There was once a great city.
Hundreds of thousands of people lived in this city. But the people were divided into two groups: the Many, and the Few.
For the Few, life in this great city was wonderful, for the Few were very wealthy. They lived in grand houses on the banks of the river that meandered through the city. Each marble mansion was filled with drawing rooms and dining rooms and more than forty bedrooms. Each grand hallway was filled with gold-framed oil paintings and fine china vases. The baths were made of burnished bronze and the toilet seats were solid silver. Every house had an outdoor pool, an indoor pool, and a glasshouse. And the gardens stretched a hundred yards, all the way to the river, with orange trees and lemon trees to sit beneath in summer.
The Few lived lavishly. The mornings were spent dressing for lunch. At lunch they sat with their true friends, eating chocolate cake and cream-filled pastries, gossiping about who among the Few had the most money. The afternoons were spent dressing for dinner, and every evening they sat with their fair-weather friends and feasted on all manner of fowl, stuffed inside one another – a quail stuffed inside a duck, stuffed inside a pheasant, stuffed inside a grouse, stuffed inside a chicken, stuffed inside a goose, stuffed inside a turkey, all roasted in lard with potatoes, parsnips, and pork sausages. They talked about the fate and fortunes of the city, all the while trying to curry favour with the few of the Few who held the most power and influence in the city. And at the end of every evening, they shat out the feast from the day before, clogging the sewers that took their shit to the river.
For the Many, however, life in this great city was grim, for the Many were not wealthy. The Many lived far from the river, on the higher ground. In this part of the city, timber-framed houses overhung narrow cobblestone streets. The rooms of the houses were small, with low ceilings. Twelve would live in a house built for two. There were no sewers in this part of the city, so shit sloshed down the streets, and the Many had to step over the brown rivers as they pushed past each other.
The Many lived meagrely. They woke up early, and worked for twelve, thirteen, fourteen hours of the day, in factories making cotton or iron. The work was repetitive and the air was filled with coal smoke. They were given no time to rest, and if someone did not produce enough in one day, the factory owner – who was often one of the Few – found someone to replace them. They were paid little, and if they were lucky, at the end of each day they had enough money to buy fresh bread and vegetables, but if they were unlucky they would have to catch rats and pigeons.
The death rate among the Many was high. Those who did not die of starvation died of disease. Those who did not die of disease were killed in the factories. And those who were not killed in the factories killed themselves. The death brought more disease and despair, and always more young people flooded into the city from the countryside, believing it would be a better life.
It had been this way in the city for many years. No-one could remember a time when it wasn’t so. Indeed many believed that it had always been so – since the beginning of time itself. (But in reality it had only been this way for a few decades.)
Everyone in the city knew the myth of the Magic Money Tree. It was said that far away, deep in the icy mountains north of the city, there grew a tree … with leaves of pure gold. And the tree did not drop its leaves once a year, as most trees do, but every day, and each morning new golden leaves grew. The leaves that covered the ground could be gathered and melted down to make gold bars or coins.
If the tree were real, and the Many knew where it was, many of their problems would be solved. The Many could journey to the tree, gather up some of its golden leaves, melt them down into coins, and then when they were back in the city they could pay for more spacious houses, better food, and better clothes. They may even be able to buy many of the luxuries that the Few had. Sure, after a while, gold would be very common, and the Few would not have so much of it by comparison, but it would mean that a happy life was not so immutably the domain of so few.
But everyone (almost everyone) agreed that the tree did not exist. It was fiction. You might go into the mountains in search of the tree, but you would find nothing. There was no Magic Money Tree.
Except that … there was.
The tree … was real! The Magic Money Tree did exist! Its golden leaves, its copper bark, the sapphires and rubies that grew like fungi among its roots – it was all real …
… and the Few knew where it was.
But the Few did not want anyone else to know where the tree was, because they too realised that if the Many were given access to the tree, the Many would become wealthier, and the Few would become less wealthy by comparison. The Few did not want to lose their lavish lifestyle, and so did not want the Many to have access to the tree.
But if the Few acknowledged that the tree existed, and kept only its location to themselves, the Many might still be able to find it. A small number of them might venture into the mountains, and, given enough time, they would find the Magic Money Tree. So rather than just keep the location of the tree a secret, they also tried to keep its existence a secret. They pretended that it did not exist. Whenever anyone who was not one of the Few asked whether the tree was real, they would say loudly ‘Don’t be ridiculous! There is no Magic Money Tree!’. But in the evenings, when they were among the Few, they all acknowledged the tree’s existence, and shared the location of it with each other.
While most of the Many believed that the tree did not exist, there were some who knew that it did. This was partly because the Few’s deception was conspicuous – they were so fervent in their dismissal of the idea that the tree existed that it was suspicious. But it was also because they were somewhat careless in keeping their secret – lavishness and meticulousness are rarely found in the same person, it seems. Some of the Many worked for the Few in their mansions – as servants and cooks – and often did they hear the Few, through doors both open and closed, talk about the very real tree. This information found its way to those among the Many who were more vocal about the great wealth disparity in the city.
These more vocal people tried to convince the rest of the Many that the tree was real, and that the Few knew it. They tried to convince them that the Few were deceiving them, because if the Many found where the tree was, the Few would not remain so wealthy for very long. But as loud as they shouted, the Few shouted louder, and indeed the Few paid some of the Many to shout for them. And ultimately it was the intuitiveness, not the veracity, of what the Few said that swayed so many of the Many. ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ they said. ‘Have you ever seen a tree with golden leaves and copper bark? Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know!’
Except that … it did.
One year, there was a great flood. It had rained continuously for two weeks, and the river through the centre of this great city overflowed its banks. The Many were hardly affected by this at all. They lived on the higher ground far away from the river – the water did not reach their houses. The Few, however, lost a lot. All of their houses lined the river, and all were flooded. The water rose half-way up the ground floor, turning all of their oil paintings to brown sludge, and warping all of their antique wooden furniture. The cellars and glasshouses, pools and gardens, were all turned into bogs.
The cost to repair it all would have been enormous. While most of the Few had enough money to pay for all of the repairs to their houses and gardens, it would have been a substantial fraction of their total wealth. And the Few were reluctant to give up so much money.
But as the Few knew the location of the Magic Money Tree, they decided that, rather than spend any of their current wealth on the repairs, they would simply go to the golden tree, gather the golden leaves on the ground around it, melt them into gold coins, and spend those on the repairs.
And that’s exactly what they did. A small number of the Few made an expedition to the mountains. They found the Magic Money Tree, which grew in a shallow between two great summits, its golden leaves and copper bark reflecting the light in a thousand directions down the valley. They gathered the leaves on the ground, cut away some of the bark, and dug in the soil around the roots to find the rubies and sapphires. Once they had filled the sleds, they hauled their riches back to the city.
When they got back to the city, they melted down the gold and minted hundreds of thousands of new gold coins. They paid a select few artisan stonemasons, decorators, and gardeners to repair their houses and their gardens, and any money that was left over they kept.
The Many saw all of this. Most did not see the sleds being dragged into the city, for they were brought in under cover of darkness, but they saw all of the repairs being made to the houses and gardens, and they saw all of the rubies and sapphires that were given out as payment. But they did not question it. They did not question where the riches came from.
Those among the Many who knew that the tree existed shouted that that’s where the Few had gotten the money from. ‘They have gotten all of this money from the Magic Money Tree!’ they said. ‘The tree is real – the Few know where it is! But why should they be the only ones who have access to the tree? Why are their problems important enough such that they can use the money from the tree, but ours are not? We have starved for years; we have died for years; and throughout all of it they refused to use the tree, and pretended it did not exist! But at the first inconvenience to them, they will use the tree.’
But most of the Many did not believe it, for they were so rooted in the idea that money did not grow on trees, that even though they could not explain where all of this new gold had come from, they refused to even consider the possibility that the tree might exist, and that the Few simply didn’t want them to know about it.
Twelve years later, there was a great fire. The fire ravaged the city, burning both the areas where the Many lived and where the Few lived. Much of the city burned to the ground, and many people died.
Fortunately, a lot of people had managed to leave the city before the fire had reached their houses. They moved to the countryside around the city. For many, life improved – the air was less stale, there was less disease, and everyone had more space.
The fire burned through everything it could, and by the time it had burned itself out, not much was left of the city but smouldering ashes.
The Few, who were now living in their country mansions, discussed what they wanted to do about this. While a number of the Few had inherited their wealth, a lot also had owned factories and machinery that had been destroyed by the fire, and they were dependent on the profits from those factories to maintain their extraordinary wealth. (It cost a lot of money to eat a seven-bird roast every evening.) They wanted to rebuild the city, and bring all of the people back to it – give them factories to work in and houses to live in – so that they could continue to get the profits from what they produced.
But rebuilding the city would cost even more than it did to repair all of their houses as they did many years ago. This time, the Few absolutely did not have the money to pay for it all themselves, and the scale of the disaster was far bigger than what it had been before, so it was easy for the Few to decide: they would once again use the Magic Money Tree.
They made another expedition to the tree, taking far more sleds this time. This time they gathered every leaf in sight, even grabbing the ones off the tree that had not yet fallen that day. They cut away more of the bark, and picked up all of the branches that had fallen over the last few months. They burrowed for more rubies and sapphires, and they even picked the fruit of the tree, which was shaped like a pear, but which was silvery-green in colour, and which instead of seeds at the centre had small pearls. (It was also said that eating the fruit would give you an extra eight years of life.)
They brought all of it back to the city, and they paid for all of the factories and houses to be rebuilt. This lured the Many back to the city – they moved into newer, but still just as small, houses, and began working in factories again, though the work was still repetitive, and the coal furnaces blasted out just as much smoke.
But still, even though the Many themselves were the ones that the Few paid to rebuild the houses and the factories – even though they had been given the gold and rubies and sapphires from the tree – they had held it in their hands – they still did not believe that the tree existed.
‘Where do you think they got the money from?!’ those among the Many who did know that the tree existed said. ‘They didn’t have all of this money before – where do you think it came from?! They went to the tree again!’
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ the Few shouted. ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know!’
‘Yes, don’t be ridiculous!’ the rest of the Many parroted. ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know!’
‘There is no Magic Money Tree.’ they chorused together.
And nothing changed. Within a few years, the city had returned to how it had been before the fire. The Few still held control over the tree. Only when it was in their interest did they harvest its leaves, but always did they pretend that it did not exist. And never did the Many learn, that sometimes, when someone doesn’t want you to do something, rather than try to persuade you not to do it, they will try to deny that it is even physically possible.
When actually … it is.
Original story, Copyright © Benjamin T. Milnes