The Defiant Little Giant

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The Defiant Little GiantThe bear bore down on a wide-eyed little girl who swept a cloak of feathers over her shoulder and seemed to vanish.  She didn’t really vanish.  The little girl, whose named was Turtle, had transformed into a little blue bird that darted out from under the massive girth of the lunging beast.  She swooped around and flapped and rose up into the air.  On one side, the bird saw the silver harper playing her enchanted harp, trying to sooth the savage bear.  On the other side was the giant, wider than three strong men, taller than a cornstalk.  He wasn’t always so.  He wasn’t always a giant.  He was once a scrawny young man.  The harper was once a traveling songstress.  The bird-girl was once just a girl.  All three were as they were now because of some magic beans.  

“It’s not working!” the harper, Renny, cried out.

The giant gave an uncharacteristic roar as he launched himself toward the bear before it could attack Renny.  They collided.  And the force of their fall knocked the harper to the ground.  That bear too was no ordinary bear.  It was almost as big as Cob, the giant.  And there was something strange and unnatural about that bear to Turtle’s eyes, though she could not clearly see what.  They were struggling and rolling and roaring, giant and bear.  And Turtle was swooping and landing and hopping.

Cob rose to his feet and wrapped his arms around the bear.  Turtle was afraid that the giant would kill the bear, which would surely make Cob feel regretful afterwards.  But she was more afraid that the giant wouldn’t, or couldn’t, kill the bear.  Because as mad as that beast was, if it broke free again, it might mean the end of them all.  But a strange thing happened.  The bear seemed to split apart from the middle and to suddenly shrink.  It slipped out of Cob’s grasp and rolled away.  Cob stumbled and fell to one knee.  Before he could rise, the creature—Turtle saw it was a man now—staggered away for a few steps and collapsed.

Not daring to shed her bird form just yet, Turtle fluttered over to Cob and landed on his shoulder.  Renny approached the figure on the ground.   He had landed face down and she rolled him over and placed a hand on his heart.  The crease in her brow told Turtle that there was no healing to be done for the harper.  The man was dead.

“Oh no,” Cob said as he looked down at the man.

And Turtle saw why.  She recognized him.  And she recognized the bear-skin shirt he was wearing.

Turtle and Cob had met the man in the bear-skin shirt on the mountain that served as their home.  Turtle had seen the man climbing the mountain.  Many did, though not as high as the clouds.  The mountains were treacherous, which is part of the reason Cob had chosen to settle there.  Turtle had never climbed them herself, even before one of her feet had been bitten off and replaced with a silver foot during a past adventure.  Cob had always carried her up when she was just a girl.  Now that she was a bird-girl, she merely flew up and down.

They had been suspicious of the man, of course, but they did not own the mountain and could not forbid anyone from climbing it or using its paths to reach the realms and regions beyond.  So Turtle had watched and reported back to her friends.  The man made camp and stayed for a week.  And one day, drawn by concern and also by the irresistible aroma of hearty food cooking on a campfire, Turtle and Cob both went to pay the man a cautious visit.

He had been, as expected, most put out by the sight of a giant.  And only somewhat comforted by the sight of a little girl beside the giant.  After he had settled down, he welcomed them to his fire.  He gave them his name.  Arrick.  A pilgrim on some holy journey.  He had asked them if he could stay for just a few days and share the mountain with them.  He would even stay below them so that they could keep an eye on him, but he could not see them past their protection of cloud cover.  He had a bubbling cauldron full of the most delicious smelling stew.  Turtle had three helpings.  He also had a bottle of some intoxicating drink, which he insisted that Cob partake.  Despite Turtle’s begging, she was not allowed a taste.  The man had laughed at her displeasure and promised that if he came by their way again sometime in the coming year, she would be old enough for him to give her just a sip and no more.

Turtle remembered now how the man had watched Cob.  She had been glad that someone was marveling at her friend rather than simply running from him or cowering before him.  Cob rarely went down the mountain and when he did, he tried to be quiet and he tried to stay out of sight.  But he’d been seen a time or two.  He was a giant after all.

The only people who were truly at ease with Cob were his friends, Turtle and Renny.  (They shared their home with a golden goose and a red rooster, but Cob did not count those two as “people.”)

Turtle saw it was a pleasure and a relief for Cob to have another friend, and one who was just a common man as Cob himself had once been.  The giant had already been regretting that the man in the bear-skin shirt would be moving on soon.  Turtle came out of her reminiscence.  She thought of how much deeper and darker the giant’s regrets would be now that he had discovered that the man had betrayed him.

Turtle hopped down from Cob’s shoulder.  She shrugged off her cloak of feathers and became a girl again, glaring down at the body of the man.

“There are no wounds,” Renny said.  She looked up at Cob.  “Save for a bump or scratch here and there.  You didn’t kill him.”

Arrick’s skin was red as if he were suffering the heat of a summer day though it was the middle of a particularly chilly fall.

Turtle crossed her arms and coldly studied the man’s still form.  “Why did he attack us?”

“The treasure,” Cob said.  “Everyone has heard of the mountain giant and the treasures he keeps by now.”  He rose.  “This is bound to happen more and more.”  He gave such a deep sigh that Turtle interrupted her anger to feel a well of sadness for her friend.

“This bear-skin shirt,” Renny said, lifting the shirt away from the man.  “Is this the man you two have been talking about?  The wayfarer who made such good stew and had such good liquor?”  Renny had never visited the man’s camp.

He had never worn that shirt the few times that Turtle had seen him.  She  shifted a hand back and touched her cloak of feathers.

“Is that like my cloak?” Turtle asked.  “Did it change him into that bear?”

“Of course,” Renny said.  “This man is big and strong, but no match for a giant as he is.  He might have used the shirt to transform into a creature that is strong enough.  And just as you retain your human mind when you become a bird, he might have had the advantage of retaining his human mind in his bear form.”

“So what happened?”  Turtle scratched her chin.  “Why did he change back?  How did he die?”

***

Turtle and Cob found Arrick’s camp, a bedroll and a package of meager belongings.  Curiously, a fire was still burning, as if Arrick had left suddenly.  Whatever was in the cauldron did not smell enticing.  It smelled of the medicinal fumes that Turtle smelled whenever she passed the apothecary shop down in the town, bitter and herby.

Cob bent over the cauldron.

Turtle held out a hand.  “We should stay away from that.”

Cob’s gaze rolled toward her.  “It might be poison.  And it might be too late.”  He straightened.  “I’ve already drunk some of this.  With him, last evening.”

“He drank some too?”

Cob nodded.

And now Arrick was dead.  So had they both been poisoned?  Or did Arrick drink poison on purpose to lull Cob into trusting him?  But who would pay a price as high as death just to kill a giant?

There were too many questions.  Turtle knew what to do with that potion.  She found more vials of things that looked, again, like things found in an apothecary’s shop.  She took those vials as well.  She would take them to the apothecary in town and have him study the vials and tell her what Arrick had been cooking up.

She found a parchment and was unrolling it when Cob gave the strangest, most alarming cry of pain that Turtle had ever heard him utter.  He doubled over and clutched at his stomach.  And before she could run to him, he tumbled over.  Turtle froze and grabbed her cloak.  Arrick’s camp was on a landing that jutted a bit from the mountain.  She waited and watched the ground, fearful it would crack and send Cob tumbling down the mountain.  But nothing happened.

Cob cried out again.  Turtle covered her ears.  His cries were so loud and deep it was like listening to the raging winds in a thunderstorm.  He began to wretch.   And now Turtle was afraid he was dying, though she quickly pushed aside that thought and swept her cloak about her.  She had to fly up and get Renny.  The harper’s song, the harper’s harp would heal Cob.

She leapt up into the air and glanced back just in time to watch Cob wretch and spew out from his mouth something that looked like a green bean the size of her hand.

***

Renny sang and played as Cob rested.  They were still in Arrick’s camp.  Cob was lying down on the ground, Arrick’s meager bedding serving as a pillow.  He complained of a clenching pain in his stomach but nothing more.  He did not turn red and he did not stop breathing.  Either Renny’s healing was working, or Cob’s giant body had resisted the poison, or he had not been poisoned after all.

Turtle glanced over to her friends now and then, but with Cob no longer crying out in agony, she felt more at ease in searching through Arrick’s belongings and she kept the green bean beside herself.  The first thought  that came to her was that the bean might be the one that Cob had ingested over a year past, the bean that had turned him from boy to giant.  She had opened that parchment she’d been starting to unroll when Cob suffered his…stomach problem.

She had seen the parchment’s like before but never thought she’d see the face of someone like Cob on it.  It was a notice.  A notice of a bounty for the head of a giant whose likeness was represented above the writing.  It looked nothing like Cob.   The face on the notice was mean and ugly.  It had an excessive amount of pocks and warts on its face.   Cob was young.  His face was as smooth and pock-less as Turtle’s.  She would wait till he recovered to show Cob the bounty notice.  It explained why Arrick was in the mountains and why he had attacked them.  But it did not explain who set the bounty—the notice did not state it.  Nor did it explain how Arrick came across the bear-skin shirt.  Or what treachery he meant when he plied Cob with mysterious drinks.

***

“It’s not poison,” the apothecary’s apprentice said.  He was almost as clever as his master by most measures of their trade.  And by some measures, even more clever.  “Where did you get this?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you I found it in some abandoned camp in the woods, would you?”  Turtle smiled brightly.

The apprentice shook his head.

“What is it then?”

“Some kind of enchanting potion, I’d wager.  But I’d have to study it.  It might be dangerous.”

Turtle took that last statement to mean that he would be needing more gold.  She began to reach into her bag.  But the apprentice halted her with a shake of his head.

“I only meant that it would be a challenge.  That it would take time while I set up the proper precautions.  It would be helpful if you had found any notebook or papers nearby.”

Turtle shook her head.  Besides the bounty notice and a map of the region, she had found no other writings.  She had thought that was curious.  Even if Arrick had himself been a skilled apothecary, he would have needed notes and surely sigils and the like to make his concoction, whatever it was.  It was small comfort to know it wasn’t poison.  For now, Turtle had no idea what last malice their so-called friend had inflicted on Cob.

As to who set the bounty, Turtle could guess it might be a general decree.  A giant in the region was not good for business.  The notice was for a “kill or capture.”  And she wondered if Arrick’s intention had been to capture Cob.  A giant loose in the forest was a danger.  But a giant in a cage was an attraction.

***

“You’re getting taller,” Cob said from his bed.

Turtle threw a dinner roll at him, thinking it was a weak jest.   Even lying down on the ground, he was somewhat taller than she was.  Cob had managed to climb back up to the house, but he’d been so weakened by the climb that he’d had to stay in bed for the rest of the day.

“No, I mean it.  You might even surpass Renny some day soon.”  Cob rubbed his cheek where the dinner roll had hit him after he failed to catch it.

“Maybe you’re just getting shorter,” Turtle said, bringing him a tray of soup.

The very next day, she remembered those words.  And regretted them.

***

“You’re smaller, Cob.  It’s the truth.”  Turtle turned to Renny.  “Tell him.”

Renny stepped forward.  She examined Cob as he examined himself.  He hadn’t slept well, he’d said.  He’d felt a terrible itch over all his body.  He’d wanted nothing more than to dip himself in a bath of cool water, but he’d tossed and turned instead.

He was standing before them now, still taller than a cornstalk.  But his shirt sleeves hung past his hands, even though they were rolled up.  The seams that should have stopped at his shoulder slipped down his arm.

Renny cleared her throat.  “You said you itched all night?  Did you ever feel that way when you were growing into a giant?”

Turtle snapped her fingers.  “Of course!”  She opened the chest of drawers where Cob kept his underthings, even as he objected, and reached for the wooden box where she had put the green bean.  “I had a feeling it wasn’t a coincidence, even though you’ve eaten plenty of beans since then.  This is it!  This is the magic bean you ate that turned you into a giant.”  She turned back around, triumphantly presenting the bean.

She expected wide eyes at her discovery.  A smile of relief perhaps.  But Cob merely blinked.

“You knew?”

“I hoped.”  He smiled.  He raised his hands and looked at them.

“The beans are powerful magic,” Renny said, gazing at the green bean.  “That potion must have been even more powerful to have ejected it.”

Turtle knew what Cob was thinking, what he was desperately hoping.  He had never wanted to be a giant.  And she was loathe to crush his hopes, but she had to.  “Why would Arrick turn into a bear and try to kill you if he knew that potion would just turn you back into a man?”

Cob shook his head.  “Maybe because he thought the potion didn’t work.  Maybe it was his intention only to get rid of the giant not to kill.  A giant isn’t a giant anymore if he shrinks to normal size.  He was impatient.  That’s all.”

Renny shook her head.  “I must agree with Turtle, love.  We cannot assume the best.  And the man is dead by mysterious means, maybe an accident.  Maybe the exertion of his bear form.  Maybe he accidentally poisoned himself while trying to poison you.”

Cob frowned.  “But he didn’t poison me.”

“Giants are difficult to poison.  He may have been trying to do away with you with every one of those so-called ‘liquors’ he served you.  Or they may all have been spells he was trying on you.  Transformations.  Sleeping potions.  Say that none of the first ones worked.  So he tried another.  And this last one, whatever it was meant to do, seems to have worked.  But he grew impatient and attacked you.  That bear-skin shirt may have been his last resort.”

“And maybe it was his last resort, because he knew using it would kill him!” Turtle said, her own eyes as wide as she thought Cob’s would be at the revelation of the bean.

“Say you’re both right,” Cob said.  “Maybe Arrick’s spell backfired on him.  Maybe he meant me harm with this potion, but ended up doing me good.  Maybe freeing me of the bean, of being a giant, was not his intention, but an accident.  Not all accidents are for the worse.”

Turtle offered up the bean again.  “You have to eat it.”

“The bean will still be there tomorrow.  I want to see what happens.”

***

“A shrinking spell?”  The apothecary’s apprentice pulled up his robes and dropped down on a stool.  He and Turtle were standing in the back room of the shop.  The apprentice was having a meat pie for his lunch.  “What makes you think of that?”

Turtle said nothing.

“Have you—“  The apprentice looked her up and down.  “Has someone you know taken this potion?”

Again, Turtle said nothing.

“Bring them to me.  Maybe I can find out more.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Then I’m happy to go to them.”

Turtle pursed her lips.

The apprentice chuckled knowingly.  “It’s your reclusive master, isn’t it?”  He sighed.  “The rich always get tangled in some such troubles.  Well, if it were a shrinking spell, then you would have troubles.  Shrinking spells, even in a stable form such as a potion, are unpredictable.  They might stop working all of a sudden.  They might keep going and going.”

“What do you mean keep going?”

“There is only so small anything can be before it ceases to be what it is.”

It sounded like the type of infuriating riddle a wise old man would spout.  But it actually did make sense to Turtle.

“Can the effects be reversed?”

“Oh, don’t worry.  It’s likely not a shrinking spell.”

“Why not?”

“The ingredients are so rare that it’s near-impossible to make one.”

“But not impossible?”

“Turtle, to make such a spell, one would need an unexpected ingredient so rare that I’m unsure whether any still exist.  To make things small requires something that can make things big.  Just as a spell to make things big requires an ingredient that makes things small.  In ancient times, there were all manner of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and herbs that could naturally do such things.  They were used in potions and spells.  But all such plants have since died out.  And anyway I parsed all the components of that potion you gave me.  It had no such ingredient.”

He gave her a smile of comfort, but Turtle’s heart had turned to ice.

To make things small requires something that can make things big.

***

“That would mean…Arrick knew about the bean.”

Cob was pacing in the garden.  Some parts of the fence were still broken.  Some of the vegetables still trampled from the bear-man’s attack.  Turtle noted the belt holding up Cob’s pants and the many turns of the sleeves that were needed to assure they did not drop past his wrist.  He seemed to be clomping about in his boots, as if they were a size too big.

Turtle tried to picture him standing beside a cornstalk.  He was still taller.  Just by a bit.

“The legend of the giant in the mountain is widespread,” Renny said.  “Some stories even speak of me and the golden goose.  But only a handful of people know about the beans.”

And someone must have told Arrick, told him that the last ingredient needed for his shrinking potion was inside Cob already.

“That bounty notice you found takes on new meaning,” Cob said.  “Though I don’t know what that meaning is.”

“You have no choice, unless you want to keep shrinking and leave us, and I would never forgive you for that,” Turtle said.  She had the green bean in her hand.  It was looking a bit grey though and had formed a few wrinkles.  “You have to eat this.”

“What if I spit it back out again?”

“What if you do?  We’ll try something else.  The apothecary’s apprentice said there was no way to reverse a shrinking spell’s effects unless one had a more powerful growing spell.  This is the best we have.”

Cob winced as he looked at the bean.

Turtle gasped as she realized something.  “Cob, don’t you see?  You can be like me now!  You can keep the power of the giant, the power to protect your friends and yourself.  And you can still be your skinny old self that you are now, if that’s what you want.”  Turtle held up the bean between her thumb and forefinger.  “I’ll boil it, like I did the blue one that I ate.  Then when you eat it you’ll change into a giant but you’ll still be able to change back into yourself.”

Now Turtle knew that each bean was different.  That each bean had different effects on different people and different animals.  That something done to one bean may not have the same effect on another.  As Cob had eaten a green magic bean, Turtle had eaten a blue magic bean.  But she had boiled the blue bean first.  And she was the only one of the bean-eaters who could reverse the change in herself.  Renny had eaten a silver bean and had turned silver.  She too could not show herself in town, unless she came pretending to be a lady painted as part of a play-acting show.  Cob had eaten a green bean, green for growth, and he had grown and grown.  They could not change back to their old selves as Turtle could.

Still, she hoped.  She hoped for her friend.  And she hoped for herself as well, for she still felt burdened with guilt that she could live in both worlds, the magical world where she resided with a giant, a silver lady, and other assorted friends, and the common world where she walked about in town with other folk not having to worry that she looked any different from anyone else.

Cob gave a sigh.  A sigh of resignation, Turtle saw with both guilt and relief.  “There’s no telling what will happen when I eat that thing,” he said, frowning as he looked at the bean.  “I must visit my mother first.  Just in case.”

***

Turtle didn’t much like Cob’s mother.  The woman had thrown her son out of the house when she realized he was growing—and not as a boy normally grows.  To be fair, she had been poor at the time.  And it was Cob’s fault that he had come home with five magic beans instead of the money-pence she had sent him to get at market for the sale of some sorry vegetables.  Still, one of those magic beans had made Cob’s mother rich.  Cob never told his mother about the golden goose that laid golden eggs.  Turtle herself delivered a golden egg, straight onto a dish that Cob’s mother put out on every new moon.

It was not so long a journey for a lithe little bird.  Nor for a hardy giant.  But Cob was growing smaller each day, not just shorter.  He seemed to be enjoying it.  He soon grew small enough that he looked his old self again.  Turtle had never seen him as anything but a giant.  He wasn’t scrawny.  He always spoke of being so, but if he had been so, he was no longer.  He strolled through one town with a smile beaming from his face.  Turtle noticed how the people greeted him, men tipping their heads, women giving their “good morning’s,” and the younger women either shying from his gaze or offering dazzling smiles of their own.  Turtle was torn between being amused and happy for the bliss that being among people was bringing her friend and being eaten by worry about the day his bliss would end.

They came at last to his mother’s house, a rich farmhouse amidst rich and fertile fields of wheat.  Turtle turned into a bird and watched their reunion for a few moments before she flew off.  She would return in the evening.  Cob was happy but not reckless.  He knew if he stayed too long, he would shrink beyond the size that was normal for a man.

Cob told Turtle all about his visit as they rode back home on a gift his mother had given him, a beautiful mare with the blackest mane.  Turtle rode his shoulder as a blue bird.  And though they met a traveler or two who saw him speaking to his little bird, even that was charming to some.  Never did any who saw them cower or flee.  Turtle began to worry about that as well.  What if they encountered highway robbers in the lonelier parts of the road?  She was grateful for the mare.

His mother had been delighted to see Cob, especially to see that he was of normal proportions.  He lied and told her he had found a cure for his condition.  She welcomed him and begged him to stay and finally begged his forgiveness for casting him out.  Cob of course told her that there was nothing to forgive.  Turtle twitched a brow at that part of the story.  But then, she understood.  She loved her mother.  Why shouldn’t Cob love his?  He never meant to be a burden on her.

They stopped at an inn for the night with Cob still elated.  But when they left the next morning, they had to sneak past the barkeep who had regaled Cob and his wee bird with bawdy tales.  Cob had grown much smaller overnight.  Half the size he had been.  He struggled to mount his horse.  And when they left, without eating the hearty breakfast the innkeep had promised, Turtle saw at last a look of horror on her friend’s face.

A horror that was to be reflected on her own.

They had planned for Cob to eat the bean when they returned home, so Renny could try to heal him if anything seemed to go wrong.  But Cob stopped when they were out of sight of the town, and he asked Turtle to bring forth the bean.  To Turtle’s horror, the green bean had dried out.

“This is my folly,” Cob said, shaking his head.  “I should have listened to you from the start, Turtle.”

“Ride as fast as you can,” Turtle said.  “I can fly back home and have Renny come out to meet us.  The travelers on the road will have some stories to tell about her, but we might still make it.”

“The bean is dead, little bird.”

Turtle refused to listen.  She transformed and flew off.

***

“I left him on the road, Renny.  I have to go back before something happens to him.”

Renny was looking hard at the desiccated bean.  “Plant it.”  She turned to Turtle.  “This one might not have enough magic left itself, but it may have enough life in it to make more beans.”

Turtle nodded and left the task to the harper as she transformed and flew back to her friend.  All night she flew, fearful that she would find Cob lost or hurt.  She thought of him as a child now.  Like her.  Only he couldn’t fly away from danger.

In the day and night that she had been away, Cob had shrunk in half again.  He was now smaller than Turtle.  Too small to ride on the horse by himself.  Turtle put him in front of her and rode the horse all the way home.  He was the size of a toddler by the time they arrived.  He couldn’t climb the mountain.  But Renny came down to help him.  And Turtle went up to tend to the bean.  It lay under a mound of dirt and she watered it.  She fluttered down to watch her friends climb up the mountain so slowly that she thought she could see Cob shrinking before her eyes.

He was the size of a baby by the time they reached the mountain house.  But he was still Cob.  He hadn’t grown younger.  Renny fashioned a tunic for him.  When he spoke, it was as if his voice was coming from a box, it was so hollow.  He tried to speak as Renny went to bring them all some food.  Turtle was tired but she strained to listen, to help him if he was asking for help.

“You’ll have to change my name now,” Cob said.

Turtle frowned in confusion.  Did he mean the name his mother had given him?  Or did he mean “Cob”?  Cob was short for “corncob.”  It was Turtle’s name for him.  Because when she first met him, he was taller than a cornstalk, though not by much.

“Maybe ‘Kernel,’” he suggested.  “See, you still get the corn theme and it also kind of rhymes with yours.”

Turtle and Kernel.  Turtle twisted her face in mock disapproval.  But then she turned away for she felt a sudden burst of tears.  Her shoulders began shake.  She ran off.

She ran to the garden.  To the patch of dirt where Renny had planted the bean.  Nothing had grown.  Surely a tiny sprout should have come up.  It felt like one long day, but Turtle had seen at least three sunrises since leaving the farmhouse of Cob’s mother.

They wouldn’t hear here in the garden.  Turtle let herself weep and moan.  She imagined they would die in some adventure together, she and Cob, and maybe even the others, and then they would pass through the gates side by side into the afterworld where they would continue their adventures together.  Tears and spit and snot poured from her and onto that patch of dirt.  She wasn’t sure how long she wept.  She was so tired after that she fell asleep in the garden, so hot with grief that she didn’t feel any chill.

The next morning, a sprout poked its way through the dirt. And Turtle, her face puffed from crying, felt hope again.  She ran inside to tell her friends and found Cob standing on the table.  He was the size of a doll now.  And Renny had sewn him some doll clothes.  He was barefoot, but he had proper trousers and a shirt.  He was trying not to fall into a plate of pancakes.

Turtle laughed.

***

“How long do you think it will be before a bean appears?” Turtle asked.

Renny shrugged.  “I’m no farmer.”

It was lunchtime and they stared at the sprout.  It was bigger.  Cob walked over to it.  He was small, but the sprout was smaller still.

“Do you think I should cry on it again?” Turtle asked.  “Was it my sadness tears that made it grow?”

Renny looked troubled.  “I should hope not.  Let’s say it was your love for Cob.  I like the sound of that better.”

“What?” Cob yelled up to them.

He couldn’t hear them well, they had found.  Else Turtle would never have risked upsetting him with talk of her crying over him.

By dinnertime, the sprout had become a stalk.  Turtle could see it growing even as she could see a puff of cloud move as it’s pushed by the wind.  She could hear the beanstalk creaking and snapping and scraping.  She watched it grow.  It hadn’t produced any beans yet, but the tendrils weren’t just growing up, they were branching out and to the side as well.  They were reaching as if toward the mountain and using it as support.  The beanstalk was growing, thankfully, faster than Cob was shrinking.  Turtle and Renny said nothing aloud, but the looks they exchanged were filled with strong hope.  A bean was coming soon.

For the first night in many, Turtle slept and she slept till late morning, for her friends didn’t want to wake her.  The beanstalk had grown so tall that they couldn’t see its top anymore.

“Already we are above the clouds,” Renny said, looking up at the stalk.  “Where else is there to go but to the stars?”

Cob was riding on the harper’s shoulder.  It was the only way she would be able to hear his words, if he spoke directly into her ears.  He was too small now.  But otherwise, he looked to be well.

A new worry sprouted in Turtle’s mind as she observed the size of Cob’s head.  What if he was too small to eat a bean?  Would it still work if they had to cut it into pieces to feed it to him?

And when would they do that?  There still didn’t appear to be any bean pods for all the stalk had grown.

Turtle said so and as her friends considered her words, she went into the house and found a telescope.  She pulled her cloak of feathers from the peg beside the front door and went back out to the garden.  She climbed up the beanstalk a ways.  Renny called out for her to be careful, but Turtle had her cloak of feathers.  If she fell, she would fly.  When she climbed far enough up that Renny appeared as small as Cob now was and Cob did not appear to her eyes at all, Turtle stopped.  It wasn’t as frightening as she’d though it would be.  The beanstalk was sturdy.  It didn’t sway or shiver beneath her weight.  The stalk and tendrils were cool and soft.  Turtle used the telescope to try and look up as far as she could see and also to gauge how far she could see along any particular tendril.

Like Renny, she was no farmer.  But she did think that beans would form at the top of a plant first.   They could wait and hope.  Or she could climb and fly.

She climbed back down and shared her idea with her friends.

“The magic is not down here,” she said.  “It’s up there.”

Renny looked up at the stalk.  “Of course it is.”

“We have a long way to go,” Turtle said to Cob as he hopped from Renny’s shoulder to hers.  “My wings would get tired if I only flew.  So I’ll climb part of the way.”

She heard Cob laugh.  “Now I know what it must have felt like for you when you rode my shoulder on our way to the mountain.”

“How do you like it?”

“I like it fine.  This time, you can do all the work and I’ll relax on your shoulder.  How do you like it?”

“I’m the giant now, little man.”

Renny made them wait until she could pack some food and water for them.

Turtle took a deep breath and smiled.  Despair was at bay now that she could do something more than just cry helplessly over a patch of dirt.

And so, she climbed.  Turtle climbed and climbed and she stopped for a sip of water every now and then, but she didn’t feel hunger or fatigue.  Cob worried over her after a while.  She felt the air grow thinner and thought she would have trouble breathing, but she didn’t.  She breathed easier and she thought it must be the magic of the beanstalk.

Night fell and she did indeed feel as if she were climbing up into the abode of the stars.  Cob urged her to sleep, but she felt no drowse.  Cob fell asleep and she held him in a sling about her shoulder.  It was the type of thing that mother’s used to hold their babes, but Cob was too tired to protest the indignity, if he felt any indignity.  Turtle did not sleep, but she lay on a spongy tendril and looked down at the world.  It was becoming a lovely swirl of blue and green and brown.  She looked up.  And the stars looked closer.  They didn’t just twinkle with the same starry light.  She thought she could tell the difference between them now.

***

“It’s time,” Turtle said.  “Don’t be scared.  Hold tight to my feathers.  If you feel like you’re going to fall off, call out to me.”

Cob, unlike his usual worry-warty self, beamed and clapped his hands.  “Let’s be at it!”

Turtle shook her head, amazed.  In some ways, smallness suited Cob.  It was probably because he knew he didn’t have to be gentle.  He was so small that he couldn’t accidentally do her much harm if he clutched her feathers too tightly.

Turtle transformed and after she did, she was only twice as big as Cob.  She could see him better.  He looked a bit too gleeful as he climbed atop her back.  She felt a twinge of guilt again.  She had never wondered what Cob felt whenever he watched her fly off.  He must have felt so heavy, so anchored to the earth.  There was so much he disliked about being a giant.  If there was time, Turtle promised herself, she would fly all the way down the beanstalk with the bean they were bound to find.  And she would boil that bean before she fed it to her friend.  And maybe Cob would become like her.  Maybe he could be the man who had strolled through town nodding to his fellow folk when he wanted.  And be the giant who could frighten even the nastiest of beasts and villains when he needed.

She hopped along once or twice to get him used to her quick movements.  It was a strange feeling to have something on her back, especially a living, moving something.  She felt his feet bounce against her sides.  She felt a pinch on the back of her neck as her gripped her feathers.  He flattened and she pushed off, flapped her wings, and darted upwards.

Cob was silent for a while.  It was only his weight on her back that made Turtle certain he had not fallen off.  Suddenly, she heard him laugh.

And then he actually whooped.

Turtle made as much of a smile as she could with her beak and flew faster, which only made Cob whoop again.  They had to find a bean and fast.  But there wouldn’t be any harm in it if she took a moment…

Turtle suddenly veered to the left and dove and spun around a tendril and flew along it for a bit.  She felt Cob pin himself to her body.

“Trying to shake me off, little bird?”

Turtle opened her beak and gave a cry as answer to his challenge.  She flew up again.  They couldn’t waste more time on flying alongside a branch.  But she twirled around the giant beanstalk.  It grew cooler and cooler.  The air was drier, but she could breathe even more freely as a bird.  She wondered if Cob was cold or out of breath.  She began to slow.  She would land on a tendril and transform back so they could rest a bit.

But that’s when Cob called out.

“There!”

She felt his grip on one of her feathers loosen and knew he must be pointing.  But she couldn’t see where.

“To your right, little bird.  I think it’s a pod.”

Turtle veered right.  Then she saw it.  She flew toward the healthy-looking pod, green and filled with what looked like three fat beans.  She landed and transformed, reaching around to steady Cob and place him on her shoulder.  She knelt before the bean pod.

“Three,” Turtle said.  “We can take them all.  That way if the boiling trick doesn’t work, we’ll still have two more for safety.”

Cob said nothing.  Turtle turned her head slightly.  “What’s wrong?”

“They’re so big.  I think they’re already too big for me to eat.”

“We can cut them up.”

“I don’t think that will work, Turtle.  They’re magic beans.  I…I can’t quite remember.  But I think the bean-trader I bought my first magic beans from said not to cut them.  When I ate it the first time, I didn’t chew it.  I just swallowed it.”

“Are you sure?” Turtle asked.  But she knew he was right.  She had done the same.  She had swallowed the bean as if it were an apothecary’s pill of medicine.  So had Renny.  And even the golden goose.

Turtle opened the bean pod.  The beans were fat indeed.  Green and fresh and firm and ripe.  If she were to take one, she could swallow it.  But Cob…the beans were half the size of his head.   Turtle grasped Cob as gently as she could and placed him down next to the bean pod.

She reached into her bag for a knife.  “We should try,” she said.  “We have three tries.  So let’s try cutting one up.”

Turtle was careful to pull out the largest of the three beans.  She cut it up and handed each piece to Cob.  They were still large pieces, but he swallowed them all.

“Maybe we can fly around and look for a smaller pod,” Turtle said.

Cob looked at his hands.  “It’s too late.  It didn’t work.  And I can feel myself getting smaller now.”  He looked up at her.  “I’m sorry, Turtle.  I think I’m going.”

Turtle felt a spike of fear in her heart.  But despair was still at bay.  Why?   She looked at the bean pod.  Because there were still two chances left.  There was no sense in making her friend go through the ordeal of swallowing little bean pieces again.  But what could she do?

“If only I could use the shrinking spell on this bean,” she said.  But then she shook her head at herself.  That cursed shrinking spell was what caused their problems in the first place.

But the beans and the beanstalk were magic themselves.  A giant stalk had grown from a small bean in a matter of days.  Why couldn’t the bean from that stalk grow smaller?  Did that even make sense?  But how?

“Should I cry on it?” Turtle thought aloud.

“What?”  Cob looked up at her.

And Turtle had a ridiculous storybook idea.  The beanstalk had seemed to respond to her greatest desire, her pained wish to help her friend.  Perhaps that wasn’t so, but it seemed so.  And if it was indeed so, then the beans too might respond.  She tried willing a bean to shrink.  But it didn’t work.  Maybe it had to be Cob.  Maybe it was like a wish or a boon.  She only got one and she’d used hers.  Now it was Cob’s turn.

But her idea wouldn’t work if Cob loathed being a giant so much.  But if he wanted to stop shrinking, so he could live, perhaps it would work.

Turtle pulled another bean, the smallest one, out of the pod.  She sat down and offered it to Cob.  He took the bean and gave her a puzzled frown.

She explained her desperate reasoning to him.  And at first, Cob held the bean out at arm’s length, as if it were some mangy cat who’d wandered into the house.  Then she saw a strange expression on his face as if he were studying the bean for the mysteries of life.  He swallowed and closed his eyes.  He pulled the bean closer to him and as he did, the bean began to grow smaller and smaller.  By the time he’d brought it to his face, he was only using one hand to hold it and it was so small, that it seemed a speck of sand to Turtle.  She watched him put it in his mouth and swallow.

Turtle held back the triumphant smile she wanted to smile at him.  Just because he had eaten the bean did not mean they had saved him.  She distracted herself by looking at the last bean in the pod and she noticed something for the first time.  There was an odd pattern on the inside of the pod under the beans.  She pulled out the last bean and saw that the pattern was writing.  She read the message.

Save the giant.  One bean will kill the spell.  One bean will restore the man.  One bean will restore the giant.  Save the giant with all three.  Then set out to come find me.

“Oh no,” Turtle whispered.  She had wasted one of the beans by cutting it up.  And was there a difference between the three?  She looked at the remaining bean.  It looked no different from the other two.  She flipped it over and around.  The only difference had been the sizes, and it was a small difference.

“What’s wrong?” Cob asked.

She showed him the message in the pod.

“I’m so sorry, Cob.  I didn’t see it.  I ruined one of the beans.”

Cob looked up at her.  “Who cares?  If this is true, then I’m done with shrinking.  And I’m done with being a giant.”

“But it says to ‘Save the giant.’  I think you have to be a giant if we’re going to find whoever sent this bean pod to us.  And I think we both have the same suspicion about who that might be.”

“I don’t need to find the bean-trader anymore, Turtle,” Cob said.  “I only wanted to find him so I could ask him how to turn me back into a common man.  I’ll help you and Renny find him if you want.”

“What do you suppose will happen if we don’t do as the bean pod says?”

“The same thing that will happen if we do do as the bean pod says.  We’ll fall into some adventure or other.  We can’t seem to have a quiet time of it for too long.”

Turtle looked at the message.

“Come on,” Cob said.  “I can’t be sure, but I think the bean worked.  I don’t feel as if I’m shrinking anymore.  We can fly around and look for another bean pod.  Maybe we’ll find one that doesn’t give us orders.”

Turtle smiled at that.  “You’ve got a taste for flying now.”

And with that, they searched.  But as Turtle suspected, they didn’t find any more bean pods.  It was the next morning before they reached the bottom of the beanstalk and a silver harper who was trying to distract herself with her playing.

Turtle told the harper what had happened up in the beanstalk.  And Renny showed Turtle how the beanstalk was already beginning to wither, as quickly as it had grown.  Turtle could see that Cob enjoyed being small and likely wanted to stay that way until necessity and perhaps the freshness of the last remaining bean required him to grow up into a man.

There were still quests ahead of Turtle.  Finding out who Arrick was and why he had done what he had done and who had sent him.  Finding the bean-trader at last.  If the message in that bean pod was from him, then he wanted to be found as much as Turtle wanted to find him.  So there were still quests ahead for Turtle.  But perhaps Cob had just finished his last quest.

Perhaps when he was restored to his normal proportions, he would go down to the town.  Perhaps he would go live there.  Turtle watched her doll-sized friend run from the snapping beak of the golden goose, laughing as he teased the poor bird.  He had a chance now.  He could get married and settle down and visit his mother again.  And perhaps even tell her that he was the one who gave her that gold that appeared every new moon.  Perhaps “save the giant” meant only that Turtle should save the person who was the giant.  Save Cob.

Turtle sighed and reminisced.

“You must happy,” Cob had said on their way down the beanstalk.  “You wanted to be the giant.  Now you are.”

“Only to you.”

“You were always a giant to me, little bird.  You always will be.”

Turtle smiled.

 

Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel

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