A Spooky Family Tale for Hallowe’en
As the evenings are drawing in we all tend to want to shut the curtains tight to keep the warm glow of a roaring fire inside and the gathering dark outside. The dogs lie curled up in front of the hearth, and maybe, if we are lucky, then Cook will make us up a jug of mulled cider, full of cloves, honey, and slices of apple from the trees in the orchard. Here we sit with a tapestry blanket over our laps, Mrs Crafty Dog and I looking like Darby and Joan, awaiting the knock on the drawing room door that is the signal that Higgins the Butler has brought in our steaming glasses of comfort.
However, on this particular autumn evening the knock on the door was a frantic one; it was Higgins, to say that there had been a “bit of a to-do” in the kitchen, and would we be so kind as to go down to help sort things out.
He couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell us exactly what was going on, all we could make out was that Pendle, that Lazy Gardener’s Lad, was involved. The Mrs and I just looked at each other and tutted – what the heck had he done this time? We were still recovering from him and his mentor the Head Gardener trying to “sail” one of the tin baths from the scullery across the fish pond. This latest adventure hadn’t ended well, and now Grout the Head Gardener was ill with a nasty cold and resting up in his bed, leaving young Pendle in charge (against our better judgement!).
We weren’t prepared for the sight that met us in the kitchen; Cook was leaning over the great Windsor chair beside the range (I say leaning, but as she is more round than tall, balancing precariously would be more descriptive), Alice the kitchen maid had a mug of something soothing (I could smell warm milk and nutmeg) which she was trying to pour into the young lad, collapsed (or more accurately, flopped like a wet rag doll) in the chair. He was ashen-faced, almost as pale as the milky drink that gathered round his lips and dripped off his narrow chin.
It took a good fifteen minutes of gentle coaxing to get out of him what had put him into such a state. He just kept saying, “I’ve never seen such a thing…” As you well know, that left a great deal to the imagination (he, after all, had led such a sheltered life before he came here to the Towers).
It was a little while before he began to warm up and calm down and slowly he started to tell his story. I’ll be honest, though there were five of us in the kitchen that night, as the young lad spoke, we could all feel the hairs on the backs of our necks rise, and cook even put a few more lumps of coal on the fire.
“I was coming back from the Potting Shed after making sure that Mr Grout’s contraption was all wrapped up safe for the night [This was his still in which he made his beetroot and ginger gin]….”
Beyond the Potting Shed (or Still Shed as Mrs Crafty Dog and I had rechristened it) is a large vegetable bed, and further on is the great orchard, in which there are some very ancient trees indeed. Grout has told me that he believes that the oldest apple tree may be as much as five hundred years old, and treats it with great reverence. We call her the Mother Tree, or Lady Apple, and once a year as spring comes, we pour a bottle of good cider into her roots to feed her for another year, and some of the locals come and hang ribbons from her branches. She looks such a well-loved tree, despite her gnarly branches and moss and lichen filled bark. Even now she is starting to bear mistletoe ready for yuletide. Sorry – I have digressed somewhat – back to Pendle’s story.
By the time Pendle had locked up the shed it was already getting chilly, and then he’d gone round the garden to close the cold frames and put sacking and straw round the roots of the tender plants. The sun was beginning to slip behind the hills and on the other side there was the bluey-white glow of the moon as it plucked up the courage to lift itself from its slumbers for the night to come. It was still light enough to find his way around so Pendle was not bothered at all. On the great vegetable patch were the rows of bright orange pumpkins (“Potiron” the Cook calls them as like Mrs Crafty Dog she, too, is of French descent), all laid out tidily in their own beds of straw and compost. Pendle as usual was whistling as he worked, unaware that the sun was sinking further down and the moon now coming up at a pace. With the growing cold, a mist rose gently from the fishponds, not a thick one to begin with, but enough to make it a little more difficult to make out the path edges, and Pendle noticed that as he whistled he could see his breath. Shivering a little, he pulled his jacket tighter about him. He closed up the gate to the south parterre, the one that keeps the sheep from the vegetable garden, and turned to make his way back up to the kitchen. It was now that he realised that it was darker than he had thought, and the mist was folding unerringly around him. Looking up the garden, the light from the kitchen window was a good two hundred yards away – he’d worked the wrong way, away from the house and not the usual way back towards the house. There wasn’t the faintest trace of a breeze but even so the mist seemed to be moving round him, not only cold but damp too. He stopped whistling to blow breath into his cupped hands to warm them up but as he did he froze stock-still; the song he had been whistling continued – there was someone also whistling, close behind him. He spun round – but he saw noone. He called out to ask if it was one of us or the household staff but just as suddenly the whistling stopped. He announced to the dark that it wasn’t funny, and turned to make his way up the path to the house.
He was now beside the vegetable patch where the pumpkins lay. As he walked past, a little quicker than when he’d gone the other way earlier, he saw that one pumpkin – the very biggest – was gone. He halted, annoyed that someone had stolen the greatest one, the one that he was going to take to the Clydach show to try and win a prize for the largest pumpkin. He glared around, though there was less and less to be seen, as the mist had thickened even more. He called out to ask who’d stolen his pumpkin, but there was no reply. He stood there fuming.
Now the whistling began again, the same tune that he had been. As he glared into the dark he could just make out some movement – something was rising from the ground out of the vapour – it was the missing pumpkin. Pendle’s feet were stuck to the path like they were stuck in some of Cook’s thickest suet pudding. The Pumpkin stopped at the same level as Pendle’s head, and he could see that a face had been carved into it, light glowing from its eyes, nose and ragged mouth, and it was not a very happy face either. The haze seemed to coalesce into the shape of a body below the pumpkin and the foggy legs began to walk out of the veg patch, and turn towards where the poor lad stood, transfixed.
Pendle felt his blood run cold as the pumpkin man strode towards him, whistling from his lipless mouth. Then the whistling changed to words, as pumpkin sang the song that they had been whistling. It was a reedy voice at first but by the second verse it was a definite song, sung by a stronger voice. The figure even swayed, and moved as if dancing, a very old dance, but definitely a dance. When it reached Pendle it bowed, and in its vegetable voice it said, “Good evening, sir. And what, pray, is your name?”
“Pendulous Sedge,” Pendle replied. He was freezing but could feel nervous sweat running down his back. “Sir. Who are you?”
The Pumpkin Man looked at him from his empty eyes, “I am the spirit of the gardens. I am the ghost of all the fruit, flowers and trees that have been and ever will be in this garden.”
Pendle bowed hesitantly.
“I mean you no harm, young gardener,” the Pumpkin ghost said. “Or rather, I may not. It all depends, you see. I must measure you up. Judge you, so to speak.”
“How’s that?” Pendle asked. He wished he could flee but his feet were rooted to the brick path.
The Pumpkin raised its foggy arms, and it had fingers, definite fingers, if more than a little claw-like. “You must be judged by all us garden spirits.” The pumpkin glared (if indeed a pumpkin can glare) at the boy. “Are you a good gardener? Or a bad gardener?” As he said that the fingers took the shape of talons, like some sort of eagle or maybe more like a weeding rake. Pumpkin called into the mists, to the plants and vegetables in the darkness. “Does he care for us? Or not?”
In the darkness there was rustling, as of leaves and stems, and of green leafy voices whispering amongst themselves. Pumpkin reached out and grabbed Pendle by the collar, pulling him closer. “Well?” he called to his misty jury. “Should he live, or should he be pruned?”
The night fell silent, and Pumpkin moved his talons closer toward Pendle’s face. The boy could smell earth, compost, mud and straw on the pumpkin’s breath, if he indeed breathed.
Suddenly a new voice, much stronger than the rest, a lady’s voice, commanded, “He is a good gardener. Let him be!”
Still gripping Pendle tightly, Pumpkin swivelled his head and looked into the fog. Another misty shape was appearing on the path before the Pumpkin, swirling and moulding into a long green dress, of green, gold and yellow leaves, and in the dress there appeared a tall lady with long brown hair, the colour of shiny tree bark. On her head was a small crown – like the tiara Lady Crafty Dog wore to formal events, but this one had golden shapes on it – small apple blossom flowers and apples themselves, also small and of yellow and red gold. As much as the Pumpkin was terrifying, the lady was beautiful; her eyes sparkled with light and joy and she smiled as she looked down at the terrified Pendle. “Don’t be afraid, young human. I’ll not let this winter sprite do you any harm.”
She tapped the ghost on his shoulder and he let Pendle go, turning instead to direct his wrath and darkness at her. As soon as he freed the boy, the Tree Spirit touched the Pumpkin on the head and whispered something. The Pumpkin let out a cry, and began to raise its misty arms with their razor claws against her but the cloud quickly dissipated, and the body drifted into nothing. The Pumpkin looked both annoyed, and surprised, then dropped to the floor and rolled back into the vegetable patch.
“There! He’s gone,” she smiled at the still terrified Gardener’s Lad.
“Thank you, my lady,” Pendle bowed and touched his forelock.
“That’s alright. The dark spirit of the gardens can only appear on this night, all Hallow’s Eve. You’re safe now. You should be careful to be out after sunset on this day.”
“Blimey – I forgot,” the boy shook his head. With all the worry about doing his best for the sick Head Gardener he’d entirely forgotten it was Hallowe’en.
“I’ll leave you now, you are free to go about your business. Make your way to the house, and don’t be feared about the Pumpkin man or the Garden’s Ghosts. They have no power the rest of the year, day or night. Good evening.”
“Lady, who are you?” Pendle asked, bowing again.
“I am the Lady Tree, the spirit of the Old Apple Trees in the orchard. I watch over you all, you and old Grout. You are good gardeners who treat us all well, as have most of the gardener’s here – we remember them all, we garden folk, from us great trees to the smallest blade of grass, we remember the gardeners back into time before there were even gardens. You and Old Grout honour me every year and in turn that respect is felt by all the trees and plants around you. Now you go – you’re feet are free!”
He turned and, bowing as he went, fled up the garden. “Here – something for Grout!” the Lady called to him and threw something. Pendle caught it and put it in his pocket as he ran up the garden path to the house where he banged loudly at the kitchen door, where Cook let him in.
That brings us to where we now stood around the flustered young lad flopped in the Windsor chair. The milk and nutmeg had made him much better, and he even managed a wink at Alice the Kitchen Maid (Mrs Crafty Dog saw that!).
“Are you sure that’s what happened?” Cook asked him. Pendle nodded vigorously. As he did so, something fell from his pocket. It was a lovely golden yellow apple, unlike any we had in the orchard. He held it in his hand, admiring its colour, and shine. It appeared like any other apple, though Pendle knew that it held a little magic, that could help his master get better.
“That’s for Mr Grout,” the young man told us. “ It’s a present from the Lady.”
(Characters and story Copyright Chris Dignam, 2021, reproduction permitted within reasonable use)