JACK-of-the-TURNIP

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JACK-of-the-TURNIP by Terry H Jones stolen from an old Irish legend


You see jack-o-lanterns every October, pumpkins with personality, grinning or sneering or shrieking at you from stoops or porches or window sills. Some sport homey, familiar triangles for eyes, some are intricate gourd sculptures, and each becomes more individual as they frost and darken and soften and return to the earth from whence they came. There's something warm and shivery about even the simplest punkin face, and an October person like me sees them all as old friends and long lost cousins. So I thought I'd tell you how they got started. See, the first Jack, well, he was an old sinner. In fact, he was a sinner before he was old! He'd steal the hat off your head, but only if he really could use it. He'd drink a little, but only if there was something there to drink, and he'd lie to you, but only when he thought it was needed. All he knew about the Sabbath was he had the fishing hole to himself, and he got most meals by picking up things - things like a chicken when no one was watching, or a pie cooling on an open window sill, or eggs overlooked in the hen house, or a melon that was just right for cutting while it's owner was in bed.

Few folks appreciated Jack's way of shopping, but Jack never stayed any place very long, so every few days a new village would start missing chickens, or have fewer eggs, or a cleaner melon patch, or - well, you get the idea.

Now, death comes to every soul that's born. Each comes a little different, and the way Jack's came was in the form of the Devil.

"Ho, there," called the Devil to Jack. The old Devil stood in the middle of the road, blocking Jack's path.

"Ho, there, yourself," answered Jack. "Beg pardon, sir, for not stopping to talk, but there's a couple of fellers behind me who want to talk about the bacon they're missing from their smokehouse, and that's a conversation I'd rather not have. If you'll just give me a bit of this old road, sir, I'll be along my way."

Old Nick (that's a name for the Devil, you know), he don't shift an inch. "Why, Jack," says he, "I'm hurt that you don't recognize me."

"Oh, I recognize you, well enough," answers Jack. "Horns on your head, long pointed tail, glowing eyes, smell like burning sulphur - oh, sir, it's hard to mistake your infernal self for any other pilgrim on the road. It's just, you see, there's a couple of fellers behind me, and -"

"So you said," interrupted the Devil. "Them fellers ain't my concern. Not yet. Today, Jack, you are my concern."

"How so?" asks Jack.

"Why, it's your time, it is," says the Devil. "It's your time to leave this vale of tears, to go on to your reward. And, no surprise to anyone, you're to come with me."

"No," says Jack. "that don't even surprise me. What does surprise me is you'd pass up the chance to bedevil a couple of good church-going lads like the ones on my heels."

"Bedevil!" cried old Nick. "How so?"

"Naw," said Jack. "You don't want to do that. Let's just go."

"Hold a bit," says the Devil. "You were always a man after my own dark, smoldering heart, Jack. What have you in mind?"

"Well," says Jack. "Let's say I let them fellers catch me. And let's say I pleaded and begged them not to be so hard on me. And let's say I offered to pay for what I stole, just to be fair, just to be Chris-"

"Don't you say it!" yelled the Devil.

"Okay, just to be fair, then. And what if I offered to give them my last bit of money, a silver piece, all that was left of what my mother gave me on her death bed."

"Your mother's not dead, and she never gave you a copper, much less a silver. I like your style, Jack. Go on."

"So let's say I give them boys a silver piece and they let me go. Then, let's say that silver piece disappears. That should set them two good church-going boys at each other, arguing over who stole the money, eh?"

"Oh, me and you are going to get on famous," says the Devil. "That's a fine one. Just one thing, though. Where you going to get a disappearing silver piece?"

"Why, that's the most killing part of the plan. You, your diabolical self will be the money!"

"Me?"

"You! And why not? Ain't it said you can show yourself in many guises? Ain't you able to disappear at will? And ain't it said that money is the root of all -"

"There, that'll do," interrupted the Devil. "Yep, it's a fine plan, Jack. We'll do her!"

"Fine, then," said Jack. He pulled a worn leather pouch from his pocket. "And here's my change purse. You fix yourself up and jump on in. I think I hear them fellers stomping up behind us now."

Now, Jack was right that the devil can put on any face he wishes, so it was nothing for him to turn into a fresh-minted silver piece and pop through the air into the leather bag. No sooner had he done it, but Jack drew the drawstrings tight on the bag, threw it into the dusty roadway, and promptly sat down on it. And that's when the Devil realized he wasn't alone. Crushed up against him was a small silver cross Jack had picked up in the last village just before he'd picked up the bacon.

Being trapped with the cross left old Nick powerless with nothng to do but get mad and yell. He did both, and for all he was worth. He cursed, he cussed, and he swore. He threatened and pleaded and cusssed some more. He screamed every foul-mouthed and evil-hearted curse he could think of, and he invented a couple of more besides. But it was no use at all. Jack knew this was his only hope, and he'd sure been cussed at before, so he just sat there in the road dust and waited for the old Devil to wear out.

And he did. Old Nick got tired of cussing, was humiliated at being sat on, and hurting like the torments of Hell for being so close to the cross. Finally, he could stand no more.

"What do you want?" he whined from the bag.

"For you to go away and leave me be," answered Jack.

"Done!" cried the Devil. "And gladly. You have my word."

Now, Jack knew the old stories that said the Devil's promise was only good for seven years. 'Seven years,' he thought. 'Seven years is a while. Seven years will give me time to find a new trick or two. Who knows? Maybe some hardworking padre will convert me in seven years. Seven years will do against this one,' he decided. So he stood up, picked up the bag, and fumbled with the drawstring.

It opened no more than a hair, but that was enough. With a final curse and a puff of stinking smoke, old Nick jumped from the bag to the road, and then disappeared completely. Jack was left alone in the trail, just him and his drawstring bag, and his seven years to work out what to do.



Seven years weren't nearly enough to reform or convert Jack. They weren't even enough to make him start. The seven years passed in a haze of horse tracks and public houses and suppers picked up from people who lived too close to where Jack was walking. Since Jack's "time" had come and gone that day in the road, when the seven years were up, he just dropped dead where he stood - which happened to be in a turnip patch when the owner was away. Jack had just cut the juicy core out of a huge turnip when *bam*, down in the dirt when his body, and in front of the gates of Hell stood his soul, still chewing a mouthful of turnip.

'Dang!' thought Jack. 'Seven years already? Time sure flies. Hope it's the same here.' He swallowed the turnip. "Hey!" he yelled at the gates. "You in there. I'm here!"

"Who's that?" called a familiar voice from inside. "Who's out there? Oh," said the Devil, peeking over the wall. "It's you. What do you want?"

"Well, sir," answers Jack, "we've had a deal, these seven years. And, as bad as I hate it, I'm here to hold up my end. Open up."

"Oh, no," said the Devil. "Oh, no. There'll be none of that. You treated me ill, Jack, shabby and very ill, indeed. And I'm not the forgiving type. Maybe you've heard."

"What?" says Jack. "I can't come in? Why, what's to become of me?"

"Not my problem, Jack" answers old Nick. "You can't go back 'cause that old body's worn out. You shan't set foot in here. You high yourself on up the road there to the other place. Maybe they'll have some use for you." The Devil pointed to a twisting path that disappeared in the darkness.

"The other place," mumbles Jack to himself. "Well, we'll try. But, say there. That road from here to there is awful dark. You got a light I could borrow?"

The Devil reached behind him into Hell and picked up a glowing coal. "Here," he called, and threw the blazing coal at Jack. "You keep it. You would, anyway." Old Nick turned his back on Jack and disappeared into the flames.

The coal was far too hot for Jack to pick up, so he used his knife to rake it into the hollowed out turnip. Then he poked a couple of holes in the turnip to let the light out, and down the road he went.

Now, you probably guessed that when he got to the Pearly Gates at the other place, they set the dogs on him. Back down the dark road he went, his glowing coal lighting the way, but no one would answer when he pounded on the doors ot Hell. Finally, with no place open to him, he Jack returned to this world. Problem was, he no longer had a body. There was nothing left for him but to wander from place to place, just as he'd always done, he and his glowing coal from a fire that never dies. In the bogs and marshes and fields of the old country, you sometimes see a lonely light, drifting through the mists. To follow it leads to dark and dangerous places, and some never return.

Folks who knew about Jack, they'd carve out a turnip, and put a light inside just to make him think their house was some place he shouldn't ought to be, a place where a thieving scoundrel ghost wasn't welcome. Later, when folks ate less turnips, they used a pumpkin, which was bigger and brighter and easier to carve. We use them still today, and many's the Halloween when my house looks like a glowing, flickering punkin patch, all those toothy and toothless orange faces peering into the night, shooing away the spooks.

And Old Jack? He's out there somewhere still, drifting and wandering. Without even a home in Hell.

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