Had they listened to their father, the children would have been safe in their beds on that blustery night. But as it was, they were shivering before a pitiful fire no bigger than a candle flame and just as delicate, while a pack of goblins stood by the cave mouth arguing over what to do with their prize of three healthy children.
The three children had been caught unawares in the forest after sundown by the goblins that their father had warned them about. They hadn’t believed there were goblins and just thought all the mothers and fathers in the village had made up the story to keep their children from wandering too far or from staying out of doors too late.
The goblins frightened the children when they first descended upon them and swarmed around them. They were tiny squat creatures, most with two arms and two legs, and scrawny fingers with long dirty fingernails. Some had snouts and some pointy ears. All had eyes of blue. Not a pretty blue or even a stern blue but a dingy dirty battered blue. They were ill-tempered and agile and stronger than they looked. But they also, it seemed, were none too bright.
After watching the goblins for a while, and being left alone, the three children became less frightened. They calmed enough to begin speaking to each in low soft voices about how they might escape before the goblins decided to eat them or torture them.
“What if we could send a message to father?” the middle child asked.
The eldest child kept one eye on the goblins. “How?”
The youngest child perked up. “Maybe the birds outside will go tell him if we can get them to speak our language.”
And so it went. They argued over what they might do to save themselves or what they might do to keep the goblins at bay while they waited for rescue. They tried to remember what the weaknesses of goblins were from story and song and the warnings of elders.
Then one of them suggested a thing that made the others fall quiet…summoning a creature even more frightful than the goblins to dispatch the goblins. Frightful he might be, but he would be on the children’s side, if the tales were true, though there were many tales and much confusion about him.
“You want to summon Jack Sprat?” the middle child asked.
The eldest clapped his hand to his ears. “Shh…don’t say his name!”
“He won’t just come if you say his name, silly,” the youngest said. There was a glint of wonder and mischief in her eyes.
“He wouldn’t just help us out of kindness,” the eldest warned. “There would be a cost.”
The youngest made a thoughtful face. “I have no money to give. What can we give him?”
“You shall probably have to marry him,” the eldest said.
“Why can’t you marry him?”
“That’s now how it works, ninny.”
“Well, whyever not?”
The middle child listened to her siblings argue as she thought upon their quandary. The villain they spoke of–or perhaps the hero–had a strange story. He was a man once and now was some kind of imp. He was mortal once and now was a creature of questionable mortality and equally questionable morality.
He was real. Of that, most were certain. But all else about him was uncertain.
Most accounts agreed that the duchy of Malison, in which lay the village that was the children’s home, was once governed by a duke whose true name was lost. And most accounts agreed that he angered a warlock, who cursed the duke’s soul and turned him into the wandering imp that all came to know as Jack Sprat.
In one tale, Malison was a wealthy duchy when Jack became duke. His wife, Joanna, was always hungry for jewels and finery. And while Jack cared nothing for wealth and finery, he was always hungry for power. Between the two of them, they impoverished their once-prosperous land. Jack used the treasury to buy himself power and to buy his wife the finery she desired. Jack was little loved by the people of his duchy. Then one day, he and his wife angered a warlock, a very powerful warlock. Jack had sought him as an ally. But before he joined with the duke, the warlock wanted to test him. He came across the duke and duchess dressed as an old peddler. The duke and duchess treated the old peddler roughly.
So angered and disgusted was the warlock that he cast a spell on them. The duchess had ordered her guards to beat the old man while the duke stood by and said and did nothing. So the warlock punished the duchess with death, so her cruel words would be silenced forever. And this death would come at the hands of her own husband. He would not stand by while another did the deed. Jack was compelled by sorcery to throw his wife over a cliff by the sea into the crashing waters below. The warlock then punished Jack further by shrinking his body to match the smallness of his character.
Distraught over all that happened, Jack returned home but was shunned as a demon by everyone in his household. The only one who would come near him was his wife’s cat. Jack jumped on the cat’s back and she carried him away before the servants could catch and kill him.
But some say that story of Jack as a cruel and careless duke was passed on by his enemies–particularly the warlock. And therefore the story made him a villain. Some tales say he was a fair duke if not a good one. And that the warlock came to the duchy and insinuated himself into the duke’s retinue, hoping one day to gain influence over the duke. He was envious of the duchy and its riches and fertility, for his lands bore ill crops. He had starved until he learned his warlock magic.
At a feast one night when he saw how much food was laid out for the nobles to eat and to waste, he lost his temper and cursed the duke and duchess so that Jack could eat no fat and Joanna could eat no lean. Over time, Joanna grew so large that she could not fit at the table. She could not move or walk on her own. Jack meanwhile grew leaner and leaner, until he was gaunt and weak.
One day, Joanna died, her heart filled with so much fat that it burst. In his grief, Jack would let no one touch her. He was not strong enough to lift her and so he loaded her in a great barrow and rolled her body out. But he could not manage, and the body of the duchess fell into a ditch. Joanna had uttered a curse upon her death. One of her chambermaids told Jack about it. Her curse was that Jack would avenge her upon the warlock. And so he would.
Jack left the governance of the duchy to one of his kin, and he vanished. But the warlock overpowered the duke’s forces. So powerful was he, that he forced the royals to grant him a title and make him the duke of Malison. He governed for many a miserable year, until there reached his ears rumors of a demon terrorizing the roads around the duchy. A little imp that came out of the shadows and rode a cat that was twice as big as any household cat and with glowing red eyes. That demon was Jack Sprat.
One tale maintained that the warlock’s curse upon the duke and duchess was not upon the couple’s dining practices, but upon their devotion to each other. He turned Joanna into the red-haired cat and the cat into Joanna without Jack’s knowledge. When Jack discovered the ruse, he was so enraged he threw Joanna in a wheelbarrow and tossed her into the river to drown. But none other believed that the creature he drowned was the cat, and he was marked as a murderer. In this version of the tale, it was Jack who pronounced vengeance on the warlock. He managed to steal away with a few possessions before fleeing his manor. And these possessions became enchanted upon Jack’s proclamation of vengeance, for he made it when he was under the influence of the warlock’s magic, and such were the dangers of using magic. Jack’s coat became enchanted and he was able to hide in shadows. His velvet hat with the two dark brown polished stones set in the band became enchanted and hid many secret tricks that he learned on his travels.
He had meant to go off and use his courtly power to gather enough allies to defeat the warlock. When he found no allies at court, he went in search of other means to take vengeance for himself and for his fallen wife. That search took many, many years. By the time he returned, Jack Sprat had changed. He no longer cared about being duke. He only cared about making mischief and mayhem. That was his only vengeance against the warlock. But it was said that he told the people of his duchy that he would come if they summoned him for help. And he would help them, but he would exact a toll. And any who could not pay the toll would by at the mercy of his malice.
As time went by and the telling of the tale changed bit by bit, somewhere along the way, the unpredictable Jack became a somewhat heroic figure. For there did indeed come a rescuer for those in the duchy who were in need. Merchants set upon by bandits would call out for Jack Sprat and be saved. Young women working in the fields attacked by fearsome and unnatural beasts would call upon Jack and be delivered. And mothers whose children were lost would summon Jack and find their lost babes delivered at their doorsteps. It was said that Jack took trifling tolls from such folk. Meanwhile, the warlock’s allies would be harassed upon their journey into and out of the duchy and made to pay outrageous tolls for passage.
The three children felt the night growing darker and colder. They were weary. For they should have been deep asleep and warm in their beds with a small but fierce fire burning through the night. They decided at last. They would summon Jack. The eldest, though he feared what they would unleash, would do the summoning and therefore he would have to pay the price.
To summon Jack, one had to chant a rhyme about him to get his attention. Children in the duchy and even beyond learned this rhyme. Some mothers taught it to ward off Jack, while others taught it to summon him or the good luck he would bring in his hat.
As quietly as he could, the eldest began to sing the chant:
“Jack Sprat, his tale is that
His soul was stolen by day
Upon the back of a cat he sat
And by night he stole away
“Jack Sprat, his tale is that
When called he will appear
He’ll tip his head and tap his hat
And out’ll pour fondness or fear
“Jack Sprat, the story is told
Had a wife both fair and wild
When she spoke, her words were bold
While Jack’s words were mild
“Jack Sprat, his story will end
When his soul at last is healed
When his every tale at last is penned
And his every fate is sealed.
They had feared his coming. But they had also feared his not coming. They had expected to wait. They had expected the yowl of a terrible cat and a fierce little demon leaping amongst the goblins.
But as they stood, they saw a figure simply slip out of the many shadows in the cave. Not a tiny creature riding a cat, but a grown man, followed by a red-haired cat. The figure was humming some tune as he bowed to the children. The goblins had not yet seen him, for they were not as capable in their arguments as the children had been and had not yet come to an agreement.
The children saw him but could not quite put their eyes on him. He seemed to slip about and flicker in the firelight with the shadows. But they did see his hat and the dark stones upon it. And they saw that it was his eyes, not the cat’s, that glowed. And they glowed dark red like lit rubies.
He listened as the eldest explained their trouble and pointed to the goblins and asked Jack Sprat to dispatch the creatures. Jack bowed and flicked from shadow to shadow, his cat stalking along behind him. He leapt out at the goblins, who took a fright, but recovered enough to reach for weapons and face him. Jack took off his hat, put his hand inside it, pulled his hand out, and threw something at the goblins.
The goblins vanished.
And that was it.
Jack turned, bowed to the children, and said, “It is done.”
The children approached him with caution. With his hat off, they saw his eyes. They were black tinted with red. He addressed the eldest and said that he owed Jack a debt. But when the eldest asked if Jack would take his firstborn child like in the old story of the gold-goblin, Jack laughed. He said that the eldest could decide what the debt would be then and there and agree to how long it would take to repay. But he warned that he could not linger long.
The eldest thought and while he did, Jack observed the children.
“Ah, one fears me, one adores me,” he said as he looked at the eldest, then the youngest.
“And what do you think of me, little miss?” he asked the middle child.
“I’m not quite sure of your nature,” she said.
The youngest was indeed charmed by Jack as she was by most danger. She likely would not have lived long were it not for the attention of her parents and her siblings. She boldly stepped forward.
“Mister Sprat,” she said. “We know so many stories about you. Which one is real, I wonder?”
The other children held their breath. But Jack Sprat smiled. Something about the little child charmed him as much as he had charmed her.
“Not many care to ask after me these days,” Jack said. “I will take your kindness as payment for your brother’s summoning. And I will tell you my story.”
“I was once a duke, that much is true. And not a particularly good duke. That too is true. But the tales don’t speak of my adored family. I was a good son to my mother and father. A good brother to my brother. A good nephew and cousin. And so on. The tales only speak of one among those I loved. My Joanna. I had always admired ladies who were contrary to myself. I never thought I would or could love one who was so like me. Joanna was my equal.
“I did as she did and she did as I did. We were two of a kind. Until the warlock came. We were indeed unkind to him and had no reason to be save for that we were young and foolish. He cursed us with what I believed to be a most vicious and cruel curse at the time. He made us different from each other. No longer did we think alike and act alike. We were opposites. When I craved fat, she craved lean. When I loved the night, she preferred the day. When I loved her, she hated me. And when she loved me, I hated her.
“I did not kill my wife. But neither did the warlock. It was cruel fate that did her in. A day of joy that became a day of mourning. Perhaps she would have died anyway. But in my grief, I blamed the warlock. Were it not for his curse upon us, I thought, she would not have suffered such a fate. I did not take vengeance upon the warlock, sweet children. I took a favor from him. He was sorrowful and repentant and granted me my wish.”
Jack stopped and all the children wanted to know how it was that Joanna had really died–for there must have been some truth in the tales. The youngest thought Joanna died of heartbreak because she could not be with her love. The eldest still suspected Jack in the deed and did not trust him. The middle child wondered whence came the parts of the tale where Joanna had grown large from eating so much fat. But none would ask.
Instead, the youngest asked a different question. “What did you wish for?”
Jack flourished his hands as the cat slinked between his legs. “To be as I am.”
Jack wagged a finger at the youngest. “I have told you my tale and I have taken my payment. Fare thee well, children.”
The middle child had spoken. The children thanked Jack for clearing the cave of goblins, but they had been thrown into sacks before being brought to the cave. They knew not where they were and needed help to get back home.
“That is another boon,” Jack said. “And will cost you another toll.”
The children looked at each other. The eldest began to ask, but Jack held up a hand to stop him.
“Your payment for your first summoning was kindness. Your payment for this second favor will be another kindness. You asked to hear my tale. Now I give you a tale, one you would not have thought to ask for. Your payment will be to listen. I am reminded by you of three other children I know well. Three other children of whom I am immeasurably fond. And do you know why?”
The children stood wide-eyed, the youngest shaking her head.
“Because they are my children. Mine and Joanna’s.”
The eldest felt a chill for some reason he could not explain. The middle child frowned in confusion, wondering how Jack Sprat could have children since they appeared in none of the tales about him. And the youngest merely beamed.
He described his children. His eldest too was a boy. And the next two were also girls. And when he spoke of his youngest, his voice wavered with both sorrow and joy. He spoke of how the day of her birth was both the happiest and most miserable day of his life. For that was the day Joanna died.
“I was not forthcoming before when I told you what I wished from the warlock,” Jack said. “I wished to be as I am for my children. As duke I sought power and favor so I might live well and happily. And sorrow found me anyway. As it finds us all. But with the powers I now have, I can guard my children from some of the evils of the world. And I can wreak havoc on the wicked.”
The youngest laughed in delight. The eldest shivered in fright. And the middle child bowed her head in thought.
Jack went on to describe his children. They sounded so very like the children before him, even down to the games and toys they played and the songs they liked to hear sung to them before bedtime. The eldest found the tale to be eerie. The youngest clapped her hands. And the middle child smiled politely until the tale was told.
As promised, Jack led them back home, and when they were on a familiar path, he slipped back into the shadows. The eldest and youngest began to run down the path toward home. The middle child hung back for just a moment. She turned and thought she saw the shadow of a man and a cat walking side by side. The man’s shadow shrunk and leapt upon the cat’s back, and they vanished into the dark of the forest.
Her elder brother and younger sister were already arguing over what all of them had been thinking. They had been watching Jack, examining him, comparing him…to their own father. For their own mother had died giving birth to the youngest. And they were so like Jack’s children perhaps because they were Jack’s children.
“Could it be?” the youngest asked, clapping her hands again.
The eldest merely groaned. Till that day, all he had feared from his father was disapproval. Now he had to fear that his father was a soulless wandering imp.
The middle child sighed. “Our father is our father. No more and no less. All we need fear from him is the punishments he will have for us after he welcomes us home. Jack Sprat was making sport of us.”
“Then how did he know all of that about us?” the youngest asked.
“He had enough power to make a dozen goblins vanish with a wave of his hand. Why not the power to read our thoughts? Or come by our stories some other way? Maybe the trouble he has placed in our minds is our true payment to him.”
They approached the door to the cottage. Their shadows pooled at the threshold. The children stood still but the shadows flickered. The middle child gasped and spoke again.
“Our father is our father.”
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.