Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Jack and Jill Grow Up

Jack and Jill Grow Up
By Sean Fitzmorris

Jack woke up aggravated. His mother always made him get the fresh water for the day first thing in the morning. The last thing he felt like doing was leaving his warm, snug bed to go trod through the cold, wet grass with that heavy bucket full of water. And whose bright idea was it to dig the well on top of the hill? If there was so much underground water around, why didn't they just sink the well down where the village was?
            He got dressed and fetched the heavy bucket, grunting an unintelligible response to his mother's "Good morning" on his way out the door. She had been in a good mood lately, even after the king, Midas, had taxed their goose so heavily that they were forced to sell it. It turned out that the king, in his unquenchable thirst for all things golden, had his eye on that goose since Jack had gotten it from the giant at the top of the enormous beanstalk. Midas had sent his own handpicked taxman to excise the astronomical tax that had been levied on all "supernatural farmyard animals and poultry." Having no choice but to sell the goose to pay the tax, which was a cash outlay much higher than the goose itself could produce in the way of golden eggs, Jack and his mother sold it for a fair enough profit, but the buyer was a second henchman for the king. Now the king had both the tax money and the goose. The thought of it galled Jack. But at least his mother had found a man to keep her happy. He had originally come into their lives because of the wealth and fame of the goose, but he stayed even after that had ended. Jack supposed it was just because he had nowhere else to go. She usually awoke in the mornings in a great mood these days, which surprised Jack because it sounded like she and her boyfriend were up all night, judging from the noises coming from her room
            None of that helped Jack's mood any. He regretted cutting down that beanstalk every morning he hiked to the well. It was the earth-shattering crash of the giant’s body to the earth that had wrecked the entire water supply system of the village, forcing the villagers to turn to antiquated wells and watersheds to obtain potable water. At first, this was merely an inconvenience for most, but eventually it became a serious health hazard when the giant's body began to decompose. The sanitation workers' union declared that corpse removal was not their job; and the water plant's employees balked at the idea of touching the rotting body since it was a clear violation of their own water-workers' union rules. The funeral homes simply laughed at the idea; where were they going to get all the heavy equipment necessary to dispose of such an enormous corpse? By the time the town subcontracted the work out, the huge body had contaminated all the nearby rivers, streams and lakes. Furthermore, most of the townsfolk were not only weary of dragging buckets of water around, but they had grown very tired of eating beans every single meal. But they had to eat them, lest the beans that had grown on the beanstalk sprout, creating a veritable forest of the tremendous beanstalks; and there were years’ worth of beans stored up, which didn’t help the townspeople’s patience. Jack's fame had quickly turned to notoriety following the "Beanstalk Incident."   
    He passed his friend, Jill Muffet, on the way to the well. He had liked Jill for a while, even though she was a girl. She was good company, and he asked her to go up the hill with him on his daily water run. She agreed, and off they went.
            After the long hike up the hill, they rested for a minute. Jill, being a girl, had started to mature much faster than Jack, and had begun to develop a serious crush on the boy. She also rather liked the idea of being friends with someone as well known as Jack. It was like having a celebrity for a boyfriend, even though he was now mostly famous for causing the water shortage and surplus of beans. As they rested on the hill, Jill engaged Jack in idle conversation, much of it involving her asking his opinion of her, but she also loved to hear him recount his experiences at the top of the huge beanstalk. After a while, though, Jack decided that it was time to head back home, so up he went to the well and dropped the rope down, with the bucket on the end. As he raised it back up, Jill noticed the boy’s developing muscles and determined that she was in fact, truly in love with him. In her mind, this infatuation had gone on long enough and it was time to do something about it. Just as Jack got the pail to the top of the well and turned around to head back down the hill, she planted a kiss smack on his lips. Jack was so startled at this completely unexpected display of affection that he lost his footing on the wet, sloping hillside and slipped down. Jill, who had surprised even herself by her sudden burst of passion, tried to grab him but found herself very off balance and likewise tumbled down the hill. Both of them were stopped by a rather large rock at the base of the hill. Jack struck the rock in such a way that he lacerated his scalp and passed out from the impact. Jill, when queried on the details of the accident was simply too mortified to tell everyone that the whole thing was her fault. Well, of course people began speculating about the relationship that the two shared and began dropping not-so-subtle hints about their suspicions of her involvement in the matter. She eventually grew so self-conscious about the whole thing that she withdrew from society in general and turned to food as a comfort, particularly that most God-awful nourishment, curds and whey. Psychiatrists would describe it as a form of self-punishment for the terrible accident that so seriously wounded her boyfriend, Jack. Seldom would Jill emerge from the safety of her parents’ home anymore until late into her therapy. Her doctor at long last convinced her to come out from her self-inflicted isolation. Just a simple adventure into the backyard was her goal for the week. Sadly, she had barely gotten out of the house and sat down for her midmorning snack of her beloved curds and whey, when a big hairy spider sat down next to her and frightened the poor girl away. She was later institutionalized.
    Jack, however, fared better. After a brief hospitalization and a series of MRI's and CAT scans, he was cleared to return to school and, unfortunately, his daily water routine. He one day complained so loudly and strongly about his daily chore that his mother punished him and forbade him to leave the house. The next day he turned up at school, only to find himself all alone. A sad-faced teacher explained to Jack about the disappearance of every other boy and girl in the village. They had followed the odd man who the town council had employed to rid the town of the many rats that had been attracted to the putrefying flesh of the giant. Town officials had given the strangely dressed man a bureaucratic song-and-dance about budget overruns and a lack of money to get out of having to pay, using something about "experimental and unorthodox methods" as an excuse, referring to his hypnotic woodwind music. The piper, in his anger over having been denied his payment, had used his music to lure away every last child in the village.
    At any rate, Jack now found himself alone. Besides Jill, who was locked away in the behavioral  hospital, Jack was the only young person left in the town. As a result, the school had to close down. With his educational opportunities being so limited, as he grew older he turned to manual labor to provide for himself. When he grew up he became a woodsman, finding abundant work in the nearby forest chopping down trees and providing lumber and firewood for the village. Eventually he married a lovely Bavarian girl and built a house on the edge of the woods. Soon after moving in to their new home she bore a pair of fine, healthy twins, a boy and a girl, whom they named after her parents, Hansel and Gretel. She loved to bake and often made the children strudel, candies, cakes and pies. Sometimes she would make Jack his favorite, blueberry pie. They had a grand life together until she came down with pneumonia and died. She had made a blueberry pie for Jack that day with the last of her strength. After the funeral home had taken her body away and the children had cried themselves to sleep, Jack stayed awake most of the night. He began to nibble on the pie she had made, and eventually found himself eating it in a corner, as he had sometimes done as a boy when he felt sad over the loss of his father, Jack Horner Sr. The sense of loss and pain was almost unbearable.
     It wasn’t helping that his mother had begun growing old and feeble. She had married Bryce Hubbard, the man who had moved in with them years before, and had moved into a cottage set a ways into the woods. But he died, leaving Jack to care for her as well as his own children. She was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and became increasingly unable to care for herself. She seldom had anything to eat in the house. But it was just as well, for there was no telling when she might forget that she had lit the stove and burn down the house. Jack eventually took in her poor dog, for he was growing thinner all the time, since there was seldom even a bone in the cupboard. Gretel often would prepare some food to take to her grandmother, using recipes she had learned from her mother. She would hike the long way to grandmother’s house through the woods, and she would pause on the bridge over the river to throw a stone in and make a wish. When the weather was cold, Gretel would wear the red cape and hood she had inherited from her mother. She loved anything that belonged to her mother and always wished for a new mother, not only for herself, but also for her father and brother, who both often seemed sad.
 One day when she arrived at her grandmother’s house, she found her lying in the bed. Gretel knew that Grams wasn’t always well, but she looked particularly haggard that day. The rather icky fuzz that old ladies sometimes grow on their face was quite noticeable; not to mention her teeth and breath! She made a note to herself to bring her a toothbrush on her next visit. While she removed her red hood and cape and unpacked the basket of food, she engaged Grams in the halting, skewed conversation that was so common when dealing with Alzheimer’s patients: “Oh my, Grams!  What a pretty day it is!” and “Oh my, Grams! What big eyes you have!” and so on. Each time her grandmother would try to continue the conversation by repeating the same inane replies like “All the better to see you with!” to try and cover over her loss of memory, but Gretel knew that she sometimes didn’t even know who she was. This day in particular, though, Gretel thought it odd that her grandmother mention something about “eating her” and when she turned around was startled to see her grandmother leaping from the bed, growling and snapping like a dog! Gretel dodged her in the house, realizing that it wasn’t her grandmother at all, but a wolf! Her screams were heard by her father, who happened to be chopping trees in the forest nearby. He ran in the direction of his mother’s house and found Gretel backed into a corner, being advanced upon by the wolf. He quickly dispatched it with his ax, and took his terrified daughter home. They had originally thought the wolf had eaten the grandmother, but found her hiding in a closet. After that, they got her booked into a nursing home so she could have constant care.
     As it turned out, a Russian fellow named Peter was hunting the talking wolf. He had been looking for him for years, and had eventually driven the wolf into the vicinity of Jack’s town. The wolf itself had achieved some infamy locally for terrorizing a local community of talking pigs. The three pigs had escaped the “supernatural barnyard animal and poultry” tax laws by actually becoming productive citizens themselves. They had even built their own houses; thought the wolf had destroyed two of them. The third pig was employed as a construction worker and was well known for the quality of his work, his own sturdy house existing as an example of his craftsmanship.
     Time passed, and Gretel eventually got her wish, for her father married a second time. She and Jack seemed very much in love, but Gretel and Hansel never really warmed up to her. For one thing, she insisted on calling their father by his middle name, Sprat. It was a name that he had never liked and his children couldn’t blame him. But he liked it when she called him that (or at least pretended to like it) and that was all that mattered. Another thing that rubbed the kids the wrong way was her odd diet. She often prepared beef for supper and would make sure that Jack would trim all the fat off his own serving of meat, which she would take for herself and consume! It kind of grossed the kids out, but they had no choice but to tolerate it.
     After some time, the kids would hear their father arguing with their stepmother late at night. Though they couldn’t hear all the details, the kids got the impression that they were arguing over them. It became clear that children were not on their stepmother’s agenda, for she had wanted a career and now found herself bound to the house by these two kids. It was arranged that Jack would take the kids with him into the woods while she went to her new office during the day. Each day, therefore, Jack would bring his beloved children with him. He didn’t really mind, as he got to spend more time with them and Hansel helped him with the wood.
     A couple of times, the kids had gotten lost and found their way back to their father by a trail of stones that Hansel made sure to take with him. One day, they were particularly deep in the woods when they became separated from their father. Hansel had unknowingly dropped his stones through a hole in his pocket, and therefore had nothing with which to leave as a trail save the breadcrumbs he tore off his sandwich. Of course, this was a futile effort, as the birds ate the crumbs almost as fast as he dropped them. They happened upon a house in the woods, and both of them gasped in surprise as they drew closer to the house, as it was constructed almost entirely of gingerbread and sweets! Even the windows seemed to be made of clear toffee. Each of them broke some pieces off the house and tasted them, only to find that it tasted exactly like the gingerbread that their mother used to make! When the old lady who lived in the house came out to confront the children about their consumption of her abode, they were mortified. They explained to her about how lost they were and how much like their own mother’s goodies her house tasted. The old lady soon softened and actually invited them in for something more substantial to eat.
    However, once she got them inside, she locked them in a cage! Despite their protests, she kept them locked up, only occasionally letting Gretel out to force her to do chores around the house, like hauling things, building a fire and cleaning up. She never let Gretel out of her sight, though, and often mumbled something about “fattening them up.” Neither Gretel nor Hansel liked the sound of that. Ever since the town’s children all followed that piper out of town years ago, the media loved to publish stories of the disappearance of children, never to be heard from again. The children now feared that this woman was the source of many of those stories.
    After some days of captivity, the woman asked Gretel to heat the oven. This was nothing unusual, except that after she had lit the fire, the woman asked her to climb inside to check the temperature. Gretel had expected some grotesque cannibalistic attempt on her and her brother’s life for a while now, but she was surprised that this lame ploy was the best the woman could do to get her into the oven. Instead, Gretel leaped at the woman, using much the same technique that the wolf had attacked Gretel with, and pushed the old witch of a woman into the oven. Gretel lost no time in finding the key to the cage and let her brother out. Both were out the door even before the gruesome screams emanating from the oven had faded.
           As they left the house, at that very time their father the woodsman was coming up the path accompanied by several police officers and agents from child protective services. He had enlisted their aid in locating the children, and the authorities were only too happy to oblige, as they were weary of the frequent television and radio reports of their ineptitude in stopping the disappearance of children in the area.
           When they got home, they found that their father had begun divorce proceedings from their stepmother. He fully blamed her for the children’s disappearance, as the situation would never have occurred had she not been so self-consumed with her own career. As the divorce proceedings went along, though, it was discovered that she had more than an indirect hand in the children’s abduction. She had, in fact, been collaborating with the gingerbread-house woman in order to get rid of the kids once and for all! She had even given her copies of the children’s mother’s recipes for gingerbread and cakes to serve as a lure. Years before, the two women had gotten to know each other in prison, the stepmother learning of the older woman’s grisly taste for human flesh. She could sympathize with her, since her own penchant for the fat of meat was seldom well received by many. After their escape from prison, they both kept in touch in case either ever needed the assistance of the other.
     The stepmother was arrested and convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in a tower. Years later, she again effected her escape from captivity by enlisting the aid of a young man, whom she coerced into assisting her by convincing him she was a princess locked away by her father to protect her. Due to the lack of coiffure services in the prison tower, her hair grew outrageously long and the na├»ve young man was able to help her use it as a rope to climb down from the tower. She ran off with him and remains on the loose to this day. Please notify the authorities if you have any information on her whereabouts.
     Hansel and Gretel grew up and began life on their own. Hansel, after the whole traumatic incident with the cage, the death of his mother and the humiliation of the trial involving his stepmother, began to develop the desire to wear women’s clothing in an attempt to create a new identity for himself, influenced by the powerful role that women had played in his life. He was so successful in his new identity that he bought a club in Greenwich Village in New York and runs one of the most popular drag shows in the region.
 Gretel went to college to become a research biologist. Her choice of careers was strongly influenced by her experience with the wolf in her grandmother’s house. As the kingdom still had the tax law on the books about supernatural barnyard animals and poultry, she decided to make these creatures the subject of her senior thesis, especially since the area seemed to have more than its share of these beasts. While doing research, she came across a talking frog, which eventually convinced her to kiss it. Being a young college girl and open-minded about experimenting with new things, she gave it a try. At the very least, she was curious about the rumors she had heard bout the hallucinogenic properties of licking certain amphibians, and figured this was a prime opportunity for “research.” Much to her astonishment, the frog actually transformed into a young man! She was delighted to have someone who could give firsthand information on actually being a supernatural animal, and listened for hours on end to the fellow’s stories about his life as a frog. The two fell in love during their time together and, after Gretel got highest honors on her research paper, they later married.
     The young man proved to be a long-lost prince of the royal court, and Gretel had a hard time getting her new in-laws to really like her. The king and queen had even tried to test her suitableness for their son with some ridiculous exercise involving a bed stacked to the ceiling with mattresses and a lone pea underneath. It wasn’t hard for her to see through their charade and made sure that she complained loudly the next day about the “lumpy bed,” knowing that his parents held to the ludicrous stereotype of the fragile, ultra-sensitive princess. She figured she might as well just patronize them and keep the friction down to a minimum.
     Jack was left on his own. With the kids gone and no one to talk to, he would go out into the forest occasionally to chop some wood and sell it in town. He didn’t really need to work anymore, since Hansel sent home plenty of money to pay for his expenses, and he was often invited to the palace to visit Gretel. But what else was he going to do with his time? Sometimes out in the woods he would just explore, since these days he didn’t need to be so concerned with finding suitable trees to chop. On one of his treks out in the woods, he happened upon an enormous shoe sitting upright in a clearing. After a moment, he recognized it as belonging to the giant that had chased him down the beanstalk all those years ago, and it had been left here near the site of the old disused village landfill. He walked up to it and began to notice that it was in surprisingly good shape, as if someone had been looking after it; the laces were neatly tied and it looked as if it had been recently polished. As he drew nearer, he heard a sound as if something were moving around inside. Immediately he raised his ax, in case it was some dangerous beast. Instead, a gray-headed woman emerged from what appeared to be a door cut out in the side of the shoe. “Who is it?” she called.
    Jack replied, “My name is Jack; I’m a woodsman.”
     The woman regarded him for a minute. “Jack Horner? Little Jack?”
     He was taken aback. Jack hadn’t been called Little Jack since his boyhood days. Immediately a flood of memories came back to him, his father, his mother, blueberry pie, Mr. Hubbard, his old best friend Jill…
    Jill! No wonder he thought he saw something familiar in the woman’s face. “Are you Jill Muffet?” he asked, astonished that he might have bumped into her after so long.
     “I am!” she said, a smile widening across her care-worn face. “How amazing to see you after all these years! Come in, come in; we have so much catching up to do!”
     They talked for hours that day, learning about the paths their lives had taken. Jack hesitated to mention Jill’s psychiatric treatment, but was pleased to find that Jill was quite open about it. “I just eventually grew out of it. It was just one of those really self-conscious phases that young girls sometimes go through. After I lost all the weight I had gained from all those curds and whey, I began to feel much better about myself.”
     He found that she had gotten married to a man who was wonderful to her. He gave her many children, all of whom she found delight in. “But after having ten children,” she explained “he turned to drinking and carousing all night. I tried to get him to stay home sometimes to help with the children, but he became so annoyed that I was interfering with his fun that he left one evening and never came back. I ended up having to care for all those children by myself. It became harder to pay the rent, so I eventually had to move out. I was getting older, and I didn’t know what to do. It was hard to find a place that I could have so many children in and pay the rent on the slim income that welfare affords. So I finally moved into this shoe that belonged to your giant.”
     Your giant. The words rang in Jack’s head. Of all the people that Jack ever knew, Jill was the only one who ever referred to the giant as ‘his giant.’ He realized how much he missed his old friend. Childhood friends hold a special bond, he realized as they talked. And Jill was the only friend he had left from his childhood, as every one of the other children his age had followed the piper out of town and disappeared. He began to feel long-forgotten memories and bonds of friendship stir and strengthen inside him.
     She recounted stories of her beloved children. The youngest had always been the cleverest. She told Jack of the time that the emperor went parading around town buck-naked. He had gotten all his lackeys to commend him on his “suit,” but her smart-aleck youngest drew widely publicized acknowledgment from pointing out that the naked emperor was just that, naked.
     “That was you?” Jack asked, wide-eyed. “I heard about that, the talk of it went on for weeks! I had no idea that it was your child!”
     “Oh yes, that was us!” Jack could tell it had been embarrassing for her at the time, but was glad that she could laugh over it now. She told him about her other children. Her former husband’s family harbored a curious genetic trait that caused offspring of the family to hold a propensity for dwarfism. Seven of Jill’s boys were affected by the trait. But they never let their small size affect their outlook on life. Jill had raised them well, and they all grew up to be diligent, decent people. One even went to medical school. But he didn’t like being so far separated from his family and moved back home afterwards. The seven brothers found it hard to get work locally so they had to move into a house near the mine they took jobs in, which was actually in the next kingdom. The last Jill had heard from them they had taken on a boarder, a lovely young woman who cared for the house well and was especially kind to their mildly retarded brother.
     Jill was happy that they had grown up so well but now found herself with the same “empty nest syndrome” that Jack found himself in. But now that they had gotten in touch with one another, they determined to stay friends. And as Jack left, he turned to her and returned the kiss that she had so startled him with long ago. Jill’s face became flushed, but she did not reject it.
     After a few visits to one another’s house, they realized that the feelings that had just begun to stir in them in their youth so long ago were being rekindled. This time there was none of the obscuring haze of hormonal emotion that the bloom of youth engenders. This time they realized that they were developing a relationship that was beyond that of childhood sweethearts and became a real, passionate love between the two of them, tempered with the patience and wisdom that maturity and experience brings.
     Eventually the two married, and moved into Jack’s house in which he had raised his children. Hansel and Gretel really liked Jill, and were so happy for the joy that she brought into their father’s life.  The fire of Jack and Jill’s love and friendship for each other never faded in all the years they spent together. Their romance became known far and wide across the whole of the kingdom, and they lived happily ever after.