I first met the Devil in a pub called the Boar’s Head on Old Cork road. The night, as I recall, was all hallows eve. Having spent my last farthing on ale I tried to barter the barkeep for one last drink. My mouth watered but he refused me. “Go on home boy,” he ordered. “Get you a good night’s sleep. Come the morrow all the world will be brighter.”
He was wrong. My world was darkness. I had no intention of retreating home to my bare and filthy hovel where paint peeled off the walls, rats basked in the waste bins and I had drained every ounce of my whiskey bottles dry. I knew not where I’d wander, yet the barkeep bid me leave. And so it was to my great fortune that before exiting through the pub’s swinging door I encountered Lucifer himself.
There he stood, hands crossed at his chest, a blithe smile on his face. He was oddly graceful, a strange dignity about him.
“Your days are numbered Jack,” he told me. “A life of thieving, gambling, drinking and whoring. What have you to show for yourself? Well now. It seems time has expired and I’ve come to take you to the iron gates.”
The Devil. He may think himself wise, but I, Sneaky Jack Skrumpington, was much wiser!
“You don’t look like the Devil to me,” I challenged. “If you are true, then prove it. Change yourself into a shilling!” One shilling, I reasoned, would buy me a fresh pitcher of ale.
Lucifer scowled. He laughed at my challenge, and yet, he could not resist a good dare. In an instant he transformed himself into a shiny silver coin which I did not hesitate to snatch. I quickly hid it in my pocket, right next to my rosary’s shiny cross.
Everyone knows the Devil cannot abide a cross. He was thus under my spell. Yet I was not entirely unmerciful. I made a bargain with him. In exchange for his freedom he would give me the sum of one million ducats and another ten years to live upon this earth. He agreed. After all, he had no choice.
During my next ten years I lived a life of decadence. I dined at the finest of inns, drank wine under crystal chandeliers. I slept in silk sheets upon feathered beds, beautiful women accompanying me at every turn. I spent much of my time gaming, cheating and winning, caring not a fig for those I left in debt. I steadily increased my ever growing fortune.
Finally it all came to an end.
It was upon all hallows eve, ten years later when the Devil returned to claim my soul. He found me sprawled beneath an apple tree, sleeping off a long drunk.
“Skrumpington!” he barked. “Your time has expired.” His lips formed a wide smile, green teeth reflecting the light of the moon. Although he attempted his best of horrifying theatrics, commanding streaks of lightning across the sky and claps of thunder, he did not scare me. I knew better.
“Lucifer,” I pleaded, kneeling before him. “Can you not give a damned man one last request? Do it! Do it, so you prove yourself a creature of mercy, not the evil demon they paint you! Do it, so you prove yourself a being of justice, not the slithering snake they claim. Forget not, Lucifer, you were once a son of light!”
He stared at me. This remark had struck a chord. I moved my face close to his. “Aye,” I whispered in his hairy ear. “Once, dear Lucifer, you sat at the right hand of the Father. You were his favorite, were you not? The brightest star of the heavens, Luz the light. Oh, but that was long before your great sin of pride, wasn’t it? You banished yourself from the heavens, fell from grace into your own lonely cavern of hell. Surely you remember?”
I stroked his neck, moved my hand across the small of his back. He quivered at my touch. “Show me now you have not lost all your goodness,” I urged. “Grant me but one last request.” I moved my lips to his cheek, kissed him gently and tasted the salt of a single tear that fell from his eye.
He nodded, for even the Devil had some shred of decency. Besides, he knew a pacified soul would be more useful to him. He clutched my hand. “What then would you have from me Jack Skrumpington?” he asked.
“Only a simple apple,” I answered. “Ripe and sweet, picked from this very tree.” I pointed to the top bough, heavy with fruit.
Lucifer nodded and like a lizard he shimmied up the bark, entrenching himself between the branches. He reached up to pick the largest, reddest apple the tree bore.
I wasted no time! In one instant I pulled my knife from its scabbard. Quickly I carved a cross in the trunk of the tree. Lucifer’s eyes widened in terror. He was now stuck on the branch of the tree, unable to descend, for everyone knows the Devil can never approach a cross.
I grinned up at him. He spat down on me. “Skrumpington,” he hissed. “You have deceived me again!”
“I will release you,” I said. “If you make me but one single promise.”
His body writhed and wrinkled, now blending into the wood of the tree. He wheezed, struggling to breathe as the tree’s tentacles closed in around him. His eyes were frightened and white. A knot in the bark swallowed him whole, then spit him out again and he hung like a folded fish on the branch.
“Very well Skrumpington!” he gasped. “What bid you this time?”
“This time…” I sighed a sigh of deep satisfaction, strolled grandly in a circle, watching him the whole time. “This time you shall agree to never take my immortal soul, regardless of whatsoever evil deeds I may perform.”
He nodded slowly.
“Swear it!” I commanded.
“I swear it, Jack Skrumpington. I will never take your immortal soul.”
He was a defeated thing, weak and gray, his body now sliding like a stretched lump of clay . I almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
For what remained of my life I continued my ways of debauchery, drinking and whoring myself into an inevitable grave. I was a liar, a user and a sycophant. I frequented gambling dens and houses of ill repute. I lived only for myself and my own gain. It would later be said of me “Jack Scrumpington never once performed a selfless act nor did any kindness toward his fellow man.”
Yet time waits for no one and even I was not immune. My body grew old. My back bent, my bones ached with arthritis. Finally my unbridled whoring caught up with me and the syphilis pox set in. My hands shook. My walk became a staggered, struggling gait. My penis withered like a crumpled twig. My liver became diseased, bloated with cirrhosis, swollen from years of hard liquor. Yellow jaundice enmeshed my flesh. Death, when it finally came, was a mercy.
I then found myself at the gates of Saint Peter.
The Saint shuffled his feet, looked at me and shook his head. “Can’t take you Jack,” he said sadly, “for never in your life have you performed a single selfless act. Not once have you done any kindness toward your fellow man.” Peter leafed through his book of souls, double checking as if there might be a chance he would still find my name. But no. He closed the book. “Sorry Jack.” He shrugged. “Not once.” He caught my eye with a look of genuine sympathy as he locked the white pearl of the deadbolt.
The wind gusted. I felt a chill up my spine. Winter was coming and it would be a long, merciless one. Ice formed on the pavement beneath me. I wore only the sack cloth I had been buried in. My teeth chattered.
What to do? What to do? I’d go to the Devil! Of course I would! At the very least, it should be warm in hell. Yes, it would be an eternity of misery, the lake of fire, but I’d embrace it, punishment for the damage I’d done in my waking life.
Lucifer peered through the gray mist that surrounded his iron gate. Upon recognizing me, he furrowed his brow and shook his head. “Oh no,” he said. “I’ve no want for you here, Jack Scrumpington. I promised I’d never take your immortal soul and I’ll not take it. A promise is a promise.” He clasped his hands together and bowed his head. “I may be a lot of – er – unsavory things. But Lucifer Luz is a man of his word!” He stomped a foot and pounded his own chest.
Not fit for heaven, not welcome in hell. I was the lowest of souls, left to wander on the brink of nothingness. I turned away from Lucifer’s gate. The thick mist clouded my eyes. I stumbled like a blind man. The night was black as pitch. I could see not one outline, not one shadow.
Just then I felt Lucifer’s warm touch upon my shoulder.
“You’ll need something to light your way,” he said, not unkindly. He then handed me a hollowed out pumpkin. A lone candle burned at its base, blackening the inside rind.
“Take this lantern, Jack,” the Devil said. “May it guide you through the darkness.” He then handed me a knife. “You may want to carve some designs in it. Allow extra light.”
It was an act of unmerited kindness, considering what I’d done to him.
In that moment I felt guilt for the first time. I was sorry I had treated him so badly. I realized my skewed values. But alas, it was by then, too late.
With Lucifer’s knife I carved a face in the pumpkin, triangle eyes and nose, even a smiling toothless mouth.
From that day on I was left to wander through the land of spirit. I am usually unseen but sometimes, upon all hallows eve you might find me. It is then the veils are lifted and humankind may enter our realms. Look for me in the alleyways, in your dark streets of trick-or-treaters. I am the ghostly figure who carries a lone pumpkin of candle light to brighten my sad path.
They call me Jack of the Lantern.