Bad Poets Society
by James Aquilone
Kilgore Birch never thought a bowl of thin pea soup would be his undoing, especially since he stole it from a blind vicar, but here he was in the poet-king’s dungeon.
He still wasn’t sure how the vicar had identified him. Kilgore wondered if he smelled guilty.
His wife, Martha, was always harping on him to stop breaking the law and get an “honest job.” But honest jobs were still jobs, and Kilgore treasured his sleep more than his integrity.
Of course dungeons weren’t great places to catch up on one’s sleep. And as dungeons went, this one was particularly dungeon-y: full of oily shadows, moist stone walls, and anguished cries. The worst part, though, was the food; namely, the fact that there wasn’t any.
But when the guards came for Kilgore, his thoughts weren’t on food but poetry. They were the kind of thoughts one has just before one starts talking gibberish and foaming at the mouth.
When Kilgore was brought to the great hall, he was surprised by King Rokenfort’s appearance. He expected a thin man with sunken cheeks and dark circles under his eyes—in other words, a poet. But the king didn’t look as if he had missed many meals or naps. King Rokenfort sat, plump and ruddy, on his throne, his head resting on his hand.
“I beseech thee to read with a keen and cunning eye,” the poet king instructed the first man brought before him, “minding the delicate imagery, the tender tropes, the subtle play betwixt the tragic and the comedic.”
As Kilgore watched the proceedings from the back of the room, he wondered if he would ever see his dear Martha again. Then he imagined her standing over his casket with an “I told you so” expression on her face. Hopefully, the undertaker would sew his eyes shut.
The king nodded at his chief advisor, who removed a piece of parchment from a velvet-lined box and handed it to the defendant. He took the document, holding it at arm’s length as if he feared it would attack him.
“Hold thy wagging and slagging tongues!” the king ordered, even though the court was already silent.
The accused man set to reading, and it wasn’t long before the parchment began to flutter like a spastic bird in his quivering hands. Four times he stopped and looked up. But the king only nodded.
When the man was done, he returned the parchment to the advisor, who placed it back inside the velvet-lined box.
King Rokenfort rose. “Poetry,” he intoned, “is the epitome of truth and beauty, God’s greatest gift to the world; therefore, it stands to reason that if one doth not appreciate verse, then one must necessarily be a godless, cretinous malefactor. How better, then, to determine guilt or innocence?” The poet king glared at the defendant. “If thou are dishonest in thine opinion, much the worser thy punishment will be. Dost thou understand?”
The accused man nodded.
The king motioned to his Minister of Honesty. The old man crept forward like a caterpillar. The M-of-H, as he was commonly called, detected untruths better than a fly detected excrement. It wasn’t known how he came upon his powers, but they were unquestionable. Therefore, all of the accused told the truth, and as a consequence, all said rather nasty things about the king’s poems. For all his love of poetry, King Rokenfort was an awful versifier. Sadly, passion doesn’t always equal talent.
The M-of-H stood before the defendant and bore into his eyes.
The king leaned forward, smiled thinly. “So, dear subject, what didst thou think of mine poem?”
The defendant rubbed his legs. He twitched. He glanced at the M-of-H. The minister narrowed his colorless eyes. Some people say it is that lack of color that gives the M-of-H his power, that his eyes see more clearly. “Your Majesty,” the defendant said, “I found the poem to be—” He coughed into his fist. “I thought the poem in question was…oh, boy…” Then the words came tumbling out. “I thought the poem was amateurish and cliché. The imagery was awkward and juvenile. The rhymes were predictable, and I didn’t understand how a wheelbarrow could be like a frog.”
It wasn’t often the king received such an articulate critique, but it also wasn’t often that he had a doctor of letters in his court.
“Enough!” the king shouted, raising his hand. “I have a verdict reached.” The king inhaled, stuck out his chest, and said, “I, the King of Song, find you guilty of poaching—as well as hating poetry! I sentence thee to death by hanging. May God have mercy on your illiterate soul.”
Three guards grabbed the man, who was now weeping, and carried him back to the dungeon. He was the sixth person sentenced to death that day.
“Is the entire kingdom with hard-headed cretins filled?” the king asked, dropping back onto his throne. “Do any of mine subjects have taste? I almost pity them for their inability to appreciate good verse. This is the best poem ever I have penned.” He was correct. It was the best poem he had ever written. And yet it was still an insult to wordsmithery.
The next defendant was brought before the king. It was Kilgore. He was not a man of letters. In fact, the only thing he had ever read was the Bible, and that only because he was severely beaten.
Kilgore was given the parchment. He read it and returned it to the advisor.
“And what didst thou think of mine poem?” the king asked in a bored voice.
The guards stood ready. The M-of-H stared into Kilgore’s eyes. The king sat with a pinched expression on his face, waiting to pass another death sentence.
“Your Majesty, I cannot lie,” Kilgore said in a bright and loud voice. “I thought your poem was swell!”
All eyes were on the M-of-H. The old man squinted at Kilgore, cocked his head to the left and then to the right, he leaned forward and studied Kilgore’s face from every possible angle. He turned to the king and joyously shouted: “The accused is telling the truth! He truly enjoyed the poem!”
The court erupted in applause. The king sprang off his throne. “Huzzah!” he shouted.
“I found your poem beautiful and eloquent,” Kilgore continued. “My heart burned with joy and sorrow upon reading your words.”
The king placed his hand over his own heart and beamed like a new bride. Then he did a little jig. When he returned to his senses, he said in a choked-up voice: “Kilgore Birch, you stand accused of theft. I, the King of Song, find you innocent.”
Kilgore bowed. “Thank you, Your Majesty. It really was a fine poem.”
When Kilgore got home, Martha said, between sobs: “How did you trick the M-of-H? No one has ever tricked that old codger.”
Kilgore looked confused. “I didn’t trick him at all. I sincerely enjoyed the poem.”
Martha’s eyes grew wide. “Phaa! You have no taste, Kilgore! You never did.”
He grabbed his wife and held her tight. “That is not true,” he said. “I married the most beautiful woman in Song, did I not?”
Martha smiled. It was a hideous smile, full of crooked and black teeth. It didn’t look much like a smile at all but an expression one gets while sucking on a lemon. Truth be told, Kilgore’s wife was as beautiful as a sickly toad. His taste in women was no better than his taste in poetry.
“That’s all well and good and I’m glad you’re alive,” Martha said, “but we have nothing for supper. I heard they’re looking for a new stable hand in the next village.”
“Let’s not rush to that,” Kilgore said. “I’ll figure something out.”
That night they went to bed hungry, as they did most nights. But Kilgore stayed awake and thought and thought and thought. Just before drifting off to sleep, an idea came to him.
In the morning, Kilgore was sitting at the kitchen table when he heard Martha wake up and call him in a shocked voice. He never awoke before Martha. Most mornings she had to beat him with a broom handle to get him out of bed.
“Are you ill, Kilgore?” Martha shouted.
Kilgore grunted in reply.
“Well, I hope you’re not hungry, because I have nothing to fix for breakfast,” she said as she shuffled out of the bedroom. It was true. Their lone cow died a week ago. The chickens hadn’t hatched any eggs in two weeks. There was no bread in the larder, and meat was a distant memory. Kilgore hadn’t had a decent breakfast in weeks.
When Martha entered the kitchen, she rubbed her sleepy eyes in disbelief and exclaimed, “Kilgore, you rotten scamp!”
He grinned, popped a devilled egg into his mouth, and then swept his arms over the table, which was overflowing with food: roast duck, fresh cream, steaming loaves of bread, apples, figs, pea soup…
Martha sat down and hurriedly filled her plate. As she sucked the meat off a chicken bone, she said, “No good will come of this,” and then began on the roast duck.
Seconds after Kilgore took the last sip of pea soup, there was a loud knock on the door. It was the king’s guard. Kilgore was arrested.
After a brief stay in the dungeon, he was brought before King Rokenfort.
“Didst thou read mine new poem? I penned it yesternight.”
“I have, Your Majesty.”
“And what is thine opinion?”
“I found it better than the last. Your Majesty has outdone himself!”
The M-of-H nodded his approval to the king.
The king threw his arms up over his head and laughed in triumph. He seemed relieved. A tanner, a fool, and a scullery maid had already been executed for detesting the king’s latest work, an ode to chamber pots.
“You do me honor, fellow,” the king said. “I find thee innocent of all charges.”
When Kilgore returned home, Martha threw her arms around him. “Escaped twice!” she exclaimed. “You must have the worst taste in the world.” Her ugly face burned with joy, though you probably couldn’t tell; it was filled with so many warts and wrinkles.
“I’m famished,” Kilgore said. “Give me supper.”
“There’s nothing left. I ate it all after you had gone. I was filled with such grief.”
“Never mind. We will never go hungry again.”
Kilgore immediately left the house and stole two cows, three chickens, a goat, and a barrel of pickles. He barely had time to finish three of the pickles before he was arrested again. It was a mere formality. After declaring the king’s latest poem “a tour de force,” Kilgore was allowed to keep his “possessions.”
Over the next several months, Kilgore stole two dozen horses, four chests of gold, and three diamond rings for Martha. He was arrested each time and each time found innocent of all charges. He saw no fault with any of the king’s poems (even the one comparing his love to a well-seasoned ham). In fact, it seemed to Kilgore that they were improving. Of course, all the other defendants in Song despised them and were, consequently, executed.
Though Kilgore was now one of the richest men in the land, he wasn’t satisfied. One morning, he awoke early (well before Martha) and stole the entire Kingdom of Song. He did this by breaking into the Hall of Records, crossing out the names on every land grant, and entering his own.
The next day Kilgore was arrested for fraud and brought before King Rokenfort. Usually when Kilgore was arrested, the king was overjoyed. This time he looked like a defendant puzzling over one of the king’s metaphors.
“I am afraid I have run out of poems,” the king said, and shrugged in apology. “Thou hast read everything I have ever written. Therefore, I have no choice but to execute thee.”
Kilgore was locked in the dungeon to await his execution, via decapitation, the next morning. While lying in his cell, he thought and thought and thought.
In the morning, he was brought to a wooden platform in the center of town. On the platform were a block of scarred wood and a hooded executioner with a large axe resting on his shoulder. As Kilgore mounted the stairs, Martha broke free from the crowd of spectators and embraced her husband. “Oh, Kilgore,” she said, her hideous face streaked with tears, “you finally did it, you dumb scamp! Now what will I do?” Kilgore kissed her on the cheek (though it was actually a wart that his lips touched) and then gently pushed her back into the crowd.
A guard led Kilgore to the block of wood. King Rokenfort rose from his palanquin and joined his only admirer on the platform.
“Any last words?” the king asked.
“Actually, I have a request.”
“I have written my own poem. I ask to be judged on that.”
The king thought for a moment and then said, “Very well.”
From his back pocket, Kilgore removed the poem, which he had written moments after awaking that morning, and handed it to King Rokenfort. The crowd watched in dreadful silence as he read. Martha hid her head in her armpit from nerves. Kilgore whistled tunelessly.
When the king finished, he crumpled the paper into a ball and said, “That was the most artless, baseless, and horrid poem I have ever read. It was an insult to the parchment upon which it was written.” And it was.
Kilgore threw out his chest and, in his most impressive voice, said, “Seize that man!” And they did. After all, only a godless, cretinous malefactor would speak so harshly of a poem.
King Rokenfort was immediately beheaded in Kilgore’s place, and Kilgore was given the throne of Song. Martha did a little jig in celebration, though it looked more like someone angrily stomping grapes.
Kilgore’s first act as king was to abolish the absurd practice of trial by poetry criticism. Thereafter, the subjects of Song were allowed to love and hate poetry without fear of execution. In Kilgore’s opinion, there was something more true and beautiful than even poetry, God’s truly greatest gift to the world. From that day forth, guilt or innocence in Song would be determined by the defendant’s opinion of Queen Martha’s beauty.
About the Author
James Aquilone was raised on Saturday morning cartoons, comic books, sitcoms, and Cap’n Crunch. Amid the Cold War, he dreamed of being a jet fighter pilot but decided against the military life after realizing it would require him to wake up early. He had further illusions of being a stand-up comedian, until a traumatic experience on stage forced him to seek a college education. Brief stints as an alternative rock singer/guitarist and child model also proved unsuccessful. Today he battles a severe chess addiction while trying to write in the speculative fiction game.
About the Narrator
Graeme Dunlop is a Software Solution Architect. Despite his somewhat mixed accent, he was born in Australia. He loves the spoken word and believes it has the ability to lift the printed word above and beyond cold words on a page. He and Barry J. Northern founded Cast of Wonders in 2011 and can be found narrating or hosting the occasional episode, or working on projects behind the scenes. He has read stories for all of Escape Artists podcasts. Graeme lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Amanda, and crazy boy dog, Jake. Follow him on Twitter.
About the Artist
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.