Sunday, October 29, 2006

Short Story: All Hallows Eve

Dedicated to a friend to whom I promised to write this story.
Happy Halloween CP.


An unusually biting October wind howled through the near leaf-bare Virginia trees. The northern gusts blew the branches to and fro while the ancient trees fought back against them. The thin upper branches dug their fingers in the deepening autumn sky as if to brace themselves against a coming maelstrom. The cold rushing air seemed to mockingly boast of its victory over the life that had thrived throughout the passing vibrant summer. The dried now fallen leaves scattered along the forest floor, rustling throughout at the whims of the victorious gusts of fall.

He stood at his post in awe of nature’s spectacle. The forceful roar reminded him of the crashing waves near his distant Massachusetts home. The noisy rushing air would make vigilance all the more necessary. Because of it, he would likely see Rebels approaching before he could hear them. Not wishing the enemy to see him, he sat among a dense grouping of scrub oak, propping his musket against the sturdiest of the bunch. The wind continued to toss around the tops of the trees as if God roughly waved his hands through tall fields of grass. He could barely hear the leaves crunching under his shifting weight as he sought a comfortable spot to rest.

Taking advantage of the last few moments of sunlight, he pulled out a small book and pencil. The diary, a gift from his sister, had the familiar outline of his first home stamped into the soft leather cover. He traced the borders of Ireland with his finger, thinking of his birth home, Kathleen, and the rest of his family. He hoped to see them all soon. Glancing disapprovingly at the dull pencil tip, he took out his knife and, with short quick strokes, sharpened the point. Upon re-sheathing his knife, he brushed the shavings off his pant legs, turned to a blank page, and began to write.

"October 31, 1863. We marched only 12 miles today. The days are quickly getting cooler and shorter. We did not see any Rebs today although Andrew says he heard they are near. We don’t expect a fight but are ready if one comes." Gazing around the dimming landscape, he could think of no more to write. This last day of October proved thus far to be typical and unremarkable.

Closing the book, he slipped the small pencil into the gap between the cover and the bound edge of the pages. He placed the diary back into his sack and glanced around his temporary realm. Darkness had begun to stake its hold on the woods. "October 31st" he thought. "All Hallows Eve." A sad smile came to his face as he thought of the celebrations now well underway in Ireland. He could smell the familiar food and picture the army of carved turnips decorating the neighborhood homes. The sculpted vegetables seemed somehow vigilant, knowing of their mission to drive away the lost souls said to prowl the earth this one night. His new country thought this a child’s holiday, nothing to which a grown man should devote any attention.

With a slight sense of defiance, he felt around in his haversack and, making a careful choice, pulled out a small but adequately round turnip he had saved for a meal. Unsheathing his knife, he carefully cut out the neck from where the leaves had grown and severed the thin taproot from underneath. Digging out and eating the inside of the hard fleshy bulb, he carefully left enough of an outer shell for his next task. Racing the fleeting day’s light, he finished the portions he would eat and began carving a small sufficiently sinister looking face. After some time and careful struggle with the solid bulbous root, he finished.

Setting the hollowed bulb on the cool damp ground, hidden behind the large tree against which he sat, he fished out of his sack the small remains of a candle. Trimming the wick to limit its brightness, he placed it with nostalgic reverence inside. Once lit, the lantern along with the carpet of leaves, twisted roots, and the chill air completed the picture. He sat against the back of his tree with his new companion and listened to the night.

After a time, with the air growing still, he heard the sound of leaves under foot. Quickly looking to his small sentinel, he snuffed out the tiny candle, feeling slightly foolish for providing a beacon to his location. He caught a slight whiff of the smoke that he could not see in the near complete darkness. Feeling for his musket, he straightened his back against the tree and listened. In a few moments, he heard it again, the sound of a step or two. He needed his visitor to make a few more sounds to be sure of his approximate location.

He reached for his musket and as quietly as he could, loaded one ball. Another crunch came from the darkness, this time in his front right. "So there could be two", he thought trying to take control of his rising anxiety. "Do the others hear them?" he wondered. Peaking around his tree, looking between two smaller trunks, he peered into the enveloping darkness hoping to glimpse his visitor. As the night’s drifting clouds unveiled the half autumn moon, he began to discern the faint outlines of the trees to his front. Still seated, placing his rifle aside, he waited.

With his back to the tree, the next sound seemed to come from in front of him. "What’s this about?" he questioned silently, feeling his heart beat faster. No one had passed him. Of that, he felt certain. The breeze that had earlier taken its rest, again awoke stirring the leaves on the ground and rustling those still clinging above. A frigid chill possessed the air. He shivered somewhat but paid little attention. His eyes strained to see through the chill darkness, casting about as he turned his head, desperately trying to make out some form or shape.

"There!" The word shouted in his mind. "I see him." He stared at a figure, not too far from him, standing between some trees only about 20 yards in his front. He wanted to call out, command him to halt, ask for the counter sign, but others may be close. To be safe, he would wait.

Several seconds passed, then a minute, then two. His visitor remained silent and unmoving. He thought of reaching for his musket but opted instead for silence. Surely, the bleak darkness hid him from sight. Finally, the figure moved. Starting slowly at first, he seemed to glide among the trees. His heart pounded harder. His eyes widened as he realized that now, he heard no footsteps. Not a sound came from the figure as it approached. As his eyes focused, he could see it moving towards his right. "The others will see him," he thought.

The figured passed by, about 15 feet away, without the slightest hint that he was there except for the outline of his form. He could make out none of the man’s features, neither his face nor his uniform. Strangest of all, he carried no musket. Looking back to where the figure had come, he saw another man, closer, and moving. Peering intently into the blackness, he noticed another faint form with him. They both moved, silently, closer than the other to where he sat against his tree. Telling himself he would demand they halt once they passed, he leaned back, breathing faster through his mouth, chest expanding, trying to stay quiet. Glancing to his left, he saw two more, closer still. His heart pounded so that he thought it would surely give him away. He feared the whole woodland could hear him. He tried to control his breathing. "What is this?" he demanded silently. Looking again he saw more, many more, coming towards their lines, silently all, and without muskets. He could not count them now, nor would he. Panic gripped him as he tried to make sense of figures gliding faster through the night making not a sound. He closed his eyes and, with his free hand, rubbed hard.

Upon opening his eyes, he recoiled back hard against the tree, rigid with fright. A man, no, something else, stood just a few feet in his front glaring at him. The menacing figure exuded a dark unmistakable hatred. Paralyzed, he sat motionless as it slowly yet deliberately reached out to him with both hands and, like a vise, gripped his head in a smothering grasp. He swung feebly at the figure, screamed aloud, but it did not move. Fear raced through him, consumed him, saturated every corner of his soul. He wanted to scream again but could not speak. He wanted to run but could not move. The powerful figure held him, seemed to blend with him, keeping him in place. Fear, anger, and hatred coursed through him as if thousands of tortured souls demanded the use of his body, his voice to wail their unremitting torment. Despite the pulsating vitriolic wrath, he sensed in the figure something else, something feeding the anger. He felt a deep undercurrent of crushing unrelenting sorrow.

Hosts of these figures now filled the dark woods, gliding faster, almost frantically, as if they feared not reaching their sinister destinations in time. None noticed him except his singular malicious tormentor. He gazed up at him and to his horror, saw the moon behind him, realizing he could see it through him. A volcanic rage possessed him, coursing from the figure through him. It gripped harder and leaned in, bringing its head to within inches. He could smell the foul wretched breath, the corrupt stench of death from so many battlefields and soldiers graves. The hideous, sulfurous smell threatened to consume him as its malevolence violated his very being. Yet he could feel them all, the countless souls in agonizing pain.

A voice, no thousands of voices screamed inside his head, unearthly shrieks that he seemed able to see, taste, and smell. The vile chorus howled in searing agony, the frenzied cacophony growing louder and louder still. Able to move his arms, he grabbed his head, tried to crush it between his palms, but the voices raged. He thrashed frantically in the air, yet the screaming grew. Able to speak he added his voice to the symphony of pain, flailing about in the darkness, begging it to stop. His hand hit against something at his side. Instinctively, desperately, he seized it and hurled it at the figure.

Like the sudden rush of air from a room, the woods instantly went silent. Not a sound reached his ears except the rustling of a few dry leaves. A faint autumn breeze softly caressed the slumbering landscape. Slight clouds drifted across a starry night’s sky. The figures had vanished.

On trembling legs, he stood, took up his musket, and peered into the darkness. As his eyes adjusted, he saw around him only the deep empty woods. An hour passed, then two. Not a sound echoed. Anxiety rose again. This time, he feared the punishment for sleeping at picket. He remained at his post alert and awake until the early November sun rose in the east, painting the tips of the trees with a warming orange light.

He said nothing to his friends, worried they would poke fun at his dream. With the boredom of winter camp looming, he did not wish to be the butt of a season’s worth of jokes.

As he walked through the woods with his comrades returning to camp, one of them stopped and looked towards his feet. Puzzled, the soldier lightly kicked what to him looked like a hollow skinned potato. As it turned over, he saw that it was a turnip, partially smashed as if thrown violently to the ground. He walked away swearing that, on one side, it had a face.



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jeff fioravanti said...

Excellent story Randy!

Congrats too on being listed int the latest edition of NOrth & South for best blogs about the Civil War. Well done and well deserved!

Happy Halloween to you and yours!


Judi said...

What can I say? This us a real...treat!

Randy said...

Hi Jeff and Judi.

Thank you. I'm glad you liked it. This was a bit of a different direction but I had promised a friend I would take a stab at a Halloween story.

Thanks for the comment on North and South Jeff. Much appreciated. I haven't seen the article yet but I'll be looking for it this weekeend. I hope there are some left.

Happy Halloween!