“Nothing in this world is harder than speaking the truth, nothing easier than flattery.”
~ Fyodor Dostoevsky ~
“Crime and Punishment”. (Part VI, Chapter 4, p. 471), 1866.
Once there was a cobbler named Tom. He lived in a small cottage in a little garden on the end of a large city known for the beautiful fruits and vegetables sold in its marketplace. The market was overseen by the mayor of the city, who took care to ensure that only the very best produce was allowed in. He worked closely with any farmers who wanted to gain admittance and, if their products weren’t good enough, he would help them improve. The market’s offerings grew and the people would travel from miles around for the incredible foods that could be bought there.
Tom left his home every weekday promptly at 7:45 and traveled to the market. Upon arrival, he would take a deep breath, smile broadly at the guard standing at sharp attention, do his shopping for the day, and then return to get to work mending shoes. His course rarely changed: sun or rain, sleet or snow. Nothing seemed to dampen his spirits, and his trip to the market was the highlight of his day.
One gray morning Tom looked out the window at 7:40 to see an icy rain pouring down. For a moment, he considered staying home, but the idea of missing his trip to the market was too daunting. He plunged into the slick, cobblestone streets, only to return with not only his supper, but with a roaring case of lung fever. Though his sister came from the next town to nurse him, it was a full three months before he was really better.
While Tom was ill, his sister would go to the market for him. He made her promise to stop and smell the air for him and to smile at the guard as she passed. For the first two weeks everything seemed right. Then, Jane brought Tom some disturbing news: the mayor had been called away and no one knew when he would be back. Not to worry, though: he had left a manual of very detailed instructions to follow until he returned. Already, hundreds of copies had been printed and they were being given away for free. Knowing that Tom loved the market the way he did, she had picked one up for him to read while he was recovering. When he was fully mended, she took her leave of him. It was about 7:45 on a fine Tuesday morning when they waved goodbye and Tom happily set his face toward the market.
As Tom approached the guard, he stopped. He wanted to savor his next breath more than usual. He closed his eyes and filled his lungs. So many of the familiar smells were there . . . and yet he noticed something new. It was slight . . . just a whiff of something rancid, but then it was gone. Tom opened his eyes and turned to the guard, but the guard didn’t smile back. He was asleep in a chair, his half-laced, muddy boots propped up on a broken barrel.
Once inside, Tom was heartened to see so many of the familiar stalls with their juicy, scrumptious wares, just as they were before. He began his customary rounds — the lettuce, the tomatoes, the apples, the milk, the beef, and the fish all looked lovely — but he could not avoid catching that foul smell now and again. As he turned a corner in search of beets, he saw it.
In the middle of the market there was a stall that sold pears. Unlike the other merchants, about half of this man’s wares were rotten. Flies had begun to gather. A piece on the end had gone completely black, and was oozing slime onto the ground. Tom, with the Mayor’s Manual fresh in his mind, recognized it immediately. He walked over to the stall. The shopkeeper grimaced at him, speaking first.
“Welcome, good sir! Welcome to Harblot’s and Finch’s, purveyors of fine fruits and vegetables!” the man said with the haughty accent of a merchant from the next town.
“Oh, but surely you’re Mr. Stoneman!” Tom began, looking at the man curiously, “I’ve bought your pears many times. You seem to have a nasty case of Stump Blight here. If you don’t mind me saying, the Manual says that the only way to be rid of it is to . . .”
“Shhhh! I’m ‘arry ‘arblot now,” Stoneman interrupted, dropping his voice (and his refined tone in favor of a rough working man’s) “An’ I’ll tell yew the truff — following that manual is every bit as ‘ard as it sounds. Yew ‘ave to dig out even the fingerling roots, and if you don’t use fresh enough fish, the blight just comes right back. You’re crazy if you fhink I’m gonna do it now ‘at de mayor inna looking. I decided ta rebrand meself an’ fhis ‘ere blight inna summat wurf seein!” He stood up straight, his silly accent taking over again. “But if you’ll but taste one of these delightful delicacies, I’m sure you’ll find our fancy fermentation fixes have resulted in a unique but mellow flavor.”
Tom looked from Stoneman to the moldy fruit and back. “I’m sorry, but your fruit isn’t fixed; it’s broken. May I show you in the Manual where . . .” Stoneman stepped back and held up his hand, a look of annoyance on his face.
“This stall caters to paying customers who have the refined palate to appreciate only the best! If you aren’t one of those, I must ask you to move aside and make way for your betters!” Tom raised his eyebrow, and quietly went on his way.
As the days passed, Tom’s trips to the market slowly transformed from a pleasure, to a chore, to a pain, and finally to a terror. Soon the rotten smell wasn’t a whiff, it was a stink. After a stink, it was a stench. Finally, it was a malodor. At first, it was only Stoneman’s stall that seemed to be causing the smell, but over time, Tom noticed other stalls going the way of Stoneman’s. The lettuce became brown and slimy; the tomatoes grew sloppy and worm-eaten. The milk was curdled, and the beef and fish were more maggots than meat.
Tom was bumfuzzled by the changes until he happened across a book lying on the side of the apple stall: Harblot and Finch’s New Wave Cultivation of Culinary Masterpieces: from Soil to Supper. Other manuals with similar titles began to appear, such as: Making the Most of Maggoty Meat: a Revolution in Taste and Appreciation by Englebert Thumperdink or Six Slimy Sloppy Salads for Supper: Rescuing Your Palate from the Threat of Crisp Lettuce. A reading club was formed at a local coffee house where participants could trade in their “outdated” copies of the mayor’s manual for a complete ten-volume set of the Harblot and Finch Expert Garden series.
It pained Tom to see such beautiful people who had produced such good things abandon it all, especially when they had all the answers they needed already. He tried a dozen different ways to broach the subject with the shopkeepers, but to no avail. Unless someone was telling them how beautiful and tasty their fruit had become in its rot and how brilliant their new way of thinking was, they would have none of it. Tom soon found himself banned from about a third of the stalls in the market.
It was after being banished from yet again that Tom met Mary. What caught his eye — other than her crestfallen expression — was the fact that she was carrying a copy of the mayor’s manual. She was about Tom’s age, a plain woman, but with an honest face surrounded by unruly locks of black hair. Her dark eyes were watery with welling tears.
“Excuse me,” Tom began, “Are you alright?” Mary started, startled that Tom would speak to her.
“Why, yes, thank you, I’ll be fine,” she said, standing up straight but avoiding his gaze until her eyes dried. “I was just banned from Mr. Cubit’s shop for asking him why his fruit has gone rotten too. I did so love his sprouts.” Tom opened his bag and took out a handful.
“Well, I did find a good few over at Mr. Jenson’s table on the far side of the market,” he said. Mary’s eyes opened in appreciation of the gloriously green vegetables. “If you . . . aren’t busy perhaps you could join me for a bite?”
Over lunch Tom and Mary talked about gardening and the beautiful things they used to find in the market. Tom told her some of his ideas of what he could do with his garden. Afterward, Mary joined Tom for lunch every day for the next week, and soon they had the whole thing plotted out.
Tom and Mary became a matched pair. Mary took her meager possessions and moved in with a widow across the street. Every morning at 7:45, Tom would meet Mary and they would walk down to the market where they would spend an hour being banned from places, and then they would come back to Tom’s Cobbler Shop where Mary would help Tom make shoes. In the afternoons they would work in the garden. They had some what might be called “passionate discussions” — neither one of them could comprehend the mayor’s mind perfectly and so they would have it out now and again until they got things sorted — but they always worked them out and between the two of them the garden came along splendidly. Things got simpler by the end of the summer. As they watered the lettuce, Tom dropped to a muddy knee and asked Mary to be his wife. Mary agreed, and they were married that Sunday. The happy couple now walked hand-in-hand to the market every morning.
Things were not going as well for the city. By now, all but one or two stalls were selling Harblot and Finch style vegetables. Those that had something worth looking at only vaguely followed the mayor’s instructions (when convenient), and so their produce only looked good by comparison to the rest. Flies swarmed in clouds from stall to stall (Mary believed she had even seen a customer or two carried off by them near where the old rutabaga stand had been.) The once-intricate stonework was cracked and broken, patched here and there with rough, discolored cement. The stench was almost overpowering. It had gotten so bad that the guard couldn’t sleep properly at his post and so he decided to guard the market from the pub on the other side of town.
Worse, though, were the people. With no good food to eat, everyone had become pale and sickly. Children rarely felt well enough to play outside and the adults spent more time in bed than at work. The streets gradually filled up with trash and a grease covered everything.
One cool afternoon in the fall, as they worked in their garden, Mary noticed a small eye pressed hard against a crack in the fence, watching one of the golden apples on the tree behind her. She set down her tools and, brushing off her hands, she picked the juiciest of the fruit. Walking over to the fence, she reached over. She felt the small hands eagerly grasp her offering and heard the crunching sounds that showed how much it was appreciated.
“That’s the fifth one this week,” Tom said, coming around the corner, a basket laden with squash in his hands.
“I know,” Mary replied. “Tom, I’ve been thinking. Maybe we should open a stall of our own at the market. Goodness knows people need our food. As we don’t know when the mayor will be returning, we should do what we can.”
“Yes,” said her husband. “I was thinking the same myself. We’ve a good harvest now too. I think the mayor would approve.”
And so, the next morning, at 5:45, Tom and Mary loaded a small cart with their vegetables and fruit. They cleaned off a vacant table (scrubbing it so hard they removed the top layer of wood) and set out their produce.
Tom had been a little concerned that they might not get any business — the city papers were always promoting the Harblot and Finch method and praising its results — but soon enough they had a steady stream of customers. More than one of them remarked, “So that’s what it’s supposed to look like!”
After the first day or two, Tom and Mary were so busy they hardly had time to stop and talk with anyone. But that was fine, as the exhausted and sickly people had little to say. By week’s end, small changes became apparent in the people: gazes a little brighter, backs a little straighter, steps with more spring in them. Their customers began to ask where they were getting such beautiful fare. Tom and Mary would smile, invite them to visit their gardens, and promise them if they did, the couple would be glad to show them how it was done.
They had been at their new trade for scarcely three weeks when, upon arriving at the market as usual, they found several soldiers slouching around. The men rose when they saw who was coming and barred the way with rusty spears.
“It is my doodee to inform yoo,” said their leader, “that the Commission for de Maintenance and Betterment of the People’s Market (de Honorable Mr. Finch, presiding) has determined that yoo fit de descriptin’ of Troublers of de Peace. As such, yoo are banned fortwif from entering de Market in parpet….perpetty…perpetuity,” he managed to finish. “I mus’ ask yoo too take your goods and return to your place of reseedence.” Tom and Mary looked at each other in alarm.
“Troublers of the Peace?” Tom asked, surprised. “How are we troubling the peace?”
“Ah. Well,” the man stammered, “It is . . . ah . . . yoo see . . .”
“What this fine gentleman is trying to say,” came a cultured voice from inside the nearby guard shack, “is that by introducing such insensitively grown produce to our market, you have encouraged the people to make the most inappropriate comparisons to the wares of the other merchants.” To Tom and Mary’s surprise, Mr. Finch himself stepped from inside. Unlike his partner, the merchant previously-known-as-Stoneman, Finch was a short man, but, as he walked on absurdly tall platform shoes, he could almost look them in the eye. It took a moment, but Tom recognized him as Theonomous Byrd, whose own vegetable stand had backed against Harblot’s in the days before the Mayor left. His face, once thin and well-formed, had grown round and flabby from indulging in a new-wave diet, but his dark, piercing eyes still looked out at them from under his fine but frumpy hat. He was covered in cascades of shiny fabric and gold trim so overwhelming that it was impossible to tell if his body had gained weight to match his now piggy face, and he used a pair of short bejeweled canes to steady himself. His platforms were less than well adapted to the cobblestones, and so as he came on, he would periodically stagger about like a drunken spider trying to regain its balance, canes flailing and clacking. He regained his composure between breaths. It took several of these stops before he reached them and could begin speaking again.
“We have taken great strides in ensuring that our market is a healthy place where all merchants can come and share their goods without fear of criticism. Therefore, the hateful imposition of your harvest on the innocent sensibilities of the people will not be tolerated.”
“But, sir,” Mary said, “We’ve forced no one to buy anything from us. We haven’t prevented anyone from going to another stall. Our prices are very reasonable. What could . . .” Finch made a sniffing noise to interrupt her.
“But, madam, you believe that there is a right way and a wrong way to garden, do you not?” He virtually spat his last three words at them.
“Well, yes . . .”
“And you believe that fruits and vegetables grown your way are better for a person than what is produced through the application of the other methods favored by the market, correct?”
“I do, yes.”
“Aaaand,” he continued, his voice rising shrilly in triumph as he somehow managed to stand on tiptoe in his boots, “you do, in fact, believe that the food offered at the other stalls is what you call ‘rotten’?”
“It is! Just look at it!”
“Then we have no need for this conversation to continue! If I could, I would not only expel you from the market but from the city! We have no need of your judgmental attitudes here! I will not wish you a good day. Be gone!” He turned on his heels and stalked away, canes clacking and his ankles wobbling dangerously as his platforms negotiated the road. Tom and Mary had no choice but to turn around and make their way slowly home.
That afternoon, while Tom was tapping away on a pair of boots and Mary was lacing in silence, there came a knocking on the door. Mary opened it, to find a young woman.
“Excuse me,” the lady said, “but I looked for you at the market today. My name is Anna. You said if I came by you would show me your garden. Could I see it?” Mary smiled and let her in.
Over the next few months, the number of people coming and going from Tom and Mary’s home grew noticeably. They set up a table in the front room where they sold their produce and, thrice a week at 7:45 sharp, they devoted the hours they would have spent in the market to teaching their new friends how to garden according to the mayor’s manual. At the end of the year, they nearly burst with pride when Anna brought in her first basket of squash and onions. Soon, others began to show off their harvests too, and the group planned a dinner to celebrate.
On the morning of the feast, Tom had risen early and begun to tidy up when there came a loud bang on their door. He opened it to see the guard from the market standing there. The guard shoved a piece of paper roughly into Tom’s chest and flumped away, yawning. Tom unrolled the scroll and read the following:
By order of the Most High, Honorable, Legitimate, Unquestioned, Unchallenged, and Incomparable Lord Protector of the City, Dr. Mr. Harblot, BS, MA, PhD, EdD, APA, MLA, HgH, LUO, ACA, LOL, BTW, IDK, etc. etc.
To Tom and Mary: A thorough and unbiased and infallible investigation of the facts has revealed that you have continued to trouble the peace of this happy city by your incessant and inappropriate growing of vegetables and fruits that have been deemed hateful by the consensus opinion of the Committee of Those Who Actually Matter. As a just consequence, you have been selected for Internalized Exilization effective immediately. Please do not attempt to interfere with the lawful and not in any way inappropriate or biased enforcement of this edict.
Wishing you and yours a most unpleasant captivity,
The Most Right Reverend Undersecretary of Offense, Defense, and Anything in Between, Mr. Finch.
Tom looked up as he finished reading, just in time to see a large wagon come creaking to a stop in the street in front of him, laden with stones. A team of masons quickly unloaded a large block onto the sidewalk. Soon the second block had joined it and the two were bonded with mortar.
“Mary!” he called inside as he closed the door behind him, “We’ve had a letter!”
All that day workers swarmed through the street, which had been gated off at both ends to ensure the steady flow of building supplies. When Tom and Mary stepped out onto the sidewalk at 7:45 the next day, they found they couldn’t go very far. The wall stood all of six inches off their stoop. It towered over their little home just high enough that, even if they had climbed onto the roof, they could not see over it. They hugged each other and decided to go look at their garden. They found that much of it had been trampled underfoot by workmen. They set about salvaging as much of it as they could, cleaning out the broken debris and propping up the bruised stems. Soon they had set most of it to rights, but they were sad that they could no longer share it with their friends.
Over the next few weeks, life settled into a kind of routine. Each morning Tom and Mary would open their front door and wait next to a large iron flap in the wall. At some point — the authorities were never punctual, which annoyed Tom — the flap would screech open and a load of rotten fruits and vegetables, all grown using the Harblot and Finch method, would be shoved through to land soggily into a basket. Of course, they never gave a thought to eating this “ration.” They would take the basket into the back and, using rainwater collected in barrels, they would clean out all of the “advanced fermentation agent” to get to the remnants of real food beneath. The rescued mush would then be tossed into their compost pile and turned well.
Later, when Mary was working in the garden, weeding with the only fork they had (broken though it was), she was startled by a small sound — a little crumbling followed by a scraping. She turned to see the mortar tumbling away from around a block in the wall about a foot off the ground. As she looked on, the block began to wiggle and then it slid back, falling outside with a thud. She stepped carefully over the cabbage bed and knelt down to peer through. A pair of shining, hungry brown eyes met hers — a young boy with a dirty thin face was staring at her hopefully through the hole. He grinned and waved at her. Mary leaned back and tore up one of the cabbages. The hole was just big enough to pass it through. Tears of happiness welled up in the boy’s eyes and he pulled it to him, dusty with mortar, and took a famished bite straight out of it. He waved again, plugged the hole in the wall from his side, and Mary heard his footsteps running off.
The next day, as Mary was struggling with the garden fork near the potato bed, she heard the scraping sound again. Before she could get to the opening, something had been pushed through, falling among the cabbages. It was a well-used but serviceable garden fork — sturdy with a strong handle. She knelt down and looked through the hole. This time, she saw not only the boy but a man’s weathered face looking back at her. He put a finger to his lips and she mouthed “Thank you” before the block slid back in place. Soon the traffic passing back and forth through the small opening was notable, and the most pressing question became how to fit such large fruits and vegetables through such a small hole.
Things continued this way for some time. Then Tom awoke one morning to find a package wrapped in brown paper had been deposited in the garden. Opening it, he found several empty books, a large bottle of ink, and writing quills. That afternoon, with no cobbling or lacing to do, they began copying out the mayor’s manual. One evening several weeks later, they tied the parcel up in the original paper, and set it back inside the wall. The next morning, it was gone and a new stack of blank books had taken its place.
As more manuals and fresh food were sent through the hole, Tom and Mary began to notice a wonderful change. After the wall had gone up, the stench of the city wafting around them had become increasingly oppressive. Some days, the smog hung low over their home, making it seem like a glowing ceiling had been dropped down onto their garden. Gradually, now, the smoke dissipated and the air cleared. That spring, they found they could smell their own apple blossoms.
Mr. Harblot and Mr. Finch must have suspected something because just when Tom and Mary were feeling hopeful again, workmen suddenly appeared on the walls. At first it appeared the wall was going to be raised, but that wasn’t quite right. Instead, the workers were adding guard booths. Soon, twelve men were looking down on the little house and garden in shifts, each one armed with stones to throw down the moment he saw either Tom or Mary reach for a spade. This obviously complicated things. The couple soon learned they could only work in the garden in absolute silence in the dead of night, when they could be reasonably sure the guards were sleeping. The trade through the hole was only possible in the deepest dark of the new moon. Even then it was risky, but both sides of the wall continued to take the chance.
For a long time, life slowed down considerably. Tom took to walking around the edges of the wall after collecting their “food” for the day. Most of the guards paid no particular attention to him. When they did notice Tom, it usually involved pelting him with manure they had picked up in the street. (Tom just stood in the part of the garden that needed more fertilizer and considered it helpful.)
One man seemed to take a more sober view of things. He was usually posted to the far corner of the yard. He stood his watch at attention and then went home at the end of the day. He would often be left with double shifts on the weekends when his replacement failed to turn up. If that happened, he would do his duty and remain at his post, stoically watching through the night.
Almost from the beginning, Tom had noticed this man limping as he walked back and forth in his booth. It didn’t take a cobbler’s eye long to see why: his left boot was deformed at the sole, pushing a piece of leather, Tom expected, right into the man’s heel. It took Tom a week to work up the nerve to ask the man about it. Finally, one cold and rainy day, when the other guards hadn’t bothered to show up, Tom walked out to the wall and called out to him nervously.
“Hello up there!” The man said nothing. Tom tried again. “Hello!” He thought he saw the man look at him out of the corner of his eye. “I see that you have a problem there with that boot. Well, I’m a cobbler and I’d be happy to take a look at it for you.” The guard leaned out and looked Tom over for a moment or two. Then, with a little hesitation, he took off his boots and dropped them down. Tom waved up to him and went inside. An hour later, he came back to the wall and tossed up the repaired boots. Tom saw the man smile for the first time as he jumped up and down in his renewed footwear.
Soon, word got out to other guards about Tom’s cobbler skills and he and Mary had a brisk business in shoe repair once again. The guards relaxed more and the pelting became so infrequent that they could even work in the garden again unhindered (though Tom did miss the extra fertilizer).
The end came abruptly. Tom went for his usual walk, but none of the guards were in their places. As he walked around the wall, he came to the opening they had used to communicate with their friends on the outside. Thick mortar overflowed from the hole and spilled into their garden. Tom felt a lump rise in his throat, and he walked quickly back to the house.
Almost before he had finished explaining to Mary what he had found, he heard a commotion outside. They rushed to the windows, but at first saw nothing. Then, slowly, just in the far corner of the wall, something began to happen. Carpenters were hard at work building what looked like a bridge that started on one side of the wall and stretched out toward the other. Tom went back to the door and stepped outside. It wasn’t just one “bridge” it was a number of them, with intricate supports connecting them all together for added strength. As the scaffolding stretched farther and farther along, more workers came behind laying out thick, heavy sheets of canvas sail cloth. Harblot and Finch had decided to take things more seriously by entirely enclosing their home and garden, even from above.
Mary pulled Tom close. They knew this meant no sun or rain would reach the ground inside the walls. First their garden would shrivel as they had to drink the stored water themselves. Then, not long after the garden had died, they would follow it. They went back inside, worried not only for themselves, but for what this might mean for their friends on the outside.
For the next week after the roof had been completed, Tom continued his daily walks, hoping to find that something—anything—had found a way through the shell of stone and canvas surrounding them. For once, though, Harblot and Finch had done quality work. Not a pinhole of real sunlight peeped through. Tom could see shadows of guards walking along the wall silhouetted on the roof, but none of them ever answered his calls. On the third day, a massive storm rolled in. Tom could hear the rain pounding on the canvas, but not a drop of water made it through.
At the end of the month, the food and water had begun to run low. The rotten slop the city had continued to shove through the steel flap had collected into a putrid pile against the wall and was now putting off an incredible stench. As they grew weaker, Tom would lie in bed next to Mary, his raspy voice talking to her gently through parched lips. They read the mayor’s manual and talked quietly of all the new foods they wanted to grow when he returned and could teach them himself. Strangely, this helped take their minds off the gnawing hunger in their bellies. Tom began to lose track of the days, but eventually the pain in his stomach seemed to subside, though his mouth was terribly, terribly dry. Finally, a day came when Mary hadn’t woken for a very long time, though Tom could still hear her shallow, gentle breathing. Tom himself started to drift in and out of consciousness, almost without noticing.
While Tom turned in a fevered dream, loud sounds broke the absolute stillness of the house. Through his haze and pain, Tom tried to force himself awake. By the time he was fully himself, everything was quiet again. Tom blinked hard and leveraged himself up slightly, unsure if he had really heard anything or if it had merely been his imaginings. The effort to rise onto an elbow was enormous, and his head was foggy. Then he heard another sound, more distinctly this time. Someone was knocking quietly at the door. Tom gently shook Mary. She managed to open her eyes, and she too heard the strange noise. With a supreme effort, Tom sat up. He swung his legs around off the bed, trying to move his tongue across his painfully dry mouth. Mary put her hand on his shoulder, and he lifted her into a sitting position too. The knocking came again. Tom stood up, helping Mary to her feet too, and together they walked to the door. Taking the knob with his free hand, he managed to pull the latch back, and the door creaked on its hinges.
Bright clear light flooded through a gaping hole in the broken wall. Standing in front of them, outlined by the warm light pouring through the shattered remnants of the wall, was the Mayor Himself. He laughed—it was a sound that both of them would recognize anywhere and had longed to hear.
The Mayor stepped toward them and gently pressed a cup of cool, fresh water into their hands. They closed their eyes and drank deeply. He placed a strong, warm hand on their shoulders.
“Well done, My good and faithful servants,” He said.