September 17, 2016

The House That Jack Built, By Erin Wyble Newcomb

The house that Jack built sat atop a hill along the well-worn trail of Fairy Tale Forest. He called his establishment “The Giant’s Brew,” and he offered his customers the finest in regional cuisine, all sourced locally. It was a comfortable house, where the fire was always stoked and the wine was always sweet and the bread always rose and the cheese never turned.

But, really, what Jack wanted most was not a house but a home.

So one day, after a suspicious but fortuitous explosion at the local mill, Jack brought home a bride. The mill sat in a charred heap of ashes, which meant Jack had to travel a little farther afield for his flour. That was inconvenient, no doubt, but he’d always suspected the miller of adulterating the flour anyway. And now at least the miller’s daughter, Milli, was free to marry Jack. On balance, the circumstances worked out in favor of Jack’s house, and Jack always paid attention to the balance. It was not a poor house, and Milli’s presence made it so much the richer.

Now Jack and Milli kept house together, and “The Giant’s Brew” prospered. There was magic in the place, folks said. The bean soup was out of this world. The bread was made with flour so fine it was worth more than gold. There was a goose who laid the most glorious eggs every day and twice on Sundays. Anyone could look in on Jack’s house, though, mercifully, it was not a house of glass. Jack and Milli called it a house of dreams.

But all that changed the day Mr. Wolf paid them a visit.

Mr. Wolf took the finest seat by the fire and basked his bare toes in its warmth. He guzzled the wine and tossed the bottles onto the floor, where they shattered. Shards of glass littered the floor, and all Jack’s guests had to tiptoe around the appetites of the Wolf. Perhaps the dream house was, after all, only a house of cards.

Mr. Wolf shed fur all over the chairs and frightened the goose until she passed stones instead of eggs. He devoured the food without bothering to compliment the cooks and left trails of breadcrumbs wherever he went.

At first, Jack and Milli tried to appease the Wolf, not understanding that the nature of the beast is wanting. My house is your house, they said. For every drink and every morsel, Jack and Milli slaved away and never charged the Wolf a cent. Not that he would have given them one, anyway. But it was always service with a smile, and every comfort on the house.

The lady of the house grew fed up first. She’d escaped, with no subtlety but lots of style, from the house of her father and its terrible curse of servitude. She didn’t marry Jack to transfer her bondage from one man to another. Certainly not for the Wolf’s sake. The girl who blew up her father’s business didn’t believe in half-measures, nor halfway houses.

Milli urged Jack to evict the Wolf, but neither one of the proprietors of “The Giant’s Brew” knew how. Mr. Wolf drove business away. The fire in the hearth dimmed and the wine soured and the bread failed to rise and the cheese turned moldy. Still, the Wolf stayed, showing no appreciation for fine food and no discernment of poor fare. He understood hunger alone, and no matter how much Jack and Milli toiled, the Wolf’s belly rumbled for more. The house that Jack built was a safe house no more.

With each passing day, the realization dawned on Jack and Milli: they were prisoners in their own home. Something had to be done, and quickly, before Mr. Wolf ate them out of house and home.

Now Milli, having a personal history and penchant for pyrotechnics, entertained the possibility of burning the house down with the Wolf inside. Jack discouraged this idea, bearing a preference for setting his house in order rather than bringing it down. That was no kind of victory for Milli, but Jack also had no intention of being the fool who built the house so that a wise Wolf could live in it.

One night, while donning the fuzzy white slippers given to her by her fairy godmother, Milli at last knew what to do. She’d call upon Faye, the aforesaid fairy godmother, who’d promised her three wishes and fulfilled thus far only two. Jack slept soundly in bed. The Wolf snored on the hearth rug. Milli nursed two secrets, and the first was Faye, whom she invited into her house with good cheer.

Her fairy godmother stepped across the threshold of Jack’s house. She slipped past the snuffling Wolf and the closed door of Jack and Milli’s bedroom. Milli waited patiently for Faye’s arrival, knowing that the house that Jack built held many doors.

Faye opened the kitchen door, took one look at her goddaughter, and knew Milli’s second secret, a confidence neither Jack nor the Wolf suspected. “A baby on the way!” Faye cooed. “And here I thought I was attending a housewarming party!”

“Not at all,” Milli insisted. “I need your help once more, to clean house before this is a full house.”

Faye nodded. A child would truly make the house a home—but not with the Wolf making himself at home.

Faye had helped Milli move house before. Milli secured the match that blew up her father’s mill, but Faye secured the information of Rumpelstiltskin’s name. And Faye made the match between Jack and Milli that secured their happy, humble home.

The Wolf, though, was a formidable adversary with nothing to lose. He was playing with house money. Faye thought about their enemy: a man and a monster, a lamb and a brother, a king and a slave. He prowled and howled and scowled. He was always hungry, but his belly was full of stones.

In the kitchen, the goose honked in her sleep. Another nightmare about an enemy in her nest, no doubt. She couldn’t understand why Jack and Milli gave Mr. Wolf house room, but she’d lost most of her credibility for complaints when she stopped laying those golden eggs. Faye turned to the slumbering bird and observed the pile of stones that had replaced the eggs.

Here is some of what Faye knew: Stories are like stones. You can carry one in your pocket. You can throw one away. You can skip one across the water, watch it bounce, see it sink. You can believe it’s forever because you don’t see the way it gets worn down in its telling. You can pass stones and you can pass stories. You can build them up and they can weigh you down. They are weapons for a mob or a slingshot. They are memories for the forgetful, which is all of us. There are hearts made of stone and hearts made of stories, and Milli herself made up the heart of her home and the heart of this story.

Milli sat in silence, too, examining her fairy godmother examining the pile of stones. She didn’t know much about stones or stories. But she knew monsters and she knew men. No difference, really. There’s a bit of wolf in all of us, or we wouldn’t get so confused. She couldn’t see clearly because the difference didn’t exist. It was a matter of form, not content. Either way she felt heartsick and homesick for the house that Jack built.

As the two women sat, observing the goose, a plan formed in their minds, and they were content. This was the house that Jack built, but Milli would be the one to salvage their home. There was no other place like it.

Faye weaved a spell around the stones. And as Jack and Mr. Wolf slept, Milli and her fairy godmother surrounded the Wolf with stones. Milli laid the cornerstone and the pile replenished itself until Faye laid the capstone. Mr. Wolf’s stone house was an in-house job, built by dawn.

When Jack awoke the next morning, the only traces of Faye were the tidy housekeeping that he attributed to his wife. He forgot the Wolf, and though from time to time he wondered about the odd stone wall in the house he’d built, he never questioned his wife, and she kept her secrets close to home.

Their baby came to fill their house with joy, and once more “The Giant’s Brew” bustled with business on the high road of Fairy Tale Forest. Sometimes strange noises emanated from behind the stone wall, but the guests’ cheer suffocated the sounds. Sometimes Milli worried that Mr. Wolf, too, could call upon a fairy godmother. She knew Faye’s work was all freelance these days.

And one night, Mr. Wolf did just that.

“Quite the performance,” he nodded to the stone cavern. “You really brought the house down. But it’s a bit claustrophobic for my tastes.”

So Faye used her magic to roll away the stone from one side of the Wolf’s house. He could come and go as he pleased then, with Jack and Milli none the wiser. He came, at last, to consider it his home away from home, and the fairy godmother was happy to come and drink with Mr. Wolf while he considered his next two wishes. They toasted the health of Jack and Milli and called down blessings on the house that Jack built.

And as the years passed, Mr. Wolf became something of a homebody. He never used those final two wishes from the fairy godmother, because he enjoyed her home visits too much. It never occurred to him that she might come just the same.

Milli suspected sometimes that Faye worked both sides of their transaction, though she knew that a house divided against itself could not stand. Sometimes, she thought she saw the Wolf coming and going. But mostly, she reminded herself that, after all, Jack’s house was a house with many rooms. She poured her heart into the house that Jack built until it became the house that Jack and Milli built. And who could say what lay in that house?

Erin Wyble Newcomb writes, reads, and teaches in the Hudson Valley. She writes regular columns for Christ and Pop Culture and Organic Hudson Valley, as well as scholarly articles. This is her first foray into fiction, which fits her love for all things fairy tale. She keeps up her compulsive list-making on Twitter @ErinWyble.