As it so happened, the fate of the small village situated on the bank of a forlorn and mostly dry riverbed was sealed on a dreary and otherwise quite unremarkable December afternoon. It was the Assistant Deputy Treasurer who sealed it, although, in fairness, it was not his fault. He was only doing his job. And his intentions were good.
In the precise center of this particular village sat the municipal building, an ashen grey, squat, two-story structure whose marquee had recently fallen askew. The building was crumbling prematurely, the concrete having been mixed with too much sand as part of a scheme to siphon state funding into the pockets of the duly elected mayor, who, on the day in question, was seated in the faux leather and heavily brass-riveted mayoral chair with his feet on the polished-wood desk and his hands behind his head, fingers threaded together forming a sort of cradle, pondering the village’s dire fiscal situation when he heard a timid knock on his door. The mayor was a man who did not much care to be interrupted, especially when he was busy pondering with his feet on his desk. He cursed under his breath before reluctantly permitting the knocker to enter.
The door creaked open and the top half of the face of the Assistant Deputy Treasurer, whose name was Serge, peeked around its edge.
Serge entered gingerly. He was a nervous man, small in stature, with a wispy mustache and a center part in his hair. He saluted the mayor in military fashion. “Mr. Mayor, sir, if I may, I believe that I have found the answer to our village’s dilemma.” His voice quivered as he spoke.
The mayor, who was in every respect the physical antithesis of Serge, shifted his substantial weight in the faux leather, heavily riveted chair and lifted his right eyebrow.
Serge hesitantly approached the mayor’s desk and placed a copy of the latest issue of Le Grand Biscuit on its polished surface. The mayor repositioned his feet and eyed the magazine’s glossy cover.
“This magazine,” Serge said, mustering whatever reserves of courage were available to him, “is the world’s premier authority on large cookies, pastries, and assorted baked goods. It has a global readership in the tens, if not twenties, of thousands.”
The mayor grunted an encouraging sort of grunt. The Deputy Assistant Treasurer began to flip through the pages, stopping about two-thirds of the way through. He turned it around so that it faced the mayor. Opposite the image of a family happily enjoying what appeared to be a ham and Roquefort strudel occupying the better part of a dinner table were the words “Le Grand Biscuit’s Third Annual Giant Cookie Competition.”
“As you no doubt know, Mr. Mayor, sir,” said Serge, “these are difficult days for our dear village.”
The mayor begrudgingly nodded in assent. It was true. The previous year had seen the closing of the paddle ball factory that occupied much of the left bank of the forlorn and mostly-dry riverbed, the victim of an investigative exposé on the blinding of an entire cohort of school-aged children from what the exposé termed “catastrophic elastic string-related bounce back.” The village had mustered a half-hearted but ultimately ill-fated effort to transition to badminton birdies, and the factory had closed a short time after the exposé’s publication.
“The winner of the competition, Mr. Mayor, sir, will be featured on the cover of Le Grand Biscuit.”
The mayor’s eyes widened. “I have an idea, Steve!” exclaimed the mayor. Serge did not attempt to correct him. “We must enter this competition! This is our chance! Tourists will pour in from every corner of the globe to see our cookie! I see hotels! Casinos! Branded tee-shirts and coffee mugs and little souvenir shot glasses. My face on all of them, naturally. This cookie could save our village!”
The mayor leaned back in his chair, which creaked and groaned under his girth. He was grinning widely. “I’m so glad I thought of it! Steve, take dictation.”
Serge did as he was told. The decree read as follows:
MAYORAL DECREE ON THE GREAT PATRIOTIC COOKIE BAKING CAMPAIGN
It is hereby decreed that all residents of our village are to immediately cease normal activities and devote their efforts, in their entirety, to the preparation, baking, and safeguarding of the world’s largest cookie for the purpose of winning Le Grand Biscuit’s Third Annual Giant Cookie Competition. Failure to comply with this decree shall be punishable by banishment and/or fine of up to ten thousand units of local currency.
The village’s two bakeries were commandeered and the head bakers directed to do nothing until further notice except churn out cookie dough on a twenty-four-hour, seven-day-a-week basis. Farmers were ordered to cease the production of any product other than wheat for flour, milk for butter, sugar beets for sugar, and eggs for eggs. All men, regardless of age or health, were conscripted to chop wood and keep the fires stoked in the massive ovens where the cookie was being baked in eight-by-eight-foot sections.
As neither of the village’s bakeries was sufficiently large to house a cookie of the massive proportions envisioned by the mayor, the village school’s gymnasium was transformed into the primary kitchen and warehouse. Classes were ended until further notice so that students could help mix ingredients. The former managers of the paddle ball factory were brought in to supervise logistics and assembly lines. The Chief of Defense directed the village’s junior reserves to protect the supplies and deter anyone who might try to sabotage the operation.
By the end of the first week of baking, the cookie had grown to occupy the entirety of the gymnasium floor. A week after that, every nook and cranny and classroom and locker and teachers’ lounge and janitorial closet in the school building was overflowing with cookie dough.
An emergency meeting of the mayor and the cabinet and sub-cabinet was convened and a second decree issued ordering all public roads, fields, and private residences to be made immediately available for the storage of cookie and cookie-related activities, with failure to comply punishable by banishment.
The situation in the village, which was no great shakes to begin with, started to rapidly deteriorate. A farmer died unexpectedly when one of his cows, which was being milked for the ninth time that day and was none too pleased about it, kicked the farmer square in the temple. One of the two bakers, after working around the clock, experienced a petit mal seizure and had to be revived by the village’s veterinarian, who was the closest thing available to a medical doctor and who was already overworked from tending to cows with mistreated udders. The youngest school children, no longer in classes but not yet old enough to pitch in in any meaningful way, could be found whiling away their weekday mornings hitting surplus paddle balls and clearly non-regulation badminton birdies at each other’s eyes.
The mayor, cloistered in the crumbling municipal building, watched with satisfaction as the surrounding streets filled with cookie. Once again, he heard a timid knock on his door and once again it was Serge. Serge’s hair was still parted in the middle. He saluted the mayor in military fashion.
“Steve,” the mayor said warmly. He patted Serge on the back and smiled broadly. “This is really something, isn’t it? Just look at the size of that cookie!”
Serge cleared his throat and then put his finger cautiously in the air.
“Mr. Mayor, sir, I’m afraid we have... an issue.”
The mayor raised his eyebrow.
“It’s the villagers, sir. They're in revolt.”
“Nothing a banishment or two can’t solve, surely.”
"Sir, the problem is… well, it seems that the people are starving. There's no more flour or butter. The chickens have stopped producing eggs due to exhaustion. All foodstuff is being diverted to the cookie dough.”
The mayor shifted his considerable girth once again. He muttered under his breath. With great effort and much groaning and perspiring, the mayor stood from his chair and began to pace back and forth.
Serge cleared his throat and once again raised his trembling finger. The mayor looked at him and again raised his eyebrow.
“There’s more, Mr. Mayor, sir.”
“What is it, Steve?” the mayor asked, clearly perturbed that the starvation and the resulting revolt risked putting his cookie baking operation behind schedule.
“Mostly, yes, sir. But not exclusively. There are rodents of all types, really. The odd marsupial too. They’re everywhere. It seems that they are quite fond of cookie.”
The mayor nodded in acknowledgment. He had begun to suspect that there was a problem when his wife and her beloved Pomeranian had been surrounded during a recent evening stroll by a swarm of clearly very well-fed rats defending a three-foot in diameter chunk of cookie they had managed to steal off with and hide behind the defunct factory.
The mayor continued his pacing. He was by then sweating heavily. Every few steps, he stopped suddenly and gestured in what appeared to be a eureka moment, but then would shake his head and say, “that won’t work at all” followed by “we‘ll just have a ferret problem,” or some slight variant thereof. This continued for quite some time. Serge thought about sitting. He was dizzy from not having eaten anything all week.
Suddenly, the mayor turned to Serge. He removed a handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his brow. “Steve,” the mayor said triumphantly. “I have another idea.”
“Shall we call an end to this, Mr. Mayor, sir? I can go out there now and tell the villagers to just go ahead and eat the cookie.”
The mayor looked sharply at Serge. “Oh, no, not at all. Oh my, no. Don’t be an idiot.” He shook his head. “It’s quite elegant, actually. The people should eat the rats!”
“Eat the rats, sir?”
“Yes, Steve. Two birds with one stone, as they say. Although in this case, I guess it’s more like a couple of rats with one hungry villager.” The mayor laughed heartily, which Serge found somewhat off putting, considering the circumstances.
So yet another decree was dictated and printed, this time directing the villages to eat rats. Serge was tasked with delivering the latest decree and was, upon announcing the new directive, savagely attacked and brutally murdered, which was really quite tragic because he was only doing his job and his intentions were good.
Fortunately for the mayor, the Chief of Defense remained loyal, mostly on account of his being in on the whole sand-in-the-concrete scheme and also being promised a slice of the profits from the sale of cookie-themed souvenir shot glasses. Under the command of the Chief of Defense, the village’s three-man security force was able to quell the revolt and bring back what they could of Serge’s corpse for proper burial. The mayor ordered an elderly man and his two cousins, none of whom had been anywhere near the place of Serge’s murder, banished as a warning, and the villagers, under the watchful eye of the Chief of Defense, returned to their cookie production activities.
In the days that followed, the village developed a potent odor that could best be described as putrescent. Piles of rat innards began to appear in the few remaining places not occupied by cookie. Flies descended in droves. Flocks of vultures began to circle overhead, eventually growing so thick that they blotted out the sun. The village descended into darkness. All the while the cookie continued to grow, forming small mountains and crevasses and various other geological formations.
On the day Le Grand Biscuit’s Third Annual Giant Cookie Contest finally ended, the mayor was in his office with his feet once again on his desk when he heard the thumping of helicopter blades. From his window, he watched Le Grand Biscuit’s team of food critics and photographers and measurers and documentarians land on the giant cookie.
The mayor descended the crumbling stairs of the municipal building, threw open his arms and yelled triumphantly over the tremendous sound of the corporate helicopter’s blades.
“Just look at the size of this cookie!”
The mayor spent the next half hour showing the critics the cookie, including a tour of the gymnasium, the forlorn and mostly-dry riverbed, and the former neighborhoods and farms now covered in foot-deep cookie. The critics asked a number of questions, mainly about the putrescent smell and the clearly desperate condition of the village’s inhabitants. The mayor explained that the scent was that of rat meat charring in the former paddle ball factory; and that, no really, the people are quite happy, despite their torches and pitchforks and bedraggled and gaunt appearance; and that the thick cloud of flies and the vultures overhead blotting out the sun were all perfectly as they should be.
One of the critics, handkerchief held tightly over his mouth and nose, told the mayor that it was all really quite remarkable, which the mayor interpreted in the most charitable possible way. Then the critic boarded the helicopter and made a circling motion with his hand to the pilot. The helicopter leapt into the air with surprising velocity, briefly sending the vultures scattering for their lives.
The mayor retreated to his office and eagerly awaited word from Le Grand Biscuit. He received it the following day in the form of an advance copy of the contest issue of the magazine. His first inkling that the article was not going to be what he had hoped came from the title, which read:
MAYOR TO VILLAGERS: LET THEM EAT RAT
It did not get better from there.
“In the winning location of the Third Annual Giant Cookie Contest, a dictatorial mayor ruling by cruel-minded decree has turned his small village on the side of a forlorn and mostly-dry riverbed into the stuff of putrescent nightmares as residents resort to roasting rats to survive. Our visit was both shocking and nauseating, the permanent dusk caused by thousands of circling vultures made more apocalyptic by the surprising number of young children who seem to have suffered quite serious looking eye injuries for reasons that remain a mystery.”
The mayor pushed the magazine from his desk. He was alone. Even his Chief of Defense had by then abandoned him. There would be no hotel, no casino, no souvenir shops selling coffee mugs and shot glasses adorned with his face. He missed Steve.
The mayor went to the window and squinted through the mid-day dark. In the distance, a snaking line of villagers was winding its way through the cookie covered village toward the municipal building, pitchforks aloft and torches blazing.