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When I was born, Papa named me after my great-great-great-great-great-great-GREAT-grandfather, who, legend had it, conquered nine giants and married the daughter of a duke. Mama said this was all hogwash. Firstly, there was no such thing as giants. Wouldn’t we see such large creatures if they really existed? And secondly, we had no relation to any duke--if we did, we’d be rich and living on a grand estate. Instead, we were poor as dirt and lived in a tiny house on a small farm in a little village. Nothing great or giant about it.
But Papa wasn’t concerned with the details. He believed there was greatness in that name, and if he gave it to me, somehow the greatness would sink into my bones.
“We’ll name him Jack,” Papa said. “He’ll be great.”
“If you say so,” said Mama. She was a practical woman and not particular with names. All she needed was a word to call me to supper, or deliver a scolding. I got my first scolding before my first supper, just after birth, for as soon as Papa pronounced my name, I sprang a sharp tooth, and bit my mother.
“Ouch!” Mama cried. “You naughty boy!” It was something she would call me more often than Jack.
Papa had the nerve to laugh. “Oh, Alice, he’s just a baby. He doesn’t know any better.”
But Mama believed I did know better. To her, that bite was a little omen of what was to come, like a sprinkle before the downpour, a buzz before the sting, or the onset of an itch before you realize you’re covered in poison ivy.
Maybe I was born to be great, but great at what?
At five months old, I learned to crawl. I was fast as a cockroach, Papa said. One minute I was by Mama’s skirts, and the next I was in the pigsty, rolling around in the muck and slops. Mama said she had to bathe me twice a day just to keep me from turning into a real pig.
I learned to walk before my first year, and by my second I took to climbing. I climbed chairs and tables, the woodpile, trees. Once Mama found me on the roof, and snatched me up before I slid down the chimney into a blazing fire.
“Such a naughty boy,” said Mama.
“He’s just a boy,” said Papa.
But I didn’t want to be “just a boy.” I wanted to be great.
At night, Papa would tell stories of Grandpa Jack: how he’d chop off giants’ heads and steal all their treasure and rescue the innocents. I knew if I was going to be great, I’d have to go on a noble quest and conquer a giant--or nine--just like my seven-greats-grandpa Jack.
There was only one problem. I’d never seen a giant in all my twelve years.
“Stop staring at the sky, Jack,” said Papa. “The work’s down here.”
It was harvesttime, same as every year. Work, work, work. Boring, boring, boring. And after the work was done, we were still poor as dirt.
Papa whistled a merry tune as he cut the wheat. I grumbled as I gathered it up in a bundle and tied it around the middle. We did this over and over, until we’d made a pile as tall as Papa. I thought we’d be nearly done, but when I looked up, I saw acres of uncut wheat. “Snakes and toads.” I grumbled. How I hated the sight.
“Ain’t she the prettiest sight you ever saw?” Papa called the land she, like a lady he was trying to woo. Most of the time it seemed like the land just spat in Papa’s face, but he was ever faithful. Papa loved the land.
Me? I could live without it. I preferred a sword to a scythe, and a noble steed to a cow. I’d go on a quest to fight giants and get gold and riches. Then I’d never have to milk another cow or harvest a crop on a hot day.
I looked toward the house, where Mama was hanging the wash on the line. Annabella was flitting around her like a butterfly, her braids bouncing on her shoulders, not a care in the world, until . . .
“Eeeeaak!” Annabella screamed, and frantically shook her apron. A fat grasshopper flew out and disappeared into the tall grass.
I stifled a laugh. Annabella is my sister, four years younger. I guess when I hit three or so, Mama decided I was a lost cause and tried again, taking every precaution to do things differently. So firstly, she had a girl, and secondly, she didn’t allow Papa to name her or make any declarations of greatness. She was Mama’s sweet girl.
I remember seeing Annabella for the first time after she was born, all pink and bald and toothless. Mama cooed at her like she’d finally gotten what she always wanted. A boring lump that didn’t bite or even move.
“Back to work, Jack,” said Papa.
I sighed. Papa cut and I gathered and tied. Work, work, work. Boring, boring, boring. I considered feigning illness so I could take a break.
But what luck! Someone else disrupted the work for me. Mama was walking toward us now. Annabella bounced at her side, and on the other side was our nearest neighbor, but certainly not our dearest friend, Miss Lettie Nettle.
She looked none too pleased at this moment. Her eyebrows were pushed together, and the folds around her mouth hung down around her chin like one of those sad-faced hounds, only she was an angry hound. She glared right at me. Mama anxiously twisted her apron in her hands.
I scratched my head and scoured my brain. Had I pulled any pranks on Miss Lettie lately? I didn’t think so. . . .