Friday, October 30, 2020

Just for Halloween - My Own Rendition of a Classic Folk Tale!

      This story is not original to me; I read one version of it when I was a small kid, and have read several others since. But over time I have taken it and made it my own, telling it to kids year after year, and now I've finally written down "my" version of the tale of Jack o'the Lantern.  Enjoy!!

                    THE STORY OF JACK O’THE LANTERN
                                     Adapted from an old English
                                                      Folk Tale


                                                   Lewis B. Smith


          Once upon a time, long ago, in a time we call the Middle Ages, and in the merry old realm of England, there lived a man whose name was Jack.  He may or may not have been the wickedest man in England, but all who knew him certainly felt that he was such.  Jack beat his wife, beat his children so often and so severely that they all ran away as soon as they could walk, and for fun on Friday or Saturday nights he would go down to the local tavern and challenge random strangers to fights, and then beat them to unconsciousness.  Jack was a tinker and carpenter by trade; no one liked doing business with him because he overcharged for his services and often did shoddy labor.  But any time another craftsman set up shop anywhere within twenty miles of him, Jack would pay the unfortunate carpenter a visit, beat them bloody, and set fire to their shop.  In short, Jack was a mean, angry, nasty bully who was feared by all and loved by none.


          Late one night – in fact, it was All Hallows Eve – Jack was on his way home after a long night of drinking and fighting at the local tavern.  He was feeling quite satisfied with himself; he had encountered no less than three travelers passing through, picked a fight with each of them one at a time, and beaten them bloody without sustaining any serious injury.  He was, in fact, so happy he’d decided to spare his wife her weekly beating, assuming his supper was still hot when he got home.


          Jack was nearing a very dark, nasty hollow in the forest, a place most travelers refused to pass through after dark, since it was reputed to be haunted by both bandits and the spirits of their slain victims.  Jack, however, feared neither man nor spirit, for he knew there was nothing in that forest meaner or tougher than him.


          But, as he passed through on this particular night, Jack heard a sound off to one side of the path that drew his undivided attention.  It was a low, terrible moan, the sound of a man in dreadful agony.  In fact, when the sound came again, Jack was sure what he heard was a man on the brink of death.  But oddly enough, the sound didn’t produce the same thrill Jack normally felt when he made men whimper in pain.  Instead he felt something so odd, so foreign to his nature, that it took him a moment to realize he was feeling what other men called “pity.”


          So Jack got off his horse and followed the sound of the pathetic moans – for it was a moonless, cloudy night and the hollow was pitch black – and after groping in the dark for a few minutes, he encountered the body of a scrawny old man who had been beaten, stripped, and left for dead.  Hoisting the groaning victim on his burly shoulders, Jack put the man on his own horse and led the beast the last couple of miles to his home.


          Jack’s terrified wife could not have been more astonished when he kicked open the door and entered the home, carrying the poor old fellow in his arms.  He crossed the large parlor and entered his bedroom, lying the bloodied form in his own bed.


          “I want hot water, bandages, and clean towels, NOW, woman!” he roared as he tucked the old fellow in.  Now that he could see the man’s face in the flickering light of his bedroom lamp, he feared he may have been too late.  The man was gasping for breath, his eyes unfocused, holding onto life by a thread.


          Jack left the room and met his wife coming from the kitchen with a basin of hot water, towels, and some linen strips he could use as bandages.  He took them with a glare, and then turned and re-entered his bedroom – where he promptly dropped the basin, towels, linen, and water on the floor in shock!


          The old man was had vanished, but standing there beside the bed was the shining form of an angel straight from heaven.  His wings spread so wide that their tips brushed the walls on either side of the room, and he was a head taller than Jack, who was not a small man.  The angel smiled as Jack entered the room, and the brilliance of that expression was such that the evil carpenter lowered his eyes.


          “I knew it, Jack!” said the angel.  “I was informed that you were utterly beyond redemption, but I told God that there was still a dollop of compassion buried in that hard and wicked heart of yours!  Now then, listen to me carefully.  I am going to give you a test that will determine the fate of your immortal soul.  You see, the Almighty has authorized me to grant you three wishes.  You may ask for whatever you desire, but how you spend those wishes will either save your soul from damnation, or send you to the fires of hell, so choose wisely!”


          Jack stared intently at the angel before speaking.

          “Three wishes, eh?” he said.  “And I can ask for anything that I want?”


          “That’s right,” the angel said.  “But remember what I said, for your soul hangs in the balance, Jack.”


          Jack nodded, then took the angel by the hand and led him into the parlor.  There, in front of the fire, was a huge chair with stuffed cushions, placed in the best position for soaking up the heat on a cold night.  Off to either side of the fireplace, in front of the drafty windows, were two small, miserable stools.  Jack pointed at the large, comfortable chair.


          “Ye see this here chair?” he said.  “This is my chair.  Built it meself, I did, and stuffed those cushions with the finest goose down, so I would have a place to rest me weary bones after a hard day’s work.  But my no-good neighbors, and those fools who call themselves my customers – well, when they come into this house, what’s the first thing they do?  Plop their arses down in my chair, and leave me to take one of these miserable little stools instead!”


          He paused, glaring at the memory, and continued.  “My first wish, Mister Angel, is that whoever sits in that chair will be frozen, unable to move, until I myself release them!”


          The angel frowned, and then slowly nodded.  “I can grant that wish,” he said, “but it is a selfish wish.  You must do better, Jack, if you would know the joys of heaven!”


          “I’m not done yet!” Jack snapped and pointed to a stout oaken chest with iron staves that sat against the wall opposite the fireplace. “See this here chest?  This is me toolbox.  These tools are my bread and butter; they put this roof over me head and food on me table.  But my worthless neighbors love to pop in unannounced and borrow them without my permission, and sometimes they get returned to me broken – and sometimes never at all!  So my second wish is that anyone who touches my toolbox be frozen there, unable to move, until I myself release them!”


          “Oh, Jack,” the angel said, “that is another selfish, terrible wish!  I thought you would have enough sense to redeem yourself, but you are proving me more wrong by the minute!”


          “I’m still not done,” Jack said, and he took the angel by the hand and led him out to the yard, grabbing one of his lamps as he went.  He led the angel out to a large, graceful yew tree that stood near the road in front of Jack’s cottage.


          “See this here tree?” Jack said.  “Me Da planted that tree the day I was born, and it has grown up along with me, and like me it’s now tall and strong and tough.  But look here, here and here -” he pointed to the trunk, where several branches had been rudely hacked off.  “These no-good travelers come down my road, and they see these long, smooth, straight limbs, and decide to take one to make a walking stick for themselves, without so much as a by-your-leave.  So my final wish, Mister Angel, is that anyone who touches my tree be frozen there, unable to move, until I myself release them!”


          The angel shook his head sadly and laid his hand on the tree for a moment.  Then he turned to face Jack and spoke a final time.


          “Your wishes are granted, Jack, but your own words have condemned you.  You have shown that the spark of decency you displayed earlier was nothing but a passing fancy, and that your heart abides in wicked selfishness.  Know this, Jack – one of these days the devil will claim your soul!”


          With that, the angel vanished in a flash of blinding light, leaving only a faint smell of sweet perfume in his wake.  Jack stared at the tree for a few moments, gave a satisfied snort, and turned on his heel and entered his cottage, where he promptly retired for the night, sleeping as deep and sound as ever, despite the dreadful condemnation he had received.


          Twenty-five years passed.  Jack grew old and grey, and his wife passed on to her reward twelve years after the angelic visitation.  Jack’s temper never reformed, although after he turned fifty, he quit picking fights at the tavern, since he’d begun to lose more than he won.  But he was still a hard-hearted, mean-spirited, evil old sinner, shunned by his neighbors unless they required his services – and now that he was less able to terrorize his competition, there were other tinkers and carpenters they could utilize some of the time.  Jack was still stout and strong, but his stamina was fading, and from time to time he would feel his heart flutter in his chest, and he knew that the time of his earthly dissolution was drawing nigh.


          One crisp evening Jack was seated in his favorite chair, enjoying a warm fire on the last night of October.  Suddenly there was a gout of fire and brimstone, and a bright green demon materialized in his parlor, its skin smooth and glistening, its eyes bright red and glowing.  A youngish imp, Jack thought, seeing the smooth, small horns and sharp fangs.


          “Good evening, Jack,” the monster said in a smooth, oily voice.  “I suppose you know why I am here?  My master has a claim on your soul and body, and I have come to collect on it!”


          “Aye,” said Jack, rising and stretching.  “I’ve been expecting ye these last few years.  I don’t suppose it will do me any good to put up a fight, now will it?”


          “None whatsoever,” said the demon, “but if you go quietly, I can make the journey easier than the destination will be.”


          “Gladly,” said Jack.  “But, if I may, sir – I know I am a wicked man, but I’d like to write a note to my eldest son.  Don’t know if he will ever see it or not, but I’d like to leave it here for him.  Why don’t you have a seat in my nicest chair while I fetch a quill and paper?”


          The demon insolently flopped down in Jack’s still-warm armchair, settling deep into the cushions – and then suddenly realized he could not move.  Old Jack grinned broadly and walked over to the corner by the door, where he kept a stout oak cudgel that he used as a walking stick on his trips to town.


          “So Old Nick thinks he can send a raw, green imp whose scales aren’t even dry yet to harvest the soul of the wickedest man in England?” Jack said with a laugh. “Well, here is what I think of that!” 


          He began to beat the demon viciously with the cudgel, laying about its head and shoulders, breaking off its horns, shattering its fangs, and fracturing both its kneecaps.  Unable to move, the young demon began to whimper, then to beg, and finally to scream for mercy, a sound so unnerving Jack’s lone milk cow fell over dead when she heard it.  After a while, Jack leaned on the cudgel and smirked at the bloodied imp.


          “Now go tell your master that if wants to claim my soul, he needs to show me a bit more respect next time!” he snapped. “Begone with you, imp!”


          The demon staggered up from the chair and vanished in a puff of damp, weak brimstone and smoke.  Jack leaned his cudgel back against the wall, heaved a deep sigh, and poured himself a glass of ale.  Then he settled back down into his chair for a quick nap, figuring that he didn’t have too long to wait.


          Sure enough, little more than an hour had passed when a huge spout of black, foul-smelling smoke announced the arrival of a hoary old demon, his scales dark green and rough with age and accumulated wickedness, his eyes a deep, nasty red reminiscent of a coal that has burned long and hot.  His horns were huge, curved, and blunted at the ends from use, and his fangs stretched down past his pointed chin.


          “Time to go, Jack!” he snapped.  “And none of your tricks, for I am Wormwood, mighty in the service of the prince of darkness, and I will fall for none of your shenanigans!”


          Jack stood and gave a courteous bow.

          “Now this is more like it!” he said.  “Not that I had anything personal against that young fellow that came in earlier, I just felt it disrespectful to my reputation for your master to send a novice to claim me.”


          “Oh, my master will teach you a thing or two about respect!” Wormwood snapped.  “Now come on, it’s a long walk to the pit that awaits you!”


          “On me way,” said Jack, hobbling across the room.  But then he looked down in disgust at his shoe, for the sole had come loose and was flapping as he walked.


          “Beggin’ yer pardon, Master Wormwood,” he said.  “But me shoe is trying to come apart!  Unless ye want to be carrying me most of the way, I’d best fix it. Would ye hand me a tap-hammer from me toolbox?”


          “Very well,” snapped Wormwood impatiently, “but be quick about your repairs! You’ve cost us a great deal of trouble already this evening.  I’m supposed to be off starting a war between Constantinople and Agrabah, and now I am -”


          The demon stopped in mid-sentence as he suddenly realized that he could no longer move.  His hand was reaching into the toolbox, his posture bent over, and he could not so much as turn his head to look at his victim!


          Jack walked to the corner, retrieved his cudgel, and proceeded to beat Wormwood as savagely as he could, up one side and down the other, paying particular attention to those long, curved horns and the stump of the demon’s mighty tail.  At first the elder demon kept his silence, but finally he started yelling, then begging, and finally he was wailing like a Norwegian fisherman, screams so bloodcurdling that calves were stillborn, babies cried in their cradle, and cats did bark and chase dogs up trees throughout the realm of England!


          “Now then,” said Jack when he was too exhausted to lift his arms for another blow, “you go and tell your master that if he has business with me, he can come and attend to it himself.  Begone with ye, and trouble me no more!”


          Wormwood shrieked his assent and dove straight into the floor, leaving a smoking hole that quickly closed up on itself in his wake.  Jack nodded to himself, leaned his stave against the wall, and returned to his chair for a nap.


          It was nearly two hours later when a huge gout of fire and smoke heralded the arrival of Old Scratch himself.  The Devil was bright red, his horns long and straight, and his eyes as yellow as a candle’s flame.


          “All right, old man,” he snapped, “You are coming with me straightaway, and none of your tricks!”


          Jack rose and groaned a bit – for it had been a long time since he’d had such a workout – and nodded his head at Belial.


          “A pleasure to meet you at last, Old Nick,” he said.  “I’ve known for years I’d be making your acquaintance one of these days!”


          “No pleasantries!” snapped Satan. “You are mine, and I am taking you NOW!”  With that, he grabbed Jack by the hand and jerked him out of the house into the front yard.  He gestured at the ground with a flourish, and with a roar and a rumble the earth split wide, to reveal a black staircase leading down.  Jack could see, far below, the glow of the flames that awaited him.  “Now get walking!” the devil roared. “You’ve got twenty thousand steps to go!”


          Jack paused at the edge of the chasm, looking at the steps uncertainly.

          “I’m an old man,” he said, “and beating on your demons has wearied me.  Could ye not just break off one limb from yon tree for me, that I might be able to balance?  I’d hate to arrive in hell with my legs broken from a fall!”


          “Whiner!” the Devil said.  “You’ll be wishing for broken legs when I am done with you!” Jack innocently stared at him, and finally Satan sighed and turned to the tree, eyeing it suspiciously.  “All right, old man, but none of your funny -”


          He never finished his sentence, because the minute he touched the tree he found himself unable to move.  He screamed with fury at Jack’s treachery, but the old man gave him a grin and hobbled back into the house, emerging moments later with his cudgel in hand.  


          For the next hour, Jack proceeded to beat the hell out of the Devil. Satan’s cries of anguish were so loud they echoed around the globe, shattering windows, dropping birds from the sky, driving men insane, and so badly frightening the Divided Arab Emirates that they fled into each other’s arms and became the  United Arab Emirates to this day.  Finally, Jack fetched Satan such a mighty blow upside the head that the cudgel broke in half, and he laid the jagged, pointed end at the devil’s throat.


          “Now the, Beelzebub, Old Nick, or whatever name ye choose to go by, will you renounce all claim on my body and soul from now till eternity ends?” he said. “Or shall I drive this through your neck till it comes out the other side?”


          “Yes!  Anything!  We don’t want you down there anyway!” Satan cried out.


          “Then begone with ye, and trouble me and mine no more!” Jack said, and the devil dove straight down the mighty staircase to hell and slammed the earth shut after himself with so much force that Rome fell all over again.


          “Pesky devil,” Jack muttered, and turned around to re-enter his home.  But before he could cross the threshold, there was a flash of holy light, and who should be standing before him but the selfsame angel he’d seen all those years before?  The angel was holding a lantern, and its brilliant rays forced Jack to avert his gaze.


          “Jack, Jack, Jack,” said the angel sadly.  “What can we do with you?  You are too wicked for heaven and too mean for hell!  After conferring with the heavenly host, here is the doom that has been pronounced upon you.”  The angel stood even taller, his wings blotting out the sky, and his radiance putting the full moon itself to shame.


          “From this day forward, you shall never sleep again, nor spend your nights under any man’s roof,” the angel announced in a booming voice.  “Instead you will roam the earth by the light of this lamp, treading the darkest and most remote highways and byways until Judgment Day, when God Himself will pronounce sentence on your soul.  Now take my light, Jack of the Lantern, and begin your lonely journey, and reflect on the wickedness of your life, that you might find true repentance thereof!”


          And so Jack took the lantern with one of his odd grins, and then turned and began stamping his way down the road, pausing long enough to break off a limb from his yew tree to serve as a walking stick.  They say on the darkest of nights, especially around All Hallows’ Eve, he can be seen to this day, the lamp illuminating his smile as he trudges his way across the earth, awaiting Judgment Day.  Children whispered stories of him, and many years later, began carving his grinning face into pumpkins which they lit up with candles and placed in their windows, in memory of Jack o’the Lantern, the man who was too wicked for heaven and too mean for hell.


Happy Halloween!