After the terrifying and perplexing events of Part 3, Valmora and Carbon have set off in search of a ghost who turns out to know a helpful thing or two... but who can help when you are attacked by a murderous flock of crows?
Watrous & Valmora: Further Tales of Pumpkinheart
The pair of them, Valmora the dethroned queen, and Carbon the talking cat, set off in search of this unhappy ghost. As they walk, Carbon explains how he is accustomed to seeing the spirit pass to and from a long forgotten water-well in a small copse near the barn. He suggests this would likely be a good place to intercept his travels. Thus, in a longish perimeter, they follow a questionable footpath into the shadows of trees. There they linger by the old ruins of the well as moonlight shudders in the breeze among a canopy of slow moving branches.
“I’m so worried about my little brother,” mourns Valmora as the minutes seem to pass on forever. And at that, Carbon decides to pick up the pace of his suggested adventure. “I’m not even sure the lazy fellow is awake,” he chides.
Carbon jumps up and nimbly balances on the old tattered wall. Being a somewhat impatient cat, he proceeds to scratch pebbled debris into the pit’s darkness. Valmora jumps as the tiny impacts echo loud and hollow. These then mimic the chills down her back when answered by a reverberating moan traveling upward out of the well.
“Ah, that’s got his attention,” Carbon chuckles, eyes glinting in the light as he glances back at the girl. He winks to assure his new friend there is nothing to worry. He then lowers his head into the darkness of the dank pit shouting “Helllloooo….llooooo….ooooo!”
In seconds a slow ribbon of thick murky air drifts upward in front of the cat’s nose. There is a moment where they touch as if the equivalent of a shy handshake. “Well, come on then,” says the cat rather flatly.
Slowly, with much moaning, there coalesces on the opposite curve of the well’s bricked wall a most miserable looking man. His hair is wet and long around his shoulders. His shoddy clothes drip, and the lost soul is devoid of any color, a bit like an old black and white photo. As he sits, his body fades in and out of the scenery like the quivery moonbeams, and Valmora is no longer sitting but instead observing all of this safely now from behind one of the trees.
The man shivers with head down. Slowly looking up, and yawning, he complains in a depressed voice, “I was taking a nap. What do you want? And when did you start talking? That is an annoying development.”
“Ahem,” the cat interrupts. “My good sir, I’m sorry to trouble you from your busy ghostly schedule, but something has happened tonight and we hope you might be able to assist us with your knowledge.”
The ghost groans again, and lowers his head, “I want to go back to sleep,” and starts snoring immediately.
Carbon lets out a high-pitched snarl that is actually a bit funny because he no longer sounds like a cat, but rather a human's poor imitation. He looks a bit embarrassed by it, but clears his throat and shouts in human-speak for the ghost to wake up.
The man lifts his gaze again and says, “Oh quiet. You are ridiculous with a human voice. I hope you lose that soon.” But before the cat can interject again, the man continues, “Did you say we need your help?” And he turns his head looking directly in the direction of young Valmora.
“Oh, you,” he glumly snips. “Well, you’ve certainly been busy mucking up the order of things,” and he groans in despair and disgust.
Discovered, Valmora eases forward and doing her best to regain a courtly posture, stands next to Carbon. “I’m really sorry,” she apologizes, not really knowing why she should. But regaining a sense for royal humility, she drops her chin due to his ambivalent scolding.
“Now see here…!” Carbon boldly interjects but the ghost continues on with an explanation.
“I was up earlier, and saw the whole racket. Pumpkins in distress... Gangs of crows roaming the air... Bats on full alert, and that fool scarecrow screaming at the top of his cankerous throat... What a racket! And then you had to go and get the witch involved on top of all that! Humans on Halloween! When will it stop?” And he moans and moans until the cat finally breaks in again.
“Sir, please, get a grip on yourself. My young friend is at a loss to explain these events. And from what she tells me, I am sure she has been tricked by the horrid machinations of this sinister witch.” Carbon moves in front of her in a defensive posture, ears down, and ready for a fight.
“Oh, whatever,” the wretched man drawls, “it’s no concern of mine. It’s been an exhausting night. And she’s not the only trick-or-treat brat getting into trouble. Earlier in the fields, I saw a little kid, by himself no less, dressed like a wolf, which is just asking for trouble.” He swats at a bug and creates a big wet splat of ghost plasma against the well’s crumbling brick. “And he found it too! It makes you glad to be a ghost instead of one of them,” he snuffles, “especially with what is going to come next…”
Valmora has been moving over to the other side of the well, nearer to the ghost. The news bothers her but she is braver now realizing this ghost is just a miserable spirit with nothing but nasty words. And so she isn’t going to let it bother her. She decides to take another approach and curtsies by his side. “Sir, my name is Valmora. I didn’t mean any of this to happen and I’m very sorry for it. I’m really just an innocent little girl, looking for that little boy. He’s my brother and I’m very worried about him. We all just want to return home, away from the strange world of Halloween.”
The ghost is brought to tears as he listens, and cries out, “Oh, you poor little child! This world is so terrible!” And he is again racked by sobs and buries his head into his chest. Across the arc of the wall, Carbon sits flat-eared and gazes disgustedly at the ghost. He will be very happy, he thinks, when the night is done and he can no longer converse in this language. But for now it all seems very important.
“Look here now,” the cat interrupts. He tries to be very even-toned with this overly dramatic apparition, “You’ve told us some very important things. You have been a great assistance to us. We just need some more details and we will be on our way. There is no time to lose. We are not ourselves ghosts yet, and cannot waste time! Someone is in trouble!”
The sodden ghost sniffles and calms himself. “You just don’t know. The whole thing is absolutely awful.” He snorts then continues talking, though it is punctuated by occasional phlegm catching in his throat. “From where I sat, safely hid in the fields, I saw your brother chased by crows. And the witch rose out of the corn and snatched him like a spider catches a fly.” He checks to see if the spider he swatted is dead. “And she sent him off in a net pulled by a murder of crows. I am certain he’s a prisoner of the witch.
“That was when the noise started. The scarecrow started screaming, and then the witch turned into a little old lady. She waited there until you came running to hand over the Pumpkinheart. Oh how could such a thing happen?” And he starts a whole new round of sobbing.
“Stop this now,” Carbon demands, “and shame on you for just watching events without helping! It is at least obvious now where to find Valmora’s brother, and we must go right away. But what is this Pumpkinheart? Is it important?”
The dripping man ceases to cry as guilt washes over his face. He takes a serious tone concerning the mysterious importance that engines these events. “The Pumpkinheart, The Halloween Soul, The Stone Fire of JOLs… call it what you want, but it’s the power that gives the Jack O’Lanterns their spirit. It’s the catalyst that once planted inside of the earth, engenders pumpkins with great magic as they ripen. Without this, pumpkins are just another deformed gourd. Humans will forget to carve them, and to light them, and on nights of Halloween future, the darker spirits will begin to run amuck on the earth. There will be no such thing as Jack O’Lantern flame to hold them at bay. The wilding demons that cross over from the nether world will have little to stop them from doing terrible things...” And he looks at the little girl and starts sobbing all over again.
“Valmora,” Carbon makes sure he has her attention. “I think we better be on our way! Perhaps we had best try retrieving this thing that you found at the farm!” At this she nods her head silently and earnestly. And with deliberately brief gratitude, the two excuse themselves, and turn back toward the dim footpath.
“Wait,” the nebulous phantom calls out. “There is a charmed spirit, a wizard of sorts, who will come to this farm tonight. He will return for the Pumpkinheart, to once again move it to another place. You must hurry. It must be here before he arrives, or I don’t know what will happen…!”
The pair nod and thank him yet again, leaving the ghost grousing and sobbing in the dark. They hurry off through the forest and back to the road, to start a long journey toward the cottage where Valmora first met the old lady, the now dark and treacherous witch.
Walking from the Kilkenny’s farm, the girl is quite nervous but Carbon assures and keeps close watch with his keen senses. As they travel, Valmora grabs the pieces of a frantic escape; she gathers her scepter, the crown and, in time, reaches the splatter of candy sprawling out around the tiara-topped cat-pail. She dawdles over a few pieces but, given the urgency of their mission, is content leaving most of the sweets strewn across pavement to meet their own ends.
In a few more minutes the traveling pair reach the trip’s halfway mark, the old school. The grounds are a mixture of barren well-tread patches of dry earth stippled with vigorous weeds. The architecture is a grim two-story brick building, of numerous past lives, sitting with windows boarded, doors planked, and all with colorful graffiti. As an eyesore, the school sits in limbo waiting for a decision - develop or raze.
They decide to take a shortcut through the playground and this is when the quiet journey ends. Something rushes past Valmora’s ear but in the darkness her anxious head spins and sees nothing. “What was that?” she asks, startled.
Carbon sounds a bit worried. “We’re being followed by crows,” he says. “They’ve been keeping a good distance so far...,” but before he can finish his sentence, one of the birds swoops past the briefly appointed queen, and knocks her glittery crown once more to the ground.
Valmora attempts to pick it up, but falters as a second bird flies toward her. This is countered with the not-so-courteous claws of Carbon as his lithe form flips upward to meet the bird mid-air, the crow jutting away before those vicious blades make contact. At the same time Valmora, without thinking, screams and runs for the shelter of a playset offering a place to hide inside metal tunnels. Carbon follows and quickly scrambles into an opening, into the dark, as a flurry of forms race back and forth across the entrance.
“We can’t stay here!” Carbon catches his breath and assesses the situation. Valmora stops not too many feet inside, afraid to crawl any further past a border of complete blackness; between the entrance and the darkness, she curls up into a ball. Carbon’s huge eyes peer past her. “But I don’t think it would be any wiser to go deeper,” he determines, having caught sight of the tunnels numerous twists and splits before they entered. “I think they would just catch us at another exit… so this must do for the moment until we can plan our escape.”
Valmora crumples and looks a bit stunned. “Will they leave us alone now?”
“I hate to say it, but crows are smart.” Carbon ponders. “We’re rather caged here. The witch couldn’t have found better allies than these cunning birds. At least they don’t seem to be getting inside, but I don’t think anything, even my claws, could stop such numbers.”
The crows are landing on top of the structure, where their talons skitter across the metal. Their beaks threateningly peck upon the ringing surface. A few more land on the ground near the opening and peer inside. With mean eyes, they squawk loudly in shrill chorus. And all of these sounds echo terribly through the cold steel tunnel.
Valmora grabs some of the candy remnants from her bucket and throws, but the birds are unperturbed. Avoiding the projectiles, the crows are intimidated only long enough for a less than curious peck. But they soon return, noisily as before, to the tunnel entrance.
“Just go away!” Valmora screams, but this has the same effect, and the awful birds begin their obnoxious ruckus once again. She sighs. “We’re stuck, even if we could escape to somewhere else like the school building. We’d be stuck there too. But it might be more comfortable...” She shifts about in the confined space.
Carbon bravely stands guard between Valmora and the tunnel entrance. His ears are flat from distress, his eyeballs huge, and he keeps glancing to the front and back. “We will think of something,” he assures her, but admits to himself that he has no idea how they will ever leave.
Valmora sniffles, “The witch has won. What will become of little Water…”
Carbon places a paw on her hand, “Is that your little brother’s name? I’m sorry I neglected to ask until now. It’s been such a crazy night.”
Valmora nods. “Watrous is his real name, but I call him Water from back when he was learning how to talk.
“This is all my fault. He didn’t even want to leave our own street, but I talked him into leaving the neighborhood. We would have never met that old hag…”
Carbon flexes his paw a few times in her hand to try and comfort her. “I will think of something. We will get your brother back, and correct everything. I just need to determine an escape from this current predicament.”
She sniffles and dries her cheek and, as captives, the two huddle there for some minutes with the cacophony of crows on patrol. The situation is truly hopeless, but at some point Carbon notices a change, as birds once guarding the entrance turn away with enraged squawking. And the crows on top seem even more obnoxious than ever stamping and pecking on the metal. Above all of this racket, something else, a long and loud irritated wailing sends shivers down Valmora’s spine and raises the hair on Carbon’s back.
As the two watch stunned, the birds directly in front of the hideout are suddenly struck by a wave of water that knocks them flapping off their feet. Their wings beat furiously, and one bird barely begins an attempt toward the safety of the tunnel before a wall of water carries it, and its cronies, out of sight. From above, the sound of a torrential downpour hits the metal, and the crows cease there too, their troubled squawking vanishing in the deluge. From the aftermath, the scene beyond the tunnel-view is steeped with dripping water and round puddles.
With tail flipping madly, Carbon stealthily creeps to the entrance and peers stunned. From the playground gate there is a smiling, self-satisfied specter approaching. It is the ghost of the well, the very ghost who has never been anything but a miserable, infuriating wretch.
“You!” Carbon yells out.
The smiling ghost grins wide. “Crows! Have I ever described how much I detest crows! But I had no idea how satisfying that could be! Just wait ‘til I tell the scarecrow in the pumpkin patch about this!” and he laughs which makes Carbon laugh too in great amusement and relief.
“You did it, my good, uh, man! You saved us!” Carbon announces. And Valmora who is now timidly poking her head out from behind the cat, also looks stunned at first glance of the new arrival. Yet she too collapses in contagious laughter and relieved exhaustion. The water-well spirit plops down with a squish into a muddy puddle.
“After you left,” he says seriously, “I thought about the extraordinary events of this night. Your voice... your new friend Valmora here... and most certainly the trouble that awaits you both..., and, well, to be honest there is something more I haven’t told. Last year on this very night, I spoke with this magical pumpkin fellow. He chose that pumpkin patch for a reasons not completely random. It was the energy of the place. He had found me there that night, and though it was unspoken, I became a guardian ghost of sorts - someone to keep an eye on things. But tonight, of all nights spent in my deplorable misery for which there is no cure, I roamed too far and failed the world of the Jack O’Lanterns.”
Valmora and Carbon listen to his tale punctuated with the dripping of water around them. And Valmora speaks up bravely, feeling quite gladdened by this rescue. In some ways repeating Carbon’s words earlier, trying to assure all three at once, she says very bravely, “Together we will find a way. Everything is going to be all right!”
However the ghost’s downward slide into depression is again completely at bottom by the time Valmora speaks such positive words. Despite her efforts, he is already weeping. And the wretched soul whimpers as he speaks, “Oh the witch has such dark magic. She has been seeking the Pumpkinheart for an eternity. Though there have been powerful charms keeping her from crossing over into the pumpkin patch, she now has the seed. She is not someone we will overcome very easily. It will end badly for…”
Carbon interrupts before he and Valmora are utterly dismayed by the dejected ghost’s change in attitude. “Sir ghost,” he assures with a tone of utmost authority, “we were completely lost here without your help. Valmora is right! With the three of us together, we will find a solution.”
The ghost lets out the oddest gurgle and argues, “Those horrid crows. I fear now that they are on their way to the witch, to snitch on our situation. She will be ready for us.”
“Then we have no time!” Carbon demands. However with a fastidious paw testing the wet ground in front of the tunnel, says sheepishly, “Valmora, let us find a drier exit than this, and be on our way! The house of that old hag can’t be much farther now.”
As they exit from another end of the playset, the gloomy ghost floats over to join them. And the three continue walking toward the road on the far side of the playground, toward that very road leading to a most terrible destination.
(to be continued...)
Stay tuned for Part 5 of Watrous & Valmora, where we discover that a dark and terrible forest can be less intimidating when conversing with a wise and helpful owl...
Tonight's story was brought to you by Bindlegrim - maker of fine vintage-style arts for the autumn season. We thank you for tuning in to this special presentation, celebrating the release of On Stranger Winds: Tall Tales for Shorter Days, (a book offering both light to dark writings of whimsy for autumn and winter), coming soon in both digital and print formats.