A Literary Series

 

Terrain.org focuses on the built and natural environments, and right now, late October, I can’t help thinking that holidays fit that description. We need them instinctively—to mark the change of seasons, invest with joy and gratitude, wish and give, commemorate and look forward—and we also make them up, creating or inheriting celebrations. Built and natural.

Take Halloween: It isn’t generically American, but many people don’t know this. It came north out of Mexico, and west with the Irish across the Atlantic. Two historically reviled groups—wrong looks, wrong speech, wrong religion—but throw their celebrations in the microwave of marketing, and presto: a Denali-sized pile of candy, sexy-this-and-that costumes, and Halloween is mainstream, everyone glad to have jack-o-lanterns.

There’s a reason for that, an origin story about where jack-o-lanterns come from. It’s about Jack, Ireland’s wildest carouser… always swearing and brawling, and whirling through women like a lust tornado, and pegging rocks at all the cops and priests, so everyone knew that Jack was going to hell. But Jack was a talker too. He had the gift of persuasion and storytelling. When the devil came, Jack promised we would change.

“Just a year’s reprieve,” he bargained. “I’ll quit with my pocket knife and stabbing the asses of my enemies. And these hands won’t be for fists anymore, just bringing alms for the poor to the Sisters. No more getting into underskirts and romping away behind the hedgerows. The only big talking I’ll do is saying my prayers,” and on and on, ’til finally the devil believed him and agreed.

A barrel of lies, of course. Jack went on the same as ever, and the year rolled by full of pints and fighting, ’til the devil reappeared.

“Mr. Devil,” says Jack, “I’m sorry for deceiving you. And I’ll come along now quiet. But couldn’t I have a last meal before we go? I’m starvin’ famished. No? Then how ’bout one last apple… though I’ll need you to climb high and reach it for me—that one four branches up should do it—on account of my knuckles are swollen from punching, and my ankle’s near broken after leaping out of a woman’s window.”

Now, the devil can’t believe it, but sure enough he’s climbing, shimmying out on a waving branch, when—slash, slash—there’s Jack below with his pocket knife, carving a cross in the tree trunk, so he’s trapped, so he’s stuck and ridiculous. The devil can’t pass that cross to get down, and Jack’s away, strolling off easy.

No one can out-talk Death, though. And Jack died one day, as we all will.

Of course, heaven was closed as a treasure chest. And it turned out hell was too. The devil never forgave those tricks. He sent Jack away into cold dark space, a doomed exile, terrible emptiness, walking and walking through eternity alone. A pretty sad plight, and the devil knew it, so he gave him a small bit of hellfire for comfort.

“Get out your knife,” he said, “and that turnip in your pocket. Carve it out hollow, and put in this coal. Here’s some light for your lonesome journey. Now be gone.”

And that’s how Jack became Jack of the Lantern.

Americans have traded in turnips for pumpkins. They’re bigger, softer, easier to carve. Most of us don’t remember this part, though: Those lanterns light the way for the dead to come visit the living, to return one night each All Hallows’ Eve, enjoy the food and drink we set out on the porch. It isn’t just custom, it’s ceremony. Trick-or-treating in costumes isn’t quite the same, isn’t the best we can do, but oh well; kids love it. They count down for 31 days. So don’t duck out and be gone that night, your house left dark and lame. Stay home and pass out sugar in abundance. In exchange I’ll give you these three things right now:

First, humpback whales are amazing. There’s a good chance to see them in Monterey Bay. But it’s the smell I actually remember most, hanging in the air after they’ve gone back under. Something nostril-searing and ancient, and you can’t pass through it like a curtain. A blowhole smell of Ocean-Dead. A smell of considerable size. Second is Rainier cherries. You should definitely eat them. And no, Bings are no substitute. Try to do this in Zillah or Yakima since Mt. Rainier looks different from the east side. Short of that, though, a grocery store will work. Buy pounds. Fill up. They’re here and gone like orchard lightning. And third, there’s Miles Davis: My Funny Valentine Live. This was his group with Wayne Shorter not Coltrane. It’s what ushered me into the Congregation Hall of jazz… those first haunting notes he carves with his trumpet, sounding like the voice of Forever. They’ll hollow you out and put a light inside.

Happy Halloween.

 

 

Rob Carney’s fourth book 88 Maps just came out from Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.
 
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: 4th Annual Contest Winner and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney.

Photo of jack-o-lantern courtesy Shutterstock.

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6 Responses

  1. Marjorie Rommel

    Ah, Mr. Carney, you’re as full of Blarney as Jack himself, and every word of it true! Thanks for this!

    • Rob Carney

      That’s nice praise and much appreciated, thanks. Cheers!

  2. Amy Brunvand

    “Something nostril-searing and ancient, and you can’t pass through it like a curtain. A blowhole smell of Ocean-Dead.” I ate a piece of whale skin once, out of respect for a first-nations Alaskan who had brought it to a conference for ceremonial purposes. It was gray and had a strange rubbery lattice-like texture and it tasted just like that, sort of like eating the whole ocean.

    • Rob Carney

      I’m a bit jealous of that story, though not as jealous as I am about the kayakers who got landed on by a breaching humpback out there in Monterey Bay this summer. Even if I planned it, I couldn’t get landed on by a whale, and I think that would be a moment like no other.

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