Once upon a time there lived a smart but lonely woman named Wrenhilde who had had five husbands (but only one of them was her own) and was a single mother. Because she was seldom unwilling to speak her mind in public, she was either unliked or envied by the respectable women of the town, who were ordered by her husbands to avoid her company. So Wrenhilde did what she could to earn a pittance to pay the rent. She also grew as much of her food as she could. As she worked (or didn’t work), she sang to herself:
Bitter is my cup,
My life’s not worth a shtup,
I believe I need a new world—
I’ll have to make one up.
Well, with that kind of song and the attitude it betrayed, no one was surprised that her son Jack was a dropout by the time he was fifteen. Jack lazed around, acted stupid, stood up to the rich boys who tried to bully him, and secretly wished he had a pet for company. One of his chores at home was to milk the cow. This was the only thing he never neglected because the cow was big and white and warm and affectionate. She practically purred while she was being milked!
But as the huge greedy men with the huge fortunes swept up every profit they could as they paid their employees far too little to live on and at the same time waged profitable wars on strangers, life got poorer and darker. Wealth did not trickle down in that land. What trickled down were discontent, misplaced greed, and both misogyny and misanthropy. Nobody was kind to anybody.
So (OK—you know how it goes, let’s get this part of the story out of the way as fast as we can) life fell to the point where Wrenhilde told Jack they had to sell the cow, on the way to the market, Jack met a mysterious stranger wearing a frock coat and a peddler’s pack. “Whaddaya want for your cow?” the stranger asked, and Jack said, “At least five gold coins,” and the stranger said, “Tell ya what, kid, I’ll give ya five magic beans, plant ’em and watch what happens,” and of course Jack made the trade, and when he got home with nought but five beans, his mother lost her temper and threw him and the beans out the door, one of the beans landed in Wrenhilde’s poor little compost heap and sprouted and grew and grew and grew, and soon it reached the clouds, and Jack, always looking for an excuse to get outta there, climbed on up.
Wrenhilde didn’t even notice he was gone until the day of the winter solstice, when she heard a voice coming down from the sky. She went outside and looked up. There was Jack, sliding down the beanstalk. He was carrying a fat goose that, strangely, was sitting comfortably under his arm.
“Hey, Ma! Looky here!” Jack jumped off the beanstalk, set the goose down, and pulled something out of his pocket. Yes, it was a golden egg. “And, Ma, it’s gold all the way through,” he said. “Up there,” he pointed to where the beanstalk disappeared in the clouds, “up there, they gotta lotta these geese wot lay these golden eggs. Folks slice layers off’n these eggs and use the slices a gold for money. You gotta come up there, Ma. It’s a nice place. Lots nicer’n this dump.”
“Jack, did you steal that goose? I’ve told you and told you….”
“Ma, I dint steal nothin’. They gave it to me. Ma, there’s giants in the sky! Big, tall giants! You gotta see ’em. C’mon. Climb up there with me. C’mon, Ma.”
What did she have to lose? It was cold and she had no wood for her fire. It was a feast day and she had no food for her table. If there was a food chain in that society, she was at the very bottom, and poverty was chewing her up and spitting her out. She closed the door of her hovel, stumbled through the snow to the beanstalk, and reached up. Jack gave her a push from below and told her how to grab the branches and haul herself up. “But don’t look down,” he said. “It gets real scary when ya gets that high.”
And there were giants in the sky. Not big, bad, awful, scary giants, but very tall, very good-looking, very pleasant giant people. The first giant Wrenhilde met was Mrs. Giant, who was obviously waiting for her. Mrs. Giant, who was about twice Wrenhilde’s size, immediately took her to her giant home, which was a beautiful Arts & Crafts bungalow set near the center of the giant town filled with giant bungalows and other buildings, including some manufacturies. Mrs. Giant and her husband, Mr. Giant, were tall and well formed, with skin that glowed and flowing red-gold hair. They had large eyes and ears (“the better to see and hear you with, my dear”) and smallish mouths (“not so much talking, my dear”). They welcomed Wrenhilde, gave her a bedroom of her own, showed her to the bathhouse, and set out a supper, to which they invited all the neighboring giants. Wrenhilde met the rest of the family, including Sister Giant, who was beautiful beyond words and wore a magical necklace that enchanted (in a nice way) everyone who looked upon it, and Cousin Giant, a golden man who played a golden harp that sometimes sounded like an entire symphony orchestra as it rang out song cycles, serenades, concerti, and the occasional opera. She also met a distant cousin, a shape-shifter wearing a frock coat, a sneaky fellow whose practical jokes were seldom humorous. (Well, nothing is perfect, eh?)
Wrenhilde was almost speechless. “I coulda never imagined…,” she began, but every time she said this, a member of the Giant Family remarked that everyone “down there” lacked sufficient imagination to create a world of kindness and pleasure “like we have up here in the clouds.” She already felt very comfortable with Mr. Giant, who must have been a craftsman because he carried an iron hammer everywhere he went, and Mrs. Giant, who carried her distaff and spindle and yarn everywhere.
On the twelfth night of her visit, Wrenhilde was taken to visit the priestess of Great Mother Earth, who now lived up among the giants. “Great Mother Earth was so disrespected,” the priestess explained, “that She was forced to leave home. She was persecuted. All Her people were persecuted, too. It was either convert to one of the new religions or be put to death. So She created a star that people could wish upon and moved up here with the kind Giants. She’d like to go home, but the magicians down there—men who call themselves priests and preachers and imams—are just panting to banish Her again. They’d turn Her into a friendless old woman with no place to live but a hovel in the forest. And they’d tax her hovel!”
“Just like me,” said Wrenhilde. “Madame Priestess, I’m mighty happy to meet you. Can you girls use a good, honest cleaning woman and cook?”
And so Wrenhilde found employment and settled in the Giant Land at the Top of the Beanstalk. When they asked her what she wanted more than anything else, she gave the request some thought. “First,” she said, “I want to learn. Learn as much as I can. I could never go to school down there. And second? We’re starting a new year, so I’d like some specially magic beans to plant down there so they’ll sprout, but not into more beanstalks like the one that brought me up here but into…into…well, thingies that send out waves or whatever to infect the people with good. With kindness. With fairness and empathy.”
Mr. and Mrs. Giant nodded together, then conferred with the members of the Giant Community, and three weeks later, when it was time to light the sacred candles again, they called Wrenhilde back into their giant hall.
“Honorable Little Person,” they said, “we’ll do everything in our power to help you. Here are thirteen magic beans that you may plant down below. As you plant each one, utter the magic word over it. Something will grow.”
So Wrenhilde took the magic beans and descended and spent six weeks wandering around the world. She planted beans on every continent and over each one she pronounced the magic word: ONCEUPONATIME. Y’all watch…something is growing!
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.