During harvest season in the town of Chervale, one can understand the superstitions that have arisen to explain its agricultural fertility. Fragrant concord grapes weigh on trellises, engorged gourds swell in the grasses, and McIntosh apples are collected in bushels. It is a strangely quiet hamlet and one can almost hear, or at least sense, the fecundity of its soil. Its richness has been known at least since the Palatines were granted asylum to settle there by the tribal mothers of the Haudenosaunee, who took pity on the hardships they had faced in Germany and then in the region of the Hudson River. They were permitted to farm and live in that verdant valley. The soil was known to be rich when the Palatines arrived, but old stories attribute its potency to a disaster that came long after that.
Who can say this fertility did not come from the blood of innocents that was spilled on the soil, that entire community slaughtered by angry Seneca and Mohawk working with the British? Who can say that this abundant life is not the result of the death that inspired George Washington to have Sullivan scorch the earth behind the Iroquois fleeing to Canada, never to return? Death begets life and life begets death. Perhaps that is blood edged on the yellow maple leaves of fall. Perhaps the exceptional darkness of the beetroot and sumac in this valley is truly sanguine. The autumnal colors in the surrounding hills have here a more crimson hue than elsewhere, and at the right time of sunset, for a brief moment, all is illuminated in a roseate light. Rational explanations of these phenomena are absent.
Pieter Van Kahler settled in Chervale with his wife several years after the massacre. He and Sophia started a farm and were fairly self-sufficient. The young couple grew mostly corn, potatoes and rutabaga. They had an old horse and a young goat for milking. They were neither prosperous nor poor. He and his wife worked hard, but lived well. And he adored her.
They expected to have children, but after a few years on the farm they did not, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. Sophia, though wanting a child, accepted the concept of a childless life gracefully. Over those few years, she gradually decided it was God’s plan, becoming somewhat relieved of the responsibility since work on the farm was exhausting and her poor Pieter would have had to do even more if she was busy with child. She was too pure a person to think that the burden of child in addition to farm work would be a strain on herself.
Pieter himself never belied his disappointment, because his disappointment was not so much that they didn’t have a child, but that he was worried about his wife’s happiness. He believed that she must have felt inadequacy and shame since she was infertile, and he remained outwardly positive because he didn’t want her to suffer any more than she had. He was incorrect in this thinking since they were childless due to his narrow urethra. So, he stayed the strong and supportive husband and toiled side by side with her in the fields, and at times took the rifle and the horse for a few days and returned with venison and turkey. They had meals of perch and potatoes, rabbit and rutabaga, and watched the sun set together, marveling quietly in those brief Chervale moments of roseate illumination that must have been God’s work. Who else’s work could it be?
One autumn afternoon, Pieter was hunting a few miles from their farm when he spied a cotton tail a few yards ahead of him on the edge of a field. He raised his rifle quietly and saw the rabbit down his sights as it raised its head, mouth munching, to look around. When he shot, the animal somersaulted from the force of the bullet. As he picked it up, fresh, warm blood dripped from the hole in the rabbit’s ribcage and onto Pieter’s boot. He grabbed an exceptionally large leaf and broke it from its vine to wrap the rabbit before stuffing it in his game bag. He realized this leaf had the same tactile, ciliate hairs of a squash plant and he investigated further. He pushed, scraping through the immense tangle of vines and discovered a gigantic pumpkin, one larger than he had ever seen before. It was sagged to the side like a rotting apple, but firm and fresh, a yellowish orange with a spattering of wart-like growths across its side. It was the size of a small boulder and too large for him to carry. He marveled at its size and shape. Since it was impossible to transport, he found a sizable rock to break it apart. After much trying, he returned home with a decent slab and many seeds that he was sure to plant in the spring. That night his wife cooked the gourd’s flesh with butter and brandy, and the rabbit was delicious.
The following spring, Pieter planted his pumpkin seeds and watched them closely. He marked the location of each cluster of buried seeds with colored sticks in a clearing behind their barn. Eventually, only one sprout emerged and he was careful with his cultivation, fertilizing the already rich soil with the innards of fish and the offal of fowl. To his credit, Pieter was an exceptional farmer, and he might have been referred to as a horticulturalist if there had been such a designation in those days. When the orange flower buds began to yawn widely on their dark green stems, he was sure to hand pollinate each one. When infant pumpkins began to swell on the vines, he chose the largest and healthiest one to save and pruned off the rest. Useless branches of vine were cut away and soon his lone pumpkin began to grow exponentially through the season. He did not let the growing of this pumpkin take him away from his regular work on the farm. It was a pet project and he wanted to make it a gift to his wife, proving his capability as a farmer. By late September it was more than twice the size of the pumpkin he found while hunting the year before. When it was time to harvest, with the help of a neighbor and his mules, he hauled it to a strategic point in front of his house to present to his wife. And she adored it.
The night he presented her the pumpkin, she was ecstatic. When she saw it out from the brush and vines and so immense and prominent in the short grass in front of their home, her eyes went wide and she laughed with genuine surprise. When she congratulated Pieter with a hug and a hard kiss to his cheek, she had a youthful blush he hadn’t seen in years. Some of her hair was loose and hung like tendrils of silvery gold. She even climbed up and sat on it laughing! That night and during the following weeks there was so much intensity in passion Pieter was sure her problem was solved and she would have a child within the year.
The following winter was a long one. They didn’t want for food as their stores were sufficient, but they endured a few blizzards and the snowpack was high. Another storm at the end of March brought another two feet of snow and the rains of early April brought flooding to the region. The creek at the back of their main field dammed with detritus and water inundated the property. Their home was safe, but it took a long time for the water to recede and a longer time for the land to become farmable again, causing a late start to their season. Stress began to show in Pieter’s normally cheerful eyes. The length of the winter, the annoyance of the flood, the barrenness of his wife: all weighed on him heavily and he started thinking in that way that people do which is misguided and unhealthy. He started to think he was being tested by some greater force and was failing.
Many believe winter is the toughest season, but really it is spring. Food stores are lower, yet the land is still barren and lifeless. The trees are gray and empty and even though the air may be warming slightly, it is as cold as death. That spring was even longer to Pieter than the previous winter and he spent a lot of time on his own wandering the countryside. It was still too early to plant, so he’d wake just before dawn and walk and think. Spring means another year of toil is coming. Toil and work can be satisfying in its own right, but he began to ask himself: why? Year after year, the same work, the same results and what? Another year older, another year closer to death, another year of bloom and richness so it can just die and germinate again the next year, until one year he or his wife will simply be gone forever. He lived the life of plants, the life of seasons and years and now that he was getting older, he was beginning to understand its futility. He realized then that that was why he needed a child. The child is the man regenerated. The child is the reason. He was being tested. He knew suddenly that his purpose was to give his wife a child, to sow himself from her and he was not going to fail. He was incorrect in this thinking because life does not have a purpose and he had a narrow urethra.
Eventually, the temperature became favorable, the cold rains slowed and they were able to resume the work and life they loved. Pieter, though, had a plan. He planted his pumpkin seeds again and would grow the largest pumpkin one had ever seen, and his wife, subsequently, would be even more fertile that fall than the previous year. They had come so close and he had almost fixed her. This harvest he would succeed.
He repeated his procedures from the previous year, marking the seed clusters and hand pollinating the pumpkin flowers. He enriched the already potent soil with the chopped innards of fish and fowl even more than the previous year, and when the infant pumpkins finally began to grow he spared the largest and healthiest and pruned the others. He carefully removed unhealthy leaves and daily saw to the maximum health of the overall plant. But during this process there was more urgency than the year before. His attention to the chosen pumpkin became intense, paranoiac. Woodchucks and rabbits, which previously had been pests, were now malignant spirits which were shot, trapped and clubbed. As time wore on, he worried about opossum, raccoon and deer at night. He began to neglect his other duties and his wife as well.
By mid-August, Sophia was beginning to be concerned for her husband. He always seemed distracted and distressed, so much that they barely spoke. When they worked together in the field he would look back over his shoulder towards the patch near the barn, muttering and exhaling dramatically. She was concerned, but not worried. This behavior was no different than her father’s, who barely spoke to her mother, unless he was enraged about something, and that wasn’t even speaking. Pieter was a much better husband to her than her father was to her mother. Pieter was kind and cared for her and if he was going through a period of difficulty, she would let him work through it as he always did.
As the pumpkin grew, so did his mania. He weeded the patch constantly. He fertilized the soil with horse manure and goat droppings, but that wasn’t enough for him. The rich soil of Chervale and the nutrients from the flood were not enough for him, and neither were the putrescent innards of small animals. He wanted that pumpkin to grow. When his wife was absent he would dig cat holes around the plant and defecate in them. Daily he hauled buckets of water from the creek and poured them carefully around and over the plant. He would dip a broom in a water bucket and shake it all over the leaves, evenly coating them with droplets. He put a layer of sand underneath the pumpkin to prevent rot. He washed the pumpkin daily with a cloth, shining it and checking for insects. There were none.
On a cool night in September, Sophia lay next to him in bed; her hair tumbled about her and her mouth slightly open as she slept. He could not sleep, his mind consumed. He saw moonlight on the floor of their room, he heard his wife’s light breath, he sensed the warmth of their blankets, but he felt only the xylem and phloem of the plant behind his barn. He quietly got out of bed and went to the pumpkin. It was immense by now, almost as tall as him with a uniform girth and it had a bluish hue in the moonlight. He wrapped his arms around it and they barely encircled halfway. He felt the cool skin against his cheek and pressed his entire naked body against the pumpkin, cleansing and cool, and he believed it felt him as well, his passion, ardor and heat. This was his desire and potency, a physical manifestation of his virility and capability, and would be planted within his wife to be born again and anew, a son that was in fact himself to last beyond the seasons and years, an eternal regeneration. When he presented her with this pumpkin, she herself would swell with desire and bear him himself. Many nights he repeated this routine, finding himself fertilizing the soil with a most crucial and seminal substance.
He was losing weight and was haggard and unkempt. He was neglecting the rest of the farm because he spent nights with the pumpkin and slept days. No matter what Sophia tried, he would not pay attention to her. The corn harvest was destroyed because of deer and crows, the horse needed shoeing, and the other fields were unkempt and haggard as he was. She worked and worked, but could not keep up with the weeds and the growth from that mythical Chervale soil. She kept the goat milked and did her best, but Pieter was practically catatonic during the day and essentially unresponsive at night. But then the first frost hit right before the end of October and the pumpkin was ready. He came into the bedroom the morning after that first frost, shivering and dirty, but he looked his wife in the eyes for the first time in months when he woke her. She lay back against her pillow, searching his face as he smelled of vegetation, soil and rot. He was wild-eyed and grinning broadly, bearing crooked yellow teeth streaked with brown. He told her that in one more night all would be ready. He curled up in bed and slept until that night.
The pumpkin beckoned. Soil richer than coagulated blood, feeding and growing, swelling lust and burgeoning potency, the sky black, the moon white and the pumpkin blue: he crawled to its base. On his knees sinking into the dark earth, he ran his hands across supple blue skin so cool, so cleansing. Soon he was face down, prostrate, his arms encircling the base, fecund earth caressing his skin, seeping into self, xylem and phloem. He felt the sticky scratch of the vines, hairy like spiders’ legs, twisting around his toes, the balls of his feet, tickling around his calves and the backs of his knees, tightening joyously on his throat and down around his armpits, grinding with that rich mud and squeezing him so tightly, his useless palms could only hold the base of the pumpkin.
The sun rose to a crisp fall morning. Some leaves remained on the scarlet oaks, but by then the maples and elms were bare. The cornfield was rippled with erratically broken stalks. Sophia woke alone and saw no sign of her husband. He had frightened her the morning before, but he did tell her that it was ready, whatever it was. She assumed he was referring to the pumpkin and was glad the growing season was finally done with, although they would be in a predicament if the coming winter and spring were like the last. Their farm, and subsequently, their stores, were in shambles.
The pumpkin was colossal in the morning sunshine. It was five feet high and its girth twice that. She marveled at its orange hue. Pieter had sawn off the massive vines and arranged them in a gigantic wreath around its base, twining them in a complicated and beautiful braid, with some leaves acting as speckled ornaments. Outside the wreath a saw had been dropped, its teeth glutted with vegetable matter, but there was no sign of her husband. It really was a beautiful sight and she was glad her husband had succeeded so well at something he worked on, but she was relieved this whole ordeal was over. Maybe now he could rest, or at least direct his energies in a better way. But where was he? As the day wore on, she convinced herself he had gone hunting, that he was to return in the afternoon with some rabbit and they would again have a wonderful dinner and watch the sunset together. It had been so long since they enjoyed their life in that most essential of ways.
As evening approached he still hadn’t returned and she began to worry. He had seemed so crazed the last time she saw him and his demeanor had switched so drastically and quickly. She began to think that he wasn’t hunting rabbit, that something more sinister was afoot. She fantasized about her old Pieter, the younger one, returning hopeful and happy with that slab of pumpkin she had cooked with butter and brandy. She would see him enter with his game bag full and a slab of this new and most beautiful of pumpkins…but he wouldn’t cut this one up, for sure. Then she remembered the saw, its teeth clogged with cellulose that was orange and yellow.
She burst out the door and ran calling his name. She ran around the barn as the sun was descending behind the far hills. She got to the pumpkin, breathing heavily and still calling for her husband, looking about, hoping he would emerge from the brush. She saw the top of the pumpkin had been sawn off and then replaced like a cap fitted perfectly in place. The stem was too far for her when she reached up to grab it. She thought she heard someone behind her and whipped wildly around, but no one was there. The milking stool! She ran to the barn and grabbed the stool. She placed it at the base of the pumpkin. The tip of the sun was just blinking behind the distant hills, and then began that haunting roseate illumination exclusive to the hamlet of Chervale. She reached the stem and pulled with all her might and the top of the pumpkin came free from its setting. She almost fell backwards as she let it fall to the ground. The air was charged with radiant pink as she leaned forward and looked down through the hole to see her husband, writhing and squirming like a naked fetus in an orange amniotic fluid, smeared and bearded, bearing discolored teeth, looking at her with wide and wild eyes, and laughing maniacally.