SCONDER THE BEAN THIEF

A SANTHARIAN BEDTIME STORY

 
Santhalan Bedtime Stories   
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Introduction. This folktale originates with the halflings of Dogodan Shire, where the prized sweet bean originates. Telling of the attempts of “Sconder”, a trickster character who often plagues gardeners in Halfling tales, to outwit the accomplished cook Mrs. Whetiker (possibly a corruption of Whittercorn, the household often attributed with the domestication of sweet beans). Also serving as an instructional tale against greediness, this tale is often given as the origin of the popular treat “bread-babies”, which are occasionally left out in gardens to keep birds off vegetables.
 

rs Whetiker could cook like you wouldn’t believe. She could make almost anything into the kind of meal that’ll fill up your dreams, drift you away to lands of pastry people and pompion-seed wishes. Her best of receipts was sweet bean biscuits. There are legends about Mrs. Whetiker’s sweet bean biscuits– they say the can resurrect the dead, bring scarecrows to life, and make wild birds pretend to be men. There are legends about those biscuits. This is one of them, as a matter of fact.

Everyone knew how good those biscuits were, and they knew how good the beans must be that she made them from. But did they ever get to see them? Not likely! Walking past Mrs. Whetiker’s place, you might smell the beanflowers, but that was as close as you’d get. Nobody but nobody ever got to taste those beans until they were all ripe, and baked up into all kinds of beautiful dishes by Mrs. Whetiker herself. As far as everyone but Mrs. Whetiker was concerned, that garden was more distant than the frozen north, more exotic than the faraway Nybelmar lands, more secret than the land of dreams. Mrs. Whetiker’s garden was bordered all round by high fences, tall as two hobbits and then some. The fence was all covered and wound round with thickets of thorny Ptoria bushes, and falseheart vines tangling amongst them. Those yellow and purple flowers may have been pretty, but you wouldn’t want to get too close, lest you find yourself all stuck with poisonous prickles. Only a bird could get into Mrs. Whetiker’s garden, and even they had to face a few trials; they say she kept invisible spirits to scare away the birds, and fed them on the spare beans. So nobody but Mrs. Whetiker herself got to watch those rows of flowers floating, bright as flittertwitches, between her bean poles – red, orange, yellow and green. Nobody got to taste the first fresh beans out of the pod, warmed by soft sunshine, sweet as summertime.

Now the spirits that guarded those beans, they were brave and fierce as they come, but they were only small, used to scaring little Aelirels when they got a shade too bold. So when a new flock of birds turned up (bigger, bolder, brasher and altogether more bothersome birds) they had a little trouble. Suddenly there were a deal less beans to go round, and that meant less biscuits next year. A sad state of affairs, you’ll agree, I’m sure. Still, Mrs. Whetiker was always generous and fair when it came to handing out baking, and it was always such wonderful baking that, most people admitted, it was worth the wait.

Old Mr. Sconder did not agree. He was a tricksome and a capricious soul, the kind of person who will spend more effort finding a way to avoid hard work than it’d take to just do the job. He was small and bony with hunched-up shoulders and a long beaky nose, and flickering eyes that were always full of some plan or other. And what he most planned around was his belly, for he did so love his food. He loved other people’s food as well, if there was a chance he could make it his own. And most of all, he loved sweet beans, of course. And as we have noted, my dears, he did not agree with waiting for those beans and getting only a fair share.

He reasoned that really if he was cunning enough to come up with a way to keep all those beans to himself, then why shouldn’t he? And if he had such an opportunity, such an entitlement, to gain all those beautiful speckled beans for his very own, it seemed he’d have to be a great fool not to take it. And as he knew very well that he most definitely was no fool, then the beans were as good as his.

Well, then. That settled it.

So Mrs. Whetiker found herself suddenly smiled at and sweetly complimented and generally fawned over by Sconder, till she didn’t know what to do, for though it was clear he loved her ever so much, she didn’t much care for him, aside from being already happily married. She tried to let him down gently as possible, but when she told him no, he wept and wailed and said he would die from the heartbreak. But Mrs. Whetiker wasn’t swayed, for she’d heard tell how Sconder made such a song and dance of everything, how he could lie and finagle his way into anyone’s heart. She told him he’d feel better about it all next morning, and went away to her own home, where she had more important things to worry about – there was a terribly troublesome new flock of birds at her beans, and not even her clever guardian-spirits seemed able to scare them away.

What a shock she had that morning, then, when someone came and knocked on her door, saying how “Ole Sconder’s been taken deathly, dangerously, diabolically ill, he’s dying of heartbreak and the healers can’t seem to help him!”

So of course she rushed to the sickbed, and it scared her to see how pale and thin poor Sconder looked. “I only have one request, Lady Whetiker, my love...”

“Yes? Anything that’s do-able, I’ll gladly do to help you.” She kept to herself the various things she hoped he wouldn’t ask her.

“Oh, no... It’s too late for me now. I can feel my heart giving up even now... I just wondered if you would please accept a gift? Something to remember me by?”

And he coughed pitifully, and turned away, as if to hide tears of loss and pain. Or maybe to hide a crafty smile. Just maybe.

Mrs Whetiker, she leant forward, and took Sconder’s hand, and said “whatever you like, of course, dear.” And if she was doubtful she didn’t show it. Mrs. Whetiker wasn’t the sort of person who tells a dying man that really she doesn’t go in for fancy gifts.
Sconder smiled wearily, and murmured “a scarecrow... I heard about those birds being a nuisance in your garden... so I made you a scarecrow... please, put it up in your garden after I’m gone...” he pointed, his hand shaking and weak as a newborn colt, to the corner of the little room.

Standing there and watching the two of them with blank painted eyes was a scarecrow, and a very fine one at that. It was as big as a real hobbit, all stitched together from sack-cloth and ragged old clothes, and stuffed with straw. Its face was that of an enormous bird, carved from wood and painted in red and yellow, and its arms and legs were wreathed around with strings of little bells and bits of nails and things, that would chime and clink and clatter in the breeze, scaring all the birds not put off by that fearsome wooden beak.

“It’s very nice-“ said Mrs. Whetiker, looking back to Sconder. But it was too late, for his eyes had rolled back, and he was deathly still, as dead people so often are.

It’s sad, I know, sorely and awfully woeful, but these things happen, my dears, and you mustn’t weep just yet, because it’s not over till the storyteller says so. In this case, it seems there is still a way to go, because something highly unusual happened that night. As Mrs. Whetiker was lying in her bed feeling sorrowful and worrying about the birds getting at her beans, poor Sconder was laid out in his coffin, with only the brightly painted scarecrow to keep him company. Scarecrows are poor company, but that was alright as dead people generally don’t go in for conversation. There, though, is where something strange happened. The lid of Sconder’s coffin pushed itself up a little, and slid to one side, and Sconder himself sat up and smiled to himself in a way that no dead person ever has before, I expect! Indeed, if anyone had been watching as Sconder slipped out of the coffin and began to pull the straw stuffing out of the scarecrow, and fill the coffin with it, they might start to wonder if he was even really dead at all. And if they were to watch a little longer, as he wriggled into the scarecrow like a raggedy suit that was tied to poles, they might begin to suspect that he had some devious plan in mind.

And you know, I think that imaginary, invisible and indubitably insightful watcher may just be right.
In reality, though, there was no such watcher, so the coffin full of straw was buried, and the scarecrow full of Sconder was set up in Mrs. Whetiker’s garden, to watch over her prized sweet beans. All day he would stay as still as he could pretending to be a scarecrow, holding his beak-nosed face as proudly and fiercely as any scarecrow you ever saw. When Mrs. Whetiker was working in the garden it was terribly hard. The sun would beat down and he’d be stifling in his raggedy suit, with itchy scraps of straw and string scratching at him so he desperately wanted to scratch, but couldn’t. Or when it rained, and his soggy clothes weighed him down and made his teeth want to chatter, he couldn’t even sneeze, couldn’t so much as wriggle his poor chilled toes. There were many times when Sconder dearly wished he hadn’t thought of this plan, but been content with an equal share of Mrs. Whetiker’s cooking.

But at nights, it was all different. As soon as the lights in Mrs. Whetiker’s house went out, Sconder would struggle out of the scarecrow suit, and cavort around the moonlit garden, snickering to himself in glee, and plucking any and all fruits and vegetables he wanted. Every night he would eat until he could eat no more, and the sweet beans he liked best of all. Not a single one did he leave behind, but snapped them all up as soon as they were ripe. And if some invisible spirits whispered angrily at him, he was generally too full up to let it bother him.

Time passed, and it seemed it really should be time for the sweet beans to start fruiting. But the strange thing was, they never did. The flowers would fade and swell to pods, but before they were ever quite ripe, they would be gone, disappearing into the night. Of course this puzzled Mrs. Whetiker greatly, but you and I know what had happened, don’t we? Every night Sconder would fill his belly to bursting, and then carefully creep back into the scarecrow, fastening himself back to the poles that held him into the ground, careful to return to exactly the same angle as when he’d left it.

When this had gone on for a while, Mrs. Whetiker was getting a little worried. Everyone would be disappointed if there were no sweet bean biscuits that year. So she wandered down to the rows to try and find clues, but she couldn’t find a thing. “It must be birds stealing them. But why aren’t those helpful spirits protecting the beans like they always do?”

Well, wrapped up in rags and bells with his nice full belly, Sconder heard Mrs. Whetiker’s words, and he had an idea that made him grin to himself. So he put on a hollow, floaty voice, and said “we need more offerings to give us strength – a new bird has come and he is very cunning. It takes all our efforts to keep him from eating even the unripe beans! Bring us some hot food and leave it out tonight, and we will have the strength to fight off this bird.”

Mrs Whetiker was much affrighted, and she bustled off right away to bake a big all year’s pie for her spirits, while Sconder chuckled to himself behind his scarecrow mask. Sure enough when he emerged that night, he found a delicious pie waiting for him, and he swallowed it all down. It was so big he couldn’t quite find room for all the sweet beans, so he crept back to the scarecrow’s post leaving a few still intact, though a good deal less than Mrs. Whetiker might have wished. When she came down next morning and saw them, she asked why there were still only a handful of beans. Sconder answered, in his ‘voice of the spirits’, “you didn’t see this bird! It flies as fast as a malise but it’s big and strong as an eagle from the mountains up north. It was all we could, do, with the meagre size of that little pie, to save this handful of beans.”

Now Mrs. Whetiker didn’t much like to hear that, as she knew her pies were far from meagre. But nonetheless she obligingly cooked a bigger pie, and the next morning there were a few more beans left on her bean plants.

So it went on, for several days: each night Sconder would eat the pie, and as many beans as he had room for, and then struggle back into his suit fumbling with the jacket buttons that were getting harder and harder to fasten over his round belly. And each morning he’d protest the ferocity, the quickness, the cunning of this magical bird, and ask for a bigger pie.

But Mrs. Whetiker was losing patience with the huge appetite of her guardian spirits, and she began to get suspicious. And one morning, while she was collecting the leftover beans, she noticed a button lying under the beans, justbeneath the scarecrow. She looked up, and was astonished to notice that the scarecrow had a much bigger belly than she’d remembered from before. It was so big that the buttons on its ragged old jacket barely did up, and were beginning to pop off. It was almost, she thought, as if the scarecrow were growing fatter. When this thought occurred to her, Mrs. Whetiker began asking more questions to herself. Why, for example, had the trouble with these giant magical birds gotten worse after Sconder had passed away, despite his gift of a scarecrow? Why had her garden guardian spirits never deigned to talk to her before, let alone ask for great big pies? Why had she never seen this fearsome bird, or heard its cries? It seemed to Mrs. Whetiker that not all of these questions had entirely satisfactory answers, and so she made a plan.

She went into her pantry, and rummaged in the back until she found jars of honey, and bean syrup, and flour. She used the flour to make mounds and mounds of thick dough, which she shaped into a doll as big as a person. Its head was like a great round loaf, with sugared-doch nut eyes, and a smile of pompion-seed teeth. Scooping the bread baby up in her arms, she hefted it into her great oven to bake. When it was all done and crisp and sugary-smooth and smelling of autumn firelight, Mrs. Whetiker and her husband hauled the bread-baby out into the garden, and stood him up next to the bean plants, propped up on sticks just like the scarecrow. And then she took all the honey and bean syrup and poured it over the bread-baby, until he was so sticky you couldn’t touch him without being stuck fast. And with that she went to bed, smiling to herself in much the same way as the bread baby smiled with pompion-seed teeth and glistening, sickly sweet eyes.

Once darkness fell, Sconder crept out of the ground, expecting to find an enormous pie waiting for him. He was very surprised, then, I expect you can imagine, when he saw no pie at all, but someone standing in the garden! At first Sconder was scared, thinking he’d been found out. But when the bread-baby by the beans didn’t move, or even show surprise, he calmed a little, and began to feel angry.

“It was you, wasn’t it? You ate my pie, you greedy creature!”

But the bread-baby said nothing, didn’t even move.

“Well, answer me, coward! How dare you eat my pie and then ignore me!”

The bread-baby was still and silent and sweetly smiling. At this, Sconder lost his temper, and grabbed the bread-baby’s shoulder roughly. But when he tried to tug his hand free, it was stuck fast! This only served to make Sconder even angrier, and he tried to slap the bread-baby across the face. His other hand was stuck! Sconder growled with rage, and kicked out at the bread-baby, and his feet were stuck as well! He was stuck fast, as if he’d been rolling in gnacker-glue, and there was nothing he could do but shout and rage at the bread-baby until he was so hoarse he sounded like a squawking, hissing bird. Even that didn’t help – bread-babies don’t have ears for listening. So when Mrs. Whetiker came down in the morning, she found Sconder alive and well, all glued up with bean syrup and honey, and looking very sorry for himself indeed.

She stood there and smiled at him, with her hands on her hips and a glitter in her eyes that Sconder very much didn’t like.

“I could leave you here, you know, and nobody would be any the wiser. I expect you’d make an excellent scarecrow with some help from your ever so sticky friend there.”

Sconder quivered at that, and croaked out a pitiful apology, keening like a little fledgling chick. But Mrs. Whetiker wasn’t having any of his wheedling ways, she simply folded her arms, and humphed at him, and said she’d fetch some water to scrub the sticky bread off him, and she better see no more of him after that.

Sconder was pathetically thankful, and called out broken-voiced thankyous and i-beg-your-pardons as she left. Once he was alone, he hung his head in shame, and was just beginning to lament his lost source of food, when a quiet, quivery sort of voice suddenly sounded in his ear:

“So you thought you’d ignore us and that would be fine, sly Sconder?”

Sconder looked up, alarmed, but he could see nothing but the garden in the morning sunshine, bright and secret as ever.

“Who’s there?” he called out, his voice sharp with fear.

“We’re here.” The whispery, silvery soft voice answered. “...we’ve always been here, though you didn’t seem to notice, for all your cleverness.”

Suddenly Sconder realised who this must be, and he went as white as raw dough, and all the bells on his scarecrow suit quivered and jingled as he shook with fear.

“The guardian spirits?”

“Oh yes, see now he gets it, doesn’t he just? Now he notices us! We’re ever so sorry, sly Sconder, but it’s simply too late for that now!”

“What? No, I’m sorry, I didn’t notice- please, what’s happening? What are you doing?!” Sconder trembled as he felt his skin prickling all over. He looked at his hands, still stuck fast to the bread-baby, and was horrified to see them shrinking, the fingers changing to feathers all sticky and messy with bean syrup. His toes lengthened and curled up, into bird-claws with claws that scrabbled helplessly at the sticky dough. His beaky nose was suddenly a real beak, and when he tried to yell for help he only heard screeching and squawking. Sconder had been turned into a little bird!

Mrs. Whetiker came out with a pail of hot water and her scratchiest scrubbing brush, and stopped, astonished, at what she saw. Where before there had been portly Sconder, there was a crumpled mess of sticky scarecrow clothes, the bells attached jingling merrily as something small and feathery tried to escape. Parting the clothes, she found a little angry looking bird, its feathers all messed up with syrup and honey, that flew away clumsily as soon as she pulled it free.

Something whispered, soft as summer breezes, in Mrs. Whetiker’s ear, and she threw back her head and laughed and laughed till people passing by outside the hedge of thorns stopped and wondered.

I hear tell that the bean pies that year were especially good. I don’t suppose Sconder got to try them, though. Although there was a little bird that liked to steal in, and carry off just one or two beans, flying off as quickly as its ever-so-slightly sticky wings could carry it. Only one or two, mind – it wouldn’t do to be greedy.
 


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 Date of last edit 26th Rising Sun 1670 a.S.

Bedtime story written by Seth Ghibta View Profile