Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Curse of the Crimson Pumpkins

Dear Ellie,

There is something dreadful and wonderful about ghost stories.  Even as someone who has never believed in super natural things of this nature, I'm still drawn to them.  I believe they tap into a fundamental, primal part of ourselves.  Something buried deep in our heads beneath folds and folds of rational gray matter.  Horror stories have a way of peeling away those folds, revealing those primal parts and opening our minds to a secret element of who we are.

These stories are ever more powerful when tethered to a place, like the Legend of Sleepy Hallow.  Ever since I read that American classic--- and ever since I knew I wanted to be a father--- I wanted to create a similar kind of mythology surrounding the place that we lived... and that's where the Curse of the Crimson Pumpkins comes in.

It's a story about mysterious red pumpkins that appear far off in the woods.  Pumpkins that inspire a sinister fear in those who behold them.  Pumpkins that come closer and closer as Halloween grows near.  By the time you've read these letters, I imagine you'll be older.  You'll have heard this story many times before, perhaps before every Halloween.  And maybe, even, you'll have seen these pumpkins yourself, shimmering far off in the forest on frigid, moonless nights...

And as a warning, in case this story somehow escaped your childhood (like, if your mother wouldn't let me read it to you!) then I suppose it should come with a warning... WARNING: This story is a little bit graphic in some areas.

So without further delay, here it is: The Curse of the Crimson Pumpkins.


Illustration commissioned from Tze-Chiang Lim

When the day of the Autumn Equinox comes, should you see a faint red glow off in the shadows of the Florida flatwoods, don’t listen to that curious voice in your head.  Turn around.  Walk away.  And as you walk, should you feel that you are being stalked… should you feel a heat at your neck, like a candle held near… should a light be cast behind you that warps your shadow on the leaves and pine needles before you… don’t twist your head to investigate.  I did once.  Just once.  And now, the crimson pumpkins will forever haunt my dreams.           

I don’t know why the crimson pumpkins began to appear when they did.  It was the first day of Autumn when I first saw one.  I was only 10 years old.  At the time, Foxwood was still undeveloped and the three lots across the street were nothing but a tangle of vines and pine trees and underbrush.  It’s there that I saw a flicker at twilight.  A tiny speck of red light, peeking through the maze of fallen limbs.  I watched it from my bedroom window that night, wondering what it could possibly be.  Your aunt Andrea and I dared one another to go out and see what it was, but neither of us could get to the end of the driveway before our courage failed us.  We watched and watched into the night, but it was only a matter of time before our curiosity was not enough to resist the tow of sleep.

The following evening, that strange light returned.  Andrea and I walked around to the other side of Meadowlark Circle to see if our neighbors there had put up some strange lantern.  There was no such thing in their yard or near their house, but from their front lawn, too, we could see the flicker again, deep in the forest.           

We wanted to investigate, but still, our courage could not overcome our fear.  Again that night, I watched the light flicker in the woods. 

It went on like that.  Each night, the light always returned, flickering in the darkness like a beating heart.

Whenever day came, I’d cross the ditch on the other side of the road and peer into the forest, yet every time, I only saw wilderness.  After a month of watching the light, an unsettling feeling came over me.  When I first saw it, it was only the size of Venus perhaps, which hung in the night sky.  But a month later?  It had grown larger.  With each passing day, it appeared to get larger and larger... or closer.

It was two weeks before Halloween when I at last saw the source of the light in greater detail.  It was a red candle, buried inside of a tall, peculiar pumpkin.  At first, I thought it was some kind of prank.  Some Halloween Jack-o-Lantern.  When daylight came, Andrea and I walked out into the forest to investigate.  We cut through the underbrush with yard clippers toward the place we had last seen the Jack-o-Lantern, but when we arrived, we found something unexpected.  The shattered remains of a pumpkin, its surface black and sticky with something smelling foul.  When we got to within a few feet, an explosion of flies erupted as though from a carcass.  We stumbled backward, then clamored away toward the safety of the road.

We thought perhaps that that was the end of the light.  Maybe some neighborhood kid had gone out to investigate earlier in the day and stomped the pumpkin to pieces.  Yet when night fell again, the light returned.  This time, it was only forty feet from our mailbox.  We could see it clearly now, and it was like no Jack-o-Lantern we had ever seen.  There was no toothy grin, no nose, no eyes carved out.  Instead, it appeared as though the pumpkin had been hacked clumsily by some large blade, like a person brutally murdered with a butcher knife.  We squinted at the red flame inside, but we could see no candle stalk.  No wax.  It appeared as though it dangled in space.  It cast fingers of light through the slits hacked from the pumpkin’s flesh.

It was at this point that our friends and neighbors began to wonder about the pumpkin, as well.  Everyone accused everyone else of having placed the pumpkin in the forest.  For having moved it closer, each night, toward our house.  Yet no one took credit, and no one had the courage to walk into the forest, at night, to retrieve it.

When Halloween descended, the pumpkin had at last come to the edge of the forest.  Trick or treaters didn’t walk down the northern end of Meadowlark Circle that year.  They took the long way, their parents citing the lack of street lights on the northern side, where the pumpkin lay.  We all knew the real reason.

I stayed up as long as I could that night, watching the pumpkin across the street but somewhere around eleven o’clock, I finally fell asleep.  When I awoke at midnight, I peered out the window to find that the pumpkin was no longer on the other side of the street by the woods.  It was at the edge of our yard.  I shut the blinds.  Threw myself beneath the sheets.  I was having a nightmare, for sure.  I’d had them before, hadn’t I?  At some point early in the morning, I peeked out of my blankets and saw a tiny sliver of red light sneaking in through the cracks in the blinds.  It moved along the ceiling of my room, as though crawling like a spider.

Was it possible?  Was the pumpkin inching ever closer outside my window? 

I don’t know why I rolled out of bed.  Or why I wormed along the floor and over to the window.  Or why I lifted a panel of the blinds.  Or why I looked out.  Whatever the reason, I regret it to this very day.  Outside the window, down below next to the mango tree, the crimson pumpkin lay.  It was leaning backward, as though gazing up at me.  That ghastly red glow spewed from a gash in its flesh, like blood oozing from the wound on a corpse.  And then the pumpkin turned.  A ray of red light lashed at my face.  Stabbed at my eyes.  And that’s when thoughts not of my own invaded my mind.  I lurched away from the window.  Put my back to the wall.  Then came the sounds.  At first, I thought they were whispers inside my head.  Moans and groans.  But in their faintness, they were too shrill to be either.  That’s when I realized they weren’t whispers, but shrieks and wails from a distance.  And they, too, were coming closer.

But then the red light peeking through the blinds suddenly vanished, replaced instead by the first rays of light from the rising sun.  It took me nearly an hour to walk downstairs, but when I did I opened the front door.  Looked toward the mango tree.  Next to the row of pineapples was a shattered pumpkin, covered by something black and sticky.  The following night, there was no pumpkin or red light that flickered in the night.

All through the year I accused your uncle Zack and Grandfather of conspiring to frighten me.  It was easy to deny that anything deeper or sinister was afoot now that the pumpkin had disappeared.  They denied it, of course, but said that they wished they had thought of it themselves.

As Autumn passed, then Winter, the pumpkin faded from my consciousness.  That is, until the coming of the next Autumn.  That’s when, again, the crimson pumpkin appeared across the street, deep in the forest.  To my horror, however, as the days passed, more pumpkins began to appear all through the neighborhood.  Far off in the cow pastures.  Atop the old shell-hill on Hawkview Circle.  In vacant lots.  One night, I even saw one floating along in the lake at the middle of Meadowlark Circle, the red glow of its flame dancing and licking along the placid waves. With each passing day, more crimson pumpkins appeared.  Each day, they came closer to the houses of our neighbors. But there was one house that no pumpkin crept toward.  Ours.  But something else was on the march, for me.  Something far more fearful that came closer and closer with each setting of the sun.

Each night, before I drifted off to sleep... there was the faint sound of wailing and shrieking in the distance, which only I could hear.  And each night, the terrible sounds came closer and closer.  The nearer we came to Halloween, the more vivid--- the sharper--- those sounds became.  With it, came a dull thudding.  A hacking, like a butcher carving at a leg of beef.  There were women weeping.  Horses shrieking and cattle bellowing in twisted death agony.  And visions, too, that struck me at that bleary moment between wakefulness and sleep.  They were visions washed in red light, and amid that red light I saw silhouettes.  Withered bodies of women and children standing erect, heads hanging limply on their necks, mouths gaping, eyes emptied of life, but ambling along on their feet nonetheless.  I saw pumpkins shattered everywhere, and amid them all, a body dangling from a rope on a tree.

A month before Halloween, these nightmares began to invade the waking world.  I awoke one morning to find shattered pumpkins covering the road.  Our whole family came out to look, and that's when your grandmother noticed something peculiar.

"These are Seminole pumpkins," she said, looking closer.  "Just like the ones we grow in the yard."

When we went to check our pumpkin patch, none of the pumpkins were missing, yet we were the only ones in the neighborhood who grew them.  Did this have something to do with the crimson pumpkin coming to our house first, last year?  As I stood amidst the pumpkin patch, I finally began to understand.

In case your Grandmother never told you, Seminole pumpkins are a type of native Floridian pumpkin that were grown and cultured by the Seminole Indians that once lived here.  That is, before most of the Seminole Indians were rounded up and forced to march west on the Trail of Tears.

That day at school, I went to the library and read everything I could about the Seminole Indians.  I read about the Seminole Wars.  How, before the Civil War, the Seminoles resisted attempts by the U.S. Government to relocate them west.  How they refused to abandon the swamps and flatwoods of Southern Florida.  And then I read about how General William Harney launched a campaign to purge them from the land.  At the attack on Tequesta Landing, he swept into their village with 300 men.  The Seminoles vanished into the swamps before they could be captured, but to insure that they couldn't survive any longer on the land, the Harney's soldiers slaughtered all of the villager's horses and livestock, burned their fruit trees, and smashed every last one of their Seminole pumpkins, for which the Indians relied very heavily for food.  Most of the Indians gave up after that and were sent away on the Trail of Tears.  Most of them would die on the journey.  Others fled to the Everglades and slowly starved.  Only one Seminole remained to confront General Willian Harney.  It was the son of Chief Osceola, and he neither fought nor surrendered.  Instead, he whispered a curse on the conquers and their descendants.  He told Harney and his men that the spirits of his people would return to the place from which they were banished, and when they did, they would haunt those who had usurped the land.  Young Osceola was hanged on the spot, surrounded by dying horses and livestock, their blood coating the shattered pumpkins around them.

It's unknown exactly where the attack on Tequesta Landing was, but it was said to be somewhere here in Martin County.  Perhaps, even, here in this very neighborhood.

For the next week, I stayed up late racking my brain.  Trying to find an answer as what to do.  But time was running out.  

A few days before Halloween, early in the morning before the sun came up, I was looking out across the neighborhood from my bedroom window at all of the crimson pumpkins that now populated the forest.  That's when I saw something appear at the end of our driveway.  Something large.  Four legged.  It was a peculiar, shaggy horse with short legs.  Was it one of the Seminole's horses?  A marsh tackey?  It stood by the road, head slumped and body quivering.  That's when I saw the gaping wounds by its ribs.  Entire chunks hacked away from its side, as though inflicted by bayonets.  And then there was the blood.  It spewed forth from the creature, pooling on the pavement before snaking off down the road like a river.  So much blood, that it ran for yards and yards.  Some of it slushed into the swales, turning the water red.  Some of it formed lakes in potholes.  As I came closer, the creature raised its head.  It's eyes were wide.  Swollen and wild in anguish.  It opened its mouth to wail and whinny, but nothing came out.  I ran up the driveway, into the house, and slammed the door behind me.  I told your grandmother and grandfather about what happened, but as soon as the three of us came out to investigate, the horse was already gone.  Only the river of blood remained.  By late morning, the blood had clotted, turning black and sticky and foul, to which a swarm of flies came to feast.

That night, as I drifted away to sleep, I saw the horse again, in a flash.  It's mouth open, again.  Eyes bulging, again.  Nostrils flaring, again.  But this time, I heard it shriek.  It shrieked and shrieked all through my dreams until the light of the morning came and ended its misery.

I had to do something.  I had to right the wrongs of our past.  Just before dawn, I gathered up as many Seminole pumpkins as I could carry, packing them in my backpack and into my arms.  Then I set off across the street and into the woods.  There were many crimson pumpkins now, like a legion, slowly marching from the forest toward all the other houses.  As I passed them, I turned my head away.  Refused to look amid the flames.  Red light began to gather to my left.  To my right.  Behind me. Then the light was joined by sounds.  Wails of despair.  The weeping of children.  The further I went into the forest, the more intense the light became and the greater the volume of the sounds.  Still, I refused to look anywhere but forward.  I'd peered into the light once before and nearly lost my mind.  What would happen if I did again?  I pushed on ever faster in a panic, and it seemed the forest itself turned against me.  Seemed as though it wanted my blood.  The serrated stalks of the palmettos slashed at my bare legs and arms like tiny saws.  Ticks lept from the underbrush and gorged on my neck, my wrists, my ankles, my eyelids.  The red light around me grew so great, so intense, I could not tell what was sweat on my body and what was blood.  I could not tell the cries of the children from my own.

At last, I came to the center of the forest.  The place where I had seen the very first crimson pumpkin appear.  An ancient, withered slash pine teetered before me.  Amid the crimson hues, a silhouette hung from its largest limb.  It was dressed in threadbare hides, but not in flesh.  The crimson light passed through its ribs and bathed the tree behind it.  The silhouette twitched, from the wind or not,  I could not tell.  That's when I saw shadows, in vague human form, surrounding the tree.  Shadows that consumed the crimson light around me like a leech devours blood.  Each of the shadows turned, slowly, to witness me.  And then they came closer.  They moved like black clouds, blown by the wind.  I would have turned and fled at the sight, were there not a worse fate all around me.

My arms began to quake so violently that the Seminole pumpkins tumbled from my arms.  I unzipped my back pack, and one by one, I rolled them toward the shadows like bowling balls.  The shadows stopped.  Measured my deeds.  Judged them, perhaps.  I wanted to speak--- to say that I was sorry for what was done to them--- but from my mouth came only gasps, and my eyes, tears of terror.  When all of the pumpkins were delivered, I fell to the ground and buried my head in my knees.  Clenched my eyes shut.  Covered my ears.  And waited.

When I opened my eyes moments later, there was no light but the light of the moon, dripping in through the canopy.  No sound but the whistle of the wind through the pine needles, which clacked together like tiny green wind chimes.  The shadows were gone.  The silhouette was gone.  The crimson pumpkins were gone... but so, too, were the ones I'd delivered.  I stood up and slowly walked away, never turning my back to the tree until I had come to the road.

The following night, no more crimson pumpkins appeared in the woods.  I thought, perhaps, that I'd finally made amends.  That I'd proven we were not like those who came before us.  But when the Autumn Equinox came the following year, I discovered that I was somehow wrong.  On some nights, when all was still and quiet, I could hear the voices from afar.  On some nights, when the air was cold and frigid, I could see the shimmer of a crimson light far off in the distance.  Were the spirits still unsatisfied?  Conflicted?  Would they one day continue their march against those who now inhabit their lands?

I wish I knew the answer.  And so before every Halloween, I leave nothing to chance.  I confront my fears and set off again on the very same journey I had before.

 This, however, is not a journey I can make forever.  One day I will be too old.  Too tired.  Or... too fearful.  When that time comes, Ellie, it will be your turn.  I'll fill your arms with Seminole pumpkins.  Pack your backpack.  Then, you'll go forth toward the heart of the forest and, once there, confront the Curse of the Crimson Pumpkins yourself.  Stay mindful of your task, though.  Don't ever look behind you.  And should you ever find yourself face to face with a crimson pumpkin, don't ever gaze into its light... for if you do, the crimson pumpkin will also gaze into you.

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