“The Saints of October” Part One – By Nick Manzolillo [SFM Storytime Season One]

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The Saints of October – Part One By Nick Manzolillo

The master pumpkin carver has waited long enough, now that the fallen leaves have crumpled into black flakes akin to ash, and the dark winds of ice and snow have swept away all but the memory of October. With the spirit of the fall humming in his breast, the master pumpkin carver faced the onslaught of winter with his teeth bared and his fists clenched. As always, he was brought to his knees. Spirits sing in October, but in winter they go mad, howl and forsake you, no matter what attempts you make to appease them

The song of spring, a false light filled with sudden chills and ceaseless rain, brought the pumpkin carver to the edge of his sanity. As always, summer led him sniffing from his den, to begin the cycle of growth anew. Long days staring into the earth. Sleepless nights dreaming of gourds and children in masks, raising their hands to feel the warmth from a freshly forged lantern’s glow.

His fingers only stop twitching when they wrap around his trusty blade and he cuts that first stem, holding a newborn pumpkin high up into the air of autumn. As the green leaves wrinkle brown, orange, red and rot, the master pumpkin carver awakens once more. Halloween approaches, and there is much to do. As always.  

His October friends call him Jack because the October people have a simple sense of humor. They like their irony as they like their blood, pure and tasting of metal. Jack carves the first pumpkin on the first of the month, his month. This year he chooses to craft a Ferris wheel because winter breeds in him a paranoia that his skills will have somehow deteriorated in the off-season. Several hours after he begins, Jack sets his finished masterpiece at the base of the cement steps leading up his porch. The street before him is empty of decoration and acknowledgment, but not for long. When the master pumpkin carver sets down his first lantern of many, it’s as good as blowing a warhorn for all his contemporaries to take heed and rally.

Jack doesn’t get out much, but he’s respected around town, if only because they all hold their breaths in anticipation of his completed pumpkin display. Blossom has never forgotten its colonial roots, and the town is full of families whose inherited names stretch back centuries. Jack has lived in a great many towns over the years but when he moved here and smelled that special, distinct scent of autumn that poured from the leaves like a pie fresh out of the oven, he swore he would live nowhere else. He’ll die here, one day, gladly.

Blossom’s celebration is not a loud, uproarious month-long festival like in Sleepy Hollow or Salem. Rather, it’s silent and contemplative, as everyone listens to the trees creak. Citizens bide their time as they pick out the perfect costume, the perfect identity. If you’re quiet enough during autumn, you can hear the world groaning through the trees as it wraps its skeletal fingers around its chest and prepares its bones for the long shiver ahead.   

During this first week of October, Jack’s doorbell rings. He wipes pumpkin guts onto a white towel that has been turned gloriously orange over the years. He secures his knife by his side, the blade angled horizontally. Jack’s got October friends, sure, and they’ll be here soon enough. The month is too long and dark for just friends, though. A master pumpkin carver draws more than visitors and inquirers. There are October nightmares out there that breed in the lonesome places, patches of the forest that people go decades without crossing. The dark is always envious of someone with a lantern but for the man who carves them, one by one? The dark can barely harbor all its hatred.

There are what appears to be half a dozen children on Jack’s porch and their pupils do not reflect the light. The clouds cluttering the sky are thin and dry. The gang on the porch look as if they’ve emerged from a place of constant rain storms and sudden chills. Their sweatshirt hoods draped over their faces. Dangling by their hips, from each one’s belt loops, is an old mask. A hand-painted assortment of jeering demons and goblins, pale witches and snarling mutants. Jack’s not fooled for a minute, but he plays along.

“I’ve got a bag of chocolates, if that’s what you’re after,” he offers. Jack isn’t afraid but, neither is the zookeeper, who must enter the reptile house to feed the venomous things one by one. You must never look away from them, even as you gather their treats.

The mask-less ones on the porch do not say the magic words. Their eyes peer beyond Jack, to the kitchen table behind him, filled with several pumpkins in the process of giving up their insides and secrets. “This where you tell me you want a trick instead?” Jack prompts. His grip on the blade’s handle threatens to tear through his calluses. A master pumpkin carver, while an expert with a knife, is not a master swordsman. His tricks and his wit are all he truly has, if the nightmares ever decide to cross the threshold.

“We’ve merely come to admire your pumpkins,” a thing that sounds and looks like a girl says. Their hands are all folded into the pockets of their sweatshirts, an intermix of black and grey fabric.

“Bit early in the season for that. Why don’t you come back in a week or two? Better yet, how about you go to Dougherty and check out their pumpkin light spectacular. Kid’s tickets are half off, I hear,” Jack says. Emissaries, half-wit showmen and organizers of all types, from towns across the state and even farther, have come to Jack with grand offers for him to contribute to their pumpkin shows. Problem is, they need those pumpkins by October first and that’s a deal breaker. There’s no magic in pumpkin carving during September. Plus Jack doesn’t want any of his loyal October friends to travel far in order to admire his work.

The not-children remain silent, swaying in the breeze, before turning around as a single unit and springing to life, scattering off in different directions like real children full of life. One child remains on Jack’s porch and his grim smirk falls to a frown. Immediately, Jack takes a knee. A little girl in a white dress stands before him. She had been purposely concealed by the loose forms of the others. She’s not quite a person anymore, but she’s not one of those hooded, seasonal devils, either

Her words are soft little dreams Jack has to concentrate upon in order to make real. “The kingdom requests a lantern from thee,” the little girl asks. Unwanted tears form in Jack’s eyes. Strong emotions are often a side effect of speaking to the dead. The kingdom she speaks of isn’t the fairy tale kind, not by a long shot.

“After all these years…” Jack can’t help but mutter. He swallows down a sob. “I will consider their request,” he tells the dead girl because he needs to think long and hard about what’s being asked of him. The demon children are petty nightmares, the kingdom belongs to those that herald the dark, and chain death back up after every meal. The kingdom belongs to the lords and ladies of October and they deserve to be forgotten and ignored until they send one of their lost slaves to knock at your door.

“They will know your response.” The girl turns and Jack doesn’t dare grab her by the arm.

“Wait…” he calls, trying to remember where he shoved the bag of chocolates in the kitchen. “Wait, take a treat. And the pumpkin, I can light it, it’ll be warm, they can’t make you rush back…” The girl ignores him despite his offers. October or not, the dead are busy up until that one day where they stop, wander, and cling to their lanterns. Jack watches the girl fade off into a wisp of grey as soon as she steps into the street. He slams his door, pounds his head against the wood, and sobs uncontrollably, riddled with convulsions of memory. Eventually, he takes a deep breath of fall air and gets back to work.