Volume 4 Number 4


Autumn 2006

Jack and the Magic Hat

by Charles S. Cooper

Jack slipped through a crack in a wall and found himself standing near a rail fence somewhere in Georgia. Vast stretches of young cotton disappeared into green smudges at the horizon.  He put his red and green patchwork bag down at his feet, stuck the sword with the ruby pommel into the ground, and climbed up on the fence to await whatever came next.

A cocky jay came along to peck at the threads of Jack's bag.  A trio of green and yellow butterflies whirled round his head like breathless girls.  A young fox squirrel strolled over from an ancient oak to scold him in furry anger.

But they were not whatever came next.  Jack thought the whatever would show up on the hard dirt road meandering from the stand of black pines on his left to the small rise on his right.  He waited patiently, beating out on his knees a tune he had learned from a woman who baked cakes made with honey and cream.  It was a song about how delicious the day would be.

Pretty soon, as these things go, a black and white mare plodded out of the pines.  She pulled a wooden cart that swayed with each step.  Atop the cart sat a short, squat shack made of wood scraps and tarpaper.  Written across the side of the shack in crude, faded letters were the words, "Augustine Thatcher -- Procurer of Curious Objects."

Jack was pretty sure this was something.

The mare came to a stop in front of Jack.  Close up, she was a light shade of gray with dark patches of dried mud.  She turned her head, looked at Jack, and flicked her ears.  She was tired of trudging along and grateful for the rest.  He winked at her. She snorted.

Jack turned his attention to the shack.  It leaned slightly to the left.  The sides bowed precariously in and out.  Its warbley, green metal roof shimmered like hot sun on cool lake water.  Across the front, someone had tacked a frayed wooden plank upon which sat a bundle of dark rags.  The bundle moved and a pair of beady eyes and a hawk-like nose emerged.  The eyes wandered Jack up and down and sped along the ground to his belongings.  The eyes flashed huge when they spied the sword, then grew quickly small and sly.

This was definitely something.

Something croaked underneath the rags, then coughed.  A bony hand snaked out of the bundle and under the plank to grasp a chipped, brown jug.  Another hand pulled the rags away from a thin-lipped mouth and stubbled chin.  The jug whirled around and around and then swiftly darted to the mouth which took a swig. The back of a hand wiped amber fluid from the corners of the mouth.   The eyes never left Jack.

The rags lurched up and fell back into a heap revealing a tall, thin man dressed in a threadbare, black suit.  He stretched and yawned and scratched his belly.

"My, my," he said. "What a wonderful day."

He looked around and admired the view.  When his eyes spied Jack he started in surprise.

"Well, good day there, sir," said he.  "Isn't this a wonderful day?"

Jack smiled.

The man climbed down, and scuffled slowly alongside the gray mare, patting her gently and speaking softly, until he stopped just in front of Jack.  The mare snorted again.

The man bowed extravagantly.  "Greeting, good sir," he said.  "I am Augustine Thatcher, procurer of objects strange and wondrous for the court at Savannah, conveyor of goods great and small on consignment, duly appointed representative of the crown for marriages, divorces and appointments, guarantor of wills and contracts, penman extraordinaire for correspondence public and private, friend to man and beast, and citizen of the road."

Jack clapped and shouted, "Hoo-rah!"  His smile grew broader.

"And whom have I the pleasure of addressing?"

"I'm Jack!"

"Ah, yes, Jack.  A very, very fine name.  I knew a man in Principia who raised the finest white stallions in all the known world.  His name was Jack.  And he was a very generous and honest man.  Indeed he was. Perhaps I can be of some small service to you today.  Is there a will you wish to have adjudicated, a blushing bride you wish to wed, a poultice for bunions of the foot, or salve for what ails the heart?"

Jack shook his head.

"No?  More's the pity.  Well, perhaps you can be of service to me.  As it happens, I am commissioned by the king at the court in Savannah to transverse the countryside searching for strange and unusual objects. I pay generously, I must say, so that when I return to court I may present said objects to the king for his wonderment and enlightenment.  Perchance, good sir, you have in your possession knowledge of some object so strange and wondrous as to astonish a king."

Jack let his smile fade, shrugged his shoulders, and shook his head.

"Magic wands, crystal balls, enchanted swords?  Tales of giant toadstools that turn foolish boys into trolls?  Unicorns?  Poppagriffs?  Dragons?"

Jack thought on this a moment. He knew where to find a dragon, although he didn't know how to get there from here.  He decided not to tell Augustine Thatcher because the woman might get angry if he did, and he was so very fond of cakes made with honey and cream.

"Ah.  More's the pity.  Well, perhaps a trade then.  A fine looking boy like you must have some insignificant little trinket you have grown bored with.  Something you can easily part with.  Yes?"

Jack shrugged but his smile started to creep back.

"Well, you think on it.  Let me see what I have in my cart that might be of interest to you, shall I?"

Augustine Thatcher lifted himself up onto the seat of the cart and opened a small, hinged door into the shack.  He stuck his head in and made rummaging sounds.  Soon he came out with a pair of old shoes.  He compared the length of one to his own foot.

"Might I interest you in a pair of walking shoes?  Finest made.  A bit small for my feet, but just right for you."

Jack shook his head.  He rocked back and forth on the fence, his eyes bright.

"No? Well, they are a bit scuffed.  Not good trade material at all." Augustine Thatcher laid the boots on the cart seat and stuck his head back in the hole.  He brought out a small wooden box, opened the lid, and removed a small, white object.

"Someone of your sophistication hardly needs to be told that these are the famed White Cumberland Pearls, perfectly round, highly sought after for ladies' bodice dressings and the collar pins of gentlemen's dinner jackets.  Would you like to see one up close?"

Jack leapt down from his perch. Augustine Thatcher carefully laid the pearl in Jack's outstretched palm.  Jack rolled the object around with his finger.  It was smooth and hard and mostly round.  Jack brought it up to his face and sniffed twice before taking a long, slow draught.  He smelled cool waters rushing through mountain courses, breaking off a piece of hard, stoic rock, which crashed and clattered as it worked its long, toilsome way downstream to arrive in a shallow pool, rounded and smooth.  It was a river stone.  Jack handed it back and shook his head.

Augustine Thatcher returned the box to the shack and brought out a small bag.  He felt the bag and looked inside.  "Beans," he said.  "Might cook these up for dinner."

Next out of the hole was a red woolen hat. Augustine Thatcher placed it on the seat next to him and continued searching.  He wrestled out a small lute with no strings.

"Now, this is an interesting piece.  Not quite up to the king's standards, but interesting nonetheless.  This once belonged to the minstrel of ... ah, the ... Baron of Tuscany.   A ripe, old fellow he was.  The minstrel, not the Baron.  He made the most beautiful music on this lute.  I once heard him play an entire cycle of romantic ballads, brought tears to my eyes.  A little polish.  Some new strings.  Just the thing for a young fellow like you.  The girls swoon over a handsome minstrel with a sweet voice."

Jack thought the lute rather sad. "What's that?" he said, pointing at the hat.

"Oh, just an old wishing hat.  You put it on and wish for something and, if you do it just right, the something comes true.  Don't think it works.  Tried it once and nothing happened.  Say, I got something I know you'll like."

Jack studied the hat.  It was worn, red wool with black and gray threads where small holes had been sewn up and a long, meandering green thread that formed the outline of some sort of animal.

Augustine Thatcher brought out a small, leather wrapped hoop about the size of his hand.  A cobweb of clear, fibrous strands stretched inside the hoop.  Several frothy feathers and two thin strands of tan leather were attached at one point.  The strands ended in beads and even more feathers.

"Now this is something I acquired..."

"How's it work?" Jack interrupted.

"How's what work?"

"The hat," Jack said.

A small smile wrinkled Augustine Thatcher's face. "I am told the hat only works for people who really believe in it.   Maybe that's why it won't work for me.   I don't believe in such things."

"I believe," said Jack.

"And I am sure that many good things will happen to you because you do believe.   Here, try it on."

Jack turned the hat over and over.   The wandering green thread outlined a crude dragon.   He lifted the hat up and slipped it over his head.   It was too big and covered his eyes.   He pushed it up so he could see and smiled.

"Well, now, let me see," Augustine Thatcher said as he climbed off the cart.   "The first thing you do is close your eyes and think real hard about your wish."

Jack closed his eyes tight and nodded vigorously.

"Keep the wish close in mind all the time.   You can't allow yourself to be distracted.   You think real hard on it, real hard."

"I'm thinking," said Jack.

"Next, turn yourself around three times."

Jack spun around so hard, Thatcher had to grab hold of him to keep him upright.

"Whoa, there, young fellow.   You don't have to be that enthusiastic.   Nice and slow is just fine." Augustine Thatcher chuckled.   "Now put your hands above your head, count to three, bring your hands down as fast as you can, and say, 'Calliban Wazoo.'   Have you got that?"

"Yes, yes. Calliban Wazoo," said Jack, his voice quivering almost as much as his body.

"There is one more, very important, thing.  At no time when making your wish, at no time, do you think about dragons.  You think about dragons, the thought just brushes through your mind, and, poof, the wish is gone and you have to start all over again.  You got that?"

"Yes," Jack said, disappointed. He was going to have to start all over again.   "No dragons."

"Right.   You get your wish ready and let's see if you can do it."

Jack closed his eyes and thought hard.   He saw honey and cream cakes sitting on the windowsill.   He let their aroma waft through his mind.   His mouth watered.   He turned slowly around three times, raised his hands, counted aloud to three, and lowered his hands as fast as he could.

"Calliban Wazoo!" he shouted.

"Don't open your eyes yet," said Augustine Thatcher.  "What is it you wished for?"

"Honey and cream cakes," said Jack.

Thatcher reached under the cart seat and pulled out a small tin pail.  He sorted through some tightly-wrapped packages, selecting one.  He unwrapped a small piece of cake, picking some mold off.

"Well, now, would you look at this.   See what I just found."

Jack opened his eyes.   "Cake!"

"That's right.  You are a remarkable young man.  First time with the wishing hat and you get what you want."

Jack stuffed a handful of cake in his mouth. "Stale."

"Well, sometimes you have to be more specific about what you wish for.  Sometimes you don't get things just right.  Tricky things, wishes.  Very slippery, hard to pin down.  You just need more practice.  I'd stay here and help you refine your technique, but I have an appointment in Savannah with a gentleman regarding the finer points of metal craftsmanship.  What do you say we conclude our transaction?  What might you be willing to trade for the wishing hat?"

Jack looked at Augustine Thatcher and then at his possessions. "Frog!" said Jack.  "I have a frog in my bag."

"Hmmm.  I don't really have room for a frog in my wagon.  Have to carry lots of food for a frog, you know, and what with cages and extra water, I don't think I could use a frog.  How about this old sword here?"

"That sword's no good.  Won't sharpen.  Not much better than a twig.  Good tree branch be better," said Jack.

Augustine Thatcher picked the sword up and examined the ruby in its pommel.  "I know a man in Savannah who buys this sort of thing.  Displays them on his wall.  Tells lies about going on adventures, drudging through the badlands, fighting off bandits and thieves and worse.  Just the sort of thing he likes.  Looks battered, like he had to fight a tremendous battle to survive."

"Take the sword," said Jack.  "Not as good as the hat."

"Why, thank you, young man.  We have achieved an amiable and equitable exchange." Augustine Thatcher climbed onto his cart.  "The next time I am in these parts we will have ... Well, I'll be."

Jack hadn't waited for Augustine Thatcher to finish his speech.  He had taken off running down the fencerow, glancing at each fencepost as he ran.

"Did you see that, Maggie?" Augustine Thatcher said to the mare.  "A young man with a mighty powerful urge for something, that would describe our Jack."  He flicked the reins lightly.  "A mighty powerful urge, indeed."

Maggie shook her head and eased down the road. Augustine Thatcher wrapped the sword in some of his rags and stowed it through the small door in the shack.  As he rode away he sang a tune that began, "So I went a'callin' the fair maids of Surrey. I's all a'willin' and they's all a'hurry ..."

Jack sped along the fencerow, bag in his hand and hat atop his head.  There had to be a crack along here somewhere.  There always was.  When he passed near the squirrel's oak, he saw where lightning had split its side.

Jack sped over to the tree, put the bag down, and closed his eyes.  Honey and cream cakes baking in the oven.  The light tread of the woman's feet as she placed them on the window sill.  Her smile as she turned to him seated patiently at the table.  Dappled sunlight painting pictures on the kitchen floor.  The aroma of home.

He wanted to go home.   He was tired of being lost and alone.   He was tired of slipping through a crack and always being someplace else.   Had he known, he would never had let the urge to slip through seduce him that first time.   He wished to go home, instead of someplace else.

He turned slowly around three times.   He lifted his hands and counted to three.   He brought his hands down quickly and whispered, "Calliban Wazoo."   He picked up his bag and groped blindly towards the tree.   He gingerly felt for the crack and then slipped through.

When he opened his eyes he was standing on a cliff overlooking a magnificent seashore.  Blue waves crashed upon themselves, sending froths of white foam spinning into the air.  Golden sands like a river of honey snaked into the distance.  Gulls circled, crying.  Pelicans flew by in stately procession.  The air smelled of sea water and bristling life.  It was beautiful.  It was uplifting.  It was a sight to send the heart soaring like an eagle on a summer breeze.

But it wasn't home.  A small tear coursed down his cheek.

Jack watched the sea for a while and then walked toward some large rocks that stood along a cart path.  Along the way, he picked up a branch lying beneath a willow.  As he walked, he swung the branch around and around in larger and larger circles until it changed.  This was a trick he had learned from a kind, old man he had met a while back.  He smiled just a bit when he thought of Augustine Thatcher looking for his sword and finding a birch branch instead.

Jack put his red and green patchwork bag down at his feet, stuck the sword with the ruby pommel into the ground, and climbed up on the rocks to await whatever came next.

Bio: Charles S. Cooper is fifty-five years old and embarking on his fourth career. He has worked in industrial films, trucking services, and computer programming.   Writing has been a lifelong dream for him and he figured he'd better get started on it now while he still has time.