Once upon a time, three billy goats lived on a hillside. They were very gruff. That’s why Anne separated the billies into their own pens, where they could not butt heads. She built the fences with no help from her two older brothers.
But the smallest and gruffest of the billies had this morning learnt to climb, and now there would be no vegetables for summer. So she spent a day dragging wood from the fallen-down barn, struggling with a hammer and a tin of bent nails. On dusk she stood back to critique her work.
She was startled by a deep voice.
“Goats are the shape of the devil. Hence the eyes and bitten-off tails.”
Anne swung around, half expecting the devil himself. But there stood Gunnar with his legs planted wide, sucking on a pipe as Pappa used to. Her brother offered no blessed opinion on Anne’s modified goat fence.
“Ornery billies are due for the stew,” he continued.
“Big talk. You don’t appreciate goat meat.”
Gunnar shrugged in agreement. He preferred fatty soups which he could drink down quick.
“You don’t like vegetables, either,” Anne appended. “Gun-Gun has done you a favour, chewing them up.”
Gunnar choked on his tobacco; the intended effect.
“What did you call that goat?”
Anne affected an exaggerated, satisfied look. To protect them from the pot, she’d named her goats after male relatives.
“What’ve you named those others?” Gunnar demanded.
Anne gladly introduced the livestock. ‘Eberhard’ after their eldest brother—‘Ebbe’ for short, of course. And that other billy was ‘Henning’, in memory of father. ‘Susann’ was the cow, to remember Mamma.
Gunnar stalked off, wisping tobacco in his wake.
When the sun disappeared below the mountain, Anne decided her repair job would have to suffice. She retired to the cottage.
Eberhard laid down his fiddle. “I hear you have little imagination when it comes to naming livestock, little sister.” He chuckled. “Goat Ebbe is the most virile and emotionally astute of the herd, am I right?”
Anne washed her hands in a bowl of water and ripped off a piece of bannock. If she hadn’t been busy fixing goat pens she’d have found time to churn fresh butter.
That’s when she noticed a disturbance to her careful order of lumps across the table. “My cheeses!”
“Better get them to market,” Eberhard suggested. “Your new recipe is a hit with Gunnar.”
“Tomorrow, then.” Anne cursed under her breath. That whey had taken six hours to boil down. She’d finally hit upon the perfect method. This batch of cheese sliced like clay, perfect with strawberry jam on crusty bread. She wanted to gobble the caramel cheese herself but knew it would fetch a handsome price in town.
“Though you’ve spent all day fixing fences,” said Eberhard with apologetic hesitation, “we might as well sell that goat.”
“Our escapee. Once they learn to get out you can never keep them in. I doubt he’ll fetch much, but he’s not bad breeding stock.”
“Fine. Gun-Gun can go.” Anne would happily sell Brother Gunnar himself, what with him scoffing an entire lump of the perfect brown cheese.
“I expected more argument,” Eberhard mused. “But you seem calm and mature about this. Goats are goats, not pets. You’re a woman of the world now, Anne. Old enough to make the trip alone, come to think of it.”
Anne looked carefully at Ebbe to see if he was serious. He was serious.
“All the way to town? By myself?”
“I’ve seen you haggle with those old farmers who make eyes. You’ll do even better with the cheese if your brothers aren’t with you, trust me.”
That was probably true. Anne had studied the market women and copied the art of haggle. Their technique was different when dealing with men. Anne was now expert in her own right, but hadn’t considered mimicking the flirtations without the brotherly backup.
“But Ebbe, the bridge.”
“You’ll be fine,” Eberhard reassured. “I’ve heard your witty comebacks.”
Oh, she could deal with men at market. The troll was different.
Anne slept restlessly. She rose before sunrise, not long after her brothers.
Eberhard was in the kitchen ladling his own porridge. “I expected you to sleep in a little.” He proffered his bowl to Anne.
Anne declined. “What time do you think he wakes up?”
Eberhard furrowed his brow. “Why, he’s right outside. I roused him good and early. Big day of ploughing ahead.”
Gunnar, visible through the window, stood under the eaves with his first pipe of the day. He was still digesting fatty cheese, probably.
“Not him.” Anne shrugged on her coat. The kitchen was cold. “I don’t mean our brother.”
“Oh.” Eberhard blew on his porridge. “Trolls stay up all night, I expect.”
Just as she’d feared.
“But even if they do sleep, the noise of that billy trotting across wood will stir him good and proper. Then you’ll be in for a mouthful.”
“Stop it, Ebbe. If you won’t come with me, shut the hell up.”
Eberhard set down his bowl. “You’re genuinely scared of that thing, aren’t you?” It was like he noticed for the first time. “You need a hug for luck?”
Anne wanted to set out, but nodded.
Ebbe pressed his chin into the crown of her cap. She felt the vibrations of his throat as he made reassuring noises. “Has he ever come onto the bridge? Even once? No. He’s all bluff and bluster.
“But you two have been riling him up. For years!”
Eberhard acknowledged this with a short laugh. The Bruse brothers could not cross the bridge without stamping on the planks and dancing a jig.
“Who is that tripping over my bridge? I’ll throw you into a pit of snakes!”
“Oh yeah? What pit? Whose snakes?”
“I’ll clip off your ears and leave you to starve on a desert island!”
“If you can catch us! Sure! Sure!”
“I’ll tie you up with red-hot nails at your nose! I’ll beat you with a stirring stick and turn you into stone! Oh, just wait til I catch you yokel twerps!”
Anne had somehow memorised the exchanges. She’d been run off that bridge many a time, with her brothers hoisting her up under her arms, whisking her into the air. She had to admit, that part was kind of fun.
“The troll likes to pretend he’s stronger than us.” Eberhard released Anne and cupped her chin in one large hand. “That’s all. Without your ugly big brothers in attendance, I bet he’ll leave you alone. You’re obviously not a threat. But if worst comes to worst, stick that cranky goat onto him!”
Anne had already thought of that. Her devilish companion might take care of the morning leg. But she didn’t plan to have a goat come sundown, when trolls are at their meanest.
Anne hurried along the dirt track, weighed down by a sack of cheeses and slowed by a goat on a rope, stopping to nibble and snort. The goat was savvy but completely untamed. She should have put more effort into training him. Could goats be taught to fight? She wished she’d at least tried.
The sun rose above the mountain, despite Anne’s willing it back down. The troll would surely be up and whistling. To make matters worse, she couldn’t see that confounded bridge until she was almost upon it, obscured from this side by a bend in the track, then by a healthy wall of foliage.
At the bend, Anne’s heart pounded.
“Shhh.” She cautioned the goat, who munched with glee on hairy leaves. Anne had an idea; if only she’d had it earlier. She should have brought spare cheese cloth to swaddle the goat’s hoofs. Then they might creep across the bridge, unheard, unseen. She considered removing her socks and putting them on the goat, but Anne wore two socks whereas Goat Gun-Gun needed four.
She crept around the bend and into the shrubbery, waiting, watching. This was a mistake. The goat brushed against the leaves, snapping twigs, munching and crunching with an enthusiasm to rival Brother Gunnar getting into cheese.
This wouldn’t do. She’d never get to market at this rate. The autumn days were getting longer, but the track into town was long. She must flit across the bridge quick as a fantail. Ideally she would close her eyes, except the bridge was in bad shape. Her lanky brothers jumped easily across the missing planks, landing safely with firm balance. This goat would have no problem, being a natural jumper. But Anne was hindered by skirts, which needed to be gathered tight. Not to mention the heavy sack of cheeses. She let go of the goat. He knew about those greener pastures over thither and set off across the bridge.
Tripp trapp, tripp trapp, tripp trapp, ambled the goat.
Anne thought of all the money she’d collect selling her delicious cheeses. Ebbe and Gunnar would be proud.
Anne stepped bravely onto the bridge.
Focus on your steps. Focus, focus.
Five good planks then a loose one.
Seven good planks then none. Another eight good, three to jump.
Tripp trapp, tripp trapp, continued the goat.
The troll was asleep.
He must be asleep.
Normally he’s said it by now.
Another four planks.
The goat bolted.
TRIPP TRAPP, TRIPP TRAPP, TRIPP TRAPP, LEAP!
Then came the voice.
The voice was timed for a mid-jump startle.
“Who’s that tripping over my bridge!” he roared, above the sound of the water, which fizzed and bubbled its disapproval.
“Nobody!” Anne exclaimed, though she’d meant to keep quiet. She crouched, marooned and shivering, on the worst section of bridge, before the widest gap. The gap required a running jump. She did not mean to look into it. Examination was ill-advised. But those eyes like saucers, they caught the morning light. They sneered up at her. Anne gathered her skirts even tighter, though it was too late. He’d seen her. He’d seen everything.
“I smell cheese,” he said, in a knowing, guttural way.
“It’s cheese,” she replied, then chastised herself. He was drawing her in. “I’m taking cheese to market.”
“No offence intended,” said the troll, in an exaggerated, faux-apologetic falsetto. “I like me a little cheese. Any cheese for me, little goat-face?”
A moment of silence followed, but for the water below.
“If I give you a piece will you let me past?”
No reply. Perhaps the troll was nodding. Perhaps he had gone for good. Couldn’t be sure. To be safe, she dumped her sack on the loose planks and pulled out a cheese. She dropped it into the water, through the gap, lamenting the waste, wishing it right back.
There was no splash; just a graze of warm, slimy finger across the fleshy part of her palm.
Anne shuddered. She gathered her sack and threw it onto her back. Panic propelled her across the missing planks. On the other side she fell forward, onto her knees, but had no time to feel the pain of grazes.
At last she was on the town side. She hauled herself to her feet and ran. She dare not glance behind. Instead she searched for her goat.
The billy cared nothing for humans and trolls. His bottom jaw worked sideways, savouring each juicy mouthful.
Anne seized the end of his rope and hastened towards town, useless billy in tow, snorting and panting and twitching his beard.
Brogutt unwrapped the cheese and inhaled. Ahhh! Like summer skin. Sweet, smooth, innocent. First he licked at it, meaning to savour the sensation. But temptation won out. Brogutt shoved the entire lump into his mouth. He closed his eyes and sucked until the mouthful had melted to a throat-trickle.
He licked his lips, hoping to find a last remnant. Only then did he open his eyes.
Damn it, the girl had fled. He peered from behind the parapet. No sign of goat meat, either. But sure enough, she’d left bootprints in the dirt.
Brogutt could enliven their morning by following girl and goat into town. That would be fun, especially if he could encourage her to glance around, doubting her own sanity.
Alas, he had fish to catch and salad to gather. After breakfast he had plans to remove another plank in the structure. Or perhaps he’d just loosen a nail. Yes, that would be more cunning.
There swims a brook-trout! He spotted it easily, with its red spots, asking to be caught and gobbled. On second thoughts, that one was too small to bother with. He’d wait for something more substantial. Hunger was setting in, but the void in his gut did not match the pleasure of anticipation. Better to remain hungry for a while. A frisson of joy tickled the length of his body. What a beautiful morning this was turning into. First a magnificent sunrise, next a fish breakfast.
The girl, the girl. The girl was beside the point. He couldn’t care less about her. She wasn’t worth thinking about.
Yet he found his mind returning to the girl, all morning, all afternoon. Whenever he rested his eyes, there she was, with the belt of her dress pulling her in, strangling that tiny waist. Scrawn without the brawn. He thought of that by himself; liked the rhyme. He tucked that up his sleeve for later.
He didn’t find her attractive. But he had seen her, quite a lot of her, and without her knowing. This was exciting, even if he hated the sight.
Love. Hate. Love. Hate. White petals floated downstream, one by sorry one. He watched them disappear. This left him satisfied for some minutes.
He caught three fish, slammed them against the killing rock, gathered a handful of weeds. Ate. He squatted in a bush, rinsed his crack in the water. Took a nap, loosened a plank. Picked his teeth with a dislodged nail.
He considered scratching a boot-shaped hole in the approach trail. Couldn’t be bothered. His hand could seize an ankle. He imagined how that would feel. Another welcome shiver.
The shadows grew longer and Brogutt started to curse. She must have lain in wait, seen when he napped.
He killed more fish but didn’t eat them.
He hated that cheesy goat girl. He’d overheard her, protected by those oversized brothers. ‘Anne’, they called her. She called him ‘Troll’. “But I’m scared of the troll!” she whined.
He wasn’t a troll. Brogutt was a Truth-teller, an oppressed minority, keeper of the land and water. Brogutt had no time for inaccuracies and insults. Trolls were bullies. Not Brogutt.
Trolls steal. Truth-tellers live outside the system. Brogutt merely accepted crossing donations.
Trolls are fools. Truth-tellers enjoy intelligent debate. Brogutt spent much of his day crafting water-tight arguments, testing them out in the stream.
Engaging with the public from under planks is a full-time job. A public service, under-appreciated, misunderstood.
Still the bridge-crossers complain. Oh, they complain all right. But they choose to engage. No one’s pulling at their tongues! No one’s making them cross this very bridge!
‘Troll’ indeed. Okay, he could see how people mistook him for troll. Trolls use magic. Truth-tellers work their own kind of mimic-magic, changing people’s minds.
When night cloaked the mountain, Brogutt dislodged himself from his nook and headed for the Bruse farm.
The cottage lanterns were on. He counted the goats, peeked in at the roosting birds. He picked a sprig of parsley from the herb garden, twirled it against his cheek and climbed upon a barrel.
Inside, the girl sat hunched and shivering under a blanket. Long hair dripped onto her shoulders.
The bigger brother leaned against a wall, arms folded, listening to her whimper. Brogutt pressed his ear to the window.
“I had to,” she said. “I had to! I couldn’t get back past him. He would have pounced!”
“You can’t swim, Anne!”
“In parts I can. The current took me by surprise.”
“Okay. All right. Here’s the new plan. Ignore him. Trolls are just a slimy, muddy kind of fish. Don’t put out the bait. They lose interest and go back to picking their poker noses.”
Goat-girl nodded and kept her eyes on the table. “You don’t understand, Ebbe. The troll was different with me. Scary different. And he doesn’t have a poker nose. He looks like… normal.”
“Hardly a troll then, Anne. If you want to go to market you’ll have to harden up!”
Troll. That word again. Brogutt tried covering his ears but curiosity got the better of him when the brother raised his voice.
“You fed it cheese? Anne! Never feed the trolls! I can’t believe you’d be so foolish!”
Brogutt’s mouth watered at the memory. He glanced around the lit kitchen but saw no lumps in cloth; only a mound of coinage. She must have shifted the lot.
Anticipation, though. That wonderful, wonderful feeling. He knew there’d be more. More cheese, more crossings.
Then the crossings stop. But there are always more billies, more bridges. More goat-faced girls in need of fattening.
He was good at waiting-out. A Truth-teller’s greatest strength is persistence, closely followed by endurance. There’s a difference. He’d explained it many times to fascinated bridge-crossers.
As expected, as always, Pipe-brother extinguished the lanterns and Brogutt shivered with delight.
Brogutt pulled out his own pipe and smoked as she washed. He watched little Goat-face towel herself dry. It took some minutes but he made sure she saw him. She needed to see him, as he’d seen her.
She screamed at his saucer eyes.
But she saw him! She saw him. She saw him as he’d seen her. Now they were even. Now she would give him a moment’s peace.
That’s all he wanted. A bit of peace and quiet.
Tripp-trapp, tripp-trapp, tripp.
Brogutt grinned all the way back to his bridge, a chicken under one pit, limp and warm and soft.
The Three Billy Goats Gruff is a story about actual goats, and the standout Norwegian tale from my childhood. But our house owned a Little Golden Books edition in which a tale about brothers banding together is actually about brothers sacrificing each other to the troll! This got me thinking about the ways in which siblings can both support and undermine each other, and a lot of other things besides.
Nordic mythology has stories about another creature who likes to look in windows. You may have heard of Nissen, or perhaps Tomten, as they are known in Sweden.