Once upon a time there lived an old widow woman and her son Jack. They were desperately poor. One evening, after they had shared their last potato and last shred of cabbage, the old woman sat by the cold fireplace and thought. Presently she called Jack over to sit beside her.
“Dear son,” she said, “We have no food and no money. Winter is coming. We must sell our cow. Tomorrow morning take Bossy into the village and sell her for as much silver as she will bring.”
The next morning bright and early Jack set out walking with Bossy the cow. As he went along the road, he came upon a funny little man wearing a bright red cap, a blue waistcoat, and big yellow boots. The little man hailed him cheerfully: “Good morning, young sir, where are you going this fine morning?”
Jack explained his errand, and the sad circumstances that made it necessary. The little man eyed him thoughtfully for a moment and then spoke: “My boy, everybody has a bit of silver. They spend it, and it’s gone. Wise people own real estate. Any fool can dig up silver from the ground, but real estate is the very ground itself. They’re not making any more of that, are they my boy?”
“Uh, I guess not…”
“Quite right! Now, instead of taking your cow to market and selling it for a handful of silver, why not trade it to me for this fine house here?”
“Yes, my boy, a fine house. Four bedrooms, two full and two half baths, great room with cathedral ceiling…”
“…and a three car garage. What do you say, my fine fellow?”
“You want to trade that mansion for old Bossy here?”
“Well, I don’t know…”
“Ah, you’re no fool, I see that. What’s your counteroffer then?”
“Um, could I maybe just keep the cow?”
“Through the grace and favor of our good King that may be done. Give me the cow in exchange for the house, and I will lease the cow back to you for ten silver pennies a month.”
“Oh, we have no money. That’s why Ma sent me to sell the cow.”
“No money need change hands. I will fold into the mortgage the amortized cost of the lease payments.”
“So I give you the cow, and you give me the house, and then you give me back the cow?”
“Splendid, sign here, and here’s your copy, and the keys. Oh, and a complimentary packet of magic beans.”
So Jack returned home. His mother saw him coming, leading Bossy. “What is it Jack? Have you forgotten something?”
“No, mother. I traded the cow for these magic beans, and a fine big house.”
“Magic beans? Oh Jack! I fear we have been chea… wait, ‘and a house?’ Why do you still have the cow?”
“We get to keep her. Can I plant the magic beans right now, mother?”
Jack’s mother could not really understand his story, but Jack did still have the cow, and the keys fit the big front door. Not knowing what to think, she gathered their few pitiful belongings and they went to live in the big house. Bossy got the garage.
They still had no food, and the old woman was afraid to sell the cow. They gathered nuts and berries in the forest, Jack secretly trapped a few of the king’s rabbits, and they got through the winter somehow. When spring came the old woman, Jack, and Bossy the cow were pitifully thin but alive.
One day the funny little man came back, accompanied by the sheriff and the king’s steward. “The market has shifted,” he said. “You must pay me one point three million pieces of silver at once.” The sheriff looked stern. The steward made a speech, and told them he was very sorry. “We have no money,” said Jack and his mother.
“Then I get the house back; you must leave; take your things and go,” said the little man.
The steward wept and called it cruel, and gave the old woman eight hundred silver pennies. Though she was rather puzzled by it all, the old woman bought flour and potatoes, six laying hens and a rooster, a piglet, and a pretty curtain for their window. Nobody mentioned the cow, who went with Jack and his mother back to their old hovel. The magic beans Jack planted had grown into an enormous bean stalk that went up into the clouds.