“I don’t remember Jack being in Norse mythology,” Gretchen said, finishing her glass and holding it out for Woden to refill, which he did. She had also caught onto the fact that the jug was neverending. Funny how quickly you can adapt to fairy-tale logic. “Or is he Thor? No, wait. Jack would be more like Loki. He’s the trickster, right?”
“Jack is Jack,” Woden said.
“I knew you were going to say something like that. Typical god.” Gretchen was almost halfway through her second mason jar and acting very bold.
“My son Thunor was a giant-killer like Jack. But you are right, Jack is also a trickster like Loki. Jack is both Thunor and Loki. He is Woden and Fríg. The sun and the moon. He is the key.”
“Stop,” I said. “You’re going to give me a big head.” But truly I didn’t mind. My head was swelling so fast, it was going to burst through the roof of the cabin soon.
Woden fixed me with a terrible stare that pierced me to my core. For the first time I realized that only one of his eyes was real. “It is only the truth, Jack. You are the key to it all. All the stories revolve around you.”
“I don’t feel like much of a giant-killer,” I said. “The Reverend offered me a sword and I turned it down. I’m no killer.”
“Then we will have to find something else for you to do. There are many ways to be a Jack. He pulled something down from the mantle above the fireplace and handed it to me. It was a worn leather case. I unfastened the clasps and opened it. A beautiful fiddle lay within, made of a dark reddish wood, and a long horsehair bow was affixed inside the top of the case.
“Play us a song, Jack,” Woden bade me.
“You play the fiddle?” Gretchen said. “You never told me that.
“I don’t,” I insisted. “I’ve never picked up a fiddle in my life.”
“Just try it,” Woden said. “You’ll remember.”
Shrugging, I drained the rest of my mason jar of stout for courage, and took the fiddle out of the case. I put the fiddle under my chin and poised the bow as if I’d been playing my entire life. I felt like a marionette. Someone else was pulling the strings. I began to play and a merry old tune came out. Playing was as natural as walking. Gretchen abruptly stood up and started dancing. She sang:
“I won’t be my father’s Jack
I won’t be my mother’s Jill
I will be the fiddler’s wife
And have music when I will.”
I stopped played and Gretchen stopped dancing, flopping back into her chair like a puppet whose strings had been cut. She looked at me openmouthed. “Why did I just do that?”
Woden grinned wolfishly. “Now we’re cookin’. Show me the emerald, Jack. Show me the dream key.”
Gretchen and I looked at each other with fear. We had learned the hard way that taking the emerald out of its box was a bad idea. But Woden was a god. He must know what he was doing, right? I set down the fiddle, retrieved my messenger bag, and pulled out the cedar box with the strange symbols carved on it. Woden held out a lean, wizened hand, and, with trepidation, I handed it to him. What if this were some kind of trick to steal the emerald? But it was too late now.
Woden’s mouth moved in a low incantation. He was reciting something in a guttural, growling language I didn’t recognize, although it sounded vaguely familiar. It was like Old English, but much, much older. It was Old English’s great-grandfather. The cedar box sprang open of its own accord, and the emerald popped out of it like toast from a toaster. Woden caught it in midair and held it between his thumb and forefinger where it glittered darkly in the firelight.
“Play!” Woden commanded me. “Play for your life!”
I grabbed the fiddle and without even thinking about it, started playing a shrill melody that sounded like cats yowling. Gretchen was possessed again, and with forced, jerky movements, pulled the ancient leather-bound tome from her backpack. The book flew open in her hands, and the pages fluttered wildly, like the wings of a frenzied bird. The pages finally settled down, and Gretchen read what was on them aloud:
“Iä! Yog-Sothoth! That which must never be,
The Old Ones dream beyond the gate,
A-waiting for the key.
Fríg protect us, Woden, Thunor,
I summon the Old Ones, and open the door.”
It was the opposite of the spell the Reverend had read. Instead of banishing the Old Ones, Gretchen was summoning them, although not by choice. I stopped fiddling, and Gretchen slammed the book shut, finally in control of her own body again.
All went silent until...a knock sounded on the door. Then another. Then another. Gretchen and I looked at each other wide-eyed. My heart was beating so fast, I felt like it was going to burst out of my chest. Woden moved to answer the door. What was he doing? Was he crazy? He opened it.
At the threshold was a walking skeleton wearing a tattered black hooded cloak. The skeleton held out his hand.
“I reckon he wants his fare. A coin for each of you.” I felt in my pocket. There were two pennies, the old-fashioned kind with the ears of wheat on the back. With a trembling hand, I put them into the skeleton’s hand. The skeleton sequestered the coins beneath his cloak and then turned to leave. He stopped and looked over his shoulder at me, gesturing for me to follow. So I did.
I followed my skeletal guide out of the cabin, and Gretchen and Woden followed after. Woden had donned a wide-brimmed hat, a grey cloak, and he was carried a white wooden staff. The ensemble made him look more like Gandalf than ever. But, I supposed, Gandalf was the one who looked like him.
The black-cloaked skeleton led us into the forest behind old Jack’s cabin, a wood filled with whispering, bare-branched trees. Our feet crunched dry, dead leaves, and the full moon illumined our way. Even for November, it was a cold night. A million stars blazed overhead. Finally, we emerged by the bank of a dark river with spectral mist swirling over its murmuring waters. A boat was moored to a rotting pier, bobbing in time to the river’s heartbeat. The skeleton strode onboard the boat and picked up a long pole, which he thrust into the river’s inscrutable depths. Even I knew that this was Charon, come to take us to the land of the dead. Woden handed me back the cedar box that contained the black emerald.
“This is as far as I go,” he said.
“You’re not coming with me?” I felt abandoned. I had been counting on his help.
“This ain’t my mythos, son. But don’t you fret. You’ll get help along the way.”
I turned to Gretchen, who stood next to Woden, as motionless as a statue.
“I know it’s asking a lot...” I began.
“Save it, Jack. In for a penny, in for a pound.”
We joined hands and stepped onto Charon’s boat together. Our weirds were one. The wood creaked disconcertingly beneath our feet. This boat had been around as long as death had. Oh well, I supposed if it held up this long, it wasn’t going to sink now.
“The land of the dead, please,” I said to Charon. The skeleton nodded, and I could swear he was grinning at me. Maybe it was just all the teeth. The ferryman pushed the boat away from the pier and we were on our way. I looked back to see Woden watching our departure wistfully until he was swallowed up by the swirling mist.
A shiver ran down my spine. Someone tapped me on my shoulder and I wheeled around in surprise.
“Hey Jack. Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
It was Harriet.