Jack Síomón and the Devil’s Lantern
A Short Story by Kim Harris Thacker
The alms box is naught but inky shadow, stretched cat-like along the length o’ the shelf behind the altar. ‘Tis bad luck to cross paths with a hell-born feline, and when you’ve drunk away all the coin you earned from your pumpkin harvest, ‘tis just as unlucky to cross paths with an alms box at Sunday meetin’. Especially if the parish priest was the one what bought most o’ your pumpkins the day before.
Though ‘tis night now, and hours have passed since Father Malloy called me out, his sermon still rings in me ears:
“Faithless Síomón Pedear! He sunk ‘neath the waves when the more believin’ would’ve trod ‘em like they was solid earth! When the cock crew, he was ashamed, for he’d thrice denied the master!” And all the while, Father Malloy’s eyes was fixed on me, Jack Síomón, who’d passed the alms box along to his shamefaced wife without dropping a coin into the jingle.
The wind blows the naked trees outside, and I curse under me breath, for the moonshine falls in reds, blues, and greens through the stained glass o’ the Annunciation and onto a lock at the front o’ the alms box. ‘Tis the size o’ Eden’s own bedeviled apple, that lock. I slam me fist onto the shelf, and the box jumps: a locked box that ain’t locked to anythin’.
A locked box what’s made o’ wood and will bust like a pumpkin, sure.
Into me arms, like a mewlin’ babe, and out we go! I hitch up me trousers, one-handed, and snatch at the doorknob. That’s when Father Malloy stumbles through a side door, mussy-headed and holdin’ a lantern aloft.
Down the box goes, onto the floor. A mighty crash, like the waves o’ the Red Sea breakin’ on Pharaoh’s head.
Aye, just like a pumpkin: The box busts, and coins skitter away in every direction—shinin’ beetley-bugs what some choirboy will pocket in the morn, thinkin’ to show his mam. I scramble and scoop, scramble and scoop.
“Stop! Thief!” Father Malloy bellows.
“What is it, Father?” And here’s the curate, come down from his cot in the room behind the choir loft.
I put me head down and bull to the main door with only a handful o’ jinglers in me pocket. Still, it’s enough to buy a dozen pints at the Fife and Drum.
“Ye’ll have the Devil to pay for your thievin’, whoever ye be!” Father Malloy shouts, and I congratulate meself for thinkin’ to nail a cross into the soles o’ me boots. ‘Twill draw off the scent–if I can get free in the first place, that is; for the curate, less the talkin’ sort and more the doin’, gives chase.
Bed-dressed though he be, he’s a swift one. We’re off through High Street and down Baker’s Lane, and it isn’t ‘til I’ve dodged down a good few alleys and have ended up in the one between the blacksmith’s and the cooper’s that I finally lose him.
Or do I?
A shuffle from a doorway, and then a tall, tall figure blocks me path.
“Jacky Síomón.” The voice is thunder in me bones and a hiss in me ears. “I’ve come for ye, Jacky.”
“What d’ye mean?” I step back. “Who are ye?”
The figure throws off the hood o’ his cloak, and though I’ve ne’er seen him before, I know he’s the devil, come for me soul.
“Come along, Jacky. We’ve a mile or two to walk this night.”
Me legs set to shakin’, but if I’ve learned aught in this world, ’tis this: Ne’er show your fear to them as would knock ye down. Besides, I’m not about to leave this world without spendin’ me new jinglers. I’ve a powerful hankerin’ for a pint.
I plug me hands into me pockets, casual-like. Me fear o’ the Devil’s puny compared to the chill what crawls up me spine and settles in me throat at the discovery that there’s naught but a hole in me pocket!
I force a smile, though, for Jack Síomón can act as well as any travelin’ player.
“Sir, I’m flattered ye’ve come for me,” I says. “A busy man like ye are…I wouldn’t think ye’d have the time for Jack Síomón, the pumpkin farmer. Would’ve thought ye’d send one o’ your servants to do the job.”
I’m must be half-devil meself, for I know exactly how this’ll make Old Scratch feel.
“I come for all and sundry,” he replies. “Ye needn’t think yourself above anyone else who enters me realm.”
“No, no. O’ course not. I just thought…since all grand folks have servants to do their biddin’…Ye have servants, don’t ye?”
“Oh. That’s real fine. I’m sure ye’d be up to your neck in work, without ‘em. Ye must find ‘em indispensible.”
“I need no one to assist me in accomplishin’ me work. Me power be more than sufficient.”
“But…ye do have servants?”
“Ye doubt me, do ye, Jacky?”
“Oh, no. Lord Connelly, up the manor—he’s got servants, and he’s a powerful sort.”
“Ye would compare me to a human? To an insignificant earl?”
Oh, but he’s proper proud, the Devil.
“Not insignificant,” I says. “Lord Connelly’s influential. I’m payin’ ye a compliment, Devil, sir. To be likened to Lord Connelly…well. That’s somethin’ to make a man stand up tall, that is.”
For a moment, I think I’ve overdone it. But then the Devil’s eyes go back to black, instead o’ red, and he glowers at me.
“Shall I prove me prowess to ye, Jacky?”
“Would ye? That’d be lovely, that would. And ye could have a bit o’ fun at the same time!”
The Devil quirks a sleek, black eyebrow.
“See, Devil sir, there’s a curate chasin’ me, on account o’ I stole the parish alms box.”
The Devil allows himself a small smile. “He’s nearby, followin’ your trail o’ coins.”
I pat me legs with me pocketed hands and put a look o’ surprise on me face. “I’ll be! If I haven’t lost ev’ry farthin’! Oh, well…’tis me luck. Still, this’ll make for a fine joke! If ye turn yourself into a coin, sir, the curate will pick ye up and take ye into the church, with the rest o’ the offerin’ money. He’ll bring ye in, which is better than bein’ invited. Think o’ the havoc ye could wreak, and upon a church!”
The Devil looks over me shoulder, surely imaginin’ himself causin’ all manner o’ destruction. Then he looks down at me. “And such an action—turning meself into a coin—will satisfy ye? Ye’ll recognize me great power by such a menial feat?”
“Lord Connelly can’t do naught o’ the sort, sir.”
The Devil shrinks afore me eyes and turns into a big, shinin’ coin. I step on him, right quick, with me iron-crossed heel. He’s mine. I’ve trapped him.
The wicked grin slips from me face, though, when I think that mayhap he’s trapped me. For the curate must be terrible close, by now, and if I step off the Devil, sure he’ll avenge himself upon me.
But Jacky Síomón’s a cunnin’ man as well as an actor and thief.
Me boot laces bear a knot what’s lasted three months, and I ain’t about to untie such a happy creation. It takes some doin’, but soon enough me foot’s free o’ me boot, and me boot’s still atop the Devil. With me cheek against the cold cobbles, I slide a shiv o’ tin what I pinched from the blacksmith’s rubbish barrel beneath the Devil and raise him and the boot up. I pitch the tin away and hold the Devil fast to the cross with me own hand.
A huffin’ and a puffin’ like to wake all creation approaches. The curate! Away I go, headed in a roundabout course to me patch.
Never thought I were a soft fellow, bein’ a farmer, but me stockin’ed foot aches somethin’ fierce! I’ve left the cobbles, but e’en these roads is pure murder on me trotters. I head o’er a stile, into O’Leary’s fallow field. Mud and muck to me ankles, but the squish is heaven.
The night be chill, though, and soon enough, I’m shiverin’. Worse, the fog’s come up. I were bound in the right direction before, but now I ain’t certain. All around, ‘tis gray as the smoke from a greenwood fire. Then a pinprick o’ light winks in front o’ me. I’m cold enough that e’en the curate would be a welcome sight.
“Halloo, there! Halloo!”
The light flees, but another bobs up, to me left. ‘Tis a bog spirit! A will-o-the-wisp, what would lead me to a gruesome drownin’! I take a step away from it, and me boot sticks in the peat. Down I go, onto me knees on the ground, and then through it, to me waist. The bog’s got me!
I keep the Devil and the boot high, and I sink. It don’t take much to work the Devil beneath one arm o’ the cross, so he’s pinned up tight against both boot and iron. Now that one o’ me hands is free, I stretch for the true ground, but the movin’ only makes me sink faster. When I’m up to me neck and the boot’s a foot higher than that, and all is more than bleak, I let out a howl.
“Devil! Ye hear me, well I know, though ye be powerless at the moment. ‘Tis a quick count to twenty, and I’m done for. Ye’ll be done then, too, as I’ve got ye fast against an iron cross. So’s I give ye a bargain! I’ll free ye, if ye’ll free me! Ye can’t answer, well I know it, so I give ye the benefit o’ the doubt. Ye be a gentleman, and a gentleman would agree to me terms. See ye keep your word, as I’ve no doubt ye be givin’ it to me right now!”
I pry the coin loose and fling it to the true ground. Me heavy boot slips from me hand and falls on me head, sendin’ me beneath the bog.
* * *
Lyin’ flat on me back, I spew out thick water what’s stronger in taste than spirits o’ the highest proof and not half as rejuvenatin’. The Devil leans o’er me, will-o-the-wisps wreathin’ his head like a crown for the accursed.
“Ye be a fool, Jacky Síomón, thinkin’ ye could walk on bog water. A dead fool.”
“I’m dead?” Sayin’ these words, I see it’s so.
“Aye. Ye said nothin’ about freein’ ye afore ye died, so I waited. Didn’t take long.”
“And now you want me soul.”
“Nay, Jacky.” The Devil looks disgusted at the idea. “I don’t want ye no more. And o’ course, ye ain’t good enough for heaven.”
“But…I’m dead! I have to go somewhere!”
The Devil smiles with fine, white teeth. “Aye, that ye do. So ye’ll wander forever in the blackness ye call Purgatory.”
“Ye’re no gentleman!”
The Devil’s smile grows cold. “ ‘Tis the last time I prove aught o’ meself to ye, Jack Síomón. I’ll show ye how much o’ the gentleman I be by leavin’ ye a light, so ye can see your way through the darkness.”
“A wisp?” I asks.
“Nay. Somethin’ befittin’ Jacky, the pumpkin farmer. Somethin’ recognizable, to warn me servants as well as the heavenly angels to stay well clear o’ Jack-with-the-lantern. Ah. I know the very thing. I’ll even throw in a cinder from hell’s fire. ‘Twill ne’er go out. How’s that for ye, Jacky?”
*This short story was inspired by a bare-bones tale that I discovered on Wikipedia, when I was studying up on the history of Jack-o-Lanterns. I hope you enjoyed it!