The Legend of Stingy Jack Or The Origin of the Jack-O’-Lantern
For as long as anyone in the town could remember, Stingy Jack was Stingy Jack. No one could recall his full name, and if you asked, people would either tell you the figuring wasn’t worth the time or they would screw up their eyes real good and wrinkle their noses until something in their brain sputtered to a stop, forcing them to shrug their shoulders in defeat. But to be honest, the latter reaction was rare—people might even tell you that his current name was the one he’d had all along, and it had just taken some time to bubble to the surface and reveal itself. And it reveal itself it did.
Stingy Jack was Stingy Jack.
How stingy was he? Well, let me tell you—he lived only a moment’s walk from the finest bakery in town. Whenever he needed to get bread, however, he would hobble an extra fifteen minutes to the other side of town to a second bakery, one far less pleasant than the first and known to have sold a mouldy item or two to dismayed customers, because the loaves cost just a few pounds less. And when he went to pubs, he would drink his beer until he got near the bottom of his mug, from which point he would sidle to the toilet and water down the rest of his pint. Returning to the bar, he’d demand a fresh drink.
That’s how stingy he was.
What else was there to know about Stingy Jack, then? He was old, older than the oldest things in town—except maybe some trees—and he had a gimp that he’d sustained from years working the land before moving into town as a gaffer. Or, at least, so he claimed—you can imagine that many in the town were skeptical of his assertions. The fact that he was a drunkard didn’t aid his cause, either, nor the fact that he enjoyed playing tricks on folk who deserved nothing of the sort—once, he took an ancient pair of socks that hadn’t been washed in ages, so much so that they had turned yellow, and hidden them in his neighbour’s pillowcase while the poor bloke was out. The fellow was kept awake all night, trying to find the source of the putrid smell. That was the sort of thing Stingy Jack found positively priceless.
Now that you know what sort Stingy Jack was, we can begin our tale.
One windy evening in late autumn, Stingy Jack made his way down to the local pub as was his nature. He limped inside and up to the bar, behind which a young dark haired man was polishing glasses. The man grimaced—whether it was for the smell or merely his arrival, we’ll never know—when Stingy Jack sat upon a stool right in front of him.
“Hullo, Collin,” grunted Stingy Jack from on his stool. He clasped his grubby hands on the clean counter. “I’m knackered—I could ate a reverend mother! What’s cookin’ tonight?”
Said Collin the bartender, “Homemade stew with lamb. Nora’s specialty.”
“I’ll have a bowl, then. But make sure there’s no bloody turnips in it! You know I hate them blasted things,” growled Stingy Jack, lifting his hand to his left armpit and scratching laboriously. “I’ll have a beer, too.”
While Collin began bustling about with Stingy Jack’s order, he kept making glances past him, as if there was something extremely interesting that he had to keep checking up on. But he wouldn’t stare long, always looking away after a moment of turning his head in the same direction. Stingy Jack even thought the young man had a slight blush to his cheeks, once.
When Collin placed a pint in front of Stingy Jack, the top of the mug brimming with foam, he looked again, and Stingy Jack was fed up.
“Whatcha on about?” demanded the gaffer as he grabbed for the beer.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what I says,” Stingy Jack replied impatiently. “You’re turnin’ your head more than an owl over a field o’ mice!”
There was no mistake about it this time—Collin blushed furiously. He quickly grabbed an already-spotless glass and began to polish it fervently. “Look behind you. In the far left corner. But be subtle!”
Unfortunately, subtly had no dominion in the heart of Stingy Jack. Swinging around on his stool and taking a deep swig of beer that left some foam lingering in his beard, he pointed to a table in the far left corner of the room where a young woman was sitting alone, her eyes cast downward to a piece of parchment she appeared to be reading.
“Her?” burped Stingy Jack.
“Turn around, turn around!” Collin said in a hoarse whisper, snapping at Stingy Jack with his cleaning rag. “Don’t let her catch you staring, you stook!”
“All right, all right,” said Stingy Jack, swivelling back around on his stool and lifting his pint to his lips again. “Quit your olagonin’.”
“Isn’t she beautiful? What a ride,” Collin muttered dreamily.
Then Stingy Jack made a strange sound. It was somewhere between a guffaw and a drunken hiccup, and it was scratchy like steel wool. Several people in the pub turned their heads, appalled at Stingy Jack’s laughter.
“Hard to tell from here,” said the gaffer with a toothy grin and wink to the young bartender.
It was then that Stingy Jack’s meal was delivered, and he picked it up with a steady hand. “Watch and learn.” And he hopped off the stool and waddled towards the table in the far left corner of the room.
Collin just watched in shock, his mouth hanging agape. Then he mumbled something akin to “You rumbly muppet” and began polishing glasses again, glancing in the direction of the table every five seconds or so.
“Hullo, Miss,” said Stingy Jack once he had reached the table. “Mind if I take a squat?”
The young woman raised her head from her parchment and looked at him.
Stingy Jack wasn’t the type to get scared all that often. He had seen his share of frightful things throughout his raucous life, and so when he felt a shiver run up his spine it felt foreign and unnatural, and for a brief instant it just about caused him to drop his bowl of stew.
The woman’s face was pale, as if she didn’t see the sun very often, her hair was a dark curtain that hung down straight and easy, and her eyes were a peculiar shade of stormy grey such that Stingy Jack thought he could see tiny thunderclouds rolling around and behind her pupils. She was slender and small, but beautiful in the way she poised herself and in the shape of her round face, and as she looked at him her expression was not of surprise nor disgust—in fact, she appeared indifferent.
“Hello,” she said in a velvet voice. “No, I don’t mind.”
Stingy Jack thought about turning back and returning to the bar, but he quickly told himself he was being irrational and that there was nothing to be bothered by. Sure, this woman was a little odd, but who wasn’t in this town? Heck, such a woman might be refreshing to talk to after all. At least she was interesting and not at all hard on the eyes.
So Stingy Jack took a seat across from her and set down his beer and stew. The woman had already returned to reading the piece of parchment that sat in front of her. As he began to shovel spoonfuls of lamb and vegetables into his mouth, Stingy Jack could see Collin still watching them from the corner of his eye.
“Y’know,” said Stingy Jack through a mouthful of stew, “my friend over there has a glad eye for ya. I reckon he’d snog you right here in the pub if he had a chance.”
“That’s a shame,” said the woman without looking up. “He won’t see me for years after tonight.”
Stingy Jack swallowed. He was beginning to feel more comfortable, and he gave Collin a thumbs up, who reacted by turning stark white and sagging back against the cabinet behind him. “Oh yeah? Not from around here, are ya?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Here for business?”
“You could say that.”
“Not eating? Stew’s sublime.”
“I do not carry your sort of currency.”
Stingy Jack indicated the parchment with his spoon. “Whatcha reading there?”
“The business,” replied the woman in her velvet voice, glancing up from the parchment to fix him with her stormy gaze. “I’m a collector.”
“Ah,” said Stingy Jack, waving his spoon around in the air before driving it back down into his stew. “Bit of a bugger of a job, that. Taxes?”
“Souls,” answered the woman in a casual tone. Stingy Jack hadn’t seen her blink once since sitting down. “You see, I’m Death.”
Stingy Jack paused, spoon in his mouth, white brows raised. His face was one of skepticism, but that uncanny shudder returned deep down in his gut, and he had to remove the spoon from his mouth lest he crack his teeth by biting down on the metal. The conversation in the air around them had not changed, and so Stingy Jack assumed that no one had heard.
“You’re Death?” said Stingy Jack slowly. “You expect me to believe that?”
The woman called Death lifted up the piece of parchment so that Stingy Jack could see it in the dim lighting. He squinted. On the parchment was a long list of names written in beautiful calligraphy. Most of them were stroked out, and only two remained unscathed.
A yelp of surprise came from Stingy Jack’s lips, and he pointed to one of the untouched names. “That there’s one of my neighbours! Dylan O’Malley! He’s been ill for ages, that old bloke.”
Death nodded her head. “Yes. He shall die this night, in the wee hours of the morning. I have come to take him away.”
Stingy Jack leaned back in his chair and thought about this. At first, that guttural disturbance overwhelmed him, and he felt rather ill himself. He believed she was Death, all right, though if you had asked him in that moment why he was so sure, he wouldn’t have been able to give you a straight answer.
If there was one thing Stingy Jack didn’t like, it was being out of control. He had always felt like he had the upper hand in any confrontation he’d come across—until now, that was. The thought made him extra queazy, and in response the wheels in his mind began turning at a rapid rate, until a sudden thought popped into his head.
All at once, he relaxed.
“Says I believe ya,” Stingy Jack began, again speaking slowly. “Since it’s business and all, would you be willin’ to make a deal?”
At this, Death’s stormy eyes flashed and a slight eagerness came into her velvet voice. “Perhaps. What sort of deal?”
Stingy Jack lifted his mug to his lips and tilted his head back, draining it of its contents. Then he smacked his lips, set it back on the table, and nodded at it.
“If you pay for one last drink,” said Stingy Jack, “you can take my soul.”
Death eyed him closely. “You would exchange your soul for a drink?”
“I’ve lived a lifetime,” said Stingy Jack with a shrug.
Slipping the parchment into a pocket of her cobweb jacket, Death then leaned forward and propped her elbows on the table, interlacing her thin, pale fingers. In the first obvious expression she had made all night, her face split into a cheshire cat grin, and it was all Stingy Jack could do not to let loose a cry of fear.
“I pegged you for a runner,” she said. “I love runners. The last good runner I had was just past his eighty-seventh year. He’d spent too many of those years on the pipe—his lungs were failing him.” A hungry look crept into her eyes as she spoke. “He was meant to die just past twilight, and fade with the setting sun. But wouldn’t you know it, he didn’t! The time came and went, and he was still on earth. When I arrived at his bedside, he had gone—he was out in his garden, white and fragile, but alive. Perhaps the flowers revived him. I do not know. But occasionally such things happen, and so he became a runner. He outran me thrice more, to his credit. I stood over him each of those three times, and waited. I watched him gasp and struggle, wriggle and sob. I felt the terror in his heart, fresh and pungent with each near-fatal experience. And then, when the fourth attack came, I caught him. I took him by the hand and led him into the dark. He screamed so much for a man who had lived alone, I remember.”
Stingy Jack listened in silence, quite unlike him. He tried to keep his focus on the current moment, but he couldn’t help imagining a shaken old man lying helpless in a burgeoning garden, mucus and drool seeping from his orifices, tears streaming down his face as he tried to escape the inevitable. Stingy Jack didn’t feel very thirsty anymore.
“I love runners,” Death repeated, the memory seeming to satiate her just a tad. She straightened in her seat. “I would’ve liked to see you give it a try. But there is also a satisfaction in a well-made deal. While I’m not sure that’s what this is for you, I would be loathe to pass upon it myself. So.” Extending her slender arm halfway across the table, Death waited. Her small hand was steady.
Stingy Jack looked at her hand, then reached out with his own craggy one and gave her a firm shake.
The cheshire cat grin was back, and Death’s eyes were gleaming despite the pub’s subdued atmosphere. She twisted elegantly in her seat and called out, “Bartender! Another round for this man,” before turning back to face the old gaffer.
A scrambling could be heard over at the counter, and then the brisk footsteps of Collin as he arrived at the table with his chest heaving. Stingy Jack had never seen him move so quickly, and he chortled heartily, taking the pint off the tray that Collin was holding.
The lad’s eyes were locked on the pale woman, nearly bulging from his head as he licked his lips. It was as if he’d never seen a woman before. A strange sensation washed over Stingy Jack, then, and he suddenly had to try very hard to keep himself from laughing.
She was Death, after all.
“W-will there b-be anything else, Miss?” Collin blubbered, completely ignoring Stingy Jack.
Death shook her dark head and smiled at him sweetly—a look as fake as a flattering tailor, Stingy Jack could tell—and told the young man that there would be no more drinks for them this evening. Then she complimented him on a well-run establishment and told him she would return someday.
“T-thank you, Miss,” Collin said. “Well, um, p-paying’s at the front, before you go.” And with that he tottered away, eyes still wide as anything, lost in a lovestruck stupor with a big silly grin plastered across his face.
It didn’t take long for Stingy Jack to finish his drink. Even though it was his last, he drank it with the relish of a dry-throated man, some of the beer even escaping the corners of his mouth to dribble down into his beard.
Death watched patiently.
With a satisfied belch, Stingy Jack set the mug down firmly upon the tabletop. He ran the back of his hand across his mouth, and then looked at the unblinking woman.
“Was it worth it?” she asked.
“Best drink I ever had,” Stingy Jack said with a wry smile. “Guess all that’s left’s the payin’, for you and me both.”
Death rummaged in her jacket pockets momentarily before frowning. “Ah, yes. None of your currency. No matter—I shall turn myself into a coin to pay for the drink. Once you have paid, I shall meet you outside and collect what’s mine.”
Stingy Jack was about to ask one of several questions, but before he could get any of them out he blinked and the young woman was gone. In her place upon the table, however, sat a single shiny sixpence. Looking around once to see if anyone had noticed the woman’s disappearance—no one had—he reached across the table, picked up the coin, and pocketed it.
Now, no one had ever accused Stingy Jack of being a pious man. He hadn’t been to church in years and the last time he’d gone, he’d been there solely to get a swig of wine. At home he rarely prayed, and although he believed there probably was a God, he also believed that said God had never done a damn thing for him. And yet, it was a good thing to appear Christian—it could get you out of a lot troublesome interactions. So Stingy Jack made sure to carry with him wherever he went a small wooden cross that he kept hidden in his coat pocket.
It was into this pocket that he slipped the transfigured sixpence.
Rising from his chair, he limped over to the bar and, taking coins from his other pocket, paid Collin for the drink.
“Where’d that lass run off to?” said the bartender after taking the payment.
Stingy Jack shrugged. “Dunno. She’s here on business, she said.”
Collin’s face fell. “Ah. I see.”
“Don’t worry your young head ‘bout it. I can guarantee you you’ll see her again someday,” said Stingy Jack.
“You think so?”
“Oh ya. Most definitely.”
A moment later, Stingy Jack was stepping outside into the foggy night. The lamp from above the bar door flickered every few seconds, and high above him the moon shone like a silver disc. The autumn night was cold and still rather windy, and the cobblestone streets were wet beneath the layer of fog.
“All right,” said Stingy Jack to his pocket. “I dunno if you can hear me in there. Gimme a sign if you can.”
At first, nothing. Then a chilly breeze washed over him, and with it came the velvet voice he had heard only minutes ago. It sounded as if it were coming from within his own head.
I hear you, it said. It was not pleased.
A shiver ran down Stingy Jack’s spine. “I’ll letcha go. But I got another exchange for you first, y’hear? I let you go, and you let me be for another ten years. That’s ten years with no shot at dyin’. Agree to it, and I’ll letcha free.”
Again, a pause.
Fine, came the eventual reply.
Stingy Jack pulled the sixpence out of his pocket and held it in his open palm. A blink later, and the coin was gone.
In front of him stood Death, and her stormy eyes were blazing. But then she did something unexpected: She grinned her cheshire cat grin, ivory teeth like a beacon in the night.
“Seems I had you pegged properly after all,” she said. “Well then, runner, you have ten years. See that you make the most of them, for the next time I come shall be the last.”
And Stingy Jack was alone in the dark, the lamplight flickering behind him. He drew in a deep breath, listened to the silence.
Ten years. He had ten more years of total, unobstructed freedom.
He allowed himself a smile, then, and turned around to head back into the bar. He wanted a drink—this was cause for celebration! Besides, he needed something to stop his legs from shaking.
For ten years, Stingy Jack had not feared death. Despite getting older and the wrinkles on his forehead multiplying tenfold, he had continued on living with snark in his voice and a skip in his step. None of his habits had ceased—and why should they, they couldn’t hurt him?—and he was very much the same Stingy Jack he’d always been, playing tricks on unassuming folk and drinking the nights away in Collin’s bar. Never once had he felt even a touch of illness, to the surprise of those who knew him.
Never, that was, until the Anniversary.
The Anniversary was what Stingy Jack called October 31st, for that was the day he had met Death and tricked her into prolonging his life. With each passing Anniversary, Stingy Jack had grown more and more aware of his looming fate, and while he tried to prepare for it, the thought only served to make him restless and jittery, so most of the time he would push it to the side and hope that maybe, somehow, Death might just forget about him.
The ten-year Anniversary had not started off well. Stingy Jack had awoken with a start, having had a nightmare about a small pale woman sneaking into his room and lifting him from his sheets with impossible ease, laughing a demonic laugh that could not have come from a real human being. Stingy Jack had struggled to move but found himself immobile, and she had carried him down some steps that descended into nothingness, her laughter booming endlessly through the dark.
Stingy Jack felt queazy and blood thumped in his ears. He neither ate nor drank that morning, and eventually decided that he needed some air.
Getting dressed, the old gaffer exited his home and wandered to a nearby apple orchard that had once belonged to his former neighbour Dylan O’Malley. He sucked in the crisp autumn air as he went, ashen leaves crunching beneath his heavy footsteps—his gimp had only gotten stiffer with age—and the slate sky preventing any rogue rays of sunshine from slipping through.
There was no one else in the orchard. The trees stood tall and proud, and an assortment of apples could be found hanging from various branches, fresh and ripe as October apples are wont to be. There were red ones and green ones, firm ones and soft ones.
Stingy Jack set down the basket he had brought with him and began to putter around the place, picking what he could from the lower branches. As he worked, his mind began to wander, and slowly the morning’s terror began to leave him until he was happily humming an old sailor’s tune and wondering if, perhaps, he really had been forgotten.
The weather, on the other hand, was not so cheery. The breeze had picked up and become a full-on wind, and the slate sky was now frothing with movement, producing darker, brooding clouds that looked ready to rain at any given moment. The temperature itself had dropped a degree or so, and caused Stingy Jack to pull his woollen coat closer to his body.
He dropped a final crimson apple into his basket and glanced up at the sky.
Silent bursts of light were now flashing within the clouds, fabricating odd shapes and faces that seemed to laugh at him before fading away. The images unnerved him, serving only to remind him of what his apple picking had so blissfully pushed from his thoughts.
Picking up his full basket with a grunt, Stingy Jack began to hobble towards the exit of the orchard. But as he approached the spot where the trees opened up to an empty field, with the old O’Malley house in the near distance, he found that the opening was gone. Now there were only more trees, their long branches criss-crossing the former exit like clasped hands.
Then came a voice from on the wind that said, “Hello, runner.”
Stingy Jack whirled around. Looked left, looked right, but saw nothing at all.
Then he looked down.
A pair of stormy grey eyes watched him from at his feet with piercing intensity. As he stared, the unblinking eyes began to rise, and with them came the rest of a young woman, slender and pale, her dark hair a curtain about her head. She rose like a shadow, translucent at first, an afterimage of herself, and then all at once she was opaque, several inches from his body with a cheshire cat grin stretching slowly across her face.
“Time’s up,” said Death.
It was all Stingy Jack could do to keep from breaking down into tears. Instead, he merely shook his head and feebly raised the basket of apples before letting it drop down again. His mind was a blur of emotion and all of the plans he had concocted to deal with this moment. He stood rooted to the ground now, frozen.
“No man lives forever. Do you know why that is?” Death asked in her velvet voice. It was as if the wind didn’t affect her words—Stingy Jack could hear her clear as day, even with the storm closing upon them. “Every life is a story containing its own unique protagonist and a cast of colourful minor characters. The plot is often extraordinarily dull and simple, but it’s the choices the protagonist makes that fashions something worth reading. And what decisions you have made! Added chapters and all. But every story must end. They must. It is a true shame that no one will ever know this peculiar little anecdote of yours.”
Stingy Jack said nothing, his mind still racing.
“You’ve authored your tale, runner.” Death offered a small hand. “Let me take you to the epilogue.”
You can call Stingy Jack a lot of things, but a quitter is not one of them. Even as he looked at her hand, he found the courage to speak once again.
“Aye,” he said, his voice scratchy. He swallowed. “I’ll come with ya, as promised. But if this is the last o’ me here, could you grant me one last request?”
Death eyed him.
“I love apples,” Stingy Jack continued. “You see that there?” He pointed at a large tree to their left. “Way at the top there is the most good lookin’ apple I ever seen. But my legs ain’t what they used to be, and I’m cut to the bone with trying to fetch it. In fact, I’m too racked to climb much at all these days.”
Death’s stormy gaze narrowed, the wind whipping her dark hair. “The apple. Then we go.”
Stingy Jack watched as Death stepped away from him and, rather than climbing, began to rise into the air, headed for the apple hanging from the uppermost part of the tree.
Well, can you believe it, the old gaffer then took a tiny, rusty knife from his pocket and waited. Once the woman was actually seated upon the branch and reaching for the apple, Stingy Jack stumbled over to the trunk of the tree and proceeded to carve crosses all around its base. He moved as if his life depended on it because, of course, it did.
“Here’s your apple,” Death called from above, tossing the fruit down to him. Stingy Jack caught it in the nook of his arm and hurriedly hid his knife back in his pocket. “What are you doing down there?”
Stingy Jack took a step back from the tree and held his breath.
Death made a movement as if to drop from the branch, but then stopped. She looked back and forth, feet dangling, until her bleak eyes met Stingy Jack’s.
In a soft voice that barely contained the seething rage threatening to explode from it, Death said, “What have you done?”
“Funny thing,” Stingy Jack said, finally allowing himself to relax a little now that he was sure his plan had worked, “I carved crosses into the tree there. So I reckon you might be stuck, like last time.”
Now it was Death who said nothing.
“I want something else from you, in exchange for your freedom,” said Stingy Jack.
Stingy Jack shook his head. “Naw. I figure you were right ‘bout stories needin’ to end and such. I have lived a lifetime now, no lies. Naw, what I want is to be able to see out the rest o’ the season, ‘cause it’s my favourite, and then when you come to take me away, I want you to promise me you won’t let me go to hell.” He said these last few words with as much strength as he could muster.
The rain had begun while they were speaking, and Stingy Jack hoped that Death had heard him properly. She did not answer at once, although she never looked away from him, and the storm in her grey eyes was much fiercer than the one that raged over them both.
“Granted,” she said finally, cutting through the rain with her velvet voice.
Dutifully, Stingy Jack limped back over to the tree and cut the crosses into a number of wonky shapes no longer resembling crosses, and as soon as he had finished with the last one, Death was beside him.
“See you soon, runner,” she said, this time without a smile.
Stingy Jack blinked and she was gone. He rubbed his eyes, looked around, but he saw no one.
Walking over to his basket, Stingy Jack reached down and picked up the apple Death had retrieved for him. And wouldn’t you know it, he took a big bite right then and there—with rain pelting his face and lightning overhead!—and munched until the whole thing was gone.
Stingy Jack died of a heart attack.
The townspeople were rather surprised—they’d figured he was dying slowly from his love of the bottle or overuse of his worn olive pipe. He’d been around so long that they weren’t sure he was ever going to die at all. But as all human beings must leave the mortal realm, so too did Stingy Jack.
They buried him only a few days after his presumed death on December 21st—it was presumed because the old gaffer lived alone, and had no relatives that anyone knew of—not far from the apple orchard he had frequented during life. There a bottle of wine, his pipe, and a small wooden cross they had found in his pocket—they were surprised to discover this—were placed next to his tombstone.
The funeral was small, for reasons that I’m sure you must by now understand. But Collin was there, for he was the one who brought the bottle of wine. There weren’t many words spoken, and the ones that were danced around what type of man Stingy Jack had really been. No one knew of his family or history, and so there wasn’t much to say in that regard, either.
Even the man’s tombstone was ambiguous. They didn’t know when Stingy Jack had been born, and so his birthdate had simply been left off. Beneath the date of his death was written the line: Here lies Stingy Jack, who lived as long as he wished to.
Stingy Jack was cold.
He opened his eyes slowly. His entire body felt numb and a little stiff, and his head was swimming as if he were trapped in a lucid dream. He blinked a few times and looked around him.
Nothing. He was standing in nothing.
So Stingy Jack accepted that he was standing in nothing and he waited. He waited for what felt like an eternity—and perhaps it was—until the nothing in front of him began to ripple, as if he were positioned in front of a mirror made of water.
The nothing rippled soundlessly until suddenly there wasn’t just nothing, and there was something. That something was two gigantic golden gates, towering above Stingy Jack proudly and radiating an awing sense of hopefulness. Golden bars ran along them, spiralling up and down, this way and that, forming grand shapes that sometimes Stingy Jack could understand, and other times could not. Once he swore he saw the image of a golden angel, but the next time he blinked it was gone, replaced by a completely unrelated, twisted figure.
Stingy Jack couldn’t see behind the gates.
“Why art thou here?” boomed a voice from everywhere. It was loud and demanding and rattled him to his very core, but Stingy Jack couldn’t tell you more than that if he’d tried. He didn’t know if the voice was male or female, and really he wasn’t sure if it was a voice at all, or something occurring entirely in his own head.
“I’m dead, I think,” he replied. His own voice seemed nonexistent in comparison, swallowed up by the nothing. “I want to be let in. Into heaven.”
“Which heaven dost thou speakest of?” asked the voice.
Stingy Jack’s brow crinkled. “What?”
Came the voice again, “Men and women seek many eternal houses under many eternal names. Of which dost thou speak?”
“I s’pose the Christian one,” said Stingy Jack dazedly.
The esoteric voice did not speak for what may have been another eternity. Then it said, “Thou art known, man. Thy deeds in life were lecherous, vile, and corrupt. Thou hast sinned such that thy sought house shalt not keep thee. Thou cannot enter here.”
“What?” asked Stingy Jack again. “But—“
“Be gone!” boomed the voice so loudly that Stingy Jack was forced to clap his hands to his ears and squeeze his eyes shut. He felt like he was tumbling, falling backwards over himself through the nothing over and over and over. It was what he imagined being a wagon wheel must feel like, and so he kept his eyes shut until the whirring in his ears and the lurching of his stomach came to a full stop.
When he opened them again, he was standing just as before. Nothing was different, save for the fact that the golden gates were gone. In their place a chasm had opened up, wide and bottomless. Stingy Jack did not approach it, for much like how the gates had filled him with a sense of hope, this chasm filled him with a sense of dread. The inner walls of the chasm glowed red and orange with heat, and a thin coil of smoke wafted up into the nothing.
“Hullo?” called out Stingy Jack timidly.
“Hello, runner,” a velvet voice answered.
Turning so that the chasm was behind him, Stingy Jack saw a small woman approaching him. Her pale skin stood out in the murk of the nothing, and her stormy eyes were brighter than Stingy Jack had ever seen them. A cheshire cat grin was already stretched across her face, and a hint of triumph emanated from her countenance.
“Where am I?” asked Stingy Jack.
“Right now? Lost,” said Death. A horrible giggle escaped her lips, a sound like fingernails on a chalkboard. “And it looks like it may stay that way.”
Stingy Jack squinted. “What do you mean?”
Death’s grin was ivory, and if it had been any bigger it would’ve enveloped her entire face. “You are locked out. So now you’re here, at the entrance to Christian hell.” Stingy Jack could feel the heat from the chasm on his back. “But you made me promise to not let you go there, and I keep my word. This time, deliciously so.”
Another high-pitched, screeching giggle.
“But then,” said Stingy Jack, languidly beginning to put things into place, “where can I go?”
“Oh where indeed! Why, the only place you can go!” Death grinned at him. “Back to where you came from!”
Stingy Jack looked past her into the nothing. Somewhere in the distance—which could have been a minute’s walk or ten hours’ worth—there existed what seemed to be a sort of tunnel. It writhed and swirled, a blacker pathway than any Stingy Jack had ever seen. It was not dark. It was stygian.
“But how will I see to find my way back?” Stingy Jack pleaded. “And what shall I do when I get there?”
From nowhere Death produced a large turnip and held it out for him. He took it with bewilderment, his nose scrunched up at the sight of the vegetable. Turning it over in his hands, he saw it had carved upon it a crude face—two round holes for eyes and a large, gaping pear-shape for a mouth.
It looked as if it were in pain.
“Here,” said Death, and she held out another item, this one a glowing black and red ember. Reaching through the turnip’s mouth, she dropped the ember, causing the entire turnip to suddenly emit a ghostly pale light that stretched much farther than Stingy Jack supposed it should. “That is an ember from hell. It’ll never go out. You’re lucky I love runners.”
Stingy Jack looked back at the tunnel. He looked down at the turnip.
“As for what to do when you get there,” continued Death, her grin once again threatening to completely take over her face, “you carry on with your story. Enjoy your epilogue, runner.”
Then she was gone, and Stingy Jack was alone.
He glanced back at the chasm only to find that it also had disappeared. Looking forward once more, he noted that the tunnel was, unfortunately, still there.
So Stingy Jack did the only thing he could do, and he started off towards the tunnel, his turnip-lantern lifted high.
Eventually, he reached it, and found that it was even darker and more tumultuous than he had first perceived. It was windy, too, and the moaning gale rushed past him and nipped at his extremities.
Stingy Jack stood there for a long time, perhaps an eternity, and then he entered the tunnel. And if you had been there with him at the entrance to watch him go, you would’ve seen him vanish after his first step, it was so dark—but you would also have seen the phantom glow cast by a queer somber face appearing to float on its own, searching for its way back home.
Since then it’s said that Stingy Jack still roams the earth without a final resting place to go to. Many folk have claimed to have seen him hovering over peat bogs or gliding about graveyards or taking ancient church-ways, always appearing as a strange light emanating from what sources say is a carved out turnip.
People have dubbed this a jack-o’-lantern, and nowadays spend time making their own during the autumn season, when Stingy Jack is supposedly seen most. They use them to ward off evil spirits, leaving them on doorsteps with candles inside of them.
So now you know the legend of Stingy Jack, and of jack-o’-lanterns, and I hope it’s taught you some sort of lesson. What that lesson is, I can’t say I know myself. But as Death so tactfully put it: Every life is a story.
Write yours well.