Jack’s Lantern – (a short story for Hallowe’en)
(authors note- This is a little piece that I wrote back in 1993. With the approach of “All Hallowe’s Eve,” as it used to be called, I thought I would share it with you for your own enjoyment… Happy Hallowe’en to all! – Drew Nickell)
In a time before recorded time, before the snakes were driven from the green island, before the outsiders brought with them the one God, there was a sect of people called Druids. The believed that nature itself had mystical powers- powers so great as to be reckoned with. On the eve of the ninth month they would draw lots to see which of them would be given in death to pacify the gods which principally were known as earth, wind, fire and rain.
Jack lived alone in the hollow trunk of an ancient tree. He kept much to himself most of the time, and was not well known, beyond his appearance, by those who lived in or closer to the Village of the Gourd. Aside from an occasional trek to trade his wood carvings, he seldom ventured far from the tree he called home. Jack remained an aloof and private member of his community.
One night, when the wind from the north blew cold and clouds had covered the star-goddesses, Jack was returning from the market with a satchel filled with un-traded carvings. His wares weren’t bringing much these days, for the potato crop had been sparse. All he managed to acquire was a large, pear-shaped pumpkin-squash. He planned to return to his tree, light a fire and cook the squash meat.
As the tree appeared just over the knoll, a brief but sudden burst of colder wind howled faintly behind his right shoulder. Jack stopped suddenly because he thought he heard his name called by the wind. Slowly turning about, Jack was pushed backwards by a second, stronger burst of wind which actually knocked him over. “J-a-a-a-a-a-a-c-k !” There was no mistake this time. Leaving his satchel of wares strewn about on the pathway, Jack scampered over the knoll with his pumpkin, dove into the tree and slammed the door shut. Knocking over bowls and plates, he fumbled around for his piece of flint. Dropping the rock twice with his shaking hands, he was eventually able to strike a spark which found a home on some tiny wood shavings. He built a larger than usual fire in the center of the one room, and the smoke began to curl up towards the hole at the top of the tree trunk. By then, he was too exhausted to cook his squash, and he drifted off into the Land of Nod, listening to the wind howling through the barren limbs above.
Jack awoke the next morning to find that all of the trees were now barren. The fiery reds and yellows that had adorned the trees in the Village of the Gourd had now painted the ground beneath. Out on the path, Jack saw his carvings strewn about the leaves and he began to gather them up. He went into the village and set them upon the table in the market. He had hoped business would be better today, for this was the eve of the ninth month and at noon all of the adults in the village gathered to draw the lots of passage.
Even though it was the highest honor to be selected as the sacrificial offering, no one amongst the villagers relished the idea of being personally chosen. Nevertheless the lots were drawn, and Jack breathed a silent sigh of relief when he found that his was not the short straw. That fell upon the very same one who, only the day before, had traded the pear-shaped pumpkin-squash for the carving of the squirrel which had taken Jack all of three days to create. Jack was sad enough for the unfortunate member, and doubly so at the thought of losing a good trading partner. After the sun dipped below the horizon in the west, the high priests would dress that member in the ceremonial fur, tie-his hands behind him and place his head upon the rock of the giving. Having done this, a large boulder would be dropped on the head of the chosen one and crush the mind that dwelled within.
Soon enough, the shadows grew long and it was time to gather up his carvings and prepare for the Ceremony of the Giving. Jack hadn’t noticed, but he had left his stone knife on the table at the market. He carried his satchel back to the hollow tree and set it down inside. He had no food to bring to the ceremony, so he grabbed the pear-shaped pumpkin-squash and headed for the light of the great bon-fire where the ceremony was to take place. Stopping briefly at his market table to retrieve his knife, he rushed over to the Place of the Ceremony and watched as the high priests began their incantations to the gods of earth, wind, fire and rain.
As these chants reach a feverish pitch, the men of the village all together raised the boulder and dropped it down upon the chosen one’s head. That having been done, there came from all the voices of the villagers a joyous yell, and the feast of what was then the ninth month began. Jack brought forth his pumpkin-squash amidst the snickering of some of the others, but offered it all the same for the purpose of the great feast. One of the women said to him that he was the wood carver and should therefore have scooped the meat from the pumpkin-squash himself. Although he never really knew why, he cut the pumpkin-squash in a way that somehow resembled the face of the “chosen one,” and then used his stone knife to scrape the tender meat from within. Giving the meat to one of the women, he then set the hollowed gourd aside and ate the best meal he had had that year.
Later, as the last of the villagers wandered from the feast, he started for home but suddenly stopped short. A cold burst of wind blew upon his back and he thought that he had heard that same moan from the night before. He stumbled into the hollowed-out pumpkin-squash, and then a strange idea took hold of him. He went to the burning embers of the bon-fire and saw how they were burning the grease-soaked timbers very slowly. He then grabbed a piece of this greasy wood and shoved it into the largest hole of his hollowed-out gourd. He gently blew into the hold and the low flame kicked up. Startled by how well the light shown through the holes, he grabbed the pumpkin squash by its vine and headed home. Just as he began to ascend the knoll, a sudden burst of cold wind came from behind and moaned, “J-a-a-a-a-a-c-k!” With that, Jack reeled around, held up his -pumpkin-lantern and listened as the wind howled off into the distance.
He stood there for a while silent and motionless, pondering the mystery of what had taken place. As the flame inside the gourd began to flicker out, he turned and made his way back to the tree. He lived seven more years and then died, never again bothered by the howl of the wind.
Jack is now remembered for his lantern and this, Jack’s Lantern, is how the Jack-o-Lantern became a tradition on the eve of the ninth month of the old calendar, (nowadays, the eleventh month) called November.
-Drew Nickell, 28 October 2017
© 1993 by Drew Nickell, all rights reserved.
author of “Bending Your Ear- a Collection of Essays on the Issues of Our Times”
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