Once upon a time there was a farm on which lived a widow and her son, Jack (no, not that Jack, another one — although their stories are quite similar).
It was a poor farm, producing each year a meagre crop of beans. The widow did her best to work the land and eke out a living for the two of them, but a summer came when there was a bad drought and things got especially difficult.
One day, the widow found a flyer in the mail-box at the gate of the farm.
“Magic Beans!” it trumpeted (told you). Planting the beans would apparently produce a prime crop, whatever the soil, whatever the weather.
“Nip into town and buy us a bag of them beans!” the widow told Jack.
“Do I must?” whined Jack; he preferred to sit on the porch a-whittling while his mother did all the donkey work … because they had no donkey.
“You must and you will!” responded the widow, giving him a crack of the whip that she kept for just such occasions.
Jack got the message and made for town with their last groat. If you don’t know, a groat was a coin used in those days. They stopped minting it because of all the confusion it caused: in trading, people would mishear the fee for things and expect, for instance, five goats for a service rendered. The resulting contractual disputes were a nightmare.
On the road to town, Jack crossed paths with a tinker who was travelling from village to village selling his wares — pots and pans, that kind of stuff.
“Where are you heading, young man?” asked the tinker with a glint in his eye, and you know what a glint means: you wouldn’t trust this bloke as far as you could throw him.
“To town to buy some of these beans,” replied Jack, showing the tinker the flyer.
The man’s glint danced about like a prima ballerina doing a grand écart en l’air (don’t ask).
“I can save you the trip,” the tinker scoffed, screwing up the flyer and throwing it into the nearby hedge. “Them beans are rubbish — tried ‘em myself. No, what you want’s this.”
And he pulled from his knapsack a stub of a pencil and a grubby, creased sheet of paper that he smoothed out on his knee. He started scribbling.
“What’s that?” asked Jack. His eyes dodged from the paper to the flyer in the hedge; he was sure he was going to get it in the neck from his mother.
“This,” proclaimed the tinker grandly, “Is the answer to all your prayers, and then some.”
“But what is it?” insisted Jack.
“It’s a recipe, my young friend, for a fertiliser. A magic fertiliser that will make your crops grow ten times the normal size! Just imagine!”
Jack was indeed imagining. In his mind’s eye the feared whipping from his mother gave way to hugs, kisses and, because he had a sweet tooth, extra custard on his pudding.
“How much do you want for the recipe?” he asked, failing to hide his enthusiasm — the mistake of a novice at negotiating.
“How much you got?” the tinker fired back.
“A groat?” said Jack tentatively.
The tinker clapped his hands. “What a coincidence! That’s exactly how much it’ll cost you!”
The tinker and his latest victim parted ways, the former picturing the roast dinner he’d now be able to afford at the next inn, the latter happily enveloped in a warming cocoon of anticipated maternal approbation.
After his mother had worn herself out, she dropped the whip and stood in the dusty front yard sobbing.
“How could you?! Our last groat!”
Jack groaned and staggered to his feet.
“Sorry, mother. I … I thought …”
His mother’s guffaw hurt Jack almost as much as the whipping.
“But … but let’s at least try it.”
“Try it?” The widow’s eyes had gone all cloudy from the effort with the whip and the too-long-resisted certainty that she had given birth to the most stupid person in the whole kingdom.
“Yes! I’ll make a batch of the fertiliser and you’ll see!”
Jack spent the afternoon cutting, slicing, chopping, grating, mixing, boiling … until as dusk approached, he had a cauldron full of a frankly rather evil-smelling liquid. Holding his nose, he poured some of it into a bucket and went along the rows of puny beans using a wooden ladle to splash the miracle formula on them.
It was night by the time he’d finished. He flopped exhausted into bed, making sure to lie on his front; his welts were playing him up something rotten. But he had pleasant dreams — of giant beanstalks scraping the sky, and all the money and nice things the magic crop would bring.
In the morning, Jack got a huge surprise … and not of the pleasant kind. Far from growing exponentially, the already withered beans had shrunk almost to nothing. It was a disaster, and Jack readied himself for another flogging, which his mother, refreshed from a good night’s sleep, duly administered.
Jack’s skin — what was left of it at least — was saved by a neighbour who came panting up the track to the farmhouse.
“FLEE! FLEE!” she cried.
Jack’s mother stared at her, the whip raised for another crack at Jack’s back.
The neighbour caught her breath and pointed to the hillside that overlooked the farm.
Sure enough, down the emerald-green hill was streaming a horde of giant beasts. Jack’s mother rushed inside the farmhouse along with the neighbour, leaving Jack sprawled on the ground, at the mercy of the monsters.
They were truly horrific: they had brownish-grey fur, long, dagger-sharp claws, and thick tails that looked like they could kill a man with a single swish. One of them skidded to a halt and loomed over Jack, its evil black eyes telling him who was for breakfast. It opened its mouth, the two giant fangs in its top jaw and the two in the bottom poised to rip Jack to shreds.
But suddenly Jack had an idea, and it was a brilliant one by his usually modest standards. You might be able to guess what it was.
With the monster hard on his heels, he scrambled across the yard to the cauldron, still half full of the miracle fertiliser. He grabbed the ladle, dipped it in and sprayed the foul liquid all over the monster, which was about to sink its fangs into him.
The startled monster stopped dead, let out a shrill, hellish scream and … began to shrink before Jack’s very eyes! Two other beasts leapt towards him and got the same treatment; they also shrank. The remaining monsters began milling about, confused at the abrupt interruption of their mayhem. Jack took a bucket, filled it and sprayed them, too. Within minutes, every monster had been reduced to a harmless couple of inches.
Jack went around and gathered them all up by the tail, popping them in a cage that used to belong to a rabbit called Fluffy, which Jack and his mother had eaten the previous Easter.
That evening, Jack got what he’d always craved: hugs, kisses and, of course, extra custard on his pudding.
Later, he and his mother received a handsome reward from the King. Why? Because in subsequent days, Jack produced more of the magic formula and managed to shrink all the beasts in the district, then the kingdom.
And that, dear reader, is why mice are now so tiny.