At long last the mystery of the Princess and the Pea has been solved but the case of the Cowardly Custard Apple is still baffling to anyone who has heard about it, including myself.
When I was first told about the princess who could feel a pea through dozens of mattresses piled on top of each other I grew suspicious immediately and decided that the official explanation was wrong. The true answer has nothing to do with her abnormal sensitivity to physical irritants but can be found in the nature of the pea itself.
For that pea was not a pea, a good honest simple legume, but a fragment of a neutron star, which as we all know is a dead or dying sun, or rather the relic of a collapsed star that has packed its own matter so tightly together that only neutrons—
No, I might as well admit I don’t really understand anything about the physics of outer space; but I am aware that a piece of neutron star the size of a pea will weigh an absurd number of tons and that denser objects have stronger gravitational fields than less dense ones, and so that fake pea was able to raise high tides and make walking away from it very difficult.
The princess felt it pulling at the nerves clustered in the small of her back and she interpreted this sensation as a poke in the spine, which is wasn’t really, but the mistake was understandable.
A tug can feel like a push, in the same way that a very cold piece of metal burns the skin when touched.
As for the Princess and the Pea: the story of what happened to her reached the ears of a king who ruled a land far to the south. He was delighted to finally learn a method of testing the authority of princesses and he decided to try it out on himself.
“You’re not a princess, sire!” his advisors objected.
“True, but I belong to the same species. I’m a ‘royal’ and so the basic principle must still apply. Fetch me a pea!”
He had no idea that the original pea had actually been a pinch of neutron star and his advisors were ignorant of this fact too, as are most people, including myself before I commenced writing this tale. His advisors shuffled their feet and then timidly replied:
“There are no peas to be found in your kingdom, sire. Peas aren’t a native crop down this way. We would have to import one and that might take rather a long time. Several months.”
“I can’t wait that long to test myself. Procure an alternative!”
“But why, may we ask, do you wish to ‘test’ yourself in the first place? You know you are a king; we know this; the people know it; and also, most importantly, do the foreign rulers.”
“Yes, yes, but am I a real king, a true king, a king that has a natural right to call himself a king? I mean, am I descended from a pure unbroken line of kings stretching right back through the dim mists of antiquity and even thicker fogs of prehistory to the very first men who called themselves kings? Or was one of my not-too-distant ancestors merely a commoner who was fortunate or cunning or aggressive enough to win a throne artificially? That sometimes happens, you know. The pea test will determine the truth of the matter.”
“Still we have no peas for you, sire...”
“An alternative then! I told you that already: go out into the palace gardens and orchards and find a substitute. Meanwhile I will arrange for thirty thick mattresses to be conveyed to my bedchamber in readiness for the conducting of the test.”
And the advisors had no choice but to obey the whim of their king, so they went outside and wandered through the gardens and orchards for an hour before returning to the throne room, where the king was using his sceptre to fence with a flapping tapestry.
“What have you got for me?” asked the king impatiently.
“A cherimoya, sire,” they answered.
“Ah, the most delicious of all fruits and also known as a custard apple! But how ripe is it?” he demanded.
“Perfectly ripe, sire. The only problem is that—”
“Problem?” The king arched a regal eyebrow and paused with his sceptre thrust out at full arm’s length. “If it’s ripe then it will be too squashy for the pea test; but we’ll use it anyway. That’s the sort of monarch I am! I don’t care about such details.”
“There’s another problem, sire,” the advisors said.
“Really? And what might that be?”
The advisors grimaced at each other. Finally one of them found enough courage to speak. “It’s a cowardly custard apple, sire, that’s the plain truth of it. It’s scared and won’t stop trembling. It’s not a brave cherimoya, oh no!”
“You informed it of what I plan to do with it?”
“Yes we did, we certainly did.”
“And it is frightened of being compressed to bursting by the combined weight of the mattresses and my recumbent form?”
“That prospect makes it more than nervous, yes, sire.”
“Then fetch a less cowardly custard apple!”
“You don’t understand, your majesty. This cherimoya wants to take part in your modified pea test. When we passed the shrub on which it grew, the largest and most noble of the custard apple trees in your orchards, it begged to be picked by us. It was the ripest and largest fruit on that tree, so we can safely say that it is the finest cherimoya in the realm. And yet it is still very scared about its own destiny.”
The king scratched the end of his nose with the tip of the sceptre. “Show me the fruit in question. This is most curious.”
And the bravest advisor passed him the cowardly custard apple. The king took it and saw how it quivered and whimpered. “Twelve centimetres in diameter with a slightly tuberculated skin. Even with the peel still on I can smell that delicious combination of banana, pineapple, papaya, strawberry, peach and bubblegum that is so ravishing to the taste buds and which rightly earns the cherimoya the epithet of ‘king of the fruits’. Truly, this is an excellent example, the best I have ever encountered.”
“But lacking backbone,” the bravest advisor ventured.
“Wait,” the king replied, then he frowned and lifted the cherimoya to his ear, listened carefully and nodded. “I thought so. The definition of courage is to be scared of an ordeal but to endure it anyway. This fruit is apprehensive in the extreme but insists on being used in the pea test. That isn’t cowardice at all, not really. And it doesn’t fear being squashed but something else, I don’t know what. The situation is remarkable.”
The advisors said nothing: they had nothing to say.
The king tossed the cherimoya high like a juggling ball, caught it neatly as it descended, turned on his heel and strode away. “To the bedchamber! I wish to test myself without delay.”
And down the corridors they went, to a circular room with a large glass skylight in the middle of a domed roof. There were mattresses leaning against the walls. The king lowered the cherimoya to the floor, positioning it at the exact centre of the bedchamber, beneath the skylight and the wispy clouds in the intense blue sky. “To work!”
And he piled the mattresses on top of the fruit. He did this task on his own, without asking for help, and it was strenuous physical labour. Then he called for a ladder to be leaned against the stack and he climbed it to the top and lay flat on the highest mattress.
A full minute passed, He shifted his position.
The advisors below held their collective breath. The king rolled onto his side, rolled over again onto his front. “I can’t feel anything,” he muttered as he turned once more onto his back.
“Sire?” The advisors stepped forward in alarm.
“I can’t feel anything!”
“Nothing at all, sire? Not even the smallest—”
“Nothing! Nothing!” he screamed.
They took two steps back. Then the king sat up in bed, grasped the top rung of the ladder and his teeth chattered in despair. With a convulsive movement he rose and climbed back down and stumbled out of the bedchamber, his sobs filling the corridor.
“I always suspected it deep down; and now I know for sure. I’m not a natural king but one of those artificial types. Piling up all the mattresses with my own hands should have been a clue. One of my ancestors was a builder or a porter or something equally menial. I’ve failed the pea test! I’ll never be able to face a custard apple again. This is dreadful and I am distraught and I feel like a fraud.”
One of the less intelligent advisors ran after him. “You feel like a fraud, sire? Shall I fetch you a fraud?”
The others remained in the bedchamber without speaking.
They stayed like that for a long time; then a muffled sound began to distract them, an extremely faint but insistent noise that seemed to be coming from the bottom of the tower of mattresses. They moved closer and listened. It was no acoustical trick but real laughter, weak and inhuman. They began to heave aside the mattresses, flinging them away.
What they finally revealed was a squashed fruit, a custard apple no longer cowardly but panting away its final moments in mirth. The white and creamy flesh festooned with seeds oozed and palpitated and the sickly sweet smell of botanical death filled their flaring nostrils.
Words were barely audible between the chuckles.
“I’ve passed the test! I was so worried about it. The prospect of failing terrified me. But I felt him. Even through all those mattresses, all that thick padding, I felt him! When he shifted position I was aware of his elbows and knees. I’ve passed the test! I always knew I was king of the fruits but now I can say that my kingship is authentic. I have a natural right to call myself the finest cherimoya that ever lived. And that’s what matters!”