Down in the valley where the green grass grew, the sheep were peacefully grazing amongst the buttercups and daisies. The ewes were enjoying the fresh spring taste, and the sharp smell of the rising sap, while carefully watching the lambs frolicking in the sunshine. The flock moved steadily, there was always someone to lead them, and gently they all drifted in the same direction. It saved independent thinking if you all went together. There was safety in numbers.

Away in the hives, the the steady buzz showed that the bees were busy, as always, gathering the pollen from the flowers that they could find. Everyone liked the bees, and particularly the honey they produced, but no one cared, or could be bothered to assist in any way. They could be left alone to get on with it; their work ethic was never in doubt.

Along the raging river where it tumbled down through the forest, lived the beavers. It was different for them. They worked just as hard, and the constructions they built were magnificent. To produce work of that scale and quality they needed raw materials, that consumed things, and nobody was quite happy about that.

The Bat thought he had the answer. His idea was to make something out of nothing, or nearly so. He was quite sure that with all his cleverness he could get everyone to believe, and then it would work. There was a slight difficulty of some regulations that would get in the way unless he was able to do just as he pleased, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him. All he had to do was to go to the Chameleon and persuade him to get rid of all these fusty rules.

“It would be so much better for us to operate if we were free of all this red tape,” said the Bat. “You would benefit, I would all benefit, and we would all be so much the richer.”

“Tell me more,” said the Chameleon.

“If we were free to trade as we need, then just think of all the lovely wealth we could generate. It wouldn’t just stay with us, it would trickle down to everybody.”

“I like the sound of that,” said the Chameleon, knowing that was always a good way to be popular, and so get himself re-elected.

The Bat drew up a long list of suggestions of all the things he claimed stood in his way. Expecting to be pegged back, he included many more things he would like to get rid of, than he dreamed would be possible. He took it to the Chameleon, who pondered for a while, and then to the Bat’s amazement accepted it, almost completely.

“Right,” said the Chameleon. “Time to change colour,” and did so, just to accommodate him.

“I’m free, I’m free,” shrieked the Bat. “I can fly,” and he swooped low overhead and even did so upside-down, just to show how clever he was, but had to swerve violently at the last moment to avoid hitting the tree.

“It’ll end in tears,” said the Donkey, “it always does.”

“Silly ass,” said the Bat. “What do you know?”

The Donkey shook his head sadly, but he knew it was no use arguing, because the Bat could fly, and he couldn’t.

The Bat set to work, and so began to get everything organised. He substituted straw for all the good materials, and the sheep thought this was marvellous as they could all have more of it, and didn’t notice what it really was. Everyone was happy, though the bees and the beavers weren’t consulted; they didn’t count. The Chameleon sat on his branch and flicked out his tongue zapping another juicy insect, that the Bat had tossed to him.

Down in the pasture where the green grass grew, it had clouded over, and the ewes had a quite different worry. Now no one had seen a wolf for a hundred years, but still you never knew when the next one would appear. They set guards, and the lambs mustn’t stray. They tightened the rules. Then there were the rams. You couldn’t trust them, at least not where the lambs were concerned. Some of them had very strange tendencies. It was much better not to let them anywhere near the flock.

Life was not quite so easy for the bees. There were new rules about tidiness, so not so many flowers were being grown, but there were always a few that escaped, or seeded themselves. Because it was never quite possible to eliminate the independent spirit, there was always the odd rogue who planted them on purpose. Still, they could find enough to make the honey, so there was no cause for concern.

Along the racing river where it poured down through the woods, it was no longer a secret – the beavers were chopping down trees. The noise and devastation didn’t make them very popular, though of course everyone liked what they produced, but would have been much happier if they could have magicked everything out of thin air. Then there would have been no destruction, no price to pay, and everyone could have felt virtuous when they had their goodies, instead of being left with a slight sense of guilt. The feeling didn’t last very long, though.

The Bat had come up with his next invention. If you collected the straws together in bundles, they were so much stronger. He thought this a marvellous piece of progress. The clever bit was that they were much more valuable than just the collection of stalks that they contained. He called it a product; he was making something out of nothing. With this he could lay the foundations of the castle he was starting to build.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” he screeched, flying backwards and forwards and missing the tree.

“Right,” said the Chameleon. “Time to change colour,” and did so, just to accommodate him.

“It might be in bundles, but it’s still just straw,” said the Donkey.

“Silly ass,” said the Bat. “What do you know?”

Down in the meadow where the green grass grew, the sheep were mowing it smooth, much too busy with their own concerns. If they considered it at all, they thought the Bat must know what he was doing, he seemed so clever. They all felt better off. Wasn’t it wonderful to have such a genius?

The bees were busy transporting the pollen to their hives to make the honey. It was heavy work, and they needed to concentrate on what they were doing, just ignoring everyone else.

Along the rushing river where it meandered through the woods, the beavers were still building, but more slowly. There was less and less interest in the things they made as everyone was dazzled  by the Bat’s superior aerobatics. They weren’t fooled, and knew what was happening, but everyone avoided them, and nobody asked their opinion.

Bat began buying more straw, but without the rules, he didn’t need to pay for it immediately, so when the price went up he could sell it again. It was even better than that, because the act of buying tended to raise the price, so it made it easier to make a profit. This was a marvellous way to produce the next storey of his castle. Bat was becoming seriously rich and he made sure that the Chameleon was generously supplied with whatever he required.

“Right,” said the Chameleon. “Time to change colour,” and did so, just to accommodate him.

“It’s all very well you buying and selling without ever seeing it, but it’s still just straw,” said the Donkey.

“Silly ass,” said the Bat. “What do you know?”

Down in the field  where the green grass grew, the sheep hadn’t noticed that their coats were thinner. It was being taken off so slowly they didn’t even feel it disappear. The flock was such a multitude, that a little filched from each became a large bundle of fluff in the hands of the few. They were still convinced that things were going well, if it wasn’t for all these worries about wolves at the gate, and what the rams might do.

In the hives, the bees kept up the work-rate and the combs were filling up quite nicely. The queen was happy and they didn’t depend on anyone else. It was much better to carry on as they always had. All Bat’s manipulations with straw wouldn’t do anything to help the larvae in their cells, or produce the honey.

Along the running river where it wandered through the woods, the beaver’s territory was being reduced. It was becoming more and more difficult to get good materials. They were having to go further and further to maintain the standards to which the were accustomed. Step by step they were being driven back.

What goes up, must come down. When it did, Bat was ready. Prices cannot go on rising for ever, and when they began to fall, he had another scheme. Sell fictitious straw. He didn’t have to prove he owned it; they had got rid of the stupid rules. When the price was lower he would buy some to match up what he sold, of course, making a profit. Bat knew this was very clever. As long as he spotted which way the price was going, he couldn’t lose. He came out on top either way.

Another storey could go on his castle, and he could keep the Chameleon in the manner to which he had become accustomed.

“Right,” said the Chameleon. “Time to change colour,” and did so, just to accommodate him.

“How can you sell something you haven’t got? And, anyway, it’s still just straw,” said the Donkey.

“Silly ass,” said the Bat. “What do you know?”

Down in the field where the green grass now didn’t grow so well, some of the sheep began to notice that their coats were not quite what they once had been.

“Don’t be silly,” said the others, “we’re all the same. You must be imagining it.” Being sheep they took the view of the majority and went along with it. One or two couldn’t help worrying though.

As long as there was honey still for tea, no one thought about the bees. Paving over the world hadn’t quite managed to eliminate all the flowers, and if the workers put in the extra air-miles then they could still manage to collect enough pollen.

Along the slowly flowing river where it oozed through the trees, the beavers had all but given up. No one cared. There were other beavers, in a far off land, who were not restricted, and could devastate without restraint, and so they could make everything more cheaply. Everyone was happy as no one cared for their own indigenous species, or realised their peril when they were gone.

Bat was becoming bored. It was all too easy. He could fly, so why couldn’t his business. What he needed was to get right away from real things. Then he had an idea. Instead of buying and selling, why not just bet on which way the price will go. It would be so much easier. He would be free as a bird and nothing would be able to stop him.

Bat flew up and down, he was superb at it now, and easily adjusted his course at the last moment to acknowledge the presence of the tree. The next storey of the castle was coming along very nicely indeed. The Chameleon was a little restive, as though he wasn’t quite sure about all this. Bat arranged for a selection of tasty morsels to be arrayed in front of him.

“Right,” said the Chameleon. “Time to change colour,” and did so, just to accommodate him.

“You’re just gambling,” said the Donkey. “Anyway it’s still just based on straw.”

“Silly ass,” said the Bat. “What do you know?”

“I know that when I win something, someone else has to lose.”

“So what? I’m a winner.”

“But not everyone is. It’s a zero sum game. Nothing you do is socially useful. You’re just a parasite. That’s what you are.”

“Nonsense,” said the Bat. “I can fly.”

Down in the valley where the green grass was turning brown, some of the sheep were feeling decidedly chilly. Many had realised how thin their coats had become. They were grumbling among themselves as the chewed away, but it wasn’t uppermost in their minds. There wasn’t a strong enough consensus for them to do anything. They just munched their way around the field feeling not quite happy, but not knowing what to do about it. Being sheep they all went the same way, and it took something drastic to make them change direction.

Away in the hives, the bees were struggling, but by super-apian efforts were still making honey, but the quantity was much less and the next generation was being starved. The colonies were beginning to be unable to sustain themselves. The honey was still being taken, accelerating the decline.

Along the rancid river where it was poisoning the trees, the beavers were having one last attempt. They had divided up the work, with each specialising, some chopped, some shaped, some carried, some built. It was very efficient, though boring, but they were just managing to cling on. If things got any worse they would be finished. Everyone else listened to Bat and his friends, and they said there was no need for the beavers and what they did; not any more. They were out of date; antediluvian. No one wanted real things. Bat had shown that all you needed was his superior ability to manipulate imaginary concepts; there was no longer any requirement for reality.

Bat was too busy to bother about any of the others. As long as he kept juggling, then everything was fine. It was just as well he had become so good at flying up and down that he could do it without thinking. How clever he was to be able to do everything at once. He was just streaking past the Chameleon, to demonstrate his prowess, when it became necessary to give all his attention to a particularly complicated trade. He worked it out and placed his bets, comfortable that he would win once again.

He pondered for a little longer, planning his next ultra-clever move, as he streaked along. Bang; crash. He had got too close, and had omitted to swerve at the last moment. The tree, which had been biding its time, got him at last. Down he went, with a whole constellation orbiting around his head, collapsing in an untidy heap.

“Oh dear,” said the Chameleon, and turned bright red.

“Serve him right,” said the Donkey, but there was no response.

Everyone watched, fascinated, as Bat’s castle shimmered in the light like a Fata Morgana. Was it reality, or just illusion?

“Quick,” said the Chameleon. “We must re-invigorate it. If we don’t, it’s so big it could collapse and bury us all.” He had turned a delicate shade of puce.

He forced everyone to bring something to prop it up, and gradually it started to appear more solid, but they were all grumbling at what they had to give up, and couldn’t quite understand why it was needed. Surely Bat had built this marvellous castle, but in now seemed to be just straw. The bundles didn’t magically transform into something more substantial, as Bat had promised. No one had seen the conjuring trick was just that, a sleight of hand. Only the Donkey, but no one took any notice of a silly ass.

One by one the objects orbiting around Bat’s head began to burn up on re-entry, and he could see again.

“Don’t worry. Everything will be all right. I will get it all straightened out in a minute,” he said.

They all looked at him, not quite sure whether to believe him again.

“You’ll need to restrain him,” said the Donkey.

“Silly ass,” said the Bat groggily. “What do you know?”

They all turned to look at the Donkey.

“You’ll regret it if you don’t,” said the Donkey.

“Don’t listen to the silly ass,” said the Bat.

The Chameleon looked around him.

“Right,” he said. “Time to change colour. Time to support the bees and the beavers, on who we all depend.”

From their hives, the bees looked on. A few more flowers were planted and it made life that little bit easier. It brought them back to the edge, where it might just be possible to survive. As long as everyone still had the honey, no one bothered about them any more.

Along the flowing river where it ran through the woods, the beavers found things slightly easier. It was possible to carry on if they were super efficient. The Chameleon’s promises didn’t amount to much, but they had long since given up expecting any help from him. The river was a little cleaner, and some things eased, so they were able to survive.

The Bat had recovered now, not completely, but enough to get airborne again. He was flying rather cautiously as he realised that the tree was still there, and determined to get him.

“Just give me time and all will be fine again,” he said.

The Chameleon was in two minds. He could now see the danger the Bat represented, but he couldn’t help remembering all those tasty morsels he used to bring.

“Don’t listen to him,” said the Donkey. The Chameleon turned, paying some attention for the first time. “You have rules for me, and the sheep, and the bees, and the beavers; in fact everyone else. When we complain you say we must have them, otherwise there would be chaos. So why did anyone think that Bat didn’t need rules?” They formed a big ring around the Donkey and nodded their heads sagely.

“Silly ass,” said the Bat.“What do you know?”

“If you have no rules for the rich, but many for the poor, sooner or later everyone becomes poor,” said the Donkey.

They all stood around wondering whether she might be right, but equally sure the the Chameleon, despite all the things he had promised, and all his changes of colour, would never really do anything about it.

This short story was written by J. B. Williams. He has written three novels, with a fourth under way. Two, Love and Hate, and The Dykebreak, are romances set in Holland around the time of the second world war, while Unreasonable Men, concerns a young man’s experiences as a victim of industrial rejuvenation. Also from him is a biography, Worsted to Westminster; a classic Victorian tale of social climbing.

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