“Jaxson Slone and Hygelac’s Bones: A Halloween Tale.”
Jaxson Slone sat beneath an ancient oak tree at the edge of the woods behind his house. Spreading branches above him creaked in the Halloween wind that ruffled his black hair. The moon road low over the hill, and Jaxson shivered. A pumpkin, one he knew could win the prize at the All Saints Day Fair, rested on the ground between his knees. Jaxson’s shaking hands lay on its smooth, orange rind. His pumpkin’s vibrant orange gave the only color to a world gone dull with fear. Jaxson looked around, feeling quite small, for he was sure that he heard the skeleton draw near.
“Never enough but always we manage,” he whispered, the oft used words of his mother, Emmaline.
“Never enough but always we manage;” she’d sing in her sweet voice. “We do without as our lot. Never a thought for the things we lack but grateful for what we’ve got.” It wasn’t proper grammar, Jaxson knew, but it was what kept them going in the small house at the far end of town, down the last dirt lane.
Except for this time. It was already cold. It looked as though the snows off the lake would come early, and Momma Emmaline’s shoes were mostly holes, and her coat merely sleeves.
Besides, there hadn’t been a pumpkin survive All Hallow’s Eve in Ashes, Ohio, time out of mind. Need pumpkin for Thanksgiving pie? Buy it in cans or grow it and stew it and can it in October, for there would be no pumpkins left by November first. By the dawn of All Saints Day, every Jack or Jane O’Lantern, every orange-rinded one of them in field, in stalls by roadsides, or in stores, would be smashed into seedy goo.
But this year, his friend, the only surviving city father of Ashes, old Rory Hanes, nearly as broken as Ashes, proposed a great prize for the pumpkin that made it: thirty-seven dollars and fifty-three cents would go to the owner of that pumpkin. And, true, it might be said that this same thirty-seven dollars and fifty-three cents came direct from Old Rory’s pocket and that he could’ve just handed it over to Jaxson’s mother, though that wasn’t in keeping with his way—nor Emmaline’s. Plus, Rory saw in Jaxson a hope or sorts, a hope for all of Ashes, Ohio. For Jaxson Slone wasn’t afraid of much, least of all work, like tending to a garden or looking after his mom.
For Jaxson, thirty-seven dollars and fifty-three cents was a king’s ransom. With it he would buy his mother a coat for the winter, and shoes. Coat and shoes would be second hand, but that only meant that Jaxson could get them readily. New, he’d need to send away for. Ashes only had a second-hand store. All he had to do was show up at dawn at the fair down at City Hall to collect his prize, which meant that Jaxson needed to keep safe a pumpkin until dawn, keep it away from the feet of the giant skeleton that roamed the town and countryside, smashing every pumpkin there was.
“On a spit of land that looks out on the lake, across town from where you live, there’s a big, old burial mound, a howe, the old men called it,” Old Rory had told him once, “where, long ago, folks brought with them from the old lands the bones of a mighty king. A Wonder of the East, those bones were called way back then, and, I ‘spect they’re a wonder, now, too, those bones of Hygelac, the bold. Nine and one half feet high, he stood, this killer of men, and they brought those hateful old bones here. Why? No one knows, but, to my way o’ thinkin,’ it was that that cursed Ashes. Can’t keep a factory or mill goin’ for the hate in this town. And every year since, what with angriness of folk getting’ worse, wars and rumors of ‘em, people willin’ to kill a brother or friend over an idea sold by mad men, more people dyin’—everywhere—things looked worse and worse. The badder times got, the fewer pumpkins would survive. I seen it, by gar! We ain’t seen a whole pumpkin after Halloween since before you were born, and I gotta b’lieve, if we did, why, things might change.”
Jaxson had been six when he’d heard Old Rory’s story. Now, he was ten, seven when the drugs took his father away, and things got harder still. Rory came around most days, just to help but mostly he just talked, ‘cause he was old and broken, like Ashes.
So Jaxson sang the song his momma taught him, “Never enough…,” went to school, grew vegetables, tended the house, took care of Emmaline and said his prayers. He’d stuff newspapers into old, drafty windows, and, with whatever paint or cement or plaster Rory found, Jaxson sought to make his home snug. Yet his mother walked away every morning in threadbare clothes and paper-thin shoes and worked as many hours as God sent. She cleaned the school and the small hospital and cleaned the homes of the few rich people who lived just outside Ashes. Jaxson had clothes enough left over from Rory’s long-gone sons, but his mother didn’t. This year, Jaxson vowed that she’d be warm, for he had grown a patch of the most beautiful, perfect pumpkins, too, and thirty-seven dollars and fifty-three cents would give his mother a warmer winter.
“Most folks, why they don’t b’lieve it’s that old skeleton as does it, but I knows it,” Rory went on one day while Jaxson weeded the garden. “Seen ‘im, tried to kill ‘im once, I did. Hit him with both barrels of a ten gauge. Turns out, you can’t kill what’s already dead. ‘Sides, he feeds on hate, old Hygelac does, always did, I reckon. Any place where his bones lie in peace’s bound to be cursed.”
“What happened when you shot ‘im?” black-haired Jaxson asked, his hands full of weeds. He stared at the old man in his tumble of a coat, hands in pockets against the growing chill.
“Kicked me like a football, down the length of High Street. Left me busted and broke, like you see me now. I told’em who’d done it, told ev’body, too, but no one said or did a thing. Ain’t no one comes to the All Saints Day Fair, neither either. Anymore, seems like folks just move away if they can or stuff their ears and bolt their doors come Halloween night, Sometimes, folks just accept the bad, can’t figure how to fight the evil that lives with’em, I reckon.”
Jaxson Slone knew that was right. He remembered his father.
So, Jaxson Slone listened and thought. He listened and thought a long time, all summer, carrying buckets of water half his size to the hard ground where his beans and ‘taters, and pumpkins grew. He was the smallest boy in his class and not about to get bigger any time soon. Little and weak can’t go against big and strong, he knew, but he could not, would not, stand to see his mother suffer with another Ashes winter. “Never enough but always we manage; we do without as our lot. Never a thought for the things we lack but grateful for what we’ve got.” He’d said those words over and over, like a prayer. Now, alone, beneath the oak, he wondered if all he’d done would be enough to save just one of his pumpkins, like the perfect one that he held between his knees.
The oak stood like a guard over his pumpkin patch, and though other kids had gone to town for Trick or Treat, Jaxson didn’t. He waited, guarding his prize. In his old canvas coat and shoes too big for his feet, Jaxson protected his pumpkin. He sat and shivered, watching the house lights go out, one by one, where folks shut out the noise of Halloween night and the death of the pumpkins.
The noise of wind in the dry woods behind him gave Jaxson dark thoughts, haunting him with the words “never enough,” telling him that he would not “manage’ a giant skeleton. Halloween night, which his mother would work through, grew colder. Now, from his spot across the fields behind the houses, no lights shone down the last lane on his far side of town. Everyone knew that the giant would come.
And come, he did. Jaxson saw him, striding over the fields, like a shuddering pile of animated stone. Pumpkin guts coated the long leg bones, clung to the shreds of burial clothes and clots of rusting armor. The skeleton of Hygelac pushed his way through a wall of thick hedge at the far end of the field and stood glaring at him. Though the orbs of his eyes should have been empty, for skeleton he was and near ten feet tall, Hygelac had eyes that burned with a Hellish fire that smoked and smoldered in his rotten skull. And though he had no throat or no lungs, he roared, a hateful, mournful sound that carried on the wind and worked its way into the heart, not through the ears. The sound of it near froze Jaxson’s blood, as though bone called to bone, and his were turned to ice.
“Jaxson Slone, I smell your fear and know you’re alone. Hygelac am I, a terror of old. Hate I bring to leave you cold. Your pumpkins, like skulls, I’ve come to smash. No matter your dreams, they’ll come to ash.”
The boy watched as the figure pushed trees aside. It moved in power, as though it had gigantic flesh and muscle, though all that clung to its bones were moldering patches of parchment skin and ragged armor that clanked on bone, making blacksmith sounds, hammering on rusted anvils. Jaxson thought that its rattling armor looked to weigh a ton, so thick it was and so huge. A veritable Goliath, he was, and Jaxson knew he was no David. Besides, the lessons of Ashes, Ohio had taught Jaxson Slone that for every David that conquered, there were hundreds who were smashed. Goliaths most often won in contests of violence, for the hate that drove them made them like to hurt, and everyone knows that hurt people hurt people. It’s all they can do, some, even when they’re dead.
Hygelac marched straight for Jaxson’s pumpkins and gave a wild howl of unholy glee. Up he jumped, high in the air and came down like thunder on the patch. Feet and fists, those gargantuan bones, smashed and bashed the pumpkins in Jaxson’s patch. Pieces of orange rind, juices, the stringy, seedy goo within each smashed pumpkin, sprang up into the cold night air, coating the Hygelac’s bones and armor, until, to Jaxson’s eyes, it looked as though Hygelac’s flesh returned.
So great was Hygelac’s might, that nothing was left of any pumpkin on the ground. Jaxson had to turn his head away, to see his work and care for his proud plants so ruined. Soon all that was left were vines, and those, Hygelac let flesh out his mighty arms and legs, so that he stood before the oak tree like the giant he had been in life, burning eyes staring at the perfect pumpkin under the boy’s small hands.
So Jaxson Slone ran. He picked the fourteen pounds of orange perfection and dashed past the skeleton that had fleshed itself out in hate. The boy never paused to wonder why Hygelac hated everything—but mostly pumpkins—so much. Jaxson could not take time to care. He just needed one pumpkin to survive the coming of the dawn, though his hopes looked lost in the ruined patch he left behind.
As he ran down the dirt lane, holding his prize, Jaxson thought of the words of Old Rory, who had given him the idea that made him think he might just win: “The old Irish folk, see, and them that live away over there on them misty, magical isles, call Halloween Samhain, and it’s the feast of the New Year, for them. When the sun goes down on Samhain night, that’s the end of the old year. The new year only starts with the risin’ o’ the sun, ya see? So, the barriers atwixt an’ between our world and the worlds of The Dead Folk and the Faerie Folk sorta’ thin out and bad things, creepy things, can sneak in and do mischief, though why they would, I don’t know. Seems people, by themselves, get up to enough of it, mischief, that is, on their own, without the help o’ the creepy things.”
All Jaxson Slone had to do was make it to sunrise with a perfect pumpkin and that prize money was his. The roaring of Hygelac was hard behind him; the clatter of his bones and armor with each thundering step, made Jaxson know for sure that there were no pumpkins left in Ashes, Ohio. In every yard, in front of the few shops, dead pumpkin ooze lay. Hygelac had saved his worst for the last, when he trompled Jaxson’s patch. So, Jaxson ran.
Now, Ashes had many empty, lonesome places, for its people had drifted away. Some might say it was to make money, but for all it was to get free, free from the wasting hatred that Hygelac’s presence brought, kept in his howe, at the edge of the lake. But before this night, Jaxson had scouted through town, looking for places he might hide, places that were near to falling down. The right push on a board here, a swift kick to a wall there, would bring ruined walls and arches down. These, he went to first, just steps ahead of the monster, hoping that falling bricks and broken walls would halt the giant skeleton.
And when they did slow the mighty Hygelac down, Jaxson Slone hid, when he could, but never in a place that didn’t have a way out. His arms were like lead by the wee hours, as he dragged himself from place to place, hayricks, barns, cluttered alleys, abandoned shops, empty houses, and always Hygelac found him, for the perfect orange of Jaxson’s pumpkin shown like a beacon that drew the skeleton’s ire.
“I know you boy, you Jaxson Slone! I taste your fear, for you’re alone. None can help you, to that hold firm. I smash pumpkins like skulls, you witless worm!”
But Jaxson dodged and ducked all that night through. Three times they went ‘round City Hall,where Old Rory would hold his All Saints Day Fair, leaving nary a table, or stall, or straight-backed chair. Jaxson stayed one step ahead, for if he slowed down, even a little, he’d surely be dead.
Slowly, with patience and cunning, Jaxson made for the howe, all the long night. He dodged away from the last shed that the rampaging skeleton burst asunder, tearing it to pieces in his rage. And Jaxson Slone, who was never really alone, made his way toward the dark water as the giant rampaged after him, certain in his power.
A hint of light grew on the eastern horizon as Jaxson Slone climbed the pitted sides of Hygelac’s Howe and stood with his pumpkin in his hands. Hygelac came on, bones and armor clanking, bits of shattered roofs and walls clinging to his pumpkin goo.
“Jaxson Slone, I am Hygelac the Great. Try as you have, my victory is complete. I’ll smash you now and grind your bones. With me, you’ll lie there, beneath my stones. Your worthless efforts can’t defy me. Now from my howe you’ll never be free.”
“You still have one pumpkin to smash, though, don’t you see?” Jaxson cried atop the howe, “and if you don’t get this one, you won’t get me!” and with as big a heave as his small arms could muster, he tossed his perfect pumpkin up and out, out over the water, where it landed with a splash. Hygelac’s burning eyes watched it sail through the air, and the compulsion of hatred, the hardest thing to break, drove him to leap after it. With a mighty roar, Hygelac landed, clutching hands first, grasping Jaxson’s perfect pumpkin, as the great mass of him fell with a fountaining splash into the dark waters of the lake.
Jaxson stood looking at him from the top of the howe, a smile on his tired face, for Hygelac thrashed in the water, his armor pulling him down. Jaxson didn’t laugh, though, even if he saw that Hygelac knew weakness in that moment. No, Jaxson hated for anyone to feel weak, or cold, or alone, though he had little true sorrow for the monster’s plight.
“You know that you could walk ashore, don’t you?” Jaxson called to the monster. “I dare say that you don’t need to breath like I do.”
“Yes… Yes I can,” Hygelac growled, as his boney feet found the soft bottom. He rose, then, his hands covered in the pumpkin goo. “Yet you smile, still, boy. Why? I have won. All the people fear me, hide from me, as they did when I lived. I smashed your perfect pumpkins, all of them!” Hygelac cried as he waded into the shallow water.
“But look behind you,” Jaxson Slone said and pointed at the sun rising over the dark water. Hygelac turned and the pure rays of the sun put out the fires in his eyes. Bits of pumpkin sloughed off his frame and floated on the water. Hygelac stumbled, and the water pulled at the weight of his armor and the mass of his bones. He turned to look at Jaxson Slone, his rock-tooth mouth open with sudden fear.
“And as for pumpkins, you missed one,” Jaxson cried. “For at home, under my bed, where I say my prayers, there’s an even more perfect one there, which you will never touch!”
Hygelac’s skeleton fell back into the water, the magic of Halloween night gone with the beginning of the new year and the new sun. Thrash as he would, the giant skeleton could make no headway in the water and began to sink.
“How did you beat me?” the ancient voice cried. Jaxson turned away and called back over his shoulder,
“Never enough but always we manage; we do without as our lot. Never a thought for the things we lack but grateful for what we’ve got,” Jaxson said, “and I got one perfect pumpkin left to take the prize.”