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Pumpkin Seeds

By James Cannice

Tacita was an orphan who lived under the care of the minister and his wife in the town of Redbury. When she was nine, her father died after coughing out blood until there was none left in his body. When the girl had been ten, her mother, who had missed her father deeply, disappeared from the village and never returned.

(Image by Andreas Lischka from Pixabay)

When Tacita was eleven, the village fell under a curse. Nobody knew why, but they soon came to know that when the full moon was bright enough to cast shadows, when all the nocturnes fell silent, and when the wind blew twice through the bristles then sang no more, the Burning Pumpkin would come.

✸✸✸

The first night the Burning Pumpkin was seen in Redbury, Tacita was in the small bedroom given to her, sitting on her bed right next to the window. She had an old letter sent from one of the colony’s other ministers she had borrowed from her caretaker’s study set against her knee and a quill she had likewise borrowed in her hand. She was moving to drop the first dot of ink onto the blank back side of the paper with her unsteady hand, when she heard the wind roll through the trees of the forest and into the village with a gentle shushing sound. The wind was then no more and took with it all the noise of the forest. The hairs on the back of her neck pricked, as if she knew something was coming, as if she had recognized the shushing of the wind the way she would have recognized someone’s voice. She did not know that she did recognize the sound of the wind, only that she couldn’t trust the silence that followed. She set down the sheet of paper and quill carefully on the bed and turned to look out the window. The stillness in the air unsettled Tacita as she looked out and down upon the moonlit village that rested upon a small hill.

She waited and waited, expecting something to break through the stillness, as if to reassure her that the view from her window was more than a painting. And soon enough, a thin figure emerged in between the rows of small homes. Where a man’s head would have been, there was a thick, bulbous shape out of which yellow light incandesced. The figure began to carry itself up toward the minister’s house that sat at the top of the hill. As it began walking, it seemed almost in pain, essentially throwing its limbs to make each step. Though, as it continued, it began to walk more smoothly, as if whatever the figure was began gradually adjusting to its body.

Tacita, curious, blew out her candle and leaned in closer to her window, stopping herself before her breath would fog the glass. As the figure came within a hundred feet of the house, the girl noticed it was carrying something in its hand, perhaps a gourd. The shadows hid from her whatever it was. And soon, the figure stopped in front of the wood stake fence surrounding the house. She noticed the shape upon its neck was, strangely enough, a pumpkin. It was carved with triangles where eyes on a head would have been and a jagged line where a mouth would have been. Glowing from inside the hollowed orange shell was a flame that whipped and crackled out of the crude facial features.

Tacita pressed her nose against the glass, intently focused on the burning pumpkin, trying to study it. She found it odd that, given this was obviously some sort of supernatural squash, its lanky body donned the same black attire any man in the village would wear.

Suddenly, the burning pumpkin jerked its head to direct its carved-out eyes to her window. Tacita fell away from the glass and back onto her bed. While lying on her back, she stared out her window to keep an eye on the glow of the flames and listened closely for the sound of any footsteps stalking closer to the house. She inhaled slow, quiet breaths and focused. Soon, the warm light from the pumpkin’s flame untethered itself from the cold light of the moon, and the sound of footsteps became softer and softer, telling her the creature was leaving.

And not long after her breathing returned to its usual pace, she began to wonder if everything she had just seen was part of a dream. Her thoughts and wonderings carried her off into a deep sleep. She dreamed she was in the dark woods, alone and afraid, until there was a warm light and she felt her mother’s embrace. With her mother’s touch, came her voice rolling quietly, gently, “We’ll all be together soon, my love.”

The next morning, she woke up to the sound of a hellish shriek. She flung herself out of bed and looked out the window to see the minister’s wife Goody Sewall standing outside the house, holding onto one of the wood stakes of the fence to stop herself from falling over. The minister rushed out of the house immediately following the scream. Once he passed the fence, he froze, stricken.

Tacita watched intently as the minister crouched down and lifted up, by the hair, the severed head of a man. Upon seeing the head of one of the Church elders, Josiah Danforth, she realized what she had seen last night was no dream. A burning pumpkin had come to the foot of the minister’s house and left the head.

She grabbed the rag paper from underneath her bed and began to scratch onto it a sketch of the pumpkin, the flames bursting out of its eyes, and the lanky body that carried it. Though the finished product was rather crude due to hurriedness, Tacita thought it got the point across.

She slid the drawing underneath her bed when she heard the minister’s footsteps pound up the stairs. When he opened her door, she bowed her head.

“Last night, did you hear anything? Did you see anything strange?” he demanded.

Tacita may have been eleven, but she knew better than to willingly confess that she had observed an infernal creature that presumably murdered a ruling elder. She chose to remain silent and simply shook her head.

“Are you certain of this?” He stared at her with an intense, almost accusatory focus in his eyes.

She nodded.

The minister looked away from Tacita and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Very well then. Go downstairs and continue your readings.”

She nodded and did as she was told.

✸✸✸

That night, when the minister and his wife believed Tacita to be asleep, the girl listened to them speak through the cracks in the wooden walls. They kept their voices low, but not low enough to keep Tacita from hearing.

“Had Goody Danforth seen anything last night before her husband was murdered?” Tacita could hear the minister’s wife ask.

“Nothing. She said she woke up in the night and saw devilish burning eyes staring back at her and fainted as quickly as she had awoken. Although young Samuel Brown said he felt uneasy and looked out his window to see a burning pumpkin on the shoulders of a man that stalked through the town. He had been quick to tell other townsfolk of what he claims to have seen, so soon all the village will wonder about the Burning Pumpkin creature that killed Josiah Danforth.” He paused. “Wife, you have gone cold. What is it?”

“Peter, has the devil taken the form of a Burning Pumpkin?” the minister’s wife asked in a voice the trembling of which could be made out through the wall. “Why would he have left Josiah’s head before our fence?”

“I do not know. I intend to find the man or creature who has committed this act and discover where he has taken the rest of Josiah’s body. All I can do, now, is make sure the souls of Redbury are not vulnerable.”

“Are we being punished for welcoming the daughter of Goody Crane into our home? By letting in that woman’s daughter, have we taken upon her damnation? We cannot let her sinfulness stain our…”

“Speak no more of this, woman.”

Tacita withdrew herself from against the wall and sat silently on her bed. She thought of how she had felt she was being punished when her father died. She thought of how she felt she was being punished when the cottage she grew up in and the garden behind it went up in flames the night her mother disappeared and the minister took her away. She had surely been punished enough. And yet, she didn’t feel as that is what the Burning Pumpkin had come to do.

The next day Tacita, along with the rest of Redbury, attended Church. She was seated next to Goody Sewall in the pews as she watched the minister, draped in the somber black gown he always preached in, ascend to the pulpit. He began the service with a reading from the first book of Peter.

“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’”

Tacita wondered if he had chosen the passage for Josiah, with whom she had imagined the minister was close. Josiah had perished though, so maybe she was wrong. As the minister continued speaking in a booming, authoritative voice, Tacita considered napping. She looked over her shoulder to see Hezekiah Winthrop, the large tithingman armed with a long staff he was prepared to prod any nappers with, in the upper gallery. She decided her bonnet would hide her closed eyes from the staff.

And when she closed her eyes, she saw her mother. She was standing on a patch of dead grass pouring water onto the withered blades. The water turned red and the grass turned green.

✸✸✸

 A month passed. Tacita had been confined inside most of the time, so most of what she knew about the on-goings of the town she had gathered from overhearing after the twice weekly church services or from eavesdropping on the minister and his wife. She knew that nobody else had been killed, and, although no suspect had been found, chatter around the town about the any flaming squash had whittled down. She also knew that she would see the Burning Pumpkin when the night would come. It had come last full moon, and she could not imagine it would never return. It had a purpose. She could feel it in her skin and waited for the full moon by her bedroom window.

And sure enough, the luminescent full moon came along with the wind that hushed the forest. She waited in the dark for not too long before she saw the Burning Pumpkin, walking through the town, on its way toward the minister’s house. Again, it stalked gingerly, like a person who had lost feeling in all their limbs. Tacita also noticed its body seemed somehow thicker this time, as if the Burning Pumpkin had consumed a great many full meals in the time that had passed since the last full moon. It also seemed perhaps an inch or two shorter, although she couldn’t be too sure given that she had last seen it a month ago and from rather far away. When she would draw it later, she thought, she’d half to cross check it with her earlier sketch.

Her thoughts broke when she saw the creature was carrying something again. The hairs on her skin jumped as she realized it was not a gourd, but most likely another head. When it reached the fence, she leaned back in her bed, careful not to make any creaking sounds that would wake anyone up.

✸✸✸

Another elder, Bartholomew Stoughton, was presumed dead when his severed head was discovered in front of the minister’s fence. Another month passed, and volunteers, led by the minister himself, would patrol the perimeter of the town before the full moon fully ascended into the sky. Tacita knew this because, earlier in the day, Hezekiah the tithingman had come to the house and discussed these plans with the minister. They had also agreed that Hezekiah would patrol the plot of land where Tacita’s home had burned down. Tacita herself had been in the room and they had spoken freely, as if just because she wouldn’t talk had meant she also wouldn’t listen.

When night came and Tacita was sure the minister’s wife was inside the master bedroom, Tacita creeped out of her own bedroom and, as quietly as she could, glided through the house and out of the front door.

She needed to know why the tithingman declared he would go to the ruins of the place she used to call home, as if the Burning Pumpkin would show up there. Did they think the Burning Pumpkin’s presence meant that her mother was somehow coming home? It burned inside her, so, in the shadows, she crept. She snuck past the houses, past the well, behind the blacksmith’s shed, and through the covered bridge above the small creek until the ruins of her old home came into view. It was a small piece of land, covered now by uneven patches of grass and long stretches of dirt that sat on the border between Redbury and the woods. She walked slowly toward it, as she had not been allowed to return to it since being taken in. She felt deeply alone as she stood where the door would have been.

“Now what would you be doing here?” came the whine of Hezekiah from behind her. She shuddered at the sound of the man whipping the long staff in his palm and turned to face him. He wore a nasty grin. “Have you come here to meet your mother and whatever witchcraft she has wreaked upon the vulnerable in spirit of Redbury? Have you come to see what infernal beast has been loosed upon you broken vessels?”

She balled her fist as she stared at the imposing man who was relishing the feel of the metal long staff in his hands and slowly closing the gap between them. No, she wanted to say. But before she could summon the strength within her to utter the word, she felt the wind chill her skin as it swept gracefully through the forest and through the town. She dashed through the covered bridge and took shelter behind it as she heard the man yell, “There is no hiding for the wicked!” She tried to still her breath as she heard his footfalls approaching the other side of the bridge.

She then heard the man scream a guttural scream. There was then a squelching noise that sounded like a sack of rotten vegetables being squashed. The wind rolled through once more then all was silent, save for the sound of a heavy body setting foot upon the bridge. Tacita shuddered with every slow, thundering step she heard, all but paralyzed.

“You there!” Tacita heard someone calling from her side of the bridge close to town. The girl looked up and saw Samuel Brown, one of the younger laymen, carrying a rifle while hustling toward her. “What are you doing out? The Burning Pumpkin could be lurking, just around the…”

She nodded and watched as the young man’s eyes widened and skin went pale. He was looking through the covered bridge. He raised his rifle to shoulder height and, with trembling hands, aimed. Tacita got up from her hiding place and began to scamper away from the bridge, across which the tithingman had surely perished at the hands of the Burning Pumpkin.

A shot rang out.

“No!” she heard Samuel Brown yell once she was twenty yards away. She knew she should have kept running but turned around regardless. She could only watch as the tithingman’s long staff plunged through Samuel Brown’s chest and the man’s body quickly went limp. She saw the Burning Pumpkin’s blazing red eyes cut through the night as the creature slid the fresh corpse off the long staff it now gripped in its gloved hand. The monster, now appearing to be stronger, larger than before, was unmistakably staring at her, as if the tithingman’s head it carried in its left hand was intended for her.

She ran.

✸✸✸

When Tacita was ten and not an orphan living in the house of the minister and his wife, she lived with her mother in their cottage on the outskirts of the village. Her mother let her draw. Her mother, too, drew. A few months after her husband’s passing, Tacita’s mother had stopped crying and had all of a sudden begun drawing symbols in chalk all across the house. She had drawn small ones in nooks and crannies, where the common eye wouldn’t find them unless it was looking. She had drawn large ones, that took up entire walls and the floor of her bedroom. She kept drawing and drawing these unearthly symbols with passion, gladness. Tacita did not known what they meant, only that they seemed to make her mother happy for a time.

One day, while Tacita was drawing, trying to conjure something similar to the symbols her mother had drawn throughout the house, there came a knock at the door. Tacita’s mother smiled, as if she had been expecting company.

“Go to your room now, my Tacita, it’ll only be for a few moments,” her mother said kindly.

“Yes, mother,” Tacita said before scurrying off to her room. She kept the door slightly ajar so she could peek between through the crack.

Tacita’s mother opened the front door and let in Minister Peter Sewall, the tithingman Hezekiah Winthrop, Elder Josiah Danforth, and Elder Bartholomew Stoughton. Each of the men donned a serious look upon his face as Tacita’s mother gracefully guided them to the kitchen table, whereupon waited four plates each with a slice of pumpkin pie.

“Why have I your company, today?” Tacita’s mother asked as the four men took seats at the table.

“We have come because we have heard rumors, stories,” said the minister.

“Have you?” asked Tacita’s mother with a sly grin.

“Have you been educating your daughter in the catechism per your responsibility?” interjected Hezekiah while poking at the pumpkin pie suspiciously.

At that moment, Tacita’s mother caught the girl’s eyes through the crack in the door, and Tacita knew to close it.

After waiting in her room for a while and hearing the men leave through the front door, Tacita opened her bedroom door. Her mother was standing right outside of it, holding a cup of water.

“Why had they come, Mother?” Tacita asked.

“Do not worry yourself,” said Tacita’s mother. “Now, it may be a long time from now, but we will all be together again soon. You, me, and your father.”

“And Father? But Father is dead. How…”

“Hush now,” said her mother. The woman forced the cup into her daughter’s hands and guided the water to the girl’s lips. “Sleep long and sleep well.”

The next thing Tacita knew, she was in her bed and it was dark. She called for her mother. Her mother did not answer, so Tacita stood up from her bed and looked around the house. She was alone. There was noise, voices coming from the outside. Through the window she could make out warm light. She opened the door to find the minister, the tithingman, two other elders, and three young laymen each standing ten paces away, holding torches.

Tacita desperately looked around for her mother in the crackling firelight. Her throat tightened, and she was unable to speak as the minister grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her away from the house.

✸✸✸

The now eleven-year-old girl ran through Redbury, away from the Burning Pumpkin. As Tacita panted, almost ready to collapse near the minister’s house, she called to mind her sketches of the creature. The first one had been lanky; the second, rotund; and the third, which she had just witnessed skewer a man with a long staff, imposing. Her first thought was that the Burning Pumpkin might have been eating a lot of meat and doing exercises in between the full moons. She quickly tossed that idea out. They were all different bodies. She was going to sketch out the third body to show someone, anyone who she thought would be able to stop the Burning Pumpkin. She felt a pinch on her heart when she realized she did not know who she would go to for help.

Once she was at the foot of the house, she stopped herself and brought her breathing down to a slow, quiet pace before creaking open the door. Unfortunately for her, the minister’s wife waited on the other side, holding up Tacita’s drawings. “What have you wrought, you wicked young creature?”

Goody Sewall stomped towards the girl. Tacita stood frozen, until the woman, too, froze. Tacita could feel the warmth of the flames and smell the uncomfortably homey scent of pumpkin. She slowly turned around to see the Burning Pumpkin stood at the fence, carrying by the head of Hezekiah at its side.

Without warning, a shot rang out. Orange mucus splattered from the Burning Pumpkin’s head and the flames roared. The Burning Pumpkin still stood, even with a hole gaping through the lower half of its face. Another shot rang out, sending more chunks of pumpkin bursting through the air. And then another shot was fired, exploding the Pumpkin’s head entirely.

The body that carried it crumpled and fell upon the ground. Tacita watched as the minister and two young men on patrol approached the body from behind.

“Peter,” Goody Sewall shouted while gripping Tacita’s arm. “Look, what the daughter of a witch has delivered unto us!”

The minister moved in closer, squinting his eyes at the drawings his wife had been holding up. “Where did you find these, wife?”

“Under her bed.”

The minister looked to Tacita with horror in his eyes and marched toward her, stopping when he came within a few feet, as if careful to keep his distance. “Have you been conjuring demons upon us?”

Tacita frowned and spat, “No! I… I draw… I was drawing the Burning Pumpkin whenever I saw it… and I noticed… the bodies…”

“Silence! You… could have become a vessel for grace. But like your mother, you father, you do not turn to good works and prayer, which is why they could not be saved. You do not let God enter you. Here stands before us, a soul corrupted, a body vulnerable to…”

Just then, the light of the moon that cast down upon their skin became tinted with red. Tacita looked up to the sky. The moon itself was red like a bloodshot eye forcing itself open as it glared down upon Redbury.

The minister opened his mouth to speak before he gasped and reached for his throat. Tacita watched as he went pale and began to convulse. He clutched his chest as if his heart were about to burst through his rib cage. One of the young men who had come with him grabbed his shoulder in concern, and asked, “Minister Sewall, are you all right?”

The minister let go of his chest and stopped shaking, as if suddenly calm. Then, his head rolled off. Before the head even hit the ground, a hollowed-out pumpkin spouted out in its place, rapidly growing to full size, complete with the eyes and mouth and flame of the Burning Pumpkin. Goody Sewall screamed until her voice broke.

The young man let go of the minister’s shoulder, which now belonged to the Burning Pumpkin, and fell to the ground while his whole body trembled. The man reached for his rifle, but the Burning Pumpkin snatched the musket and shoved it through the man’s chest, pinning him to the ground. The Burning Pumpkin then turned its attention to the other young man, who was trying to fill his own musket back up with gunpowder, a process he was realizing was taking too long. The young man then raised the gun to use as a club. He swung once and the wood of the gun shattered upon the right arm of the Burning Pumpkin. The Burning Pumpkin then extended its left hand and grabbed the man’s neck and squeezed.

Tacita had been stuck in place the whole time, as Goody Sewall’s grip on her arm became tighter and tighter while the two men died. The woman showed no signs of moving or releasing her grasp. Once the Burning Pumpkin dropped the young man’s body, it turned his attention toward Tacita and Goody Sewall and stalked slowly, almost carefully. Once the creature came within ten feet, Goody Sewall threw Tacita forward, in offering. Tacita lost balance and fell to the dirt shaking. She held her hands over her head and crouched down, but felt the Burning Pumpkin walk past her. She lifted her hands from her head and turned around to see Goody Sewall still standing, stricken as if she were seeing the devil himself, while the Burning Pumpkin approached her doorstep. Before the woman could turn to run, the creature flung its arms and snatched her.

Tacita closed her eyes and heard the horrid sound of munching.

She didn’t open them until she heard a slight crackle and her nose caught the familiar scent of burning wood. She looked up at the Burning Pumpkin, with fresh blood spatter upon its face. It stood above her, seeming patient. Behind it she could see a fire rising from the entrance of the house. She backed away with her elbows, the shaking of her body stopping her from properly rising to her feet. Then the wind blew gently, and with it came a whisper.

“Follow,” said the voice of the wind, the voice of her mother rolling quietly, gently. “We’ll all be together soon.”

Tacita took several deep breaths to still her trembling bones, to slow her pounding heart, then picked herself up and stood in the shadow the Burning Pumpkin cast against the rapidly growing fire’s light. The Pumpkin grabbed, by the ankle, the body that had carried it earlier that night, the body Tacita figured was that of the tithingman. The creature turned and began to walk away from the minister’s house, the flames now reaching the second floor, and down the hill into the town. Tacita backed away from the house being consumed the way her family’s had been, then turned to watch the Burning Pumpkin make its way down the slope. She didn’t know where the creature would lead, only that she no longer had a place in Redbury, and she didn’t know of anywhere else. She was alone. She would always be alone, unless her ears had not deceived her and she had heard her mother’s voice. She scuttled along and caught up to the Burning Pumpkin as it passed between the sleepy homes, wherein dreamers lay oblivious to the fires. The creature, still dragging along the tithingman’s body, lead her past the edge of town and into the woods.

As Tacita followed the Burning Pumpkin through the dark forest lit in red patches by the moon, she noticed the creature’s flame began to crackle less and diminish. The body also seemed to grow weaker as the once hard shell of the pumpkin began to sag and become lumpy. It continued guiding her regardless, walking like a man who would soon crumble back into dust.

Tacita’s heart twisted and throat tightened as the cottage wherein she once lived, the home the townsfolk had burnt down, slowly revealed itself in shards of faded light among the shadows of the trees. She stood still for a moment but forced herself forward as the Burning Pumpkin continued walking.

When she came within little more than a few paces from the front door of the cottage, the Burning Pumpkin’s flame died, and the last wisp of smoke was stolen away by a sudden breeze. The creature shrank to the ground and curled up in the fetal position. The pumpkin shell collapsed in on itself, decomposing into mush. The body withered the way a flower plucked from the ground does overtime, until it became nothing more than feed for the soil beneath it. The body the Burning Pumpkin had dragged withered as well.

Tacita had been staring at the pumpkin giving itself back to the dirt so intently, that when the cottage door in front of her creaked open, she leapt back. She could not see inside as it was dark. She heard nothing. She hesitated before asking into the darkness behind the open door, “Hello?”

“Welcome home,” came, in unison, the voices of her mother and father.

This story was first published in Tell Tale Press, 2020.
Edited by Marie Ginga.

 

James grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and graduated from Pepperdine University. He has work published or forthcoming in Tales to Terrify, Maudlin House and Novel Noctule. He currently resides in the Bay Area and is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of San Francisco.