I think they call it an imprint. When something real tragic happens, they say it leaves an imprint on the air and that sometimes when folks come by it replays itself. Like a moving picture. I reckon maybe the people in the tragedy leave a bit of their soul there. I think maybe that’s what I am. A bit of a soul. And I replay when someone comes and knocks on this stone here.
Mighty nice of you to come. No, no, don’t leave. I’d have to come up there, and it ain’t so easy to climb up through six feet of dirt. ‘Specially when you ain’t got no head.
Well, I’m using yours, of course.
We got some time before the Squeaker comes. You better hope the Squeaker likes you.
I said don’t leave. It ain’t like I can’t hear what you’re thinkin’. You got no reason to be scared nohow. The Squeaker’ll probably like you, and if he don’t worst that’ll happen is you’ll lose your head. It happened to me and I lived. Well, after a manner of speaking.
Now, sit down and I’ll tell you the story about how I lost my head. We got time.
My momma died when I was real little. I don’t remember her too good. So it was just me and my daddy on the farm. We didn’t have much, but nobody else did either.
The day it all started, the sky was so blue that I thought maybe God was holding his breath. And maybe he was. Maybe he didn’t want to smell the devil. But I’m gettin’ ahead of myself.
I was sittin’ in the yard, making lines in the dirt with a stick. We’d just finished bringing the corn in the other day, and I was nigh dead on my feet. But Daddy didn’t allow no laziness, no sirree. I still remember Daddy’s voice clear as anything. It’s funny, what stays with you down here in the dark. He had a voice like a preacher man, did my daddy.
“Boy, take a mess of corn down to Jessup’s farm, see if’n he’ll buy it. And tell him the pumpkins’ll be coming up soon, if he wants any of them.”
Now, you did what my daddy said or you got a nice thick oak branch taken to your backside. So I threw away the stick, jumped up, said “Yes sir!” and went down to the corn crib.
I don’t rightly know how long I been down here. I bet that old corn crib ain’t even standing now. It sure was a thing of beauty. I used to like to sit in it when it rained and listen to the pitter patter of the rain drops on the tin roof.
Weren’t no rain that day. I can still see the little bits of dust floating in the patches of light coming through the chinks in the wood. I picked up an old basket we had hanging from a nail in the wall and put some of the corn in it.
I thought I told you! No leaving! I know I ain’t got to talk much ever since I lost my head and I ain’t too used to the social graces no more, but can’t you stay and listen to a poor old man talk? I will come up there! You want to listen to the story, or you want me to hold you down ‘til the Squeaker comes?That’s right. We can be nice and civil about this. Ain’t no call to be making me haul this old body all the way up there. My left knee is jiggly and loose and I don’t want it to fall off.
Now, where were we? Let’s see, I was telling you about the corn and taking it over to old Jessup’s place.
Well now, the Jessup place was about two miles from our farm, through some woods. If you’ll turn around and look back behind you, so I can see…thank you kindly. Through those woods. They look different now, though. Looks like loggers been through there. Shame.
So I set off through the woods, swinging my basket of corn and feeling pretty full of myself. It was a big thing, getting to go through the woods alone. I was just old enough to be allowed to do it. Every once in a while I’d put the corn down somewhere safe and climb a tree, see how high I could get, and then jump down. Wonder I didn’t break my leg.
Back in those woods a bit there’s a little stream, with a two foot waterfall. Prettiest spot you ever did see. I stopped there for a while, sitting against a tree, watching the water.
I must have gone to sleep, because suddenly I was sitting there and the sun had got low in the sky and there was a chill in the air. Soon as I realized what happened I jumped up, scared all to pieces. The corn was right there in the basket where I’d left it on the ground. I picked it up and ran through the woods to Jessup’s place.
When I got to Jessup’s they’d just eaten supper. Their house is most likely gone now. It was bigger than ours, but then they had five littl’uns. They had a dog too, a right pretty blue tick hound, that set up to barking when I came in the yard. Jessup came out to see what all the ruckus was.
I don’t have a lot of time to think about it, ‘cause I can only think sometimes when people like you come and knock on my stone. But every time I get to think, I remember how he looked out at the woods and the setting sun. Like maybe he knew something.
He got the hound dog to calm down and I held out the basket of corn to him and told him what my daddy said. He gave me two dollars for the corn, and he said he sure would like some of my daddy’s pumpkins when they was ready. Daddy’s pumpkins was known all over the county, and they made the best jack-o-lanterns come Halloween.
Jessup looked out at the woods again, and I remember his forehead wrinkled. He said, “You be careful getting home. Ain’t no tellin’ what’s in those woods after dark. I heard tell of a ha’nt out there that scared old man Badgett half to death the other day.”
Now I didn’t believe in that nonsense, but I didn’t tell him that. I said “Yes sir, I sure will be careful.” He went on back into the house and I turned around towards the woods. It was just about twilight. I can still picture the trees, all black against the orange and red of the sunset.
I heard the hound dog whining and the Jessup children yelling and carrying on, and I wanted to turn right back around and ask them if I could stay there, with the warm yellow light in the windows and the smell of the ham and chitlins they’d had for supper. But I had to go home and face my daddy. I knew he’d be angry as all get out, what with me being so late. I just had to hope the two dollars would help him calm down.
So I went on into the woods. The stars were starting to come out and there was just enough light to see where I was going. It was real quiet. Only noise I heard was my own footsteps, crunching through the leaves and sticks and what all. I wondered a bit why I didn’t hear no katydids or crickets, but I was more worried about what my daddy would do to me when I got home.
I’d gotten about a mile into the woods when I saw the little flickering light. I thought maybe my daddy had come out with a lantern to look for me. I started walking faster.
The light kept coming nearer. It was bobbing up and down. And then I heard a sound. It was like a faint whine, broke into tiny bits. Little squeaks.
I still thought maybe it was my daddy. He had just got a new pair of shoes, and maybe that’s what the squeaking was. So I kept walking towards the light. It got bigger and brighter, and the squeaking got louder.
Then the light had got so big and bright that I knew it weren’t no lantern, and the squeaking got so loud that there was no way it could be my daddy’s shoes. I was so scared that I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t believe in ha’nts, but I couldn’t help but remember what Jessup said, about old Badgett. I was trying to decide if I should keep going or go back towards the Jessup place or what, and I couldn’t think ’cause the squeaking was so loud, and then the light was on me.
It was a scarecrow. The head was a pumpkin, a jack-o-lantern like the ones folks made out of my daddy’s pumpkins. ‘Cept this pumpkin was on fire. And the mouth was wide open, and the squeaking was coming from it, so loud that I thought my ear drums were gonna burst.
I dropped the basket with the money and I broke out running. I didn’t care where I was going, as long as it was away from that thing. Vines tore at the legs of my pants and tree branches whipped me in the face. I ran as fast as I could, with my lungs burning and my throat aching. I think I was screaming.
Finally I ran out of the trees. I didn’t hear any squeaking, so I stopped for a second to catch my breath and look around. I’d gotten all turned around and I’d come back out at Jessup’s house. There weren’t no lights in the windows, no kids playin’. The house was silent as the grave.
I stood there for a bit, just breathing, trying to get my heart to slow down. And then I heard it again. The squeaking. It got louder and louder.
I ran. I ran back to Jessup’s house. I didn’t see the blue tick hound, and it didn’t come out to bark at me, even with all the noise I was making and the squeaking coming up behind me. I yelled for help, but didn’t nobody come to the door. I banged on it with all my might. One, two, three times. Nothin’. No one came to help me. No one.
The last thing I felt was the heat from the burning jack-o-lantern.
Next thing I knew I woke up inside somebody else’s head. That thing had taken mine and was using it for its own, since its jack-o-lantern head had gotten all burned up. But my head didn’t last it too long, since it didn’t have no blood or nothing to keep it alive and fresh. So it needs new heads every once in a while, and that’s what I do. I help it out. Didn’t nobody help me, so now I got to help the Squeaker, forever and ever.
Thank you kindly for knocking on my stone here. It’s been real nice here in your head, telling you my story. Sure do wish I could help you.
Ain’t no use in running now. Can’t you hear it? It’s coming.
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.