Column: Jack of the Lantern

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I told the first of the tales in college. The cornerstone of my creative writing major, he came out instinctively, half-thoughtful and with an accent I could only call ‘country’, an accent that tasted like my dad’s people around the kitchen table. .

I stood on a podium and told all who had gathered about a man at the end of a long life of adventures, unrepentant and amused as he walked towards his just reward. I had known him for years by then, and feeling it in my tone of voice and the tilt of my body towards the audience felt familiar and welcome, like introducing an old friend.

Then people would come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed it, and I took the compliments as best I could – but couldn’t help but be surprised. I didn’t think the story was anything special, or deserving of all that praise – or certainly not praise for me.

It was just Jack.

Title page of a Jack the Giant Killer chapbook, c. 19th century [public domain]

Now everyone knows a story of Jack. There’s the one about the beanstalk, of course, and most have heard a story or two about him in one of his many run-ins with the devil. He appears in Appalachia, Germany, in the Deep South – though there’s just as much chance he’s called John – and in enough forms of media and song that it’s nearly impossible to go through life without knowing him in some way.

The details change, but the man is the same – smart, fast and determined to demolish any wealthy good-for-nothing who has set himself above all decent, hard-working people in these parts. And if Jack does better, a little richer, a little better fed, well – that’s right, isn’t it? In most forms he is a spirit of the people, an embodiment of the common man – perhaps not overly intelligent but laughing and fearless and ready to get his hands dirty.

It’s impossible to say when I first met him, but I met him in college – first as a research subject, then as a character in a weekly tabletop role-playing game, and finally as which might as well have been an organizing theme. in my life.

This was before I found myself, before I was ready to claim my own name and go my own way, but through the stories I’ve told about Jack, this job suddenly got a whole lot easier. . I talked about his family, his identity, the great loves that carried him through great hardships – my own inventions, adding to a history of people telling stories that go back hundreds of years. We told stories together, riffing on older versions, tangling threads until I realized half the time I was talking about myself.

I was telling a Jack story when I realized I was trans. I was telling a story of Jack when I realized I was in love.

In times when I doubted myself, I told myself that even if I was writing a superficial character, well, at least I was having fun. More than that, I was discovering things, becoming a better writer and a better version of myself. Wasn’t that the point of writing?

In the moments when I had no doubts, I loved him like an author loves his most cherished creations, the parts that are most himself. I planted myself in it and, with a trellis made of a thousand floors, I grew towards the sky.

A traditional early 20th century Irish Jack-o’-lantern turnip. Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland. [Rannpháirtí anaithnid, Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0]

At this time of year, the story that imposes itself on you is that of the lantern.

The way I heard it, when Jack was an old man and past his most wild and rambunctious shenanigans, he took it into his head to die. Now, some of that was simple, but when a soul has been around this long and gone as far as Jack, well, that last leg of the journey tends to be complicated. Seeing that no one was going to pick him up from the porch where he had breathed his last, Jack got up from his rocking chair, slung his bag over his shoulder and began the long journey to heaven.

“Now you know pretty well you’re not welcome here, all the wickedness you’ve done,” St. Peter said from the gates of Pearly (where he was pretty sure Jack couldn’t l reach.) “Go now. Only one place for you. Shit !”

“Horrible cold out there,” Jack remarked. “I thought you were very fond of charity.”

There was some hemming and hawing, and then from the sky floated a candle, not yet lit, from the great chandeliers that hung in one of the mansions just above that first hill.

So Jack, who wasn’t one to stay longer than expected, picked it up, turned on his heels, and began an even longer walk down the path he had taken, past his own comfortable rocker and the old dog in the yard, down to where another set of gates waited. These, generally wide open, closed as soon as he was in sight.

As I mentioned, Jack had a run-in with the devil at the time. He cheated him out of a few souls, an instrument or two, that sort of thing. So even though he approached the doors and knocked, there was not a single sign that they were going to open for him now.

“Now,” he said, looking up. “Now I have to go somewhere. It’s my right to come in – they sent me away from the other place.

All he got was a voice from the other side of the door saying, “Bad luck!” which Jack didn’t think was a very gentlemanly thing to say at all.

By then it was getting dark, and any walk from there was going to be a long walk indeed, and Jack was formulating an idea. “Can you at least give me something to guide me?” he said. “I’ll let myself out.”

There was a short, hideous murmur from the other side of the door, and then a lump of coal from the still-burning lakes landed at Jack’s boot. “Much obliged,” he said, and picked it up as best he could, and brought it back to the land of the living.

Now he didn’t quite belong there, and that coal was hot like anything in his hands, so Jack threw it away in the first place, thinking he could hold it – who was in right in the center of a field of turnips. (Some might say it was a pumpkin patch, and they would be right in their own way.) He looked at it for a moment, then he bent down and harvested a turnip, and cut a hole for the candle can enter. , and a little more for the appearance of the thing, and made himself a lantern which he lit with the same coal. Then he returned home, with his porch and his dog – because Jack never saw the point in going where he wasn’t wanted.

It caused quite a stir at first, his return, and the story spread as stories about him always did, and well – it was customary, even then, to light a candle and guide the souls of the dead home for a visit, once a year. Maybe people got a little confused with the storytelling, or maybe that was just the spirit of the thing – but these little jack lanterns started popping up on other porches, this which Jack thought was the funniest thing he had ever seen. And when he started wandering again, he took that lamp with him, wandering through the woods and bogs and all kinds of places, finding his own way through the world and the people there who didn’t have it. never pushed back.

Maybe a few of those times people followed him where they shouldn’t have gone. Maybe eventually people started lighting these candles to ward off the dead, rather than welcoming them home. But those are other stories, and that’s the one I’m telling.

A pumpkin [Benjamin Balazs, Wikimedia Commons, public domain]

Every year I go to the grocery store and find the biggest turnip, the cleanest pumpkin they offer. I carve their faces and light them by the candle that still sits on my altar, and I think of all the ways we find our paths and our ways forward. I think of the places that welcome us, of the people waiting under the porches ablaze with light. I’m entering the darkest part of the year and I’m beyond grateful that Jack walked this way first.

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