way as to cut off their escalation. In the mornings he hums to himself as he packs for the day. And when Starlark and Bolton get after each other, he tends to insert a fable or legend from his homelands.
He told one such story tonight that I had never heard before. I liked it so much that I thought I would record it in my journal. Starlark was harassing Kantoo, calling the Nantese backwards and telling him how his people could learn a lot from the Old Empire. Bolton, of course, did his best to defend Kantoo and the Nantese in general, which only exacerbated Starlark’s frustrations.
Finally Balthandar, no citizen of the Old Empire himself, piped up with a fable about Toron (a classic, recurring figure from Islander lore) that I had never heard before. The style is different than most of Balthandar’s stories, which I think speaks to its origins. It is long, and overly silly, but I think it perfectly illustrated the point he wanted to make.
Toron and the Pickle Famine
Once there was a man named Toron, a man both fat and foolish. Toron came from a land whose people ate naught but pickles. And Toron loved pickles, they were by far his favorite food. Toron moved away from his home to work in a poor village a great distance from his own, and of course he brought his own supply of pickles to last the transition.
The day came when Toron’s last pickle jar was empty. “Well then,” he said. “I shall simply buy more.” So Toron made for the shop at the center of the village. “Hello, fine sir. I will take some pickles, please. Two jars if you can.”
“I’m sorry,” the shopkeeper responded. “But we have no pickles here.”
“No pickles?” Toron was shocked. “But how can that be? What do you eat?”
“They simply are not something we know around here.”
Toron returned home, certain he would find pickles if he looked hard enough. There were none in the pantry, and none in his cupboard. There were no pickles in the stove, and there were none under even his bed.
Toron looked everywhere for more pickles until finally, after half-destroying his home in the search, he gave up.
“Whatever will I eat?” He said to himself. “Without pickles I am surely doomed to starve!”
He thought and he pondered and he wracked his thick brain. “Of course!” he said at last, after no small time had passed. “I’ll ask my neighbor! I’m sure he’ll have a pickle that could hold me over.”
He got up off the floor, where he had been sitting for some time, and made for his closest neighbor across the field. “Excuse me,” he asked through a low window. “But can you spare a pickle? The store seems to be quite out.”
“A pickle?” His neighbor looked confused. “But whatever is a pickle?”
“A pickle! Long and green and delicious to eat.” Toron shook his head in wonder at the ignorance of the man.
“Oh, food?” His neighbor said at last. “Well I have no pickles, but I do have bread and cheese if you have need.”
“Bread?” Toron asked. “Cheese? What things are these? I need food, my good man! And so must you, for surely this ‘bread’ and ‘cheese’ can be no good.”
Toron continued on from his neighbor’s, flustered at the poor man’s condition. “How can a man live without pickles? Surly he must be malnourished and sick.” But every neighbor he visited was quite the same. Some had bread, others had cheese, and even a few had nothing to share with him at all. There wasn’t a single pickle to be found in the entire village.
“Good gods, I’m going to starve!” Toron moaned when he returned to his home. “How could I move to a village where there is no food? These backwards people don’t even realize how dire their situation is!”
And then realization struck. “I have to save them!”
Toron picked himself back off the floor, where again he had settled, and made for his cart. He immediately hitched it to his neighbor’s horse, and rode off down the road. His neighbor, as might be expected, protested the theft of his only working animal, but Toron shouted back, “Don’t worry! I’ll bring your horse back. And with food!”
Toron had seen a place not far down the road where cucumbers grew. “I could fill this cart so full that it would feed the village for an entire year!”
But as he filled the cart he knew that the cucumbers were still inedible. “They must be prepared, they aren’t quite ready.”
Once the cart was full he made for a nearby winery. “Have you any fouled wine, good sir?” He asked the vinedresser.
“Vinegar?” the vinedresser responded, confused. “There should be a few barrels near the canal, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
“Thank you!” Toron shouted as he sped to the canal. He was overjoyed as he put three massive barrels into the back of the cart, tying them down over the cucumbers so as not to lose anything. “This should do the trick!” he said. “The villagers will be so excited to finally have real food!”
Toron rode back into the village, but quickly realized he had nowhere big enough to cure his new hoard of cucumbers. “Even my bath is too small,” he thought.
And then inspiration struck. “The well!” he realized. “Of course!”
As quick as he could, Toron raced to the well at the center of the village and immediately began dumping his cucumbers by the armful.
“What are you doing?” A little boy nearby asked, empty bucket in hand.
“Saving the village!” Toron responded. “Everyone is starving, but this should solve that.”
“Starving?” the little boy asked. “I just had some bread this morning.”
“Bread?” Toron was shocked. “Why, bread is no food! Pickles, boy. Pickles are what you must have to thrive!”
And with that, Toron began dumping the barrels of vinegar down the well. “Won’t that foul the water?” the little boy asked.
“Nonsense!” Toron replied. “It’ll do no such thing! Why, if nothing else it will help you grow big and strong!”
“This is how pickles are made?”
“Of course!” Toron scoffed at the boy’s ignorance. “I know it seems strange, putting such inedible things together, but in the end they come together to make delicious food.”
“And now what?” The little boy asked as the last of the barrels was emptied.
“Now we wait,” Toron said with a satisfied grin. “Soon there will be pickles enough for everyone.”
And so they waited. Toron knew that pickles took some time to cure, so he sat very patiently with the little boy as they watched the well. Toron gently turned anyone away who came for water, and explained that soon there would be food for everyone. This earned him a number of confused looks, and a couple of angry mutterings, but he knew it would all be worth it.
Soon they would praise him as a hero! Soon, there would be a feast.
“It’s been two days now,” the little boy said at last. “Surely that’s enough?”
Toron agreed. Certainly two days was enough to make a batch of pickles, no matter how large, and so he lowered his bucket down to fetch a few to try. The bucket took a while to lower, and took even longer to come back full. When it did, all it contained was murky water stinking of vinegar.
“But where are the pickles?” Toron asked, dumbfounded. “Where is the food?”
“I don’t think pickles are made like that,” the little boy shrugged. “Who makes food by dumping it down a well?” The little boy sniffed the water. “But now we have a bigger problem.”
“What could be a bigger problem than having no pickles?” Toron demanded.
“Now we don’t have any water,” the little boy said. “This is our only well.”
“Nonsense,” Toron dismissed the notion. “Pickle juice is a fine drink. We just need this filth to settle back out of it is all. As for pickles, clearly we just need more cucumbers to add to the mix!”
But no matter who Toron asked, there were no cucumbers to be found. No one wanted to help him.
“What stubborn, foolish people!” Toron said as he became exasperated. “If you want to starve, go ahead then!”
As Toron walked through the village, he saw more and more people along the road. Wagons were packed, and faces were somber. He walked back to the well where the little boy was looking down into its murky depths.
“No one is helping!” He complained to the boy. “Instead they are leaving.”
“They are,” the little boy said as he turned and sat on the well. “We must find a new home.”
“But why?” Toron demanded. “That’s no way to deal with problems! There’s no need in any case, we simply need more cucumbers.”
“We need water,” the boy said sadly as he hopped off the well. “There’s none left here.”
Toron snorted as the little boy walked past. “Why can’t you people see what’s right in front of you? I’m here to help! Just listen and follow and do as I say!”
But the little boy kept walking, and the village kept moving, and soon it was empty save for Toron and his well. “Fine,” he said as he sat on the ground with his back to his well. “I don’t need this ignorant lot. Leave it to Toron to solve this problem alone.”
Let Toron’s story serve as a warning, that in new places and strange lands your answers may not be correct, and your way of living may not be best. Even should the people be poor and desperate, even should your intentions be pure, it is best to listen and learn before you speak and act.