A Children’s Tale
This revised story Copyright © 2010 by Michael Smetzer**************
Once, very long ago, a wonderful boy lived with his family in the dunes along Great Lake. Jack, for that was his name, was a dutiful son. From the first light until almost dark, he would be out in the dunes gathering food for his parents. He would wade into the lake to net little fishes. He would hunt through the saw grass for the eggs of birds. He would gather wild rice along the marsh. And in the spring he would dig sassafras near the tops of the highest dunes to make his parents tea.
Jack had to work hard, but he loved his parents and so he was happy. And his parents loved him, for he was their favorite child. Although their other children were good, the parents sometimes sighed because none was as wonderful as Jack. But they told each other, “Soon he will marry and then we will have grandchildren just as wonderful as he.”
Then one day it happened that Jack’s father saw his own death nearby, watching. He called the family together around the little fire in their hut. “Children,” he said, “when I was young my father placed a treasure in my hands. Our family has owned our treasure since before these sands around us were solid rock. All these years I have kept this treasure in darkness. Now I will bring it back to light.”
So saying, the old man opened a secret pocket and emptied a little sack into his palm. All the children, the wife, and even the old man himself sat there amazed, for out of the little sack spilled a sand of tiny gems, each sparkling with firelight. The gems filled them all with delight and awe and pride. “Jack,” the old man said, “my death has arrived. You are the most wonderful of sons, and it is to you I give our treasure. Keep our family’s secret until you too grow old.”
* * *
This happened when the blackberries were ripe. When the sumac leaves turned red, the old man kept to his hut, and before the hickory trees were bare, he died. They buried him at the landward edge of a dune so that time would raise a mound above his head. Now Jack made a pocket to hide his father’s sack. All winter he carried the gems, and in the spring he went to seek a wonderful wife.
Jack wandered among the families along the lake, but he could find no girl as wonderful as he. So one day Jack built a boat to cross the wide slough that separated the new dunes beside the lake from an ancient line of forested dunes, old shore watchers from a time when Great Lake was even larger. As he walked among the oaks, he saw a young woman beside a spring. She told him she had wandered far in the woods seeking mushrooms and fresh greens for her parents and the bulbs of spring beauties, which her mother loved. And she had been so happy gathering for her parents that she had lost her way. Then she had come to this spring, but she knew the forest around them was magical and now she was afraid to drink. To Jack she seemed the most wonderful woman he had ever met.
Smiling bravely, he knelt down and drank deeply, then sat down beside her on a log to rest. Suddenly his legs jerked straight out, and his lower body swelled up so tight the pain made him howl. The woman placed her sweater under his head and ran off into the forest calling for help.
At this point an old man dressed like a healer appeared and asked Jack what was wrong. Jack pointed to the spring and pleaded for his help. “I can help you,” he said, “but you must swear a solemn oath to do everything I ask.” Jack swore an oath on his father’s grave. The man took water from his gourd and some herbs from near the spring and whipped them into a froth. He rubbed this on Jack’s stomach and legs until they calmed.
“What do you have in this pocket?” the old man asked.
“It is my family treasure,” Jack replied.
“Let me see it. You have sworn on your father’s grave.”
Jack was horrified but he dared not break his oath, so he lay still as the old man drew the sack from its pocket and spilled the gems into his hand. In the daylight, even under the trees, the gems were too brilliant for Jack to look on, but he saw the old man’s wonder, then the greed in his eyes.
“I will take these for my service,” he said, and with one gulp he swallowed them all. Before Jack could cry out, the old man and the spring vanished.
* * *
Through summer and fall Jack’s family searched the old dunes, but no trace of the old man did they find, nor anyone who knew him. All winter and all spring Jack’s family mourned. Then, when blackberries came ripe, Jack returned alone to the old dunes. When he wandered to the place where the spring had been, he found the old man trapped in a fairy ring. In those days woodland fairies would sometimes circle a sleeper, and where they stepped mushrooms would push up their earthy heads. When the sleeper arose he could not cross their circle nor could the mushrooms be touched or the ring broken except with a fresh‑cut stick of poison oak.
“Where are my gems?” Jack demanded.
“Still in my stomach,” the old man replied. “But if you will cut a stick of poison oak and free me from this ring, I will return them to you.”
Jack cut the poison oak and took it in his hand. He walked back to the ring. “Do you swear you will return my gems if I free you?”
“I swear,” the old man answered.
When Jack broke the ring with his stick, the man hopped quickly out.
“And now return my gems,” said Jack.
The old man bent over and vomited black and green upon the ground and then again he was gone. Jack scooped the vomit into his hat and carried it home. Between the stench of the vomit and the swelling of his hands, it was the hardest trip Jack had ever made, but he was full of hope.
On the shore of the lake Jack washed the vomit in a basin. At the bottom he found a mass of gems, his family’s gems but all lackluster and black. Never again would they sparkle with colors in the firelight. Jack hid the gems in the sack and kept them as his duty in his pocket. The next spring he went again into the old dunes and found the wonderful young woman he had met by the spring. He told her his story and she married him for his honesty and his shame. Together, in their simple way, they prospered and together they were happy and only sometimes a little sad. The gems have passed through Jack’s descendants to this day, but no child since has ever seemed as wonderful as Jack.
(first published in My Legacy)