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Popcorn | Audio
By Richard Beland
Richard Beland is a Canadian author/illustrator who publishes a small press magazine called Plogg.
       The galleon returned from the New World loaded with corn, and the little country of Wolverton found a thousand and one uses for this new product: they ground it into flour and made porridge and bread; they made starch and oil and syrup; they ate it off the cob and washed it down with corn liquor; they fed their livestock with it. There were many varieties, but King Hallvard's favourite was the popping corn, which he ate voraciously with salt.
       He was a grim ruler, cruel and merciless, but he took exceptional delight in the jokes and antics of the court jester, Too Nuts. As he sat upon his throne, great guffaws of laughter shook his belly and his jeweled crown kept toppling from its perch. He even allowed the gibes aimed at himself, for Too Nuts delivered them with such wit and efficacy. The rest of the assembly would wince, and wonder that the usually vindictive king didn't have the clown's head struck off.
       One day during council, while having a heated debate with his advisors, Hallvard suffered a massive heart attack. By God's good graces and the care of his personal physician, he survived. He was bed-ridden for months. The captain of the guard, Ragnar, a vicious bully, kept the people in check while the king recuperated. Finally, Hallvard was allowed to return to his throne.
       A formal assembly was held. The king sat, with the physician to his right, Ragnar to his left. Too Nuts was called for and he was brought forthwith, dragged into the room by two burly guards who threw him to the floor at the king's feet.
       "Was it something I said?" quipped the jester, picking himself up.
       "Silence!" roared Ragnar, ripping his broadsword from its scabbard.
       "Easy there, eunuch," said Too Nuts. "I'm a clown, not a sword-swallower."
       At this remark the king started to chuckle, but the physician gasped, "Your Majesty, no!"
       Ragnar, who'd always despised Too Nuts, offered to run him through. Hallvard denied him this pleasure, and delivered a brief speech -- a decree, really -- which was barely audible, as the king was in such a weakened condition. "As you know," he began, "I've been ill. It's my heart. My physician informs me that another boisterous fit of laughter would finish me. And so, I am canceling the court jester's commission. Furthermore, there will be no merrymaking in Wolverton. No joke will be told, no witticism uttered, no humorous anecdote mentioned. Anyone who laughs or even titters will be burned at the stake."
       Too Nuts broke in: "Might I suggest, Your Highness, that those found laughing raucously be burned; the gigglers should only be medium-rare."
       Hallvard started to chuckle again, and the crowd gasped in disbelief at the jester's brashness. Two guards seized the buffoon, and Ragnar, blade raised to strike, cried, "Sire, allow me to perform the world's first heart transplant!"
       "Hold," said the king. "It's quite apparent that my jester can't go a single moment without plying his craft. Therefore, we'll make sure that he loses his sense of humour. Arrest him! Tomorrow he burns!"
       "You overstuffed cow!" raged Too Nuts. "For years I debased myself for your amusement, broke bones doing pratfalls, and this is how you repay me! You swine!"
       Here, Ragnar broke the jester's nose with his sledge-like fist, and his unconscious form was carried to the dungeon. He awoke the next morning on the cold flags of his prison cell, face encrusted with dried blood. Eventually, he was attended to by the jailer, who spoke through a small grate in the metal door: "I always laughed at your jokes. It's too bad insulting Hallvard was part of your routine all these years, though. Even if you had kept your mouth shut yesterday, he still would have had you roasted alive out of spite. He can't wait to see you burn. In fact, he has a front row seat."
       "He does, does he?" replied Too Nuts, glowering. "I'll see him in Hell ere I get there."
       "How cavalier," said the jailer.
       "I believe I get one last meal?"
       "I'll have someone from the kitchen take your order," said the jailer, whereupon he left.
       Come noon, a servant brought Too Nuts his last meal, such a meal as no condemned man ever requested before -- or since, it would be fair to say. After he'd eaten the last morsel, he was led in chains to the village square and bound high to a large stake. A great amount of sticks and branches were piled beneath him as the townsfolk gathered round to watch. Several of the king's guard stepped forward with torches and set the tinder ablaze.
       King Hallvard stood before the mounting conflagration and spoke to his former jester: "So silent, Too Nuts? You disappoint me. I expected to hear a barrage of one-liners even as your fat dripped into the fire. I thought you would die laughing."
       By this time the jester was engulfed in roaring flames, but he just stared at the king and took his punishment silently for long, agonizing moments as the fire consumed him. Finally, he threw back his head and let out his only cry. It was cut short by a choking gurgle, and then popcorn shot up through his gullet and spilled from his mouth in fantastic amounts. For his last meal, he'd swallowed a whole sack of popping corn! The king couldn't help but laugh, and he laughed so heartily he was rolling in the dirt. In fact, Hallvard laughed himself to death!
       Was that a grin on the jester's melting face as the last kernels exploded from his mouth?
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