From the sunny warmth of September, the 10th month of the year really has felt like falling off the cliff into winter, with frosts and snow and pelting ice. Living in the northland, we all know that it is coming…inevitably.
But the coming of winter marks the beginning of the best time for sharing stories—and Halloween especially with flitting ghosts, glowing pumpkin faces, and thumps and bumps in the night. In honor of the old traditions of Halloween, here is a classic American folk tale (though its origins stretch back to the Old Country) befitting this time of year.
Wicked John and the Devil
There once was a blacksmith named Wicked John. Now, how he got that name, no one could really remember, but John was a rough and tough sort of fellow, strong as an ox, and he didn’t like to take no pranks from nobody. Maybe it was all those hours by the hot coals, beating the black iron against his anvil with his hammers that smelted his character into something less than friendly.
Well, one day Wicked John was cooling a red-hot rod when he heard a commotion outside his shop. He looked up to see an old, grizzly man teetering down the lane. Around him were the neighborhood boys, laughing and teasing, calling the old man names and throwing small stones. Wicked John might not have been a pleasant fellow, but he had his scruples, and seeing the elderly treated with such contempt made the curly black hair on the back of his neck bristle.
“Leave ‘em alone!” bellowed Wicked John, as we stormed from his workshop to help the old man up from the dusty road. “That’s no way to treat this old man!” Taking the strangers arm, John brought him into the shop and sat him down in the rocking chair he kept by the side. Then he slipped into his house and brought out some bread and cheese and dark beer and shared these with the old man.
But when Wicked John turned away for a moment to check on his coals, he found sitting in the rocking chair a very regal and well-dressed man where the old, dusty vagabond had been.
“Where’d the old man go?” Wicked John demanded. “And who are you?”
“I am he” replied the well-dressed man. “Perhaps I should introduce myself, for I am St. Peter. Every year, about this time, I come down to earth in the state you saw me before, to see how the people will treat me. When I find someone who treats me well, I offer them three wishes. This year, John, that kind person is you.”
Wicked John was not accustomed to being called a kind person, and he found himself a bench to sit down. “You mean I get three wishes from St. Peter?” he asked, still feeling wary as to whether this was true or a hoax.
“That’s right,” said St. Peter. “Name your first wish.”
Well, Wicked John had to think on this for a while. Then a toothy smile began to slide from one side of his face to the other and he began a gravelly chuckle. “I know!” he announced with certainty. “That rockin’ chair you’re sittin’ in, sometimes those neighborhood boys come and sit in it when I want to. They just sit there, takin’ up space. Well, the next time someone sits in that there chair and I don’t want ‘em too, I want it to start to rock, and rock, and rock until they can’t take it no more, and it won’t stop rockin’ until I says so.”
St. Peter looked a bit horrified. “Is that really how you want to spend your first wish? That doesn’t sound like a nice wish at all, I’m disappointed in you, John.”
“That’s what I want,” says Wicked John, with a twinkle in his dark eye.
“Well, then, alright. But make sure your second wish is better.”
“Ooh,” grins John. “It sure will be. Here’s my second wish. See my hammer over there. It’s the trustiest tool I have. But sometimes them neighborhood boys come and steal it. Well, the next time someone takes my hammer when I don’t want them to, I want it to pound, and pound, and pound, until they can’t take it nor more, and it won’t stop poundin’ until I says so.”
Now, St. Peter was looking pretty gray and upset. “No wonder they call you Wicked John; that is a horrible wish! Surely you must think up something better!”
“Nope,” said John. “That’s what I want. And here’s my third wish. See that prickly bush over there? If some feller comes around that I don’t like at all, I’ll throw them in that bush and it will start to poke, and poke, and poke, until that feller can’t take it no more, and it won’t stop pokin’ until I says so.” And Wicked John began to howl with laughter.
St. Peter stood up, disgusted. “Wicked John, I am ashamed of you. No one has used their three wishes so vilely. What a terrible waste.” And with that, he vanished.
Wicked John was still chuckling a few days later, working diligently on a horse shoe with hammer and anvil, when he heard the sounds of someone stepping into his shop. He looked up, then looked again, for here before his was a little devil, all red with little horns and a swirling tail, not unlike some kid in a Halloween costume. He stood there with greedy little eyes, licking a big ol’ lollypop.
“My daddy sent me to come and take you away to Hell, Wicked John,” piped the little devil’s voice. “C’mon, let’s go.”
“Well,” said John. “Why don’t you give me a minute to finish this horse shoe first. Just take a seat over there on that rockin’ chair, and I’ll be right with you.”
Well, that little devil didn’t see no harm in waiting in that rocking chair, but as soon as he sat down, that chair began to rock, and rock, and rock. Soon the little devil was green instead of red, his claw-like hands clutching onto the arms of the chair with whitened knuckles. “Please!” the devil wailed. “Make it stop, make it stop!”
“I’m not done yet with this horseshoe,” said Wicked John, without any show of worry.
“MAKE-IT-STOP!!!! Oh please, I’ll never bother you again Wicked John!
“Yes, I promise!!!” And the chair stopped with a lurch and that little devil catapulted out the front of the shop and was gone forever. He even left his lollypop and never bothered to get it back.
That was all fine and good, until a few days later Wicked John was hard at work fitting an iron rim to a wagon wheel, when he heard slightly bigger footsteps coming into his shop. He looked up and there was a teenaged devil—you know, the sort with spiked hair, piercings, a few tattoos, and wearing his pants lower than anyone cared to observe.
“Yo, my daddy sent me to take you away to Hell,” said the teenaged devil. “He didn’t like how you treated my little brother much, so let’s be off.”
“Well,” said Wicked John. “I’m almost finished with this here wagon wheel, so why don’t you give me a hand for a minute, and then we can go.”
“Do I have to?” whined the teenaged devil.
“Sure,” John directed. “Just grab my hammer over there for me.” But of course, when that devil grabbed the hammer, it began to pound, and pound, and pound, and that devil was flying up in the air, whopping his spiky head on the ceiling, then crashing down on the floor again.
“Make it stop, oh please make it stop!” wailed the teenaged devil.
“I’m not finished yet,” replied Wicked John, the glint in his eye.
“MAKE-IT-STOP!!! I’ll never come and bother you again!”
“Yes, I promise!” and with that, the hammer lay still and that teenaged devil took off faster than you thought teenagers could move, never to be seen again.
But a few days later, John was cleaning up around his shop when he heard the sound of crunching claws coming in from outside. There stood the Devil himself, eyes glowing, muscles built like John’s rippling against the sunlight.
“John!” the Devil boomed. “You’ve been treatin’ my little devils something’ fierce. So I’ve come up to take you to Hell myself!” And the Devil leapt for John and John leapt for the Devil, and they began to wrestle like nothing you had ever seen. There was punching and clawing and biting and twisting. But sure as you’ll see pumpkins on Halloween, John managed to roll the Devil into the pricker bush outside.
And that bush began to poke, and poke, and poke, until the Devil screamed “Make it stop!” But Wicked John just dusted himself off, stood back, and laughed. “John, John!” the Devil pleaded, his voice growing small and pathetic. “Please, let me out of this bush, please!”
“Why should I?” was John’s retort. “I wouldn’t trust you for a minute.”
“I promise never to come and—ouch!—bother you again, I promise!”
“Are you sure?” John added with a kick at the writhing Devil.
“Yes, quite, you win John, there really is a reason they call you Wicked John. I’ll never, in all my days, come and bother you again.” And with that, the bush held still, and the Devil made a pained effort to stand, wipe his bloody nose, and limp off to the howling laughter of Wicked John.
But there comes a day when everyone must die, and Wicked John found himself at St. Peter’s gate. But St. Peter remembered what John had wished for and said he wouldn’t be let into heaven…he’d have to go down and try the other place. So John took the winding stairway down to Hell with its great solid wooden and iron door, but nobody was at the entrance. John rapped at the knocker, and a little peep hole opened. It shut again mighty quick, and Wicked John stood outside for a long while, waiting for what might come next.
Finally, the peep hope opened again, and out came a loooooooooong pair of tongues holding a coal. A frightened little voice spoke from inside. “The Devil says you’re too wicked to come in, so here’s a coal so you can start your own Hell!” Some say that John is still out there, wandering the lands between, carrying that coal. Maybe you’ve even seen him, out in the mists.
Happy Halloween! See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com