by Christopher W Gamsby
Years came and years went. Every All Hollow's day the villagers sacrificed a child to the Pumpkin King. He never acted as though the offerings were good enough, but the spirits were appeased just the same. After the sacrifice, the spirits stopped attacking the villagers and left the corporeal plane. I'd always sneak out to the lonely cave during the day and greet the lonely golemn as the sun set. We'd talk about the year, spirits, and how man changed over the millennia.
Once long ago man lived in greater harmony with the spirits. Man built houses large enough to sleep in and stay warm. They grew all manner of crops, but only ate what they needed and the left over food returned to the earth. The spirits remembered those times, even though mankind was blinded by the excesses of modern living. We'd forgotten the simple ways of living. People stopped regarding the land or cherishing nature.
Over the years there were other villagers who'd visit the lonely cave. Three hundred years ago a pair of lovers stole away in the night and met at the lonely cave for some alone time before their rival families caught them. Once a boy angered by some petty slight from his parents ran away and hid in the lonely cave. After crying alone for several days, the lonely cave whispered 'go home'. The almost unconscious words spurred the child into meekly returning home and begging forgiveness.
I'd visit the cave myself through the year and after 15 years of sacrifices to the Pumpkin King, I was a young mother caring for a little boy. While my son was an infant and toddler, I only visited during All Hollow's day while because I had no free time. The child still needed for everything and the journey was arduous while carrying a baby. Once the child was old enough to walk on his own we'd visit the cave together. Some days we'd draw on the cave walls with chalk or eat a packed lunch, just like I did when I was a child.
The All Hollow's day when he was 7 years old was one of the toughest of my life. On the way to the lonely cave, one of the parents who gave their child to the Pumpkin King saw us. Accompanied by a few of the other families who'd lost children he captured us and dragged us to the town square. The man delivered a speech with unreasonable impassioned fervor.
“Every year we've lost someone! Every year we sacrifice! She just hides in the woods! Why should her child be spared? She herself has been safe since she was a little girl! She doesn't know the fear of loss like we've endured!”
The mother of a forsaken girl spoke up.
“My baby is gone so we can eat and live. She eats! She lives! What has she payed?”
I tried begging for reason.
“Please, this isn't my fault! I don't want this any more than you do! There has to be another way!”
No one heard me out. My son and I waited under guard in the town square until sunset when the spirits returned. The Pumpkin King ascended the town hall stairs and returned to his perch. Ents emerged from the forest lining the outskirts of town and settled in the square. Pumpkin goblins danced with baby fox and cat spirits and watched the humans. The angry villager approached the Pumpkin King.
“We have another sacrifice for you Pumpkin King.”
The Pumpkin King sighed and inspected my son from the dais.
“Hmmm... this child looks happier than the last, but why should I settle for one when I can have all?”
“Well, if you eat every child, then there will be none for you next year. Shouldn't you portion out your meals?”
The Pumpkin King was not impressed by the man's answer. He turned to me and bluntly asked:
“Should I eat your child?”
That answer amused the Pumpkin King and infuriated the grieving father.
“Are you insane? Do you want them to take this out on us?”
“Shut up! You don't even care about why this is happening! You sacrificed your child, but you should have just moved into a smaller house if you wanted to appease the spirits.”
The Pumpkin King laughed.
“I see we've finally reached that point.”
Until I stood up and refused to abandon my child, every year the parents reluctantly but willingly sacrificed their children to the Pumpkin King.
“What deal would you make?”
The Pumpkin King asked.
“You know what to say!”
The villagers threatened. I turned to the spirit of the grand oak tree that grew in the field just outside of town.
“Don't you miss the children that played at your trunk and climbed your branches? Don't you want them to come back to keep you company in the long decades?”
The elder ent shifted uncomfortably. I turned to the cat spirits mixed in with the pumpkin goblins.
“Aren't you glad we feed and shelter you? I know in some ways we make life hard, but what about when we scratch behind your ears or under your chins.”
The cat spirit's tails swung back and forth and their little fur covered ears perked up. Finally I faced the Pumpkin King.
“I know it hurts when you loose your children, but if not for us you wouldn't have so many! We plant their seeds and care for them as long as we can.”
The spirits looked uncomfortable, but not completely convinced. I was at a loss on how to fully change their minds until the ground shook. Booming echoes rang from the woods and approached the outskirts of town. Spirit and human equally watched for the source strange sounds. The booms quickened as the sounds approached. Within a few moments the golemn of the lonely cave entered the town square.
“I promised this human that I would protect her as long as she stayed nearby.”
The golemn stared down the townsfolk who cowered from his sight.
The golemn's voice boomed through town and even the ents shied from his voice. The goblin tilted his head, looked back at me and asked:
“Then what is your proposal?”
“You are tired of the unappetizing children, right?”
“They taste bad because they are miserable. They spend the year thinking that they or everyone could die on All Hollow's Day. They lie to you and themselves to sacrifice for the village.”
“That may be true, but what are you proposing?”
“Well, I propose that we stop sacrificing children. Instead we'll leave all the children in town and the spirits will decide which child to take, but the spirits must stop after taking one life.”
“How do we know you adults won't interfere?”
“The adults will not interfere because they will stay in their homes and as long as the adults are in their houses, you will not hurt them.”
“How is this any different than what's happened?”
“Well, we'll pamper the children in the days leading up to All Hollow's Day. They won't think about what could happen and since there will only be one child taken they won't fret much.”
The Pumpkin King thought over the proposition and came to a decision.
“Fine but if you break faith with us, then I personally will make sure you pay!”
“Us? How do we know we can trust you?!?”
“We aren't like you humans, we fulfill our promises, no matter what!”
“Fine, then you have my word.”
“and you won't interfere if she lied to us?”
The Pumpkin King looked to the lonely golemn. It looked down at me and I nodded.
“You have my promise.”
The Pumpkin King looked satisfied.
“Fine, we have an accord.”
“Great! but let's start next year, since this year is too late. No need to loose any life this year.”
- - -
The next year we started festivities leading up to All Hollow's day. The first day we decorated our houses to resemble the sights on the night of the equinox. We drew eyes and mouths on the trees that dotted town. We created fake cotton spider webs and covered our houses. Old wheat and corn stalks lined the roads. We hung fake spiders the webs or on the bushes outside of our homes. We left fruit on our stoops that we planed on returning to the fields after All Hollow's day.
Six days before the equinox we held plays at the local school. Traditional stories about dragons and princesses, witches and demons, or adventure were on display for the children of the village. Many years we'd perform scary stories about monsters, ghouls, or murderers. Some children participated and others watched the spectacles from the audience with their parents. Each day the children participated in games, festivals, and feasts. The first year they almost forgot about the horrors awaiting All Hollow's night.
In the light of All Hollow's day, the children walked around town with pillowcases collecting candy, toys, money, and other goodies from the adults who waited in the houses. The children traveled to each house in pairs or small groups and knock on the townsfolk's doors. When an adult answered they dropped little gift into the bags. The more industrious children made multiple trips to the adults who were giving out the best gifts but eventually every child exhausted every house and returned home until night fell.
The children exited their houses as the sun set. They ate their new candy, played with toys and ran around the streets. Spirits began to appear in the outskirts of town and move into the streets. Young spirits whose mentality was similar to that of human youngsters joined the children in their games. The humans greeted the spirits as friends and they played together with toys or ran around the elder spirits in games of tag or hide and seek.
The Pumpkin King entered town and smelled the sweet aroma of happy children, which he missed over the last two decades. The Pumpkin King walked through town searching for the human children but couldn't spot any despite their obvious smell. He was dumbfounded when the truth struck him. The human children wore costumes as they played in the streets. Some children wore pumpkin heads with green and brown tights. To his eyes the humans looked just like his own offspring. Children wore auburn fox ears with tails sticking out from their backs and they looked just like fox spirits. Others wore black ears and slender shiny tails and looked like cat spirits. Saplings walked about town with vines and branches hanging from their limbs. Children in sheets with eye holes resembled the spirits of wind and air.
The Pumpkin King felt betrayed at the deceit but was sure that if he thought about how to find the children, he could have his sacrifice. A group of children and spirits played tag on a nearby yard and the Pumpkin King watched for any differences. As the little creatures circled and bumped, one of the little foxes fell to the dirt and started crying. The Pumpkin King bound for the fox and gobbled it up. An adult fox spirit rushed toward the Pumpkin King.
“What are you doing??? Why would you eat my offspring???”
The Pumpkin King felt sick at the cannibalistic act. He moved to gobble one of the other little lives playing tag, but he froze, unable to move. His promise to me made it so he couldn't take another life until next year. The enraged Pumpkin King returned to the spirit world.
- - -
Each year we continued the traditions we established that first year and each year the children dressed as spirits of the land. At first the Pumpkin King tried to find the children hidden amongst the spirits but most years he devoured a spirit instead of a child. After two decades the spirits stopped trying to eat children, because their revenge only increased their sadness. As the years continued the festivities merged and changed. Most of the changes were small, like children now just dress in costume at night and go from house to house collecting gifts. Recently most of the plays we showed this time of year were about monsters. I kept faith in the agreement and stayed home until the year of my 75th birthday.
I'd bring my child to the lonely cave each week until he was a teenager when spending time with his mother wasn't a priority. When my son had a daughter, I'd bring her to the cave as well and we'd spend our day just like I did as a child and just like my son did as a child. Eventually she grew old enough that she didn't want to go to a damp cave with her grandmother. I knew I wasn't going to have another All Hollow's day and I wanted to see my old friend one last time, so I traveled to the lonely cave just before dusk. As the sun set, rocks came together and formed the humanoid features of the golemn.
“Hello old friend.”
The golemn sat on its hands and knees and stared into the cave.
“What are you doing here?”
“I won't be in the land of the humans much longer. I'll be in the land of my ancestors and I wanted to say goodbye and thank you. Thank you for helping raise me and my son and granddaughter. Thank you for protecting me all those years ago, which I know must feel like a blink to you. I hope that one day you keep my great-grand children company like you did with us.”
Dirt and pebbles rolled out of the golemn's eye sockets. The pebbles slid down its face and fell to the ground below.
“Why did you come here? You know I have to keep my promises.”
The Pumpkin King appeared behind the lonely golemn.
“I've been waiting for you.”
The golemn froze watching the Pumpkin King approach me. He couldn't move because of the promises he made when the Pumpkin King and I struck a deal.
“Can we go away from here?”
The Pumpkin King nodded and I used my cane to raise from the ground. I walked out of the cave and began to trip on the loose rocks and dirt outside. The Pumpkin King grabbed my arm to steady me. He escorted me by the arm to the nearby field.
“You really did get the better of me those years ago.”
“The spirit's lost their blood lust years before I tricked you, that is why you lost your taste for people. You just needed an excuse to stop.”
“We aren't coming back to the human world anymore. There's no balance left in the world. Humans have complete control now. There isn't much we can do, so we are going to see where else we can go, though we might come back one day.”
We arrived at his field. He approached me with a quivering head, he clearly didn't have the stomach for taking lives, but unlike humans, spirits can't lie or break promises.
Don't feel bad for me though, I still watch over the village from the land of our ancestors. If you look to the sky you can see me shining down every All Hollow's day. I'm the bright star hanging just north of the village. As long as the villagers continue to observe the traditions, then the spirits are content just watching humans through the veil of time and space that separates the two worlds.
As time marched on, All Hollow's day became a day of healing and was known as the Hollow's Wean. Now we must consider the lessons learned from the first All Hollow's day during the Hollow Ween. Even though the spirits don't care how strictly humans follow the original agreement, make sure to dress like spirits, stay at home to give out treats, play your games, and watch the stories of the land, no matter what form they take. Observe the Holloween or watch the spirits return.
Please don't reprint this short story without my explicit permission. You can contact me on the contact page.