Jack hadn’t been back to the farmhouse for years. He’d kept in touch with his mother by letter, making the same promises over and over again: yes, he’d eat proper meals; yes, he’d wear his vest; yes, he’d find a nice girl.
He sent money whenever he could. His mother had grown too old to work the farm and with Jack working up at the castle, she had needed a couple of farm hands to help out. Now she was gone, the farm was Jack’s. He would keep the hands on – Hell, they could have the damned farm for all he cared.
His mother, from necessity, had always been frugal. Even when Jack left home and made something of himself and the weekly gold coins started coming in, she could not shake the habit. It was as though spending money on herself was a sin, a waste.
And so, clearing the house wouldn’t take long. All her clothes fitted into a single trunk – the same threadbare dresses Jack remembered from his childhood, patched and mended so many times, the material worn thin as tissue. He felt a pang of guilt: he could have bought his mother new frocks. She would never spend the money on herself but if he had taken the trouble to send her new clothes, if he had bothered to deliver them himself – but he had not set foot on the farm since their falling-out, their stupid, stubborn falling-out over the cow, the damned cow.
He slammed the trunk shut. He turned around on the spot, looking for anything he might have overlooked.
The dresser drawers were open and empty. The hook on the back of the door no longer held the dressing gown that had been her only indulgence. Jack was going to hold onto that gown, as a keepsake. It reminded him of his childhood, the softness and warmth of his mother’s embrace.
No; that was everything. It wasn’t much to show for a life, Jack thought.
He was about to leave when the floorboards creaked beneath his boots. A flash of memory lit up his mind like lightning. He remembered his mother’s secret hiding place and dropped to his knees. Under the bed, there was a loose plank. Jack remembered discovering it one day when a marble had rolled into his mother’s room. He held his breath as he hooked his finger into the knothole and lifted the floorboard. He reached into the hollow – yes, it was still there: the small wooden box in which his mother stored the miniature portrait of her late husband, Jack’s father.
Jack’s heart raced. He would love to have that picture. He felt it was rightfully his.
The box was heavy. Jack undid the clasp and lifted the lid. The box was brimming with gold coins – all the money Jack had ever sent was in that box, hoarded away – for what?
Jack’s fingers raked through the money, seeking the picture of his father. They closed on something else, the wrinkled leather of an ancient pouch. Jack pulled it from the box and his blood ran cold.
The old argument played in his mind, the row that had caused a divide between mother and son: You gave away our only cow for this? What am I supposed to do with this?
Jack pulled the drawstring of the pouch and upended it. The contents spilled into his palm: five dried-up beans, petrified and inedible.
What magic might they have contained? What adventures they might have spawned! How different our lives might have been!
Jack loaded up his wagon and began the journey back to the castle. On the way he tossed the beans at the roadside. The pouch would do for small change; there was that, at least.