Group: Celtic Nation
by Steven E. Wedel
The horror began on a day Danny believed to be a perfect prelude to autumn. Autumn was his favorite season; the air was charged with electricity, harvest smells filled the breezes and gave the first winter goose pimples. But most of all the season led to The Day.
It was because of the coming holiday that Danny was walking along the sidewalk of Ash Street in his little town of Windfall, Illinois. A breeze sent leaves scurrying around his feet with a sound like old bones knocking together. Danny was going to get a pumpkin for his Halloween jack-o-lantern. For as long as he could remember, he had been getting pumpkins from Farmer
Of all the farmers that grew pumpkins around Windfall, Farmer Sutton was Danny's favorite. They had an agreement through an old friendship between the farmer and Danny's father; Danny got the privilege of going through the entire pumpkin patch before the majority was trucked off to market and the rest picked over by the townspeople that came to Sutton's farm for their jack-o'-lanterns.
Danny didn't think he would have any trouble securing two pumpkins from his friend this year.
The sidewalk he was traveling on showed cracks and was crumbling in places as he neared the edge of town. The walk soon petered out completely and Ash Street changed from a paved avenue to a dirt road. Danny kept walking. He had forgotten about the rundown little shack he had to pass on his way out of town--until he looked up and saw the ramshackle building where
Voodoo Charlie lived. He hurried to the other side of the road.
The dwelling was gray from lack of paint, and only about as large as Danny's father's tool shed. Bowed two-by-fours held a sagging roof over a packed-dirt porch. The shingles remaining on the building were of rotted pine; a rusty stove pipe pointed crookedly at the sky.
As Danny crept past, a little white dog left his place in front of the door and ran under the fence and across the road to bark at Danny's heels. Danny knew from previous journeys that the dog wouldn't bite him, so his only worry was that the noise the little cur made would bring his owner from the shack, but Voodoo Charlie didn't come out of the house.
Danny made two more turns and then Sutton's farm came into view; acres of gold, with small splotches of just-ripening pumpkins under the waving corn stalks. A quarter of a mile up the dirt road was the driveway that led to the pale green farmhouse.
Coming from the direction of the drive, and less than half the distance, was a shuffling scarecrow. Danny's heart increased its pace as he realized he would have to confront Voodoo Charlie after all. For the second time, Danny crossed the road to be as far away as possible from the old man.
As Danny crossed the road, Voodoo Charlie stopped walking. He stood on his side of the dirt lane and watched the boy advance.
The closer Danny came to the waiting figure, the more features he recognized: the stained tan pants, the yellow shirt with black buttons and a limp collar, the dusty brown shoes, and dark, withered skin of the hands and wrists. Voodoo Charlie's short gray hair curled close to his scalp. There were bags under his eyes and deep lines marked his chocolate-brown face like cracks on a dirty egg. As Danny passed he could see the few remaining teeth in the mouth, rotted black and yellow. A pink tongue licked the gaping, crooked holes.
"Goin' ta git yer Hallereen punkin?" Voodoo Charlie asked in his cracked voice.
Danny tried to answer, but only managed to croak a positive response. He didn't stop walking.
"Git a biggun," he heard as he passed by the ancient black man. He continued up the road, a little faster than before.
Danny upped his brisk pace until he turned onto the dirt driveway leading to the little farmhouse. Heck, the Sutton's golden retriever, greeted him halfway up the drive. Mrs. Sutton appeared on the porch of the house and a smile spread over her plump, farm-wife face.
"Hi, Mrs. Sutton," Danny said, hopping onto the porch beside the woman.
"Hello, Danny," she answered. "Come on in. I just took an apple pie out of the oven a little while ago. I don't think Gene's ate it all yet." She turned to lead him into the house. The dog followed behind Danny, tail wagging as if he, too, wanted a piece of pie. "No, Heck, you can't come in. Go on." Mrs. Sutton shooed the dog off the porch. He began to chase one of the chickens that had wandered to the front of the house. Mrs. Sutton shook her head at the dog's antics. "Spoiled rotten," she whispered to Danny.
Inside the kitchen, they found Farmer Sutton sitting at the table eating a piece of steaming pie. He had obviously just come in from the fields; dust coated his faded bib overalls and red flannel shirt, the sleeves of which were rolled up past his elbows. His blue eyes lit up and his whiskery face split into a grin when he saw Danny. "Hi there, boy," he boomed. "The old lady
there was just telling me today that you'd probably be over soon. For once she was right." He winked at Danny.
Mrs. Sutton, who had gone to a cupboard to get a plate for Danny's pie, turned at the remark--she too was smiling. "Watch what you say, old man. I just might take a rolling pin to your head."
Danny noticed the huge pumpkin on the counter top near the sink. It was two pumpkins actually, Siamese twins, grown together to form one vegetable. They had grown together at an angle so that when one sat directly upright, the other was tilted. The odd gourd was still green on much of its surface.
"Do you like it?" Farmer Sutton asked.
Danny nodded, his mouth full of pie.
"We thought we'd carve two faces in it, like on Truth or Consequences, one happy, one sad. What do you think?"
"That'll look good," Danny replied, thinking it would be a good time to make his request for an extra pumpkin. Mrs. Sutton spoke before he could.
"I guess I'll go out and finish hanging up the laundry now that Gene got rid of that nutty black man."
Danny tried hard to swallow a mouthful of pie, but by the time he got it down, Mrs. Sutton had already gone out the back door. "Voodoo Charlie was here?" he asked the farmer.
"Yes, he was here. Again, I should say." Gene Sutton shook his head. "I don't know what it is about that old man; we haven't bothered him, but he's been hanging around a lot lately. I've lost count of the times I've caught him in the fields. He started coming around just after I fertilized last winter, then he stopped until I started planting. Since then he's been coming around every few weeks. I'll see him just meandering through the fields.
"It's not just here, either. All the other farmers I've talked to have told me he's been around their farms, too." He paused in his speech, then snorted, "I said we hadn't bothered him, that's true, but not completely. When I was a boy about your age I bothered him plenty--me and every other boy in town, most of the girls, too. Do the kids still tease him?"
"Some," Danny said. "He doesn't come into town much." He paused, ate another bite of pie, then asked, "How old do you think he is?"
"I don't know. He looked exactly the same when I was a kid, and that was, well, a while back."
"Why does everyone call him Voodoo Charlie?"
"Because he's so weird, I guess. There used to be stories about him stealing dead babies from their graves to use in his evil potions," Farmer Sutton smiled, but immediately the man's laughter died and his face took on a troubled look. The past four or five years had seen a rash of grave robbing in the area, all the victims being infants. The crimes had stopped just shortly before the previous winter.
"I better get back to work," Farmer Sutton said. "When you finish there you can just help yourself to the pumpkins. I'm sure you'll find one you like." He got up from his chair and turned toward the back door. His hand was turning the knob before Danny found the courage to speak.
"Mr. Sutton?" The farmer turned back to face him. "Would you mind if I took two pumpkins this year? There's this girl, and she asked me to carve one for her." Danny rushed the last words.
The farmer grinned broadly, winked, and said, "Sure, you take as many as you need."
Danny wolfed down the last few bites of apple pie and hurried to the pumpkin fields. It took him nearly two hours to find two pumpkins that would suit the faces he was planning to put on them. He carried them to the house and put them on the back porch. For the first time he wondered how he would get them all the way home.
Mrs. Sutton provided the answer. "Think you can get them home in this?" She brought a rusty red wagon with squeaky wheels from the barn.
"Yes, thanks," Danny said, relieved to see the squeaking relic. He put the pumpkins in and took up the handle. "Well, thanks for the pumpkins. I better get home." The sun was already nearing the horizon and his shadow was long and dark. The air had taken on a nippy coolness.
"Okay, Danny. Have a nice Halloween."
"I will. You too."
Mrs. Sutton waited until Danny was nearly out of earshot before calling, "I hope your little girlfriend likes her pumpkin, too!" Blushing from neck to hair, Danny only waved and hurried on up the drive. He could hear the woman laughing as she went inside the house.
Back on the road, he forced the blush off his face and concentrated on hurrying home.
He crossed to the other side of the road long before he reached Voodoo Charlie's shack. He hoped with every ounce of his being that he would not see the old black man. He willed the wheels of the wagon to be silent while he passed.
As soon as the ramshackle dwelling came into view Danny saw the man in a rocking chair on the front porch. Voodoo Charlie rocked steadily and looked in the direction Danny came from, as if waiting on the boy.
The squeaking wheels brought the dog from his place at the old man's feet. He slipped under the fence and ran up the road, barking. The dog began his usual pouncing and nipping at Danny's heels. Danny saw the smile on Voodoo Charlie's face as he grew closer.
When Danny began to pass the house, the rocking chair ceased its motion. "Gotcha two ub'em, huh?" Voodoo Charlie asked.
"Yes." Danny never slowed his pace.
"Gude." The ancient black man grinned his rotted grin. "You have a gude Hallereen, you an all da utter kiddies. I know dat I sho will. Trick or treat!" he crowed, his voice cracking as he laughed hysterically. He slapped his skinny knees and rocked madly.
The rest of the journey home passed without problems. Danny took the vegetables to his room on the second floor and put them on his window sill to finish ripening.
Two weeks later, on a Saturday, Danny's parents went to the grocery store for the week's shopping, leaving Danny home alone. The pumpkins were ripe enough for carving. Danny took a short butcher knife and went upstairs to cut out the hideous faces he had stored in his imagination.
He discovered Voodoo Charlie's trick almost too late.
Halfway across his room he detected movement from the direction of his window. He stopped and looked. His eyes widened as he saw a figure standing among the broken shards of one of the pumpkins.
The beast was just over eight inches tall and dull orange in color, like the rind of the pumpkin it had hatched from. It crouched on bowed legs, its potbelly tightening and relaxing as it breathed. Leathery wings, tipped with small black horns, rippled on its back. The hands and feet of the creature all ended in long, curved nails. Danny could see tiny muscles bulging on the small arms and legs. The orange head was about the size of a ping pong ball, thick lips curled away from lethal yellow fangs. Pointed ears swept back from the side of the head; they twitched as the thing studied Danny. Two more black horns, slightly longer than those on the wings, protruded from
the forehead in direct line with the bulbous, tan-colored eyes.
The bat-goblin let out a squeaky battle cry and hopped from the window sill, its wings flapping. It came soaring through the room toward Danny's throat.
Danny did the only thing he could think of; he swung the knife as the creature drew close, stepping out of the way at the same time. The knife missed completely, but the step back kept the thing from getting his throat. The needle-sharp teeth sank into his arm instead.
Danny gasped in pain. The knife flew from his fingers. He tried to tear the monster off his arm by pulling on it just below its wings, but the teeth had a firm hold. The creature clawed at his flesh, leaving bloody scratches. Danny released the thing's torso and tugged sharply on one of the legs. The limb tore away from the body with a sound like raw meat on Styrofoam; yellow goo trailed from the ragged end.
The creature's potbelly swelled with blood. Danny dropped the leg and went into a frenzy. He grabbed at the beast, pulling off the remaining limbs, the wings, and bits of the torso in gory handfuls that he dropped to the floor. Soon all that was left on his arm was the small, horned head, still sucking. Danny could feel the blood being drawn from his arm and watched as
it drained out the ragged stump of the monster's throat.
Danny took the monster's head in his hand, squeezing while be pulled upward and away until it was dislodged from his arm. The fangs tore away small ribbons of flesh and the jaw began to snap loudly as it tried to get the teeth into Danny's fingers.
Danny dropped the head to the floor. The teeth continued to click together. He stomped on it with his sneakered foot. It made a sound like a chicken bone breaking; more yellow fluid oozed onto the carpet, mingling with the blood dripping from Danny's fingers.
Voodoo Charlie did it! Voodoo Charlie did it! The thought pulsed in his head until it finally burned away the shock.
Danny rubbed his eyes, trying to clear his head. He could smell blood drying on his arm. He let his hands drop to his sides and his eyes found the window and the pumpkin that had not yet hatched. Danny stepped carefully over the pieces of his vanquished enemy and looked for the butcher knife.
He found it on the floor beside his bed. He took the short knife to the window, gripping it tightly. He examined the pieces of the broken womb first, poking at them with the point of the knife before touching them with his fingers. The shards were dry and brittle, cracking and breaking into several more pieces at his touch. Danny noticed that there was none of the stringy pulp or small seeds that were supposed to be inside a pumpkin. He scraped the pieces to the floor and examined the other vegetable.
The orange skin still had several lighter patches on its rough surface. Cracks made dark veins on places where the pumpkin was completely ripe. Danny slid the point of the knife into the top of the orange globe a few inches from the stem and cut a circle. When the cut was complete, he withdrew his blade and lifted the top off the pumpkin.
The green stem continued on the inside of the vegetable, glistening moistly, unlike the dried stub on the outside. It coiled round and round to the small orange body lying in a fetal position on its back at the bottom of the pumpkin. The unborn monster was surrounded in a thin covering of orange pulp speckled with shriveled, tan seeds. The green umbilical cord went through the pulp and between the creature's knees to attach to its stomach.
The monster itself was not yet fully developed, but like the pumpkin's ripeness, the time was very close. The eyes were oversized, puss-filled bubbles, as were the tips of the fingers and toes where the claws would soon break through. The horns on its head were not yet as long as the previous creature's and looked much more delicate; the horns on the wing tips were the same. The thing did not move as Danny peered into the womb.
Danny thought for a moment about what to do with the monster before he decided on the obvious conclusion. He pushed the point of his knife through the pulp and into the chest of the beast. Voodoo Charlie's creation did not even twitch as the knife sank home. The odor released from the body when the demon was aborted caused Danny to gag. He gave the knife a sharp jab, felt it pin the monster to the bottom of its womb, and then staggered back, the smell making him think of the "dead baby" jokes he had heard in school.
"What about the other pumpkins?" Danny thought. The hundreds Farmer Sutton had grown, the thousands the other farmers around Windfall had raised and sent to market? Danny remembered Farmer Sutton telling him that the old Negro had been to all the farms around the town. Would people all over the country be getting a nasty trick courtesy of Voodoo Charlie this Halloween?
What about the unusual pumpkin that had been sitting on the Sutton's kitchen counter?
Danny left the house at a run, not bothering to wash the blood from his arm or even to leave his parents a note explaining where he had gone.
A cold wind blew in his face as he ran along the sidewalk of Ash Street. He pounded hundreds of multicolored leaves beneath his feet dodging an elderly man raking his front lawn and nearly colliding with a little girl on a tricycle. Soon the town dropped behind him. An extra burst of speed carried him past Voodoo Charlie's shack before the little white dog could even get under the fence to nip at his heels.
Danny turned the corner onto the road where Farmer Sutton lived and the little farmhouse sprang into view. Danny's run became a dead stop, and then a hurried but nervous walk when he saw the bent form of the ancient black man standing at the head of the Sutton's driveway.
Voodoo Charlie was watching the house. He seemed to be waiting on something. Did he want to hear the screams of the farmer and his wife when their pumpkin hatched? Screams, Danny thought, that might be symbolic of the screams heard all over the nation. Danny forced himself to take the steps that brought him closer to the bent form of Voodoo Charlie.
He must have heard Danny's labored breathing and nervous steps approaching on the road. Voodoo Charlie turned to face him, and for a moment Danny thought sure the old man could taste his fear, the pink tongue licked the cracked lips through a hole where the teeth were missing. Voodoo Charlie smiled at him, and Danny looked away.
"Yer jest in time, boy," Voodoo Charlie said. "I think yer farmer friend is bout to have hisself a set o'twins." The old man began to cackle.
Danny sidled quickly past him and hurried up the drive. When the screams began, Danny started running toward the house; Voodoo Charlie laughed harder.
Danny stepped onto the front lawn as Mrs. Sutton ran out of the house, her skirt flying around her knees. The screen door banged against the side of the house and then slammed closed. Heck bounded from the other side of the porch. Mrs. Sutton was screaming and waving her pudgy arms frantically. One of the orange pumpkin-monsters hung from her neck, its body swelling as it drained the blood from the woman. Heck saw the creature hanging from his mistress' neck and tried to jump high enough to tear it away, but Mrs. Sutton's movements prevented him from getting a hold on it. Over the woman's screams and the dog's barking Danny could still hear Voodoo Charlie cackling.
The monster burst. Danny was still several feet from the struggling group, but he was close enough to see the bloated body of the creature explode, and close enough to be sprayed by the flying goo. He wiped his face and hurried to where Mrs. Sutton had slumped to the ground.
Only the small orange head remained, still clinging to the woman's neck by its teeth, blood pumping from its throat. Heck was nosing at the head; Danny pushed him away and bent over Mrs. Sutton. He carefully pried the sucking head loose from her neck, but even as it came free he felt the strained pulse in the farm wife's throat flutter and die. Danny stomped the head to mush under his foot while tears leaked from his eyes. He hurried to the house, already sure what he would find.
From the living room he could see the body of Farmer Sutton sprawled over the kitchen table, the broken pieces of the Siamese twin pumpkin scattered around him. The remains of his killer were splattered around the room; yellow specks, like mucus, clung to the walls and appliances. The head continued pumping a thin trickle of blood from the back of the farmer's neck onto the table where it ran off and fell to the pool spreading across the linoleum floor.
Danny silently left the house.
It was quiet outside; the cold wind made the only sound. The golden retriever joined Danny on the porch of the farmhouse; Danny absently patted his head and then went slowly down the steps, avoiding the corpse lying a few feet away, and started back up the drive.
The dog followed him a short way, then turned and went back. Danny let him go. Voodoo Charlie was nowhere in sight.
What about the pumpkins? Danny thought. How long before reports started coming in of people attacked by little orange creatures that hatched from their Halloween jack-o-lanterns? What about Voodoo Charlie? Would he be caught and punished?
At the edge of the driveway Danny found a crumpled heap of clothing: a yellow shirt with black buttons, a pair of almost-worn-out tan pants, and two dusty brown shoes. All that was left of Voodoo Charlie.
A gust of October wind rocked Danny on his feet, and as it blew past he heard the dry, cackling laughter of the old black man and the hoarse words, "Happy Hallereen!"
"Now here's my secret", said the fox, "it is very simple. It is only with ones heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye."
("The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
"The soul would have no rainbow, if the eye had no tears."
(Native American Proverb)