- I -
The Valiant Cornishman
I woke up from a bad dream, again, shivering from the cold. The blue digits of my alarm clock glared out at me from the darkness: 4:31. It was still almost three and a half hours before I had to get up for work. I lit an American Spirit and shambled off to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. There was no way I was going back to sleep again after that dream. No way in hell.
It had all started with a belt. My grandmother had told me that the belt had been in our family forever, but no one knew where it came from. It consisted of a long strip of well-worn leather attached to an ornate silver buckle, which was wrought with the pattern of two intertwined ravens. And the four edges of the buckle were inscribed with a series of runes that no one in my family had any idea how to read.
Currently this mysterious heirloom was threaded through the belt loops of my jeans, which I struggled into leg by leg, followed by a tee shirt and a sweater. Ever since I had inherited the belt, I had been having bad dreams. As the flickering blue flame licked at the bottom of the tea kettle, I pulled on my cigarette and reflected on last night’s dream, still as vivid as an afterimage of the sun...
Alone in a haunted wood...trees gnarled and knotted...bare branches whisper...bone-chilling wind...a monk in the shadows...face hidden beneath a hood...a winding crook in his hand...like a shepherd...
The monk gestures silently for me to follow. Together we walk down a path covered with dry dead leaves. They crunch beneath our feet, mine booted, his bare.
We arrive at a black, wrought-iron gate in a high stone wall. Through the gate, I see a ruined house all overgrown with thorns. The monk produces a silver key and opens the gate.
“Come inside why don’t you?
Come inside with me.
Come inside, yes please do,
Come and have some tea...”
The insistent whistle of the tea kettle jerked me back to the harshly-lit kitchen. My cigarette had burned down to the filter. I muttered darkly to myself and flicked it in the ashtray. Then I set about the mechanics of making tea. Tea bags in the teapot. Pour hot water from the kettle into the pot. Let it steep just the right amount of time--not too little, nor yet too long.
The hot steam felt good against my face in the cold kitchen. As I waited for the tea to steep, I thought of my grandmother, her wrinkled, dried-apple face. I had learned to make tea from my grandmother, the same grandmother who had left me a rune-inscribed belt. Had I inherited the dreams from her as well? Even if I had, I forgave her. I had nothing but fond memories of my grandmother--her songs, her homemade scones, her stories of a childhood in Cornwall.
“You’re my Jack,” she had said to me when I was seven. Her voice had a taste of a strange accent that had reminded me of those sticky burrs that stuck to your coat. “I knew you were a Jack before you were even born. I told your mother she had to name you Jack--I insisted. She wanted to name you Edgar. Can you imagine? Well, I reckon it wouldn’t have made any difference. No matter what she had named you, you still would have been Jack. You’ll see.”
I wished I could ask her now what she had meant by that. But it was too late to ask her now. My grandmother slept beneath the cold cold earth. I’d have to settle for the second best thing. I called Gretchen.
As usual, Gretchen’s voice was like a chirpy sparrow, even at this hour. “Gretchen’s the name. Research is my game. Speak to me Jack.”
“How did you know it was me?”
“Who else would be calling me at four o’clock in the fucking morning?”
“Point taken. Were you awake?”
“Of course I was awake, you silly boy. Night is my queen. Did you have another one of your dreams?”
“Yeah. Can I come over?”
“Bien sur. Are you holding?”
“I’ve got half a pack.”
“Good. I’ll trade you caffeine for nicotine. Forget about tea, babe. This is a coffee day. Just wait till you hear what I found out!”
“Did you translate the runes?”
“You’ll flip! But I don’t want to spoil the big reveal. Get over here. Quick.”
“See you in a few.”
I slurped down a cup of tea and set about girding myself against a January morning in Boston. Secretly I enjoyed the winter, much as I complained about it to my friends. Just going outside was like an adventure. As I layered myself in overcoat, scarf and gloves, I imagined myself as a knight donning a suit of armor, or an astronaut putting on a spacesuit to walk on the moon. Opening the front door, I plunged into the predawn chill, which tingled my cheeks and woke me wider than all the tea in China. The layers of packed-down snow crunched beneath my boots as I made my way down the steep, slippery hill to Centre Street.
The streets were deserted at this hour. They reminded me of some post-apocalyptic future in which humanity had become extinct, leaving empty buildings behind like cicada shells on a tree. In a few centuries the buildings would rot and crumble until Boston became as it was before the English settlers came, a marshy wilderness inhabited by frogs, foxes and geese.
“Ho there!” rang out a voice, piercing the air like a church bell.
Startled, I looked all around, trying to find who was calling me.
“Hie thee, up here! Make haste!”
I looked up and saw someone standing on a third-story balcony of an abandoned building. The person on the porch was wearing an outlandish costume. His blond hair was long and cut straight across, just below the chin. On his head was a green cap with a high, rounded peak and a feather sprouting from one side. Beneath a billowing, ankle-length black cloak peeked a long white shirt girded at the waist by a belt, from which a sword dangled. He looked like he had escaped from a Renaissance Faire.
“Who the hell are you?” I called up to him.
“Never mind that now. Hie thee up here! Make haste, sir, or thou’lt be the giant’s breakfast this morning.”
My eyes almost popped out of my skull. A twenty-foot-tall giant with two heads was clomping down Centre Street, coming straight towards me. The giant was wearing what looked like hundreds of animal pelts crudely stitched together, and was brandishing a club that was little more than a tree trunk snapped in half. His two enormous heads had vaguely human-looking features, though with beetled brows and lower teeth that protruded like tusks. They were not the same either. One had a fierce expression and long, scraggly red hair; while the other had dark hair and sad eyes.
For a life-threatening moment, I was paralyzed with fear. My brain simply couldn’t process what I was seeing. Then my survival instinct kicked in. I hurled myself at the front door of the abandoned building where I had seen the man who had called to me, now upgraded in my mind from creepy weirdo to the only hope of staying alive.
The inside of the building was not what I had expected. The walls were great blocks of chiseled stone stacked together like oversized bricks. On the wall opposite the door was a flight of stone stairs, and I bounded up them like a frightened rabbit.
I reached the top of the stairs and found myself on the same balcony as my new friend. Only this balcony didn’t overlook the closely-packed roofs of Jamaica Plain. Instead I looked out at a vast countryside of rolling, emerald-green hills.
Far towards the horizon, in the early-morning light, I could see what looked like a castle out of a storybook. The only thing in common with the city street I had left behind just moments before was the two-headed giant getting closer with every step.
“Fee fie fo fum,” the giant roared with a voice that sounded like an earthquake in a bottle. “I smell the blood of an Englishmun! Be he live or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make me bread!”
“Sayest thou so?” yelled back the man with the feather sticking in his cap. “Then thou are a monstrous miller indeed!”
My impromptu ally handed me one of the two nooses he was holding. Following the ropes with my eyes, I discerned that both nooses were tied to a single rope, which had been slung over a rafter. It didn’t take me long to divine the connection between the double noose and the two-headed giant lumbering towards them. My companion registered my comprehension by tapping the side of his nose with a finger and flashing me a wicked grin.
The two of us stood side by side, and carefully lowered our nooses as the giant drew dangerously close. I had never been so scared in my entire life. And yet at the same time I felt a perverse thrill as I looped my noose around one of the giant’s heads. Mine was the sad one. It was like winning the ring toss at a carnival.
My companion looped his own noose around the giant’s red head, and ran back to grab hold of the rope dangling from the rafter. He heaved at it like a sailor hoisting a sail, climbing the rope and letting his weight drag it down, again and again. The nooses tightened around the giant’s necks and, incredibly, the colossal creature lifted off the ground, his legs thrashing and kicking at the air.
The triumphant trickster tied the end of the rope to an iron ring in the stone wall and rejoined me on the balcony to watch the spectacle. I stared in horror as the giant’s two mouths gasped for air like a pair of landed flounders. His faces turned deep purple, the color of an angry bruise. I felt sick to my stomach. My accomplice, on the other hand, was beaming with pride. He clapped me on the back so hard I nearly fell off the balcony.
“Well met,” he said.
“Who are you?” I asked a second time.
The giant-killer chortled as if he had heard a particularly funny joke. “Why, I’m Jack of course. The Jack-that-was. Just as you are the Jack-to-be.”
I turned away and vomited a colorful mush onto the grey stone floor. But no, it wasn’t the stone floor of a castle anymore. It was the wooden floor of an abandoned building. The other Jack had vanished, and so had the giant. All I could see from the balcony were the asphalt-paved roads and crammed-together houses of Jamaica Plain.
Like magic, a cigarette appeared between my lips and seemed to light itself. I took a deep drag. I hurried down the stairs--now the creaking wooden stairs of a hundred-year-old building, not the stone steps of a thousand-year-old castle--and stumbled out the front door onto the street, still deserted despite the rapidly breaking dawn. Five minutes later, I was ringing the buzzer of Gretchen’s apartment. She buzzed me in.
“Friend or foe?” Gretchen asked as I staggered across her threshold. She had tousled, dyed-black hair, a nose ring, and a mug of coffee in her hand. The mug had a picture of Mr. Spock on it, raising his hand in a V-shaped salute.
“You’ll never guess what just happened!” I blurted out.
“That wasn’t one of the options. But come in anyway.”
“It just isn’t possible,” I babbled. “I must be tripping.”
Gretchen inspected my pupils. “Did someone slip some Orange Sunshine into your tea when you weren’t looking?” she grinned.
“This is serious, Gretch,” I snapped. “Something just happened to me.”
“Oh my god! I’m sorry, Jack. Are you okay? Why don’t you sit down?”
Gretchen was about to offer me a cigarette, but I was already lighting one from my own pack. Not answering her, I looked at the hand holding my cigarette, and absently noted it was shaking.
“What does the belt say?” I asked finally.
“Aren’t you going to tell me what happened to you?”
“It has something to do with the belt. It must.” Undoing the buckle, I unthreaded the long strip of leather from the belt loops of my jeans. I stared at the runes on the buckle for the millionth time. They were so similar to the letters I knew, and yet just different enough to be unreadable. But maybe they weren’t so unreadable after all. I felt like a small child just learning his ABCs. “This...,” I felt sure it began. “This is the...”
Gretchen raised an eyebrow. “Now you’ve piqued my curiosity, monsieur. And you know what curiosity did to the cat.”
“Okay, okay. Well kidding aside, it wasn’t too hard to decode the runes. I just needed to borrow a book about them from the library. But once I knew what the letters were, though, I realized they spelled something in Old English, so I had to translate it. Fortunately, there’s an Anglo-Saxon student in my Comp Lit class. A student of Anglo-Saxon, I mean, not an Anglo-Saxon. I’m not sure what he is. Italian, probably.”
Impatiently, I twirled my finger, gesturing for her to get on with it. In hindsight, I realized I had been acting like a real ass. A jackass. Har. But Gretchen knew me well enough to look past it.
“Right, so without further ado... The belt says... Drum roll please... This is the...”
“...valiant Cornishman that slew the giant Cormoran,” I finished. The words couldn’t tumble out of me fast enough.
Gretchen punched me in the arm, hard enough to hurt. “If you knew what it said all along, why did you make me go through all that trouble?”
“I didn’t know what it said until now. Until what just happened. Something’s changed. I can see things...”
“So you can magically understand Old English now?” Gretchen asked, crossing her arms.
“I must be able to,” I replied. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to understand what he was saying.”
“What who was saying?”
“The other Jack,” I said.
“The other Jack? What other Jack? What are you talking about?”
“Have you ever heard of Jack the Giant-Killer?”
“Is that like Jack and the Beanstalk?”
“Sort of. It’s a different story though. No magic beans. The Jack in Jack the Giant-Killer tricked a giant named Cormoran into falling into a pit. Then he killed the giant by hitting him on the head with a pickaxe.” I mimed killing the giant with a pickaxe for her benefit. “My grandmother read me that story over and over. ‘To commemorate the Jack’s doughty deed, the town magistrate of Land’s End presented him with a belt. And the belt said...’”
“Wait, don’t tell me,” Gretchen interrupted. “Did it say, ‘This is the valiant Cornishman that slew the giant Cormoran?’”
I nodded. “Not bad. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to pull one over on you.”
Gretchen breathed a sigh of relief. I was getting my sense of humor back. She hated it when I acted so serious.
“So you’re saying that this is the actual belt from the fairy tale?”
“I don’t know what I’m saying. All I know is that for a few minutes a building on Centre Street became a castle in a fairy tale, and I helped a guy wearing green tights kill a two-headed giant. I know it sounds crazy, but it happened! It really happened. I know it did. Are you going to call the people in the white coats now?”
Gretchen snapped her fingers. “Not just yet. I have an idea.” She scanned her amply-stocked bookshelf and pulled down a weathered, leather-bound volume. She riffled through the pages and settled one finger into the middle of the book.
“If you can read Old English now, then tell me what that says.”
I stared at the words silently for the better part of a minute. They were complete gibberish. Gretchen smirked. She was about to pull the book away when the words suddenly came into focus, just like the runes on the belt had. I read them aloud.
“Wolfing word and song I wend my way,
The weirdest sup a thief in the dark
Should swallow from his house of lay,
No wiser at all for making my mark.”