Ian and the Goats Gruff
by Anta Baku
Part 6 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (Read part 1)
Bridges are great places to put cell-phone antennas. They usually have a long line-of-sight range, they’re easy to access, and the people in charge of them are almost always happy to have a small additional source of income. Some of that even holds true in Fairyland, at least the part about the line-of-sight range. Fairyland bridges tend to be built in the most dramatic possible places, which means they’re high and have amazing views. They’re harder to get to than bridges in the real world, but we can handle that. We’re used to going to out-of-the-way places. The bigger problem is that sometimes it’s hard to figure out who has the rights to them at all.
There’s no overarching government bureaucracy in Fairyland to create toll commissions and maintenance pools and historical preservation societies. Usually that’s nice for me, especially the lack of historical preservation societies, who get so unreasonable about adding a little bit of high technology to the tops of their favorite buildings. But when it comes to bridges it means the best way for me to figure out who’s in charge of one is just to go poke around and hope the owner shows up.
This is more dangerous in Fairyland. These days there aren’t as many people living under bridges there as there are at home, but the ones who do are still more dangerous and less predictable. I’d heard particularly bad rumors about the resident of this particular bridge, so when I went up into the mountains, I went carefully.
It wasn’t a very long bridge, or very fancy, just a single stone arch high above a narrow, complicated valley that called into question just how glaciation works in Fairyland. The mountain peaks here were so close together you could throw a stone from one to the other, but below them the valley somehow opened up wide enough to allow a half-dozen cul-de-sac kingdoms to compete with each other over resources and the best places to build epic castles.
That made getting here a bit of a trek, and I wasn’t surprised when the houses and roads vanished quickly as I left the valley, and left me to follow a rough mountain path more suitable for sheep than people. Another thing that distinguished bridges in Fairyland is that they’re often built in places no one has any real reason to go. But this is the job, and it was a nice summer day in this particular region, and I enjoy a good hike in the mountains, especially if it’s in Fairyland where I don’t have to deal with lower atmospheric pressure.
I don’t know why everywhere you go in Fairyland has the same atmospheric pressure as Minneapolis. You would think there would have to be some sort of airlock structure, or at least a revolving door like the ones they used to have at the Metrodome. The best part of baseball games when I was little was when they opened up the regular doors at the end and the air pressure would blow the crowd right out of the stadium. But Fairyland isn’t like that, the pressure is just the same everywhere, even on top of mountains. I should really ask my friend Harp about this; she used to be in weather control.
In the meantime, at least it made the hike easier than it looked. I was already feeling sweaty and scruffy when I reached the last grassy ridge that led to my goal, and discovered three billy goats there. We exchanged polite hellos, and I learned that they were headed for the bridge as well, though they were taking their time, eating the scrub vegetation and telling each other bawdy stories about female goats they had known. Not being a goat, I couldn’t tell if they were as unlikely as the equivalent male human conversation. Either way it wasn’t very appealing to me, so I moved on ahead of them, after verifying that they didn’t think they owned the bridge, they were just crossing it.
When I got to the bridge I was surprised by its design. Most bridges have some little characteristic to them to make them stand out, and that’s true of bridges in Fairyland too, even though no one can remember who built any of them. The Brooklyn Bridge has undisguised structural elements, the Golden Gate Bridge is painted bright red, and this bridge had a giant barber’s pole in front of it.
I don’t know how else to describe it, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen a barber’s pole outside of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I don’t think they exist anymore in a world where everyone gets their hair cut in a strip mall. But here was one that not only fit the cartoon image but was about ninety feet tall, as if it were a bridge pylon, although it didn’t seem to be attached to the bridge itself. That was the classic single stone arch I had been expecting.
At that size, the rotating red and white stripes were mesmerizing, and I missed the goats coming up behind me until the smallest one stepped out to cross the bridge. His hooves echoed loudly on the stonework, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed. One moment it was just me and the goats, and the next a giant troll swung over the side of the bridge and confronted the smallest goat.
I’ve seen lots of different pictures of trolls, and the only thing any of them got right is the size. He wasn’t shambling, or stooped, and if he was made out of stone it wasn’t readily apparent to me. He looked not only like a really tall human, but a really tall human who was in excellent shape. I don’t know where trolls go to the gym, but this one must have spent a lot of time there, because he was notably buff. I have to admit, I was intimidated, and probably would have been even if he wasn’t four times my height.
He dressed better than me, too. He was wearing a dark blue vest that set off his eyes, and the biggest black bow tie I’ve ever seen. And he smelled extremely clean, something I couldn’t compete with after hiking up the mountain. He had a very neat, full beard, and I found myself glad that there were only a few billy goats to see the comparison. I felt my own chin, where I was developing a nice five-o-clock shadow already, even though it couldn’t have been later than two-thirty. If you had to guess which one of us lived under a bridge, it wouldn’t have been him.
He was holding a huge pair of scissors when he stopped the goat in the middle of the bridge, but he didn’t hold them like he thought they were a weapon. Not that this guy would need a weapon to fight anything short of a dragon.
“Who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge?” he said in a resonant baritone that echoed off the mountainsides above us.
“It’s only me, the smallest Billy Goat Gruff,” said the goat.
“This is my bridge,” said the troll. “And if you want to cross it, you must let me trim your beard.”
“Oh, no,” said the goat, who had a messy beard and probably could have used the service. “You don’t want to trim my beard. My brother is coming, and he has a much larger, messier beard. You should wait for him, and trim his beard instead.”
The troll considered briefly, and then allowed the smallest goat to pass. Even though he could see us plainly on the other end of the bridge, he swung back over the side to whatever space he had underneath.
The first goat reached the other side of the bridge, and the second started across. Like the first, his hooves echoed on the stone, and like the first, when he was halfway across the troll vaulted to the top of the bridge and stopped him. This time he was holding a giant straight razor, though he still didn’t seem to think of it as a weapon.
“Who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge?” he said again.
“I’m the middle Billy Goat Gruff,” said the goat. “Nobody dotes on me like the youngest, nobody expects me to lead like the eldest. I’m just the filler Goat Gruff.”
“Wouldn’t it be great to have a well-trimmed beard, then?” said the troll. This goat’s beard was even scruffier than the first, and I thought that sounded like a good idea. But apparently the goat didn’t.
“Oh, no,” said the goat. “You don’t want to trim my beard. My brother is coming behind me, and his beard is even larger and messier. You should wait for him, and trim his beard instead.”
The troll considered again, and allowed the goat to pass. This time he looked straight at us before he went down under the bridge again. I didn’t understand why he didn’t just wait on top of the bridge when he knew another goat was coming.
The second goat went on to the other side, and the third trotted onto the bridge with a clop-clop-clop that would have echoed all the way down into the valley if the mountains had been shaped normally. Up swung the troll again, and he didn’t even look tired. This time he was holding a very large spray bottle. Do I need to say it wasn’t like a weapon? Mostly nobody thinks a spray bottle is a weapon unless they’re trying to scare a cat off the furniture.
“Who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge?” he said a third time.
“I’m the biggest Billy Goat Gruff,” said the goat. “And nobody trims a goat’s beard if he doesn’t want it trimmed.” His beard was so shaggy I couldn’t imagine why he wouldn’t want it trimmed. There were even cockleburs stuck within it. But there’s no understanding goats, I guess.
“No one crosses my bridge without a trim,” said the troll.
“Well I’m about to,” said the goat, ” so you’d better get out of my way.” He lowered his horns and charged.
I’m sure the troll could have gotten out of the way, he looked like he had quick reflexes. And if he’d been holding the scissors or the straight razor he could have defended himself. But trying to hold a bridge against a big angry goat with just a spray bottle was too much. He got off one squirt before the goat head-butted him right off the side of the bridge. Though I couldn’t see over that side, I could just imagine the one shot I had at finding an owner for this thing plummeting into the valley below.
The biggest goat crossed to the other side of the bridge where his brothers congratulated him, and I ran out onto the bridge to look down and see what happened to the troll. It didn’t clop-clop-clop as I passed, because I was wearing rubber-soled boots on account of the hike. But as soon as I got out onto the bridge the troll vaulted over it again, looking as fresh as the first three times, and holding a big comb.
“Who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge?” he said again. I was speechless. “Well, you’re not trip trapping, but whatever it is you’re doing.”
“How did you survive the fall?” I said. “And how did you get back so fast?”
“Oh, I put a net over there,” he said. “This kind of thing happens a lot. You would think more people would want a nice haircut. I don’t even charge for it.”
I was a little concerned with the size of his hands and his tools, but I couldn’t deny that I was in need of a nice haircut, not to mention a shave. I decided to take a chance, and after being disappointed by the goats, he was happy to make a deal with me to place an antenna on his bridge in return for letting him cut my hair.
While the experience of getting a haircut from someone with hands and tools four times the size you’re used to is a little strange, the results came out as well as any haircut I’ve ever gotten, and the shave was particularly pleasant. He proudly showed me the new haircut in a hand mirror that was big enough to be full-length, and I immediately renegotiated the deal to include haircuts whenever I wanted them. With skill like that he’s going to be able to start charging pretty soon, at least if anyone can be persuaded to come all the way up there for a haircut.
I’m going to tell all my friends.