Mr. Stanchfield brings a view askew to an old classic… beware strangers bearing beans.
Once upon several times, a boy met a man walking down the road...
Of course, Jack had no idea who the tall stranger in the odd clothing was, for he was a simple boy, a widow’s only son, and seldom given to deep reflections. And if he wasn’t a terribly virtuous boy, neither did he harbor any great vices aside from a well-honed aversion to work and a tendency to stretch the truth now and again. He was neither coward nor hero, wit nor buffoon, sinner nor saint. He was, in short, an average young man from an average village, with average prospects of living life in an average way.
And had he not stolen the neighbor’s cow that drowsy spring day, he might have done just that.
“Ho, boy?” The stranger waved cheerfully. Jack clutched the rope in his hand tighter, the unruly heifer straining to break free. Against his better judgement, he stopped, for in truth he was tired from the long trudge down the cart-chewed road. The animal was balky, dragging him backwards as much as he drug her forward, as if she suspected the fate awaiting her in his mother’s barn later that night when passerby’s were few and none should hear the sound of a butcher at work. So, Jack waited, glad for the rest.
“That’s a fine looking animal you have,” the man in the odd clothes nodded at the heifer.
“She’s mine,” Jack said a bit too quickly. “My mum’s I mean. We raised her from a calf, and ungrateful wretch that she is, she broke down the fence last night and took a wander into Old Man Svenderstock’s pea patch. She’s quite a jumper! Cleared the rail with a handsbreadth to spare. I found her mixed with his herd, and twas all I could do to put this rope around her throat. And that,” said Jack, quite pleased with his story, “is God’s honest truth.”
“I never said that it wasn’t.” The stranger’s eyes narrowed. The more Jack saw of the man, the less he liked. He had a shifty way about him, a courtier’s easy laugh hiding a constable’s nose for trouble hidden under his wild dress. Jack had never seen anything quite like it. His shirt was fine and bright, tucked into long pants violet as the rainbow’s end. Instead of a cloak or jerkin, he wore a jacket spun of the shiniest blue cloth Jack had ever seen. It hung open around the stranger’s chest and rustled in the breeze. Above his breast was embroidered an odd bit heraldry, a game of nine pins, Giovanni’s Pizza Bowling Team circling round it in bold black letters. (Of course Jack, who could scarcely write his own name, would in later times insist the letters were magical symbols that danced and dazzled his unsuspecting eyes)
“Where are you bound, good sir?” Jack asked, anxious to know more about the stranger’s purpose and what it might mean to a boy with a purloined cow. “What brings you to this road on such a fine day?”
“Well, now that’s a fine question. I’m a traveler. A pilgrim you might say, bound where his feet would take him.” The easy smile returned. “And happy it is for you, young sir, that they took me down this path today.”
“Because.” The stranger bent forward and lowered his voice. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find the sheriff himself wandering this way... not, mind you, that you’ve done anything to feel guilty over. Tell me, young sir, this Svenderstock you mentioned, is he a big bellied man with a nose like a turnip?”
“Indeed he is.” Jack’s cud rose into his throat at the mention of the name. “Exactly like a turnip it is. You say he’s coming this way?”
“He might be.”
“You know something...” Jack swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry as the rope in his hand. He glanced over his shoulder, feeling eyes about him in the woods lining the road. “I think I may have taken a wrong turn a few miles back. Good day, sir, I must be going.”
Jack tugged at the rope, sweat beading round his face. He strained to pull the heifer back the way he had come but the animal swung her thick head back and forth, no happier with that direction than she had been with the other.
“Wait,” the stranger in the bright clothes called after him. “Ere you take your leave, perhaps I might have one last word with you?”
“I truly am in haste,” Jack said, thoughts of wooden stocks locked about his shoulders urging him to haste. “My mum would be terribly upset were I to miss my supper.”
“Then, let me offer an alternative.”
Jack paused. The stranger walked round the heifer, avoiding her tail as she swatted at the flies buzzing round her. He scratched his nose, obviously lost in deep contemplation, then, at last, nodded at the rope.
“That truly is a fine heifer, and any man would be proud to own her.”
“Well...” said Jack, hope rising. “I suppose she might be for sale, if that is your meaning.”
“It is.” The stranger dug inside the pocket of his slick and shiny coat, and brought out a small lead case. The lid clicked open and he turned in over in his hand, three shimmering beads rolling in his palm. He offered them to Jack.
“What are those?” Jack frowned, suspicious once more.
“What are they? They might be beans.” The stranger laughed. “Then again, they might be more precious than rubies, mightn’t they? Truth of the matter, I’m not certain what they are, only that they are beyond any worth you can imagine.”
Jack reached out a finger, the one he liked to pick his nose with, toward the nearest bead but snatched it back before he touched it. The beads seemed to glow as if the moon were trapped in their smooth shells. Once at a fair he had seen a man hawking droplets of quicksilver to cure the gout and diseases of the nether regions, but these were stranger yet. Behind his back, where the stranger couldn’t see, he crossed his fingers against any evil that might dwell in the merry beads resting in the stranger’s hand.
“What would I do with them?”
“Well,” the man said in a conspiratorial tone, “were I you, I’d bury them somewhere deep and forget I ever saw them. Then again, I might keep the close at hand until the next full moon and see what fortune brings.” He put the beads back in the box and cocked his head to the side, listening. “Did you hear footsteps?”
“I...” Sweat oozed across Jack’s lips, imagined footsteps pounding up the narrow road even as they spoke. “Normally, kind sir, I would never part with such a fine beast for so small a price. But, as luck would have it, we, my mum I mean, has run low of grass in her pasture and we must cull the herd.” He snatched the lead box from the stranger and handed him the rope. “Good day to you sir, I think I hear my mum calling me home.”
Jack hurried away, anxious to distance himself from the odd stranger and the incriminating cow, jogging as much as walking until he had gone some way further up the road. It wasn’t until he passed a prosperous pea patch and saw Old Man Svenderstoc busy within it hoeing chickweed that he realized he had been swindled. Box in hand, Jack trudged the last bit home and ate his supper sullenly, the bowl of cold mush bitter on his tongue.
Over the next fortnight Jack put the stranger and the worthless beads out of his mind, lost in the misery of spring planting and fence mending, and were it not for a final draft of new ale (drank while his mum went out to lock the henhouse) he might have forgotten the incident completely. But he did drink it, and not long before midnight wandered outside their simple hut to heed his bladder’s call, peeing in great relief. Moonlight chased across the farmyard, bright enough that he could have read by it had he known how, when he recalled the stranger’s words about the full moon. Still smarting from being cheated, Jack steeled his nerves and headed toward the barn where he had hidden the box.
Once more outside, he clicked the latch open. Moonlight kissed the beads inside and they began to hum. Startled, Jack dropped the box. It clattered to the dusty ground and the beads spilled out, shining blue-bright and singing the sweetest song he had ever heard. No angel had ever sung such music. It filled his mind, a rapture more intoxicating than hard cider. Normally a cautious sort, Jack forgot all about his fear and knelt down by the shimmering pearls, lost in the melody. How long he sat entranced he would never know, but the moonlight grew stronger, the shadows sharp against the ground.
Somewhere in his drowsy mind Jack realized it wasn’t the moon he saw, but a glowing wheel drifting above the barn, its hum joining the beads song, an ethereal symphony spreading across the quiet farm. Soft hands closed around Jack’s shoulders and helped him to his feet, strange figures leading him toward the wheel. He stood beneath it, bathed in the lovely blue light, certain he was dreaming a fine and lovely dream. His hair rippled and he laughed as his feet rose from the ground. Slowly, he drifted inside the floating wheel. More of the figures met him inside and took him down a long hall, the walls silvered like the beads, more wondrous than anything he had ever known.
“All this,” Jack muttered, “for a stolen cow.”
Many hour later Jack awoke, strapped to a hard bed, his body unable to move. The music was gone, but the small figures remained, darting about the circular room, chattering amongst themselves in their bird-like speech, pointing now and then at Jack as he lay helpless upon the table. Some, bolder than the rest, leaned over him, squinting in the brightness, poking and prodding his undefended flesh. Jack would have happily strangled any one of them, but would have been happier still to run from the room and never look back. The tiny figures frightened him, their eyes large and black, their skin pale as the mushroom’s his mum plucked behind the sheep pens. Try as he might, he couldn’t move, couldn’t so much as twitch a toe. At length, a woman with long silvery hair entered the room and stared down at poor hapless Jack. She spoke a moment with the dark-eyed fairies and they, reluctantly, left the room. At once Jack could speak, though his hands and legs remained bound to the hard cot.
“What is your name?” the woman asked, her voice not unfriendly.
“Jack,” he replied. “They call me ‘Jack across the creek,’ and sometimes “Jack the cobbler’s son’ though my father was farmer I think. Might I take my leave now, kind lady?”
“How did you come to have the locators?”
“The what?” The word meant nothing to Jack, but being somewhat more clever than most, decided she could only mean the strange, singing beads. “If by chance you mean those shiny bits of glass, I found them in our barn.
“Found them?” she asked doubtfully.
“Found them, nay.” Jack laughed, nervous under her gaze. “I meant that I was given them by a grateful passerby whose life I saved.” The woman’s thin eyebrows arched in curiosity. Emboldened, Jack spun more upon his tale, anxious to please. “Twas a fortnight ago when I crossed a maiden - I did mention it was a maiden, didn’t I?- crying along the market road. Well, I says to myself, there is a girl who needs help.”
The woman waited for him to continue.
“I asked what the matter was and she told me she was being chased by a brigand. Said he was huge, well nigh a giant. Seven, maybe eight hands above the tallest horse’s back he stood, with tusks instead of teeth. Said he was going to either marry her or have her for his supper, and she wasn’t sure which fate was worse. Said he was coming this very moment and she had nowhere left to run.”
“You must have been terribly frightened?”
“In truth I was, ma’am. But, my mum raised me well, so I says to the girl, ‘Don’t fret. Giant or not, I won’t let him harm a hair on your head.’”
“So, you fought this giant?”
“Well,” Jack said, ladling sauce on his tale, “I knew I couldn’t beat him straight on, him being an ogre and all, so I found a stout rope and tied it across the road. When the fiend came into view I jumped up and down and called him names. Now, giants might be big, but smart they aren’t, and he chased after me right away, waving his club like a madman.”
“And,” the woman said, still smiling, “he tripped over the rope.”
“That he did. And while he was sprawled in the dust I picked up a fence pole and whomped him across the skull. Laid him low, I did. The maiden, she was so happy at being saved that she took them beads you mentioned off the necklace round her neck and placed them in my hand. I told her a kiss would have been reward enough, but she insisted.” Jack paused. “Might I go home now?”
“Alas,” the woman said, her smile fading at last. She leaned over and released the unseen bonds that held him to the table. “Nothing would make me happier than to set you free, Jack the cobbler’s son, but you see we are aboard a ship and many years lay between your now and your then.”
“It’s a bit hard to explain.” She helped him rise. “Some ships move across the sea, back and forth as the wind takes them, yes?”
Jack nodded, trying to follow her odd speech.
“But, our ship moves not back and forth, but between now and then. And, like a ship on the water, we move where the winds take us as well. We use those,” she nodded at the beads nestled in the open box, “as signposts to mark our way. Had you not exposed the locators to moonlight, we never would have found you.” A look of immense sadness crossed her elfin face. “More the pity for you.”
“I can’t go home?” Jack sank back to the narrow table, his breath all but gone.
“No.” The woman with the silvery hair patted him on the shoulder. “But don’t worry. I feel safer already having such a famous giant killer aboard. I’m sure we’ll be able to find some work for you to do.”
Time stretched as it will, days into weeks and weeks into years. Of work Jack had much, for the woman, good to her word, found him much to stay busy, carting the boxes and barrelfuls of goods they found at each stop. Poor Jack, being at their mercy, labored long and only complained a little, though the woman and her crew chided him often enough over his laziness. And while he saw many strange and glorious sights, he longed for home and an end to his unceasing toils aboard the sky-ship.
Of work he had much. Of hope, he had little.
Once, while the ship made port above the deepest, greenest jungle Jack had ever seen, he slipped away, but to his dismay found the people there would as soon cut out his heart as welcome him. Another time he threw himself through an open hatch onto a great sheet of ice, desolate and forbidding, and he would have been devoured by a striped cat with fangs the size of daggers had not the silver-haired woman swooped him back aboard the ship. It was many months after that before Jack was allowed anywhere near a door. On they traveled while Jack toiled, hour after hour, year after year.
Until one day...
Exhausted by his tasks, Jack paused for a drink of water, ale being scarce aboard. But, the more he drank, the more he thought about how pleasant a draft of good spring ale would be. Finally, disgusted with nothing but bread and water for all the work he did, Jack hurled the cup from his hand. It struck a shelf laden with lights and levers which served as the strange craft’s rudder. Sparks flickered from wall to wall as the water seeped into the delicate machinery. The sky-ship shuddered, dipping and wheeling like blind duck. Jack screamed, his voice lost in the thunder of the falling craft. He clutched a chair, certain he would meet his doom, but to his amazement the ship heeled hard to port then righted itself a hands breadth above the earth. Daring his good fortune, Jack glanced out one of the small windows at the most welcome of sights. Though the view was blocked by a tangle of oak branches knocked down by the sky-ships rough passage, Jack knew beyond doubt he was home. Heart pounding, he crept toward the door, not believing his luck, praying the silver-haired woman and her crew didn’t spot him. The door opened wide, and the sweet scent of forest and hog-pens beyond beckoned to him. It had been many years since he had smelled such perfume, so many in fact he realized, that he no longer looked the slightest bit like the boy who had foolishly opened the lead box to the moon so long ago.
Nor, he decided, would the clothes he wore be fit for a homecoming. The thin, clinging garments were far too revealing in this more gentle time. For a moment Jack despaired until he remembered the chests full of costumes collected throughout their voyages. He darted into the side room and quickly changed, choosing only the choicest of items, bright purple pants and a shiny jacket. Jack peered round the corner, so nervous he could scarcely breath, but the silver-haired woman and her pale crew were still busy arguing over what had brought their magical ship crashing to ground. Jack saw his chance, and with a long breath, darted across the hall. At the door, he paused once more, for though freedom beckoned he would leave poor as a church mouse were he not to take some treasure from the woman and her merciless minions.
His eyes darted around the chamber, but settled on little worth taking, for though the sky people took much, they took little in the way of gold and jewels. In fact, within the entire chamber the only things worth taking were more of the moonstone beads resting in their plain lead boxes. Jack squared his shoulders and grabbed the nearest box.
“They owe me,” he reasoned as he stuffed the box in the pocket of his shiny coat. “Besides, they must be worth something to the rubes in these parts. After all, didn’t I trade a perfectly good cow for ones just like them?” And with that, he dove through the door.
Over his shoulder’s he heard one of the tiny, black-eyed crew whistle in alarm, but the silver-haired woman simply shouted, “Good riddance to the lazy lout, I say. Forget about him. We have a ship to fix before the locals arrive.”
Jack ran and ran, and ran some more until he saw the sky-ship rise above the trees and soar away. He stood watching it, panting but free, then wandered on down the road, quite pleased with himself. “Now, Jack old son,” he said aloud, “All I need is to find a way to turn three worthless beads into food and a draft or two of ale, and I will be content.”
Further down the road, where the trees met the meadow, he saw a lone figure, a boy of twelve or thirteen, dragging an unruly cow by a rope. Jack patted the box within his pockets, thoughts of cold ale deep in his mind. He picked up his pace and waved at the simpleton. “Ho, boy,” he said. “That’s a fine looking animal you have.”