Here we are again, on the first Sunday of the month with another free short story. I post one every month as a thank you to all of you wonderful readers. Hope you enjoy the stories as much as I do writing them.
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To keep in step with the holidays I've created a fun non-horror parody of an old classic with a fresh twist. Submitted for your approval, Jacquiline and The Magic Beans. If you enjoy my short stories please check out my books. Happy Holidays Everyone!
JACQUELINE AND THE MAGIC BEANS
In a small rural village, the men of the twelve houses had gone off into the forest to hunt deer. The moon had completed one cycle without their return. All the village women and children had taken their meager belongings down the mountain. They had heard there were jobs down in the valley. Without their husbands, they needed to make ends meet—all the women, except for Ursula and her twelve-year-old daughter, Jacqueline.
“Oh, Mother. How can we stay? Without Father, we are doomed. Everyone from the village has left. How will we survive?”
“We’ll have no choice but to go without a man for a while. The crops from the fields, the eggs from the chickens, and milk from our cow will sustain us. I imagine I’ll have to eventually find you a husband so you can have financial stability and if I ever hope to have grandbabies. You just remember, if some man comes sniffing around here, that a woman can’t expect a man to buy the cow if she’s giving the milk away for free.”
Jacqueline didn’t understand what her mother meant. Why would I need a man for financial stability if I already own the cow? Even so, Jacqueline took her mother’s words to heart and, from that moment on, insisted she be called Jack. Her logic was that if she called herself a man’s name she would never have the need of one who clearly only wanted to steal her cow anyway. Jack continued working many long hours to help her mother maintain the farm. That spring, the rains were plentiful, the sun shone brightly, making the crops grow strong, while the chickens flourished enough for the occasional roast chicken dinner. Even with the bounty around them, Jacqueline still longed to go down to the valley to meet young people like herself, being extra careful to avoid those thieving men, of course. But as time passed, the fear of those men slowly began to turn into more of a fascination.
Ursula relied on Jacqueline. Without her, she could not maintain the farm alone, which left her compelled to honor her daughter’s wishes, and she began to call her Jack. Jack loved her mother and would never harm her by leaving even if that virtuous thought grew ever harder to maintain as she went from child to young woman. For the next three seasons, their bounty was plentiful and the life of the two women, although filled with hard work still felt rewarding. The two women doing this well without a man was unheard of in this day and age.[LL1] As time went on, Jack would ask more and more questions about what the valley people were like. Ursula would tell stories about how they were thieves and ruffians and to always stay clear of them. They were not to be trusted. The stories Ursula told restrained Jack’s curiosity into complying and not ever going down into the valley.
The following planting season, their luck ran out when the great rains began. At first, it rained every so often, but then it never stopped. Floods killed the crops for four growing cycles leaving the fields as lakes twenty stones deep. The women got by with what meager things would grow and what they had canned from years before, but little by little, the food disappeared, and none grew to replace it. Once the corn stopped growing, the chickens began to die from lack of feed. There was no other option than to salt and smoke them before they all perished. As the food dwindled, the warm, humid winds began, which dried the soil out, but left vast puddles where the mosquitoes thrived and malaria shortly followed. All these difficulties wore Ursula down, and she became frail and sickly.
“Jack, you must sell our cow and buy some food with it. But remember to get a fair price, Elsa is the only thing we have to sell.”
“Who would I sell the cow to? There’s no one left up here on the mountain but us.”
“You would need to go down into the valley. I’m afraid there is no other way.”
Ursula had become too weak to make the journey with Jack, so the two women hugged goodbye, neither sure if they would ever meet again. As the sun began to peak around the mountain the following morning, Jack was off with Elsa the cow in tow, on the long journey down into the valley.
It wasn’t far down the mountain before Jack came across the first stranger she had seen in many cycles. The hefty young lad held a small blade in one hand while extending the base of mushroom clusters to cleanly slice the fungus from the ground and into his basket. Jack watched him move from palm frond to elephant ear, crawling beneath to retrieve the clusters of forest bounty. The thought of fresh cream of mushroom soup made Jack’s stomach growl. It was difficult for Jack not to think of food since it had been two days since she had eaten, and even then, it was only a banana and some water. The lad was so focused to his task that he hadn’t heard Jack walking up behind him. The lad let out a yelp, Elsa a long bellow, and for no other reason than to not feel left out, Jack added a quick scream of her own.
“Who are you?” squealed the lad.
“Who am I? Who are you?”
The lad stared at Jack, mouth a gape and eyebrows furrowed for a moment before shaking off the confusion in his mind and extending his hand.
“I’m Sir John, from the House of Gigantica. My father is the Lord of Beanstalk and ruler of the Royal Gardens.”
Jack took the lad’s hand and shook it with determination.
“I am Jack of the mountain. Daughter of the provider of food and shelter. My father was a mighty hunter and woodsman.”
The lad smiled. He was only a cycle or two at best older than Jack, albeit much more experienced in knowing his way around the jungle.
“What kind of name is Jack? You are obviously a beautiful young woman, and beautiful young women are not called Jack.”
Ursula had warned Jack of this kind of false flattery so many times that there needn’t have been a moment of thought on Jack’s part.
“What kind of name is John? Where I come from, that’s what we call the toilet.”
John stomped further away, returning to his picking with an added vengeance.
“What do you know anyways? What are you doing out in my family’s jungle? These are Royal lands, and you are trespassing!” he yelled while shaking the hand with the knife in it at her.
It was then that Jack could see the lad’s hands were as dirty and worn as her own.
“I do apologize, Sir John. I was unaware that this land belongs to you. Although I find it most honorable that a king’s son would be out foraging for mushrooms for his people. I would have imagined that most royals would have servants for such a task.”
A sheepish smile crept across John’s face as he held out both his hands. “You are an observant woman. These are Royal lands, but I am nothing more than a gatherer for the king’s chefs. My father being one of them. Now, I’ve come clean. Why don’t you tell me what you’re doing out here.”
Jack explained the tragic story of her mother and their farm and that she needed to find someone willing to buy her cow.
“With no disrespect Mis. Your cow is rather scrawny. It wouldn’t make a decent meal for the royal table. And from the look of her utters, she hasn’t been giving much milk these days. Much to Jack’s displeasure, John was right.
“Look, I have no money to buy your cow even if I wanted to. All I can tell you is beneath the jungle plants for the golden mushrooms. Let your cow eat some. Should make her feel stronger. They’re filled with nutrients. These are some of the richest fertile lands in the region. That way you’ll have a better chance at selling her further down the mountain.”
“But these are royal lands. Wouldn’t I be poaching on the king’s food source?”
“Yes, the Golden Mushroom is the most valuable commodity in the land. Entire kingdoms have been bought with them. King Walter, the ruler over Gigantica is a terrible tyrant and would surely have your head for such thievery.” He then smiled, “but I’m the only one out here, and if you don’t tell, neither will I.”
“That’s most noble of you Sir John of the son of Lord Beanstalk.”
A full laugh at this time would have been disrespectful, but each of them smirking a bit was acceptable, and the two went their separate ways.
As Jack searched for mushrooms, she thought about how right her mother had been. John was indeed a liar but didn’t seem to be a thief or much of a ruffian. Jack wrestled with the question if the truth is quickly admitted to, does it nullify the lie told before it? Truth triumphs the lie, right? Jack could tell you when to plant your field, what and when to feed chickens, and how to clean up after a cow, but the subtleties of human behavior were like a foreign language to her. The only thing Jack was sure of was learning about a new source of food in the jungle lands was life-saving information.
It didn’t take long for Jack to find mushrooms for Elsa, which even Jack consumed as she filled her satchel with tender golden fungus for later while hoping that perhaps they’d taste better if they were cooked in butter and garlic. Jack and her cow worked their way further down the mountain before stopping at a small stream to drink. On the other side of the stream stood a young girl carrying a long stick across her neck and shoulders. From each end of the stick hung wooden buckets sloshing about with water. As she began walking away from the stream bed, she began to sing, her voice the most beautiful sound Jack had ever heard. Evidently, Elsa thought so as well and let out a long, mournful bellow. The girl turned toward them, laughing. She put down the water buckets and stepped forward, “Looks like your cow doesn’t like my singing.”
“No, just the opposite. She wanted to join in.”
The girl smiled, “My name is Harper. I’m the third handmaiden to King Walter in his sixth house of songs.”
Jack felt compelled to curtsy a bit. “I’m Jack, from the people of the mountaintop.”
Harper put her dainty hand over her mouth and giggled.
“No need to curtsy for me. My assignment is to collect the finest, purest water for the royal household and sing for them each evening.”
Jack smiled back and waved, “Sorry to have startled you. I’m off to the valley to sell my cow.”
“No disrespect Jack, your cow looks rather plump, but her utters look sadly thin.”
“I’ve been feeding her mushrooms, and she’s slowly getting better.”
“I have no money to buy your cow. However, I could sing to her. My singing has medicinal qualities. I’m sure she would heal faster, and you’d get a better price in the valley.”
Harper sang for a long while, and ever so slowly, Elsa’s utters became full and healthy again. Jack wanted to repay Harper with the milk Elsa was abundantly producing, but she declined. Her gift was meant for only King Walter. If the evil ruler found out she used her gift on a stranger, and a woman stranger at that, she would be horribly punished. Harper provided an extra bucket for Jack to milk her cow and accepted enjoying some of the milk as payment. What the king didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.
It took three more days to reach the valley when just outside of town, Jack encountered a handsome young lad with dark, wavy hair and stunning blue eyes. The lad sat on the edge of the road, picking rocks out of his sandals, muttering to himself. Jack went to the satchels that hung on Elsa’s back and retrieved two silk scarves, gifts from her mother in days of plenty. He stared at her with his mouth open when she held the scarves out to him.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” he asked.
“Wrap them around your feet and then put on the sandals. The silk will keep out the stones.”
“Who are you?” snapped the lad.
“I am Jack of the mountaintop people, and I’m taking my cow to sell in the valley.”
“That’s a mighty fine-looking cow you have there, Jack of the mountaintop people. Why are you selling her?”
Jack told him the story of her origin and why she needed to sell their cow. He listened contently until she finished.
“That’s a terribly sad story. I myself would buy your cow, but all I have are these magic beans. My father doesn’t allow me to carry currency, marauders, you understand.”
Jack examined him for a moment. “What are you doing here in the jungle wearing sandals full of holes instead of proper shoes?”
“I was heading for the beach. My guides led us astray and then ran off into the jungle once we were hopelessly lost. I’ve been walking in circles since sun up.”
Although Jack had her reservations about this lad, she knew they were close to town and offered him to walk with her and Elsa.
“So, what exactly are magic beans?” asked Jack.
“The man selling them down at the pier said the pirates from the Islands ground up the magic beans with hot, blessed water. They drink it as a tribute to the gods of abundant fortune.”
“Doesn’t sound like much of a sacrifice.”
“That’s tribute, not sacrifice. But I guess it could be seen as one as well. It’s said to taste horribly bitter. The attributes it brings must make it worthwhile to endure the taste.”
“How much was this man at the pier selling such abundance bringing beans for?”
The lad shuffled his feet beneath him as he stared at the ground.
“I don’t really know.”
“Could that be because you helped yourself to the beans without paying for them?”
“My father is King Walter! That merchant should feel honored that I, Prince Walter the Second selected his wears for such an influential man to have wanted to give it freely.”
“He should want us to have it for free!”
It was clear to Jack that this prince was a thief and most likely an entitled liar. Nevertheless, Jack simply brushed off the story as pure fiction, which rattled Walter the Second’s cage a bit.
“Here, look, I’ll show you.”
The agitated prince reached behind him and pulled out a pillowcase-size burlap bag, and opened it. “See,” he said as he ran his fingers through the strange-looking beans. Jack was now convinced that this lad was surely out to swindle her out of her cow, the same kind of man her mother had warned her about.
“Okay, you have some weird-looking beans, and I have a cow, and you want to trade me those beans for my cow? Is that correct?”
“Yes, but these are magic beans.”
“Can my mother and I eat them? Can we plant them? That’s the only magic I’m looking for, and there isn’t any other way to obtain a fortune, is there?”
“You’re just one of those non-believers. You’ve lost your sense of wonder and hope. Probably wouldn’t work for someone like you anyways.”
“Trust me. I have hope and wonder.”
He reached into the bag, pulling out a handful of the beans.
“Here, this should be more than enough for that cow of yours.”
Jack pulled the bucket Harper had given her from Elsa’s back and began milking her. Walter the Second watched with amazement, for he had never seen actual manual labor before. Once the bucket was full, Jack picked it up by its handle and held it out toward Walter the Second.
“For the number of beans you are offering, I’ll only pay one bucket of milk.”
“No, no. This amount of beans for the whole cow!”
“No, take it or leave it.” Jack waited a second before taking the end of the rope around Elsa’s neck and began to walk off with the full bucket in hand.
“Wait. Come with me to my castle, and we’ll see what my father the King thinks about this bargain.”
“I have no time for this. If you can’t purchase my cow, then I’ll keep looking for someone who can.”
Walter the Second pulled another handful of beans from his bag and held out both his hands filled.
“I’ll give you this many just for coming with me to see my father the king. That’s more than fair, don’t you think?”
Jack thought a moment before agreeing, even though she was sure he would try and swindle her out of her cow.
The walk to King Walter’s and Walter the Second’s castle wasn’t far. The two and Elsa entered the great hall where King Walter sat on a massive throne made of bones covered by wild boar and deer hides.
“What is this nonsense, boy?” The king demanded.
Before young Walter could answer, Jack stepped forward and curtsied.
“Good day, My Lord. Your son has been beyond gracious by carrying my big bag of beans here, all in the effort to allow me to gift you my handsome cow.”
The king sat up, a smile crossing his greedy face while young Walter squirmed in his pants.
“Although it is a noble and righteous gift, I cannot accept it, for I only indulge in herds of cattle, not individual ones.”
The king waved his hand at a nearby servant, who hurried over and took the bag of beans from Walter the Second and handed it over to Jack.
“Now, take your beans and your cow and go.”
Jack curtsied deeply before taking Elsa’s lead and the bag of beans and slowly sashayed from the great hall, ‘no thieving, lying ruffian is going to make a fool of me,’ Jack muttered beneath her breath, leaving Walter the Second’s face a deep shade of angry red without anything to say to counter her statement. Young Walter simply was not that bright.
Jack returned home to the mountaintop with a great smile on her face and Elsa, with both satchels filled with the magic beans, safely rode on her back. Jack’s mother hugged her daughter with tears in her eyes.
“Where did you get this beautiful cow?”
“This is Elsa.”
Jack explained her adventures in the valley to her mother, who could only scowl.
“You had an opportunity to capture yourself a prince who could have married you? And didn’t! Then we could have lived in a castle draped in furs and jewels.”
“There’s no need for that, Mother. We now have a healthy, beautiful cow. Tomorrow I’ll go back to the jungle and harvest enough golden mushrooms to buy us anything we want and keep Elsa healthy for the rest of her life."
And that was exactly what Jack did. With the sale of some of the mushrooms, Jack was able to buy two oxen, who tilled the field where she planted the magic beans. She then had her friend Harper sing to the seedlings, and within a fortnight, the plants had sprouted into mighty trees. The rains had been moderate, and within no time, the great trees sprouted flowers which turned into more seeds. It was then that Jack recalled what Walter the Second had said about grinding the seeds and adding them to hot blessed water. After over fifty tries of mixing the ground beans and the water, Jack finally unlocked the strange brew’s true properties. She had first roasted the beans, then ground them and passed boiling hot, water through the grounds. The effects were glorious, but the taste was rather strong and bitter.
It was three cycles later that Harper came to visit one day. The trees were strong and healthy and covered in so many beans their branches drooped toward the ground from the weight. Harper brought a gift for Jack—a bag of brown sugar. While the two sat drinking the bitter brew and chatting, the idea had come to Jack to put some of the brown sugar into the bitter drink. Instantly, the brew was much better but still had a bitter aftertaste. It was just at that moment that Elsa, plump and healthy, waddled across the open field with the bell around her neck ringing. Jack grabbed a bucket and headed for her cow. After bringing back a small amount of milk and adding it to the bitter brew the drink magically turned delicious.
It had been raining for days, and just at that moment, the rain stopped, the black clouds rolled away, and the sun broke through in long streams of golden warmth. The two women smiled as they sipped the fabulous brew with its sugar and milk, and Jack declared, “I will name this drink coffee, and the love of it will spread across every continent!”
And that was exactly what the women did. Without any men, they became wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, shipping coffee all over the world. They invested in two dozen more milking cows and planted thirty more fields of magic beans with huge roasting houses. Their creamery prospered, making ice creams and cheeses while the demand for their gourmet coffees continues to soar to this day. And that is how Jacqueline turned friendship, some beans, and some determination into pure magic.