Sabrina Orah Mark’s column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
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.