Trit Trot Trit Trot Plot
At seventeen years of age, Anya, a slave stolen from the West Indies, was the only worker at Le Château Brudiger in a remote and rural village on the outskirts of Bordeaux, France. The other servants, French citizens, were long gone.
The responsibility for cleaning thirty-six bedchambers, halls, staterooms, scullery, and kitchen was hers alone. Anya was forbidden from entering the old guardroom in the basement, where the knights and their squires used to store their weaponry. They too, had departed, leaving Anya the sole woman on the premises following the death of the last wife, Madame Tryphine. Her master, Monsieur Barbe Bleu, was a cantankerous, small-minded obsessive with beery breath and a belly to match. A superstitious man, he trusted no one to prepare his food. Fortunately for Anya, he lived on a diet of ale, apples, and huge hunks of ripe Camembert when he was single, which required no culinary input from her. However, she feared another wife might materialize soon.
To date, during Anya’s nearly three years in France, thirteen wives had briefly roamed and reigned in the magnificence of Le Château. Nobody knew where they were now, but Anya and her inquiring mind had several theories that all stemmed from the mysterious and impenetrable guardroom. Monsieur held the only key, a heavy, iron key which he kept upon his person at all times, under his clothing next to his skin. His lack of hygiene was another of his many faults.
Anya, on the other hand, took pains to bathe daily. Her life was constrained by the Monsieur’s many rules, but she carved out this one freedom. Modesty was essential in 1650, but privacy was more tiresome to come by. Baths and toilets and plumbing existed as daydreams. Anya preferred the swift-flowing river on the edge of the Brudiger estate. The water reminded her of the insular rivers at home, and nostalgia washed away her tears during those arduous days following her arrival in this cold and unwelcoming country.
On such an occasion, Anya left her clothes on the dry bank and scurried down into the water that she overheard a something familiar—goats bleating. They had goats in France! Anya was delighted, scrambled up the bank, dressed in haste, and ran in the in the direction of the sound. She spotted them clustered on a grassy hillock.
“Come, come, come to me,” she called to them as she used to do at home. Goats were intelligent, gentle creatures. Who owned them?
They turned their heads toward her, and the largest of the three spoke.
“Are you calling us, fair maiden?”
Anya was unfamiliar with talking goats and her lips parted in surprise. By his deep baritone, he was clearly a buck, and his French accent was far better than hers.
“Why, yes,” Anya said, finding her voice.
“What name do you use?”
Anya introduced herself. “And you, what are your names?”
“We are the Gruff family. I am Billy-One, and these are my younger brothers, Billy-Two and Billy-Three.”
Pleasantly surprised to learn that goats could count, Anya was struck by their gaunt frames.
“Why does your owner not feed you?”
“We have no owner. We are free-born.”
Anya glanced around the Brudiger lands trimmed bare on this side of the river, but verdant and lush on the other.
“Why do you not graze in the pasture yonder?”
“We do,” said Billy-Two, “but not often enough.”
“Because,” said Billy-Three, “to reach the pasture, we must first cross the rickety wooden bridge.”
“But you are sure-hooved, hollow-horned, light-framed ruminants. A bridge, rickety or otherwise, is no obstacle to you.”
“True,” said Billy-Two. “But under the rickety bridge is a Troll, a wicked brute who threatens to eat us. He is an insatiable tyrant with two ivory flesh-ripping tusks. We are lucky to have survived by our wits as long as we have.”
“How have you survived?”
“By remaining light and lean. The troll will not eat us for certain until we are fat enough—a bit of a dichotomy for us.”
“Does Monsieur know he has a troll on his land?”
“Yes. The troll keeps the villagers away, like a vicious, rogue guard dog to maintain the privacy of the estate. Monsieur values his seclusion. But what of you, Anya? Your dark skin has an ashen hue. Are you sick?”
Anya explained her abduction from her family and home, the horrific sea voyage to France, and her current plight trapped in Le Château Brudiger. The empathetic brothers lowered their heads.
“Despots oppress us all in different ways.”
And thus a spark of friendship was ignited.
During the times that followed, the Gruff brother stood guard while Anya bathed half a league away from the troll. They bleating a warning should any chance passerby stray too close. In return, Anya brought them any surplus or imperfect apples rejected by Monsieur if they did not meet his exacting standards. She did not bring them any similarly discarded cheese, since the Gruffs did not care for dairy and the prospect of consuming cheese curdled their stomachs.Their friendship, trust, and camaraderie grew in strength as the days turned to years and several additional wives came and went. Mostly, they remained within the confines of Le Château. Sometimes a wife would venture forth into the estate to gather wild flowers. Another wife might take a turn on the swing that hung from the infertile apple near the rickety bridge. Some people believed the tree was blighted by the troll. Others imagined the apple tree died when Madam Tryphine departed. Superstitions about a curse trickled and swirled around the village. On one particularly sunny day, Billy-One asked Anya a question.
“What does he do with his wives? They arrive, but they never leave, just disappear.”
“He does something to them in the old guardroom.”
The brothers exchanged silent glances.
“What?” said Anya.
“He’s had so many wives. As a woman, are you not concerned for them?”
“Yes and no. They come of their own free will. Monsieur does not force them to marry. They have only one rule and they disobey.”
“Is it not too high a price to pay with your life for one transgression?”
Anya wrung her hands. “Yes, but what can I do? To him, I am more worthless than one of his wormy apples. He would not listen to me.”
“He does not need to listen. Why say anything and waste words when you can act instead?”
“How? What should I do?”
“Use your imagination and dream of a solution for all these woes, yours, ours, and the next benighted Madame who is foolish enough to cross the threshold.”
Anya took his words to heart and spent many sleepless nights thinking of cunning plans. Eventually, she became so tired that she fell asleep while scrubbing the scullery. She awoke from her dream some time later, her frock sodden from the overturned pail, and her hair gummed together by a lump of smelly Camembert cheese. But these trifles worried her nought. Anya felt the relief and joy of conjuring up her plan which she shared with her three friends at the first opportunity.
After briefing the brothers of her plan, Anya set the stage. She commenced her role by knocking on the heavy oak door of Monsieur’s parlour.
Anya slipped inside. She leaned against the door jamb out of reach of any erstwhile missile—perhaps the cheese knife or the round of ripe Camembert at his elbow. Monsieur had a legendary temper when disturbed. He turned his glowering face toward her and growled.
“What?” He took the knife, quartered the cheese, and ate a chunk whole.
“Please sir, I have come to tell you of a miracle that I have observed.”
“Yes, the ancient apple tree has buds. Soon there will be blooms and maybe apples too.”
“You lie. That accursed tree has been barren since Tryphine--”
Monsieur coughed and stuffed a soiled handkerchief over his mouth. The fit of coughing passed. He mopped his brow, and then pocketed the handkerchief.
“What is this nonsense?” he continued. “Dead trees don’t come back to life.”
“I know,” Anya said, praying her enticement would work, “but in spring at home in the West Indies, Opias—spirits of the dead—return to life.”
“I do not believe in such superstitious foreign fancies.”
“They are not superstitions,” Anya said, “they are deities—Gods—who cannot rest.”
“You’re suggesting there is a God in my apple tree?”
“No, Monsieur, but perhaps the spirit of life is returning. Is it a good omen?”
Monsieur leaped from his chair, scattering the contents of the table. He strapped his scabbard to his belt and sheathed his sabre.
“Why do you need a sword?” Anya said, stepping aside.
“My sacred sabre had protected me from evil-doers throughout my life.”
Stone-faced, he strode from the room, ready for battle, leaving a skunk trail of Camembert in his wake. Anya ran across the room to the turret, flung open the shutters, and waved toward the awaiting Gruffs. On her signal, the three set off down the hill, trit, trot, trit, trot, away from Le Château and toward the rickety bridge.
Anya had instructed them to tease and taunt the troll from a safe distance before Monsieur arrived. Billy-Two, the fastest of the three, trit-trotted across the bridge before the troll was awake. His roar of fury caused them all to bleat but not without Billy-two reaching the verdant meadow side of the pasture unhurt. Billy-Three remained upon the barren Brudiger side of the estate. Meanwhile, Billy-One danced back and forth along the bridge’s rickety-wooden slats, praying they wouldn’t collapse ahead of Monsieur’s arrival.
And sure enough, several strides later, Monsieur surveyed the scene. A glance at the apple tree confirmed his suspicions—no change—but he was distracted by the sight of three skinny goats bounding about the bridge. Then, he heard an unfamiliar sound, not bleating, but louder, a spine-tingling snarl.
The three Gruffs turned toward Monsieur, bowed their heads, and slowly and quietly withdrew, leaving nature to take its course. Monsieur put one boot on the first slat of the rickety bridge and unsheathed his sabre. Splinters of wood drifted downward, and a puff of dust clouded Monsieur’s shadow.
“I hear no hoof upon my bridge,” yelled the troll in his terrible, blood-curdling tone. His nostrils snorted bull-like, sifting the air. “What are you?”
“I am Monsieur Barbe Bleu, the legal and rightful proprietor of this estate.” The bridge creaked and groaned under his weight. “And your lord and master.”
“You are indeed a mighty man.” The troll sniffed again, a prolonged, deep inhalation. “Is that Camembert I smell?”
Without warning, the troll pounced. Without fear, Monsieur skewered the troll through his heart. Predictably, the rickety bridge collapsed, hurling Monsieur into the shallow water where he struck his head upon a barely submerged stone.
The Gruffs peered over the edge of the bank as Anya caught them up. They all observed the tableau: the troll on his back, Le Monsieur face down, and the red-tinted waters of the river flowing freely toward the sea.
“Well,” said Billy-One, “Anya’s plan is complete.”
Few villagers had set eyes on Monsieur for many years. They assumed he had become reclusive following the death of his wife. None were aware of the succession of consecutive brides who had entered Le Château in earlier years. The villagers also assumed the reign of the troll under the old rickety bridge would be without end. Thus they avoided the whole Brudiger estate. Gossip, rumour, and knuckle-white fear kept them away. However, every once in a while some young blood ventured forth to prove his bravery when challenged to a dare. Just such a fellow, Pierre, aged eighteen, was not afraid of trolls. Pierre believed in science—Thomas Savery invented the steam pump—and logic—Francis Glisson determined that rickets was caused by diet. Pierre sallied forth in search of the ancient troll beneath the rickety bridge. His freedom would never be infringed. The border to the estate, no long maintained and manicured, had sprawled over the hedgerows and invaded the pathway. Pierre brought a sharp scythe and hacked at the undergrowth until he cleared a passageway into the grounds. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he saw three goats and their herder, a young woman with her chin held high.
“Who are you fair maiden?” He smiled with optimism at this unexpected opportunity. “Are you the wife of Monsieur Barbe Bleu? Or perhaps, his daughter?”
“I am the mistress of Le Château Brudiger,” Anya said, which was not untrue.
“Have you no maid? No chaperone to preserve your honor?”
“Thank you, but I need no protection.”
Pierre examined the girl, younger than him, naive and not local.
“Perhaps you don’t know,” he said, “but around these parts, there lives an evil, wicked troll who devours damsels.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, I have lived in this region since birth. You are a stranger in these lands.”
“Fortunately, I am neither a stranger nor a damsel. Rather, I am a troll annihilator.”
“Au contraire.” Anya flung open her cloak and tossed it over her shoulder. There, resting on her clavicle, secured by a leather-braided cord was a six-inch, crescent-shaped tusk.
“Mon Dieu! Did that mighty tusk belong to the troll.”
“Yes indeed, but I vanquished him.”
“You, a slip of a girl, conquered this notorious ogre, single-handedly?”
“I had help,” Anya said, gesturing toward the Gruffs.
“Those fat goats assisted you?”
“They have grown fatter from feeding upon their victims.”
“Goats eat grass.”
“Goats eat everything,” Anya said. “As demonstrated by these pagan scapegoats, the anthropomorphic symbols of Satan.”
Billy-One, Billy-Two, and Billy-Three turned as one toward Pierre and fixed him with their six eyes in a united, unblinking stare.
In haste, Pierre turned on his heel and retreated to the village. There, he repeated the tale of how he escaped, unscathed, from a rendezvous with Satan.
Meanwhile, Anya and the Gruffs lived out their days free from fear and full, to overflowing, with the spirit of reciprocity.
Madeline McEwen [her/she] is a blow-in to the Bay Area from the UK, bi-focalled and technically challenged, who has enjoyed publication in a variety of different outlets both online and in traditional print. Her fiction and non-fiction focuses primarily on disabilities [ableism] and humor/humour.
She has numerous short stories and a few stand-alone novelettes. Her latest short story, Stepping On Snakes, appears in the Me Too Anthology edited by Elizabeth Zelvin published by Level Best Books, and Benevolent Dictatorship published in Low Down Dirty Vote Volume II edited by Mysti Berry.
She and her Significant Other manage their four offspring, one major and three minors, two autistic, two neurotypical, plus a time-share with Alzheimer's. In her free time, she walks two dogs and chases two cats with her nose in a book and her fingers on the keyboard.