by Christopher W Gamsby
The human world coexists with a world of spirits. The spirits live in all of nature, from the food grown in the field, the trees standing tall in the forest, the land beneath our feet and the mountains watching over everything in the distance. Most of the year the spirit world doesn't effect the human world any more than a gentle breeze sways a house but the spirits feel every human action. Spirits living in the trees scream as their limbs are hacked down or they're felled for lumber. Oils, gas, and pollution choke the spirits of lakes in their ancient watery kingdoms. Spirits sacrifice their lives for man to eat. Lingering deaths await hills and earth as man hollows out their insides for coal to warm their food and protect themselves from winter's wrath.
Once a year the barrier between the spirit and human worlds thins and breaks. Historically the spirits celebrated the day mingling with the people of the land but modern man no longer regard the spirits. They use the land without a care. They murder groves of trees to build homes larger than they need. The mountains cry when miners hollow them out to heat those monstrosities. They waste the lives of food and field by throwing out more sustenance than they eat. Refuse poisons ponds, rivers, and lakes. The spirits long ago accepted the misfortune of their pain giving life to others but even such altruistic beings reached their breaking point.
When I was a little girl the spirits rebelled against the world of man on the night of the fall equinox when the barrier between worlds disappeared. First the pumpkin headed goblins of the fields came to town. The townsfolk gathered to watch the spirits who were no larger than human children. Their sandy brown and green humanoid bodies held aloft large pumpkin shaped heads. The head's burnt orange skin held a face drawn with black triangles and lines. The town's children greeted the spirits but didn't know the cute creatures' identities. The mayor's daughter, a seven year old blond girl with curly locks grabbed the largest pumpkin goblin. That pumpkin goblin bossed the smaller goblins around and appeared to be the leader. She took his hands in hers and hopped up and down. The goblin's mouth widened until it's head grew so large it split in two.
The goblin gobbled up the little girl so quickly that the townsfolk couldn't comprehend the act. Each of the goblins' mouths' grew wider and they gobbled up little children. The townsfolk frenzied and scattered from the square. Other spirits saw the goblins' revolt and crossed the cosmic veil at the edge of town. A fox spirit appeared next to farmer Jones and his little son. The spirit looked like a child itself but with a wet button nose and small auburn fox ears protruding from the top of his head. The farmer approached the spirit from behind thinking it was a child, but realized his mistake when the spirit bound at his son and devoured him. The farmer killed the fox's brother for eating one of his chickens and now he struck his revenge.
I fled from the square just after the remaining adults fought the spirits. The adults were no match for celestial beings and everyone in the square died. As I approached the edge of town, ents, the spirits of trees, invaded. Ents were as large as trees and made of intertwined roots and vines. They smashed roofs and the sides of buildings. As I reached the outskirts of town, I ducked underneath falling debris and continued into the nearby fields. The ents made no motion to follow. They wanted revenge for their fallen friends, and didn't seem to care about a fleeing 10 year old child.
I fled into the woods and ran toward the pond trying to escape the destruction in the village. I wasn't the only one that thought I might be safe away from town. My neighbors cowered near the edge of the water and I ran to join them but the pond water swelled and engulfed the three people. The water rescinded and dragged them into the depths. I couldn't think of anywhere else to hide and moved further into the woods.
I ran to a cave that was special to me. At least one day each week I'd bring chalk into the woods and draw pictures on the cave's wall. Sometimes I'd pack lunch, eat by myself, and just talk to the silence. The cave was hidden and I hoped I'd be safe. I ran inside, plopped on the ground and waited to see if anything followed. Within a few minutes, nothing appeared and I tucked my knees into my chest, buried my face and cried.
The ground shook and booming steps approached my sanctuary. I stopped breathing and crawled to the cave's entrance and peered outside. A 10 foot tall hulk of cobbled together stone approached. Every time the creature's leg hit the ground, gravel fell to the forest floor. I moved away from the entrance and hoped the golem would move past but it stopped just before the cave, turned around, and sat, blocking the cave's mouth. I balled up in the corner and prayed it didn't notice me.
“Are you ok?”
The voice bellowed out and reverberated in and around the cave. I stayed quite.
“I can feel you breathing. You don't need to be afraid. No other spirit will hurt you as long as I'm here.”
The golem's spoke slowly and deliberately and it never said a word without at least a small break from the last one.
“What are those things? Why are they hurting us?” I squeaked out.
“People have forgotten the spirits and hurt them. They are lashing out. They are just young and mad. One day the anger will pass, eventually.”
“Why are you helping me?”
“Because you are my friend of course. You come and draw those pretty pictures and it tickles.”
The golem let out a booming laugh.
“You also talk to me and it breaks up those boring days. Long centuries can be very lonely.”
The spirit of the cave came to protect me, but I was tired and scared and didn't want to talk.
“I'm just going to sleep.”
“Sleep sounds very nice right now. You should do that. We will talk again next year.”
I put my head on my hands and slept with the giant watching over me from the cave front. When I woke in the morning the golem was gone. I quietly walked back to town. Half of the town's children disappeared over night and their parents were at a loss for what to do and when I arrived they moped through the streets. Several dozen adults were also missing or dead.
Eventually I came across my own parents crying at our house, but they perked up when they saw me and snapped out of their funk. They showered me with kisses and hugs. At the time I couldn't understand their radical change, but later in my life I'd come to understand the feeling well. To this day we still mourn the deaths of the villagers and the void it left in each of us. We began to call the day All-Hollow's Day since every person has felt the loss either that day or one of the All-Hollow's day to come.
The spirits returned every year on All-Hollow's day and every year I hid in the lonely cave from sunset to sunrise. The spirits have a sweet tooth for children because their innocence and tender flesh fill them with an irresistible hope and reminiscence of peaceful and happy times. Tales abounded of spirits stalking the town and woods searching for hidden children and gobbling up every child they found. After 7 years of All-Hollow's day only 1 in 10 children survived.
The first goblin to eat a child coordinated the spirits' movements from year to year and the townsfolk began to refer to him as The Pumpkin King. The townsfolk devised a desperate plan to appease The Pumpkin King, but I couldn't believe they would actually carry it out. I sat in the cave, talking to the golem form of the lonely cave.
“Why does The Pumpkin King hate us so much?”
“The Pumpkin King? Oh yes, him. He's the spirit of the field. Crops are his offspring. He watches people take them every year. He's always been angry, but now the others agree.”
“You mean the food we eat are his children?”
“Hmmm... yes, you could say that. Though parent and child doesn't really work well with spirits, but I guess the feeling is the same.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well the frog spirits and reed spirits are the offspring of the pond spirit, but the pond did not sire these things.”
“Is there any way The Pumpkin King will stop?”
“I don't know young one, you can't destroy the field, as long as you need to eat.”
“The town came up with an idea to appease him, but I don't think it is a good idea.”
“What are they doing?”
“I need to go”
“...but it's dangerous out there.”
The golem sighed and shifted his weight as he stood before the cave entrance and walked a few steps away. I crept out of the safe-haven and marched through the swamp. I didn't see any fox eared ghosts, pumpkin headed goblins, leafy ents or long tailed cat people. I pushed my way through thick foliage and tall grass as I met up with the walking path from town. I followed the path for a mile in the darkness. Moonlight illuminated the trail well enough to see any obstructions or divots, but I couldn't see far into darkness in front of me. The hard packed dirt softened to mud while the path looped toward the pond.
My shoes sucked into the sticky wet dirt as the ground took on an unnatural moistness for that time of year. Within several minutes I was several hundred yards from the first building in town and the swamp transitioned from dense forest to an open field. Long unfamiliar reeds swayed in the wind as I tentatively tip-toed into the opening.
The reeds glowed a luminescent robin's egg blue and their texture changed from smooth plant stems to scales. The cotton ends of the cattail reeds changed to snake heads and the heads faced into the path. I stayed in the path's dead center to avoid the spirits. The snake's tongues flicked in and out. The hundreds of spirits raised a hissing cacophony. The sound sickened me, not only because of my inherent fear of snakes, but also because that sound signaled that an army watched me cross the field. Snakes on the right side bent in toward me and flicked their tongues in my direction to try and smell the intruder in their domain. The snakes seemed to have recognized a smell that lingered around me, but I didn't take any chances and ran down the path out of field and into town.
I walked past a row of darkened houses, but most of the dwellings didn't feel empty. Occasionally inside the houses blinds spread open for several seconds before popping shut. The families hid from the spirits in their homes but only the spirits' permissiveness kept them safe. I strolled past the closed businesses downtown. Ghouls played with their reflections in the display windows of the hardware store. Rotund ghosts flew around the baker's shop throwing flour and sugar into the air. Spider ghosts covered the clinic in fine silk webs that filled every crevice, nook, and cranny. The front door was almost impassible because of webs and webs completely blacked out the windows.
Tree ents leaned against the buildings that lined the town square. Pumpkin goblin spawns danced between the ent's slender legs. They played tag from building to building. They ran and dodged each other as the trees watched and laughed. Their voices boomed like the lonely cave golem, but not as loud or deep. The Pumpkin King sat on the top stair of town hall and surveyed the festivities and held court with transient spirits. The spirits presented themselves before The Pumpkin King and after an inaudible exchange, they'd fly off to the woods or residential district. I don't know what they said, and I never want to find out.
A haggard man and numb woman brought an emaciated toddler before The Pumpkin King. The spirits watched the family approach and didn't move to attack or harass the trio, mostly from surprise at the humans who'd act so brazenly. I snuck closer to town hall to hear the conversation transpiring on its steps.
“And what is it that you three want from me? Going to beg us to stop again?”
The spirits laugh caused the family to flinch. The father stepped forward.
“I know that you spirits prefer to eat the young. Well, I'd like to ask...” the man gulped and broke eye contact with The Pumpkin King “that you'd eat our child and spare the rest of the village.”
The boy's mother cried but the boy seemed mostly unmoved. The Pumpkin King looked at the child, wrinkled his nose and faced the father.
“How could you give him up so easily? That seems to go against human nature.”
“Well, your highness, the townsfolk met and voted and we lost. They said we'd have to do this or all three of us were going to die if we survived tonight. This way you can get your sacrifice and we are saved.”
The Pumpkin King couldn't hide his disgust.
“Let's strike a deal then? I will eat your child and then within five minutes, no spirit will eat another human for the rest of tonight? How does that sound?”
The parents looked horrified, but relieved.
“Fine, we'll just go.”
The Pumpkin King swallowed the child in one gulp and the parents' faces slacked. The Pumpkin King lurched forward and swallowed the man's top half and then slurped up his legs. The pumpkin goblins ate the mother piece by piece.
Complained a small pumpkin goblin.
“Are all humans like that?”
Asked another and The Pumpkin King replied.
“No, not every human. That child was thin and sickly, so he didn't taste good. Adults have too many lies and secrets and they don't taste very good in general.”
The younger pumpkin goblins looked disappointed but after 5 minutes, the chaos in town abruptly halted. The bored spirits returned to their realm after several hours. I snuck back to the cave and plopped on the ground crying. The stone golem sat caddy-corner to the entrance, instead of blocking it this time.
“What's wrong? The destruction has stopped for the night, shouldn't you be happy?”
I wiped my eyes and runny nose.
“How do you know that?”
“The Pumpkin King told us the bargain he struck.”
“Why would the other's listen?”
“Spirits are not like people. When a spirit makes a promise, they can not break it, no matter what. We promised The Pumpkin King we would listen to him and he promised the humans we would stop, and so we'll stop.”
“What the town did was horrible! Little Timmy Freeman was sick and dying, so they thought it would be alright to trade him for everyone else. It worked, sort of, his parents had to die too, but the killings stopped. How can we make these decisions? There won't be a sick child every year! What happens then?”
Please don't reprint this short story without my explicit permission. You can contact me on the contact page.