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The Dance of the Dead
My name is Jack. I’m the Jack of the fairy tales. Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack the Giant-Killer. Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. Yeah, you’ve heard of me. I’m not the only Jack. Jacks pop up throughout the ages like, well, jack-in-the-boxes. We’re different people, but the same somehow. It’s hard to explain. You have to be a Jack to understand.
I became the Jack when the last Jack died. He was from the Appalachian Mountains—overalls, cousin-kissing, that sort of thing. The last Jack had been quite the lady killer in his day, so I hear. But I met him when he was a toothless old man living in a shack in the backwoods. Moonshine, shotgun, the whole bit. Just before he died, he whispered “whickedy-whack, now you’re Jack” into my ear, and ever since then all sorts of crazy things have been happening to me.
I followed Jack’s granddaughter Harriet through a dream gate to another world called the land of Hen. In the city of Henport, a writer of weird tales gave me one of his quill pens to stick in my hat. What’s a Jack without a feather in his cap, right? I sailed on an ivory ship crewed by cats to a town called Goosebridge, where the Rampant Hare led me to the Library of Eaves. I drank the Tea of Dreams, and followed the Rampant Hare into the thorn to confront the Black Shepherd. When I pulled the Black Shepherd’s hood down, he turned out to be...me. Don’t ask me to explain it. I don’t understand it myself.
At the end of the thorn, I found a sleeping maiden veiled in white. I lifed the veil and it was Harriet. I kissed her, and she kissed me back. Then I woke up in Boston again, in the hollow of a tree behind an abandoned house near Jamaica Pond. Was it all just a dream? Well duh...I had gone to the dreamlands. I still had the feather in my hat, though. Oh, and under my head was a sack full of silver dollars. I guess I’d be able to pay my rent after all, even if I had lost my boring data entry job. I hefted the jingling sack over my shoulder and trudged back to the house on the hill, which was about a mile from Jamaica Pond. I felt like a pirate just back from a good voyage. Yo ho ho, matey. I could do with a bottle of rum.
It’s amazing how quickly you can spend a sack full of silver dollars, especially when rent comes due every month. By October I knew I would have to obtain a fresh supply of treasure. I would have to return to the land of Hen. I had spent the intervening two months chronicling my experience in the other world, first in longhand and then typed for posterity on a battered old Royal typewriter. On the afternoon of the thirty-first, I placed the onionskin manuscript in the top drawer of my desk and set off to find fresh adventures to write about. More weird Jack tales.
I donned the same leather jacket as before and the same porkpie hat with a goose quill stuck in the ribbon. Not sure where I was going, I trusted the Weird River to carry me along in its current. I trundled down the hill to the Stony Brook T-station and spent one of my last six silver dollars buying a token.
The subway car was full of costumed revellers, dressed as all manner of fantastic creatures. It was the custom, of course, on All Hallows’ Eve to impersonate spirits, which were said to be at loose that night, and thus avoid harm. Of course, that would make my job difficult if I had to fight any off. How would I know which were the spirits and which were the costumed humans? I decided to cross that bridge when I came to it.
At Downtown Crossing, I switched to the red line, and boarded a train for Harvard Square. If there was any chance of crossing over to the other world tonight, I would find it in Harvard Square. Anxious to start my adventure, I practically vaulted from the train onto the platform, and streamed my way past the turnstile, up the escalators, and out into the gathering gloom.
Harvard Square always gave me a thrill, such a magnet of weirdness it was. Behind the subway entrance was a small depression called the Pit, where all manner of freaks assembled. Mostly they were disaffected teenagers wearing steel-toed boots, nose rings and brightly dyed coxcombs. But occasionally one might find a genuine pixie, wizard or vampire. I visited the Pit often in the last two months, hoping to find Harriet there. But so far not a trace. She had been turned into a vampire trying to protect me, and I still felt responsible.
There was unfinished business between her and me. And I wanted to finish it, whatever it entailed.
Of course it was too early to see Harriet anyway—vampires couldn’t come out before sunset. I should have known that. But I did see someone I knew—a street punk named Eden.
“Hey diddle diddle, Jack,” he said. “What do you need?”
“Magic beans, if you’re selling.”
“Take a walk with me then,” he said.
Eden and I crossed the street and headed towards Cambridge Common. As we passed the Old Burying Ground, the transaction happened with the ledgerdemain of a magic trick. Five silver dollars into Eden’s hand, one magic bean into mine. I didn’t waste time putting it on my tongue and we parted ways, he into Cambridge Common, and I up Garden Street. The Rampant Hare would guide me from here. My old friend in the patched tweed suit stood about two blocks ahead of me, checking his silver pocket watch and tsk-tsking impatiently. I set off after him at a brisk pace, but never got any closer. The Rampant Hare led me over to Brattle Street, and I followed him down the historic throughfare, bricks beneath my feet and colonial white houses all around me. I could barely tell if I were in the twentieth century or the eighteenth. Before long I had arrived at the gates of the Mount Auburn Cemetery, just in time for the sun to sink beneath the horizon. All Hallows had begun in earnest and the spirits of the dead were dancing.
The gate to the cemetery was locked for the night. But that didn’t stop me. I was Jack. I followed the wall until I found a secluded spot where I was unlikely to be seen by a groundskeeper. Then I scurried over. Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.
This was not my first visit to Mount Auburn Cemetery. I had tarried amidst the winding paths of graves many times before. But this was my first time there in a psychedically enhanced state. The magic bean was doing its work, cleansing the doors of perception. Everything appeared to me as it was, infinite.
The Rampant Hare had vanished again, but I didn’t need him. The mazy paths in the cemetery guided me now. I stepped carefully between the gravestones as the willows sighed and whispered to each other: “He has returned. Jack has returned...”
Something about being Jack made me sensitive to the pathways that lie between the waking world and the dreamlands, and I was soon treading in hidden spaces that few visitors to the cemetery ever found. Jutting from the base of a brooding hill was the entrance to a crypt, marked only by a faceless orb with two outstretched wings. A ring of red-spotted mushrooms grew in front the crypt, which I carefully avoided.
I worried that I would need a key, but the heavy black iron gate was unlocked. It swung open easily when I pushed it. The darkness within beckoned me, and I entered it, leaving the waking world behind.
“Well, Jack, you’ve finally come back,” croaked a voice. I wheeled around and saw a skeletal old man sitting in a chair, holding a dimly glowing lantern. He was wearing tattered black Victorian clothes and a top hat, like an undertaker. He had obviously been sitting in that chair for a long time, guarding the gate. A watchman. And past the watchman was a flight of grey slate steps leading down into deeper dreaming. But first I’d have to get by him.
“Are you going to ask me a riddle?” I said.
“A riddle or a gift,” said the watchman. “You know the rules.”
“I’m fresh out of gifts, so I’ll have to try my luck with a riddle.”
“Splendid,” said the watchman, grinning widely, glinting gold teeth. “Riddle me this, Jack. What is my secret name, that only is known to my dam and me?”
“That’s cheating!” I said. “It’s not really a riddle if only you know the answer.”
“And my dam. Who are you to tell me what is and is not a riddle? It is my game. You need my lantern to enter the darkness, and I won’t give it to you unless you answer my riddle.”
“Can I give you a gift instead?” I bargained, although I had no idea what gift I would give him. My leather jacket? My hat? The feather?
“It is too late,” he sneered. “The die has been cast. You may turn back now, but then the gate will be closed to you forever.”
“Do I get three guesses?”
“My name is not Rumplestilskin and you only get one. Come now, I grow impatient. Answer quickly or I shall cast you out of my crypt!”
I didn’t know how he intended to do that, but I didn’t want to find out. I wish I had some sort of weapon. He looked very frail. I didn’t know how he could stop me from snatching his lantern and pushing past him. There was obviously some kind of enchantment at play. I knew instinctively that breaking the rules wouldn’t work. I had no idea what his name could be, but in my desperation, I tried to come up with something...anything. If I said something, however slender the chance that it was right, it was a better chance than if I said nothing at all, wasn’t it?
Then a miracle happened. Someone came bounding up the stairs. It was...me. Or someone who looked exactly like me.