Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween! -- An Old Halloween Story

Happy Halloween! To celebrate the holiday, I'm posting an older short story of mine. Originally published within the pages of If - E - Zine(tm) Issue Number 8 (last year's Special Halloween Edition), "Simple Simon" tells the tale of a farmer and his family's annual Halloween party. Enjoy and have a happy, fun and safe Halloween!

“Simple Simon”
© 2006-2007 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.

The moon glowed blue, bathing the landscape in dispirited monotones until every blade of dying autumnal grass arcing to and fro in evening breeze, every bough bowing to howling winds, every stone, every scurrying mouse and cricket seeking underground
shelter, every fallen leaf, every bit of September life was dripping sweetly with twilight. The blue light of the moon danced in and out and around hills, trees, homes; shocks of shadows went flying skyward, having spent their day buried beyond the topsoil, while shocks of corn tied to porch posts in celebration of harvest season crinkled and cracked, crying softly, naturally in the whisking wind, whispers of the dying time.

Still other shadows danced with their moonlit partners, hand-in-hand and cheek-to-cheek, in an odd waltz set to the tune of oncoming winter storms, music unheard yet played within the bones of every living thing in the countryside.
While winds chanted shadows swirled forming ghostly shades moving to trick the eye, forming dark creatures dodging between trees. And there, there! Beyond rolling hills, on the highest and farthest hill sat a structure creaking and moaning, moving with nature’s rhythms despite being man-made. Whispering winds, breath of the dead, pierced the sides of the old barn and flowed over its broken wooden back and through its broken wooden teeth to give it a howling voice. The barn groaned under its own weight. Its coughs and shudders sickly as color drained from cheeks, its red paint chipping away under chiseling ghost gusts.

It was a grand, glorious old barn surrounded by a graveyard of headstones made up of the foundations of other buildings long ago fallen and forgotten. While other homes still stood in this country, none were near in age or location to the old, dying barn, dying from a broken heart. It served little use to anyone any more. Except… once a year…

On or soon after the first of October every year Mr. Mulahey would come out to visit the barn with family or friends or farm hands, taking ever deeper breaths, pulling vital air into themselves so they may take up hammer, take up nail, take up broom and breathe life anew into the exhausted barn in preparation for the annual Mulahey Halloween Barn Dance.

The Barn Dance had been an affair for the good people of this part of the country for more than sixty years.

Look now! Beyond the horizon! Just past that ridge! Between those trees! Do you see it? See it coming on at us? A light! You do see it! A small glow… distant, distant… glowing like the moon, glowing when the moon hides behind gypsy clouds… it grows nearer! It comes to us. Closer still! Like an orb, a ball… like a will-o-wisp, don’tcha think? And as we watch it weaving, weaving, growing, glowing, approaching, causing the land to light up white, it descends slowly, disappearing into the old barn.

* * * * *

“How long ya been doin’ this?”

“Over sixty years.”

“No. I meant how long you been doin’ this?”

“Oh,” Simon, dressed in a long-sleeve checked shirt and denim jeans and work boots, said, “Tha firs’ year was ’88. I guess this one here will make it nineteen years.”

“Thassa long time.”

“That’s a long time,” Simon echoed.

Milo Silas, the questioning young man, was of ordinary size and looks. He wore a plain white t-shirt turned gray with work and sweat, jeans and cowboy boots.

“Every year,” Simon said as the two headed across open fields towards the barn, “I think I’m never gonna make it out here ta have another dance again. But then every year, ‘bout the end of September, when the winds shift and the sun cools and the cats seem more riled up, when I breathe in that autumn air it brings into my lungs something a little different, a little more fun and a lot of tradition. I think we need our traditions, ya know? Rituals. Holidays. Fourth of July has long gone and the aftertaste of summer hot dogs has faded. Something happens to the earth and we have to mark it somehow. Do something to show we know.”

Milo silently nodded in agreement.

The noonday autumn sun made the men glow orange as if they had eaten a few too many pumpkin pies, the lands glowed golden brown and the winds swept off the final heat from the land. It was as if the whole world had sighed in its relief from the hot summer sun.

“And I can’t help but ta feel good when I see people smile as they come on inta my barn. People dress up cuz they can. They smile at themselves with painted goblin faces. And somewhere out in that barn between nightfall and home, between punch cups and pumpkin carvings, we secretly, maybe unknowingly, conjure up some kinda magic. We make voodoo. We have fun.

“Now I ain’t sayin’ I’m saving lives out here or nuthin’. But makin’ people smile can’t hurt no one.”

Milo again agreed silently.

Approaching the barn Milo felt he was making a pilgrimage to a holy sanctuary, a piece of the past left standing by the magic Simon fondly spoke of. A caern, an apothecary of candy smiles and a Stonehenge of country living. This old barn wasn’t just a piece of the Mulahey family history, it was a piece of everybody’s history that ever walked through here or danced here or was invited to celebrate here. It was grand and generous of the Mulahey’s. It was grand and generous. Milo smiled.
The two men entered the rickety barn and stopped, staring. Staring up. Staring beyond the two lofts, up into the rafters.

“By God,” Simon whispered. “How’d he get up there?”

Plump and purple from the rafters did hang by his neck a dusty old man in weather-torn clothes.

“Dear God,” Milo whispered. “Who is he?”

The old man’s head, noose about the neck, hung to one side oddly, crookedly. He was ugly and stained with death, dangling like an overripe berry from a vine.

“Who is he?” Simon repeated Milo’s question.

“Who was he?” Milo corrected Simon and himself.

“Get that ladder,” Simon instructed. “Then run along and get Doc Dearborne.”

* * * * *

A few people had made the trek to gather in the barn, Doc Dearborne and Sheriff Arker among them. Daisy, Simon’s wife, had also come when she heard from Milo some tragic thing had happened out at the old barn. Milo had refused to return.

“Who is he?” Simon asked.

“Some hobo named Dusty Jim,” Sheriff Arker answered. “No clue as to a family name. He’s been through this area before. He loved the hard whiskey. One of my deputies talked with him a little last time he was through here, oh, I’d say about early last summer. Lost his wife near on a decade ago to a younger man. She took the kids. He never saw them again. Lost his job soon after. He was a mechanic or worked in a machine shop or something like that. Told my deputy he was killing hisself with booze cuz he couldn’t work up the nerve to eat a bullet. I guess he finally got the nerve.”

“Why here?” Simon asked. “Why my barn?”

The sheriff shrugged. “Dunno. Maybe cuz it’s away from everything and everyone.”
Eyes watched as an ambulance crew tucked Dusty Jim’s body into the back of their vehicle. Eyes followed as the ambulance slowly made its way across the field. It was in no hurry. No lights were blinding them, no sirens blared.

“Yep,” the sheriff said. “Cuz it’s quiet out here. Far from everything. The rope was here. The rafters. Nice, quiet, safe.”

Doc Dearborne explained, “Looks like he climbed up in them rafters, tied the makeshift noose and then either jumper or fell. Snapped his neck completely.”

“Dear God,” Daisy gasped. “Simon, we can’t have the barn dance this year. Not now. Not after this.”

“Ma’am,” the sheriff spoke, “It ain’t my place but I say don’t let some train-hoppin’ hobo ruin your plans.”

“They’ve already been ruined,” she said. “No one will want to come out here now. No one will come.”

Simon shook his head. “In all my years, this barn has seen many things die. Coupla cows, chickens I remember. Lord only knows how many mice and bugs. Even had a goat die out here once when my granddaddy still used this barn. But I don’t remember ever hearin’ a man losin’ his life out here.”

“I best go,” said Doc Dearborne. Simon shook his hand and thanked him before he left. Then the Doc disappeared out across the field much like the ambulance had.

“I best go, too,” said the sheriff. “Happy Halloween.”

The barn emptied out. Only Simon remained with his wife.

“No one will come,” Daisy whispered.

* * * * *

Alex was a local farmer, much like Simon, but every year he planted a new patch of pumpkins for the Halloween season. Simon bought all his pumpkins from Alex. Like Simon, Alex had inherited his land and occupation from his family. He was tall and young and hard working. A few freckles still spotted his face while age lines hid deep below the skin, waiting to burst out. His red hair blazed and mixed in, fitting in, with the autumn sunsets.

Every October, Alex would load his pumpkins onto a flatbed trailer, pull them out to the side of the road that ran past his house, placed a coffee can with a hole cut in its plastic top and a sign taped onto it that read:


He never asked much for his pumpkins and he always sold a lot. Simon was his biggest buyer. So when Simon pulled his old pick-up alongside the pumpkin-laden trailer, Alex came out to meet him.

“Simon! How are you?”

The two exchanged handshakes and smiles.

“Good, good. And you?”

“Can’t complain.”

“How many you got for me this year?” Simon surveyed the landscape of pumpkins across the flatbed.

“Same as every year: As many as you want.” Alex smiled and smiled.

“I think I’ll take the usual thirty.” Simon lowered the tailgate of his truck and the two began picking and loading pumpkins.

“How’s Daisy?” Alex asked.

“Good, good. How’s Marlette?”

“She’s fine. Inside with the kids teaching them to bake pumpkin pies from scratch.”

“God, I love Marlette’s pumpkin pies!”

“Why ya think I married her?”

The two men shared a laugh.

Then Alex said, “I heard what happened out to your barn.”

Simon thumped a pumpkin and smiled at it. “Yeah.”

“It really happen?”

Simon lost his smile. “Yeah.”

“Sorry to hear it.”

“Me too,” Simon placed three fat pumpkins onto his truck to Alex’s one.

“You expectin’ the usual crowd?” Alex asked.

“Not so much, maybe. People get funny about things.”


The two worked on, loading plump gourds one after the other.

“How many you expectin’?” Alex asked.

Simon stopped. “I dunno really.”

Alex and Simon exchanged glances.

“Simon,” said Alex. “How long we been friends?”

“Well, I been buyin’ from you since you started growing these things when you was six. That’s what, nearly twenty years? It’s been mostly business between you and me but after twenty years I’d gotta say somewhere along the way we’d had ta have become friends.”

Alex smiled, and then frowned. He picked up another pumpkin and Simon began loading again. “Simon… I don’t think I’m gonna make it out this year.”

Simon kept quietly loading.

“It’s not you, or even the suicide,” Alex explained. “It’s just… my kids got wind of it and it might spook ‘em out right to be there. This year, least ways. But next year… next year you sure can bet I’ll be out that way! We all will!”
“I can understand that. Especially with young’uns.”

Simon loaded a huge, fat, round pumpkin onto his truck, patting it. “This one’s a beauty.”

It glowed fire-orange and had a golden stem with a clean face. It seemed about to burst into smiles without a carved face, smiling while waiting for a smile to be carved. Simon smiled back at the gorgeous gourd.

“Simon,” Alex broke the enchantment the pumpkin had been weaving. “I’ve talked to folks. I… I-I don’t think hardly nobody’s gonna go to the dance this year.”
Simon frowned, patting the pumpkin. His voice grew soft, serious. All the drywall housing that collects and protects a man fell away from Simon’s heart. “What do you suggest I do?”

Alex hung his head. They loaded on the last of the thirty pumpkins. Simon dropped some bills into the coffee can.

* * * * *

For the next three weeks Simon worked alone on the barn. He layered the dirt floor with fresh straw, set bales about for seating, got a big wash tub for apple bobbing, set up tables for food, secured a pulley and rope for a jack-o-lantern piñata; he did everything that needed to be done. And he did it alone.

“No one will come,” Daisy would tell him every morning. “No one will come,” she said every night.

“No one will come,” she said as he went out the front door of the house on All Hollow’s Eve. “No one will come!” she yelled after him as he drove off in the truck, headed for the barn.

* * * * *

Boris Pickett sang on the boom box. The fresh straw crackled under his feet. Oil and battery-powered lamps set the mood. The last few weeks were some of the loneliest Simon had ever spent. Now he stood in his family’s old barn. Alone.

Simon sat on a stool at one of the tables, pulled the big, beautiful pumpkin that smiled before having a smile close, dug in his pocket for his jack-knife and carved.
Early wintry winds howled outside the barn. An owl sounded his night sounds, a moaning, questioning voice carried on and stretched out by winds in ghost tones. Shadows grew into witches dancing, prancing upon a landscape going dead from the great Fall. The barn glowed from within, sending spears of light into the heart of darkness, bubbling blackness troubling the moon, chasing it to hide behind clouds.
And look! A sphere, a sphere, a will-o-wisp bobbing, exiting the barn. Turning, turning, glowing, growing smaller with distance until at last it disappears between trees, behind hills, beyond horizons.

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