MY HUSBAND loved a game of cards. He liked to vie with the luck, to pit his skill against the flow of things. “Only from chance comes something new,” he’d say.
Once he was gambling with some friends at an inn, when a man arrived looking for a room. A worthless lay-about too idle to herd swine. Soon this man, who named himself Jack, asked to join the game. “Yes,” my husband said, thinking by the man’s look that he could have no stake, “but to play you must show your earnest in gold on the table.” So this Jack pulled out a gold coin and threw it down. The coin lay there like an adder, for it was no simple coin, but a great spell and full of danger. But by my husband’s honour the game must be played. In the first watch, my husband took half the coin from Jack. In the second watch, Jack took back what was his, and double beside.
Again and again they shuffled and cut the cards. Always the coin was on the table. In the end, as the rooster crowed, Jack was the victor. All my husband’s gold lay heaped before him.
Jack was keen on my husband’s green skin and on his voice, which seemed a string of spells, and on the way that whenever you looked at him he seemed to be someone new. As my husband rose to ride away, Jack asked him where he lived. “East of the sun and West of the moon,” he replied, mounted and departed.
Then one day this Jack arrived at our hall. He had flown there on a horseshoe he’d got from the smiths, and he landed just beyond the flowing river of our moat.
The drawbridge was down, and invited his step upon it. But someone, maybe those very smiths, had told him of the bridge: if he set even one foot upon it, it would turn to web and dew.
So, instead of tramping in through the fatal gate, he hid and waited until our daughters came out to bathe. We had three girls, and as Jack watched, each undressed and turned herself into a swan—the firstborn and the next became black birds, and the young one, our darling Iris with the golden hair, was a white swan.
They entered the river, and while they were at play Jack stole Iris’s clothes and hid them, and waited for her to come for them. Of course, he had her then, for to see Iris bare was to bind her in a spell of helpless love until death.
She bore him in over the moat on her back or in her lap, our Iris, and she promised him anything, if only he wouldn’t tell her father. He raped her, I think. Raped her with her consent, which he gained by his trickery, by his thievery. Or I must own my very flesh to be traitor.
Soon this Jack came right up to the castle gate and stood before my husband, who was shocked to see him there in his own castle. “I don’t believe you’re a man. You’re a spirit or a ghost.”
“Oh no, I am a true man sir. A true man.”
“Ah, then I’ll set you three easy tasks which will prove it either way. Things any true man could do. And if you can’t fulfil the tasks, you die as a liar and impostor.”
“And the tasks?” Jack asked.
“Into the well behind my castle my wife dropped her golden wedding band. To accomplish the first, bring me that ring.”
At the well, Jack tied a long rope to a big stone and let it down. But the rope ended well before the water could be sounded. Then Iris stole my husband’s finding-spell and with it took this Jack deep to where the ring lay golden in the dark.
“You have done well,” my husband said, and shrugged. “Now see this castle, with its moats and spires: it was a moment’s work, a game, for me. So show me you’re my equal man, and build yourself just such a keep, or more.”
Now we had him—but again the girl, our Iris, the youngest daughter of the golden hair, abetted him. She showed him how to bind the cobweb and the walnut shell and add the spittle of a bat, and blow on it just so. She whispered in his swineherd’s ear the words to make it real, and up jumped his castle opposite our moat. Where ours was dark and ivied, his was bright and stood tall, with marble like the snail’s inner shell.
“You have done well,” my husband winced, “but look, the wood is full of ants and everywhere they scratch and scurry. Rid me of them in just an hour’s time, and I must concede you are a true man.” Jack blanched. But ah, our little Iris she took my husband’s gloves to put magic in Jack’s hands, so that in an hour, his fingers, finer than ants, go everywhere in the underwood, and in an hour the grove is clear.
Jack got his gold for that. “Now you’d best be gone,” my husband said. Then he took Jack to the stables and offered him a fine dark mare who flared her nose. Jack refused her and the roan mare too, but chose a mule that brayed beside them. She was Iris, our youngest daughter.
Then my husband raged. “You are no real man, or true! In each thing you have cheated me! You stand in my castle like its lord! My wealth, my power, my blood, you would steal by stealth! On my honour take the ass and be gone, and do it fast.” And while Jack left, he gathered arms and spells and rode with stings and scorpions in Jack’s pursuit.
My husband rode like fire. His horse foamed. With him came the older daughters, their hair flying behind them. The gap narrowed. Soon only a field’s width divided them. He nearly took Jack, but as he drew near Jack wielded the mule’s spell to put rivers, lakes and sea between them. To my husband’s green power, rivers became roads, lakes became plains. Again in time my man drew near. The mare’s hooves bled and foam was at her mouth. Our daughters followed hard by. Now her spell divided them with mountains, hills and dales.
Still he pressed on, hot on Jack’s trail. The mountains, hills and dales grew green, and he followed with the swiftness of the wind. From his side he drew his great wooden club. The girls drew swords as sharp as leaves.
Then Jack unpacked Iris’ strongest spell, leaving behind him fire, hell and pits, into which my husband and my oldest daughters fell. The green has no power to grow in fire. That was the end for them. Though Jack, I heard, married Iris and lived, for all I know, happily until he met his end.
The Green Man of Knowledge is based on a story told by one Geordie Stewart, in Aberdeen in 1954, and reported by William Anderson in Green Man (Harper Collins, London, 1990)