Jack was no ordinary 12-year-old boy.
In fact, his life was about to change forever.
Having feasted on fairy tales as a small child, he had learned to be wary of wolves, step- parents, and old women living in edible cottages. And most of all, he lived by the rule to always listen to your parents’ advice unless they suggest carting you off to the woods in the middle of the night.
But sadly, like many of the children from those classic stories, Jack found himself living in squalor and dreaming of a life beyond his tiny cottage in a poor village. A son of a cobbler and his wife, a part-time seamstress, the boy spent many an evening by candlelight reading to become a better scholar. Thankfully, Ipads and x-boxes had yet to be invented.
While his mother sewed by the fire, and his father tapped away at a boot sole, Jack read lessons on grammar, writing and arithmetic. Books were very expensive, but Jack decided he could offer his services to the businesses in town to earn a little pocket money to help his family, and with a little squirreled away, buy books for himself. Night after night, after a measly dinner that barely satisfied his worms, Jack would start his evening going over his school work before settling his nose into his books.
One night, shortly before bedtime, Jack’s concentration was broken by his father.
“Why waste money on books, son? Our bellies rumble most nights and you throw money away on dead trees.”
“But Father, I hope to one day to get an education and a good job.”
“You’ll get further if you leave school and find some work, then climb the ladder.”
Jack’s mind flashed to the story about his namesake and the beanstalk ladder he’d climbed to reach the giant’s riches. If only such treasures or easy paths existed. He could bring home a fanciful gold-laying hen or a singing harp. He could help his family and never have to work again. Maybe Father was right. He should find a job and save his money. After all, money doesn’t grow on trees.
Early next morning, as the sun leapt out of bed, Jack got dressed and set off with his sturdy shoes, not bare-footed, thanks to having a cobbler for a father. He traipsed down the main road of his town, starting with the row of shops, and knocked on the first door, the butchers.
“Good morning, young Jack. What brings you here?”
“Please, Mr Smithers, I need some work to help care for my family. I’ve left school and need money to save for my future.”
“Well now, lad, I do have sausage skins to fill on a daily basis, and I loathe that job. If you come by each morning at seven o’clock, you can have seven dollars an hour. It should take you about two hours a day to make up me sausages.”
“Thank you, Mr Smithers.”
“Be seeing you tomorrow, lad.” Mr Smithers’s face beamed. If ever there were a nice kid, Jack was it. Always polite and hard-working.
Next morning, Jack’s mother, who’d heard the fateful story of a cow being traded for a handful of beans, asked Jack to take Daisy, their Jersey cow, to market to fetch money. “Don’t, whatever you do, invest in magic beans, or there will be hell to pay.” She made a fist.
“Yes, mother, I am not that silly.”
“…And don’t pay any attention to strange little old men, neither.” “Does that include my father, mother?”
Needless to say, Jack copped a thick ear for that one. Jack wasn’t sure, but as he set off with Daisy in tow, he could swear he heard the old cow snicker behind him. The cow, that is, not his mother.
As Jack made his way up the road, he said, “You know, Daisy, there are different workers in the world. There are those who earn their living using their brawn, and those who use their brains. I’d like to think I have the smarts to get me a job using my brain.”
“If you had a brain, boy, you’d turn my milk into butter and sell it for profit. Use that money to invest in more cows.”
“You’re a talking cow?” “You’re really bright, son.”
“What would a cow know about investments? Besides, my mother has insisted I sell you. But don’t worry, I’m not going to be swayed by any strange little man selling magic beans, no sirree. I have brains.”
As the pair made their way into town, a strange little man happened to saunter towards them, carrying a sack on his shoulder. Immediately Jack veered closer to the road’s edge and begun chanting, “No magic beans, no magic beans…”
“Hello there, sonny,” the strange little man said. “That’s a mighty fine cow you have there. And before you think me a stranger with a pocketful of beans, let me tell you, I don’t have a bean to my name.” The stranger laughed as he turned out his empty pockets.
Jack sighed, relieved he’d not have to part with Daisy for a fist full of beans. “It’s not funny to be penniless, mister. You need to save for a rainy day, you know. Like this cow here, if you were smart like me, you’d take milk from her and turn it in to butter to sell.”
“That’s a great idea, how about I trade you these magic cardboard letters for your cow?” The old man rummaged in his sack and produced a handful of brightly-coloured letters and laid them on the ground. There were the letters T U C N A N O C T A.
“They sure are pretty. What do they do?” Jack asked, unknowingly that the cow behind him rolled her eyes.
“Well, son, they will help you seek your fortune. These magic letters will spell out the vocation you should choose.”
Daisy sniffed at the letters before her and whispered to Jack. “Warning, a fool and his money is easily parted.”
“Ha,” Jack said to the stranger, you think I am easily tricked out of my money-making beast here?”
“Oh no, son, you have a little investment there, but let me tell you, it’s not the big fortune I see for you in these letters…but if you want to settle for a small nest egg for the future–”
“Are you a wealth advisor?”
“You could say I am like a fairy Godmother.”
Daisy again leaned close to Jack’s ear. “Don’t listen to him; he’s really a professional bean counter.”
Without thinking, Jack asked Daisy, “Do they make a lot of money? Oh silly me, talking to a cow, what would you know.”
Daisy stamped her feet. “Jack, this man’s letters are a deal of a lifetime. If you don’t take them to discover your vocation of fortune, then I will.”
Not to be outdone by a beast with big saggy udders, Jack seized the cardboard letters from the ground and said to the man, “Take the silly old cow, she talks too much anyway.”
Jack rushed home with his load lightened and a bunch of magic cardboard letters. As he walked up the path, Jack’s mother brimmed with excitement.
“Son, you have managed to sell Daisy so quickly, we shall have enough money for food for the next month. How much did you fetch?”
“Mother,” Jack said. “Do you not know that it is not good to put all of one’s eggs into one basket. It is better to diversify.”
Mother obviously did not understand a word Jack said and she whacked him one. “Don’t tell me you sold her for some beans to some strange little man.”
“Mother, I am far more intelligent than that thieving brat from the fairy tale stories. I met a bean counter along the way and traded Daisy for these magic letters that will spell out the vocation that I need to follow for a sound financial future. We’re going to be rich!”
Mother peered at the colourful array in my hand. Her brow lifted, her eyes widened and tenderly she said, “That’s nice, dear. We always knew that you would be the brains of the family.”
Actually, no. That’s not what happened.
In an instant, Jack’s mother flew into a rage, wilder than any wicked queen he’d read about and she tossed his prized possession out of his hands and the letters fluttered to the ground.
“Jack,” she screamed, “You leave this house this instance. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Goodbye.” And she went inside and slammed the door. Minutes later a suitcase sailed out onto the path.
Boy was the old chook mad this time.
Jack blinked a few tears. How could his mother be so cruel? So oblivious to the wise investment he had made? He turned to retrieve his letters from the ground and there, before him, in bold colours, his vocation spelt out for all the world to see.
A combination of confusion and elation swept his ever-expanding mind. Jack stared back at his home, no longer welcome. But he knew, they’d all be sorry that he made his fortune from his new vocation as per the magical arrangement of the letters that the bean counter had given him.
But that is not the end of the story.
It wasn’t all roses for Jack who struggled for a few years in his new vocation, and a second job making sausages. The local townspeople who remembered the story of his namesake and how quickly they went from rags to riches, mocked him for his penniless existence.
One day, Daisy’s travelling dairy factory, with a few cows in tow, rolled into town and set up on the corner with a queue waiting to buy her fresh-made butter, and the strange little man, nowhere in sight. The herd all sported diamond collars and fancy straw hats. Jack heard her familiar voice, giving financial advice to one of the customers.
Jack stared, gob-smacked, as townspeople took her advice, and a fresh pat of butter in exchange for a bunch of notes tucked into a saddle bag on her rump.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Jack said through gritted teeth. “Of all the years I’ve wasted trying to train this stupid bird to earn me some money, all the bites that it’s given me, the lack of people that come to see it perform, and that cow I traded for a bunch of letters has made it rich?”
As the last of the customers took their fresh produce away, Daisy glanced up at Jack and winked. She sauntered over to his little shop.
“What happened to your owner, the strange little man?” he said.
“Oh, I traded him for some magic beans.” Daisy glanced up at the familiar cardboard letters that Jack had blue tacked to the wall of his shop. “I see the magic letters found you a vocation, Jack.”
She nudged the letters pinned to the wall with her warm muzzle. “TOUCAN ACT,” she said, and laughed. “How’s that working out for you? Bit of a bird-brained idea, isn’t it?”
“What’s so funny, you silly old cow?”
“Nothing, Jack, it’s just not the vocation I had envisioned in the letters when the bean counter showed them to us all those years ago.”
“Oh really, smart Alec, what did you think they’d spell?”
Daisy pressed her lips to the letters and rearranged their order on the wall. “There,” she said as she stepped back. “That’s the vocation I chose to do from the letters. I assumed you would have chosen the same, too.”
His ex-Jersey-turned entrepreneur about-faced and sashayed down the path. Jack glanced over his shoulder to read the new letter formation on the wall of his shop.
A CCOUNT ANT
“Hah,” he said out loud. Jack called after his old friend. “You dumb cow. You can’t spell for peanuts. And besides…where would I find an ant that can count anyway?”
By Romnii Dodds from Australia