Short Story: "The Troll on King's Bridge"
At the beginning of 2016, I set out to write a series of standalone short stories across a range of genres. Many of these are available for download as ebooks on Amazon.com, BN.com and Apple's iBookstore. I've decided to make this new story, a children's fable, available to read in full here on my blog. If you enjoy "The Troll on King's Bridge," please share it!
There was once a country in such great turmoil that a few citizens decided to move their families into an undeveloped territory located nearby, across a great ravine.
The leader of the group, a man named King, had campaigned to reform the way his countrymen treated one another. He appealed for empathy, for compassion, and for equality, but his words were met with resistance from fellow citizens who preferred to spare their kindness only for those who looked and thought like them.
Discouraged, King – with the help of some friends – risked his life to build a rope-and-wood suspension bridge over a deep ravine that would give citizens passage into the unsettled land.
When the bridge was completed, King and his followers moved into the new territory and set out to establish a society founded on equality and grace.
Over the next decade, the trickle of citizens crossing over into the new region grew to a steady stream, and the bridge underwent several reconstructions. It was eventually renamed King’s Bridge and paved and girded with steel supports that could withstand even the greatest of earthquakes.
The stronger bridge gave many hope that the country’s unequal and, at times, violent past would become just a footnote in the new territory’s history books.
One day, however, a group of individuals moving their belongings across the bridge came face-to-face with a troll who thought himself rather handsome. (In fact, as trolls go, he was far easier on the eyes than one might imagine.) His shiny black hair was parted neatly to the side and held fast to his scalp with a substance that looked like pine sap. He wore around his neck a polished gold medallion that doubled as a mirror on its backside. The troll often used this mirror to ensure that every hair was in place, and to remind himself when he felt angry to flash his admittedly attractive, but devilish, smile.
The truth is, he needed to look at the mirror quite a lot, because he was almost always angry.
He would shout from the middle of King’s Bridge, clogging the usual traffic and bringing everyone to a complete standstill. He said cruel things to people who hoped to cross into the new territory. Some of these dared to disagree or condemn him – which of course made him shout even louder.
He warned them that there was no money to be made – and thus no happiness to be found – in the new territory. To those who listened, he offered – as proof of his argument – his surprisingly good looks and fat wallet, which could be seen protruding from his back pocket.
“I’ve made quite a living on this side of the ravine,” he bragged, “and you can, too, if you follow in my footsteps.”
While he spoke – often after he had demeaned someone with words so cruel they cannot be repeated here – he sometimes lifted the medallion hanging around his neck and turned it over to look into the small round mirror, as if to confirm that despite the ugly words coming from somewhere inside him, he was still handsome on the outside.
He would brush his fine, smooth hands over his greasy black hair and then – with a thumb and a forefinger – pull up the corners of his mouth, forcing himself to smile. After doing this, he would pause and look around him, showing his smile to everyone. But after a while he would go back to disparaging those who tried to cross the great ravine.
In fact, many trolls had over the years attempted to take control the bridge, but this one was different. Folks going about their business listened to him – even when they vehemently disagreed with him. Others found something in his words that made sense and stuck around to hear more. Still more turned back away from the side of compassion, empathy, and equality and returned from whence they came.
Either they did not want to challenge the troll, or they found that the gist of what he said more or less lined up with their own ways of thinking.
Eventually, the troll and some of his supporters managed to gain full control of the bridge. They denied all who tried to cross, and not a few skirmishes ensued. Those opposing the troll tried to turn his words against him. Others insulted him as harshly as he had insulted others. A few brandished swords and clubs. One man attempted to fire a poison tipped arrow at the troll before he was quickly disarmed by a few wise, elderly citizens.
High in the pine trees alongside the ravine, a bald eagle silently took all of this in. Only the oldest on either side of the bridge had ever heard the stoic bird utter a sound. But as voices on both sides of the bridge grew to a fever pitch, the eagle decided to end his years of silence and speak.
“This bridge was first constructed more than a decade ago, and no effort has been spared to expand its reach and strengthen its foundation,” the bald eagle began. “As a result, the path to freedom and equality has been rather easy – at least, for those who did not have to fight the wind and rain and the dangerous heights to construct the bridge.
“However, I want to remind you – those who wish to cross – that there are other ways to reach the new territory. While these other paths are more difficult and require significantly more creativity, they will enable you to continue building the society your predecessors dreamed for you. Embarking on these other paths will take boldness, no small amount of wisdom, and at least a dollop faith. For those who have these qualities, or who want to grow them, follow me.”
The citizens who were now gathered on and around King’s Bridge turned to talk amongst themselves. They couldn't believe their ears. The eagle had spoken! As the great bird flew off and climbed the air high above a trail that led up the side of a nearby mountain, everyone turned to watch.
Perhaps jealous that the eagle could so easily command the people’s attention, the dapper troll decided to direct his verbal attacks at the bird.
“Follow that bald eagle at your own risk,” he shouted even louder than normal. “Aren’t eagles like him nearly extinct? Of course they are! If these birds were so smart, how come they can’t protect and preserve their own lives and that of their offspring?
“I will protect all of you – even you fools who try to argue with me, night and day. But I can’t – nor would I want – to protect those of you who follow after that frail old bird and try to find another way into the new territory. You are worthless to me, and to this country.”
In the end, a few people did begin the long hike up the mountainside. But most lingered near the bridge and continued to try to reason with the troll and argue for their safe passage.
For weeks, those who had followed after the bald eagle were not seen or heard from. Many who had been waiting near the bridge and arguing with the troll began to lose hope. They found he was stubborn and irrational. When he was caught in a lie he pretended that he had never spoken the lie in the first place.
Again and again, he shouted, as if he was preaching from a pulpit to a church full of reprobates. The gold medallion swayed below his chin like a pendulum in a grandfather clock. The troll stuck out his rear and pointed to his bulging wallet. He even gave a few dollars to the poorest among the crowd to prove that he was a generous fellow.
A few who were in thrall of all the troll had to say began to worship him. They joined him in his blockade – to the point that now no one who opposed or disagreed with the troll could even get close to him.
Still, the troll shouted mean words through a megaphone secured by one of his followers and taunted those who stood in opposition to him on both sides of the bridge. And then, every so often, perhaps in moments of weakness when he began to feel guilty about the insults he had hurled, he pulled out his mirror, combed his fine hair back into a perfect part, and attempted to erect again his collapsing grin.
One day, though, something appeared high in the sky coming from the direction of the mountain top.
It was a winged creature – but not a bird. It didn't soar with the grace of the eagle, but it flew nonetheless – at first with uneven, anxious flaps of its wings, but eventually with movements that were more measured and relaxed, until the creature was circling with barely any motion at all.
Soon, other creatures not unlike the first appeared in the sky. They, too, flew inelegantly as they first emerged from the treetops on the mountain, but soon they learned to ride the wind’s waves in circles that slowly brought them closer and closer to the bridge.
The crowds gathered on both ends of the bridge held their breath and were silent, at first. But as the creatures neared, some exclaimed that they recognized the faces of the creatures. In fact, they weren't creatures at all. They were friends and family, acquaintances and colleagues – those who had followed the eagle up onto the mountain.
These flying citizens wore giant sleeves constructed of birch wood branches and feathers, and gowns made of animal skins.
Now directly overhead, these loved ones, soaring before the sun, looked not down and looked not back, but instead looked forward – toward the country of equality they had hoped to enter before the troll took over King’s Bridge.
The troll, his face now as red as organic ketchup (yes, they had such a thing in this faraway country), hurled some of the harshest words he had ever spoken at the people who had, with wings like the eagle’s, soared from the treetops in the mountain and passed over the ravine. His head shook so much that his fine black hair began to lose its shape. Those closest to the troll plugged their ears and covered their heads as he raged back and forth across King’s Bridge.
The people who glided by overhead, however, could not hear the troll, nor did they try to.
While everyone was watching this amazing feat, the bald eagle had quietly returned to his familiar perch in a pine protruding from the side of the ravine.
“Trolls, in fact, are as much a part of this country’s history as the progress that overcame them," the bird began, as everyone moved closer to listen. "Many trolls can be reasoned with and reformed, but some simply need to be bypassed and ignored. Sadly, this is one such kind.
“Those who desire to cross into the new territory and contribute to the efforts to build a more compassionate and empathetic society, follow the trail up the mountain, and I will meet you there. It is a scary hike, and there will be falls before you learn to fly, but like those soaring above us, and like those who risked their lives to build this bridge and bypass the trolls of days past, hope awaits you as well.”
Having concluded his short appeal, the bald eagle turned, flapped its wings, dove into the ravine below and shot back up from beneath King’s Bridge, nearly buzzing the troll from behind before soaring again to new heights.
Shortly thereafter, a trickle of new followers began the climb up the mountain trail after the stoic bird. Within days, the trickle grew to a flood.
In time, the troll began to lose his audience. The sky was frequently dotted with citizens who had found and forged their own wings, leaping from treetops to glide across the ravine.
A few bitter souls stayed with the troll until the end, which came sooner than one might have guessed, for the troll’s heart had been broken long ago due to an unspeakable experience. And we all know that a broken heart unmended will, in time, drain itself of life.
King’s Bridge, meanwhile, eventually returned to normalcy, and the new territory it gave access to grew in grace and compassion and equality, just as its founders had hoped.
Charlie Shifflett is the author of numerous short stories, essays, and poems. His chapbook Accomplices was released in October and is available in paperback or as an ebook.