PRW Runner-Up Tour: Jack and the Zombiestalk by Tara Creel
Jack and the Beanstalk
It had been many years since Jack had returned from the beanstalk. His skin had been weathered by time, his wrinkles a map of his long life. His dear wife, Ariella, had succumbed to her own old age only the week before, and now it was time for Jack to say goodbye as well.
There were too many reminders of her in their grand house by the sea. He could no longer sit on the sweeping porch to watch the waves crash onto the rocks without having the memories overcome him, threatening to drown him in his aching for her.
He saw her auburn hair in the deep colors of the sunset and her green eyes in the hillside. If he stayed to the interior of the house, he caught flashes of her in the corner of his eye: reading in the chair by the fire, stirring the pot on the stove, and singing her favorite tune on the piano. Her smell, lemons and lilacs, lingered in the hallways and followed him around the house. He hadn’t even been able to re-enter their bedroom out of fear that he would never emerge.
During one inconsolable night, when Jack had succumbed to his grief, he started searching through their belongings, just to have something of hers to hold onto, he found a leather pouch at the bottom of the trunk that lay at the foot of their bed. Jack had given this pouch to Ariella on their wedding night, making her promise not to open it until their children were grown and gone and they were ready for their next adventure.
Those same children had proven to be such a joy and distraction, that Jack himself had forgotten his gift, and it seemed Ariella had as well. But now, Jack cried tears of joy because he finally had the answer to it all. The end to all the sadness.
He turned the pouch upside down and emptied it into the rough palm of his hand. He now held three magic beans, and unlike last time, he knew of their worth and their power.
Jack had never told anyone that he had managed to steal three more beans from the giant’s stalks before returning down the beanstalk. He had barely made it out on time so he had considered his life, and the hero’s welcome he had returned to, as reward enough.
When a year had passed since the adventure, and his feet itched to climb and soar, he had pulled out the pouch once more. Then, as his thoughts reached the heavens, an angelic voice brought him back to earth. “Excuse me, sir. You’re sitting on my horse,” it had said.
Indeed, Jack had mounted a stranger’s horse, ready to ride out of town and plant the seeds when he had traveled far enough. One look into those emerald eyes and Jack knew he would never leave that town again without her by his side.
“I’m sorry, Miss. He looks an awful lot like mine,” Jack lied. His own horse, Apple, named for her obsession with the red fruit that had gotten him in trouble more than once, was home in her stall, probably feasting on the pile of apples he had left for her.
Jack was the first to admit that he hadn’t thought the plan through, just let it enter his mind and then jumped on the nearest horse to entertain the thought further. He was grateful everyday afterward that it had been Ariella’s horse, and that these were the words that followed her discovery of him.
“Well, you look a lot like my horse’s backside when you lie to me like that, so I would appreciate it if you’d stop with your tales and leave me be.”
Oh, the fire in her words, which later he found in her heart and soul as well, and how they managed to spread into the very core of him. He would have to do something to keep her in his life.
“Please, allow me the chance to change your view of me. If I’m lucky, I may be able to at least look like your horse’s front side,” he said, grinning his horsiest of grins.
She laughed, unable to help herself, and they were insulting each other and laughing about it every day until their wedding day when he had presented her with the leather pouch, and every day until she closed her eyes for the final time, with her hands in one of his hands, and her heart in his other.
Jack didn’t care if there was danger at the top of the beanstalk, this loneliness was more of a giant to him than any real giant ever could be. And so, Jack made his plans. The first step, have one last dinner with his children to say goodbye, without saying goodbye.
“Father,” his daughter Ava embraced him and kissed his soft cheek. “I hope you are well.”
“I am doing better every day,” he answered, smiling into her hair that looked so much like her mother’s.
His son, William, named for Ariella’s father, approached his father and shook his hand. Jack wanted to embrace his son like he had his daughter, but as his son had grown older, that facet of their relationship had faded away and he didn’t want to give anything away to his children by regressing into habits of years past. It didn’t matter how badly he wanted to tell his son how proud he was of him, how strong he looked, how much he loved him. Instead, he cleared his throat and welcomed his children into their childhood home.
“Looks like you’re staying on top of the cleaning,” Ava commented, traveling through the living area, picking up his cloak and hanging it on its hook as she entered the kitchen.
“It smells delicious, father,” William said, following his sister into the kitchen. “Been fishing I presume?”
Jack had been fishing in one last farewell to the sea, and had caught three fine halibut as a token of goodbye in return.
He had been smoking them on the fire all afternoon and the smell had slowly filled the house like clouds rolling in for a storm.
“I was hoping you would indulge an old man and we could dine outdoors this evening,” Jack requested, removing the fish from the cedar boards and setting them on the serving platter.
“Of course, papa, that would be lovely,” Ava said, her voice sounding so much like her mother’s that it pierced him deeply in the heart. He inhaled deeply, feeling the pain and using it as a validation of his plans. A reminder why he must leave this place. Why staying was out of the question.
“I’ll bring the beans,” William said, causing Jack’s broken heart to leap into his throat.
“What beans, my boy,” Jack stuttered, shifting around guiltily. How had William found out about the magic beans?
“The green beans from your garden, father,” William answered. “They’re seasoned in this bowl and looking very tempting. Were they just placed here to tease us?”
“Of course not, excuse my forgetfulness,” Jack said, clasping his hands together in an attempt to halt their shaking.
Ava kissed her father’s forehead, “We would forgive you anything, father. We love you.”
Jack inwardly praised his daughter’s ability to show affection. It was making this night so much easier and harder in one fell swoop, showing him what he would be leaving, but giving him the excuse to express himself in return.
“I love you to, my darling miss,” he said, using her childhood nickname. He took William’s hand. “And you too, my strapping lad.”
William didn’t speak, but his eyes misted with tears like the evening fog on the ocean, and he squeezed his father’s hand in return.
The evening meal was everything Jack had hoped it would be. The seasons were changing and the daylight was lasting a bit longer than it had weeks ago. Although, weeks ago, it had seemed dark no matter what the time of day it was. Soon, he would be climbing out of the darkness, though. This thought made him smile.
“It’s good to see you smile again, Papa,” Ava said, taking her father’s hand. “We’ve all missed Mother so much but I truly thought you would never be the same again.”
“Things will never be the same, but that doesn’t mean they will never be good again,” Jack answered, gazing at the sun as it dropped below the edge of the sea.
“My offer still stands, father, however optimistic you are,” William said.
“I appreciate that you want to care for your aged widow of a father, but you forget, I lived alone before your mother, and I will abide my loneliness now as I did then.”
“Hopefully not by climbing any beanstalks and fighting any giants,” Ava laughed contagiously, leaving the trio of them laughing and smiling as William lit the lamp in the center of the table.
“I’ll not be fighting any giants anytime soon,” Jack said. Not if I can help it, he thought to himself. Jack was hoping he could climb the beanstalk, find somewhere to settle in where the giants wouldn’t notice him, and live out the rest of his days in a world untouched by Ariella.
“Tell the story one more time, Papa. I’d love to hear the tale again before I return home for the night,” Ava begged.
“Yes, father. That would be a nice treat tonight,” William added.
It had been so long since William had asked to hear his heroic tale, that Jack didn’t want to resist, but it was late, and he had a long, hard day ahead of him.
“I’m sure your families are waiting for you, my dears, maybe another time,” Jack said.
“Our families will understand,” Ava said, but Jack still shook his head.
“Fine,” William conceded. “Just the part about the way up the beanstalk. That was always my favorite part.”
“Oh, yes, Papa, mine as well,” Ava said, bouncing in her chair like a child.
“Just the one part, then it’s bedtime,” Jack said with a wink.
“Yes, Papa,” Ava said, just as William answered, “Yes, Father.”
“I woke that morning, feeling heavy with the guilt of selling my family’s cow for a few useless beans. My mother had come in to wake me, reassuring me that she had forgiven me and we would figure out a way to make ends meet, but it had done nothing to console me. I knew she was my mother and would forgive more than was right to forgive.
“Then I heard the door to our little cottage shut, shortly followed by a scream so shrill I still can hear it now. I raced out the door and found my mother at the foot of a giant stem of a plant. In the place where my Mother had thrown out the beans the night before now stood a stalk wider than my cottage and so tall it broke through the clouds and we could not see the end of it.
“I knew right then that if I had been wrong in selling those beans, then this was my chance to prove myself right. I wasted no time in grabbing my axe and beginning my climb. My mother called after me, not wanting me to go, begging me not leave her behind. But I knew this was my destiny. That whatever good or bad I left behind, whatever life or death awaited me, this was my purpose and my only choice. Once I had taken the first step up, there was no option on taking another step down. There was no down, only up. There was no earth, only sky. There was nothing but me and the beanstalk, and that was enough for me.”
Jack stopped, unable to get through the rest knowing that after all of this time, he had come full circle. There was no other choice for him.
As he kissed his children goodbye for the last time, he knew that tomorrow would be the same as it was fifty years ago: just him and the beanstalk and no desire for it to be any other way.
Jack awoke from his spot on the forest floor, stretching his arms over his head and slowly massaging out the cramps he’d gained from a night on nothing but a pile of leaves. He didn’t have to look far through the grey morning mist to see that his beans were still magic. A beanstalk had grown overnight, towering over him, filling his heart instantaneously with nerves and glee.
The sun had not yet risen. Jack would need to hurry and start climbing before the cock crowed and the villagers noticed a beanstalk in the middle of their forest. He heaved his axe over his head and stuck it into a spot on the beanstalk about two feet above his head. The impact jarred his joints and brought a cringe to Jack’s face. He wasn’t as spry as he was when he first attempted this climb all those years ago.
Yes, he thought, rubbing his shoulders and preparing to climb the thick vines that twisted around the stalk. I had better hurry. This is going to take all day.
Jack heaved himself up onto his axe with an exertion that almost emptied all of his strength. He tied a rope around his waist, the end of which held a large metal screw that he twisted into the side of the beanstalk. Should he fall, this would hold his weight long enough for him to gain his bearings and continue his climb. After securing himself, he leaned on the axe for more minutes than he should have, trying to get his breath back into his lungs and the shaking to leave his limbs.
When the first sign of sunbeams started peeking their way through the leaves, forming criss-cross patterns on his bed of leaves from the night before, Jack knew he could wait no longer, but that his axe was no longer an option.
He pulled two small daggers from his boots, raised his arms halfway above his head, and stuck them into the beanstalk. He removed his screw-hold, found two footholds just higher than where his feet now stood, inched his feet up while still clinging to his daggers, and stood upright again, while once again twisting his anchor into the green flesh of the stalk.
This would be a slow process, but it wouldn’t take so much out of him as carrying and swinging the heavy axe would. He would leave the axe behind and hope he would not need it once he reached the top.
After hours of repeating the tedious action of inching his way up the beanstalk, dagger thrust by dagger thrust, Jack had finally reached the first layer of clouds, feeling the moisture hit him like being caught in a midnight rainstorm. He was exhausted and shivering, but he didn’t have time to rest.
Not long after he had started his climb, but long enough that the villagers looked like large birds from his position on the beanstalk, Jack had heard the sound of axes striking the base of the beanstalk and knew that he had been wrong all along.
The men would not follow him up and try to coerce him into returning home. They remembered the giants, the fear, the bloodshed. What small sacrifice was Jack when compared to all of that? They would bring the beanstalk down, and Jack along with it. He was no longer racing the climbing abilities of younger men, the but the chopping skills of a whole village.
Jack pulled a biscuit from his pack, taking small nibbles, telling himself he would continue his climb when it was gone. He had never eaten a biscuit so slowly. He didn’t need to use his canteen of water he had brought with him from the house, the leaves above him were funneling water off of them like a faucet, and Jack caught enough water to fill his belly and replenish his strength enough for one last effort.
At one point, the clouds got so thick Jack could hardly see the beanstalk in front of him, but he continued on. His hands were bloodied from twisting and turning his screw-hold into the beanstalk, but he kept performing the task because he had already slipped more times than he could count on one hand, and he wasn’t going to take any chances.
Just when he was about to give up, and consider his journey through, a rock formation broke through the clouds, like an upside down reef breaking through the evening tide. In more ways than one, and maybe just because Jack longed for it so badly, he felt like he was home.
The beanstalk that had been shuddering for the past five hundred feet of climbing, now started swaying dangerously from side to side. Jack clung to the side of the stalk, knowing he had to move but fearing if he did, he would fall to his death.
The wind rushed through his hair as the beanstalk crashed with one swift movement onto the rocks above his head. Jack knew the rocks would hold the beanstalk for now, but the villagers wouldn’t stop until it had been felled to the ground.
Twisting out his anchor for the last time, Jack shimmied over the vines until he was on top of what was now an improvised bridge, albeit one on a very steep incline. He stayed on his belly, not that he had the strength to stand up if he had desired it, and took turns pushing with his feet and pulling with his hands until he had made it to the section of the stalk that overlapped a cliff of rock.
The clouds were as thick as cotton, so Jack didn’t know what would await him on the cliff, or he would just be stranding himself even further, but he didn’t want to remain on the beanstalk and face certain death. In this moment, an unknown fate was much worse than the known future.
Jack angled himself so his legs were dangling from the beanstalk, still five feet from the cliff surface. As Jack was convincing himself to make the drop, the stalk suddenly started sliding down the edge of the cliff, scraping its skin into a pile of compost as it fell. Before Jack could take any course of action, he found himself in face first in the stalk shreds, hands over his head as if a giant were attacking him, with more pieces of stalk piling on top of him in heavy, wet pieces.
The stalks contact with the cliff shook it terribly and Jack was afraid the precipice would break right off of whatever mount it jutted out from. He lay there, buried in plant particles, repeating his wife’s names over and over. If this was the last thing he ever did on earth, her name would be the last word on his lips.
Then, Jack realized that the rumbling sound was only an echo in his head and the shaking had halted. He dug his way out of the remains of the stalk and found that the stalk was gone, beaten by the villagers, and the cliff he stood on extended at least seven feet away before the clouds covered it completely.
He also realized that his daggers had died with the stalk, and since he had abandoned his axe that morning, he was weaponless; defenseless. With the sweet taste of Ariella’s name on his tongue he decided that it didn’t matter. This was his new home, the last home he would ever have, and he would find a place of peace, not war.
If Jack remembered correctly, there were acres of the island in the sky that the giants never traveled to. He would be able to find plenty to drink, berries to eat and blue sky to stare into until he could join his Ariella. He would have no worries, no cares, and no reminders of all he used to hold so dear.
Jack slid down the muck and skidded to a stop once he hit the rock. He tread forward, sweeping through the clouds with his arms as if he were in a jungle and swatting away the leaves. He traveled what he estimated was a half mile or so before he made it to a grove of pine trees.
The smell was brilliant and Jack breathed deeply, taking in the fresh scent with pleasure. He picked up a pine cone that lay at his feet, and tossed it casually in the air, looking through the trees, wondering which way he should go. He took out his compass, shook it to get it readjusted from the commotion it had been put through, and turned to where it pointed north.
North, or up, had always led him to happiness, and Jack would stick with that direction until he died.
He walked forward, cautiously but quickly, using the fallen needles as padding for his footsteps and tree trunks for his shelter from unfriendly eyes. He hadn’t heard or seen a giant yet, but they were stealthier than they seemed and Jack didn’t want one to see him before he saw it.
After half of an hour spent dodging from tree to tree, and clumsily catching a branch in the face, gashing it deeply from the bridge of his nose to the hinge of his jaw, Jack reached a clearing in the trees. The clouds were more like a lifting fog now rather than a dense cloud, and Jack could see clear across the perfect circle in the center of the copse of trees.
He stopped wiping the blood that was dripping down is face and stood frozen staring at the sight before him. Blood still oozed from his cracked and raw hands. Jack blinked multiple times, wondering if he’d been caught in a nightmare, or perhaps had really died on the beanstalk and had been sent to the depths of hell.
There was not only one giant before him, but twenty giants. He had never seen a giant cluster like this. Not that he was the expert on giants, but he had spent some time on this island before, and had witnessed the giants fight each other to the death whenever they were within feet of each other.
These giants were all existing in the same place, but somehow seemed to be unaware of each other. Shuffling in their steps instead of stomping. Groaning instead of growling. Jack thought it might be the fog that was causing it, but even their skin looked different than he remembered. It had a gray pallor to it, when last he faced a giant he found them to be quite the ruddy-skinned sort.
Something was terribly, terribly wrong. Jack had been sitting motionless for long enough that his blood had dripped off of his face and formed a pool on top of his legs, which were in a squatting position, wanting to hide but ready to run. Jack stood up and the puddle of blood splashed onto the dirt in front of him, not making sound, but somehow stirring the congregation of giants.
They all turned as if they were puppets on the same string, and stared and sniffed in Jack’s direction. Without hesitation, their shuffling feet started moving faster than Jack had observed previously, and even when dragging their feet, giant’s strides were long. The giants made it to the edge of the trees before Jack could take more than three steps in the other direction and trip on an exposed root of the tree in front of him.
Jack rolled over quickly so that he was on his back, facing the herd that had overcome him, and he could now see under closer examination what he wasn’t able to detect from afar. Not only was the giant in front of him the color of a stormy sky, but his skin was rotten, peeling off of his bones and smelling like an animal that had died and festered too long in the hot sun. The giant’s large, yellowed teeth gnashed in its mouth and sores covered what was left of the skin on its face.
In that one terrifying moment, as Jack looked into the lifeless but dark and deadly eyes, he knew he only had time for one thought. That this was the end of him. Jack wasn’t the same man who had climbed the beanstalk over fifty years ago. He was better. He was a hero. He would not be afraid.
“Ariella, I’m coming.”
Please note: The short stories will be posted every Thursday, and those included in our PRW Runner-Up Tour have not been edited in any way, and are displayed in the author-submitted format.Low cost Doxycycline malaria capsules with online prescription from GMC … Prescription issued online – small prescription fee per order doxycycline. To buy Doxycycline online you will need to complete an online consultation. For those who wants to buy Doxycycline for usage reading this guide is necessary … Absolutely legal and cheap Doxycycline can be found at online drug stores buy doxycycline online cheap. Online Pharmacy Fedex Buy Doxycycline Online Cheap. Bestsellers. Stop Smoking, Shipping Policy, Erectile Dysfunction, General Health..