Mr. Babbage’s Cabbage
Mr. Babbage was world-famous for his skill in vegetable cultivation. World famous in Freesaw County, that is. When it came time for the Freesaw County Fair, you knew the whole world and their kittens would turn up to see Mr. Babbage’s latest vegetable monstrosity.
Last year Mr. Babbage’s giant potato was late to the judging tent because the workers took it to the rodeo ring because it was stubborner than a bull to move, and larger than one too. The year before that, Mr. Babbage unveiled a colossal carrot, so big Jenny and I mistook it for a moon rocket from the space exhibit. And the year before that, Mr. Babbage wheeled out a tomato so ginormous that the mothers of Freesaw County made three-hundred and three-quarter jars of tomato sauce from its hulking mass.
I had no doubt in my mind that Mr. Babbage was fixin’ to win first prize at the fair this year with a new behemoth, bigger and badder than any of our most terrible vegetable nightmares. Except this year was different. This year the Fergusons were fixin’ to win too.
The Fergusons moved into the Ichabod House on Redrick Street on Halloween last year. Everything about that house spelled bad luck. They say old man Ichabod was murdered in that house and that his soul still moans around the house and you can hear his ghost creakin’ about most any night of the week. The kids at school said that you got bad luck for two weeks for lookin’ at the Ichabod House for more than seven seconds and, if you did, you had to wear your shoes on the wrong feet the rest of the day to fend off the bad luck. The bigger kids would dare each other to put things—apple cores, leaves, or eggshells—into the mailbox. They say that the next day, all that was left inside was ashes and cobwebs. Jenny and I always avoided the Ichabod House at all costs, if we could. And then the Fergusons moved in.
Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson, the most pinch-faced, strict-lawed, spindly-legged, grey-haired screech owls I ever met. And they were obsessed with winning. They would tell anyone sorry enough to listen that, “That batty old Mr. Babbage won’t stand a jellyfish’s chance in the desert in the fair this year if I can have anything to say about it!” They stayed indoors most of the time, which was fine by me, because whenever they were out in town they snapped at us kids for playin’ marbles and red rover and “dressing like young ruffians”. By their account, you’d believe we were a bunch of pyromaniac circus performers set to bring the whole county to ruin with our foul language and shenanigans.
But this story isn’t about them. Yes, they’re in it. But this is about Jenny and me, and Mr. Babbage, and taking the long way home, and a vegetable of relative largeness.
“Can we please, please, please, take the long way home to see if we can see into Mr. Babbage’s garden? I bet we could find a peephole this time.” Jenny was milking her brown-eyed puppy-dog-face again. Each year the kids in town would do their best to see into Mr. Babbage’s garden to find out his latest plan, but the fence was always too tall or Mr. Babbage would catch you just startin’ to stand up on your best friend’s shoulders.
“Seriously. That face only works on Dad, and you know it,” I said, brushing my hair out of my eyes.
“Pretty, pretty please with a mountain of cherries on top. Come on, Sam. Just this once…”
I pretended to think it over. “Well, I don’t know. It’s getting’ pretty dark. And Mom’ll be waitin’ for us.”
Jenny kept her act up. She knew that I wanted to go too. “Oh, all right,” I finally caved, “but just this once!”
We set out down Redrick Street, the October leaves crunching across our path. I knew we were passing the Ichabod House, so I picked up my pace staring pointedly at the ground. “Look!” Jenny said pointing and tugging on my arm.
“Jenny! Are you crazy! Stop looking! Do you want bad luck for the rest of the year?”
“No. Something’s moving back behind the Ichabod House!”
I tugged the sleeve of her green jacket, forging ahead. “Come on. It’s just the dusk playing tricks on your eyes. Stop looking. You’ll ruin the rest of the month!”
“Sam.” She stopped walking altogether. “Look.”
I stole one glance at the house. And then I was full-on staring. Mouth open. Tonsils showing. Staring.
In the ghostly light of the half-risen harvest moon I could see the silhouettes of the Fergusons, thin and bony, rolling the most enormous, most gigantic, most hugo-ginormous onion around the back of the house.
Jenny and I looked at each other, looked back at the silhouettes, then back at each other. “What do we do, Sam?” I was still processing what I had just seen, not quite believing it when Jenny whispered, “Do you think that was Mr. Babbage’s onion?”
“No. It was an onion from the moon.”
“Of course it was Mr. Babbage’s! Who else do you know that grows vegetables bigger than livestock?”
“Oh.” Jenny said in a quiet voice, slipping her hands into her pockets. “The Fergusons keep saying they are going to win this year. Maybe they grew it?”
“Jenny. Look at their yard. Do you see anything resembling a live plant?”
“They are not the kind of people who grow things. Anyone could tell you that.”
Jenny looked at me, worry in her eyes. “What should we do then?”
“We have to tell Mr. Babbage. He will know what to do. Come on.” I grabbed her hand as we hurried down to the other end of Redrick Street and Mr. Babbage’s house. The moon was nearly all the way up over the edge by the time we reached Mr. Babbage’s house. It was hidden from the street by a huge mess of plants which stretched up to the sky… We fought our way through the jungle of his front yard and knocked. Mr. Babbage opened the door. He was a small, mousy old man who smelled like leaves and walked with a light hobble. “Come in! Come in! It’s getting too late and too cold for sprouts such as yourselves to be out on the streets!” We entered, following Mr. Babbage down a creaky, wood-floored hall to a small room with a crackling fire, worn rug and a mushy couch. “Sit down! Sit down!” He said, settling himself into a rocker by the hearth. “So what brings you two here? Tell Mr. Babbage! He doesn’t bite. He doesn’t even have”—here he spit them out on to his hand—“real teef.”
“Oh!” I said. He slurped his dentures back in, pretending not to hear. I continued. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, and you might not believe me, but I just saw a giant onion rolled back behind the Ichabod House.”
“Ah.” said Mr. Babbage in one short syllable, not upset, surprised, or angry.
“Ah?” said Jenny.
“Yes. Ah.” said Mr. Babbage looking into the fire.
“It was your onion, wasn’t it? The Fergusons. I saw…” Mr. Babbage held up one hand.
“Thank you for visiting me, young Sam and Jenny. Would you like some hot chocolate? I always like hot chocolate in October, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said, a bit confused. “But Mr. Babbage, the Freesaw County Fair is in two weeks! What will you do?”
“What do you mean what will I do? I will go to the fair as usual. Is there something the matter with that?”
“Good. Now which one of you sprouts wants some hot chocolate?”
Mr. Babbage walked us home that night under the light of the harvest moon. He told our parents that we had been helping him and he was sorry that we were late for supper. Jenny and I didn’t argue or say otherwise, so we got off the hook. Still, we wondered night and day and lunchtime too about Mr. Babbage, the giant onion at the Ichabod House, and the Freesaw County Fair.
Before we knew it, the day of the fair had come and we were all gathered in a big tent. Nearly the whole town was crammed into that tent. There was a buzz going around about the Ferguson’s entry. They wheeled it in on a cart with a blanket covering it. Some said it was a giant turnip. Others thought it was another pumpkin. One particularly blind old lady was certain that it was an asparagus. “Edna, it can’t be an asparagus. No asparagus was ever shaped like a ball like that.”
“It’s an asparagus. I never smelled a smell I hate so much as that asparagus smell. It brings back terrible memories of my childhood.”
“But you had no childhood.”
“Ah well, yes. You got me there, Helen.”
The announcer was in front of the crowd now. The Fergusons wheeled their screechy cart into the center of the tent. “Next we have the Fergusons!” the announcer cried, “with their entry: The Giant Onion!” In one swift movement, Mr. Ferguson grasped the blanket in one bony hand and unveiled the mega-onion and the crowd cheered. The Fergusons wheeled the monster onion away and the announcer was shouting over the crowd. “And last, but certainly not least, last year’s champion: Mr. Babbage!” The applause was loud, but died quickly as Mr. Babbage hobbled on stage with a covered silver platter. “Mr. Babbage has submitted for you this year, the world’s largest Brussels Sprout!” He lifted the lid. The applause was uncertain and unenthusiastic. Turns out I’m not the only one who avoids that specific vegetable.
“Arg!” The old lady called Edna cried. “The asparagus! It’s nauseating.”
“It’s a Brussels Sprout. Not an asparagus! How deaf are you Edna?”
“Ninety-seven. Thanks for asking. But oh, that stench! I may die here and now!”
The announcer was talking again. “Our judges will have their results in a few moments.”
And then the buzz was back. I looked over at Jenny. She had one eyebrow raised, not quite sure how to respond. “Do you think Mr. Babbage has a chance?” I asked, not wanting to get my hopes up.
“Probably not. Did you see how puny that thing was compared to the onion?”
“I just don’t think it’s fair. How come the Ferguson’s get to win, when they stole that onion from Mr. Babbage!”
“We don’t have any proof, though.”
“Is there anything we can do?”
“I don’t know.” Jenny said shaking her head. “I don’t know.”
Just as quickly as he disappeared, the announcer was back. “Results! Results! I have the results!” he called over the crowed. There was a hush. “In third place we have… Mrs. Edna Green with her giant asparagus!” The old lady wobbled out with her cane to accept her ribbon. After a polite applause, she to her place.
“I told you I was sick of that smell. It’s been growing for five years now, and I don’t think I could
stand it much more. And you thought I was crazy!”
“I’m sorry Edna! I didn’t realize you actually brought an asparagus. Congratulations!”
“Yes. It is really too bad I had beans for dinner, but ah well. The past is past, eh Helen?”
“And in Second Place we have…” The crowd stood silent. “Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson!” The crowd couldn’t believe it. Murmurs spread. It wasn’t right. But how? Was there a mistake? I looked and Jenny and she looked at me and we both laughed not sure what to do. “Which means that our first place winner at this year’s Freesaw County Fair is Mr. Babbage!” The crowd cheered, unsure whether they had been cheated or seen a miracle. The winners lined up with their vegetables and ribbons while the man from the newspaper snapped a bright picture. The Fergusons looked especially uncomfortable. And Mr. Babbage just stood there, smiling into the camera.
After everyone had moved on to see the other exhibits at the fair, Jenny and I approached Mr. Babbage.
“How did you do it? How did you win?” I asked Mr. Babbage as he was packing up his cart to head home.
“Sprouts! I wondered when I might see you again.”
“But how?” Jenny asked.
“It’s all in knowing the rules,” he explained. “The competition is judged relatively; how large is your vegetable in relation the second largest specimen produced that year. The onion the Ferguson’s turned in was only twice as big as my usual onion.one of which I kindly donated to the judges for reference. However, the cabbage I entered was twenty times bigger than the largest Brussels sprout they could find.”
“It was a cabbage? Not a Brussels sprout?”
“It’s all a matter of perspective, you know. A Brussels sprout and a cabbage are really the same thing. And when you have to deal with unscrupulous people, well, what’s the difference anyway?”
“Nothing, I suppose.”
“No. Everything. The difference is everything and don’t you forget it!” And Mr. Babbage finished packing up his cart and rode off into the autumn sun. “Life is fairer than you think—it’s all a matter of relativity.”
And, in a way, I believe that Mr. Babbage was right. Life is fairer than you think. It just takes a bit of perspective to see it that way.