I found myself in a strange land a while back, taking time off to reconnect with some relatives in Eastern Europe I'd not seen since they visited the U.S. when I was a child. They were royalty, and I was fascinated by their stories of the vast estates of their homeland and spent many nights dreaming of the palaces and pageantry of my noble cousins. I remembered them vividly because they were punctilious and burdensome when they visited, contemptuous of currency — because of their elevated social status, obviously — and were plainly habituated to the immoderacy of royal living. My siblings and I diligently attended to their regal needs, which were numerous.
During this visit I hoped to learn jousting, broadsword technique, and especially royal condescension toward peasants, a quality I grew to admire after meeting nobility. I intended to severely train my vassals to fill and clean my pipes, rub out flakes, and fetch sumptuous arrays of tobaccos to my stately royal quarters in Stanionberg Castle. My cousin the Archduke had tendered the invitation, offering a knighthood if I could arrive quickly for matters of imminent state import, so I was an honored guest and anticipating much aristocratic pomp and circumstance.
Stanionberg is the capital of the Stanionovitch principality and is far from civilization, as Stanions worldwide prefer. I arrived in Europe and took a series of decaying biplanes into the region, then a dilapidated, roofless bus, and then rented the only additional transportation available, a dog cart, for the final 20 kilometers to Stanionberg.
"He's perfectly amiable," said the clerk at Ivan's Dog Rental. "Clients who stay out of his peripheral vision do okay, mainly. We require a cash deposit, please."
I held no particular sentiment regarding dog carts before experiencing one, but I did afterward. The dog was the size of a bison (I'm unconvinced that it was an actual dog; at best it was a genetic retrogression to the metric-tons dire wolves of the Late Pleistocene epoch) and it scarcely altered its gait to eat any and all wildlife straying across the path: centipedes, badgers, newts, Eurasian brown bears, it didn't matter. It placidly devoured everything, and I chose not to deliver an opinion.
The trail wound through a ghoulish, dismal forest where sound projected only a few meters before collapsing in puddles of exasperated tone and pitch. Benumbed growls laboriously extricated themselves from the shadows, while vines overhead made snatches at me with thorny tentacles, attempting to drag me into the forest, perhaps for fertilizer — to supplement nicotine content in the species, I guess.
The dog stopped and the shadows deepened as a werewolf crossed the path. He was an unimpressive werewolf, only about seven feet tall, but brawny, and was casually gnawing a reindeer haunch and reading a romance novel as he glanced my way and waved. I waved back.
The last kilometers were uneventful, except for a swarm of unmannered goblins scrabbling past the cart, swearing and belching as they passed, uproariously entertained when one of their number stomped too close and became dog food.
I emerged from the forest shortly thereafter and entered the city of Stanionberg, stopping a resident to locate my relatives. He immediately recognized the names of the Archduke Yaroslav of the Stanionovitch Clan and his wife, the Duchess Vladislava.
My dignity was moderately perforated by the time I escaped the swampy derision of the Bog of Uncouth Mockery
"Why would you want to venture there, stranger?" asked the simple peasant.
"We are a cousin of the Archduke," I said imperiously, "so have a care in addressing us. We've not yet been apprised of our official title, but for now, 'Your Imperial Sovereign Monarch, Sultan and Knight of the Realm, Kaiser Chuck the First,' will suffice. Aside from royal blood, however, we are not extraordinarily superior to yourself and you may call us, 'Sir Chuck the Condescending.'"
"Of course, Mr. Serchak; forgive my impertinence. Just head toward the garbage dump on the south side of town, then follow the swamp road east toward Lake Bothersome, and the path through the Bog of Uncouth Mockery takes you to Yaro and Vladie's place. But I wouldn't do any dog trading with Yaro, if I were you."
"No trading, just visiting. This is a rental dog."
"Yeah, I thought it looked like a new model. Sleek. Self-fueling?"
"Don't let your arms or head get too close."
My dignity was moderately perforated by the time I escaped the swampy derision of the Bog of Uncouth Mockery, but I soon entered a clearing and immediately recognized my cousins, Dutchess Vladislava and Archduke Yaroslav.
"Welcome to Stanionberg Castle," called the Archduke. He was smoking a traditional Ulmer pipe, its windcap attached by baling twine.
"Just look around," said Vladislava. "This palace has been here for 800 years."
"It's three acres of rubble with a shack in the middle." I climbed down from the dog cart. "It's a couple football fields of big stones, no more palatial than a potato field. Is this an historical site? Where's the current castle?"
"It's right over there," said Yaroslav, pointing at the thatched hut in the center of the ruins. "It's experienced some deterioration over the centuries, but it keeps the goblins out. That's why you're here: to return us to our ancient glory."
"I appear to have been hoodwinked. You made me peel grapes endlessly for you when I was a child." I unconsciously wiped my hands on my shirt. "I administered daily royal foot rubs. I can't believe I came here for a knighthood; I should have bought one on eBay." I placed my hands on my knees, leaning forward to fortify blood flow to my prefrontal cortex. "I need a moment, please; I may indulge in an episode of unseemly agitation."
"Nice dog you have there," said Yaroslav. "Have you thought about trading up to something sportier?"
"It's a rental."
"Even better. We'll negotiate after your expedition."
"I need a pipe," I said, and relit the Canadian I'd been smoking, almost committing the counterproductive blunder of leaning against my dog to relax.
"Expedition first," said Vladislava. "Yaro traded our last cow, we're penniless, and supper depends on you."
I puffed again on my Stanwell, an especially fine sandblast that has served me well for decades, especially with straight Virginias, and considered fleeing into the bog.
Yaroslav extracted a vial from his breeches pocket. "Magic tobacco seeds," he said. He poked a hole in the earth with his forefinger, poured the contents of the vial into it, and brushed dirt over the top. "Yes, the seeds unfortunately cost our entire cow, but that was a bargain, as you'll see." Small leaves immediately appeared, growing larger by the moment, and soon we were dancing out of the way as a tobacco stalk expanded in diameter and hurtled into the sky, tobacco leaves the size of ballistic reentry parachutes suspended from its branches.
"How does this giant tobacco stalk pertain to me?"
"There's treasure above, according to folklore," said Yaroslav. "Vintage tobaccos and rare pipes worth trillions of Stanionovitch rubles, enough to rebuild the palace. I've done some research: you know about pipes and can identify the most valuable. And we need a trusted kinsman of the Stanionovitch Clan to loot— uh, explore, and return here with the treasure. As Archduke, I'm too important to risk the climb, so in the unlikely event of catastrophe we contacted someone we wouldn't mi— that is, someone we knew could triumph over any contingency. You were particularly impressive all those years ago. Strong hands."
I puffed again on my Stanwell, an especially fine sandblast that has served me well for decades, especially with straight Virginias, and considered fleeing into the bog.
"Think of the pipes," said Yaroslav, "and if you survive, there's a knighthood in it for you. Despite these humble surroundings, I remain the Archduke."
"Being knighted is on my bucket list," I said. "Okay, why not? Whatever's up there has to be an improvement." I started climbing, intrigued by the possibility of a vast treasure of tobacco and pipes, and in a few minutes Yaroslav and Vladislava were tiny figures below. "I've got a deposit on that dog!" I called. "Don't trade it!" I returned to my climb but paused to call once more. "And for God's sake don't eat it!"
When the tobacco stalk crested the clouds, I climbed onto the banks of a vividly colorful landscape that stretched into the distance, where a legitimate palace was visible. Maybe this monarch would be friendlier and more affluent. I was entitled to some aristocratic pampering, including grapes and foot rubs, and if that meant selling out my royal cousins, even better.
I surveyed the area and discovered clusters of every pipe shape and manufacture growing from the natural flora. I started walking toward the castle. Clays, meerschaums, and briars were everywhere, growing in such concentrations that they obstructed my progress.
I hiked through Il Ceppos, Chacoms, Nordings, Brebbias, Savinellis, Jepessens, Petersons, Ardors ... every pipe manufacturer and every series was represented by their loftiest grades, and many exhibited carving virtuosity beyond my imaginings.
In areas where the leaves had yellowed, vintage pipes came into view. Preben Holmes, pre-transition Barlings, Dunhill ODAs from the early 20th century, Sasienis, Charatans, Peterson System pipes from the time of Charles Peterson himself, vintage Comoy's Blue Ribands, all in new and pristine condition. I found a vintage, Basil Rathbone's "Dutch Billiard" 4AB, complete with crisp Peterson nomenclature, and I filled it with a piece torn from a tobacco leaf. The first puff was not raw in character, but ambrosial, tasting like well-aged Escudo from previous generations.
The area appeared to be some kind of garden. Tomato plants grew nine feet tall, and did not produce succulent red tomatoes, but pipes in the tomato shape. Pear trees grew into the sky, their branches laden with pipes of every make, all in the Pear shape. Apple trees grew Apple pipes. Acorns, Cherrywoods, and gourd Calabashes of every size were ready to harvest. The plants were very large, or I'd have gathered some for planting back home, but I did stuff some seeds from a Billiard shrub into my hip pocket.
I found a lake inhabited by Blowfish and Nautilus pipes, chicken roosts overflowing with Egg-shaped pipes, and I stumbled upon a small, active volcano whose lava flow had hardened into an expanse of cooling Volcano pipes. Tins of tobacco hung from vines overhead. Balkan Sobranie. Original Dunhill blends. McClelland blends. Butera blends, Esoterica, John Patton, Levin, Compton's, Dobie's, PCCA ... every rare or discontinued tobacco was represented in clusters like bunches of exotic grapes. The castle loomed large, and I wondered how many Castellos might be contained within.
Clays, meerschaums, and briars were everywhere, growing in such concentrations that they obstructed my progress.
The door was colossal and I was able to crawl under because I was so comparatively small. A room of immeasurable proportions filled my view, but in the nearest corner was a pyramid-like pile of pipes, and I hiked toward it.
Sixten Ivarssons, Bo Nordhs, Lars Ivarssons, Poul Ilsteds and Rainer Barbis by the hundreds were piled higher than I could reach. Current carvers were also represented: Jess Chonowitsch, Claudio Cavicchi, Chris Asteriou, Manduela, Kei-ichi Gotoh, Wolfgang Becker, Scottie Piersel, Tom Eltang, Smio Satou, Jeff Gracik, and more pipes by every artisan carver I could name, and some I couldn't. I found a small coin purse the size of a grain sack and discarded its contents of manhole cover-sized gold coins to make room for pipes, and began filling it with astonishing artisan pieces, until I heard a honk.
It was a goose laying artisan pipes, adding to the hoard. It was the legendary Goose that Lays the Briar Pipes! I scooped her up and was bagging her when enormous footsteps began shuddering through the castle's foundation. Gigantic boots were approaching.
"Fee-fi-fo-fur, I smell the stench of a pipe smoker! Be he alive or be he dead, I'll chew him up until I'm fed!"
It was time to proceed to the exit. I ran, but the giant blocked me with his Subaru-sized boot. "Those pipes are mine!" he said in a rumbling voice more like raucous thunder than language, understandable only as it vibrated through my bones. He plucked the Peterson from my teeth with his thumb and forefinger and tossed it aside.
"They're too small for you to smoke," I shouted. "You have no use for them."
"Ha! I don't want to smoke them. I want to deprive everyone else of smoking them! All pipes should remain unsmoked! When humans smoke, the vile stench drifts up here. I loathe the smell of burning tobacco, and you reek of it! I shall eat you now, you despicable worm, holding my nose as I chew."
I fled, and the goose started honking from inside the sack, making the giant angrier. "You've stolen my goose!" he shouted. "Your death will be slow. I shall tenderize you into boneless pulp. Boneless-despicable-worm-pulp stew is delightful!" He started lumbering after me, but his gravitational mass inhibited his acceleration and I made my way through the tobacco vines, grabbing as many tins as I could, and past the pipe gardens to the tobacco stalk, quickly starting my downward climb, but he was behind me the whole way.
Motivated to evade a future as despicable-worm stew, I descended more quickly than I'd climbed, despite the bag full of pipes, rare tobacco tins, and honking goose, none of which I was willing to drop.
My cousins had assembled a platoon of woodsmen who began sawing and hewing at the tobacco stalk once I descended into view, but they were efficient and the stalk began listing while I was still appallingly distant from the ground. I yanked a parachute-sized leaf from its branch, gathered its edges, and leaped, drifting under its canopy to the earth. The tobacco stalk's crash was heard for 150 kilometers, and when the giant struck the ground, many feared that the consequent earthquake portended the end of the world.
I was significantly relieved. The woodsmen converged on Yaroslav for payment, who grumbled that they'd been too slow with their axes and redirected them to me. But they had dispatched the giant and I was now rich, so I disbursed all of my cash and they trekked contentedly across the landscape toward home, seemingly disinterested in any backstory regarding the unusual chore. Then again, maybe it wasn't so unusual for this locality. I extracted a Martelo Apple from my sack of treasure, along with a tin of freshly picked, 30-year-old Three Nuns, and started loading it for a decompression smoke. This trip might be a positive experience after all.
"Fee-fi-fo-fur, I smell the stench of a pipe smoker!"
"I'll take that bag," said Yaroslav, and I looked up to see both he and Vladislava aiming flintlock pistols at my forehead.
"Guess I should have seen this coming," I said, lighting my new pipe as my cousins rifled through the treasure. Even on the charring light it was fabulous Three Nuns, with nuance and complexity beyond any tobacco I'd experienced.
"There must have been millions of pipes up there," said Yaroslav, "yet you've retrieved only a few dozen, along with some tobacco tins, and what is this, a goose? You could easily have shoveled a billion rubles' worth of pipes over the edge."
Vladislava leveled her firearm at my face. "You've squandered a unique opportunity."
"But that isn't everything," I said, tamping my Three Nuns as I approached them, though the tobacco seemed to tamp itself. Remarkable stuff. "I have even better here in my jacket." They backed away, wary that I might produce a weapon of my own but avariciously inquisitive about additional treasure.
"I discovered something I'm sure will modulate your criticism," I said, advancing. Skeptical, they continued to back up, directly into my dog, who ate them and the treasure bag — including that unfortunate goose — in a couple of gulps. I found a comfortable stump for enjoying my smoke, which continued to evolve in refined flavor delivery. Martelos are impressive pipes.
A low, gravelly, purring-like sound became audible and I felt something rub against my back. I turned to find my dog there. He was evidently grateful for that delicious bag of magical tobacco with top notes of goose and Stanionovitch, and was now quite affectionate. He licked my face with a tongue the size of a bath mat.
We became such friends on the trip back that I set him free in the forest to pursue his own aspirations, and I happily forfeited the deposit at Ivan's Dog Rental before returning home with my one new Martelo Apple and my one partial tin of unbelievably delectable, self-tamping Three Nuns.
That pipe elevated my collection, but seemed vaguely inadequate for balancing such a harrowing odyssey. However, while emptying pockets to do laundry, I discovered the seeds from the Billiard shrub that I'd secured while in the giant's magical land. I planted them, and now every few months a new pipe develops. I suspect that the sublunary soil has inhibited the shrub's prolific output, but it still produces individual pipes. They may be Liverpools or Lovats or any derivation of the Billiard, and may appear in any finish and from any manufacturer. That's why I smoke these shapes almost exclusively: I grow them myself.
The Billiard shrub is my most precious collecting resource, and it's always well-guarded by an unexpected addition to our family. The immense prehistoric dog from Stanionberg tracked me, traveling somehow to the U.S., appearing at my front door happy and amicable. He's unconditionally loyal, and convenient, too, though in a low-profile, discrete manner, lest he frighten neighbors or attract cryptozoologists. We call him Cerberus, and have enjoyed an impressive scarcity of lawn moles and solicitors since his arrival.