"Ee-yup," the Gaffer said, lighting his pipe with an ember and sitting back in his chair. "Them pumpkins will be ready to bring in this week, I reckon." He paused to lift his feet to the heat of the fire. The nights were growing colder and the rains had begun to come more frequently. He didn't need a calendar to know when it was time to bring in the harvest.
He looked over at his children. May and Sam were seated at the end of the small hearth peeling potatoes for supper. Little Marigold sat on the rug, sorting beans.
"I figger you young-uns will need to help with that this year."
"Me too?" Marigold asked hopefully. "I'm growin'!"
"Yup, that you are. You're all fine an' strong."
"But some of them are awful big-like," Sam put in. "Maybe the girls couldn't lift 'em."
"Girls are plenty strong. And I'm stronger than you are," May pointed out. Sam, knowing it was still true thanks to a tussle earlier in the day, wisely adjusted the scope of his comment.
"Well, Marigold isn't."
"She can get the little ones," the Gaffer said, sucking on his pipe. "An' there's the gourds too. The one thing that worrits me is you children might be a bit too skeered."
"Scared of what?" May asked cautiously.
"The darkness. It's mighty, mighty dark in a pumpkin-field."
"It's not dark!" Marigold corrected. She pointed a chubby finger at the small window where the dark-blue sky still showed a bit of light.
"'Tis at night. An' that's the best time to get the sweetest pumpkins."
"We'll go out at night?" May asked.
"I'm not scared of the dark. I'm not scared of nothin'" Sam said stoutly.
"Ee-yup. Pick all you can at night. Bring 'em in the next day. Sweeter that way, everyone knows that."
"I go," Marigold said, imitating Sam. "I not scared o' nothin' too!"
"Ye think so? That's my girl. We'll see, if it don't rain too much. Now finish up those beans an' taters, Daisy's waitin' with the broth."
Morning dawned fine and clear the next day, and all three of the younger children whispered together about it, wondering if they were going to be going out into the pumpkin field that night. They knew better than to nag at their Gaffer, but they were hopeful. He didn't mention it at breakfast though, so they all settled into their routine of chores, content to wait for another day.
It was while they were at luncheon that Daddy Twofoot came over. He and Hamfast went out to sit in the autumn sunshine while it lasted, parking themselves underneath the kitchen window on a couple upturned planters and stretching out their legs. The sweet scent of pipeweed soon wafted in puffs over the windowsill.
Daisy and Bell soon finished and began washing up, but May, Sam and Marigold all dawdled over their food, listening. They loved to hear the stories and gossip that Mr. Twofoot brought with him, and the warm cadences of their own father's voice in reply. This time, however, their ears were caught by a phrase that had been on all their minds: 'pumpkins.' They all leaned a little closer, shushing one another.
"…that's what I hear," Daddy was saying. "Them pumpkins are lookin' mighty fine this year, an' yours the best in the county."
"I was thinkin' it was time to bring 'em in. My Sam and the two lasses, they'll be helpin' with the pickin' this time. Might be a good pumpkin-night soon."
"Always sweeter if y' pick 'em at night," put in Daddy.
"Ee-yup. Darker the better."
"Though I done heard some strange tales of late, speakin' of dark. There's been somethin' sighted in the fields 'round 'bout here."
"What kind of somethin'? Foxes? Crows?"
"No, nothin' like that. Bigger, an' it's all black. Blacker than night. No critter, neither. It walks in the pumpkin fields, walkin' on two legs."
"A Big Person, y' reckon?"
"No, smaller than that. But it's all kinda hunched, they say. All hunched and moanin', and black, black, black. 'Cept for its eyes."
"Mebbe it's got achy joints. What 'bout its eyes?"
"What? Now someone's been payin' for too many ales for ye."
"Nope. That's what I heard. The eyes on the critter glow, like candle-fire, 'cept from its head an' not from no lantern."
"Whal, that ain't natural."
"No, it ain't. Only seen it at night, too."
"Strange doin's around here sometimes. Ee-yup."
They went back to puffing on their pipes. Inside the kitchen you could hear a pin drop. The children all looked at one another with big eyes, but none of them dared to voice what they were thinking. Maybe they wouldn't go out after all.
It was getting late and supper was over and done with when the Gaffer set aside his whittling and sat up in his chair, giving a stretch. "Whal, ain't gettin' any earlier! Weather was good an' clear today and now it's nice an' dark. Perfect pumpkin-night. You children go fetch your coats. It's time to go pick us some pumpkins!"
"But…" May started before remembering all she'd get was a lecture about eavesdropping on her elders. "Yes sir."
"I wish I was old enough to have a knife," Sam whispered to her as they shrugged their coats on and helped Marigold with hers. "You don't really think there's gonna be somethin'…?"
"No, it was prob'ly just Mr. Twofoot's ale talkin' like it does sometimes," May said bravely. "I'm sure it's just pumpkins."
"Come along, what's takin' so long?" Hamfast called from the door. "You aren't skeered after all?"
"Coming," said May.
"We aren't scared o' nothin!" said Marigold, holding Sam's hand. The three of them followed their father out into the night, glad to see he'd lit a small lantern to carry. The moon hadn't really risen yet and it was very dark.
They walked in silence, making their way down the lane to where the Gaffer and Daddy shared a plot of land with the other inhabitants of Bagshot Row. The stout gate was opened and they all filed through.
The children knew this field as well as their own small yard, they'd helped with the plowing, the planting and hoeing, but somehow this night it looked different and not friendly of familiar at all. The pumpkins sat in the darkness like sinister black lumps, sheltering underneath the snake-like tendrils and vines. A slight breeze made the leaves rustle and it felt colder than it ought.
"All righty," Hamfast said. "You young 'uns start pickin' the pumpkins from the vines over this way. Stay together so's you don't miss any. Jus' snap 'em from the vines. We'll bring 'em in when it's light."
"Yes sir," they chorused.
"Now I gotta go check on somethin', but I'll be right back. Go on now, get to work."
"Yes sir," they chorused again, less certainly as he picked up the light and began walking away from them, back toward the lane.
"Can we keep the light?" May asked.
"I need to see where my feet are," Hamfast replied. "All you need to do is feel out pumpkins. You skeered o' the dark?"
"No," they chorused.
"We aren't scared o' nothin!" Marigold piped, taking a handful of May's skirt.
The light bobbed away over the field and then disappeared as he went beyond the low rock wall. It was very dark.
"He'll be right back," May said encouragingly.
Sam didn't reply. He wasn't about to let his sisters see him be scared. He took one of Marigold's hands and guided it down the prickly vine of a nearby pumpkin, showing her how to find the place to break it off. "If they're too thick, I'll get 'em for you."
"I can do it myself!" Marigold protested, pulling her hand away. She squatted down and pulled at the pumpkin. "Sam?"
"This one is too big."
"All right," he said and snapped it off. They began slowly moving through the leaves, staying close together. Occupied with hunting down the smooth globes in the night they almost forgot their earlier fears, tracing vines, pushing aside leaves, snapping stems.
Until the moan.
It was an unearthly, drawn out moan that drifted over the field. They all sucked in their breath and froze.
"What was that?" May whispered.
"Jus' the wind," Sam said, but his voice trembled.
"Ooooooaaaaaaahhhhhhhh…" came the sound again. It sounded slightly closer.
"That's not wind," May said, her whispering voice trembling too. They all drew together and looked around in the darkness. "You remember what Mr. Twofoot said….?"
"B..but that was ale talkin'" said Sam. "You said so."
"Maybe it wasn't."
"Oooooohhhhhh," came the sound. "Aaaaaahhhhhhhhh."
Somewhere off in the field, something was moving. They could hear it coming their way through the leaves, pulling at vines as it came. Then they could see it, something black, shapeless and hunched. "Oooooooohhhhhh…."
"S..s..Sam?" May said, "There's somethin' there…" She took his hand. Marigold whimpered and clutched his other one.
The creature came closer. It lifted it's horrible, disfigured head and turned to look at them. The eyes glowed, glowed like fire. It was the most terrifying moment of their young lives. Each one reacted differently.
Sam dug his feet into the earth, let go of Marigold and grabbed up a pumpkin to defend his sisters with.
"Eeeeeeeeeeee!" screamed May. "Daaaaaaaa!" She snatched at Marigold and tried to run.
"Nooooo!" screamed Marigold who grabbed firmly around Sam's waist. "I not scared o' nothin!!"
Sam tried to lob the pumpkin at the horrible apparition which was still lurching in their direction, but May's lunge pulled Marigold who pulled him and the pumpkin thumped ineffectively to the ground, far from its mark.
"Get awa' from us!" he said, trying to sound unafraid, like you were supposed to with stray dogs, except his voice squeaked badly.
"Oooooohhhhh…. Eeee…hee hee hee hee hee…." said the creature.
They froze again at the odd noise. The black thing bobbed up and down like it was having a seizure. "Eee hee hee, ooh hoo hoo hoo hoo!"
It's head came off.
"Aaaahhh!" screamed May.
"Daaaa!" cried Marigold.
"Hoo hoo hoo," chortled the Gaffer as he pulled the dark tablecloth from his shoulders. The pumpkin on the stick rolled to the side and its candle flickering. "Oh, hoo hoo! Oh you shoulda heard you young uns! Ho, hee hee!"
"Da!" Sam protested, finally finding his voice again.
The Gaffer paused to wipe tears from his eyes, trying to regain his composure. "Oh, now I know!"
"Know what?" they asked.
"Know why my own Da did that t' me an' my sisters. Hoo hoo hoo… hoo hoo hoo…"
"But, the black thing…" May quavered. "the one that Mr. Twofoot said…"
"Yore ears always were a bit too big, hee hee… that'll teach you to not eavesdrop on your elders. Come on now, let's go home."
"But we need to pick 'em in the dark," Sam said.
"You're a good lad, Samwise. That was the job, but to tell you the truth, that's just ale talk. They'll be jus' as sweet in the daytime."
"No sir, they'll be sweeter."