Well, except that he was dirtier than I was, had a few days’ growth of beard, and he had a canvas sack slung over his shoulder. He was also carrying an exact replica of the dimly glowing lantern, which he set down next to the old man’s chair. Now there were two of us.
The other version of me bent over and whispered something into the watchman’s ear, and his face contorted with rage. The other me laughed and winked at me. “Don’t forget to answer the riddle on your way out.” Then he sauntered out of the crypt, a huge grin on his face like the cat who ate the canary.
The watchman glared at me, but picked up the lantern (the original one, not the one the other me had just left) and offered it to me. “You are too lucky by half, Jack,” he said. I didn’t stop to think about what had just happened. Grasping the lantern’s handle, I stepped past the sulking watchman and started down the stairs, grateful to put him behind me.
The slate steps led down into the darkness and I held the lantern before me like a shield. Down, down, down...much further than I had expected. Even a worm would fear to burrow this deep beneath the earth. At last I came to the bottom, and was nearly overpowered by the charnel stench. I was in a tomb, a family crypt, and around me I beheld numerous marble slabs bearing coffins. But the coffins were open and the tomb was empty. Where were all the dead?
I heard a fiddle playing in the distance, and I discerned the exit from the tomb, a wrought-iron gate, ajar. I set down the dimly glowing lantern and pushed the gate open, breathing in the blessedly fresh air. Although I had descended what seemed half a mile of stairs, somehow I was on the ground again, beneath a full moon and a galaxy of stars. But this was not the ground of the waking world. I was in the dreamlands. That was a dream moon—and those were dream stars.
Ploughing through a thicket of mulberry, I emerged in a grassy hollow where the stone ruins of some ancient edifice loomed. But this wasn’t the most fantastic thing here. A grey cat wearing knee-high boots, a frock coat and a tricorn hat stood playing a mournful dirge on a fiddle. Around him danced skeletons wearing the ragged remains of costumes spanning from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era. Corpse gentlemen danced a complex cotillion with mouldering ladies, bowing to their partners and stepping lively. It was the dance of the dead. The danse macabre. I stood in morbid fascination.
“Well, don’t just stand there, you stick in the mud.” I felt a familiar chill down the back of my spine. A chill and then an almost sexual thrill, an anticipation of pleasures to come. It was Harriet, my vampire fiancée. “Would you care to dance?”
I doffed my goose-feathered hat and bowed theatrically. Taking her hand, we took our places as lord and lady of the ball. The skeletons danced around us in time to the cat’s fiddling. Somewhere in the black wood, a wolf howled at the moon.
I can’t say how long we danced, for in dreams time passes strangely. But two by two, the dead bowed to us and took their leave, returning to their tomb to rest. Finally, the cat stopped his fiddling and bolted from the meadow as only cats can do. Only Harriet and I remained. She handed me a silver key, which I remembered only too well. It was the key to the house that Jack built.
“It’s time to build the house, Jack,” said Harriet.
I looked at the key glinting in the moonlight. It was large and ornate, and yet very simple.
“But how?” I asked. “How do I do it?”
“You’ll see. Just start saying it. This is the house...”
The key responded to the words, and sprang up like a dowsing wand, pointing to the ruins. It was all I could do to keep it from flying out of my hand. My lips started moving of their own accord, reciting the incantation. Once I started saying it, I couldn’t have stopped if I’d wanted to.
This is the House that Jack built.
This is the silver key
that opens the house that Jack built.
This is the silver key
that turns the iron lock
that opens the oaken door
that guards the House that Jack built.
And as I said the words, stones from the ruin reformed into a sprawling manse, full of doors and windows, an attic with gables, a garret, a mahogany hall, and worms in the wood. The house that Jack built.
By the time I had finished, the sky was pinkening, and the birds were chirping the coming of dawn.
“Not a moment too soon,” said Harriet, who feared sunrise more than death. “Let’s go in, so we can find somewhere to sleep. We’re not married yet, but why stand on ceremony?”
I had no objection. I walked up to the great oaken door and turned the silver key in the iron lock. There was a click and the massive door opened. The oaken door to the house that Jack built.
The House That Jack Built
Etched into the grey stone above the door was a coat of arms depicting a horn, like the kind you would blow in a fox hunt. This is Jack with his hound and horn I thought as I crossed the threshold. Tantivy!
Past the door was a long hall of brooding red wood. This is the mahohany hall in the house that Jack built... I was eager to know what lay at the end of the hall, to know what lay behind all the doors on either side of the hall. This was a manor house. The house that Jack built. Who knew what marvels it contained?
But before I could go any further, Harriet opened the first door on the left and pulled me inside. It was a bedroom, with a white-canopied four-poster bed. Harriet checked the drapes to make sure they were impervious to light.
“Sorry, Jack,” she said. “I know you want to explore. But it’s almost dawn. I have to sleep now. And feed...”
Automatically I crawled into bed with her and began taking off my clothes. It had been several months since I’d seen her last, but the act of feeding her came back to me at once. And so did the memory of her ice-cold skin, pale as the moon. Her bottomless black eyes, her ruby lips, her sharp-pointed fangs piercing my neck like thorns... Suddenly she was inside me, and the pleasure was indescribable. I would have lain there and let her drain my life’s blood without the least resistance. But I knew she wouldn’t...which is why I allowed her to feed.
“You can...go inside me if you want,” Harriet whispered breathlessly, in between slurps of blood. I was so enraptured, I didn’t know what she meant until her hands guided me. I was as much inside her as she was in me. I never knew such ecstacy was possible. It seemed to go on forever, the bliss-agony-bliss-agony-bliss...
I stumbled down a dusty trail in a desert of red earth, black mountains, and unforgiving sky. A glint of gold caught my eye. Just beneath the dust was a coin with the stamp of three hares running in a circle. I picked it up and stuck it in my overall pocket.
After walking for what could have been minutes or days—time is funny in dreams—I came to a tiny settlement of deserted, boarded-up buildings. The only thing open was a saloon, and I pushed through the bat-wing doors like a gunslinger in a spaghetti Western.
It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. In the middle of the saloon was a large round table, and sitting at the table was a man, dressed in a black suit and wide-brimmed black hat. He beckoned me over and gestured for me to sit.
“Howdy do, Jack. I’m the King.”
I noticed there was a badge pinned to his lapel, like a sheriff’s badge. Inscribed on the badge in ostentatious gothic letters were the words: THE KING.
“You play poker, son?” the King asked.
I nodded dumbly, and he started dealing the cards.
I realized all I had to ante up with was the gold coin I’d found. I didn’t want to play. I’d rather keep the coin. But I found myself tossing the coin on the table. My arm moved like a marionette’s, guided by invisible strings.
The entire game was a puppet show. Every hand I was dealt had impossibly good cards. Three of a kind. A full house. A straight flush. After six hands I had amassed a sizable pile of gold coins, which the King had doled out from a canvas sack under the table. Finally, his treasure trove was exhausted, and I had a heap of gold coins in front of me so big I could hardly see over it.
“Surely someone is working against me,” the King grumbled. “I’ll play you one more hand. The whole pile against your pick of my daughters.”
“Deal,” I said...