Like most kids his age, my three-year-old likes to be told stories at bedtime. After books, when all the lights are off, he’ll roll onto his side and say, “Tell me a story.” That means a made-up story, not another book, while I rub his back. Lately, he’s become bored with my limited repertoire, Roger the Pickle, the Snake Who Sheds His Skin, The Kids Who Break into the Smartie Factory.
So, exhausted, in the dark and fending off sleep, I turn to a week’s worth of news for inspiration, and settle on a cautionary tale.
Once upon a time, in a land not far from here there, lived a very mean and very greedy Troll who made his home under a bridge. The land was occupied by farm animals who needed to cross the bridge over the river to get to the valley that had the sweetest grass, the cleanest air, and the most affordable housing.
Any time the Troll heard the sound of hooves, or the clickety-clack of a donkey cart on the deck above, he leaped out of the darkness of his lair, and demanded to be paid three gold coins before the animals could cross.
The animals hated paying the Troll, but they had little choice; the Troll’s even meaner brother lived under another bridge that crossed the river, and a third bridge, while Troll-free, was not only rickety and dangerous, but very far away.
It wasn’t long before the Troll had collected so much gold that it began to spill out of his lair.
When the farm animals took notice, and began to complain about the Troll’s greed, the Troll called a public hearing. He explained to the animals that all of the money he had collected would be used to make the road less bumpy, to widen the bridge, and, one day, to replace the rickety bridge further down the river. As well, the Troll told them he had a plan to build a train to the valley, so roads would no longer be clogged with donkey carts. He showed them a picture of what the new bridge would look like, complete with a sleek new train that would whisk the happy animals to the valley.
This pleased all of the farm animals. They whinnied and brayed and oinked with delight.
But as time passed, very little changed. The animals continued to pay the Troll to cross the bridge, the roads remained bumpy and clogged with carts, and the rickety old bridge down the river became even more dangerous. There was no sign of the train the Troll had promised.
The Troll told them that he didn’t have quite enough money – at least, not any reliable source of funding, and if the animals wanted him to build the train and improve the roads and bridges, he would need to tax their barns and stables.
The animals went along with it, certain that the Troll would keep his word.
But again, nothing happened.
Nothing, except that the Troll appeared to be living well. He paid his brother and other bridge-dwelling Trolls handsome bonuses and they all paid themselves for nothing more than sitting in the same room and talking for an hour or two. They also hired like-minded boars to stand on the bridge and punish any goat, sheep, or cow that tried to sneak across without paying. Of course, the punishments weren’t real, and it made the honest animals who did pay to cross wonder why they paid at all.
Then one day, the Troll told all of the farm animals that not only was the train not going to come, but things were going to get worse. There would be a new tax on hay, and the cost for crossing the bridge was going up by 12.5 per cent.
The farm animals said “enough is enough.”
They banded together and on one moonless night, they crept under the bridges, into the dark and dank lairs of the Trolls and threw those Trolls out.
The sheep and goats and cows took control of what little money was left, and tried to spend it wisely. Together, they came up with a plan where, little by little, they were able to make the roads less bumpy, fix the falling-down bridge and yes, eventually build the train to the valley that had been promised for so long.
From the darkness comes a tired and tiny voice, “But what happened to the Trolls?”
“You don’t need to worry about the Trolls,” I say. “They all had generous pensions, and most of them are working as consultants now.”
“What’s a pension?”
“It’s not important. You’ll never have one,” I tell him. “Now shush, go to sleep.”
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One. 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver. @cbcstephenquinn