Doubtless, our stories were what drew him in.
This was the first real Halloween after our town lifted the Covid restrictions, and most of us were taking advantage of it. My friends and I were probably a little too old to Trick or Treat, but it didn't really matter to us. We made some last-minute costumes and went out to join the kids, though I don't think any of them were fooled. We were thirteen, nearly ready for high school, but they filled our pillowcases nonetheless. Rich was some kind of cowboy, Hank a car crash victim with some red paint and a little makeup, and I had threw on a long cloak from my older sister's costume trunk and some fake vampire teeth to make me look particularly ghoulish and the three of us had hit the street.
The candy was secondary anyway, and we all knew it.
Halloween fell on a Friday this year, you see.
That meant that we could go eat our candy at the firepit once we were done, and our parents probably wouldn't expect us home till late.
The firepit was a common spot for us to go when the weather was good. We would light a fire and tell ghost stories around it, usually roasting marshmallows or hotdogs to go along with the tales. It was something we looked forward to, and it wasn't something we had got to do in a while. So, with our parent's blessing, we put our pillowcases over our shoulders and stalked into the woods that surrounded the cul de sac we all lived in.
The rains had been light this year and after collecting up some branches and getting a fire going, we set about starting our stories as the round Halloween moon hung overhead.
Rich had just begun a story about a group of kids camping in the woods on Halloween when he suddenly stopped and squinted into the trees.
"What?" Asked Hank, clearly smelling mischief as he tossed the stick off a Blowpop into the fire.
"I could have sworn I saw something." Rich said, "Like fairy fire or something."
I turned to look, thinking he was building tension for his story when I saw it too. It was like dancing candles, the shapes bouncing and jouncing in the dark, and the closer it came, the easier it was to recognize. It was too cohesive to be fireflies and too consistent to be anything but what it was. The closer it came, the more I could make out the familiar shapes of a Jack O Lantern, though the realization did little to put me at ease.
Unless it was being carried by a ghost, then someone had to be holding it and the idea of some random person wandering in the woods at night was a little off-putting all on its own.
The owner of the pumpkin turned out to be an old tramp who smelled as if he had bathed in cheap liquor. He came swaying out of the woods, singing a slurry song as he came, and we all hunched a little as we hoped he would pass us by. The call of the fire turned out to be a little too much for him though, and I caught the last refrains of his song as he crunched into the clearing.
And Stingy Jack was turned away,
for narry heaven or hell did want 'im
But Satan lit a friendly face,
So a smile would go afore 'im!
He sang out the last line as he came to the fire, plopping down on a log as if it had been left there for him. He was dressed in shabby cast-off clothes, the pants cuffs full of cockleburs and the shirt covered in stains. His burnt orange hair had grown into his beard, and it was hard to see much of his face through the tangle. He set the jack-o-lantern in his lap, the gourd having a handle through it, and nodded at the three of us as we stared mistrustfully at him.
"A foin evenin to ye all. Dina mean to startle ye, I had thought this foir moight be unoccupied, but I see I was mustaken. You wouldn't mind sharin a tale of two with ole Jacky now, would ya?"
His accent was very thick, thicker than I'd ever heard in my whole life, and the three of us just stared at each other before shrugging. There didn't seem to be any harm in the ole fella, and maybe he had a tale or two to tell as well. It was kind of novel to have someone else who might tell a story, and we told him he was welcome to listen if he wanted.
I think, even then, I had started to put two and two together.
Something about the song and the pumpkin he carried had scratched at something I hadn’t thought about in a while.
Rich continued his story about the three kids camping on Halloween, and how the mysterious whistler who tormented them had finally driven them crazy. Rich even whistled a little in a few parts, and we were all pretty spooked by the end. I cast a glance at our stow away, but he just sat placidly on his stump with his beetle-black eyes twinkling in the tangle of his beard and his pumpkin winking in the slight breeze.
"A foine story," he said, looking across the fire at the rest of us, "Anyone else got a good tale? Nothing oy loike more on Halloween than a good yarn."
Hank tossed a Jolly Rancher into his mouth and around the slight lisp of the disolving candy against his cheek he told a story about a kid who hated Jack O Lanterns.
As Hank's story went on, I found my eyes glued to the old fella as his smiling eyes took a distinctly downward cast. He clutched his pumpkin tightly as Hank talked about how the boys had smashed them, all in the service of the Green Man, and he didn't seem to care for that much. I suddenly wondered how long he'd been toting that pumpkin and whether it was an actual gourd or some kind of prop. His bearded face twitched when Hank mentioned the Green Man, and I began to wonder if it was a legend he was aware of.
Rich did a little golf clap as Hank finished, but the old vag was still clutching at his pumpkin like we might try to steal it.
"This Green Man, have ye seen 'im round these pauts?"
Hank laughed, "Of course not, sir. It's just a story. Nobody really believes in the Green Man. He's just a legend we tell to scare each other."
The old man nodded at Hank, but to me it looked condescending. It was the same look that little kids gave you when you tried to tell them there was no Santa Claus. It was a look that said, "Sure, that's what you say, but we know better, don't we?" He loosened his grip on his gourd, turning to me as if to ask if I had a story for him too?
"I guess I do," I said, "Though it's not a very scary story."
"Psh," Rich said, "Then what kind of story is it? We all told spooky ones, so this one better be something awesome if it isn't scary."
The old man was looking at me with interest as if he knew exactly what I might tell and was excited to hear it.
"It's an old story that my Gran told me when I was little. She used to tell it to me while we were carving pumpkins and it's supposed to be from the old times. It's about a man named Stingy Jack and how he is the reason for Jack O Lanterns."
Rich rolled his eyes, but one look at the old fella showed me that I had his undivided attention.
"It's also about how he tricked the devil not once, but twice."
That had his attention, and Rich leaned back as he looked over, nodding for me to continue.
The old man was nodding too, and I smiled as I started my story.
"Stingy Jack was supposed to be one of the most skin flint drunks in the village he lived in. He never bought new clothes, he didn't take care of his property, and he was a sot drunk every day, including Sunday. He was not held in high regard by the townspeople, but as little they liked him, none could argue that Jack was clever. He never wanted for whiskey or money, and his deals and bets often set him against the townspeople. It was widely believed that one day he would come to a sticky end, and one day his reputation caught up with him."
"You see the Devil had heard of his cleverness and how his trickery might rival even his own. So he came to earth to try and weasel the old drunk out of his soul so he could claim his cleverness for his own. Jack was sleeping beneath an old tree when the devil appeared before him, and even half asleep, he was formidable. He begged the devil to grant him one request before he took him to the underworld, and when the old imp asked what it was, he said he wanted one last drink at the local tavern."
My friends were listening, but it was more out of polite interest. The story had no monsters or murderers or any of the usual scary story fare, and they were getting a little bored with my Grandma's Irish Folktales. They, however, were not the ones I had been targeting with this tale. The old man was leaning forward on his log and was close enough that I was worried his beard might catch a light.
"Well, one drink became two, and two became too many, and soon the Devil was well and truly drunk. So when Jack passed him the bill, the Devil was confused. "What use do denizens of Hell have for money?" he asked, the barman standing back in fear as the old demon raged. Jack, however, had an answer. "Why not turn yourself into a gold piece? Then we can be paying this one in full, and ye can be taking me on to the fiery underworld."
"So the Devil did just that. He turned himself into a fat gold piece, but before the barman could scoop it up, Jack had popped it into his pocket right next to his mother's rosary. The devil writhed and begged, wanting to be free of this prison, but Jack told him that he wouldn't let him go unless he promised to spare his soul for another ten years. The devil agreed to this deal hastily, and Jack took the coin and tossed it from him as far as he could. The Devil had been bested, but he didn't fret. What was ten years to him, after all? He could wait on Jack's soul a little longer, and he returned to Hell to wait for the deal to be over."
I didn't bother to look at my friends but had eyes only for the strange old man.
He was the best audience I'd ever had, looking intently at me as Gran's tale unwound like old, soft yarn.
"So, ten years went by, and the Devil returned to, once again, collect Jack's soul. He found him sleeping beneath the same tree, having aged not a day from the last time he'd seen him. He told Jack that today he would repay his debt, but ten years had done nothing to dull Jack's cleverness. He begged the Devil once again for a single boon before he took him to Hell, an apple from the tastiest tree for his final meal. Well, Satan was hesitant, to say the least, but he could find no trap here, and so he climbed the tree to get the apple. It was late season, however, and the only remaining apples were at the very top. As he climbed up the thick old branches, this gave Jack plenty of time to carve a cross at the bottom of the tree, trapping him up in the bowes. The Devil cursed and railed at the man, begged and pleaded, and finally offered him riches beyond measure. Jack, however, only wanted one thing."
I paused, letting the suspense draw out a little, though I suspected it was just for the haggard old man.
"He wanted to never again be bothered by the fallen angel or any of his ilk, and to never be in danger of his soul going to Hell again. The Devil again railed and threatened, begged and pleaded, but in the end, he surrendered and gave the old man what he wanted. He went back to Hell the loser in yet another exchange, but Jack's victory, and his luck, was not to last."
The old man sat back a little, clearly not looking forward to the rest of the story. He liked tales of cleverness all well and good, but it appeared this part might be a sore subject for him. I suspected even more now that I knew what had brought him to our fire, and it was something else that Gran had told me on the porch when I was just a tyke.
"He was not a young man, and when he died of natural causes not long after, there was the question of where he would go. He could not go to heaven, for he had not lived a Godly life, but he could not go to Hell, either, because of the deal he had made. So, Jack was forced to walk the Earth, but the devil gave him something to remember him by. He gifted him a coal of hellfire and a gourd to carry it in. So Stingy Jack walks the earth for all time with that gourd to light his way, and the face it carries has become the pumpkin that we all carve to ward away the devil should he come to our homes some Halloween night."
There was silence after the story ended, and the wind rustled the leaves as we all sat watching the homeless man. He sat like a statue, grinning behind his beard, as the pumpkin flickered ghoulishly. Were the flames a little bit green? They might have been, but I couldn't be sure. The leaves made a skeletal sound in the wind, and as a knot popped in the fire, it brought us all back to our senses.
"Not a real scary story," Rich said, "but it was interesting. How about you, sir? You got any stories you'd," but he stopped as he looked dumbfounded at the place where the old man had been.
The log was empty, save for a pumpkin sitting on it.
I kept that pumpkin, taking it home and keeping it well past the Halloween season. It burns in my window sill now, and the ghostly glow casts long shadows up my walls.
I don't know why I told that story, it was one I hadn't thought of in years, but it seemed fitting. Somehow, and I don't know how I think I knew who it was that sat by my fire that night and decided to remind him that there are people who remember him. My Gran certainly did, often telling the story when I was a kid, and Stingy Jack was one of her favorite stories to tell us as we gathered around the fire for a tale. She always told us that, if we should see him around our fire, that it was best to flatter creatures of the hereafter a little so they wouldn't haunt us for long.
Watching the ghostly flames dance on the wall as I write this, I guess he was pleased.
About the Creator
Writer, reader, game crafter, screen writer, comedian, playwright, aging hipster, and writer of fine horror.
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