Boromir took a spoonful of his gruel – and pulled a disgusted face. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever tasted,” he pronounced.
Merry snorted out a laugh. “You have no-one to blame but yourself.”
“I’m well aware.” Boromir set aside his bowl with an air of resignation.
“It’s vile and you should feel bad,” said Pippin.
“Don’t listen to him,” said Merry. “You did your best.”
“His best isn’t good enough,” said Pippin into his bowl.
“No, he’s right,” said Boromir. “It is vile.”
“It’s not so bad,” said Merry. “There’s far worse things we could be eating.”
“Like what?” said Pippin.
“An entire bowlful of worms,” said Merry after a moment’s thought.
Pippin gave him a hard look. “I’d rather eat a bowl full of worms than Boromir’s cooking,” he said. “And I’ve eaten loads of worms.”
He went back to his unsatisfying dinner.
The rest of the company had, for the most part, not been paying much attention to their conversation, concerned as they were with their own talk and their own food. But they must have all been at least half-listening, for at that moment an uneasy silence descended as each of them processed what they had just heard.
Boromir looked at Merry over Pippin’s head, his expression a picture of confusion. It was a look that said, does this make sense to you, because I am lost. He mouthed, what?
Merry shrugged and tried to communicate by furious and puzzled gestures that he didn’t know what Pippin was talking about either. Boromir sat back for a moment, none the wiser and by the look of him still more confused.
All the eyes of the company were on them now, everyone around the rough circle willing someone – someone else – anyone else – to ask.
Boromir cleared his throat. He said, “Pippin?”
“Hm?” Pippin looked up from his dinner, wide-eyed and seemingly oblivious to the confusion he had unleashed.
In careful, measured tones that suggested to Merry he already knew he’d regret asking, Boromir said, “why have you eaten so many worms?”
Pippin gazed vacantly up at Boromir as if he didn’t know what he was talking about. Possibly he’d already forgotten what he’d gone and said. But then he said, “oh!” Putting down his spoon, he went on, “that’s an interesting story, actually.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Boromir.
“You see,” said Pippin, either not noticing or not caring that he was now the centre of attention. “When I was a little boy, my sister Pervinca dared me to eat a worm, so I did.”
“I see,” said Boromir gravely.
“And then a bit later my sister Pimpernel came to me and said Pippin, you ate a worm for ‘Vinca, will eat a worm for me. And I said, no I will not, because eating worms is gross. And then she said –”
From the other side of the circle came a quiet snort of laughter from Frodo. Pippin shot him a look – and then all at once seemed to become aware that everyone was listening. He looked at the attentive company with an air of befuddled pride.
“Go on,” Boromir prompted.
“Oh, right,” said Pippin, going back to his story as if nothing had happened. “She said, will you eat a worm for me if I give you tuppence. And I thought that was a pretty good deal, so I took the tuppence upfront and ate another worm.”
“Oh, my,” said Merry softly, seeing where this was going.
“So then – well, I don’t know precisely what happened, but I suppose Pimpernel must have told all her friends because after that other children kept offering me money to eat worms so I just kept doing it.” With that, he went back to his gruel.
A stunned silence descended as they processed what he had told them – and realised that he intended to offer no further explanation.
“I have so many questions,” said Merry.
Everyone around the circle began talking at once. “Why would you –” Frodo was saying. “You ate how many worms?” said Boromir. Gandalf intoned, “Peregrin Took,” but whatever admonishment he’d planned was drowned out in the chorus. “That’s vile, sir, it’s really vile,” Sam was saying.
Pippin set down his mug. He held out his hands, shushing them. “One at a time,” he said.
There was a moment’s quiet, no-one, Merry thought, quite daring to be the first to jump in. Then Boromir said, “how old were you?”
“About twelve,” said Pippin.
“That’s old enough to know better,” said Boromir.
“Probably,” Pippin agreed with a shrug.
“How many worms did you eat?” said Frodo.
“I don’t know, I didn’t keep count,” said Pippin.
“How much money did you make?” said Sam.
“I don’t know, I did not keep count,” Pippin said. “Also I put the price up a few times when people started getting comfy.”
“What did you do with all the tuppences?” said Gimli.
“Well, I was twelve,” said Pippin. He stuck his spoon in his mouth and sucked it clean. “So, I spent them, immediately, on sweetmeats.”
“Why am I only hearing about this now?” said Frodo.
“It’s never come up,” said Pippin.
“Why am I only hearing about this now?” Merry demanded, steadily more affronted.
“It has never come up,” said Pippin.
“You can’t just not tell people things like this, Pip.” Merry crossed his arms. “How could you keep this from me.”
“I don’t tell you everything I do,” said Pippin.
“This cannot have been good for your insides,” said Aragorn.
Pippin motioned at him with his spoon, and said, “no obvious ill effects.”
“Did you… enjoy eating the worms?” said Gimli.
“No,” said Pippin firmly. “Eating worms is gross and watching people eat worms is gross.”
“Then why did you keep on doing it?” said Boromir, bewildered.
“For the tuppences,” Pippin said as if it were obvious, which Merry supposed it was, in a way.
“How long did this go on?” said Frodo.
“A year, maybe?” said Pippin. “I’m not sure.”
“A year?” said Merry. “How did I never know about this?”
“Well I only did it in Tuckborough,” said Pippin as if that explained everything. Merry broke down into mildly hysterical laughter.
“How often were you eating the worms, sir?” said Sam.
“Once or twice a month,” said Pippin with a shrug. “Once three in a week.”
“How did you find so many people who wanted you to eat worms?” said Merry.
“Well, I got a lot of repeat customers,” said Pippin. “Oh, do you remember Nora Banks?”
“Yes?” said Merry.
“She had me eat four worms,” said Pippin.
Merry almost choked. “Four?” And Nora Banks had always seemed like such an ordinary hobbit.
“I don’t understand it either,” said Pippin.
“Hang on,” said Frodo. “Why did you stop?”
“Oh, that’s a good question,” said Merry. “Why did you stop?”
“I imagine he got sick of eating worms,” said Gandalf, with a look in his eye as if that had damn well better be the answer.
“Oh – yes, I forgot that part,” said Pippin, ignoring Gandalf entirely. “What happened is, I put frogspawn in my sister Pearl’s bed so she told mother about the worms and mother said it was,” Pippin said with exaggerated air-quotes, “dirty and common and I was never to do it again on pain of being confined to Great Smials till I came of age. So, I stopped. It was getting tiresome anyway.”
“I see,” said Gandalf very gravely. “And why did you put frogspawn in your sister’s bed?”
“Because she pushed me into the millpond,” said Pippin with his spoon in his mouth. “And as for that, I don’t remember why, but I probably deserved it.”
“No doubt,” said Gandalf.
“Your mother thinks eating worms is common?” Sam butted in. “What does she think common people do?” he went on, wounded.
“Now, to be fair,” said Frodo, holding out a soothing hand, “it might have been the taking money for it she was objecting to.”
“So eating worms for nothing would have been acceptable?” said Gimli, baffled.
“No no, that would still have been dirty, it just wouldn’t have been common,” Frodo explained.
“That don’t sound right,” said Sam.
“No, you don’t know Pippin’s mother, that’s exactly how she thinks,” Merry informed him.
“It is,” said Pippin cheerfully.
“Hm,” said Sam, not placated.
“So was it just worms?” said Frodo. “Or –”
“Just worms,” said Pippin. “Once Nora Banks tried to get me to eat a slug but I said no. I have standards.”
“A slug?” said Merry. He was being forced by circumstances beyond his control to re-evaluate his opinion on Nora Banks. And she a married hobbit now!
“Explain to me how eating a slug is worse than eating a worm,” said Gimli.
“Slug are wet,” said Pippin, with an air of naturaly.
Sam said, suddenly, “d’you know what the worst part of that story is, sir?”
“What’s that?” said Pippin.
“You mean it’s not the worm-eating?” said Boromir.
“The worst of it is, that’s likely the closest you’ve ever come to doing an honest day’s work,” said Sam.
At that, Merry and Pippin both fell about laughing. “You’re not wrong!” said Pippin.
“It is,” said Merry. “It really is.”
“Don’t see why you’re laughing, you’re no better,” Sam grumbled.
“I never said I was,” said Merry, wiping away a tear. “Oh, dear.”
Stepping forward into the circle came Legolas. For the first time since the subject of worms had come up, he spoke. “I have a question.”
“Go on,” said Pippin.
Legolas said, “do you still eat worms?”
Pippin took his spoon thoughtfully from his mouth. “Well,” he said. “That would depend what I was getting paid.”
Legolas looked pensive, and Aragorn looked at each of them in turn and said, “no.” He pointed at Legolas and then at Pippin, saying, “no – no. I know what you’re thinking. Both of you. Don’t you dare.”
“I will,” Legolas began.
“You will not!” said Aragorn.
“I will,” said Legolas, “if you eat a worm, do your share of the chores – for a week.”
Pippin rubbed his chin. “Interesting.”
“Legolas, sit down,” said Aragorn.
“Make it two weeks and you provide the worm,” said Pippin, not paying Aragorn any mind. “And we have a deal, my tall friend.”
“Agreed,” said Legolas, and striding across the circle he offered Pippin his hand. They shook solemnly and Legolas strode away as quickly as he had come.
“What are you doing?” said Gimli, appalled.
“I want to see if he’ll do it,” said Legolas. “Farewell. I go to find a worm.” So saying, he dashed out of the circle and into the trees.
“Legolas – come back –” Aragorn called, to no avail.
Meanwhile, Pippin smugly picked up his spoon and resumed eating his gruel. There were a few moments of uneasy silence.
Merry said, “you look so pleased with yourself.”
“I just got out of chores for two whole weeks,” said Pippin cheerfully.
“No, you did not,” said Aragorn.
“Well, I will have once I eat the worm,” said Pippin.
“You’re not going to eat any worms,” said Aragorn. “I won’t allow it.”
“Try and stop me,” said Pippin.
“I,” said Aragorn, stammering slightly, “I could absolutely stop you.” Merry had no doubt that he could, but he did rather think that stopping Pippin from eating something he had set his heart on eating might take more force than Aragorn was prepared to use against a hobbit – and he knew it.
“Try it,” said Pippin, and doggedly went back to eating.”
“You’re not really going to eat the worm, are you?” said Sam plaintively.
“I’m absolutely going to eat a worm,” said Pippin.
“Please don’t, sir,” said Sam. “You’re putting me off my dinner.”
“I’ll eat yours if you don’t want it,” said Pippin. Merry shot him a look. “I find it’s best to eat worms on a full stomach,” he explained.
“You disgust me,” said Merry.
“Nobody is eating any worms,” said Aragorn. “I forbid it. Understood?”
Pippin looked up from his dinner, and with is sweetest and most innocent expression said, “understood.”
The uneasy silence descended again. Boromir cleared his throat, and said, “I would also prefer you do not eat the worm.”
“Noted,” said Pippin. “I understand.”
It was then that, silent as a phantom, Legolas loomed back into the circle from the shadows of the woods. He looked straight at Pippin aid, extending his arm with a flourish, held out a worm.
“Oh!” said Pippin, putting down his bowl and wiping his mouth. “That was quick.”
“The worm,” said Legolas. Pippin got to his feet. Legolas proffered the worm more emphatically.
“Now,” said Aragorn as Pippin crossed the circle. “Now, you said you wouldn’t.”
“No no, he just said he understood you didn’t want him to,” said Frodo. “You’ll have to do a lot better than that.”
“Oh, hell,” Merry muttered to himself, and grabbing his waterskin he hastened to join Pippin in the middle of the circle.
“He’s a big fellow,” said Pippin, inspecting the worm dangling from Legolas’s fingers.
“Too big?” said Legolas.
Pippin scoffed. “No,” he said, and accepted the worm. “As if.”
“I meant it,” said Aragorn, looming up beside them. “I forbid this.”
“I also forbid it,” said Gandalf.
More footsteps clumped over the grass. Pippin, who had been engrossed in inspecting the worm – which was a very large and very wriggly worm – looked up, and saw that one by one the whole company had traipsed over for a closer look, their dinner abandoned.
“This is disgusting,” said Gimli, eying the worm.
“And yet you’re going to watch,” said Pippin. “You’re all going to watch.”
“I’m not,” said Sam. “I’m out. Call me when it’s over,” he said, and scurried away to the treeline.
“Will do!” Frodo called over his shoulder. At Merry’s look he said, “I want to see if he’ll really do it.”
“Do you,” said Merry, “not know Pippin?”
“Sam’s the only one of you who has any taste,” said Pippin, eyes fixed on the worm, from which he was now carefully removing the dirt with his forefinger and thumb.
“You said that as if you’re not about to eat the worm,” said Boromir.
“Oh, I assure you, I’ll hate every moment of it,” said Pippin. “I don’t understand why Legolas wants to watch. I don’t understand why any of you want to watch.” He looked up at Boromir and said, “but I’m still going to do it.”
“No, you’re not,” said Aragorn.
“Try and stop me,” said Pippin, once again invested in cleaning off his worm.
“What are you doing to it?” said Frodo.
“Getting the dirt off,” said Pippin absently.
“Oh, yes,” said Frodo. “Because if you ate a dirty worm, that would be gross.”
“You’re the one who wants to watch me eat it,” said Pippin. “And, I want it noted, Legolas is the only one who’s compensating me for my trouble. The rest of you are getting a free show.”
“I don’t want to watch,” said Merry. “I’m just here for moral support. I want that noted.”
“Is it over?” called Sam in a wavering voice.
“No, he’s getting the dirt off the worm,” said Frodo.
The response came, a bewildered moment later, “why?”
“Right,” said Pippin, looking the worm over, evidently satisfied with its state of cleanliness. “Here I go.”
“Pippin.” Aragorn pointed at him very sternly. “I order you – nay, I command you – not to eat that worm.”
He said it so fiercely that for a moment Merry was sure Pippin would back down. But then he caught the look on Pippin’s face and thought oh, no.
Pippin locked eyes with Aragorn. Aragorn stared back with a formidable stare. Pippin’s eyes had taken on that particular glint that Merry knew from hard-earned experience meant he was no longer in full control of his faculties. Someone had told Pippin not to do something and now by hell or high water he was going to do it if it killed him.
Very quickly, Pippin folded up the worm, tilted back his head, and dropped it into his mouth.
Several voices cried out in disgusted horror. Pippin doubled over as if he was about to be sick, his hand going to his mouth. After a gut-churning moment he stood up straight and with audible, gagging difficulty he swallowed it, his eyes wet. Merry shoved the waterskin into his hand and he grabbed for it, gulping down water. All the while Legolas watched with rapt fascination.
Pippin gasped for breath. He wiped his mouth and then his eyes. He said, “oh, he was a wriggly one. That was so much worse than I remembered. Oh, my.” He looked up at Legolas. “Satisfied?”
“Entirely,” said Legolas.
“Legolas, why?” said Aragorn.
“I wanted to see if he would eat the worm,” said Legolas. “Hush. I’ve never seen anyone wilfully eat a live worm before. For my people new experiences are few and far between. We take them where we can.”
Pippin gestured at him with the waterskin and said, “very wise.”
“What else will you eat for payment?” said Legolas.
“Nothing that wriggles,” said Pippin.
“Please, please don’t eat anything else for payment,” said Gandalf.
“You can’t tell me what to do,” said Pippin.
“Well, he can try,” said Frodo. Over his shoulder he said, “Sam! It’s over. Worm’s gone.”
“Oh, hell,” said Sam, and he trundled back over, looking pale and every bit as nauseous as those of the group who’d actually watched the worm go down Pippin’s throat. “He did it?”
“He did it,” said Frodo. “It was hideous.”
“Anyway.” Pippin pressed his hands together. “The show’s over. I’m going to finish my dinner. Good-bye.” He turned on his heel and went back to his spot, and at that their small, tighter circle dispersed by degrees into its previous looser one.
Pippin said down, picked up his bowl and spoon, and began to eat as if nothing had happened.
“I want you to know,” said Merry, joining him, “I am ashamed and embarrassed to be related to you.”
“That’s fair, I’m ashamed and embarrassed to be me, and I am me,” said Pippin. Setting down his mostly empty bowl he pressed his hands to his stomach and pulled a face. “Hm.”
“What?” said Merry.
Pippin looked down at his stomach. “I think I can feel him wriggling in there.”
There was a chorus of disgusted noises. “Please,” said Boromir. “Oh, please, never speak of his again.”
“And yet,” said Pippin, reaching for his spoon. “You watched.”
“Ah,” said Boromir, unable to deny it.
“That poor worm,” said Sam miserably. “Worms are good little fellows, they don’t deserve to be et by Mister Pippin like that.”
“Well, don’t worry,” said Pippin. “Never again. Not for all the tuppences in the world would I eat another.”
He returned to scraping his bowl clean and quiet once more descended.
Then, breaking the silence, Gandalf said, “I really must say, I find it most peculiar that you’d consider it beneath you to eat a slug when your people are quite happy to eat snails.”
“Eh?” said Pippin.
“What’s wrong with eating snails?” said Frodo.
Oh, no, thought Merry as around the company people exclaimed in disgusted and confusion. Not again.