A Ghost Story
There he stands, smiling at me from across the barren field. I cannot help but smile back. In the gray November light the trees surrounding our desolate farm groan, their gnarled and naked limbs shuddering against the melancholy sky as the first breaths of winter stir the clouds.
Yet even as the trees utter their discomfort against the cold, I feel nothing. There is naught left in my being with which to experience cold, or exhaustion, or pain. My soul is empty, much like the barren expanse across which my friend, the only companion left to me in the world, waves to me.
And yet I cannot help but smile.
Once upon a time I could have claimed a reason for my inexplicable expression of mirth. Perhaps that spring, so many years ago, when I first met the woman who would become my wife. There, amidst a floral veil of petals that tumbled lazily from their delicate perches, I beheld her strolling down the path by the stream. Intoxicated by the sweet-scented breeze, we whispered our love for each other, our voices masked by the steady murmur of the swift-flowing water. Within a few months, we were married. I smiled a lot that day.
Or perhaps the summer of the following year, when that beautiful woman, now my wife, gave birth to our first and only son. What joy he brought us! On that warm day, when the golden sunrays bathed the emerald landscape in such a heavenly glow, my smile was so great it brought tears to my eyes.
My son grew strong, taking after the manners of his father, proudest and happiest of men, and when he was barely beyond youth he had proven his worth in working the farm. What pleasure we both took in laboring together in the fields.
But it would not last.
First came the plague, the storm of crows that blotted out the early autumn sky with madly flapping pinions and pierced the cooling air with torturous cries. Our crops were savaged, set upon by the ravenous flock of blackbirds, and the threat of starvation loomed over us as winter drew near.
It was then, in an effort to save what remained of our livelihood, that I set about creating my friend. He was a crude construction. From a frame of weathered wood, the remains of a fallen tree limb, I hung his clothes: a clean shirt, thick and long to keep out the cold, and a pair of trousers our son had outgrown. On the peak of the knotted branch that formed his spine, I impaled a hollowed pumpkin, carved with a wide thin smile and a pair of large round eyes, beneath which perched a tiny nose, just a small empty hole. Lastly I armed our new friend against the murderous crows, tying his sleeve around the long handle of an extra scythe, and charged him with the defense of our field. As I stepped back to let our friend do his frightening work amongst the shrieking fowl, I saluted him, and in the wind his loose clothing fluttered, his free sleeve waving in the noisy air, assuring me our crop was safe with him.
And indeed it was. I awoke each morning not to the din of the hungry swarm, but rather a few startled shrieks as one crow who ventured too close was chased away by the ghostly flailing of our guardian. Thus we were saved from starvation, although more grievous ills were soon to follow.
I recall during the harvest months that we made a few grisly discoveries amongst the rustling stalks. My son was gathering in the vicinity of our friend when he suddenly called out to me “Father, look!”
As I approached to see what had alarmed him, my son muttered sadly “Poor thing…”, and I beheld in the dirt a bloody mass of black feathers. The sight was shocking at first, but I was glad to be rid of the malignant creature.
We found several more dead crows hidden amongst the crops that first month, and my thoughts bounced between delight at their demise and a darker foreboding whenever I wondered what was responsible for the carnage.
After several weeks of harvesting, our friend was looking haggard. The elements had taken their toll, and little specks of light shone through his outfit where the fibers had broken down and left tiny holes in the cloth. His face, too, looked tired. His eyes seemed to have grown as the carved edges slowly curled inward, and his mouth hung open a little more as the aging pumpkin-skin weakened. But still he grinned, pleased to help us prepare for the coming winter. That frozen smile would be the only one to grace our farm for the rest of the harvest.
The crows were exceptionally vigorous one morning in October, and as I parted the curtains I saw a flock of them clustered around something—I could not tell what for the constantly shifting mass of black wings. I ran out shouting to scare them off, and as they fled screaming into the sky, I froze, for there before me was my boy lying face-down on the ground in a pool of his own blood, brown and muddied where it mixed with the dirt. His nightshirt was torn and crimson-stained where the carrion fowl had pecked at his corpse.
My grievous wail woke my wife, and when she emerged from the house my own cry was joined by the shrill scream of a bereaved mother. We hunted for our son’s killer until we were too exhausted to continue, joined by our neighbors as we desperately sought justice, but we never found a single clue to the identity of the culprit.
With a heavy heart I eventually returned to the harvest, for although the days seemed darker and life had become a form of constant torture, we needed the food before winter set in. What had once been for me a happy rewarding job now became a monotonous affair without the cheerful conversation of my lost son drifting over the field. My wife could not bring herself to face the day anymore, and most of the time she remained shut in our bedroom with the curtains drawn tight against the sunlight.
Our friend had grown ragged, as though our grief effected him as well. His clothes were tattered and dirty as they fluttered in the chilly wind and his face sagged. The mouth positively gaped, although it still smiled, and ugly dark spots began to appear against the paling orange flesh. His nose had grown as the edges continued to curl, so that it resembled the dark opening that occupies the center of a skull once the soft skin has rotted away. Still, he seemed happy as he gripped his red-rusted scythe to continue his duty to our grieving family.
Now that she was all I had, I could never leave my wife’s side. The harvest was neglected while we remained in the house, weeping over our loss, pausing only to sleep. That was the only time we ever had any reprieve from the horror of life, for in our dreams our son would return to us.
For the rest of the month we remained thus, until the night of All Hallows Eve, when we were awoken from our peaceful slumber by a soft knocking. It was a timid tap, almost as though the culprit were afraid of being heard. I found the noise immediately unsettling, but my wife, who had always held hope that our son’s killer would be found, leapt out of bed with unexpected energy and ran downstairs, murmuring as she went “Maybe they have news.”
There was silence while I waited for her to return. In that aural vacuum my skin prickled, the echo of that shy tapping still haunting my mind. If they had indeed found a clue concerning my boy’s murder, they would not have been so timid, or they would have waited until morning. And then, I heard my wife scream.
Even as I flew from under the blankets and made my mad dash for the stairs, I was disturbed by the sudden and utter quietness that fell over the house. Her terrified shriek had ended too early, cut off.
In the darkness I tripped, and with a mixture of revulsion and anguish I recoiled from the obstacle that had interrupted my path, struggling for traction in the slick, warm puddle that covered the floor.
So it was that some friends from a neighboring farm, come to offer their condolences for my son, found me the next morning huddled in the kitchen, staring blankly at the dead body of my wife.
That day the hunt for the killer was rejuvenated, but I took no part in it. I felt like an empty shell, as cold and empty as the corpses of my son and wife. So while the world hunted, I returned to my long-neglected field and worked mindlessly, tirelessly, not even pausing for meals or rest, not even when the sun set and I toiled in darkness. I could not go back into that empty house, so I worked all through the night and the next day, although my arms quivered under the weight of my tools, and night and day again, until the harvest of frost-ruined crops was finished.
And now here I sit, too tired to wave back at my friend. Any other man would recoil in horror at the sight of him, for his clothes are now shredded ribbons, and his pumpkin head, tilted crazily to the side on its rotting wooden perch, is so far decayed that his empty eyes have nearly consumed his pale face, and his skeletal jaw hangs loosely, dangling in the cold air.
But I, a man brought low by death and grief, can only smile at this image of decay. Very soon, I too shall look as he does. Already my strength wanes. Starved for food, water, and rest, my body crumbles.
I smile one last time in farewell to my friend, still gripping his rusted scythe, blood-red in the last light of the setting sun, and he waves to me, although there is no wind.