The Great Old Pumpkin
By John Aegard
25 October 2004
You must know, Doctor, that I did not choose to seek psychiatric help. I have no faith that I shall exit this room a healed man; I know now that I have been destined for the asylum since childhood. No mere conversation with you can steer me clear of that fate. That said, let us proceed with this court-compelled farce before my mad prattle provokes your crabbiness further.
As you are no doubt aware, I am the issue of solid Dutch stock—the prosperous Van Pelt family of St. Paul. Mine was a comfortable and happy childhood, and I spent much of it in the devoted service of the Great Old Pumpkin. For him, I cultivated an annual pumpkin patch—mostly Autumn Gold and Big Max, as I thought he would find the Atlantic Giants tacky. I also evangelized him in the community, relating the tale of how, every year on Hallowmas Eve, the day when the spiritual most strongly encroaches on the substantial, this mightiest of gourds would rise to revel across the world with the most sincere of his adorers. My neighbors were understandably skeptical; after all, not once had this superbeing ever chosen to grace my pumpkin patch or any other place in our town. I vowed that I would coax him into my backyard, and I set out in the manner of a learned man to discover how I might do this.
This quest led me into mouldering libraries, cramped basement antiquaries, far-flung correspondences, and, on one occasion, frightening and persistent telephone conversations with a lunatic in Boston. The last raised alarms in my family. I promised them I would turn away from my studies, all the while resolving to continue them in secret. I committed everything I knew to memory, burned all my papers, and embroidered my most unfathomable and precious secrets in near-invisible thread on my security blanket, which as you can see, I carry still.
My continued investigations led me to certain grim texts detailing eldritch and macabre sincerities—chants, autosacrifice, sinister configurations of pumpkins—which would bait the Great Old Pumpkin to my patch. On the Hallowmas Eve of two years ago, my investigations bore fruit, so to speak. I believe that I saw him—orange, flaming, and magnificent, hovering above me for an instant and then vanishing skyward into the constellations.
Having tasted this small success, I knew that I could not simply sit and await him, but that I must seek him out. Thinking that such a search would be better conducted aloft, I decided to hire an aeroplane. My modest allowance raised complications, though; it took me eleven months and three weeks to save up a sufficient sum. With that money jangling in my pocket, I struck out for the aerodrome and asked after a pilot skilled in night reconnaissance. The mechanics there—diminutive, jaundiced fellows—directed me to a small French-themed café alongside the airstrip.
There, I met my pilot. He was a veteran of the war, with a characteristically large Gallic nose and sharp black eyes that peered from just underneath the seam of his leather flying cap. He nursed his root beer silently, his manner that of the haunted serviceman, and let his two friends supply the conversation. On his left sat a pretty French girl, whose eyes were completely obscured by heavy spectacles. On his right sat a chattering yellow fellow—kin, by his looks, to the mechanics in the hangar.
I approached and sat down with them to explain my business.
"Sounds dangerous, sir," the French girl said when I was finished.
The pilot's small yellow friend warbled at us in a strange language—Aramaic, perhaps.
The pilot waved away this concern and nodded at me, indicating he would accept my contract. We set an appointment for dusk on the eve of Hallowmas—only five days distant—and I left him to his friends, leaving, as a gift, a jug of root beer.
On Hallowmas Eve, I found at the aerodrome a scene of reassuring efficiency. Mechanics fluttered over my pilot's machine—a Sopwith model that was, like him, a veteran of the war. They poured it full of fuel and castor lubricant and fed long belts of brass cartridges into the breeches of its Vickers-guns. I was surprised that we would be going armed, but after a moment's thought, I was again reassured; an attitude of constant readiness befitted my pilot, as a man of action and a daredevil.
The crew chief noticed me and I was instantly incorporated into his bustle. He and his fellows boosted me into an observer's cockpit that had been cut into the fuselage behind the pilot. In their chirping Aramaic, they intimated to me that I would need some kind of headgear, so I wound my security blanket around my head and face in the manner of a Bedouin tribesman. Over this arrangement the mechanics snapped a pair of goggles, and I felt snug as one of the Vickers-gun's chambered bullets.
My pilot appeared then, climbing a ladder and vaulting into the Sopwith. I skritched him on the head to indicate my readiness, and without delay he barked out the order to start his engine. The aeroplane chugged to life, instantly suffusing the air with a hell-hot mixture of castor oil and petroleum vapors. The pilot's silk scarf flapped before me as we bumped off of the grass and onto the airstrip, and within two hundred feet the Sopwith was aloft and headed for Eau Claire, where one of my correspondents maintained a very sincere pumpkin patch.
The Sopwith climbed swiftly, and soon we encountered the first layer of clouds. The air grew wet and unsatisfying and utterly dark save for the flames jetting from the Sopwith's exhaust ports. Unaccustomed to the altitude, I dozed until a sudden roll to starboard jerked me awake.
I sat up in my seat, searching the skies for whatever had drawn my pilot's interest. We had emerged from the clouds and into a supernaturally clear night, with all of creation spreading out in a great inverted bowl around us. And before us, just this side of the horizon, was a faint orange glow upon the clouds.
Within a few minutes the speedy Sopwith had overtaken the glow. My pilot descended until our landing wheels were skimming the orange-suffused clouds and then began to circle slowly. My watch said we had been in the air for fifty-five minutes. We were approaching the limits of our safe endurance. I closed my eyes and prayed that my quest not have been in vain, that I be allowed to see the Great Old Pumpkin, and as I whispered the last beseeching word, I heard my pilot yelp.
There, not more than a thousand yards off our port wing-tips, was the Great Old Pumpkin himself, ascending from the clouds as smoothly as if he were borne by a Manhattan elevator. He was as magnificent as I had imagined; his stem rose majestically from a creamy orange body of heartbreakingly perfect radial symmetry, and bountiful vines streamed behind him like hair from Botticelli's Venus. My eyes were suddenly wet with tears, and I realized that I had reached one of those measuring-lines by which we gauge life's progress, that all days after that one would be ineffably different from those that had gone before.
We came out of our turn and headed directly for the Great Old Pumpkin. I suddenly remembered my camera, stowed on the floor of the Sopwith's observer cockpit. I bent to retrieve it, all the time keeping my eyes riveted on my subject—which then whirled and presented its face to us.
The camera fell from my nerveless fingers and into the clouds below as I beheld this blood-curdling horror. Instead of friendly cross-eyes and gapped teeth, into its wide orange visage were sawn jagged spirals of alien script, and though of course I could not read the glyphs, simply witnessing them was enough to understand their meaning. They dragged my mind away to their subject-places, each of them impressing upon me a cavorting pageant of despair and rot. Worse than that was what lay behind those awful incisions, for instead of a candle or (for safety reasons) a lantern, within the Great Old Pumpkin burned a queer kind of furnace that was tended by thready, murmuring minions. This furnace emitted not light and heat but rather madness, and with horror, I realized that its emanations were not illuminating the clouds, but rather that the clouds were fluorescing under them, just as a squid will fluoresce under certain radiations.
I shrank from this dread emission, pulling my head down into the observer's cockpit. My thumb instinctively found my mouth, and I clutched my security blanket, which had escaped my head somewhat. I sought to reassure myself with a familiar chapter of the Gospels. "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled!" I shouted to myself. "And there were shepherds out in the fields. . . . I bring you good news of great joy that is born this day in the city of David!" But of course, it was useless; the madness shone through our fuselage as if it were air. I felt my mind changing, unraveling as I bathed in it. Certain parts of my psyche withered to dust; others swelled like an autumn squash. My very essence was reshaped as was the Pompeii of antiquity.
Time ran strangely in the thing's proximity. It seemed I had lived ten years before my ordinarily quick-witted pilot reacted. I can imagine no more pitiful response than the one he chose. He drove us directly at the thing and reached for the triggers of his Vickers-guns. Their sound was hollow and faraway, and their flashes mere sparks before the luminous glory of the Pumpkin.
"Dive!" I screamed at him, but that sound was lost with all the others. My pilot's gloves seemed to have frozen on the machine-gun triggers. We crawled towards the terrible thing, spitting impotent tracers. I slapped my pilot's shoulder, and this finally galvanized him; he ceased firing and nosed the Sopwith over, sending us plummeting beneath the thing. One of the threadlike tenders glanced over its shoulder at us as we passed the lowermost incision. Then, from somewhere in the ventral portions of that awful fruit, came a response: a white-hot hail of eldritch fire that lashed us and drilled pumpkin-seed-shaped holes in the Sopwith's wings and fuselage.
Our engine's tenor suddenly became uncertain. My pilot shook his fist and cursed our enemy, then we plunged into the coal-mine black of the clouds. I was strangely calm as we fell; the sudden, smashing death from a high-altitude crash would be a small toll to pay to escape the grasp of that dread orange being, I knew. The worst horror, though, was yet to come.
The pilot reëstablished control of the plane just as we emerged from the clouds. For a brief moment my sense of self-preservation reasserted itself, and I was flooded with relief, but then I saw the sight that ended my life as a normal man and ushered me into true understanding: beneath us, in all the fields of Wisconsin and Minnesota, stretched a starfield of pumpkins, their luminous orange faces turned upwards towards their god, their mouths wailing mockery of all civilized life. My pilot could not resist this damned noise; he also howled tribute skyward.
The sound overwhelmed me, and I slumped feebly in my seat. I have no further memories of that night; somehow my pilot must have regained enough of his senses to fly us home and put me in a taxicab. I awoke in my own bed at sunrise the next morning. The orange stains and pumpkin-seed holes in my security blanket testified that my awful adventure had been no mere dream.
I will admit that sometimes, I feel a temptation to seek out the Pumpkin again and perhaps learn more for the experience. This impulse is the only lunatic thought alive within me. The cyanide-laced candies I have mailed to my correspondents, the jars of petrol I have flung into the antiquaries and museums, the shootings at the aerodrome café—these are the actions of an eminently sane man. You see, Doctor, while I cannot claim full knowledge of that sinister gourd, I know this much—we cannot risk another encounter with him. If some fool shall call him up again, he shall be no more kind to us than the plow is to the anthill. The only record of my foolish pursuit that I dare allow to survive is my precious security blanket. I have embroidered upon it certain spells and rituals which I hope will serve as a bane to him, so that he will be unable to approach this world. You confiscate it at your peril.
Yet these good-hearted efforts may still come to nothing; still, his servants campaign in the neighborhoods as I once did. Not long ago a cherubic boy came to call on me to tell me of the Great Old Pumpkin. Since then, I have made it a practice to keep my household firearms loaded and in convenient proximity to the front door.
So that is my story, Doctor. I see you leaning over your plywood desk, ready to dispense your wisdom, to say the words that will cure me and free the world of one more mad menace. But before you speak, consider this! To truly heal me, you must reform the cosmos itself. Your words must leap from your mouth and cascade across the universe, undoing all of the uncaring, unfathomable things that lurk outside our cozy cave of a planet. Can you do this, Doctor? Can you? I see the fear in your face. Come, what say you?
"Stay out of stupid pumpkin patches, blockhead. Five cents, please."