Stumbling off the Stalk
by Byron Bailey
The dealer coughed, drenching me in spit. I didn’t care. Mother said that I wasn’t worth spit. Now that I had some on me, maybe I was. He opened the bag, spilling a dozen shimmering beans into his hand. “Lovely, aren’t they?”
I nodded. Me and beans went way back like mom’s porridge and stomach cramps. In the past, though, mom always had a heaping, gut-wrenching bowl of slop to eat. Now, the porridge pot was empty, even the caked-on sludge consumed.
“Think of it. For a dried-up, poor excuse of a cow, you can have five of these magic beans to give your life meaning.” He leaned against the rickety sign that marked the official outskirts of town and casually slid a bean into his mouth. His face erupted into a goat grin.
“I can’t.” I could already imagine the honey pepper bite sliding down my throat.
“What your mother doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”
I looked down at the ground, saw a gray pebble at the toe of my boot. Mother said that I better damn well wake up or else. With a grunt, I kicked the pebble off of the road. “We got to eat.”
The dealer’s lips crinkled in scorn like a pig looking at an unsatisfactory heap of slops. Bean made the lip relax and tense in unusual ways. I always preferred the goat lips to the pig lips. It was the wolf lips, though, that made me dash up a pine and quiver for the next two hours. “As one of my most loyal customers, how can you even think about food?” he said. “When you got magic, you don’t need food. You should already know that.”
And I did know it. With bean rushing through me, everything from the blister on my big toe to the lump on the side of my head dissolved. That worthless goose I sold for my last dose lay golden eggs. Father’s harp, silent since the day he died five years gone, sang like he was still with us. Even giants died with a mere swing of an axe.
“You’re not switching, are you?”
“What? I would never...”
“Let me tell you something about those so-called new beans: they’re not beans at all. What you’re drinking is nothing more magical than the ground up pits from a heathen cherry. Diabolical, yes; magical, no.”
“Diabolical?” I had never heard the word before but I knew instinctively that it had to be really bad. Bean mixed with really bad could only mean poisonous, not the throw-up a-few-times-and-go-back-to-bed kind of poisonous but the throw-up-once-and-see-guts-glistening-on-the-ground kind of poisonous. I needed to escape from a world of diabolical beans and hunger. I needed a fix.
“Let me make your choices clear. You can have the finest magic beans this side of Happily-Ever-After, you can keep your worthless cow that’s about ready to keel over, or if you truly have a penchant for destruction, you can go to that new coffeehouse. What’ll it be?”
Coffeehouse... sounded a lot like a whorehouse except only more sinister. At least everyone knew what happened in a whorehouse. “The beans,” I heard myself say.
“That’s what I like to hear.”
The air collapsed out of me as I handed him the rope around Milky White’s neck. “Be careful with her. She has sentimental value.”
I realized that she did have sentimental value, not pleasant sentiments but sentiments nonetheless. What could be more sentimental than licking the frothiness of real cream from off of my lips? That sentiment had been denied me since mother got Milky White, her milk a greasy yellow I didn’t dare consume except mixed in the strongest porridge. Mother renamed her Milky White hoping that the change might create an improvement in quality. No such luck. Bad sentiments.
“I’m sure she has sentimental value. But don’t beans have sentimental value, too?” the dealer said.
All I could say was, “Yeah,” as I popped a bean into my mouth and wondered what I would tell mother.
It took the rest of the beans, but by the time I reached home, I had a plan.
* * *
Mother’s soot-flushed cheeks bristled. “I can’t believe you bought beans.” The coals from the fireplace glowed like spiteful demon faces. Mother would love to slowly roast me over them, hear me scream for mercy. For mother, though, no mercy could be given to one who took bean. Father had taken bean, too.
“But I didn’t. I swear!” She had to believe me. My plan was impeccable.
“Then where is the money for selling Milky White?”
“That’s a very good question and I’ll tell you the honest truth. I didn’t sell Milky White.” According to all of my friends, the key to a good plan was to first say fifty Hail Marys. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to count to fifty. After eleven, the numbers dissolved into a fog thicker than mud. However, if I mixed in the truth with the plan, perhaps the powers above might overlook that I wasn’t good with numbers. After all, they couldn’t say I wasn’t at least trying to be honest.
“Then what happened to my cow?” Her jaw was as hard as the last loaf of bread I ate and her eyes as sharp as the splinter in my thumb.
“Mother, you know that Milky White is a very old cow, right?” Two truths in a row just to be sure.
She snorted like a tabby sniffing at rotten herring.
“Well, you see, on the way to the market, she just dropped dead. Almost fell on top of me. I was lucky I wasn’t seriously hurt.” My fingers twitched.
She reached for the foot-long butcher’s knife on the table, her knuckles turning white as she squeezed its elm handle. My chopping axe was outside. If I backed out the door very slowly, perhaps I could reach it before mother unleashed her full fury. I really needed to learn to count to fifty.
“Well, let’s salvage what we can.”
I gulped. Maybe I didn’t need to learn to count. “That would be a problem.” My entire master plan hinged on my next lie. “As soon as Milky White died, a huge pack of starving, rabid wolves descended upon her carcass and devoured her. You know how wolves are. Only reason I’m still alive is because they went after her before they went after me. Gave me just enough time to scramble up the nearest tree. There’s not even a bone left of her.”
“Is that so?” The demon-faced coals glinted off of the knife’s blade. It was probably the only piece of metal either of us owned that wasn’t rusty, not that either of us owned much metal anymore.
“Yeah. In fact, they were so hungry, they even licked all of the blood up off the ground,” I added for good measure.
She took a step towards me. “Got to salvage what I can.”
I wanted to run. “Mother, there’s nothing left of Milky White. Nothing to salvage.”
She took another step towards me. “I know.”
I bolted out the door. The air was cold like spring water dumped on my face. I reached for the axe, felt its splintery handle rasp across my hand. It was my only hope. I could hear the swish of mother’s skirts sweeping across the ground. Only when she went hunting, crouched like a tabby about to pounce on a starling, did her skirts touch the ground.
I spun around, thrusting Old Chopper between me and mother. She stopped in mid pounce, a quizzical frown forming on her lips. Slowly, her skirts lifted off the ground, her knees straightening. “What are you doing with that axe, son?”
I snorted. “What are you doing with that knife, mom?”
A sheen of perspiration gleamed off of her forehead. The smell of soot on her suddenly stank of rancid sharpness instead of a comforting depression. “Not a single spot of food in the entire house,” she said. “Got to hunt so we can eat. You don’t expect me to kill with my bare hands, do you?”
“Now son, what are you doing with that axe?” she asked.
I used to believe in fairies that stole my teeth at night until I learned that mother knew potion mongers who would pay for a child’s freshly lost tooth. Likewise, I had always believed in bandits until now. “I’m chopping wood to cook the food that you bring back,” I said.
“Mother,” I suddenly said. “Father wasn’t killed by bandits, was he?” I stared at her knife, felt a sharpness in my chest.
“Of course he was. They slit his throat, maybe out of spite, maybe because they never saw a fountain of human blood before. Maybe they were simply disgusted that any man would try to turn his wife into a whore to support his bean addiction.”
The world had always been a place of frost. The frost, though, suddenly turned to icicles that stabbed deep into my liver, turned my bile into frothy slush that seeped into the rest of my organs. I was numb enough that I barely heard myself say, “I would never turn you into a whore, mother.”
I barely heard her say, “A beggar is nothing but a whore without the dignity to pay for what’s given.”
“Mother, do you think bandits might pass through here again soon?”
“I’m no expert in the way of bandits, but I expect so.” She twirled the butcher knife slowly around like she wanted to slice out my throat but had to settle for mere air. It was probably the knife she used to kill father. As far back as I can remember, that had been the only knife we owned.
“Mother, I think its time I left home.” I didn’t care if I sounded like an ungrateful son. I wanted to live.
“That might not be a bad idea,” she said.
I looked at mother one last time and noticed that beneath the sharpness of her jaw, her face gleamed with a tender, moonlike beauty. I wanted to take Old Chopper and hack out my eyes but instead I continued to look. Under the perpetual bear scowl of hers, doe lips threatened to bloom. Even worse, I started to think about her skirts and the lithe legs under them, probably able to stretch and part, too. Every wholesome image I had of my mother melted into a bowl of porridge teeming with maggots, moon-beautiful flesh wriggling. Bile seeped onto my tongue. Mother was a woman.
I wasn’t some pervert wanting to do the two-backed beast with his mother. I was worse. I was a bean addict who had just discovered that his mother could be sold again and again. God help me. I knew all the goat lips, pig lips, and wolf lips. None of us would balk at making whores out of our mothers and wives — anything for another dose. After all, wasn’t it a woman’s duty to support the man in her life? It wasn’t as if we wouldn’t turn ourselves into whores, too, if anyone would pay for us.
The stream babbled like a stomach that would never shut up about its eternal hunger. I slid, stumbled and staggered down the path to town. Mother had killed father, probably slid the butcher’s knife across his throat while he was in a bean daze. Didn’t that make her a whore? But I couldn’t exactly call her a whore, could I? Didn’t she kill so that she wouldn’t be a whore? What exactly was a whore? My head hurt. I needed a dose bad, needed to feel goat lips on my face and know that at least for a short while, getting up in the morning made a kind of sense.
My friend the dealer slouched against the sign on the outskirts of town. And he was my friend. Didn’t we share a bond more faithful and powerful than any of mere blood, a bond of bean? What did it matter that I didn’t know his name?
He grinned like a goat when he saw me, drool oozing from his mouth, staining his jerkin spinach green. “Back so soon? Must have been a good trip.”
“My mother, she...”
For an instant, I saw the pig lips surface but a wave of goat quickly submerged it. “I understand.” A bond of bean. He lurched towards me, his arms held wide enough to offer me a hug. Mom was right. It was about time I woke up and felt all the love in the world. If only I had a few beans, then I would be absolutely suffused in love.
He suddenly reached out and wrenched the axe from my hands. Before I could yelp, the goat lips changed to the wolf lips, teeth bared and gums engorged with blood. “Yes. I understand completely.” He lifted the axe over his head. “Mommy tossed you out and now you think you can just walk up to me with your axe and take my beans.” The axe descended.
I leaped backwards, smelled rust as Old Chopper sliced air, barely missing my nose. I heeded the first rule of dealing with a bean addict: run from the wolf.
“Run like the goat you are and if I ever catch you back here, I’ll give you your axe back, right through your skull.”
My heart beat like rain pounding the roof. Where would I get bean without another dealer in town? I wanted to break something with Old Chopper. Maybe a door or even an entire wall. But I didn’t have Old Chopper, anymore. I didn’t have anything.
The cobbled streets gave way to slime-covered mud that squished beneath my boots and smelled like rotten cabbage — the bad part of town that mother always told me to avoid. An occasional piece of straw poked up from the mud like a flower straining to climb towards the sun. I made sure to step on every piece of stuck up straw.
Next to the brothel, I found the coffeehouse, a fat building with aging timber and an ominous creak. Surely a seller of diabolical beans must have connections to the magic bean trade. He might even have a few magic beans stashed away, perhaps for when the guilt of selling anything diabolical got too much and he needed to forget.
I walked through the door. I don’t know how to describe the smell that invaded my nose. It was so bitter that it was sweet. Diabolical had to be the word. Deadlier than rat poison yet brimming with life’s vigor. Fittingly, the place was dead with a dozen empty tables sprawled across the room like coffins in a crypt.
The man in the apron glided up to me. He was short and looked like a mole. Instead of his teeth being long and funny, though, they were merely yellow. “Business is a little slow, right now,” he said. “It’ll pick up once people hear about what we have to offer — coffee and camaraderie. Until business does pick up, though, it appears that we only have coffee.”
Maybe he’d have more camaraderie if he got rid of the diabolical beans. I could never imagine there ever being a great demand for his services. Well, maybe when the tax collectors came to town. I sat down and tried to ignore the smell but it kept nagging me. I turned to him and put on my best grin. “I’ve heard your beans are diabolical.”
He guffawed, raising one hand into the air. The other hand held a small cup. Brown stains formed a pattern across his apron like a web waiting for a spider. Maybe he was the spider. “How could they be diabolical if Pope Clement VIII himself baptized them?” he said.
There was no point in arguing religion; I understood religion less than I understood numbers. But I knew one thing. The pope was a practical and holy man. He wouldn’t have any qualms about baptizing batch after batch of diabolical beans for the purpose of exterminating heretics and rats. If others used the beans for different ends, well, that was what was called free will. “I bet you know all about beans?” I said.
“I know a little.” He swirled the cup gently in his hand until crests of black liquid splashed over the rim onto the floor. Suddenly, he stopped and squinted into the liquid. “The brew says that you’re not a customer.”
I felt an invisible ice hand on the back of my neck. My eyes darted about the room. No demons or black cats — as if there were a difference. Maybe they were invisible... like the hand on the back of my neck. What would an invisible demon cat look like? Diabolical had to be the wrong word. Someone should have told me! Demonic. How else could he tell I didn’t have any money? My legs tensed, ready to spring up and out the door.
“I’m just kidding about the brew but you’ll still probably charge me with sorcery,” he laughed. “It’s that lump on your head. You agents always dress up as the fool — probably the only disguise you know. But you always overdo it. Who do you work for? The king? The duke? Better yet, don’t tell me. I don’t need to know.”
I started to breathe again. “But I don’t...”
“I know conversations in coffeehouses can get a little radical. But shutting me down for being subversive is shortsighted.” He stared at me like the eagle waiting for the lynx to leave. “With all the malcontents gathered in one place, think of the information you could gather simply by sitting at a table and listening. I say it’s better to have the troublemakers where you can keep an eye on them.”
“Sure.” I decided to change the subject. “You know anything about magic beans?”
He frowned, his lips crinkling down over his yellow teeth. “Magic beans? My friend, you’re overreacting. I know the coffee sometimes makes the mind spin a little too fast for its own good. But that’s its joy. Be sensible. Putting magic beans into the blend can’t be cost effective — and I’m not necessarily talking money. Magic beans turn decent people into howling wolf-heads who waylay sheep and children.”
I knew then that he didn’t know jack about magic beans. The black liquid in the cup suddenly smelled tempting, diabolical. Without magic what did I have? “You don’t have magic beans,” I stated. God was dead.
“No. But there has to be a compromise. Maybe if we spike the coffee with a little rum. That would slow the mind down. No radical speech and no wolf-heads. Besides, I don’t think your master wants a lot more wolf-heads running around. I doubt that even one of them has ever paid a tax.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Wake up and chop the wood. Wake up and milk the cow. Wake up and clean the cottage. Wake up wake up wake up. How was I supposed to wake up when my eyes wouldn’t open any farther? Misery. That’s all waking up ever gave me.
“You just can’t shut me down. I have a family to support. I’ll show you what a great friend of the government I am. How about all the coffee you care to drink on the house?”
He placed a steaming cup of the black liquid in front of me. Forget waking up. Sleep forever. That was my new plan. I reached for the cup, smelled the bitterness that tickled my nose. It was a good plan. Not even I could mess up diabolical.
“The broth of the bean,” the man said.
It couldn’t be much different than from that time I got three beans for drinking a jug of sheep piss. I raised the cup to my lips. The man grinned as the steaming liquid entered my mouth. Grit and bitterness erupted on my tongue like a busted artery. It was worse than sheep piss — more like bear piss, not that I’ve ever drunk bear piss before. I probably would for six beans, though. God, someone should strain the grit out of it. I didn’t stop drinking until the cup was empty.
Maybe the grit was fitting since I was about to die. I waited. Wasn’t diabolical supposed to be quick? Suddenly, I felt my heart thump a little faster. My eyes opened a little wider and I felt the life within me stir — undoubtedly preparing to leave. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, grit to grit. Heaven was close! I wanted to get up and go next door to the whorehouse to apologize to all the women with bean-addicted men in their lives but by the time I got there I would undoubtedly be dead.
Death didn't come. The man refilled my cup as a cart rattled outside. I drank it down as quickly as the first but nothing happened. “I’m not dead.”
“Is it that bitter?” the man said. “Next time, I’ll go a little lighter on the roasting.”
I wanted to cry. I needed to learn to count to fifty.
Copyright © 2005 by Bewildering Stories on behalf of the author