Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Halloween 1979

The cold comes on suddenly on the edge of the Northeast Kingdom, where it never really goes far away. It lurks just out of mind all the time, and drops in impulsively from time to time just to assert itself, lest anyone doubt its primacy.

In late October cold is a given, and the frost was truly on the pumpkins. It destroyed the faltering vines and left ember orange fruit naked and exposed across the roadside fields. Worse luck for the farmer, it was a hard freeze; hard enough to seize up the flesh of the large succulent pumpkins and slowly rend it with a million tiny daggers of ice. The larger the pumpkin, the worse it fared. They sat ruined in the midday sun, slowly deflating into mottled puddles of pulp and seeds, beyond resurrection at the point of their greatest glory.

But here and there, scattered throughout the field, a careful observer could spy smaller pumpkins that survived the cold. Fleshier, drier varieties, with less moisture to freeze and better insulated by their own mass, they managed to pass the cold unscathed. None larger than a man’s head, some as small as a softball, all perfectly shaped and brilliant orange.

The field was a total loss, not worth the farmer’s effort to glean even as feed for his cows and pigs. We had free rein to gather what we wanted. Yet I could find no one among my jaded and aloof compatriots to share my enthusiasm for the task. So I set out alone, walking the dusty shoulder of the road to the farmer’s field with my empty sack over my shoulder and the late afternoon sun warm on my face.

I filled the sack with a half-dozen or so pumpkins of varying size and description, and stuffed two more smallish gourd-like fruit in the pockets of my army jacket.  My shadow stretched long and far before me as I returned to my room. There was still time left before nightfall, if I worked without delay.

As short walk and a brief stop in the general store later, I settled in the communal kitchen with my pocket knife and began the work of transforming the lowly pumpkins into Jack-o-lanterns. I did the best I could with the time available and tools on hand; no simple triangle eyes and square gap teeth for me. A Jack-o-lantern must have a personality of its own, and its native shape of course determines its personality. So a certain amount of deliberation must take place in the span between the initial craniotomy and innard scooping, and the final flourish of rind striping intended to release the pumpkin’s inner demon.

The sun was just set, the cool evening air settling rapidly. I now had six Jack-o-lanterns, where just a few hours earlier there were only orphaned pumpkins abandoned in a field. It was time.

I walked briskly and purposefully down the winding gravel lane to the old farm graveyard, sack slung over my shoulder now filled with Jack-o-lanterns. It was a short walk, less than a mile through the rolling hills and fields, but the light faded quickly and stars appeared faintly overhead.

Within the bounds of this tidy plot lay a score of graves, most sharing the name of this ancient farm, and a few others represented as well. I found the boundary stones marking each corner of the sanctified ground, and gently placed a Jack-o-lantern on each, face to the cardinal points of the compass. The others I placed atop the tallest gravestones, facing east. I lit the small candles inside them, and then climbed up the hill behind the graveyard and sat among the balsam fir as the eerie glow countered the deepening twilight.