(This is the second in a series of guest posts from Jeffrey Marlin whose e-books, including this one are available from Amazon.com. )
This challenging version of Jack and the Beanstalk takes a critical look at finance capitalism, imperial politics, state religion, sadism as statecraft, the nature of time, and related lesser themes. Like all timeless stories, it has its beginnings in common human flaws. Chapter One plunges us directly into the vortex when Jack’s desperately poor, deeply traumatized household finds itself laid lower still by another disabling shock.
Jack found Mother digging Father’s grave.
She worked at the end of a vegetable garden that yielded no better than ragweed and clover. Her skeletal frame was as spare as the spade that was blunted by use and of meager assistance. The strings of her hair fluttered stiff in the atmosphere, every one stubborn and strange to its sisters.
“I saw Father die,” Jack informed her politely.
She turned at the sound but displayed no excitement. Her small emerald eyes were decidedly dry as her love for her husband, once slight, had expired. What troubled her now was the difficult duty that loomed on the edge of a ruined horizon.
She wiped at her brow with a sleeve gone to tatters.
“Child, have you witnessed him brained by Matilda?”
“I slept in rickety lap of the hayloft, distaining my chores at the side of the highway.”
He should have been roaming the much traveled thoroughfares searching for soot-covered fragments of anthracite fallen like pebbles from coal-traders’ wagons. He knew he’d no business refreshing himself in the cool of the tumbledown barn in the morning.
“And then?” she persisted, a note of severity clearly intended but widely eluding her.
“Pa wandered in with his milk pail a’ clanging. He settled his stool by the unwilling animal. Touching his hand to her ulcerate udder incited a sudden, unfeigned indignation. She groaned her annoyance and eyed him maliciously. Father assaulted the desiccate organ. The twitch of a tendon and swishing of tail posted eloquent notice to ‘Tilda’s intention. He tilted his brow in the lethal direction. Her hoof found a wing and his braincase exploded, unleashing the sound of the late summer thunder. And rather than linger to rescue survivors, I fled in the sweat of my fear and my triumph.”
“I casted all blame on the cow,” mused his mother. “But she was his instrument, utterly innocent.”
Jack was relieved by so mild a reply, for while hiding all day in a ditch in a cornfield he’d feared an inquisitive light in her eye and a volley of questions requiring answers: Did you not warn the old man of his peril? Or stop for an instant to mend up the fracture?Or cry for a parent to join you in mourning?
He’d also considered the life soon to follow. The issue outstanding was whether his mother would man the tradition her husband invented, the sting of the wand in reply to transgressions defined to encompass the measliest error.
The day of her watching from doorways was over.
She must do the wickedest business herself or submit to the rule of maternal emotions – foregoing the branch and accepting the worst of Jack’s endlessly impish, nay roguish, behavior.
The boy had no means of predicting her thinking. So, watching her wrestling spadesful of garden, he tested her gumption and probed her position by pressing the following order of inquiry: “May we not slaughter Matilda for eating?”
“She carries no fat or respectable sinew.”
“What of the marrow alive in her femurs with plenty of oil for the frying of supper? Boil up her hide for a snack in the winter – when edible weeds become scarcer and tougher!”
Mother sighed deeply and Jack knew the reason. They needed the pennies Matilda might bring them. Father stole bravely but had not the gift for it; often was caught and then savagely punished, accounting for tendencies vented on family.
Absent the fruits of his nominal larcenies, what would they live on and how to procure it?
Better to barter what piffle they could for an ill-tempered creature a decade past milking. (Though hitched to a plow she might grudgingly pull it.) The beast wasn’t even a little beloved – except by the master whose skull she’d dismantled. He’d he kept her around as a breathing reminder of better days gone and a hopeful tomorrow.
Jack let the subject of butchery fizzle.
Mother ground acorns and served them with sparrow.
Then, before sleeping, she tested her conscience confronting her stark, unavoidable choices. Not overly backboned she’d come to admire her husband’s commitment to corporal discipline. Nevertheless she collapsed into weeping as Jack cried to Heaven protesting his whippings.
Now she was caught by the fork of dilemma. Surrender her duty or pick up the willow? She stiffened her spine in the midst of her sorrow.
She vowed that tomorrow would pay for today and let Jack once abandon the courteous pathway and vex her again with impertinent questions, she’d stand to her task with a gritty persistence, as Father would do, although anguish engorge her.
A shiver of unexpressed anger tormented her; forced her to think how the man had abandoned her. Longed she to rise from the grave of her bed and make straight for that bovadine venue of slaughter.
She yearned to bestraddle the stool of Matilda expanding her nostrils to smell her own dying. She’d rise from this prison of bone and resentment and bend an ephemeral head looking downward to glimpse all her misery cracked like an eggshell.
Then search out her husband now blistered in Hell and in penitent dread of her vengeful arrival.
But here was the turbulent boy to look after; a millstone to drag through her burdensome labors. So flowed the gist of abrasive reflections which bled into dreams as her husband pursued her with fiery torch never giving her respite before she awoke to the pain of the morning.
She gathered up weeds from the cornfields adjacent.
These had been theirs until stolen at auction – required by law for repayment of losses. She mashed the leaves thoroughly, seasoned them sparingly, summoned her son from his desolate bed to imbibe her instructions along with his breakfast:
“All hope for tomorrow resides in your person.
“Now lead old Matilda to sale at the market.
“Insist on the price nor surrender a penny as long as the bubbling sulfur keeps rising. Relent as it slowly subsides to the West and its sinister shadow grows longer and darker.
“Accept what you must should she garner no offers as farmers pass by and no bidders step forward and all appear lost and the moon mock our losses come end of the reddening day.”
“Mother, I beg thee let’s slaughter the monster, a mooing accomplice to murderous suicide, presently toasting her skull and her femurs and rendering each for the sumptuous marrow.”
“Wherefore the coal or the requisite firewood? How shall we gather up fuel for the roasting?”
“Give me the morning to steal what I’m able.
“Otherwise break up the barn and we’ll burn it.
“Relinquish my father’s delusional thinking that we will be farmers and prosper tomorrow. No longer a jade to his merciless ways and his many abusive, disquieting habits, abandon the ghost of that shit-bestained man and his vilely degenerate use of the willow.”
Try as she might she could hardly deny that he’d tested her well past the point of postponement. Hand over heart, with a groan in her throat, she directed the impudent boy to bend over.