The idea for this story came about seven months ago when I was traveling and wondered what it would be like to travel internationally in a purely barter economy.
Prescott stood in a crowd at the exchange bank, meaning a long section of the river bank where you could exchange things. He had just arrived by boat for vacation. This was his one chance for adventure and to see new things. So far, the exchange bank was providing enough new sights, sounds, and smells for at least a month.
Standing in front of Prescott was a man with the word Teller on a placard around his neck. Prescott wasn’t sure what that meant, although it apparently meant someone whose job it was to tell him things.
The teller was looking skeptically down at the sand dollars Prescott had spread out on the table.
“I don’t know,” he said at last. “Who would want them? I mean, what do they do?”
“They’re transportable wealth,” Prescott said, feeling an uncomfortable feeling growing in his head. “You can carry them around. And they’re pretty. Look, I just want to trade them for something that would be valuable where I’m going inland.”
“Onyx is big these days,” the teller said. “They hit a big vein just down the coast six months ago. Of course, that means people don’t want it as much either. I mean, it’s pretty, but you’re better going with something practical, like wheat or cheese.”
“So, what should I do?” It felt like a betrayal of his own abilities to even have to ask, but Prescott could not envision himself carting around a hundred pounds of cheese for the next month.
“You know what you should get into,” the teller said, with a thoughtful squint. “Sheep. They’re walking meat, milk, and wool. Plus, a caravan came through a week ago and snapped up all the sheep and herded them south. There’s a severe shortage now.”
“Then how am I supposed to get them?” Prescott asked, surrendering all pretense of competence in finance.
“There’s one herd left,” the teller said, pointing to a dirty white clump of bodies a stone’s throw down the bank. “They’re old and ornery, so no one wants them. You’ll get them cheap. All you have to do is drive them ten miles inland to the town of Wakk and trade them for miniature stone carvings of the god Bingbong, the patron god of miniature stone carvings. Those things are valuable anywhere.”
This was sounding like an awful lot of work just to get enough wealth to travel for vacation. It would make a good story though.
“Yessir, you could travel a week on a single Bingbong if you’re careful,” the teller said, answering the question Prescott never asked. “You should be able to get 8, maybe 10 for that herd in these times.”
With thoughts of having his trip financed for ten whole weeks, Prescott made his way over to the sheep herd. He had planned to travel until he ran out of funds, but he had not been sure how far the 48 sand dollars he had collected would take him.
“What do you do with them?” one of the shepherds asked when Prescott proposed the trade.
“You carry them somewhere else and trade them for other things,” Prescott said. He lifted up his right foot and scraped it off on a nearby rock. “And they don’t smell or poop.” The shepherds did a straight swap, trading all 48 sand dollars for the 26 sheep. One of them even threw in his staff as well.
“You’ll need it,” the man said before the two of them wrapped up the sand dollars and ran off, whooping with joy.
The sheep weren’t just ornery, Prescott found. They were also old, decrepit, lame, and in one instance, dead. He discovered this when he made an exploratory attempt at herding (by yelling and accidentally hitting himself in the foot with the staff). The flock had moved a desultory few feet, except for one particularly bad-smelling ewe who stayed put. Prescott found that it was being held up by wire.
He had gotten the flock up the bank and almost to the main road that led out west when there was a sudden buzz in the air, as if a celebrity had just entered the room, or at least an especially large wasp. Prescott turned to see four ships entering the harbor.
“Sheep ship!” he heard. “The sheep ships are here.”
Prescott found a teller. “We’ve been waiting for these for weeks,” the man said. He caught sight of Prescott’s decrepit flock. “Ooh, you might want to get those inland as fast as possible. That’s the only way you’ll get anything for them now.”
For the next few days, Prescott struggled to keep his vile flock moving along the inland road as huge flocks of strong and relatively nice-smelling sheep passed him by. He was almost relieved when five of his sheep got lost in the woods and another two fell in the river.
Finally he arrived in Wakk and made his way to the local exchange meadow. There seemed to be more sheep than people there.
“I’ll give you half a Bingbong for them,” one man said, sizing up the flock. He shrugged. “I dropped it on the ground.”
I think I have a title for my travel memoir, Prescott thought as he walked away. How I Turned 48 Sand Dollars into Half a Bingbong. If he ever got home alive, it would make a good story.