The World Above
Confession: I never intended to go looking for adventure. One came looking for me anyhow. And not just any old adventure. A really, really big one. The kind of adventure that changes your life. It certainly changed mine. Though, for the record, it was all Jack’s fault.
Most things are.
Don’t get me wrong. Jack is my brother, my twin, in fact, and I love him with all my heart. But if ever there was a magnet for adventure, or rather, mis
adventure, Jack would be it. All during our childhood, he was forever getting into what our mother called “scrapes,” most likely because a lot of scrapes (and also scratches) were actually involved.
Jack is my fraternal twin, not my identical twin, by the way. I’m a girl, not a boy. And before you leap to any conclusions, my name is not Jackie. It’s Gen, short for Gentian, a wildflower that grows on the hills
near the farm that is our home. Mama says she named me this because the gentian blossom is the exact same color blue as my eyes. Also the color of Jack’s. Our hair, as long as I’m taking a moment to provide some physical description, is blond.
But here a difference arises. Jack’s hair is a color that can only be described as golden. You know, like the sun. Mine is more like clover honey, a little darker and more serious. Just like the rest of me, my hair calls a little bit less attention to itself than Jack’s does.
And this external feature, so easy to dismiss, actually reveals quite a lot about us. It provides a glimpse of who we are inside. Jack is the dreamer. I’m the planner. Jack is happiest when he’s the center of attention. Me, I much prefer to stay in the background.
Which actually leads me back to where I started. Adventure. My having to go on one.
I began by climbing up a beanstalk.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the story. Or at least you think you are. “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
That’s what our tale is usually called. But there’s a problem with that title. Actually, there’s more than one. Whose name do you see there? Just Jack’s. It doesn’t mention me at all.
Not only that, it gives the impression there was only one beanstalk involved, when in fact there were many.
I’m thinking it’s time to set the record straight. To share the true story. Not because I want to be the center
of attention, but because the longer version of the tale is actually a whole lot more interesting than the shorter one.
My family, which consisted of Jack, our mother, and me, lived on a small farm. In good times we grew enough to feed ourselves and have some left to sell on market days in the nearest town. But we had not had a good year for several years running. The truth is that we were poor. So poor that one day we made a bitter decision: We had no choice but to sell our cow.
The cow’s name was Agapanthus, something else most versions of our story leave out. And this is a shame, as Agapanthus is a pretty great name, as names for cows go. It’s also a blue flower, just in case you were wondering. Agapanthus produced the sweetest milk for miles around. This made selling the cow herself a pretty good plan, even if none of us cared for it much. Jack cared for it least of all.
“But I don’t want to sell her,” he said. He, Mama, and I were standing in the barn. It had once contained several cows and an old horse to help pull the plow. Now only Agapanthus was left.
“I don’t see why we have to,” Jack went on now.
“Because it’s the only option we have left,” I said as patiently as I could. We’d been going over the same ground for what felt like hours. “We have to be able to plant, Jack. It’s either that, or leave the farm. The money Agapanthus will bring should be enough to buy some clover seeds to help keep the fields healthy this winter, with enough left over to buy the seeds we
need in spring as well. Then, if the weather will just cooperate and the crops do well—”
“Now who’s being a dreamer?” Jack cut me off. “Neither of those things happened this year, not to mention last year, or the year before.”
“Which isn’t the same as saying they won’t next year,” I said, trying not to let my voice rise. “And if they do
, we’ll have enough to feed ourselves and take to market to sell besides, just like we used to. We might even earn enough money to buy Agapanthus back.”
“Not very likely,” Jack scoffed. He moved to throw an arm around the cow’s neck, as if to protect her. Agapanthus butted her head against his shoulder. “Only a fool would let her go.”
“Or someone desperate,” I answered steadily. “A person brave enough to face the fact that they’re out of options.”
Jack opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, our mother intervened. “My children,” she said. “Enough.”
Jack shut his mouth with a snap, but he still glared at me. As far as he was concerned, the decision to sell the cow was all my doing. Hence, my fault.
“I don’t like it any better than you do, Jack, but I think Gen is right,” our mother went on. “We have to sell the cow. We can’t afford to lose the farm. There is nowhere else for us to go.”
There was a moment’s silence while my mother’s words hung in the air like dust. We all knew she was right. But knowing a difficult truth inside your head
and hearing it spoken are two very different things.
“Then let me be the one to take her,” Jack said, speaking up first and thereby foiling the plan I was about to propose: I should be the one to take the cow to market. Of the three of us, I would be able to obtain the most money for her. I drove the hardest bargains.
But now that Jack had spoken, I knew what our mother would decide. Though our outlook and temperaments were very different, Jack and I didn’t actually argue all that often. Something about us being twins, I suppose. When we did disagree, however, our mother almost always took Jack’s side.
“Very well,” she said, agreeing to his proposal. “But be ready to take the cow to market first thing tomorrow morning.”
And so, early the next day, still scowling to show how much he disapproved, Jack set off with Agapanthus. I probably don’t have to tell you what happened next. Jack and the cow never made it to market. They didn’t even make it all the way to town. Because along the way, Jack encountered an old woman who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: seven beans with mysterious and magical properties in exchange for our cow.
It’s usually at this point that the storyteller pauses, allowing two things to happen: The storyteller gets to catch his or her breath, and the listeners have an opportunity to share their opinions about Jack’s decision.
The general consensus is that my brother was an
idiot. Quite literally, a bean-brain. And it is most certainly true that when Jack came home that afternoon and revealed what he had done, our mother wept. This cannot be denied.
Tears of rage. Tears of despair. That’s what most versions of our story tell you. But I’m here to tell you the truth. My mother’s tears were neither of those things. Instead they were tears of joy.
My mother recognized those beans. She had waited a long time for them. Sixteen years to be precise, as long as Jack and I had been alive. She knew those beans were magic. Why? Because my mother had once planted a bean just like them herself, to grow a beanstalk of her own, a beanstalk that had saved all our lives.
You know those bedtime stories your parents told you when you were little? The ones populated by fairies and dragons, by damsels in distress and knights in shining armor? I hope you’re sitting down. Because I’m here to tell you that they’re all true. They just didn’t happen in this world, the one where you and I were born and raised, the one my mother always called “the World Below.” They happened in the land of my mother’s birth, which should have been the land of Jack’s and mine. A land of countless possibilities, including the ones that only magic can provide. A land that hovers out of sight, floating just above the clouds.
A land called the World Above.
My mother told bedtime stories too, of all shapes,
sizes, and varieties. But the one she told most often was the tale of how and why the first magic bean was planted, how its beanstalk came to grow, and why it was cut down. The tale of how we’d stopped being sky dwellers and had become residents of the World Below.
It begins the way all good tales do. With Once upon a time . . .
The World Above
Once upon a time, a royal duke ruled over a small but prosperous kingdom. His name was Roland des Jardins. He was a wise and generous ruler, and his people flourished under his stewardship. There was only one cloud on the kingdom’s horizon. Duke Roland was childless.
His duchess had died in childbirth many years before. The infant had perished also. Heartbroken by these events, Duke Roland had never remarried. By the time this story came to pass, the duke was getting on in years, though he was still hale and hearty. Still, it was a problem that he had no son to carry on the family name, no daughter to be the apple of her father’s eye. You’ve probably heard enough stories like this to understand the reason why.
Without a child, girl or boy, the duke had no heir. No one to succeed him and rule when he was gone.
And when there’s no clear contender for a throne, the less than clear ones always, well, contend
. They compete and argue with one another. It’s part of what the word means, after all. And all this uncertainty, this contention
, meant that, although the duke’s kingdom was at peace with its neighbors, it bore within it the spark to be at war with itself.
Now, there resided in Roland des Jardins’ household a young nobleman named Guy de Trabant. Guy’s father, Horace de Trabant, had been Duke Roland’s closest childhood friend. He was also a duke, a ruler in his own right. His lands and those of Duke Roland bordered each other. It had been the two dukes’ fondest hope that one day they would have children who would grow up to marry, thereby uniting the two kingdoms. Sadly, this dream had not come true.
First Roland des Jardins’ wife died, and their infant child shortly thereafter. Then Horace de Trabant perished of the sweating sickness when his own son, Guy, was little more than a boy. As was the custom at that time, Duke Horace’s widow sent her son to live with his father’s friend, so that he might be raised in a duke’s household and learn how to govern.
Many years went by. Guy de Trabant flourished under Duke Roland’s care. He was everything a young nobleman should be. He was strong and handsome, brave in the face of his adversaries, generous to those less fortunate. He was, in fact, the old duke’s successor in all but name. No one doubted that Duke Roland would name Guy de Trabant his heir. The two kingdoms
would thereby be united, though admittedly not quite in the way that the two fathers had originally hoped.
Then something completely unexpected occurred. Roland des Jardins fell in love.
It happened at Guy de Trabant’s wedding. Among the guests was a young woman named Celine Marchand. She was of good but minor birth, her father being a somewhat impoverished nobleman whose estate lay near the border of the de Trabant lands. Under ordinary circumstances, she might never have come to Duke Roland’s attention at all. But the lady Celine was special. She had what they call “a way” about her. It didn’t hurt, of course, that she was absolutely lovely.
Her hair was as blond as corn silk, her eyes as blue as a summer sky. She had one dimple in her chin and one in each of her cheeks when she smiled, which she did often. Her lips were full and red as ripe strawberries. Nor was this all. Lady Celine was also well-spoken, intelligent, and kind. Duke Roland fell in love at first sight, and the wonder of it was that Celine loved the duke as well.
So bright and shining was the love between them that not even the most cynical courtiers whispered that Celine Marchand had used artful wiles to snare a powerful older man in order to better her position in the world. All it took was one look at the couple to see that they were meant for each other.
Duke Roland and Lady Celine were married three months after Guy de Trabant. Then Roland
des Jardins’ subjects held their collective breath, praying for nature to take its course. For it seemed impossible that, after waiting so long for a second chance at happiness, the fates would not grant Duke Roland a child.
There was one person, of course, who, in his heart, could not bring himself to wish the old duke joy. Naturally, that person was Guy de Trabant. For if the new duchess bore a child, Guy’s chance to become Duke Roland’s heir would be over and done with forever.
If I’m to remain true to the way my mother always told the tale, this is where I must pause. I must gaze into space, as she always did, as though I can actually see events unfolding before my eyes. When I do this, I am using my imagination. But when my mother did it, she was looking back onto the scenes from her own life.
When she spoke of Celine Marchand, my mother was talking about herself.
It was always Jack who broke the silence, who brought my mother back to the here and now.
“What happened then, Mama?” he would ask, even though, by the time Jack was old enough to do this, we both knew the story by heart.
“What happened next?” my mother always echoed, as she pulled her attention back to the World Below. Sometimes her eyes held the sheen of tears, though never once did Jack and I see them fall.
“Injustice,” my mother said. “That is what happened next, my son. Ingratitude begetting sorrow. I
feel the wrongness of what happened as clearly today as I did long ago.”
Desperate to obtain that which he had spent a lifetime believing would one day be his, Guy de Trabant had rallied the most contentious of Duke Roland’s nobles in an attempt to seize the duke’s crown. The battle for possession of the palace was brief but bloody. When it was over, the old duke lay dead, and the young man he had loved like a son was on his throne. But Guy de Trabant’s rule could not yet be considered secure, for though the castle was searched from top to bottom not once, not twice, but three times, the duchess was nowhere to be found.
As it happened, she was less than a day’s journey away. Duchess Celine had left early in the morning to visit her childhood nurse, an old wise woman named Rowan. The duchess had told no one but her husband of her plans. She had made the journey in the hope of confirming a suspicion that had recently taken root in her mind.
Duchess Celine believed she was with child.
By the time the duchess reached the wise woman’s cottage, long shadows had begun to fall. Rowan helped the duchess tend to her horse, and then the two women went inside the cottage. They shared the evening meal together, and afterward the duchess insisted on doing all the washing up. Then, at long last, the two sat down before a bright and cheery fire, for although the day had been fine, the nights were beginning to turn cold.
“So,” Rowan said after a few moments of contented silence. “How long have you known?”
At this the duchess gave a quick laugh. “I didn’t know
,” she confessed. “Not for sure. Not until just now. It’s why I came to see you. But I’ve suspected for almost a month.”
“Your news will bring great happiness,” Rowan said.
To which the duchess answered, “I hope so.”
“Did I mention that it’s twins?” the old wise woman asked. At which the duchess laughed once more.
“You know perfectly well you didn’t,” she replied. She rested a hand on her belly, as if she could already distinguish between the two children growing there. “Two,” she said, her face thoughtful. “I hope it’s one of each, a girl and a boy.”
“Have you told Duke Roland yet?” the wise woman asked.
Celine shook her head. “No. I wanted to wait until I had seen you. I didn’t want to raise false hopes.”
It was at precisely that moment that a gust of wind blew down the chimney, sending out a shower of sparks. Startled, the two women leaped to their feet to stamp them out. But even when the sparks were extinguished, the wind was not. It prowled through the branches of the trees outside the house, making a noise that was a lament and warning all at once. The old wise woman cocked her head, as if the wind were speaking a language she could understand.
“What is it?” Celine asked, for the voice of the
wind was making her anxious. “What is wrong?”
“We must wait for the morning to know for sure, I think,” her old nurse said. But she moved to take Celine’s face between her hands and gazed into her eyes for a very long time. So long that the young woman began to tremble. For it seemed to her that, though her old nurse’s hands were warm, and though the fire still burned in the grate, the room had suddenly grown cold. A cold that was finding a way inside her, burrowing straight toward her heart.
“No,” she whispered. “No.”
“Let us wait and see,” the wise woman counseled. “By its very nature, wind is impetuous. Sometimes it exaggerates things or misunderstands.”
But by the morning, the voice of the wind was not alone. Word of what had happened in the palace began to spread through the countryside, told by the hushed and fearful voices of Duke Roland’s former subjects. In this way, the duchess learned that her worst fears had been realized. Her husband was dead. She herself was in great danger. Her unborn children were Duke Roland’s true heirs. They must be protected at all costs.
“Ah, Roland! I should have told you,” Celine whispered, as the tears streamed down her cheeks. “I wish I had. At least then you could have died with this joy in your heart.”
“His heart was full of joy already,” Rowan said. “For he loved you well.”
“As I loved him,” Celine replied.
At this the old woman gave a brisk nod. “Even so. Dry your eyes. You must not pour this love away in grief. You will need it to sustain you in what is to come. There is only one place where you and your children will be safe. You know that, don’t you?”
Celine took the deepest breath of her life. She could feel it expanding her lungs, then streaming throughout her body, all the way down to the tips of her fingers and toes. She let it out and did a very unduchess-like thing. She wiped the sleeve of her dress across her face to dry her eyes. She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin.
“I know what must be done,” Duchess Celine said. “Show me how to reach the World Below.”