the story of Jax
“Once, long ago and far from here, there was a boy named Jax, and he fell in love with the moon.
“Jax was a strange boy. A thoughtful boy. A lonely boy. He lived in an old house at the end of a broken road. He—”
Everyone who saw Jax could tell there was something different about him. He didn’t play. He didn’t run around getting into trouble. And he never laughed.
Some folk said, “What can you expect of a boy who lives alone in a broken house at the end of a broken road?” Some said the problem was that he never had any parents. Some said he had a drop of faerie blood in him and that kept his heart from ever knowing joy.
He was an unlucky boy. There was no denying that. When he got a new shirt, he would tear a hole in it. If you gave him a sweet, he would drop it in the road.
Some said the boy was born under a bad star, that he was cursed, that he had a demon riding his shadow. Other folks simply felt bad for him, but not so bad that they cared to help.
One day, a tinker came down the road to Jax’s house. This was something of a surprise, because the road was broken, so nobody ever used it.
“Hoy there, boy!” the tinker shouted, leaning on his stick. “Can you give an old man a drink?”
Jax brought out some water in a cracked clay mug. The tinker drank and looked down at the boy. “You don’t look happy, son. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing is the matter,” Jax said. “It seems to me a person needs something to be happy about, and I don’t have any such thing.”
Jax said this in a tone so flat and resigned that it broke the tinker’s heart. “I’m betting I have something in my pack that will make you happy,” he said to the boy. “What do you say to that?”
“I’d say that if you make me happy, I’ll be grateful indeed,” Jax said. “But I haven’t got any money to spend, not a penny to borrow to beg or to lend.”
“Well that is a problem,” said the tinker. “I am in business, you see.”
“If you can find something in your pack that will make me happy,” Jax said. “I will give you my house. It’s old and broken, but it’s worth something.”
The tinker looked up at the huge old house, one short step away from being a mansion. “It is at that,” he said.
Then Jax looked up at the tinker, his small face serious. “And if you can’t make me happy, what then? Will you give me the packs off your back, the stick in your hand, and the hat off your head?”
Now the tinker was fond of a wager, and he knew a good bet when he heard one. Besides, his packs were bulging with treasures from all over the Four Corners, and he was confident he could impress a small boy. So he agreed, and the two of them shook hands.
First the tinker brought out a bag of marbles all the colors of sunlight. But they didn’t make Jax happy. The tinker brought out a ball and cup. But that didn’t make Jax happy.
The tinker went through his first pack. It was full of ordinary things that would have pleased an ordinary boy: dice, puppets, a folding knife, a rubber ball. But nothing made Jax happy.
So the tinker moved on to his second pack. It held rarer things. A gear soldier that marched if you wound him. A bright set of paints with four different brushes. A book of secrets. A piece of iron that fell from the sky. . . .
This went on all day and late into the night, and eventually the tinker began to worry. He wasn’t worried about losing his stick. But his packs were how he made his living, and he was rather fond of his hat.
Eventually, he realized he was going to have to open his third pack. It was small, and it only had three items in it. But they were things he only showed to his wealthiest customers. Each was worth much more than a broken house. But still, he thought, better to lose one than to lose everything and his hat besides.
Just as the tinker was reaching for his third pack, Jax pointed. “What is that?”
“Those are spectacles,” the tinker said. “They’re a second pair of eyes that help a person see better.” He picked them up and settled them onto Jax’s face.
Jax looked around. “Things look the same,” he said. Then he looked up. “What are those?”
“Those are stars,” the tinker said.
“I’ve never seen them before.” He turned, still looking up. Then he stopped stock still. “What is that?”
“That is the moon,” the tinker said.
“I think that would make me happy,” Jax said.
“Well there you go,” the tinker said, relieved. “You have your spectacles. . . .”
“Looking at it doesn’t make me happy,” Jax said. “No more than looking at my dinner makes me full. I want it. I want to have it for my own.”
“I can’t give you the moon,” the tinker said. “She doesn’t belong to me. She belongs only to herself.”
“Only the moon will do,” Jax said.
“Well I can’t help you with that,” the tinker said with a heavy sigh. “My packs and everything in them are yours.”
Jax nodded, unsmiling.
“And here’s my stick. A good sturdy one it is, too.”
Jax took it in his hand.
“I don’t suppose,” the tinker said reluctantly, “that you’d mind leaving me with my hat? I’m rather fond of it. . . .”
“It’s mine by right,” Jax said. “If you were fond of it, you shouldn’t have gambled it away.” The tinker scowled as he handed over his hat.
So Jax settled the hat on his head, took the stick in his hand, and gathered up the tinker’s packs. When he found the third one, still unopened, he asked, “What’s in here?”
“Something for you to choke on,” the tinker spat.
“No need to get tetchy over a hat,” the boy said. “I have greater need of it than you. I have a long way to walk if I’m to find the moon and make her mine.”
“But for the taking of my hat, you could have had my help in catching her,” the tinker said.
“I will leave you with the broken house,” Jax said. “That is something. Though it will be up to you to mend it.”
Jax put the spectacles on his face and started walking down the road in the direction of the moon. He walked all night, only stopping when she went out of sight behind the mountains.
So Jax walked day after day, endlessly searching—
Jax had no trouble following the moon because in those days the moon was always full. She hung in the sky, round as a cup, bright as a candle, all unchanging.
Jax walked for days and days until his feet grew sore. He walked for months and months and his back grew tired beneath his packs. He walked for years and years and grew up tall and lean and hard and hungry.
When he needed food, he traded out of the tinker’s packs. When his shoes wore thin he did the same. Jax made his own way, and he grew up clever and sly.
Through it all, Jax thought about the moon. When he began to think he couldn’t go another step, he’d put on his spectacles and look up at her, round-bellied in the sky. And when he saw her he would feel a slow stirring in his chest. And in time he came to think he was in love.
Eventually the road Jax followed passed through Tinuë, as all roads do. Still he walked, following the great stone road east toward the mountains.
The road climbed and climbed. He ate the last of his bread and the last of his cheese. He drank the last of his water and the last of his wine. He walked for days without either, the moon growing larger in the night sky above him.
Just as his strength was failing, Jax climbed over a rise and found an old man sitting in the mouth of a cave. He had a long grey beard and a long grey robe. He had no hair on the top of his head, or shoes on the bottom of his feet. His eyes were open and his mouth was closed.
His face lit up when he saw Jax. He came to his feet and smiled. “Hello, hello,” he said, his voice bright and rich. “You’re a long way from anywhere. How is the road to Tinuë?”
“It’s long,” Jax said. “And hard and weary.”
The old man invited Jax to sit. He brought him water and goat’s milk and fruit to eat. Jax ate hungrily, then offered the man a pair of shoes from his pack in trade.
“No need, no need,” the old man said happily, wiggling his toes. “But thanks for offering all the same.”
Jax shrugged. “As you will. But what are you doing here, so far from everything?”
“I found this cave when I was out chasing the wind,” the old man said. “I decided to stay because this place is perfect for what I do.”
“And what is that?” Jax asked.
“I am a listener,” the old man said. “I listen to things to see what they have to say.”
“Ah,” Jax said carefully. “And this is a good place for that?”
“Quite good. Quite excellent good,” the old man said. “You need to get a long ways away from people before you can learn to listen properly.” He smiled. “What brings you out to my little corner of the sky?”
“I am trying to find the moon.”
“That’s easy enough,” the old man said, gesturing to the sky. “We see her most every night, weather permitting.”
“No. I’m trying to catch her. If I could be with her, I think I could be happy.”
The old man looked at him seriously. “You want to catch her, do you? How long have you been chasing?”
“More years and miles than I can count.”
The old man closed his eyes for a moment, then nodded to himself. “I can hear it in your voice. This is no passing fancy.” He leaned close and pressed his ear to Jax’s chest. He closed his eyes for another long moment and was very still. “Oh,” he said softly. “How sad. Your heart is broken and you’ve never even had a chance to use it.”
Jax moved around, a little uncomfortable. “If you don’t mind my asking,” Jax said, “What’s your name?”
“I don’t mind you asking,” the old man said. “So long as you don’t mind me not telling. If you had my name, I’d be under your power, wouldn’t I?”
“Would you?” Jax asked.
“Of course.” The old man frowned. “That is the way of things. Though you don’t seem to be much for listening, it’s best to be careful. If you managed to catch hold of even just a piece of my name, you’d have all manner of power over me.”
Jax wondered if this man might be able to help him. While he didn’t seem to be terribly ordinary, Jax knew he was on no ordinary errand. If he’d been trying to catch a cow, he would ask a farmer’s help. But to catch the moon, perhaps he needed the help of an odd old man. “You said you used to chase the wind,” Jax said. “Did you ever catch it?”
“In some ways yes,” the old man said. “And in other ways, no. There are many ways of looking at that question, you see.”
“Could you help me catch the moon?”
“I might be able to give you some advice,” the old man said reluctantly. “But first you should think this over, boy. When you love something, you have to make sure it loves you back, or you’ll bring about no end of trouble chasing it.”
“How can I find out if she loves me?” Jax asked.
“You could try listening,” the old man said, almost shyly. “It works wonders, you know. I could teach you how.”
“How long would that take?”
“A couple years,” the old man said. “Give or take. It depends on if you have a knack for it. It’s tricky, proper listening. But once you have it, you’ll know the moon down to the bottoms of her feet.”
Jax shook his head. “Too long. If I can catch her, I can talk with her. I can make—”
“Well that’s part of your problem right there,” the old man said. “You don’t really want to catch her. Not really. Will you trail her through the sky? Of course not. You want to meet her. That means you need the moon to come to you.”
“How can I do that?” he said.
The old man smiled. “Well that’s the question, isn’t it? What do you have that the moon might want? What do you have to offer the moon?”
“Only what I have in these packs.”
“That’s not quite what I meant,” the old man muttered. “But we might as well take a look at what you’ve brought, too.”
The old hermit looked through the first pack and found many practical things. The contents of the second pack were more expensive and rare, but no more useful.
Then the old man saw the third pack. “And what do you have in there?”
“I’ve never been able to get it open,” Jax said. “The knot is too much for me.”
The hermit closed his eyes for a moment, listening. Then he opened his eyes and frowned at Jax. “The knot says you tore at it. Pricked it with a knife. Bit it with your teeth.”
Jax was surprised. “I did,” he admitted. “I told you, I tried everything to get it open.”
“Hardly everything,” the hermit said scornfully. He lifted the pack until the knotted cord was in front of his face. “I’m terribly sorry,” he said. “But would you open up?” He paused. “Yes. I apologize. He won’t do it again.”
The knot unraveled and the hermit opened the pack. Looking inside, his eyes widened and he let out a low whistle.
But when the old man spread the pack open on the ground, Jax’s shoulders slumped. He had been hoping for money, or gems, some treasure he could give the moon as a gift. But all the pack held was a bent piece of wood, a stone flute, and a small iron box.
Of these, only the flute caught Jax’s attention. It was made of a pale green stone. “I had a flute when I was younger,” Jax said. “But it broke and I could never make it right again.”
“They’re all quite impressive,” the hermit said.
“The flute is nice enough,” Jax said with a shrug. “But what use is a piece of wood and a box too small for anything practical?”
The hermit shook his head. “Can’t you hear them? Most things whisper. These things shout.” He pointed at the piece of crooked wood. “That is a folding house unless I miss my guess. Quite a nice one too.”
“What’s a folding house?”
“You know how you can fold a piece of paper on itself, and each time it gets smaller?” the old man gestured at the piece of crooked wood. “A folding house is like that. Except it’s a house, of course.”
Jax took hold of the piece of crooked wood and tried to straighten it. Suddenly he was holding two pieces of wood that resembled the beginning of a doorframe.
“Don’t unfold it here!” the old man shouted. “I don’t want a house outside my cave, blocking my sunlight!”
Jax tried to push the two pieces of wood, back together. “Why can’t I fold it back up?”
“Because you don’t know how, I expect,” the old man said plainly. “I suggest you wait until you know where you want it before you unfold it the rest of the way.”
Jax set the wood down carefully, then picked up the flute. “Is this special too?” He put it to his lips and blew a simple trill like a Will’s Widow.
Now everyone knows the Will’s Widow is also called a nightjar. So it isn’t out when the sun is shining. Despite this, a dozen nightjars flew down and landed all around Jax, looking at him curiously and blinking in the bright sunlight.
“It seems to be more than the usual flute,” the old man said.
“And the box?” Jax reached out and picked it up. It was dark, and cold, and small enough that he could close his hand around it.
The old man shivered and looked away from the box. “It’s empty.”
“How can you tell without seeing inside?”
“By listening,” he said. “I’m amazed you can’t hear it yourself. It’s the emptiest thing I’ve ever heard. It echoes. It’s meant for keeping things inside.”
“All boxes are meant for keeping things inside.”
“And all flutes are meant to play beguiling music,” the old man pointed out. “But this flute is moreso. The same is true with this box.”
Jax looked at the box for a moment, then set it down carefully and began to tie up the third pack with the three treasures inside it. “I think I’ll be moving on,” Jax said.
“Are you sure you won’t consider staying for a month or two?” the old man said. “You could learn to listen just a bit more closely. Useful thing, listening.”
“You’ve given me some things to think about,” Jax said. “And I think you’re right, I shouldn’t be chasing the moon. I should make the moon come to me.”
“That’s not what I actually said,” the old man murmured. But he did so in a resigned way. Skilled listener that he was, he knew he wasn’t being heard.
Jax set off the next morning, following the moon higher into the mountains. Eventually he found a large, flat piece of ground nestled high among the tallest peaks.
Jax brought out the crooked piece of wood and, piece by piece, began to unfold the house. With the whole night in front of him, he was hoping to have it finished well before the moon began to rise.
But the house was much larger than he had guessed, more a mansion than a simple cottage. What’s more, unfolding it was more complicated than he had expected. By the time the moon reached the top of the sky, he was still far from being finished.
Perhaps Jax hurried because of this. Perhaps he was reckless. Or perhaps it was just that Jax was unlucky as ever.
In the end the result was the same: the mansion was magnificent, huge and sprawling. But it didn’t fit together properly. There were stairways that led sideways instead of up. Some rooms had too few walls, or too many. Many rooms had no ceiling, and high above they showed a strange sky full of unfamiliar stars.
Everything about the place was slightly skewed. In one room you could look out the window at the springtime flowers, while across the hall the windows were filmed with winter’s frost. It could be time for breakfast in the ballroom, while twilight filled a nearby bedroom.
Because nothing in the house was true, none of the doors or windows fit tight. They could be closed, even locked, but never made fast. And as big as it was, the mansion had a great many doors and windows, so there were a great many ways both in and out.
Jax paid no mind to any of this. Instead, he raced to the top of the highest tower and put the flute to his lips.
He poured out a sweet song into the clear night sky. No simple bird trill, this was a song that came from his broken heart. It was strong and sad. It fluttered like a bird with a broken wing.
Hearing it, the moon came down to the tower. Pale and round and beautiful, she stood before Jax in all her glory, and for the first time in his life he felt a single breath of joy.
They spoke then, on the top of the tower. Jax telling her of his life, his wager, and his long, lonely journey. The moon listened, and laughed, and smiled.
But eventually she looked longingly toward the sky.
Jax knew what this foretold. “Stay with me,” he pleaded. “I can only be happy if you’re mine.”
“I must go,” she said. “The sky is my home.”
“I have made a home for you,” Jax said, gesturing to the vast mansion below them. “There is sky enough for you here. An empty sky that is all for you.”
“I must go,” she said. “I have been away too long.”
He raised his hand as if to grab her, then stopped himself. “Time is what we make it here,” he said. “Your bedroom can be winter or spring, all according to your desire.”
“I must go,” she said, looking upward. “But I will return. I am always and unchanging. And if you play your flute for me, I will visit you again.”
“I have given you three things,” he said. “A song, a home, and my heart. If you must go, will you not give me three things in return?”
She laughed, holding her hands out to her sides. She was naked as the moon. “What do I have that I can leave with you? But if it is mine to give, ask and I will give it.”
Jax found his mouth was dry. “First I would ask for a touch of your hand.”
“One hand clasps another, and I grant you your request.” She reached out to him, her hand smooth and strong. At first it seemed cool, then marvelously warm. Gooseflesh ran all up and down Jax’s arms.
“Second, I would beg a kiss,” he said.
“One mouth tastes another, and I grant you your request.” She leaned in close to him. Her breath was sweet, her lips firm as fruit. The kiss pulled the breath out of Jax, and for the first time in his life, his mouth curved into the beginning of a smile.
“And what is the third thing?” the moon asked. Her eyes were dark and wise, her smile was full and knowing.
“Your name,” Jax breathed. “That I might call you by it.”
“One body . . .” the moon began, stepping forward eagerly. Then she paused. “Only my name?” she asked, sliding her hand around his waist.
She leaned close and spoke warmly against his ear, “Ludis.”
And Jax brought out the black iron box, closing the lid and catching her name inside.
“Now I have your name,” he said firmly. “So I have mastery over you. And I say you must stay with me forever, so I can be happy.”
And so it was. The box was no longer cold in his hand. It was warm, and inside he could feel her name, fluttering like a moth against a windowpane.
Perhaps Jax had been too slow in closing the box. Perhaps he fumbled with the clasp. Or perhaps he was simply unlucky in all things. But in the end he only managed to catch a piece of the moon’s name, not the thing entire.
So Jax could keep her for a while, but she always slips away from him. Out from his broken mansion, back to our world. But still, he has a piece of her name, and so she always must return.