Written for the 2019 'SCREAMS!!!' contest, a story of 1297 words.
| The Pumpkin Patch
It was an important job and Noel was honored when he was given the task of overseeing the pumpkin patch. Mostly, it was a job that went to the older members of the community, those that had proved that they were reliable. But this year, Fionn was sick, Borro was away hunting, and Seamus had previously proved himself not one to be trusted. It might have been an appointment granted from a lack of choice, but Noel was determined to do a good job.
The weather had been kind, almost perfect for the growing of pumpkins. He still remembered a year when the rain poured all summer, only turning to the occasional shower once it was too late for the crop. The orange pumpkins had been pitifully small and few and the community had huddled together in one building for the night of Samhain. No one had slept as the shadows passed, as the moans broke the silence. Several attempts had been made at forcing open the door, but somehow, miraculously, it had held. Many had spent a night of terror, but none had lost their lives.
This year there had been showers, but there had been sunshine too, and the plants had not become waterlogged or their seeds washed away. There were plenty of the orange globes, big ones, too. This year, Noel thought, not only would there be sufficient to provide protection for all, but there would be some left for preserving. They would make a welcome addition to the always meagre winter rations.
Walking through the pumpkin patch, Noel assessed the benefits and the risks of putting off the harvest. Another week would add to their size, but Maebh, the wise woman of the village, had warned of approaching rain. If it was heavy, the crop could be devastated. He had one final conversation with Maebh, then announced to the gathered villagers that the harvest would be carried out the following day.
It was too big a job for him to carry out alone; he chose four of the womenfolk to help him. The men would construct a shelter for the crop to be kept in, protected if there should be an early frost, yet easy to get to as required.
The night was heavy with cloud and the moon was hard to find. The villagers ate their evening meal together, then drifted off to their own homes to sleep away the darkness. Not one of them saw or heard a thing.
* * *
The ground seemed to shudder, its movement becoming more and more pronounced. Whatever the cause, it lay deep under ground. If the moon had been bright it would have been clear to any onlooker that this phenomenon was exclusive to the pumpkin patch.
The earth heaved and the plants trembled. The pumpkins swayed as they hung there, helplessly waiting for what was to come. The wait was not long, for soon the ground raised up in to mounds, splitting apart to free a grasping hand.
As the mud fell in clumps, the arms were revealed to be rotted, in places no more than bone and sinew. The hands were not much better, but those bony fingers were strong, powerful in their grip. Pumpkin after pumpkin was plucked from it's stalk then pulled roughly beneath the ground. As the orange gourds disappeared beneath the earth, the surface of the pumpkin patch resettled into some semblance of normality.
Well before the sun's rays began to lighten the sky, it would have been obvious to any that looked that not even the tiniest of pumpkins had survived the night.
* * *
Noel was first to arrive. He could not believe his eyes, and as the reality set in his skin grew pale. How could this have happened? Where could the pumpkins have gone?
It was clear that they had not been gently harvested. There had been no neat clipping of the stalks, but a violent tearing. In some places, pieces of orange flesh still dangled, witness to the ferocity of the harvest. The ground was rutted and uneven, as though it had been churned by... what?
The neighboring villagers must have done it! That would explain the ruts and grooves, the ripping up of the mud, for they would have brought horses and carts. And yet, if that were true, they would know to be gentle and careful. It was a hard thing to harvest a pumpkin even with blade, but without, it would have taken almost inhuman strength.
Noel headed back to the village, arriving before the others set out. He explained what he had found, or tried to. He was unable to find adequate words to convey the true extent of the destruction, but all understood one thing - their entire crop of pumpkins were gone. They would have to face Samhain without their protection.
The neighbors would have to return what they had stolen, there simply was no other answer. Noel, Padraig and Malachai headed there that same morning. The three of them had not wanted to pass the pumpkin patch, to see the devastation, but there was no other route. Try as they did, not to look, their eyes were drawn to the now wasted land.
"Does look like a graveyard," said Malachai, solomnly.
"That it does, lad," replied Padraig, while Noel could only hang his head in shame and guilt.
If they had expected to find their neighboring village rejoicing, they were to be surprised, for instead they too, were in consternation. The same fate had befallen their own patch of pumpkins; if anything, from the shreds of skin and the drips of juice, the harvest there had been even rougher.
It made no sense. Further journeys ended with the same result. For as far as they could travel within a day, not one pumpkin had survived that night.
* * *
Samhain was rapidly approaching and all the villagers apart from the babes were becoming increasingly worried. How could they survive the night when the veil thinned, without those leering faces for protection?
Maebh had no answer, not for the entire village. She gathered herbs, burned some of the precious supply of salt to share out among the villagers. She thought hard and brewed harder, until a frothy mixture filled her pot. Once cooled she poured it across the threshold of each abode.
It would not be enough, but perhaps if she could convince the villagers to believe that it was, some, at least, might survive. Time dreaded has a strange ability to speed up, and it arrived as they all knew it would.
The night of Samhain when the dead would roam the land of the living.
* * *
As the villagers huddled together, lightning split the sky. The rumbles of thunder were so close that for a while they disguised the shaking of the buildings, the quaking of the ground. Doors that had been bolstered found themselves no longer fitting in the buckling walls.
Mounds of earth rose higher and higher until they split in a shower of mud and stone, often taking apart entire buildings as they did so. And from the mounds, bony hands emerged, rotted arms and finally shoulders, heads.
Bodies, or what remained of them began their unsteady march. Whether eyeless, or still retaining at least one eye in their heads, they knew where to go. The living glowed like homing beacons that would not be dimmed no matter how well they thought themselves hidden. Plucking them up and pulling the people, kicking and screaming, would be no harder than collecting the pumpkins.
Screams rang out from all around as the dead and decayed pulled themselves up from beneath the earth and began to make their very own harvest.