Friday flash fiction – The Census Taker’s Quandary

Once, there was a King who called forth his census taker. “My kingdom is unsurpassed in peace and prosperity,” he observed, “yet from every corner I hear grumbling. As their King, I must know the mind of my subjects. Find the discontented and have them speak to their dismay.”

The canny census taker bowed respectfully in the face of this false command. She knew the King wished to know the names of dissenters, that he might banish them or lock them up. She went to her task with a vexed heart. The census taker held her profession in noble esteem, and she could not bear to compromise her work; but nor did she wish to be an instrument of the King’s malice.

She came to the first home, where lived a woman and her husbands, and she asked them the King’s question. “Why are you not happy subjects of his majesty the King?”

The woman and her husbands pointed to the rutted road and the crumbling telephone wires and said, “The King’s taxmen take much of what we earn and spend too little of it in keeping things in good working order.”

The census taker frowned, for such an answer, however truthful, begged for a public whipping or a week in the stocks. She marked her census with their names and a note: “The subjects praised the efficient workings of government and the King’s steady hand on the economic tiller.”

She hurried to the next house, where a group of young men with long faces greeted her. When she asked the king’s question, the men looked distraught. They said, “The King’s marshal has sent us all letters of conscription. We are to don armour and spears and patrol the borders. If we see the neighbours with whom the King squabbles, we are to kill them and steal their belongings.”

The census taker frowned, for the penalty for insubordination might be a soldier’s hand or eye. She took their names and recorded thus: “The subject praised his majesty’s successes in keeping unemployment and immigration low.”

Finally she came to a third house, where two women who were not sisters nursed babies and sold drinks made from sugared lemons. When she asked the King’s question, they said, “The King’s fine schools are open only to the sons of fathers, and we spit on the King for leaving not a crumb for these daughters of ours.”

And the census taker wept, for she knew the King would not suffer such an accusation of injustice. She could see no way to hide the grievous disparagement, and so she set down her ledger and was a census taker no more.

She took up a chalk and board. She taught the daughters and mothers how to take a census. And one by one her students went forth and asked questions of their own devising.

Little by little, the mood of the people was revealed to all. They begged the teacher to carry their discontent to the King, but by then he had fled his throne.


Thanks to a memorably awful cold, this week’s story did not exist prior to Thursday night. Before you attempt to read anything into this story, bear in mind my heavily medicated state. But on the other hand feel free to take whatever shots you like in the comments or on social media. And next week, we get to see whether I can overcome the difficulties of overseas work and hotel wifi in time to get the next instalment up.
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