Hey, folks. So, Samhain just passed. With that in mind, here’s a story for you:
Once upon a time, there lived a man who was very much alone in the world. He had no family. No children to carry his name in their hearts, no knowledge of his own parents let alone his distand ancestors. And he wasn’t particularly sad or tragic, or even unusual in this regard. He lived his life as people do, striving for kindness even if he sometimes missed the mark; working to walk gently in the world and get by; until the day came when he died.
It’s how things go.
Now, normally, when someone dies, there are rites performed. Candles lit and names called to help the dead find their way to the land of the ancestors. But this didn’t happen for Jack. Instead, his soul was set to wander, as if through a dark night, trying to find a path that he couldn’t name.
He wandered through this night, with no-one to walk with him, and the only knowledge he had of the passage of time was that, sometimes, he would stumble into the land of the living again – on nights when the lilacs were blooming and summer’s breath could tickle the back of his neck; or else when the frost turned to laced on the windows and the last of the harvest was coming in. Either way, there were fires lit and he could, for a little while, see where he was going.
And so it happened, on one such night when the veil between the living and the dead was thin, that he stumbled to Kildaer, to the fire that burns there always. And there he met a woman who stood by a glowing forge.
He said “Tell me where I am, for I’ve been lost and wandering so long!”
And she answered “Mine is the path of the living. I keep death from their doors with my healing arts; I keep memories alive with my songs. I cannot lead you home. But,” she added. “I can give you this.”
She reached into the depths of the forge and pulled out a bright coal. She placed it in the man’s cupped hands, where it glowed, but did not burn.
“Fire cleanses, and so it is mine,” she said. “And it grows and consumes like any living thing. But it also knows the road of death. Follow its light,” she told him. “It will guide you on your way and get you home.”
Now the man didn’t know what to make of this. He was still just as lost as ever. But her’s was the first kindness he’d had since his long wanderings had begun, so he thanked her and went on his way.
And it happened that the coal in his hand did, indeed, cast a strange light, which shifted as though with a will of its own, til he saw that he could follow in the direction that it lit.
And so, still lost but no-longer wandering, he walked with a purpose through the dark.
It took many years for the man to find his way, following the light that he carried, and he still moved between worlds when the veils grew thin. Sometimes, people would catch sight of him – a shadowy, half-formed figure; a burning bright light moving through the dark – on the night when the animals were slaughtered and the bonfires lit to cleanse the herds and keep them healthy through the winter.
And so the man, who some called a spirit and some called a ghost and some, surely, feared and called a deamon, came be known as Jack – Jack the Wanderer, Jack of the Lantern. And, as time went on, people began to set their own lights – bright coals burning in the dark beyond their doorways, candles in the windows behind smiling, carven faces – to help him on his way.
Now… Jack of the Lantern has long-since found his way to the land of the ancestors and has surely met all those who went before him. But he is not the only soul to wande in the darkness between the worlds, and so people still leave Jack-o-Lanterns by their doors on Spirit Night, to help the lost ones find their way.
If, some night when the veils are thin, the candle in your own lantern will not stay lit, look up. You may see the flame of it being borne away, and a lost soul, no-longer wandering, but walking with a purpose towards home.