Once upon a time there was a poor woodcutter who lived with his wife and their daughter and son in a cottage at the edge of a forest. He loved his trade, and worked hard at it. But most of the land belonged to rich ogres, who kept the forests for their own use. Firewood was so expensive that ordinary people had begun to heat their houses with coal. The woodcutter went from door to door offering timber or firewood, but again and again he was turned away. His wife was lame and could not walk far, though she worked hard and well, keeping the kitchen garden and the house. The daughter and son went to the village school. Young Janet looked after the mayor’s wife’s babies every afternoon when school was out, and young Bob earned a penny here and there doing odd jobs. That bit of money the children could bring home was all the family had now, and every penny had to go for rent to their ogre landlord. They had no new clothes or shoes, and ate only from their garden. Their life had grown hard, and winter was coming on.
“Maybe you could get a job at the coal mine, John,” said the woodcutter’s wife.
So he went up the road ten miles to the coal mines and asked for work, but, as he had feared, they told him he was too old to learn that craft, and sent him off.
He trudged homeward, downhearted, though he was by nature a hopeful man. Evening was coming on. Shadows fell across the road. Among the shadows he saw a tall, beautiful woman standing. “Woodcutter,” she said, “be of good cheer! I am your Gift Fairy, and I will give you and your family enough to live on. You will have food, and can buy shoes for your son and daughter!”
“Gracious lady,” said the woodcutter, “you are very kind. What can I do to deserve such a gift?”
“To deserve my gift, woodcutter, you must not work, but every day you must look for work,” said the lady. “You must try four times a day to find a job. No matter if there is no work to be found, you must not stop looking for it. I will be watching you. I will know if you grow discouraged. If you cease to look for work for one month, I will know it, and my gift will cease to appear.”
“Lady,” said the woodcutter, “I’d be glad to have work, but if I ask for a job four times every day in the village, I’ll be going to the same people all the time, because it’s a small village, and they’ll get sick of me.”
“That is not my concern,” said the lady.
“Could you maybe, instead of giving me money, give me some kind of job — any kind?” said the woodcutter, who, as we know, was a hopeful man. “I’m not too old to learn a new craft, and I’ll turn my hand to anything.”
“That is not my department,” said the lady. “The Works Fairies are not functioning at present. All I can offer you is my gift, on the terms I have told you.”
“I accept,” said the woodcutter, with a sigh, “and my family and I are grateful.”
“That is proper,” said the tall woman, and she vanished into the long shadows of the evening.
The woodcutter went home. As he came to his house he happened to put his hand in his pocket, and felt something there, and drew it forth, and lo and behold! it was a silver coin, enough for them to live on for a week. So he went in, and his wife and children gathered round him asking eagerly, “Did you get the job at the mines, Dad?”
“No, they won’t have me,” said he, “but I met a magic lady and she gave me this,” and he tossed the silver coin up spinning in the air. And while they passed it around and admired it and wondered at it, he told them that the magic lady would give them the same every week, so long as he would seek work wherever it could be sought for.
“Now Bob,” he said, “go change this coin at the brewer’s, for he’ll have the change, and bring home a pitcher of beer, for we’ll celebrate tonight. And Janet, you go put four fine chops on our tab at the butcher’s. And dear wife, come give me a good kiss while the kids are out, eh?”
So they made merry that night.
Next day the woodcutter went into the village asking for work at every door, and he did so faithfully, day after day, until the villagers began to say to each other that John Woodcutter was daft, coming back and back when they’d told him and told him they hadn’t a thing for him. And what did he think he’d find, anyway, with the roads already full of men out of work?
The brewer’s wife offered him the job of cleaning out her cow-barn, since she no longer kept a cow, but it was only two or three day’s work, and she wouldn’t give him a silver piece for it, nor half one, so he had to turn her down. After that, when she poured beer for people in the brewery bar she told them that John Woodcutter went around asking for work but when you offered him a job he was too lazy to take it. And some of the people nodded wisely and said, “What do you expect of people who’ll take money for doing nothing?” and others said, “The fairies have no business handing out good money to layabouts and wastrels,” and the mayor said, “Fairy money is foul money. It corrupts those who take it. Mark my words, we’ll soon see John driving a carriage and his wife wearing silken gowns!” Then they all nodded wisely, except one man who had just lost his job of road-paving, and was spending his last coppers on a half-pint of beer to drown his sorrows. That man drank his beer, went out onto the road where John had told them he had met the tall, beautiful lady, and waited for her to appear. And there she was. And she offered her bargain, and he took it.
John kept going about his village, and villages for miles around, seeking and asking for a job. He longed with all his heart to be doing an honest day’s work, but wouldn’t take the part-time jobs he was offered, for they’d bring him in less than the lady’s gift did; so his reputation as a working man was soon lost. His wife Mary’s rheumatism kept growing worse and now was very bad, so he and young Janet kept the house and garden. The boy Bob dropped out of school and got himself prenticed to a carpenter, and they were proud of him, but the fee was a fifth of their silver piece, and Bob as a prentice brought no money in. After a whole year had passed, John was feeling almost as desperate as he had felt coming home from the mine. That evening he went down to the road, and there among the shadows stood the lady, tall and beautiful.
“Lady,” he said, “I look for work, I ask for work, but there’s no work to be had. And people have lost patience with me, bothering them for jobs, but not able to take the little they can offer.”
“You may cease to look,” said she, “whenever you wish.”
“But that would break our bargain.”
“Yes,” said she. “By seeking work, you prove that you are a hopeful man, who believes that good people always have enough money. To cease seeking would prove that you have lost that righteous belief. It would show that you are discouraged. The Gift Fairies cannot see discouraged people. You would become invisible to me. You would become ineligible for my gift.”
“Ah, well,” said John. “We won’t be discouraged, then.”
And month after month, he trudged about, wearing out his shoes, which he couldn’t replace because Mary’s medicines cost a great deal now, and young Bob’s appetite was something ferocious, and young Janet no longer looked after the mayor’s children because the mayor’s wife said her clothes were too shamefully shabby. Mary wept because her pretty daughter didn’t have a decent dress on her back, so John bought cloth from a peddler, and Mary sewed Janet a new dress.
“Tsk, tsk, look at John Woodcutter’s Mary flouncing about in silks and satins, and her dad taking money from those fairies and never doing a lick of work . . . “
The weeks passed, and every week the day came round when John would feel in his pocket and find the magic piece of silver. Eagerly did he wait for that day, and the money was spent almost before he had it. Then one week the gift-day came, and he felt in his pocket, and nothing was there.
He waited a minute, and felt again. Empty.
He went and weeded the potato patch, and then felt in his pocket, and his other pocket. He went all about the house looking at the ground to see if the silver coin had fallen from his pocket. Nothing.
Evening came, and he went down to the road to that place where the lady stood, tall and beautiful. “Oh, lady,” said John, “your gift didn’t come today. And Mary’s worse, and we really need it.”
The Gift Fairy looked at him silently, as if from a long way off. “John Woodcutter, is it?” she said at last. “I can barely see you. Your ninety-nine weeks are up.”
“What ninety-nine weeks?”
She seemed to look through him as she spoke, and her voice came as if from far away. “You had ninety-nine weeks to look for work. You found nothing. You are now officially discouraged.”
“Oh, but lady, I’m looking for a job every day as hard as ever, even though it’s been close on two years — truly I’m not discouraged — I keep hoping!“
“You are officially discouraged, you have officially ceased to look actively for work, and you are officially invisible to the Gift Fairies.”
“Oh, lady,” cried John in despair, “for how long?”
“Forever,” said the faint, cold voice of the Gift Fairy.
And no matter what John said to her after that, no matter how he pleaded, she did not reply, and gave no sign of hearing or seeing him at all.
Terribly downcast, he set off for home at last. But on the road just as night was falling he met his landlord, the rich ogre who owned most of the property for miles around. “You,” said the ogre, looking down from his tall black horse, “you’re the troublemaker in the cottage by the forest. You haven’t paid your full rent for months. You’re to be out of there at the end of the week.”
“Mr. Ogre,” said John, “if we paid full rent out of what the Gift Fairy gave us, we had nothing left for food and clothing. And now she says she has no more to give us at all.”
“The Gift Fairy, is it!” said the ogre. “Living off the fairies — I should have known it! Do you realize those fairies of yours are trying to raise my taxes — MY taxes — to pay for your roads, and your damned schools that teach you sedition and irreligion, and your police that should have put you long since into one of the jails I have to pay for with MY taxes? Fairies! Everything that’s wrong with this country is the fairies’ fault! Get out of my sight before I give you a whipping!” And the ogre flourished his whip at John, then slashed his horse hard with it, and galloped off into the night.
The rest of that week, John went looking for any work at all, whatever it
was and whatever it paid, but another man had always got there before him.
Hearing they could no longer pay for young Bob’s prenticeship, the carpenter sent him home. Bob’s sister Janet had just finished school, and the two young people talked it over and planned what they might do.
On the last evening of the week the brother and sister went down to the road where their father had met the Gift Fairy, and sure enough, she was there among the shadows, tall and beautiful. But she did not look at them.
“Lady,” said young Bob, “I’ve been looking for work and cannot find it, so maybe you’d give me the silver coin, until I do?”
But the lady paid no attention to him at all.
“Lady,” said young Janet, “I’m through school now, and I can teach, or look after babies, or look after sick people, or garden, or cook, or anything at all almost, but my mother needs me, nights, and I can’t find work in the village. So maybe you’d give the silver coin, until I do?”
But the lady paid no attention to her at all.
Bob pleaded, Janet wept, but to no avail. She never looked at them.
A little red fox looked out of a covert by the road and laughed. “She can’t see you, young’uns,” the fox said. “You’re invisible.”
“But I’m hopeful,” Janet said, and Bob said, “But I’m not discouraged!“ And both of them said, “But we’re here — right in front of her!”
“Maybe,” said the fox. “But you didn’t lose your last job.”
Janet and Bob stared at him. “How could we lose a job when we’ve never had one?”
“A good question,” said the fox. “But since you’ve never been employed, you’re officially entering the work force: and so, you’re not not eligible for fairy benefits. You’re invisible. It’s wonderful,” said the fox, snapping at a flea on his flank, “how fairies think, and what they can see and can’t see. My opinion is, they’ve been listening far too much to rich ogres. My opinion is, they’d do a better job at being fairies if they listened to the other ninety-nine percent.”
But young Bob and Janet, trying not to weep with disappointment, were already trudging off up the road to help their parents pack up what little they owned and leave their home forever in the morning.
The fox shrugged his narrow shoulders, looking after them through the shadows of the night. “Nobody ever listens to foxes,” he said.
Some Foxy Figures
Official Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2010:
About 14 million people were officially counted as unemployed.
(5.9 million of these people had been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer.)
People without work or without full-time work but NOT counted as unemployed:
8.9 million “involuntary part-time workers” (would work full-time if they could)
6.1 million “wanted work but did not actively seek work”
Of these, 2.5 million had looked for work within the past year; the rest had not, because, according to the BLS, they did not expect to find any (the “discouraged”), or they could not take a job because of a disability, or were in school, or had no way to get to and from work, or had children but no child care.
Also not counted among the unemployed by the BLS are more than 2 million people currently in American prisons.
The total of unemployed not counted as unemployed is at least 17 million; added to the counted figure of 14 million, 31 million people were out of work last year.
The figures have not substantially changed so far this year.
There was a good deal of hoopla recently when the number of oficially unemployed dropped from 14 million to 13.9 million, so that we have “only” 9% official unemployment. This drop is mostly because the “long-term unemployed” simply have been shifted into the “did not seek work” category. Same bods, different pigeonholes.
The true rate of unemployment remains between 16 and 25%.
(It is much the same in European countries who do not fudge the figures as we do.)
The number of unemployed people receiving benefits (less than half) has dropped recently: this is not, as the media say, because we are “recovering from the recession,” but because so many people have been out of work for more than 99 weeks. Their eligibility for benefits has run out.
Even of the 14 million “officially unemployed,” about 30% have been out of work so long they have lost benefit eligibility.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that every dollar spent on unemployment benefits brings the country $1.90 in “economic growth.” A bargain, says the little red fox. (But Fox News would not agree.)
City of the Plain, by Ursula K. Le Guin
A poem from The Wild Girls, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Play the Podcast of “City of the Plain.”
PM Press Outspoken Authors #06, May 1, 2011