Once upon a time, in a far-off kingdom, there lived a prince, the son of a great king and queen. When he was born, the stars shone brighter, and when he let out his first cry, the birds stopped their singing to listen.
Now, it happened that on the day of his eighth birthday, the king and queen had a wonderful banquet for their son. All the citizens of the kingdom brought food—the sweetest fruits and biggest vegetables and meatiest of meats. The men harvested their grains and the women baked them into rich, enormous cakes. The table in the grand hall was so packed there wasn’t room for another peanut.
When the time came for the food to be served, the king announced, “For the young prince’s birthday, he will eat of the first dish.” Four men dressed in four long, flowing suits appeared, and put on the prince’s plate everything he asked for: cucumbers, chicken breasts, ripe, plump tomatoes, raspberry tart—and the king, queen, and citizens of the kingdom watched as the prince devoured it all. When he was done, the young prince wiped his mouth with his napkin and politely asked for more. Again, the four men in the four suits appeared, and again they filled the prince’s plate with all his requests—long orange carrots, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, pudding, apple pie, chocolate cake, radishes, turkey, bread, gravy. And once again, the king, the queen, and all the kingdom watched as the prince licked every morsel clean. The same thing happened again: a third time, a fourth time, a fifth time, and still the prince asked for more.
It was well into the second day of the feast when the king called the court physician. “What’s wrong with our boy?” he asked. The court physician listened to the prince’s heartbeat, checked his pulse, felt his forehead. He didn’t get a chance to look at the boy’s tongue, as he normally might have, because it was too busy slurping plate after plate of the most succulent dishes. “I can find nothing wrong with the boy,” said the physician, and he was dismissed.
The king and queen gave the citizens leave to go home to their empty tables, for each of them had brought all their food for the great banquet. Four more men in long, flowing suits were brought to replace the first shift. And still the young prince kept eating.
Years passed. The good king and queen grew very old. Every day they would wake up at dawn and go to the table in the grand hall, where their son, now a young man, was still eating. “You must find yourself a princess to marry,” they would say, “So that together you can rule our kingdom when we are gone.” But the young prince would never answer, for he was swallowing a cantaloupe.
Then after many more years, one morning came when the good king didn’t wake up. The queen came down at dawn, as she had every other day, and found her son, still eating, and still as small and as thin as ever, for although he had been eating every moment since his eighth birthday, even eating while he slept, he had not grown an inch—indeed, he had even shrunk just a bit.
“My son,” the queen cried to the young prince, but he did not respond, he only shoved a slice of fruitcake into his mouth. “My son, your father the king has died, and still you eat!”
Through tears, the queen made orders that throughout the kingdom a special fast would be observed in mourning of the good king’s passing. No one ate or drank anything for three days—no one, that is, except the young prince.
“My son,” the queen cried. “My son, your father the king is dead, and all the kingdom is fasting in his honor, but still you eat! You dishonor yourself, and your father, and this kingdom that is to be yours, if ever you should stop eating—but you do not!”
Then, for the first time in twenty years, struggling between bites and chews and swallows, the young prince spoke: “I’m just so hungry.”
“Hungry?” the queen responded. “But my son, you’ve been eating every moment of every day for the past twenty years. Many hunters have had to journey to far-off lands to find food for you, for you have swallowed our forests clean. Farmers from ten kingdoms have had their crops stripped bare trying to feed you. You have drunk two oceans, sixteen lakes, and four rivers, and you have made the unicorn, the griffin, and the dodo all extinct, but still you eat! How can you want more?”
“I don’t know,” said the young prince, tears streaming down his face and into his mouth, which had grown so tired from so many years of chewing. “Each day I eat more than the day before, and each day I wake up with an even greater hunger rumbling in my belly.”
The prince stayed at the table in the grand hall eating for many more years. The good queen remarried, and with her new husband she had a daughter, who grew to marry a prince and, when her mother was gone, they ruled as the new king and queen. The young prince, meanwhile, grew older, and hungrier, and then, one day, his jaw stopped moving. When four more men in long coats came the next morning, they realized he was dead.