Sabrina Orah Mark’s column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
An illustration from Jack and the Beanstalk, Elizabeth Colborne
I am cleaning my house when I receive a Facebook message from the manager of Project Safe that a volunteer has found my plague doctor, or someone who looks like my plague doctor. The baseboards are thick with dust. I spray a mix of vinegar and lavender, and run a rag across them. The plague doctor, or someone who looks like my plague doctor, has been put aside in the office for me. I write back, “Oh! oh! I hope it’s him.” The rag is black. I am on my hands and knees. “I hope it’s your doll!” writes the manager. “Fingers crossed,” I write back. “It has to be him,” I say to no one. “It just has to be.”
I text my mother, “I’m cleaning the gustroom.” I notice the mistake before I hit send, but I send it anyway. She calls. I pick up. “Shouldn’t you be writing?” she asks. I should. “I can’t move,” says my mother. She received her second dose of the vaccine yesterday and now she’s having a reaction. I tell her I’m writing about hope. I tell her the reaction means the vaccine is working. “I feel like I’ve been hearing about this essay on hope for weeks,” she says. She’s impatient. “I can’t lift my arm,” she says. I tell her I’ve read every version of “Jack and the Beanstalk” I could find because I thought if I followed the hunger and the despair and the cow traded for a pocketful of magic beans and the beanstalk that grows overnight through the clouds and the boy named Jack who climbs the beanstalk and robs a giant of his harp and hen so he and his mother could live happily ever after I could make a beautiful map of hope because isn’t that what we need right now? “Isn’t what what we need right now?” “Hope,” I say again. “A map of hope,” I say again. “Hope?” says my mother, like it’s the name of a country she’d never pay money to visit. “What we need is a hell of a lot more than hope,” she says. We’re both quiet for a minute. “How’s the essay going?” asks my mother. “Terribly,” I say. “No surprise,” she says.
I tell her the manager of Project Safe just messaged me that a volunteer thinks she might’ve found my plague doctor, or someone who looks like my plague doctor. “Here we go again,” says my mother, “with the plague doctor.” I lost him months ago, and now he’s coming home. “Why couldn’t she just send you a photo?” I was wondering that, too, but I don’t admit it. If it’s not my plague doctor I want to at least postpone the time in between the darkness and the figure who emerges. “There’s no way it’s your plague doctor,” says my mother.
“Fee-fi-fo-fum,” I say. “What?” she says. “I said ‘feel better,’ ” I say.
In some versions of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” each time Jack climbs the beanstalk his mother grows sicker and sicker. And in other versions, each time Jack climbs back down and shows his mother his gold and tells her he was right about the beans after all, his mother grows quieter and quieter until it’s impossible to know if she’s even there anymore.
I go to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. I click on the IF YOU PLANT THEM OVERNIGHT BY MORNING THEY GROW RIGHT UP TO THE SKY link. I want a vaccine, but what I want even more are magic beans I can plant in my arm that will grow into a beanstalk my sons can climb if they ever run out of hope. I click on the link but it just leads me to a page on “adjusting mitigation strategies.” I try to click back, but I can’t. My computer freezes. I have to restart, and when my computer turns back on, and I return to this essay on hope, I realize it wasn’t properly saved. Most of it is lost. Only a few old notes, like branches, are scattered across the page. I start to cry, and tell my husband I’m giving up writing forever, and then I kick the air, and then I watch tutorials on recovering documents that advise me to search for “hope” with a “~” in front of it. What is that called? A tilde? It looks like a downed beanstalk.
A tilde means “approximately” and it also means an exhausted sigh, like being almost not there, which is the hopeful state I am in when I type the tilde next to hope, which is the name of the lost document. In Hebrew hope is tikvah, which means a braided rope or a cord or something you could climb up or climb down, I suppose, like a beanstalk. The tilde could be mistaken for a cutting from a tikvah, a cutting I can’t imagine being long enough to ever get me anywhere. If I could pinch it off the screen and throw it out the window I would.
Had I turned on Time Machine I could have recovered my unsaved document, but I didn’t even know there was a Time Machine, and so I never turned it on.
In most versions of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” at the top of the beanstalk is not the giant’s house but dust, a barren desert. There are no trees, or plants or living creatures. Famished, Jack sits on a block of stone and thinks about his mother. In Benjamin Tabart’s “The History of Jack and the Bean-Stalk” (1807), when Jack gets to the top of the stalk he looks around and finds himself in “a strange country … Here and there were scattered fragments of unhewn stone and at unequal distances small heaps of earth were loosely thrown together.” At the highest point of hope is a long empty road. At the top of the beanstalk is dirt that lies fallow so a world can regenerate.
The first known printing of Jack is “The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean” (1734), which is ascribed to a certain Dick Merryman, who writes he got most of the story from the chitter chatter of an old nurse and the maggots in a madman’s brain. What grows a fairy tale in Merryman’s brain is made out of larva and babble, and what’s at the top of the beanstalk is a giant named Gogmagog, which sounds like a boy trying to say the word God but he can’t because his mouth is filled with dust.
Project Safe is only a five minute drive from my house. It’s bright and warm, and greener than it should be in February. The five minute drive feels too short. Shouldn’t my hope and the fulfillment of my hope be farther apart? Shouldn’t it take my whole life to drive to Project Safe? My heart is beating fast. I park and go inside. I go past the racks of donated clothes, and coffee mugs, and old couches, and books. My heart is beating faster. I can already feel the weight of my plague doctor’s small porcelain body in my hand, his soft velvet coat. I want to call out “I’m here!” because I’m once again close enough to the plague doctor for him to hear me. “I’ve come at last!” I want to sing. And then I see her. I see the volunteer who found my plague doctor or someone who looks like my plague doctor. She knows it’s me. She looks like my stepdaughter. She knows I’ve come to retrieve what I’ve lost. “It’s in here,” she says brightly. I follow her. She smells like oranges, and her smile is so beautiful. She leads me to a back office filled with bags and bags of donations. “Wait here,” she says. I wait and in my waiting I know something is wrong. She returns too quickly. There is too little dust. What the volunteer is holding is not my plague doctor. It’s a mask of a plague doctor, and this mask is the size of my face. I don’t know if it was wooden or plastic because I back away from it immediately and say something like “no” or “thank you for trying” or “he is much smaller and he has arms and legs.” I wave goodbye to the volunteer as if I am in the ocean and she is on the shore instead of where we really are which is standing barely ten feet apart in the back room of a thrift store.
On my way out the door, I stop because I notice a small rusted harp leaning against a ceramic brown hen with a crack running along one wing. I bring both to the register. “Just these two?” asks the volunteer. “Yes,” I say. “Just these two.” I smile so I do not cry. “Thank you again for trying,” I say.
I leave my car in the Project Safe parking lot, and climb down the beanstalk with the hen and the harp in the pocket of my coat. My mother is waiting for me at the bottom. She is no longer feverish and she shows me she can now lift her arm. I would give her the hen and the harp, but when I reach into my pocket I realize both have turned to dust. Now my hands are covered with dust and as the dust falls from my hands it looks like the ellipses to all the stories we thought were over but are still being told. My sons come outside and ask for some dust. I give them each a handful because there is so much dust and they laugh and shout and sprinkle it all over our yard, and their sprinkling looks like ellipses, too. “Did you know?” says Noah, “that without dust there would be no clouds.” “No,” I say, “I didn’t know that.” “It’s true,” says Eli. “There’d be no clouds if we had no dust.” My mother, my sons, and I all look up at the sky. It’s so blue and there are so many clouds. “That one’s shaped like a giant,” says Noah. “And that one, Mama, is shaped like your mouth,” says Eli. And one cloud, the one hardest to see but I promise it’s there, is shaped exactly like what you’d always hoped it to be…
Read earlier installments of Happily here.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.
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