"I'll do the thinin' around here, Baba Yaga, and dooooonn't you ferget it"
--Quick Draw McFrog


by Jeremy Russell © 2003

Once, not so very long ago, there was a student who had made human laughter her subject of study. She was a very studious student and not at all the type to sneak off to the local alehouse with the other students. Late into the night a candle could be seen burning in the window of her cell at the college. The dissertation that she was working on was titled "A Genealogy of Laughter: Chuckles to Chortles." Ironically, she had been at work on her project for so long and took it all so seriously that ages had passed since the last time she herself had actually laughed.

Sometime after her work had reached the point where her advisors began to suspect her having no intention of ever graduating, the kingdom was suddenly afflicted with a terrible curse. The princess, whose wonderful laugh had been the delight of all the people since her girlhood and had even been the initial inspiration for the studious student's studies, was stricken.

Previous to the affliction, foreign dignitaries had been known to travel hundreds of miles just to see if that laugh were truly as splendid as legends held. One such visitor was invited to a supper with the royal family and the court jester.

The jester had a routine that had never once failed to make the princess laugh. It was a point of pride with him. Unfortunately, on that evening the princess was in no mood. The routine involved tumbling, juggling and dancing, but the princess had seen it all before and had a hangover besides from sneaking out to the local alehouse disguised as a peasant. Even the jester's more obscure tricks were to no avail. And, finally, he realized he'd have to break out the new material and special effects.

He was in the middle of a complex stunt breathing flame through smoke rings when his robes went up like a whicker man and, before the guards put him out, the princess was beside herself with mirth. Her lovely laugh bounced off the stone walls and made the torches flicker cheerfully. No one that heard it could resist a smile and most were forced at least to giggle along. No one that is, except the strange visitor.

The stranger waited until the laugh had nearly reached it crescendo and then produced a glass jar from beneath his tunic. He said a few words and, when he snapped the lid on, the laugh was trapped inside battering itself against the glass like a frightened fly. The man immediately vanished; the only trace that remained was a note, signed by the dread Russian witch Baba Yaga, demanding a unicorn's horn as ransom for the stolen laugh.

I hardly need explain how galling this demand was. It is well known throughout the kingdom that unicorns had been hunted to extinction a generation before to make an aphrodisiac. Unicorn Spanish Fly still appeared on the market now and then, but everybody knew it was a fraud. The demands would never be paid. The laugh was lost forever.

As you probably remember the kingdom fell into despair after that. The king, in his deep depression, passed a bevy of draconian laws and began a series of military campaigns in foreign lands, breaking treaties left and right in search of a unicorn horn. His efforts tripled the national deficit in ten years and he had to end all of the forward thinking social programs his wife had insisted they institute only a few years before. There was lamenting day and night and it was noisy lamenting, too. Wailing and gnashing of teeth. It even got so bad that the studious student could not study. And if she couldn't study, well, then she'd really would never graduate.

But the worst of it was that nobody ever laughed anymore. Comedy troops disbanded and satirists turned to writing dull social screeds, while stand-ups starved in the streets. They could all laugh, of course, if they wanted. But nobody really felt like it. Nothing struck them as funny anymore. The dissertation was going to appear in a world completely drained of humor.

In desperation, the student took her candle down to the catacombs and began extensive research on laugh capturing charms. Others joined her in her studies, but none had the knowledge that she had. Her bibliography alone was a goldmine of information. When she emerged almost a month later she was ready to make her attempt and she prepared three letters for Baba Yaga. Each letter contained a joke so universal it was guaranteed to make even the most hardened or humorless laugh. At least that was the theory and certainly the student had the footnotes to back up her analysis. Still, academic research is famous for misfiring in the real world.

The studious student addressed her letters to a mailing address included in the witch's note - just a post office box in some no account little hamlet, where the horn was to be sent if ever it were discovered. She mailed them each exactly one day apart, fearing that otherwise the witch might grow suspicious. She needn't have bothered, however, as the Post Office box had been deluged with hate mail since the loss of the laugh and Baba Yaga, reading the vitriolic letters with vivid enjoyment day after day, no longer even checked the postmarks.

When the first of the student's letters arrived the witch tore it open without hesitation. There was a sproing sound as of a spring discharging and, leaping from nowhere, a fluffy white pie smacked into her face. Cream spattered the walls. The house was full of animals that the witch had collected and trained to be her servants. These familiars paused at first with wide, awestruck eyes, then one by one broke down into giggles. When the angry witch wiped the custard off and picked up the letter again only to be pelted with a second magically appearing pie, the animals couldn't help themselves. They howled. Even the Princess's stolen laugh, kept in its jar on a shelf above the sink, joined in. It laughed and laughed and a tiny crack appeared in the glass.

The second letter arrived covered in stickum that the witch had a terrible time getting unstuck. She waved the letter this way and waffled it that way, but it was stuck fast. When she went to pull it off, her other hand stuck to it. Then she lifted her leg and got her foot stuck. It was all too much for the animals. The goat stifled a guffaw and the chickens clucked mercilessly while the old woman struggled on the floor with the endlessly sticky parchment. It took a full six hours to extract herself and by the end the crack in the jar had widened a great deal.

The third letter arrived in a puff of sneezing powder that sent the witch reeling around the room snoffing and blowing until tears ran down her face. All the familiars started chortling immediately. Her vicious little parakeet laughed so hard it fell off its perch. The joke struck the trapped laugh as particularly amusing. It laughed so hard the jar flew apart into a million fragments each no bigger than a nickel.

Freed, the laugh flitted merrily across the countryside. It twittered along through glens and across flower-dappled clearings like a dizzy butterfly. Everywhere it flew people would whoop and chortle to hear it pass. Even the birds and insects and toads and rats all chittered with delight. And, at last, the lovely laugh returned to its mistress.

Everyone was quite amazed. The laugh so amused them that soon they were rolling with side-splitting humor of their own. They laughed until they couldn't breath. And outside others heard them and started to laugh and in a matter of a few hours the whole kingdom was laughing. It was a big day. The king declared a holiday, the college rewarded the studious student with a diploma on the spot and there was much celebration.

The local alehouse was packed to capacity. Even the studious student was there, having decided to emerge to celebrate the fact that she had rescued the laugh of her inspiration and ensured that her dissertation would be received by an appreciative world. She was pushing her way through the crowd with a tankard, content to know that she had been the cause of all this good cheer, when she spilled her beer on a peasant girl with a particularly lovely smile and a fine laugh. Of course, it was the princess in disguise. They fell to chatting and it wasn't long before the lovely laugh had the student smiling and laughing for the first time in years. They laughed and teased one another and then later that night they -- well, let's just say they lived happily ever after.

x x x

This story had so much going for it--solid, skillful writing; humorous, well-known premise; interesting and somewhat obscure references--that I decided to risque its slightly risque ending. Hope you like it as much as I did. If so--or not--tell the world on our BBS!

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