Hans cradled his young daughter's bony frame. "There, there, Emilia," he said. "We will find something soon. Just hold on a little longer." He rocked the child as if she were still crying, though she had fallen silent hours before. “Oh, God, dear God, please, please send something soon,” he prayed.
He looked over at his wife's emaciated face, her gaze completely devoid of emotion. Emilia, should things go on as it seemed they would, would not be the first of their children to die. It seemed just as likely that she would not be the last. Hans envied his wife in that moment. If she had found a way to stop caring, as all things suggested she had, she was lucky indeed.
Their story was much like everyone else's in their village. Since the Great Famine hit, everyone had suffered unimaginable loss. Food was so scarce that, if a man was lucky enough to catch a rat, he must find a way to make its meat last for days to feed his family. The situation seemed dire, and the hope of so many families diminished day by day.
Suddenly, as Hans held Emilia in his arms, a strange sound rose to his ears. It was familiar, but one he hadn't heard in so long. Laughter? He gently placed his daughter down and rushed out into the street followed by his wife.
Together, they looked out over the dusty hills that surrounded their village. Yes, someone was laughing, and a horse-drawn cart was fast approaching the village square. A great pile of cargo sat covered with a blanket in back of the cart. Two lanky men rode on the sides of the cart, gripping their handles tightly, their capes flapping in the wind. Hans could see that a great, fat, jolly man sat in the driver's seat. The singing and laughing grew louder, and the man was close enough now for Hans to see the bright blues, greens, and golds he wore, and the windburned redness of his fleshy cheeks. Others had also heard the sounds, and joined Hans and his wife in the street to witness the stranger’s arrival.
"Hallo!" the stranger shouted as he drew his horses to a halt. He climbed down from his seat and stood where everyone could see him. "Good people of Verhungerndorf! Allow me to introduce myself! My name is Arnulf Vielfrass! I have heard of this plight of hunger and thirst which has been so unfairly wrought upon you all. But fear not! For my men and I come with a cure for your woes!"
He gave a signal to one of his assistants, and together they lifted the blankets off the cart. There in the cart sat a large black cauldron and a great oaken barrel surrounded by piles upon piles of vegetables. Arnulf’s assistants brought the cauldron down from the cart. From within it, they produced logs and flint rock which they used to build a fire. Once this was done, the barrel was rolled off of the cart. Hans watched in silent stillness as they opened it, and began to salivate when he learned that it contain water. He imagined its cool freshness trickling down his throat as the men hoisted the barrel up and emptied it into the cauldron.
"My friends," said Arnulf. "I imagine it has been a grievously long time---too long---since the warmth of a good, filling meal has passed through the lips of any man or woman here."
The crowd grumbled in agreement. From the look of this man, it was clear how little he knew of the pains of which he spoke.
Arnulf went on. “Cheer up, my dear friends,” he said. “Your time of waiting and longing is at an end. Today, in this very village, the Great Arnulf will prepare for you a fine dish, and most delicious soup, the likes of which you’ve never tasted before!”
“Praise God!” Hans’ wife shouted. Hans looked over to see that she had dropped to her knees. Tears stained her cheeks. Her lips curled into a smile. It was the first sign of emotion he had seen from her in months.
“But first,” Arnulf continued, “I ask for your patience and that you indulge me in a little game.”
"No games!" shouted a man in the crowd.
“Sir,” Arnulf said severely, “I must insist that you keep your composure.”
"We're starving! Give us the food!" the man shouted, his eyes wild with desperation.
“Sir, if you insist on impatience, it will not end well for you.” Arnulf spoke calmly, but the threat in his words was clear to Hans.
Still, the villager refused to listen. He charged toward the cart. Without a moment's hesitation, one of Arnulf's assistants took a gun from beneath his cloak and shot the man dead. Screams and sounds of shock erupted from those gathered, but Arnulf’s booming voice rose above all.
"My friends," said Arnulf, his tone much darker than before. The crowd fell silent once more. "You must carefully weigh your options. Either you play our game according to our rules, or we leave, and you starve. So what will it be? Eh?” No one said a word. Arnulf’s message had been perfectly clear.
The fat man smiled. “Now that all is well,” he said, “the game can begin! I have here some of the finest vegetables and herbs you will ever see. No need to inspect them. My word is good. Anyone care to challenge it?" No response came. Arnulf looked around and smiled. "Good. To play the game, all you need to do is step forward, survey the selections and decide upon one thing to be used as an ingredient in the fine soup we are to make! Every person who selects an ingredient shall have his name written on a slip of paper. Once seven ingredients have been chosen, the winner will be drawn! And the winner," he narrowed his eyes, "gets the soup!"
The crowd cheered! People clamored for a chance to choose an ingredient and have their names entered. The first to be selected by Arnulf was a woman. Hans watched as she looked over the vegetables on the cart. He knew that she had just lost her husband, and only a small boy of hers remained at home, the last survivor of what had been a fine family of nine. He thought how deserving of the soup she was, but still, he would not hesitate to kill her for a chance to bring some home to his starving Emilia.
The woman chose a big bushel of plump carrots and handed them to one of Arnulf's men. "Name?" said the other.
"Sarah," she said, shakily. The attendant wrote this down and placed the slip of paper into a leather pouch. Sarah bowed feebly and returned to her spot in the crowd.
And so it was with each of the people that Arnulf selected. Each walked up to the cart, selected something delicious, gave his or her name, and returned to their place. It looked as though the winner would get a most divine meal: carrots, potatoes, lentils, and more would soon be swimming in the giant cauldron, which by now had come to a rolling boil. Arnulf surveyed the crowd, looking for the final person to complete his recipe.
His eyes landed on Hans. “You, sir!” Arnulf bellowed with a laugh. “You are number seven!”
The crowd grumbled as Hans, shaking with excitement, approached the cart. Looking over the foods that remained, he remembered that turnips were a particular favorite of his dear Emilia’s. He lifted a large bag of them off the cart and carried it over to the waiting servants. Just like the others before him, he gave his name and rejoined the attending villagers.
The grumbling grew louder, and many people began to slink away, feeling that there was no hope for themselves if all seven had been selected. It was at the sight of this that Arnulf spoke again. "No, good friends, you must stay!" he said. "Come back, watch carefully. If I deem you worthy, you may yet come away with something today." He very pointedly gestured to the cart behind him which, despite having its load lightened, was still quite full. This dim ray of hope was enough to make most people stay, and the villagers’ voices were quieted once again.
"Now," Arnulf said, "it is time to select a winner! And remember, dear friends, the winner gets the soup, but there is no telling what others may get!" He called to one of his servants. "Stavros, the names!" The man dutifully approached and opened the leather pouch. Arnulf thanked him before thrusting his meaty paw into the bag. The villagers waited with baited breath as he pulled out one slip of paper.
"Where... is Hans?"
Hans' knees nearly buckled beneath him. He could hardly believe his luck. Without hesitating, he used what little strength he had to dart forward. He fell on his knees before Arnulf who met him with a wide grin. "Ah, Hans, my friend!" the man said as if he had known Hans forever. "How happy you look! How overjoyed! Are you ready now to receive your prize!"
"Yes!" Hans shouted. "Oh, merciful Lord, yes!"
Arnulf smiled down at him once more before signalling to his attendants. Before he knew what was happen, Hans felt their hands upon him. He was being dragged over to the cauldron. "What is happening?" he shouted.
"Only what was promised," Arnulf said.
"You promised that the winner would get the soup!" As the words left him, a horrible realization washed over Hans.
"I did," said Arnulf. "The winner gets the soup, and the rest get to eat!"
Hans had no energy to struggle. The searing pain of the boiling water was almost enough to drown out the elated cheers of the other townspeople. The last things he saw were the eyes of his wife, crazed and jubilant as she shouted her praises to the God who had finally, however perversely, answered their prayers.
Written by Jdeschene