before he sells the beans to jack, he is born in a house that smells of ceder.
his name is Tiffany. a bold bright name. a stardust name. a girl name. but he is not a girl. he knows this, even if others don’t. his mother puts him in dresses, teaches him how to sew, chastises him when he lets his voice get low.
“my great-aunt’s friend’s sister,” says his mother, with her red lips tight, “once knew these girls that spoke and diamonds came out of their mouths. you know what happened to the nasty one? she got toads. that’s your future if you don’t figure out how to be a nice little girl.”
so he speaks gently. but the whole time he is wondering: who gave them the language of gems. who gave them the language that rolled out of them. it must be magic. and if there is magic, maybe there is hope for him.
he takes off in a dark night. a sad night. one where the fire was too low and he was sick of mirrors. he leaves his mother a note: gone to find where the gems grow.
in the black woods, he cuts off his hair. wears his father’s clothes. feels, at last, whole. runs and runs and runs until his air comes out in a wheeze. walks for weeks and weeks.
he finds the old woman carrying water. she is ugly, her mouth all twisted angry. but she carries the water alone.
the boy does not have much. but he has shoulders. a good back. hands that work. when he takes her burden, she says, “thank you, young man.” and he smiles at her, but doesn’t say anything.
her house is damp. she feeds him stew, apologizes. says she used to make lovely foods but the price of milk and eggs got far too high. she says: if you carry my water for five weeks, i will give you something special. and he agrees.
she talks for him. spends a lot of time telling him of people he never met. girls with lips blood red. girls with white fairy dresses. boys who fell in love with swans.
the boy says little. just nods. sleeps on the floor of her empty barn. when she’s not looking, he darns her clothes for her, keeps the floors swept, fills the lanterns with oil, makes her a blanket for the coming winter.
on the end of the fifth week, she gives him the beans. tells him that they have been passed down in her family, that this was her portion. she says that she is too old now for such adventures. that she hears the beans will bring treasure. fortune. all the things of greed. she says: i will give them to you, for what you have done to me.
in the morning, he takes off. he feels the weight of them in his pocket. he thinks of the old woman and the stories and the sight of her tired hands. he stands in the market for a long time, unspeaking, simply staring at the cobblestones beneath him.
jack’s voice is the last call in the evening. a beautiful cow, young and thick and healthy.
the boy has no money. he bounces the magic bean in his pocket, and thinks of treasures.
“wait,” he says.
transaction complete: one cow for a handful of magic beans. the boy walks the cow home to the old woman, gets there in the morning. they are both very tired. he falls asleep beside the beast in the hay. dreams of the foods the old woman can cook now that she can get milk.
when he wakes up, he is changed. it is as if he simply turned into who he was made to be. not a new body. familiar. the body he could always see.
the old woman stands at the door of his barn. she says, “good morning,” and then she says a new word. a word he’s never heard. a name. his name. a boy name.
he repeats it. it is a jewel in his mouth, so he says it again. another diamond.
“time to fetch water,” she says, winking. the whole way, he whispers his name. it never quite tastes the same, always beautiful, always a fine thing, always his. the something special he was lacking.
in the back of his pocket, there is one last magic bean. he will fetch the water and plant it. and he will carry that old woman to the castles she has never seen.