There was once a boy named Jack who longed for the stars. He dreamed of strange planets and far off landscapes. One day he went to the town market. As he stood wide-eyed (Jack was often wide-eyed) amidst the smell of farm animals and exotic spices a witch came up to him. Her face was rotten. Her lips dripped. Her eyes twinkled.

"Hello Jack." Her voice was a river of rats.

"Uh. Hello. Miss." Jack had been taught to always be polite. "How'd you know my name?"

"Your mother pointed you out to me. 'That boy there,' she said. 'He don't want what you're selling. Stay away from him.' But I thought I'd ask you myself. Mother doesn't always know what's best." Jack had often found this to be true.

"So what are you selling? I have four dollars!"

"Oh Jack, Jackie boy, what am I selling? What indeed. I am selling dreams come true. I am selling hearts' desires. I am selling what you have always wanted. Look up Jack. See the clouds? See that beautiful lantern, the sun?" And when she said that the sun dimmed out like an eclipse washed across it. It was still a cold soft light, but with none of its blinding force. The sky was dark and the stars were sparks in the night.

"I am selling the heavens to you, Jack."

"I have four dollars. Is that enough?"

"Not enough!" She shrieked. "What would you offer me?"

Jack's eyes grew wide (See!). "Everything."

"Everything you have in the world?"

"Everything," he said, sure as sunrise.

"We have a deal." In a wink, the sun returned, the sky restored, the stars went out.

Jack pulled four bills from his back pocket and uncrumpled them one at a time, taking them carefully in his gloved fingers. He handed them over to the witch. She folded them neatly and stuffed them into her cleavage. All the while Jack looked at her expectantly. With a sudden motion she reached her right arm behind Jack's ear. He felt a tickle of claw on the back of his earlobe. Just as fast, before Jack had time to respond, she pulled the hand back and splayed it open before him, palm up. Three little beans rested before him. They were gnarly things, the beans and the hand. One bean was a deep crimson with caked streaks like dried blood. A second had the pearlescent mottle of a bird egg. The last looked like a normal black bean.

"And these are for you."

Jack stared blankly at the beans. The witch took him by the hand. Her touch was hot, but Jack didn't flinch. She placed the beans in his hand and rolled his fingers back over them until he clenched the beans.

"Now run home Jack." She smiled. "And say hello to your mother for me."

Jack ran through the tents and stalls of the market. He ran the long dusty road back to the dilapidated shack he lived in with his mother. He ran up to the front door where his mother stood and watched her welcoming smile turn to a disappointed frown.

"Jack," she said sternly, "where's the goat I sent you to buy?" It was only then that Jack remembered why he'd gone to the market in the first place.

"Do you want us to starve, boy?"

Jack looked shame faced. He fished around in his pockets and brought out the three beans. He held them out to his mother.

"I got beans instead?"

She sighed. "Oh Jack. What are we going to do? What am I going to do with you." She shook her head and turned sadly back into their little home, leaving Jack standing alone on the stoop. Jack pursed his lips and stared hard at the beans in his hand. Finally, he took the crimson bean between his fingers and jammed the other two back in his pants' pocket.

Jack found a spot of mostly bare ground a little ways away, a little circle of low grass. He bent over to dig a small hole. It was early spring and the soil was cool and wet on his hands, almost muddy. The dirt smeared on his hands as he dug. He placed the bean carefully in the hole and covered it back up. Then, on a whim, he began to shape the dirt mound. He pulled out two muddy legs and squeezed out a muddy tail. He pressed in a rough neck shape and dragged out a mouthy snout. Jack stood up to admire his little dirt goat. Then he clapped his hands to shake out some of the dirt off and walked into the house.

Jack awoke with sleep in his eyes, his skin clammy against the sheets. The air felt heavy. Fecund. Full. He crawled out of bed and navigated carefully around the junk on his floor over to his south exposed window. He could just make out pile of dirt where he'd planted the bean.

There was a hint of green. Just a dot peaking its way out of the loam. Jack flew out the door in his pajamas. He knelt over the mound. Sure enough a little nub of green poked out. Jack stared at it. Nothing he'd seen ever grew that fast. Not even his mother's tomatoes at the peak of growing season. But as he watched it, it didn't grow, it didn't sprout. He turned away and then looked back quickly, as if he his rapid movement could catch it in the act of growing.

He didn't.

He turned back and forth a few more times, sure he'd catch it if he just snuck up on it right.

He didn't.

But when he went to measure the little bud, it was already up to the cusp of his ankle.

After a week, the stalk was up to Jack's belly button. His mother had gone from mild amusement at Jack's excitement to her own intense interest. Every morning they marked a stick with its progress.

By the second week they had a whole Jack sized budding stalk. The buds burst with little pale flowers, soft fuzzy looking things like hairy white puffs. As weeks went by, the stalk thickened. It sprouted bulbs that grew and grew and grew. They were the size of Jack's fist. Then his head. And still they grew.

Nothing else grew around them that summer. The bean stalk was sucking all the water out of the ground. It was sucking up their livelihood. They went at it with a knife, with an axe. They tried to sledgehammer it down. But it was too late. It barely scratched.

It was the height of hot summer. Waves of heat rose off the cracked dirt. Mount Baldy off in the distance wavered in distorted unreality. The beanstalk rose up into the impossible sky. And down on the earth one of the bulbs looked ripe to burst. It was hard and brown and round like a giant nut. It rested on the ground, drooping down its branch.

"We're taking it down Jack," his mother told him. "And damned if we're not eating it. That thing's sucked up the groundwater for half a mile round and it's time we got us something back."

Jack looked at the giant nut. He felt his mouth water. He felt the pangs in his belly.

"Sounds good."

Together they plucked the big nut and rolled it into the house. It just barely fit through the door! It didn't make it into the el that passed for a kitchen in their home. They left it sitting on a dusty carpet in the middle of their sitting room. Jack's mother brought out a nice big serrated bread knife and got to work. The shell was thin, pulpy. The knife cut through it easily.

A thick red liquid oozed out. Jack was sure it was berry juice. He ran forward, threw his head past his mother's hand and her sharp knife to take a big lick. He recognized the flavor instantly. It was strong and distinctive and it was not strawberries. He knelt slack jawed as the blood dripped down his face.

He was overwhelmed with the taste of life and iron.

A low whine came from within the nut. This time the shock of recognition hit Jack's mother. She breathed out slowly. Then she pried open the slit she'd made in the nut and reached in. She felt around inside the gooey sphere and found its solid center.

"Jack! Get me a towel!"

For a moment his eyes were lost, his brain stuck on what he'd drank. Then he snapped back to attention. "Yes mum." He hurried off.

She coaxed the little baby goat out of it's mothers' womb and wrapped it in the towel Jack brought.

There were a handful more nuts on the beanstalk almost as ripe and a dozen more in varying stages of growth.

That was the first bean.

I'd like to tell you about the second bean, I really would, but Jack swore me to secrecy.

"I'll take my knife," he said to me. Then in an instant, he held one in his hand, gleaming sharp and gave it a neat twang. "And I'll cut out your tongue. I'll seal it in a box and bury it in the sea. And if you try to tell it with your hands. I'll sharpen my teeth and bite each finger off one by one." He licked his lips with a relish.

Well Jack's beyond hurting me now, but I keep my promises. You can't just break a promise. That's a holy thing. A bond. I'd sooner he cut out my tongue. But I wanted to tell the story so bad. It was burning in me. I'd be sitting around a bar late at night and start to say, did I ever tell you about Jack and that second bean. It was making me mad, like my head wanted to crack. All my words started running together, pouring out in a glob like the juice of The Giant's eye when Jack put his knife through it.

So I went to go see Jack. He's not hard to find. You'll understand when I tell you about the third bean. The goat nuts all hatched, not a runt in the bunch. Jack and his mother went up in the world. They weren't rich, not on the back of a bunch of goats, but they prospered. Jack's mother remarried. Jack grew up big and strong. Things weren't perfect, but they were good enough. One morning Jack knew it was time to go.

"Goodbye mum," Jack said and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She stifled the the tear in her eye. "Goodbye Art," Jack said (that was his stepfather) and they shook hands firmly and respectfully.

Then Jack walked over to the mighty beanstalk and pulled himself onto the lowest branch. I expect you've heard some of what happened then. Jack was always happy to talk about it. Slaying giants and stealing gooses, Marrying princesses and chopping down beanstalks. Jack lived a ripe old life and somewhere in there he met me and told me a story about a mottled bean.

It came to pass after many rich years that Jack was old and fat. He was toothless and mostly gut. The fruit of his loins had hatched their own fruit. He'd just buried his third wife and he knew his own time was coming soon.

Jack had a locket he never opened. It never left its place around his neck, in the bath or in the boudoir. Each wife had asked him, "Jack my love (they always said it just like that, Jack my love), what's in that locket?"

"I'll tell you on my deathbed," he always in turn responded and that had to be good enough. But he outlived them all. He felt he'd outlived himself.

The air was heavy that day. Fecund. Full. Old Jack the giant killer unclasped the locket and out fell a little bean. It was black. It was blacker than black. Light seemed to warp around it, as if desperate avoid its pull. It cast no shadow. Or maybe it cast one in every direction.

Jack went to stand in one of his favorite gardens. A servant hurried after with rain gear and an umbrella, but Jack waived him off.

"Leave me be!" He shouted. The servant took off with his tail between his legs. Jack held the bean between thumb and forefinger. He looked at it as best it could be looked at and then with a shrug planted it. In himself. He swallowed that bean with a gusto he'd been missing.

Immediately, he felt himself begin to swell. His toes pressed against his boots, exploded out of them, twining and forking. Jack the wanderer was putting down roots. Jack the giant killer was growing mighty and tall. His skin darkened, cracked and he stretched stretched up to the heavens. In the days that followed his face grew strange, gnarled, lost in endless striations of bark. Or you could say that the whole trunk was his face, every bulge a nose, every knot an eye.

Jack who'd climbed the mighty beanstalk was now himself a tree. His trunk was miles across. And as Jack was promised, he rose up to the heavens. His branches reached to the moon and to Mars. And if you climbed up Jack far enough you could cross the universe. Thus did Jack who longed for the stars finally reach them while they remained beyond his grasp.

That was the third bean.

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