PUMPKIN The round, edible fruit of a trailing vine, pumpkins are a symbol of fertility. Dead spirits are invoked by the pumpkin when faces are carved into it, and it is lit from within. The spiral of life is represented by the pumpkin; the harvest brings death, but the seeds bring birth.
In October, Nan does all the expected things. She sets the unlit jack-o'-lanterns on the porch, knowing they will be thrown to the ground, their pulpy flesh split, smiles broken, eyes torn; she fills the wooden bowl with bags of candy and turns the porch light on, though no one will come begging. "We live so far out in the country," she'll say to Bay, who sits with her legs crossed easily beneath her at the kitchen table. Nan wonders when the flexibility of youth left her so entirely that she must sit with her feet in the old clogs, planted firmly as a Quaker's, on the floor.
They eat the candy bars, gummy worms, and chocolate chip cookies by candlelight, talking awkwardly about the change of weather, Bay's school projects, the news from town, stopping in midsentence and midchew to listen to a car slow in front of the house, its occupants shouting something unintelligible, before speeding down the road.
"Why are they so stupid?" Bay asks. "Can't they see you're not evil?"
"Not everyone thinks witches are evil," Nan says.
Bay rolls her eyes and bites into a Butterfinger. "No one calls you a witch as a compliment."
Nan sighs. She should have set things right years ago when Bay came home from second grade in tears because a classmate accused her of living in a haunted house with an old witch, but Nan was so pleased with the benign accusation she only said, "What a silly child. Not everyone is smart like you are, Bay."
Nan thinks that if she could go back to that day she would change her response. What is the term they use lately? Teaching opportunity? Yes, she could have used that moment as a teaching opportunity had she not been so distracted by her relief that she lost focus. Sadly, this seems to be a theme in Nan's life, as if she's always suffered from an untreated astigmatism.
"Do you smell something burning?"
Frowning, Bay shakes her head.
Nan closes her eyes against the scent of Halloween bonfires, remembering herself as a little witch, running down the dark street with her friends, Mavis dressed as a ghost, Eve as a fairy, and Ruthie, her fat legs churning beneath the orange pumpkin costume, struggling to keep up.
"Goodness, what is it, child?" Nan says, immediately regretting the harsh tone of her voice.
Bay shrugs one shoulder, a gesture Nan finds maddening though she can't say why.
"I just wanted to make sure you were okay."
"It's good you called me back," Nan says, trying to make things right. "I believe the fairies took me away for a while."
She pretends not to notice Bay sulk further into her chair, as though even here, in the privacy of their kitchen, Nan is an embarrassment.
Well, Bay is fourteen now, that age when the company of her own kind is greatly preferred over spending time with her old mother. In fact, Nan had expected Bay would have a Halloween party to attend this year. Nan was not adverse to the idea of spending the night removed from Bay's censorious gaze, with a glass or two of pumpkin wine (truth be told, not her favorite, but if not tonight, when?).
"What are you talking about?" Bay asked when Nan mentioned, in passing, her plans. "Are you trying to get rid of me?"
Well, of course not! Nan couldn't imagine. Why would she want to do such a thing? Bay is the light of her life, the joy of her soul, the rose of her garden, the spice, the sweet, her heart, her great love story arrived at an age when Nan thought she would never have one. So what if the child has been difficult lately? She is a teenager, after all, and some difficulty is to be expected.
Now they sit at the small kitchen table, their faces flickering in the candlelight, pretending not to mind the silence that settles between them, the heavy loneliness of no longer knowing how to talk to each other.
Bay goes to bed first, her lips smeared with chocolate, wormy bits stuck between her teeth, sugar blossoming on her tongue. She does not, in fact, sleep, but sits at the edge of the bed, listening for her Nana's footsteps creaking up the stairs. Bay waits until she hears the distressing sound of Nan snoring before tiptoeing down the service stairs into the kitchen, still scented of candle wax and chocolate, to the front of the house, where she peers around the curtain to watch through the dark glass.
When she was younger, Bay never recognized the tricksters, but in recent years, she has. Some are no surprise at all: Chad Lyle, Darren Prost, even Kelly Madden, just the sort Bay would expect to cause trouble. Last year she thought Wade Enders was with them, though she couldn't be sure. It made no sense, after all. Wade wasn't a boy known for what he did in the dark, not then at least, though there are rumors about what he does now with Shelly. Bay can't help but wonder what it would be like to be kissed by Wade Enders.
It is so late when they arrive that Bay thinks even the moon has been swallowed by the night, though later she realizes this is the sort of thing her Nana would say, rather than admit to clouds. Bay is both disappointed and pleased that he is not with them. She wonders, as she watches Chad, Darren, Kelly, and some freshman whose name she doesn't remember, if Wade is with Shelly tonight, maybe parked down the road in Wood Hollow, the nearly deserted subdivision behind Bay's backyard, close enough that she could walk there, though her Nana has warned her against the nettles and poison ivy that grow wild in the forest. Bay is not allowed to go beyond the two weeping apple trees, their twisted limbs barely visible through the tall grass and overgrown lilacs. She has no interest in spying on Wade and Shelly anyway, fumbling for buttons, zippers, and lace, tearing into each other's costumes. Instead, she stands hidden behind the dark glass, watching vandals curse at the smashed pumpkin that explodes with the water balloons she stuffed there. By the time she crawls back into bed, Bay is content with her Halloween celebration.
Having tossed the pile of clothes from the bedroom chair to the floor, Nan wakes in an uncomfortable posture to the sound of little criminals beneath her bedroom window. She waits for them to depart, then listens to Bay tiptoe up the stairs, a tradition of sorts these past few years. Nan can't believe she fell asleep when she is supposed to keep watch as she has every Halloween since Bay's arrival, guarding against ghosts. She uncorks the wine and pours a glass, taken somewhat aback by the pungent, overripe scent of pumpkin. The taste is pleasantly sweet, and after a few sips she barely notices the odor, replaced as it is by the rosemary scent of memory.
Life is what you remember, Nan thinks, remembering the scent of dried leaves, apples, and smoke, recalling that long-ago Halloween of her youth, when Eve wore her pink-dyed First Communion dress. Layers of scalloped lace poufed around her skinny legs and arms; the fairy wings glimmered behind her face with its pointed chin and almond eyes spaced just a little too far from that button nose, giving her the pleasant appearance of a kitten. How happy Eve was, spinning down the dark street, waving her wand at the houses, the gardens, and the moon.
Mavis, however, was annoyed. She thought that the Amazing Mr. Black was stupid. "Who cares about dumb magic tricks?" she said, her hand on her white-robed hip.
"Oh, I don't know," Nan said. "I thought that thing with the rabbit was neat."
When Mavis rolled her eyes, the whites of them in the midst of her white-painted face gave her the look of a real ghost.
Nan wished she had not agreed to take this route. She promised her mother they would come straight home, but Mavis insisted they walk past the graveyard, making fun of Nan, Ruthie, and Eve when they said they didn't want to.
"Hey, wait for me!"
Nan frowned at Ruthie, with her flushed face beneath the green stem cap, almost a perfect circle, her cheeks bright red. A pumpkin face on top of a pumpkin face, Nan thought and bit her lip. "You got chocolate on you," she said, pointing to the corner of her own lips.
Ruthie's tongue explored the perimeter of her mouth until it touched the smear. She smiled and wiped her cheek with her finger, which she sucked before asking where Eve had gone to.
Though this was decades before the epidemic of missing children, Nan remembers the stab of fear. She remembers thinking, I am going to be in such trouble, before Mavis said, "There she is," her white-gloved finger pointing.
Eve was so far down the street she really did look like a fairy waving her wand, unaware she'd left the others behind.
They all saw the figure step out from the dark, looming over her, and then bending low, as though whispering in her ear. They saw her take half a step back. Was it a trick of the night or something else? When she turned toward them, it is as though the space between was an illusion; Eve's eyes in that moonlit face were wide and beseeching.
"Come on," Mavis said.
"Come on," Nan said to Ruthie, and they ran behind Mavis, whose white sheet twisted around her legs but did not slow her pace. By the time they caught up, Eve had stepped aside, and Mavis was talking to the man, not a stranger at all, but Mr. Black himself.
"Oh, I doubt that," she said.
It was shocking, really, how bossy Mavis could be with some adults.
"Well, hello, little girl," Mr. Black said. "Maybe you can help me? I seem to be lost."
"Hey, you're Mr. Black!" Ruthie shouted, so loud Nan worried someone would come out of one of the houses lining the other side of the street to see what the noise was all about.
"One and the same." He bowed deeply.
Up close he was very tall, very thin, and missing a tooth Nan hadn't noticed when he was onstage. He was also older than she'd thought, his face lined with wrinkles, though his hair was quite dark.
"Where's your rabbit?" Ruthie asked.
"Oh, Bella? Bella? Well, she's not any ordinary rabbit, you know."
Mavis made a noise, a grumbly sort of cough, enough to cause them all to look at her, standing there with her hand on her hip.
"Look, mister," she said, "I doubt you know anyone from around here, and we're not supposed to talk to strangers."
"Well, that's where you're wrong," Mr. Black said.
The previous Halloween there had been a marionette show at the Legion Hall, and Nan thought Mr. Black looked a lot like one of the puppets. He even moved like one, as though his wrist, elbows, and head were pulled by strings when he turned to face her.
"Witch Winter?" Ruthie said, again too loud. "She's Nan's neighbor."
"And Nan is..." Mr. Black looked around, though Nan had the odd feeling this was some sort of game, that he already knew all their names, but how was that possible?
"She lives next door to me."
"She's not really a witch," Mavis said. "That's just something little kids think."
"We're going to sleep at Nan's house tonight," Ruthie volunteered, giving no indication if she realized Mavis just insulted her. "You can come with us."
Rolling her eyes at Ruthie, Nan noticed they were standing in front of the cemetery gate, with its black spikes pointing to heaven. Eve must have realized the same thing, for she had taken off again, running as though her wings were on fire. Ruthie made the sign of the cross over her pumpkin chest, which caught Mavis's attention. She frowned at the stone angels and dark tombstones, but continued at her usual pace. Nan walked beside Mr. Black, pretending she didn't care about the graveyard. It didn't take long. It was not a very big town, and there weren't that many dead people yet. Eve waited for them in front of Old Lady Richie's house, her rose garden in autumn thorns.
"You're a very fast little girl," Mr. Black said.
Eve turned away without answering, waving her wand as though creating the night.
"She's not mean," Ruthie whispered, "she's just sad 'cause her Mom is dying."
Mavis told Ruthie to shut up, while Eve continued to wave her wand in wide, slow arcs, like a weary fairy pointing at the moonlit houses, the cracked sidewalk, the dried leaves.
"Mr. Black?" Ruthie asked.
"Speak up. I can hardly hear you."
"Where do you get your power?"
Mr. Black laughed so hard and for so long that Eve turned to watch. Nan felt bad for Ruthie. It's just how she was. She asked stupid questions. When he finally stopped laughing, they continued on their way-Eve waving her wand, Mavis taking broad, unghostlike steps, Nan and Ruthie walking on either side of Mr. Black-until Nan noticed that Ruthie looked like she might cry and crossed over to hold her small hand, which was sticky and warm.
When they stopped in front of Nan's house, Mavis pointed her ghost finger at the one next door, the porch covered in dried vines and dead flowers, the carved pumpkins on every step flickering candlelight grins.
"She lives there," Mavis said.
Mr. Black bent until his face was so close Nan could smell his breath, which was surprisingly cotton candy. He lifted his hand in front of Ruthie's nose, his bony finger pointed straight up.
Nan followed the line from crooked nail to the moon. "You get your power from here," he said. She looked down just in time to see him touch Ruthie's lips with the tip of his finger, which made Nan feel funny, like she'd seen something bad.
Nan suspects her little-kid mind, full of Halloween excitement, makes her remember it like this, but she always pictures him standing and turning away, losing his human proportions like a figure drawn in black crayon on the silver night. She remembers watching him walk up the stairs to Miss Winter's house, almost disappeared sideways; the great door creaking open, a cackle of laughter from the other side, the enchantment broken by her mother's voice.
"Nan, what are you doing? Where have you girls been? Do you know how late it is?"
Nan was distracted for only a moment, but by the time she turned, Miss Winter's door was closing, creating a draft, which blew out every pumpkin grin, and splashes pumpkin wine on Nan's hand, startling her back to the present, sitting in the uncomfortable chair, blinking at the dark.
Nan inhales deeply, steeling herself against the pain of moving stiff bones to set the glass gently on the floor beside the open bottle. At seventy-eight, she is too old for sleeping in chairs, too old for raising a teenager, and certainly too old to be afraid of ghosts. But what can be done, she asks herself, as she has so many times before; what else can the guilty do but fear the retribution?