The first time I saw Jack Straw was in the winter. I was sick. Very sick. Mama had kept me home from school, just hoping the fever I'd caught would take care of itself. That week there was a blizzard, and the snow would pile up in huge, white drifts beneath my window. The thermometer outside kept dropping, while the one in my mouth just went higher. Mama wasn't sure which way to go, keep me dry at home and hope for the best, or take me out in the damp cold and risk the long drive from our farm to the hospital. I heard her talking one night to Daddy and Granny Frank. "Just wait a little longer," Daddy had said, "just wait a little longer." So they waited, one after another in my bedroom, sitting in the old rocking chair and watching for hopeful signs. Granny Frank's knitting needles clicked and clicked like a worried bug caught on the window pane.
Funny thing about being sick. The worse off you are, the less you're able to tell folks. I knew I wasn't doing good at all. Beneath the blankets they'd piled on me for warmth, my bones rattled with the chills. I couldn't breathe too well neither — each time I drew in air it felt sticky, and each time I let air out, it sort of oozed up my throat and wheezed. I couldn't tell Mama that nothing in the room looked the same. The petals on the wallpaper daisies were turning brown, and I could see them peeling off the wall and floating down to the floor. The hollow sounds of the wind against the pane made me see big white dogs, their hairy faces crowding my bed, steaming up the room with their curdling breath.
Only thing that seemed to hold me firm in the bed was my quilt. Mama made it for me when I was little out of all the pieces left over in Granny Frank's rag–bag. It was beautiful, and I knew where each piece had come from. The blue polka dot was Aunt Anna's dress that she wore to meet Uncle George when he came back from the war. The red–and–white–striped bit was from Granny Frank's confirmation dress, and the green silk triangles were Great–Grandma Jenny's riding dress, made from imported fabric. There was a yellow–flowered calico that was Mama's when she was a teenager, and there was square of white–and–pink apples that was mine when I was a baby. I liked to think about all those women saving those bits and pieces of themselves, never wasting a thing if they could turn it to another purpose. After Mama had pieced it all together, Granny Frank sewed fancy stitches around each piece, setting each one off with its own frame of embroidery.
I was holding tight to my quilt, just praying that the blue polka dots would stop rolling off the fabric, when Jack Straw came up to the bed. I looked up, feeling the cold draft and saw him step out of a mist into the moonlight that fell across the room.
He had his hands stuck in the pockets of a pair of old overalls, and a battered hat with a torn brim was pulled low over his face.
"Who are you?" I asked
"Jack. Jack Straw," he answered, and I felt the chill creep over my spine at the dry sound.
He looked like a scarecrow, old corn stalks tied together and dressed like a man. When he moved he rustled, and the mist sort of followed after him, rising off his hunched shoulders.
"I don't know you," I said weakly, struggling to sit up and all the while pulling my quilt higher to my chin.
"Everyone knows me," he said, and pushed back his hat to show me his face.
Thin it was, with a nose that hooked down sharply trying to reach his chin. He smiled, and the creases in his cheeks folded at the scratchy sound.
He was right. As soon as I saw those white eyes, with shining black stones for a center, I knew him. Granny Frank told me once about old Jack Straw, shuffling through the fields on his way to harvest. But it wasn't crops he raked in, it was people. Right then I knew I was dying, even though my heart pounded like a drum and blood heated up my face like a furnace fire.
He pulled a hand from his pocket and reached out to me. Fingers of bundled sticks went to pluck the quilt from me, but I clutched it tighter, refusing to let go.
"I ain't going with you," I said angrily.
"No point in your refusing," he answered, and stepped closer to take a firmer hold of the quilt. The cold mist swirled toward me, and I felt its icy touch on my forehead.
"No!" I yelled, and then "Mama!" I called for her where she was sitting in the chair, still sleeping. She didn't stir, and for one awful moment I feared Jack Straw had already taken me.
"Now wait here, Jack Straw," I said, yanking my quilt back from his spindly fingers. In my panicked thinking I had remembered something Granny Frank had told me about Jack Straw. "I'll make you a bargain."
He frowned at me, eyes narrowed. Ever so slowly, he slipped his hand back into his pocket and stood, rocking on his heels. Thinking, I guessed.
"What sort of bargain?"
"I'll riddle you one, and if you can't guess, then I get to keep my life."
"Forever?" he asked with a sneer, and I noticed now that his teeth were sharp and jagged.
"No," I answered, shaking my head. "Just the usual span of time."
He laughed as if I'd said something really funny.
"There ain't no season in which I can't harvest, ain't no span of time that's usual."
"Not for you maybe, but for me there is. I got things I want to do," I argued. "I still got a life I want to live."
Jack Straw sat on the bed with a whispery noise like the wind shaking the stooks in the field.
"All right," he said. "Give me your riddle."
All the while I had been trying to convince Jack Straw to bargain, I'd been desperately trying to think of a good riddle. I figured he's probably heard every one ever given out, so I knew it had to be a riddle only I knew, that only I had cause to make happen right then. I stared down at that old quilt, Granny Frank's stitches like silver tracks in the moonlight, and tried to think.
"Give me your riddle," he said again, and this time I heard the spreading coldness in his voice.
It came to me all of a moment, and in that same moment I felt the fear go out of me. I looked from the quilt and stared straight into his dry, crackling face. "I'll riddle it to you," I started, just like Granny Frank did in the story, and I saw him straighten his back in expectation. "I died in pieces and was reborn whole. I followed the road over ridges and valleys but never moved."
I held my breath as I watched him figure the riddle. He didn't move, but stayed there black eyed and rigid. The cold mist was settling around my bed, and a drop of it trickled down the side of my face. But I couldn't move, couldn't take my eyes from him.
Then with a snarl he sprang up from my bed, The wind howled outside and rattled the panes as if to break them. Hands upraised over his head, Jack Straw called to the howling wind. The mist thickened in the room, and the white dogs were there beside him, snapping and baying. Hoarfrost cobwebbed across my quilt as Jack Straw shook his raggedy arms at me in fury. I screamed then, fearing he meant to take me, though he'd not given me my answer.
But the scream was scarce from my mouth when he disappeared, and it was Mama who reached out to take me, her arms sleep warm and soft.
"Hush now, hush," she whispered in my ear. "You're dreaming, Katie," she said. "You're dreaming. Mama's right here." She held me tight, and after a bit I felt my fear thaw and stopped shaking.
And even though I knew she was wrong, that I hadn't been dreaming, I let her lay me back on the pillows and tuck in the blankets around me again. She bent over and kissed me, one hand pushing back the wet hair from my forehead.
"My quilt," I whispered to her proudly, and saw her look of confusion.
"Your quilt's here, honey," she said to soothe me.
"No," I said. "That's the answer to my riddle."
"Sure it is," she murmured. She thought I was talking in my sleep, still dreaming. But it didn't matter. The truth was I was still alive because I had beaten Jack Straw.
Just before I fell back to sleep, I heard her talking in low whispers to Daddy. "She's gonna be fine," I heard her say. "Looks like the fever is breaking." Daddy mumbled something. Mama answered. "No, just dreaming, I guess. She's sleeping good now. I think the worst's over."
And in my bed, half asleep, I thought so, too.
But the worst wasn't over. Somehow it had only just begun.