“The Thought-Con Troll” is part of a collection of stories I wrote called A. Seeker’s Storybook. The book was first published by the Canadian Career Development Foundation and is now available at lulu.com. Now, more than ever, the story seems relevant. Thanks, Richard Leach for your powerful, heart-rending illustrations!
The Thought-Con Troll
One dark day, during a time when the world was inhabited by trolls, a girl named Maria was walking along a cobblestone road absorbed in her thoughts.
She thought about how much she loved to sew, and how lovely it would be to make the finest dresses in all the world, and the thought made her consider the idea of becoming a seamstress. She thought perhaps she might go and work for Mrs. Peabody, who had recently posted a “Help” sign on her door. She arrived at a picturesque little bridge that arched over a stream, and made her way across. Mid-way, she paused to look at the water.
Suddenly, a troll popped his head out from under the bridge.
“Stop that racket up there,” he demanded. His skin was greenish and his beard was dripping with the river’s slime. He wore an open red vest, green trousers, and his hands and feet were very large.
“What racket?” asked Maria.
“The racket of your thoughts,” he snapped irritably. He stamped out from under the bridge and hopped up under the railing. Quick as a wink he stood before the girl, who was rather disconcerted to be suddenly affronted by this creature she had only read about in storybooks.
“Your thoughts are coming through loud and clear. This is my bridge and I’m not having any of them,” said the troll, puffing out his hairy little chest. “It’s a damnable invasion of my privacy, that’s what it is.”
“I didn’t know this bridge belonged to you, sir, I’ll just be on my way,” said Maria, not wanting any conflict with this chap.
She must have said exactly what he wanted to hear, because his demeanour changed. He thrust his big green hands into his trouser pockets and assumed a conversational attitude.
“Let me give you a word of advice,” he said. “Don’t let yourself think your own thoughts, on my bridge or anywhere else.”
“Why not?” asked Maria. She was very green herself, in a manner of speaking, since she’d only finished her mother’s apprenticeship recently and knew nothing of the ways of the world.
“Because it’s the most dangerous thing you can do. You’ll run into nothing but conflict your whole life long.”
“Then whose thoughts should I think?” Maria asked.
“Why, the thoughts of the people ABOVE you,” he replied, pulling a pipe out of his pocket and lighting it.
She considered this for a moment, and said, “I see, the thoughts of the people I admire.”
The troll stamped on the match and burned the underside of his foot. “No, no, no!” he shouted, rubbing his foot. “I’m not talking about the people you admire. I’m talking about the people in positions higher than your own.”
“I see, people in higher positions.” She considered this.
“That’s right. Exactly right,” he said.
“… Higher positions,” she repeated, considering.
“That’s how you’ll get up in the world,” he said reassuringly.
“Well, thank you, sir, I’ll remember that,” she replied.
The troll returned to his home under the bridge and Maria set out to make her fortune. She decided that since her mother thought she was a good seamstress, and her mother was certainly in a higher position than herself, the idea of going to see Mrs. Peabody was still a good one. Gathering her courage, she went directly to Mrs. Peabody’s shop.
She rang the bell, entered, and found Mrs. Peabody at her desk under the glow of a little oil lamp, writing in a large ledger.
“Mrs. Peabody? I see you have posted a sign for help.”
Mrs. Peabody looked up over her eyeglasses. She pulled herself up from behind the desk and came towards Maria with her measuring tape dangling off her heavy bosom like a climber’s rope.
For a moment Maria thought she was going to get measured, and indeed Mrs. Peabody was about to give the girl a measurement, only one of another kind.
“You’re Mattie McCormick’s girl, are you not?”
“Yes I am, ma’am. Maria, ma’am,” she said, curtseying.
“Hhmn. So what can you do, young lady?” She studied the girl impatiently with her concentration focused on Maria’s hands which were at the present time, turning inside and outside one another nervously.
“My mother taught me to sew, ma’am. I believe I am very good at it. You see, since Mama lost her eyesight, I’ve made all the family’s everyday clothes.”
“How many’s that again?”
“Eight children and three adults, ma’am, if you include Grandmama.”
“You sewed the whole lot?”
“Oh, yes I did, trousers and blouses and dresses and undergarments and coats … and all the mending too … also Alicia’s little doll clothes, with all their fine stitching. They were my favourite, Mrs. Peabody, I brought a sample so you can see the detail …” Maria dug into her bag.
“How many pairs of trousers can you make in a week?” Mrs. Peabody demanded, crossing her arms.
“Oh, I would say at least one pair a day …”
“That’s impressive,” she said, crossing her arms.
“Yes, but it isn’t nearly as impressive as all your work, Mrs. Peabody. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want to come to you for their fancy dresses. You make the finest fancy dresses in all the world! If only I could …”
“Bah, fancy dresses. They’re going out of fashion, my dear, put that thought out of your head.” Mrs. Peabody waved off Maria’s thought as if it were a bee.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Peabody, I had no business thinking such thoughts.”
“You certainly didn’t, child,” she sniffed.
Maria stammered, “I don’t know why I had no business thinking, but …”
“Because this is MY business, and if you’re going to work for me—”
“I should think YOUR thoughts,” said Maria.
“Exactly,” said Mrs. Peabody, satisfied.
She went back to her desk, licked her index finger and flipped through a stack of papers, counting numbers off to herself.
“You’re hired,” she said, after some time had passed.
Only a few days after Maria had started work, Mrs. Peabody came into the back room and found the girl sewing and humming to herself in the afternoon sun. Mrs. Peabody thrust a box of thread under her nose.
“This is not the thread I told you to buy,” she said.
“Oh, it cost a little more, but—”
“It’s not the thread I TOLD you to buy,” Mrs. Peabody repeated harshly. Her face was bloodless now, her complexion had grown very grey.
“The quality of the thread you told me to buy is poor, begging your pardon ma’am, but it will break,” said Maria. “I know because I’ve tried—”
“Enough!” Mrs. Peabody bellowed. “I tell you what to buy, and I expect you to buy it.”
“But it will break!” exclaimed Maria.
“I WANT it to break, you stupid child!”
Maria was too astonished to say anything, so she began to cry.
“It’s cheaper. The cheaper it is the less the clothes will cost, the sooner they’ll wear and I’ll have more customers coming in for repairs. That’s business, and if you don’t like it you shouldn’t be in it. Now. Take this back.”
“But that’s not right, Mrs. Peabody,” Maria blubbered.
Mrs. Peabody had gone very red, and she didn’t seem to be able to get her breath. “Don’t rile me now, girl. My heart’s not good,” said Mrs. Peabody.
“But it isn’t fair that we should take people’s money, knowing full well their seams will split—”
Mrs. Peabody reeled and when she crashed to the floor, she nearly brought the old store down. Maria ran outside for help and the doctor came. He revived the old lady well enough to help her to a chair, and prescribed a week of bed rest. Dr. Browning gave Maria harsh words regarding the importance of diplomacy in the presence of humans with weak hearts.
Maria learned her lesson, went out and exchanged the thread. She realized how right the troll had been. Not only would she cause trouble if she thought her own thoughts, she might even kill someone! No more, she vowed. Never again, no matter what the cost, would she ever, ever, think her own thoughts!
Soon Mrs. Peabody recovered, and Maria’s relationship with her boss improved considerably. Maria stepped into Mrs. Peabody’s thoughts like she was stepping into her clothes. She ignored the poor quality of the fabric and thread. Thrifty Mrs. Peabody narrowed all the seams and wasted nothing, and everywhere Maria turned, it seemed there was less and less give in the world. Certainly there was no room for fat, except on persons like Mrs. Peabody who seemed to grow fatter by the day.
Now Mrs. Peabody’s operation grew by leaps and bounds. Maria was soon put in charge of a dozen farm girls and Mrs. Peabody stopped doing custom work altogether. Nothing was done to fit people. Everyone was sewn to fit a pattern.
“Divide and conquer,” became Mrs. Peabody’s favourite aphorism. Under her direction, Maria began segregating the girls into groups to cut patterns and groups to sew seams.
“Best put the ones who aren’t friendly together,” Mrs. Peabody advised. “They’ll work harder.”
Mrs. Peabody’s factory produced an army of trousers, shirts, skirts and blouses that hung sullenly in rows on the rack at the end of the day. People would put their money down to buy them and wear them for a short time. Then the seams would split or the buttons would break and they would return to buy more. They never realized that Mrs. Peabody was behind it all with her good business sense.
Maria had no time to think about the big picture, however. Her attention was focused on the quota the girls had to fill. She thought only about income and expenses, savings and profits. At night, her head pounded with worries over money, while her heart tightened to fight back the thoughts of betrayed friends and split seams.
One morning after many sleepless nights, Maria trudged to work. As she approached the bridge, the mist was coming off the water and the sky looked like a pearl bowl, lit from behind by pale pink light. Maria didn’t notice the sky or the mist, she was too exhausted and sore-hearted to notice anything. When she set foot upon the bridge, all her remaining vitality drained out of her and she fell into a faint.
“I can’t think Mrs. Peabody’s thoughts anymore,” she whimpered. “The thoughts I have are not my thoughts. I don’t know what my own thoughts are anymore.” Maria began to weep as though she had lost her best friend, which, of course, she had.
When she had emptied all her tears and all Mrs. Peabody’s thoughts, and indeed, all thoughts of every kind, she opened her eyes. The sun shone brightly over the river, causing the water to twinkle playfully. Maria’s spirit recovered a little, and she noticed a furry caterpillar inching its way towards her.
Her first thought was to shoo the ghastly thing away. But no sooner did she think that thought, than she caught herself. “Now wait a minute. Where did I get that thought that this little fellow is a horrible thing? Is that MY thought?”
“No, I don’t think so!” She held out her right hand and let the caterpillar crawl up. It made its way along the path of her arm. She noticed how steadily he moved. He never seemed to tire or lose his determination. He didn’t worry about the future or fret because he hadn’t yet become a butterfly. Suddenly she felt great affection for his singular charm.
“I think you are a beautiful creature,” she announced. As if in reply, the creature rolled off her arm and onto the bridge.
Suddenly, joy bloomed in Maria. Everywhere she looked the world seemed fresh and new. She got to her feet and ran her fingers along the railing of the sturdy old bridge. “Who are you, bridge?” she asked. “When you were built? Who would have fashioned you so sturdy and with such care? Why, you are as beautiful as the dresses I would have made if I had fashioned them with my own thoughts instead of with Mrs. Peabody’s!”
“Enough, enough!” shrieked the troll, scampering out from the underside of the bridge. “I will not have these thoughts on my bridge! Go home, go home, you troublemaker!”
Maria had failed to remember this particular feature of the bridge. She gathered up her courage.
“You, sir, told me to think the thoughts of the people who were higher than me. And I did. But after working for Mrs. Peabody, I would rather think my own thoughts.”
“Fool!” yelled the troll, stamping around the bridge. Maria stared at the creature and tried to figure out how to turn the thought of him around. Finally, she asked: “How is it that you’ve come to live under this bridge, sir?”
The troll was taken aback, and then he said, “This is MY bridge. I’ve worked all my life to arrive at this position in the world.”
“Is this where you have come to after a whole lifetime of work, sir? Begging your pardon, but I would think that a man like you would have found a better place than a bridge to live under, as beautiful as this old grey bridge is, I mean.”
“Don’t tell me about my lifetime of work!” he shrieked. Smoke seeped out of his ears, his eyes, and his nose all at the same time. “See what happens when you think your own thoughts? See what you’re doing to me? I’ve done very well for myself thank you very much. So don’t you try and make me see me. Don’t you try, because I won’t. I won’t!” Tongues of fire licked out from his nostrils and his ears. and all of a sudden, he burst into flames. In the next moment, there was nothing left on the bridge but a pile of ash.
Maria’s heart went out to the little troll because she realized what a frightened thing he was, and how good his original intention had been. He had, after all, only wished to please. She lay down on the bridge and stared at the little mound of ash, lost in her thoughts about the troll.
Her reverie was suddenly interrupted by a naked doll that dangled in front of her eyes. Clinging to the doll was a little girl of four with large brown eyes and curly brown hair. Holding the little girl’s hand was her mother, who peered downward at Maria with a look of mild concern.
“She needs clothes,” said Maria, pointing to the little girl’s doll.
“She does indeed, said the mother, “And so do all the dolls in my store.”
“Well, well,” said Maria, “I do fine stitching.”
The woman extended her hand to help Maria onto her feet, and the three started off to town.