Sarah was beginning to wonder if Ludo had been right. She had been walking in the direction he had indicated for a while now, but she had seen no sign of Hoggle. She did, however, see a wonderful array of different fruits. The further she went, the more elaborate – and experimental – they seemed to get. She saw ripe red strawberries, over which an elderly goblin cranked, of all things, a dispenser of black pepper; at another stall, customers toasted skewered grapes sandwiched between tiny squares of bread, then whole thing was gulped down after having smeared it with peanut butter (it was, she realized, an inventive approximation of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich). She even saw, much to her amusement, a rather young goblin carefully roasting bananas which had been stuffed with marshmallows and chocolate pieces over a small charcoal fire. It made her smile. 'Banana boats', as they had come to be called, happened to be her brother Toby's favourite snack, and had been introduced to them by a 'certain someone' not so long ago… on Valentine's Day*, to be exact…
Still, she didn't see Hoggle anywhere. She wondered if perhaps like Sir Didymus, he had finished selling and was also wandering among the stalls…
Everywhere she looked, goblins smiled cheerfully and beckoned her over to try their wares. No wait, not quite everywhere… at one stall, a weathered face barely peeked over the top of the table, and when the pair of beady eyes came to rest on her, they widened in surprise, and the figure hastily whipped out of sight.
Sarah called out to him and headed in the direction of his stall. His head came back into view, peering somewhat warily up at her.
"Er, um, hi Sarah," he said awkwardly. His voice sounded muffled; a scarf was wound around the lower half of his face, making him look like some sort of diminutive train-robber.
"I've been looking all over for you," Sarah said with a smile. "Sir Didymus and Ludo said you were here. What are you sell-"
"No, don't bother coming closer-!" Hoggle said in a rush, but a second too late. Sarah came to an abrupt halt, and actually took a step back.
"Ugh, what is that smell?" She had walked into the odour as though it were an invisible wall standing between her and Hoggle. It was so unexpected, it made her eyes water and her mouth go dry. She swallowed hastily, trying to breathe as little as possible.
Hoggle sighed deeply, making the scarf over his mouth puff out as he exhaled. "This is my punishment for the 'incident' last year – he said he'd make me the 'Prince of Stench', and he wasn't kidding. This year, he's assigned me to sell durians – also known as stink-fruit. As you can see, they smell-"
"-horrible!" Sarah finished for him, clamping her hands over her nose. It still didn't shut out the smell completely, and it truly was horrible – like garbage, moldy cheese, and old unwashed gym-socks, all hurled into a dumpster of rotting fish and left out in the sun.
Hoggle nodded mournfully. "I should've known this would happen. He always saves this as a punishment for people who displease him during the year, and this year, I'm it. No one wants to know you when you're stuck selling stink-fruit, and no one who has had to sell it before me has ever actually sold one." Sarah looked around, and realized that he was right. The passing goblins all looked at Hoggle's stall rather fearfully, and kept as far away from it as possible; as she watched, a goblin with knobbly elbows and a particularly protrudent nose took a step too close, and dashed off in an instant as though he had been jabbed by a pin, wheezing for breath as he dashed away. Hoggle sighed again, and Sarah's heart went out to him. He looked so miserable and lonely.
"Don't be like that, Hoggle. It's not that bad. I-In fact, I'd… like to try one."
This statement was followed by a gasp of disbelief; Sarah looked around, and every goblin within earshot hastily looked away, not daring to meet her gaze. Hoggle stared at her as though she was mad. As the pungent odour wafted towards her again, she began to think that maybe he was right.
"Don't be daft!" he exclaimed from behind his scarf. "There's no way anyone can eat one of these! They smell horrible, and the taste has gotta be…" He stopped. The taste was too repulsive to even contemplate. You might as well ask someone to drink water from the Bog of Eternal Stench.
"No really, I'll try some… I mean, it can't taste any worse than it smells… surely nothing can taste that bad… and surely Jareth wouldn't sell something that tastes…" she trailed off, suddenly feeling uncertain. After all, though most of Jareth's more malicious tendencies had been curbed since he and Sarah had officially started 'dating', one of his favourite pastimes was still torturing Hoggle – or Hodswallop, or Hagglet, or Heddric or whatever other variation of his name took his fancy. But surely he wouldn't go that far…
Either way, Sarah saw the look of intermingled horror and appreciation on Hoggle's face, and knew she couldn't back out now. She took another step forward, keeping her breathing shallow. "If you could pass me a bit…"
The fruits themselves were the shape of an almond and the size of a small grapefruit, with pale green skin that was covered all over with lumpy spines and pale yellow flesh within. Still looking disbelieving, Hoggle lifted a split half of a fruit, taking care to touch it as little as possible, and gingerly scraped away a segment of pithy flesh. Sarah took it from him at arms length, as the piece itself gave off a smell just as pungent as the rest of the stall's abundant supply. She could feel the eyes of the surrounding goblins watching her in a sort of horrified fascination. Trying her best not to breathe through her nose, Sarah edged the piece of durian closer to her mouth, and after a dramatic pause, put it in, chewing it slowly. The goblins around her gave an audible gulp. No one in the history of the market had ever dared to actually eat a stink-fruit. For most goblins, the mere smell was overwhelming; truly, humans must be a curious breed…
The stalls were strangely silent as every goblin watched with bated breath, waiting for the denouncement…
Sarah finished chewing and swallowed. She stared at Hoggle in amazement. In a voice like one who doesn't quite believe their own words, she slowly said: "It's delicious…"
"Yeah, I know!" Hoggle wailed, looking ashamed of himself. It took him a few more seconds to comprehend what she had actually said. "I told you not to! Anything that smells that disgusting has got to be…what?"
"It's delicious…" Sarah repeated in the same somewhat-awed tone of voice. At her words, a minor outbreak of chaos ensued around her. The goblins were astounded. This wasn't the reaction they had expected at all!
Hoggle looked like he was about to fall over from shock. "Delicious?" he repeated incredulously. "It can't taste any good! With a smell like that?"
"But it is," Sarah insisted to the amazed crowd around her.
"You don't have to lie to be nice…" Hoggle sounded like he couldn't decide if he were flattered or insulted.
"I'm not! I really mean it! It's one of the best-tasting things I've ever eaten!" And she meant it. Despite its horrible smell, the flesh of the fruit was pleasantly soft and had a creamy, rich flavour, almost like vanilla or almonds, and yet completely different; she couldn't quite define it. One thing was certain – it tasted incredible, almost as good as it smelt bad. Almost.
A hubbub of voices broke out around them; all the other goblins started talking at once, giving voice to their amazement and admiration. They had all been avoiding the stink-fruit stall at the market for years; to think they had been missing out on something this good…
"I recommend everyone try it," Sarah told the exuberant crowd about her. "Ignore the smell; the taste is well worth it! In fact," Sarah added in an aside to Hoggle, "if you see Sir Didymus around, tell him to try it. I'm sure he'll like it!" Since he could live in the Bog of Eternal Stench, Sarah was sure Didymus could handle the smell of the durian, and of course would enjoy the taste.
"Sure…" Hoggle still looked stunned. He nodded his head automatically. The action dislodged the scarf from over his face, making him instantly splutter and come back to himself. "You really mean it actually tastes…?"
"Here, let me try it!" a goblin with a broad face and curly, sheep-like horns piped up. "If the fair human guest can handle it…" He snatch up a piece, delicately pinched his nose with one hand, and deposited the durian in his mouth with the other; he was soon reaching for another piece, smacking his lips contentedly.
All over the place, goblins were daring each other to try some; one of them had had a stroke of genius and was passing around clothes pegs to clamp onto noses. The braver goblins showed off by eating without any protection at all, chewing happily even as their eyes watered. One particularly courageous goblin was even wearing an empty husk on his head as a hat; though his fellows gave him a wide berth, he seemed very proud of his 'badge of honour'. As word spread, a steady crowd surged towards Hoggle's stall. Soon Hoggle was slicing and distributing fruit at a cracking pace. The 'stink fruit' was an unprecedented – and wholly unpredicted – success.
"Hey Hoggle, have you tried any fruit today?" Sarah asked, skirting the crowd of sampling goblins to stand at her friend's elbow. Well, near his elbow – she stood just out of range of the durian's pervading smell.
"Nope," Hoggle replied, hastily tugging his scarf back into place. "When you're managing the stink-fruit stall, nobody wants to know you." As he said this, calls came for more fruit; he split another husk, making the crowd step back a pace as the smell emanated from it, then push forward again to share it round. "I probably won't get a chance now," Hoggle added, "what with the sudden demand and all; I'll be working right up til the end of the thirteenth hour." In the middle of the square, the large clock showed that it was half-past-twelve.
"I'll go and get you something for you if you like," Sarah offered. "Any preference?"
"No, not really," Hoggle replied distractedly.
"I'll come back with something, then. Won't be a minute."
Hoggle grunted, not looking up. Sarah sauntered away, looking back at the crowd thronging around him with a smile on her face. In an instant, Hoggle's stall had gone from the least-popular in the entire market to most-popular. And though he kept his gruff manner as he worked diligently away, serving the still-reeking fruit to the enthusiastic crowd, he seemed pleased. She could see a hint of a smile around the sides of his scarf. She felt like she'd done a very good deed – although she wasn't sure what Jareth would think. He would have to come up with a new punishment for next year…
She remembered the durian's stench with a shudder, and wondered what worse-smelling horror he would manage to invent next.
Author's Note: Yeah, I know, it's taken me way too long to come up with another chapter. I put this story on hiatus for a bit while I worked on it - I lost my direction for a bit. I seem to have regained it now, though. I'll definitely have it completed this year - I just have to fit it in around my school work. Then I might actually get around to the Hallowe'en story I've had in mind for ages.
I like to think of this story as slightly educational. Although I've never tried durians myself, they are indeed very real - and apparently smell really horrible!
Sorry this chapter is so short - and that it took so long!
*See the previous story in the series, 'Of Cupids and Kings', for details.