Michael Cunningham’s re-imagining of this beanstalk-scaling adventure reveals the flawed characters at its centre, and tells a more human story about the corrosive power of greed and magic beans.
his is not a smart boy we’re talking about. This is not a kid who can be trusted to remember to take his mother to her chemo appointment, or to close the windows when it rains.
Never mind asking him to sell the cow, when he and his mother are out of cash, and the cow is their last asset.
We’re talking about a boy who doesn’t get halfway to town with his mother’s sole remaining possession before he’s sold the cow to some stranger for a handful of beans. The guy claims they’re magic beans, and that, it seems, is enough for Jack. He doesn’t even ask what variety of magic the beans supposedly deliver. Maybe they’ll transform themselves into seven beautiful wives for him. Maybe they’ll turn into the seven deadly sins, and buzz around him like flies for the rest of his life.
Jack isn’t doubtful. Jack isn’t big on questions. Jack is the boy who says, Wow, dude, magic beans, really?
There are any number of boys like Jack. Boys who prefer the crazy promise, the long shot, who insist that they’re naturalborn winners. They have a great idea for a screenplay—they just need, you know, someone to write it for them. They DJ at friends’ parties, believing a club owner will wander in sooner or later and hire them to spin for multitudes. They drop out of vocational school because they can see, after a semester or two, that it’s a direct path to loserdom—better to live in their childhood bedrooms, temporarily unemployed, until fame and prosperity arrive.
Is Jack’s mother upset when he strides back into the house, holds out his hand, and shows her what he’s gotten for the cow? She is.
What have I done, how exactly have all the sacrifices I’ve made, all the dinners I put together out of nothing and ate hardly any of myself, how exactly did I raise you to be this cavalier and unreliable, could you please explain that to me, please?
Is Jack disappointed by his mother’s poverty of imagination, her lack of nerve in the face of life’s gambles, her continued belief in the budget-conscious, off-brand caution that’s gotten her exactly nowhere? He is.
I mean, Mom, look at this house. Don’t you think thrift is some kind of death? Ask yourself. Since Dad died, why hasn’t anyone come around? Not even Hungry Hank. Not even Half-Wit Willie.
Jack doesn’t want, or need, to hear her answer, though it runs silently through her mind.
I have my beautiful boy, I see strong young shoulders bent over the washbasin every morning. What would I want with Hungry Hank’s yellow teeth, or Half-Wit Willie’s bent-up body?
Nevertheless, her son has sold the cow for a handful of beans. Jack’s mother tosses the beans out the window, and sends him to bed without supper.
Fairy tales are generally moral tales. In the bleaker version of this one, mother and son both starve to death.
That lesson would be: Mothers, try to be realistic about your imbecilic sons, no matter how charming their sly little grins, no matter how heartbreaking the dark-gold tousle of their hair. If you romanticize them, if you insist on virtues they clearly lack, if you persist in your blind desire to have raised a wise child, one who’ll be helpful in your old age … don’t be surprised if you find that you’ve fallen on the bathroom floor, and end up spending the night there, because he’s out drinking with his friends until dawn.
That is not, however, the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
The implication of this particular tale is: Trust strangers. Believe in magic.
In “Jack and the Beanstalk,” the stranger has not lied. The next morning, Jack’s bedroom window is obscured by rampant green. He looks out into leaves the size of skillets, and a stalk as thick as an oak’s trunk. When he cranes his neck upward, he sees that the beanstalk is so tall it vanishes into the clouds.
Right. Invest in desert real estate, where an interstate highway is certain to be built soon. Get in on the ground floor of your uncle’s revolutionary new age-reversal system. Use half the grocery money to buy lottery tickets every week.
Jack, being Jack, does not ask questions, nor does he wonder if climbing the beanstalk is the best possible idea.
At the beanstalk’s apex, on the upper side of the cloud-bank, he finds himself standing before a giant’s castle, built on a particularly fleecy rise of cloud. The castle is dizzyingly white, prone to a hint of tremble, as if built of concentrated clouds; as if a proper rainstorm could reduce it to an enormous, pearly puddle.
Being Jack, he walks right up to the titanic snow-colored door. Who, after all, wouldn’t be glad to see him
Before he can knock, though, he hears his name called by a voice so soft it might merely be a gust of wind that’s taught itself to say, Jaaaaack.
The wind coalesces into a cloud-girl; a maiden of the mist.
She tells Jack that the giant who lives in the castle killed Jack’s father, years ago. The giant would have killed the infant Jack as well, but Jack’s mother so ardently pled her case, holding the baby to her bosom, that the giant spared Jack, on the condition that Jack’s mother never reveal the cause of his father’s death.
Maybe that’s why Jack’s mother has always treated him as if he were bounty and hope, incarnate.
The mist-girl tells Jack that everything the giant owns belongs rightfully to him. Then she vanishes, as quickly as the wisp of an exhaled cigarette.
Jack, however, being Jack, had assumed already that everything the giant owns—everything everybody owns—rightfully belongs to him. And he’d never really believed that story about his father getting dysentery on a business trip to Brazil.
He raps on the door, which is opened by the giant’s wife. The wife may once have been pretty, but no trace of loveliness remains. Her hair is thinning, her housecoat stained. She’s as off handedly careworn as a fifty-foot-tall version of Jack’s mother.
Jack announces that he’s hungry, that he comes from a place where the world fails to provide.
The giant’s wife, who rarely receives visitors of any kind, is happy to see a handsome, miniature man-child standing at her door. She invites him in, feeds him breakfast, though she warns him that if her husband comes home, he’ll eat Jack for breakfast.
Does Jack stick around anyway? Of course he does. Does the giant arrive home unexpectedly? He does.
He booms from the vastness of the hallway:
Fe fi fo fum
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he alive or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.
The giant’s wife conceals Jack in, of all places, the very saucepan in which her husband would cook him. She’s barely got the lid put down when the giant lumbers in.
The giant is robustly corpulent, thundering, strident, dangerous in the way of barroom thugs, of any figure who is comical in theory (he wears a jerkin and tights) but truly threatening in fact, simply because he’s fool enough and drunk enough to do serious harm; simply because he’s a stranger to reason, because killing a man with a pool cue seems like a justifiable response to some vaguely insulting remark.
The giantess assures her husband that he merely smells the ox she’s cooked him for lunch.
Here we move, briefly, into farce. There’s nowhere else for us to go.
Giant: I know what ox smells like. I know what the blood of an Englishman smells like.
Giantess: Well, this is a new kind of ox. It’s flavored.
Giantess: It’s brand new. You can also get Tears of a Princess Ox. You can get Wicked Queen Envy Ox.
She serves him the ox. A whole ox. Giant: Hm. Tastes like regular ox to me.
Giantess: Maybe I won’t get this kind anymore.
Giant: There’s nothing wrong with regular ox.
Giantess: But a little variety, every now and then…
Giant: You get suckered in too easily.
Giantess: I know. No one knows that better than I do.
After the giant has eaten the ox, he commands his wife to bring him his bags of gold, so he can perform the day’s tally. This is a ritual, a comforting reminder that he’s just as rich today as he was yesterday, and the day before.
Once he’s content that he still has all the gold he’s ever had, he lays his colossal head down on the tabletop and falls into the kind of deep, wheezing nap anybody would want to take after eating an ox.
Which is Jack’s cue to climb back out of the saucepan, grab the bags of gold, and take off.
And which would be the giantess’s cue to resuscitate her marriage. It would be the time for her to holler, “Thief,” and claim never to have seen Jack before.
By evening, she and her husband could have sat laughing at the table, each holding aloft one of Jack’s testicles on a toothpick before popping them into their mouths. They could have declared to each other, It’s enough. It’s enough to be rich, and live on a cloud together; to age companionably; to want nothing more than they’ve got already.
The giant’s wife seems to agree, however, that robbing her husband is a good move.
We all know couples like this. Couples who’ve been waging the battle for decades; who seem to believe that if finally, someday, one of them can prove the other wrong—deeply wrong, soul-wrong—they’ll be exonerated, and released. Amassing the evidence, working toward the proof, can swallow an entire life.
Jack and his mother, wealthy now (Jack’s mother has invested the gold in stocks and real estate), don’t move to a better neighborhood. They can’t abandon the beanstalk. So they rebuild. Seven fireplaces, cathedral ceilings, indoor and outdoor pools.
They continue living together, mother and son. Jack doesn’t date. Who knows what succession of girls and boys sneak in through the sliding glass doors at night, after the mother has sunk to the bottom of her own private lake, with the help of Absolut and Klonopin?
Jack and his mother are doing fine. Especially considering that, recently, they were down to their last cow.
But as we all know, it’s never enough. No matter how much it is.
Jack and his mother still don’t have a black American Express card. They don’t have a private plane. They don’t own an island.
And so, Jack goes up the beanstalk again. He knocks for a second time at the towering cloud-door.
The giantess answers again. She seems not to recognize Jack, and it’s true that he’s no longer dressed in the cheap lounge lizard outfit—the tight pants and synthetic shirt he boosted at the mall. He’s all Marc Jacobs now. He has a shockingly expensive haircut.
But still. Does the giantess really believe a different, better-dressed boy has appeared at her door, one with the same sly grin and the same dark-gold hair, however improved the cut?
There is, after all, the well-known inclination to continue to sabotage our marriages, without ever leaving them. And there’s this, too. There’s the appeal of the young thief who robs you, and climbs back down off your cloud. It’s possible to love that boy, in a wistful and hopeless way. It’s possible to love his greed and narcissism, to grant him that which is beyond your own capacities: heedlessness, cockiness, a self-devotion so pure it borders on the divine.
The scenario plays itself out again. This time, when the fifty-foot-tall dim-witted thug Fi fi fo fums, early and unexpected, from the hallway, the giantess hides Jack in the oven.
We don’t need advanced degrees to understand something about her habit of flirtation with eating Jack.
The second exchange between giant and giantess—the one about how he smells the blood of an Englishman, and she assures him it’s just the bullock she’s fixed for lunch—is too absurd even for farce.
Let’s imagine an unconscious collusion between husband and wife, then. He knows something’s up. He knows she’s hiding something, or someone. Let’s imagine he prefers a wife who’s capable of deceit. A wife who can manage something more interesting than drudgery and peevish, drowsy fidelity.
This time, after polishing off the bullock, the giant demands to be shown the hen that lays golden eggs. And, a moment later, there she is: a prizewinning pullet, as regal and self-important as it’s possible for a chicken to be. She stands before the giant, her claw-tipped, bluish feet firmly planted on the tabletop, and, with a low cackle of triumph, lays another golden egg.
Which the giant picks up and examines. It’s the daily egg. They never vary. The giant, however, maintains his attachment to the revisiting of his own bounty, as he does to his postprandial snooze, face down on the tabletop, wheezing out blasts of bullock-reeking breath, emitting a lake of drool.
Again, Jack emerges (this time from the oven), and makes off with the hen. Again, the giantess watches him steal her husband’s joy and fortune. Again, she adores the meanness of Jack, a small-time crook dressed now in two-hundred-dollar jeans. She envies him his rapaciousness, his insatiability. She who has let herself go, who prepares the meals and does the dishes and wanders, with no particular purpose, from room to room. She who finds herself strangely glad to be in the presence of someone avaricious and heartless and uncaring.
Are we surprised to learn that, a year or so later, Jack goes up the beanstalk one more time?
By now, there’s nothing left for him and his mother to buy. They’ve got the car and driver, they’ve got the private plane, they own that small, otherwise-uninhabited island in the Lesser Antilles, where they’ve built a house that’s staffed year-round, in anticipation of their single annual visit.
We always want more, though. Some of us want more than others, it’s true, but we always want more of … something. More love, more youth, more …
On his third visit, Jack decides not to press his luck with the giantess. This time, he sneaks in through the back.
He finds the giant and giantess unaltered, though it would seem they’ve had to cut back, having lost their gold and their magic hen. The castle has dissolved a bit—sky knifes in through gaps in the cloud-walls. The daily lunch of an entire animal runs more along the lines of an antelope or an ibex, sinewy and dark-tasting, no longer the fattened, farm-tender ox or bullock of their salad days.
Still, habits resist change. The giant devours his creature, spits out horns and hooves, and demands his last remaining treasure: a magic harp.
The harp is a prize of a different order entirely. Who knows about its market value? It’s nothing so simple as gold coins or golden eggs. It too is made of gold, but it’s not prosaic in the way of actual currency.
It’s a harp like any harp—strings, knee, neck, tuning pins—but its head is the head of a woman, slightly smaller than an apple, more stern than beautiful; more Athena than Botticelli Venus. And it can play itself.
The giant commands the harp to play. The harp obliges. It plays a tune unknown on the earth below; a melody that emanates from clouds and stars, a song of celestial movements, the music of the spheres, that which composers like Bach and Chopin came close to approximating but which, being ethereal, cannot be produced by instruments made of brass or wood, cannot be summoned by human breath or fingering.
The harp plays the giant into his nap. That gargantuan head makes its thudding daily contact with the tabletop.
What must the giantess think, when Jack creeps in and grabs the harp? Again? You’re kidding. You actually want the very last of our treasures?
Is she appalled, or relieved, or both? Does she experience some ecstasy of total loss? Or has she had enough? Is she going to put an end, at last, to Jack’s voracity?
We’ll never know. Because it’s the harp, not the giantess, who finally protests. As Jack makes for the door, the harp calls out, “Master, help me, I’m being stolen.”
The giant wakes, looks around uncertainly. He’s been dreaming. Can this be his life, his kitchen, his haggard and grudging wife?
By the time he’s up and after Jack, Jack has already traversed the cloud-field and reached the top of the beanstalk, holding firm to the harp as the harp cries out for rescue.
It’s a race down the beanstalk. Jack is hampered by his grip on the harp—he can only climb one-handed—but the giant has far more trouble than Jack in negotiating the stalk itself, which, for the giant, is thin and unsteady, like the rope he was forced to climb in gym class when he was a weepy, lonely boy.
As Jack nears the ground, he calls to his mother to bring him an axe. He’s lucky—she’s semi-sober today. She rushes out with an axe. Jack chops the beanstalk down, while the giant is still as high as a hawk circling for rabbits.
The beanstalk falls like a redwood. The giant hits the earth so hard his body crashes through the topsoil, imbeds itself ten feet deep, leaves a giant-shaped chasm in the middle of a cornfield.
It’s a mercy, of sorts. What, after all, did the giant have left, with his gold and his hen and his harp all gone?
Jack has had the giant-hole filled in, right over the giant’s body, and in a rare act of piety he’s ordered a grove of lilac bushes planted over the giant’s resting-place. If you were to look down at the lilac grove from above, you’d see that it’s shaped like an enormous man, arms and legs akimbo; a man frozen in an attitude of oddly voluptuous surrender.
Jack and his mother prosper. Jack, in his rare moments of self-questioning, remembers what the mist-girl told him, years earlier. The giant committed a crime. Jack has, since infancy, been entitled to everything the giant owned. This salves the stripling conscience that’s been growing feebly within Jack as he’s gotten older.
Jack’s mother has started collecting handbags (she especially prizes her limited-edition Murakami Cherry Blossom by Louis Vuitton), and meeting her girlfriends for lunches that can go on until four or five p.m. Jack sometimes acquires girls and boys in neighboring towns, sometimes rents them, but always arranges for them to arrive late at night, in secret. Jack is not, as we know, the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but he’s canny enough to understand that only his mother will uncritically adore him forever; that if one of the girls or boys were suffered to stay, the fits of mysterious frustration, the critiques, would set in soon enough.
The hen, who cares only for the eggs she produces, lays a gold one every day, and lives contentedly in her concrete coop with her twenty-four-hour guard, Jack’s attempt at exterminating all the local foxes having proven futile.
Only the harp is restive and sorrowful. Only the harp looks yearningly out through the window of the room in which it resides, a room that affords it a view of the lilac grove planted over the giant’s imbedded body. The harp, long mute, dreams of the time when it lived on a cloud and played music too beautiful for anyone but the giant to hear.
This short story is taken from the collection A Wild Swan and Other Tales by Michael Cunningham, available now from 4th Estate.