"Externalities" by Geoffrey Hart
A traveling wise man gives each customer the service they need, while teaching his apprentice a valuable lesson about externality.
“Short Stories For Long Discussions…”
Mission Statement: After Dinner Conversation is an independent, nonprofit, literary magazine that focuses on short story fiction that encourages philosophical and ethical discussions with friends, family, and students. Each story comes with five suggested discussion questions.
Letter From The Editor
End Of Year Submission Stats!
Starting in May, 2023, we started backfilling stats for those we accepted, and collecting that data moving forward. Here is what we know about the authors we publish. (Full Stats)
86% College Degree (or Higher)
73% First-Time Published
7% Submission Acceptance Rate
And as always, if you enjoy our stories, support our writers, and support what we do, you can always subscribe to our monthly magazine via our website (digital or print), or via substack. Also, if you haven’t signed up yet, we are still looking for advance copy readers for our 2024 Themed Books.
Weekly Story Related Poll
“Externalities” Related Poll (This Week)
“The Formula” Poll Results (Last Week)
Free Partner eBooks Downloads
(Updated Weekly, Click The Photo)
After Dinner Conversation - Philosophy | Ethics Short Story is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
"Externalities" by Geoffrey Hart
“In economics, an externality is the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.”—James Buchanan and W. Craig Stubblebine
* * *
The library rolled heavily into town, bearing its cargo of knowledge mundane, esoteric, and somewhere in between. Its ancient axles creaked as it slowed, executed a graceful turn through the caravanserai, and came to rest, facing the town square and the well that travelers used. The horses, dust coating their sweaty flanks, snorted in anticipation. Willem waited for his apprentice, Thomen, to descend, then leaned heavily on the youth’s shoulder as he eased himself to the ground, wincing at the pain in his hips. Once both feet were firmly on the ground, he stretched mightily, his joints emitting an alarming series of crackling noises.
“Ahhh... that’s better. Fetch me some water. I’m feeling drier than Epicurus, and half as lively.” He kicked at the dust to emphasize his point.
The youth grabbed the tin bucket that hung from the wagon’s bench seat, behind the buckboard, and ran to the well. By the time he’d returned, Willem had unfurled their banner, which lay limp in the motionless air. While Thomen had been away, a discreet crowd had gathered, curious to learn what the wagon had brought them. The sage took a long drink from the bucket, then poured the remainder over his head. “Thanks.” He ruffled the youth’s hair, then gestured at the banner with a cocked thumb. Thomen seized the dangling end, nimbly swarmed up the back of the wagon, and tied the banner’s end to the cord they’d attached there for this purpose. In letters two feet tall, it read: “Library”. Below, in lettering you had to approach to read, it said “Master Sage Willem, Oikonomist. Knowledge revealed, affordable rates.”
Without being asked, Thomen unhitched the horses and re-hitched them to one of the many posts made available for this purpose. Then he made several back-and-forth journeys with the bucket to fill the trough. While the horses drank, he hopped into the wagon like the monkey he’d been repeatedly told he resembled, but had seen only in pictures, and returned bearing blankets to wipe the sweat from their broad backs. He also bore an assortment of brushes and combs to curry the dust of the road from their sleek hides. By the time he’d finished and gone in search of hay, Willem had unstrapped his folding chair and card table from the stowage beneath the wagon and was sitting in the shade, awaiting their first customer.
That customer was not long in coming. As he pushed through the small crowd, he was preceded by a smell that parted the bystanders and made the horses seem perfumed by comparison. Willem mastered himself with the ease of long practice, only a welcoming grin showing on his face. The peasant unceremoniously piled a heap of greasy coppers on the card table, paused a moment, then knuckled his forehead. “My daughter’s gums bleed, her teeth are loose as molting feathers, and she heals slowly.”
Willem pushed the man’s coins back across the table. “Seek the fruit with an orange rind that folk call sunsweet. Or the fruit with a yellow rind and intense sourness, known as sweet-tart, or its green-rinded cousin bitter-rind, the one with the intense bitterness. Feed her one a day until the bleeding stops, then weekly thereafter.”
The peasant spat upon the ground. “I can’t afford such luxuries.”
“Then seek rose hips, and crush them to make a tea. You can dry them, and they’ll keep over the winter. If none grow near you, brew a tea from the leaves of either of two evergreen trees that grow in these woods. In wet areas, you’ll find the first of them, named whitestripe: the leaves are thin and lay flat, emerging individually from the branches. The sprays of leaves are broad—about twice the width of your thumb—and the leaflets are no longer than the first joint of your thumb. They’re glossy green above; below, they’re a paler green, with white stripes that run along the branchlet on the bottom. Those are the stripes that give the tree its name. The second tree grows on sandy, rocky soil, yet reaches to the sky. It’s named duster, for the leaves are soft, needle-like, and long as your fingers. They emerge in dense sprays of five, bound together like the hairs in a dust brush—hence its name.” Thomen had returned, a bale of hay in his arms, and had been watching the interaction quietly.
“Thomen? Fetch Farrar’s book of trees.” He waited patiently for his apprentice to return, bearing a thick book. Willem flipped through the pages, stopping about a quarter of the way through. He turned the book towards the peasant. “They look like this.”
When the peasant had reclaimed his coins, he bowed and backed away, knuckling his forehead as he retreated. Thomen looked imploringly at his teacher, then spoke quietly so the onlookers wouldn’t hear. “Master, might we afford a sunsweet or one of the others? It’s been months.” The youth licked his lips.
Willem patted his apprentice’s curly hair. “If we have enough money left after buying necessaries, perhaps we can splurge on a few treats.”
“We’d have more money if you didn’t give away our services.”
Willem snorted. “One thing you must learn, apprentice, is when to demand an arm or a leg, and when it’s wiser to share our knowledge freely. There are consequences for any price, and they have to do with oikonomika.” He paused a moment, lost in thought. “Yes, perhaps it’s past time you began that study. Fetch the big leather book on the top shelf, the one with Oikonomika in gold leaf on the spine.”
Thomen climbed more grudgingly into the wagon this time. There came rustling sounds as he moved about the narrow aisle between the books. By the time he’d returned, clutching his prize, a small but exceptionally brawny man wearing a leather apron was chatting with his master. “So that, in sum, is the problem: my steel is too brittle. Which is undesirable from the perspective of repeat business, aye, but it’s worse than that: I sell the steel to knights and men at arms and others who have a nasty disposition, and are far too quick to use even that brittle steel to solve their problems—of which I’m now one. That being the case, its brittleness consoles me not, as even bad steel’s strong enough to open me from nave to chops.”
Willem met the smith’s gaze. “How much charbon are you using in the steel?”
“The materials like charcoal that you add to strengthen the steel.”
“Ah. About 2 per hundredweight.”
“Far too much. That will certainly make the steel brittle. Cut that amount in half, then in half again. Perhaps more, depending on what else is in the steel.”
“In steel, as in life, moderation is best.”
“In steel, as in life, moderation is best.”
The smith placed a silver coin on the table, bowed somewhat dubiously, and walked away.
Thomen looked up from his book. “Master? How did you know that obscure fact?”
“It’s not nearly so obscure as you’d think. Smiths aren’t the only ones who make the mistake of assuming that if some is good, more is better. It rarely is. Moderation in everything, including moderation is my motto. You’ve found the book? Good. Keep reading, and don’t interrupt a customer with your questions.”
Their next customers were a pair of minstrels, one fair-skinned as the day was bright, the other dark-skinned as the night sky. Willem and Thomen appraised them, then exchanged glances. The two men doffed their plumed hats to the sage and the apprentice, making a leg so deeply before they straightened that the feathers trailed in the dirt. The pale one wished them a good day, then, proprieties satisfied, placed a silver coin upon the table, joined by its twin from the dark one, who had paused to dust off his plume.
“We seek a decision. We have different memories of the famous quote on fornication from The Tragedy of the Rich Ievv of Malta.”
Willem’s brows knitted a moment, and he looked to the sky. Then he smiled, and quoted from memory: “But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.”
The pale one smiled at his companion, somewhat lasciviously, Thomen thought. But the dark one frowned, and spoke in a voice with hints of a Moorish accent. “Are you certain?”
Willem sighed, and turned to Thomen. “Fetch me the tome labeled Great Plays.” He waited patiently until the youth returned, thumbed through the book, then placed the book open to the right page upon the table. Willem rotated the book towards the minstrels. “Here you go: see for yourself.”
The dark minstrel blushed. “Nay, I need not. Your word suffices.”
Willem made the coins disappear. “Then I wish you both a good day.”
“A very good day, and mayhap a better night.” The pale minstrel kissed the dark one on the cheek as they moved off; the latter recoiled and pushed his companion to arm’s length.
The sage snorted. “Some free advice, my apprentice: whenever you’re certain you know the answer, doubt that certainty. Most bets, and all provisions of knowledge, have consequences.” No other customer waited, though a few children hovered in hope of entertainment. Willem assumed a mentorish mien and cleared his throat. His apprentice looked up from where he’d been paging reluctantly through Oikonomika. “Have you learned yet the origin of the book’s title?”
“Aye. It comes from the great Aristotle. Oikonomika is Greek, and denotes the laws that govern the management of one’s household.”
“Good. And how does it relate to the word oikologia?”
Thomen’s mouth gaped a moment. “Both begin with the prefix oiko?”
Willem aimed a mock blow at his apprentice. “Aye, they do, but that’s far too glib a response to let stand. Seek and find me the real reason.” Thomen climbed reluctantly back into the wagon, which squeaked as he moved about and shifted his weight above the springs. By the time the youth emerged, clutching a well-worn tome with Lexiko faintly visible on its spine, their next customer had arrived. He was a tall, thin man, dressed richly and accompanied by two large and thuggish-seeming men, one armed with a longsword belted at his waist, the other leaning on a staff taller than himself and thicker than Thomen’s wrist.
“I bid you a good afternoon, wise sage. I have a question of a financial nature for you.”