Short Story: “The Great Cantaloupe War”


Grand Marshall E. Pluribus Unum was bored. Bored and worried. He looked out through the picture window of his home overlooking the small country of Lilia and sighed. It had been five years since peace and independence had been declared. And not much had happened since then. Nothing but prosperity it seemed. Farmers had returned to their fields and turned out abundant crops for the fifth year in a row. Merchants had shipped produce all over the known world and made themselves comfortable if not wealthy. Families celebrated the warm weather, pleasant climate and happier times with festivals and parties. The annual cantaloupe festival had just finished, with Unum’s cousin Willie Unum receiving the blue ribbon for cantaloupe tossing a distance of fifty-six feet.

But E. Pluribus Unum was the sort of leader who believed in karma. Good times were bound to be followed by bad, happiness led to sadness, and around every bright corner was a dark shadow. He sat in his red velvet covered chair and looked out the window until Alibi Avarice, his assistant, came in.

“Tell me, Alibi,” Unum asked, still staring out the window. “What is going on with our neighboring countries?”

Alibi shrugged. “We’ve only got one neighbor really. Since our independence from Melandrosia five years ago, Lilia has done all its business with just them. After all, they surround us on three sides.”

Unum frowned and fretted. “Yes, and the fourth side faces the ocean. It’s an awkward situation if we ever went to war.”

Alibi shook his head. “Since our independence, we’ve had nothing but good relations. In fact, we’re conducting more business with them now as an independent state than we did as one of their provinces.”

Unum didn’t answer for a moment, thinking. “It still makes me a bit nervous. What do our military advisors think?”

Alibi laughed, then caught himself when Unum looked at him. “What military advisor? We don’t have an army.”

“No army? What if we were invaded?”

Alibi wrinkled his forehead. “Then I suppose the farmers and merchants would form some sort of militia and defend ourselves.”

“Let’s call in our spies and see what they tell us about the conditions in Melandrosia,” Unum said.

“Spies?” Alibi echoed. When Unum looked at him, he nodded. “Uh, I suppose Farmer Blankenship lives at the border nearest to Melandrosia. He might be able to tell us what’s going on. He hasn’t gone home from the Cantaloupe Festival.”

Half an hour later, old Farmer Blankenship was standing before Grand Marshal E. Pluribus Unum.

“What are the conditions on the border, Mr. Blankenship?” Unum asked.

“What’s that?” the old man said loudly, stepping forward and cupping his hand to his ear. “You’ll have to speak up.”

“I said, what are the conditions on the border?” Unum repeated. “How are things with Melandrosia?”

“Oh, my pigs are just fine, thank you very much,” he said. “Got a blue ribbon last year and hope to get another one this year.”

Unum nodded. “That’s great. But have you seen any troop movements?”

Blankenship nodded. “Thanks for asking. Bowels are moving just fine. Had quite a whopper this morning.”

Unum tried again, speaking loudly. “Do you see any soldiers?”

Blankenship nodded again, then started walking away. “Uh, yep. Lots of them. Been seeing all kinds of things these days. Blue crows and giant pansies too. My wife Lilith tells me I’m imagining things, but they’re there, I tell you.”

Unum sat up straight, then turned and looked at Alibi.

“Hear that? He’s seen soldiers. An army. Troops are massed on our border. It’s just as I suspected all along. Sound the alarm. We need to assemble the militia.”

Alibi nodded and turned to go, then hesitated.

“Sir, since we have never done this before, perhaps you should write something up.”

Unum thought a moment, then reached to his side table for some parchment. This is what he wrote:

“Alert! Our freedom is under attack! I call for every able-bodied man to assemble himself to rappel the invaders and protect our homes.”

He signed the document and handed it to Alibi. Alibi looked at it for a long moment, frowning and scratching his head.

“Is there a problem?” E Pluribus Unum asked.

“Do you really want to say, ‘rappel the invaders’?”

Unum stared at Alibi, not sure what he was getting at. Alibi finally nodded slowly.

“I’ll make sure everyone sees it,” he said, and left.

Three hours later, a crowd began to gather in front of Unum’s house, the building unofficially designated as the capital of Lilia. Council meetings were held in Unum’s drawing room once a month where Mrs. Unum offered tea and sugar cookies to those who attended. Today many of those who arrived were apparently expecting the same kind of atmosphere, but E. Pluribus Unum wasn’t in the mood for cookies.

“Friends and fellow citizens of Lilia,” Unum began. “We face a grave peril.”

“Where’s Mrs. Unum with the cookies and tea?” Bosco Butterworth said from the front row. “She’s always at these things.”

“We’re not here to dine on cookies and tea,” Unum said.

“No,” came a voice from the back. “We’re here to rappel down our enemies!” The words brought laughter in the group. Confused, Unum looked for Alibi, but he wasn’t around. His brother Willie stood in the front row, dressed in his usual red suspenders. He stepped forward and whispered in his brother’s ear.

“I think you meant to write repel,” Willie said. “It means to push away. Rappel means to climb down something, like a rock or a cliff.”

Unum turned red, and then got angry. “I know what rappel means. I meant to write it that way.” He looked up at the crowd, still chuckling.

“Folks, this is serious business, and you’re worried about my spelling? Shame on you.” He turned and looked toward the west where the bulk of Melandrosia lay. Off in the distance, he could see the smoke of a fire on the horizon.

“Look at that,” he said. “As we speak, the armies of the enemy are burning the homes of your fellow citizens. And you sit here doing nothing!”

“Aw, that’s just Farmer Blankenship burning off his fields,” said the same man in the back row who had corrected Unum’s spelling.

“What you say?” Unum heard off to the side, and the entire crowd turned to see Farmer Blankenship hobble up to join them. A gasp went up.

“You see?” hissed E. Pluribus Unum. “While you are all here contemplating cantaloupes, the enemy is burning someone’s home. Who among you is man enough to do something about it?”

“I say we go defend our frontier!” came a voice from the front, and Unum saw that it came from Lizbeth Smeers, the solitary farmer’s wife turned widow turned merchant who now threatened to take over the entire cantaloupe market with her sharp negotiating. Unum raised his eyebrow, and he saw a gleam in her eye. She nodded to him, knowingly.

“There you go!” Unum said. “It takes a woman to show us what a man should do. Now who else is willing to come?”

A few others raised their hands, including the Taylor Twins, red-haired Jimmie Hobscopper, and all three of the Baker Brothers, freshly let out of the Lilia jail for being drunk and disorderly. Finally, Bob Hammermill, the man Unum realized had been the one to constantly raise his hand in the back row earlier, raised it yet again.

“What’ll we do for weapons?” he said. “I’ve never fought in a war before.”

The others muttered in agreement, and Unum frowned for a long moment before responding.

“You have axes, don’t you? Pitchforks? How about a hefty hammer or two?”

“Yeah, but they’ve got arrows and stuff,” Hammermill argued. “They might even have a crossbow.”

At the mention of crossbows, the others got uncomfortable, and Unum saw that they were losing confidence. He struggled for an answer. It came from his brother.

“What about all those leftover cantaloupes we have from the festival?” Willie said. “They lob quite nicely.”

“But I like cantaloupe,” one of the Taylor Twins said. “They were made to eat, not lob.”

Lizbeth Smeers chuckled. “Not all cantaloupes are created equal,” she said. “We’ll keep the good ones, but there are plenty of bad ones to share. Mushy ones will demoralize the enemy. Green ones will knock them silly.”

And so it was decided. A dozen men and one woman rushed home to get their weapons, which consisted of rakes, pitchforks, hammers, a hoe, and a mean-looking pair of scissors. When they returned, they were met by an oxcart full of cantaloupe. Some looked green, others were soft and over ripe. But there were many that looked invitingly sweet, and as the militia marched west across the hillsides, more than once a hand was whacked by Lizbeth for reaching into the cart without permission.

“Don’t eat our ammunition,” she scowled at them.

A few hours later, they arrived at the scene of the fire. And learned the horrible truth. It was true that Farmer Blankenship had not burned his fields. Instead, two young lads—the Hackleberry boys—were upset that they had not been able to attend the cantaloupe festival and had set fire to a shed for storing corn. Right now, the ground around them was black with charred timbers, fried corn cobs and a few popped kernels.

While the three Baker Brothers helped themselves to partially burned corn, Jimmie Hobscopper volunteered to escort the two boys back to town where their parents would be told what happened and the inevitable punishment would be waiting.

“Well, that puts the kibosh on our supposed invasion,” Willie said to his brother, who stood looking at the border. The end of Lilia and the beginning of the neighboring country of Melandrosia was marked by a small stream at the bottom of the valley below them. E. Pluribus Unum stood staring at the buildings that stood on the other side of the valley.

“Look at them,” E. Pluribus said, staring at the row upon row of buildings on the other side of the valley. “ ‘Civilization,’ they call it.”

“Where is everybody?” Willie said, looking at the empty buildings.

“Don’t you remember?” E. Pluribus Unum said. “Whenever we had our Festival, they went into the city for their Games.”

“Ah yes,” Willie said. He paused. “So, you’re saying there’s no one home.”

  1. Pluribus Unum hesitated, then frowned at his brother. “We’re here to rappel an invasion, not make one of our own.”

“Who said anything about an invasion?” Willie said. He turned and looked across at the buildings. “But I reckon those buildings aren’t any farther than what I’ve tossed those cantaloupes just yesterday.”

E. Pluribus Unum looked at his brother, then looked at the buildings, then back at the cantaloupes. Then he looked back at his brother.

“They did leave their windows open,” he said, a slight smile on his face. “It’s almost like they were asking for it.”

“Are you sure we’re not asking for war?” Willie said.

“Who ever heard of a war starting over a silly cantaloupe?” E. Pluribus Unum said.

The idea was taken back to the militia, who had to spend the next hour debating about it. Finally, it was agreed that sending the entire oxcart of cantaloupes over to a foreign country was too much an act of war. Instead, they would select one cantaloupe and send it. It was a symbol. And Willie, the winner of this year’s blue ribbon, would get the honor of delivering it.

Lizbeth Smeers picked out the cantaloupe to be used. She took her time and scoured the cart thoroughly before choosing the right one. It wasn’t a green one, as the militant Baker Brothers had wanted. And it wasn’t a soggy, half-rotten one, such as the Taylor Twins had suggested. Instead, Lizbeth Smeers picked out a rather large, sweet-smelling, beautiful cantaloupe that was larger than the head of any of them. She stepped down from the cart and handed it to Willie reverently.

“Lob it with care,” she said quietly. Willie nodded and took the cantaloupe, feeling its weight and texture in his hand, turning it carefully. Then he walked back to the ridge overlooking the valley where his brother stood. E. Pluribus Unum stared at the buildings. When Willie stepped over to him, he pointed at the largest home on the right.

“There,” he said, pointing. “That’s the governor’s house. Try to get it in that top window.”

Willie nodded, tossed the cantaloupe several times up and down in his hand, then flung the melon over his head with a heave.

The militia watched as the cantaloupe sailed through the air, across the valley, across the river and across the border into the country of Melandrosia. They watched as the yellow melon grew smaller and smaller, then finally disappeared into the open window at the top of the governor’s home.

A huge cheer went up in the crowd. The Taylor Twins ran forward and picked Willie up and put him on their shoulders. They carried him part of the way back to town until Willie insisted they put him down.

The story of the Great Cantaloupe War that stopped an invasion was told time and again, especially since nothing exciting ever happened in Lilia. When the governor of Melandrosia sent an official inquiry into Lilia about why a cantaloupe had landed in his bedroom, the official response was that strange occurrences surrounded Lilia’s annual Cantaloupe Festival, and that it was one of those unexplainable events. Of course, that didn’t explain why it happened next year, and the year after that, and became a tradition from that point on.

And E. Pluribus Unum was not only reelected Grand Marshall of Lilia for the next two terms, he was also named the most excited leader the country had ever known.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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