“That’s the Trouble” by Joanne L. M. Williams, read by Sam Powney

Performed at “Yay & Nay” on October 14, 2019.

I wore my sable cloak for the journey; in part as the northern outskirts of the kingdom are surprisingly chilly at this time of year; in part because it does add a certain gravitas. No one had really wanted the job, but when the sands had shifted, indicating an imbalance, it was imperative that one of us go to the source. I was unlikely to meet any kind of warm welcome, but I could at least command respect.

Equality is a slippery thing, and no one likes those tasked to enforce it. Other countries that claim to uphold it tend to focus on equality of wealth or power. Opportunity, even. But here, the old king – having all these things perhaps in too great an abundance to know their value – decreed that instead he would ensure equality of trouble. His maxim: everyone shall suffer equally; none shall suffer too much.

And it is we, myself and my kind, who are tasked to manage it, to ensure all the equal ever afters. Some call us the ancients, the wise ones. Officially the king gave us the title of Godmothers. Others have rather less kind names for us, for redistribution works both ways: A sprinkling of good fortune here; a small curse there. But it would perhaps surprise you how much we don’t interfere.  Usually. Most of the time we simply monitor the glasses of sand in the great hall, noting the changes, overseeing if you will. Then we have our personal projects, although this is less fashionable now.

But when the sands began to pour in the very furthest glass, the one at the dimmest end of the hall, action was required. A trouble we did not expect, could not identify, at least merited investigation. There was something wrong. Unfortunately, it was wrong in one of the poorest and least accessible parts of the country. It was not a particularly desirable task, but this is our duty, my duty. I took my cloak and my staff and set off.

After seven days and seven nights I draw near. This district is an unwelcoming one. Even the countryside has an air of gloom and foreboding. The villages will be worse, for this is scapegoat country. It has come into common usage again, that word: scapegoat.

Of course they are not the same as the scapegoats of old. It was once upon a time an official role at court – a sort of sad clown, or reverse jester – the buskin to their sock. A royal’s plaything to take out their temper on; to take the blame and punishment for anything that had gone wrong that day. We’d call it barbaric now.

I was apprenticed in those times, my tutor a craftswoman of great skill. Our remit was the younger women of the poorer classes and the work was often as simple as granting wishes: New shoes, a dress, or best of all a night off! No wonder we were more popular then. I enjoyed those assignments. My mentor’s specialty, however, was marriages. No prince, aristocrat or high-ranking politician had any trouble finding a pretty, if impoverished, bride. The work was repetitive but with high job satisfaction. Well, in the short term at least. Not all marriages are happy for ever after.

The Equality of Troubles Act regulated things more closely and changed how we operated somewhat, although the principle was the same at first. But soon the nobles and rich merchants began to murmur. Equality was all well and good, of course they believed in equality. But weren’t some of us, well…. a bit more so? And don’t some people deserve more trouble? Shouldn’t there be some retribution and reward? Increasingly we were called upon not simply to keep the balance, but to pass judgment.

On the old king’s passing, the new king agreed heartily with those he needed to keep on side. The result was The Redistribution of Trouble Amendment, allocating a little extra portion of trouble – the scapegoat- to the undeserving, who came to be known by the term in common parlance. Of course, these were convicted criminals only, receiving a suitable punishment, said the king. And then, little by little, it became: the different, the difficult, those born outside of our borders, those who live in certain areas. Then simply – the poor. All too often in my work, I see what that label, ‘scapegoat’ does. It carries a taint that sticks. It cannot be shaken, and it means misery.

In the dingy village I have traveled to it is written into the weary stones of the houses, woven like poverty through the uneven thatched roofs. Life here is no more free of trouble now than it ever was; it seeps back in. The house I approach reminds me of the cottages my mentor and I used to visit, whose innocent young occupants received an instant makeover courtesy of us. A small, shabby affair, in need of some repairs and a good gardener to unbury it. I know now, there will be a girl inside; and perhaps someone else.

The system is equal say the king and his court. The system is fair enough say my colleagues. Fairer than it was before at least. But I struggle with it and I long for the days of happy endings. I do what I can.

Inside the cottage I follow the trail of trouble upstairs. There it is: a wooden cradle; a baby sleeping fitfully. A young woman watches over the child, shrouded in trouble. The baby is ill, very ill. This baby does not exist, not officially. She has not registered her because she should not exist, not as her child.

This woman, a girl really, who is neither wife, nor maiden as her baby proves, is terrified that scapegoat is the third option. To avoid it she has hidden her baby. Poor fool! She doesn’t – can’t – see how the system perpetuates itself. An unregistered child, a child we do not know of, cannot receive the protection spells we grant. They are not infallible, but they help mitigate a lack of money, resources, nutrition. Without them, the baby sickens.

The rules in such cases are clear. I am to let the course of action play out, let the baby die. The child does not exist so let it be so. I cannot accept it, cannot believe we have come to this, where young mothers and children are the scapegoats. And yet this has happened many times before. But not to this child, or this mother. Or to this witch.

I tell the girl, ‘Your baby will live.’ She begins to thank me, but soon she will hate me. It is imperative that she does so. ‘Yes, the child will live… for now.’ I brace myself and issue the classic spindle curse: On her sixteenth birthday the daughter will prick her finger and die.

The young mother is distraught, and it takes all my powers to remain stony-faced. I wore my sable cloak for the journey – it helps with the effect. She must not see the purpose of the curse, or it will not work properly. It is the only way. I have granted her sixteen years of worry and dread to pay off the debt of trouble that the laws have allocated to her. The child need not die providing her mother believes that she will, believes in the curse. Suffers the required amount.

In these times, I no longer enjoy my work, but I do my best. I cannot soften the blow now if I am to help them. I cannot save her any pain, that’s the trouble with this land. But I can save a child. And perhaps the familiarity of the curse will serve its purpose too. Deep in her heart, in her bones, she knows this story! Knows how it ends. I can only wish that this will bring some subconscious comfort, sparking a secret hope of the happy ending which in sixteen years, will be theirs.

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