From Jacob’s Jack and the Beanstalk & Christ’s Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus & others
There once lived a young prince who, after his five elder brothers had each met an untimely death and his father had fallen ill, took over the daily affairs of the kingdom. He placed a heavy burden upon his subjects and never lifted a finger to help even the least of them. By the fruit of their toil, the prince built for himself a splendid manor. Daily, he feasted sumptuously and clothed himself with fine purple linen, while his people fought against the ground.
One day, a peasant boy named Jimmy staggered up to the prince’s gate, dragging behind him a white cow so thin that he had taken to using her ribs as a washboard. The boy sat at the gate and refused to leave until he spoke with the prince, no matter how the guards beat and threatened him. When at last the prince descended to the gate, holding a goblet of wine in one hand and gnawing on a leg of lamb with the other, the boy pleaded his case:
“Have mercy, my lord. My dear mother is sick and starving. We have no food and no family. Daily, I gather the crumbs from our neighbors’ table for her to eat and chase away the dogs who come to lick her sores. This morning, she sent me to market and forbade me to return home until I sold this, our last milk cow. No one would buy her, for she no longer gives milk, but in your house she would surely grow fat and give milk again. Might you, who have riches to spare, give me five pounds for her?”
The prince had no need of cattle, but he had grown bored of late and decided to play a trick on the boy. Throwing the unfinished leg of lamb in the dirt, he reached into his purple robe and produced a small alabaster box. Opening it, he showed the boy five tiny seeds inside.
“Pounds, no,” he said, “but I will swap you these five seeds.”
A cloud passed over the boy’s face.
“Fret not,” continued the prince, “for these seeds were given me by my old governess who, between you and me, had some giant blood in her veins. If the stories she told were true, whosoever plants these seeds in the ground will never want for anything so long as they live. As you can see, I already want for nothing, so I will part with these enchanted seeds for your poor mother’s sake.”
Although his intentions were false, the prince’s words were not entirely so. The governess had, in fact, given one seed to each of his elder brothers on the day they came of age, but had provoked his jealousy by giving him an alabaster box instead. After each untimely death, the prince had taken that brother’s seed for himself. He had never believed his governess’s stories, however, for the old bitty’s mind had been as wobbly as a loose wagon wheel. Besides, he saw no reason for keeping the seeds now that everyone who knew their significance was dead.
Jimmy, who was still young enough to believe in fairy tales, snatched up the alabaster box and ran home to tell his mother of their good fortune.
Some time after, Jimmy returned to the prince’s gates. When the prince went down to meet him, Jimmy handed him a single gold coin, the purity of which he had never seen.
“How did you come by this, boy?” asked the prince.
The boy told this story:
“When I showed my mother the seeds you gave me, she chided me from dusk until midnight. Since we had nothing else, we ate the seeds for dinner. We had two apiece, but I could not find the fifth and judged it must have fallen out as I ran. The next morning, Mother sent me to town to sell the alabaster box. Along the way, I crossed through a neighbor’s field and noticed a mustard tree which had not been there before. Already it came up to my chin and appeared to grow taller every second. I went straight to the owner of that field, who sold it to me for the alabaster box and our cottage and all we owned. Then, I fetched Mother and took her to live beneath the mustard tree, which by then stood as tall as a house and was growing still.
“On the third morning, the treetop tickled the underbelly of passing clouds and whole flocks of birds nested in its branches. Curious, I began to climb and even as I climbed it grew. At its highest point, I discovered a magnificent castle floating among the clouds. From the castle gates, I saw a woman arrayed in a dress which shone like the sun and a twelve-pointed crown which glittered like starlight. On her hands and knees, she was searching the castle courtyard by the light of her dress (for I had climbed so long that night had fallen). I called to the shining woman and when she came to the gate, I saw she must be a head taller than the tallest man alive.”
At this, the prince recoiled, for he knew this woman to be his old governess, who had died by his hand after accusing him of murdering his brothers.
“The shining woman had lost a coin and she invited me in to help her search for it,” Jimmy continued. “When I found it, she rejoiced by hosting a feast in her banquet hall and sitting me at the head of her table. The hall and the food and the guests were all so divine that I could not paint their beauty if ten thousand poets’ tongues were my brushes, but I would trade all my days in this world for but another hour at that splendid table. Afterward, the shining woman gave me not one but ten gold coins, more than enough to build my mother a new cottage and care for her properly. I offer you one of these coins now for the kindness you have shown my mother and me.”
The prince accepted the coin with humility in his mouth and envy in his heart, scheming how he might gain for himself the riches of the floating castle. Yet he dared not climb the tree, for he feared the giantess in the sky more than any man or beast upon the earth.
“Will you climb the mustard tree again?” he asked young Jimmy. “Surely, the lady of the castle would be pleased to hear how you have used her gift to provide for your poor mother.”
Jimmy, in his awe and wonder, had forgotten to mention his mother to the giantess and agreed he should visit her again if only to express his gratitude.
Three days later, he returned to the prince’s estate. This time, he brought with him a pearl of inestimable value. He claimed that on hearing of his mother’s condition, the shining woman had given him a golden oyster which would produce such a pearl anytime he asked for one. The pearl so enamored the prince that he offered the boy everything he owned in exchange for it.
“It is already yours,” said the boy, “for the kindness you have shown my mother and me.”
“Heaven knows no gratitude like yours,” flattered the prince, though he believed the golden oyster to be his by all rights. He might have arrested the boy and seized all his possessions then and there, but he wanted to see what other treasures his old governess might be hoarding. “I had hoped the shining woman would have provided a remedy for your mother’s ailments. Surely, it is not beyond her power to ease the suffering of the afflicted.”
Seeing the wisdom of the prince’s words, Jimmy agreed to climb the tree a third time.
After three more days, the boy returned with a vial of sparkling rainwater which the shining woman had drawn from a well in the first cloud God ever made. This water, which had never once touched the earth, was so pure that one drop had not only healed his mother but had restored all the vitality and beauty of her bygone youth.
“It is yours,” said the boy, offering the vial to the prince. “I want for nothing now. May you show all your subjects the same kindness you have shown my mother and me.”
The prince saw within reach his deepest desires: the unending wealth of the golden oyster and the unending health of the virgin rainwater. He needed only to rid himself of Jimmy and the mustard tree, for the prince was not content to only have these treasures for himself, but needed to ensure no one else, not a soul but himself, ever got close to them.
“Now that she is well,” he said, “will you take your mother to meet her benefactor in the sky?”
This idea thrilled young Jimmy, for he longed to share the wonders of the floating castle with his beloved mother, and he ran off to tell her.
The next morning, the prince went to the giant mustard tree, which was not hard to find since it could be seen from anywhere in the kingdom. As expected, the boy had taken his mother up the tree and left unattended the cottage he’d built at its base. The prince went in and stole the remaining gold coins and the enchanted oyster. Then he summoned his father’s soldiers, about a thousand in all, armed them with freshly sharpened axes, ordered them to chop down the mustard tree, then bind its stump with iron and bronze. After a day and a night of chopping, the great tree came crashing down, crushing to dust all but 144 of the soldiers.
Back at his manor, the prince asked the golden oyster for a pearl, but it would not open. He asked in every combination of tone and words he could imagine, but it would not open. He asked in every foreign language he could speak, but still it would not open. Day after day, he pleaded for a pearl until he grew so frustrated that he tried to pry open the oyster with his fingers. It slipped and sliced deep cuts into both his hands. Enraged, the prince drew his sword and smashed the oyster with its hilt. Shards of the golden shell flew up and lodged in his face. Crying out in pain, he took out the vial of virgin rainwater and drank.
But he was not healed.
The golden shards in his face grew larger and lodged themselves deeper into his flesh, even into his bone. The cuts in his hands filled up with gold, which hardened so that he could not close his fists. He dropped the vial, shattering it against the stone floor. Desperate to ease his pain, he fell to his knees to lap up the rainwater which, having touched the ground, had lost its purity.
Just then, the prince heard the clamor of voices and, looking out his window, saw a mob of angry peasants approaching his gate. He had under his command now only 144 soldiers, whose loyalty was waning fast. Seeing that his gates would not long overcome the mob, the prince escaped through a secret passage and fled to his father’s castle.
But he found no help there. On seeing his son’s hideous appearance, the king cursed him. Furthermore, on hearing of the rainwater which might have healed him had the prince not kept it for himself, the king had his son stripped of his crown and purple linens before casting him out.
Disowned and disfigured, the former prince sat among the beggars outside the castle gates. When the people saw him there, they overpowered him, dug their fingers into his flesh, and ripped the gold from his face and hands. No matter how much gold they tore out, it always grew back and the pain of the tearing and regrowth was unbearable. So the once rich and powerful prince fled the town and wandered seven years alone in the wilderness, filling his belly with the grass of the field and quenching his thirst with the dew of heaven.
One day, seeking refuge, he returned to the mustard tree. Although it had fallen, its leaves and branches had continued to flourish, producing thousands of seeds and giving shelter to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. There he found the boy’s white cow, which he had let loose to starve in the wilderness, now grown fat off the leaves of the mustard tree. Longing to fill his aching belly, the former prince tried to milk the cow, but could not close his hands around her teats. So he tried to suckle from the cow like a newborn babe, but the shards protruding from his face cut the cow’s teat and she ran away.
Humiliated, he wept and cried out to the heavens, asking that he might die.
In reply, he heard echoing through the clouds a joyous and full-hearted laughter. Listening, he recognized the voice of the peasant boy, Jimmy, joined by a second voice which must be his mother’s. He called out, asking them to remember his kindness to them and send help.
The clouds parted and his old governess appeared to him as a shining giantess.
“They cannot hear you,” her voice thundered. “They are at home in my halls now, where they enjoy every happiness and comfort.”
“Have mercy, my lady,” pleaded the former prince, “for I am in anguish. Let Jimmy draw a cup of the virgin rainwater and lower it down to me, that I might drink and be healed.”
“The distance is too great,” she called down. “He has no rope nor anything else long enough to reach you and you have cut down the mustard tree, the only bridge between here and there. But even if you drank of the virgin rainwater, it would not grant you the relief you seek, for rain makes grow only that which already dwells in the soil and a seed can only sprout what it already contains. Within the boy’s mother there had survived a measure of youth and beauty, so that one drop of the water caused that youth and beauty to grow and fill her whole being until there remained no room for the roots of sickness. But the soil of your heart has gone bad, for you have spent your days cultivating nothing but greed and selfishness.”
“If you will not help me, then help my father, who will surely regain his health now that I am longer there to dose his meals with poison. I beg you, send the boy to warn him against the folly of greed and arrogance.”
“I tell the truth, if he will not learn from your example, then he will not listen even if a voice speaks to him from the heavens.”
Then, the shiny lady vanished among the clouds and spoke to him no more.
Ryan Shane Lopez is an English teacher with an MFA in fiction from Texas State University. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, including Hypnopomp, Deep Overstock, Porter House Review, Lunate, Fudoki, Patheos, Bodega, and The Bookends Review. He lives in Texas with his wife, Hannah, and their two daughters.