My appearance may be misleading if you are unaware of my story. From the wispy feathers of white hair, the gaunt features and wrinkled parchment yellow skin, you may think my age to be near eighty years. In fact my true age is less than half that total. I am entirely to blame. If I had paid more attention to the warnings from the local villagers…
In the three autumn seasons through which I have lived in this tiny, Devonshire village on the edge of Bodmin Moor, I have never been visited by the local children on All Hallows Eve. I realize that ‘trick-or-treat’ is more of an American theme, but in the last twenty years or so, it has become almost as popular here in England.
The first two years were understandable; I needed to earn the villagers’ trust. My little thatch-roofed cottage set among surly horse-chestnut trees and away from the main road was a little creepy. That fact, added to the suspicion of a middle-aged man living alone, and with stories of sex-offenders and paedophiles making almost daily headline news, how many parents would be willing to allow their precious offspring to come near my abode?
However, by the third year, I was on first name terms with all my immediate neighbours. They knew by then, that being an artist, I had an excuse for a little eccentricity. Several of my better paintings hung on the walls above the bar of the quaint little pub, the Red Lion, and I had received requests from two of the patrons for portraits of their young ones which I completed from photographs they supplied.
Through the harvest season of that year and the next, I received gifts of home-grown vegetables from, at least, four families, which I repaid by allowing their older children to collect apples and plums from my small orchard. I was therefore, even more surprised to have no costumed revellers standing on my doorstep through that last night of October.
My fourth Halloween was the time I decided to show them I was happy to become involved in the yearly festivities. The shop windows of the stores in the nearest town were filled with the masks, costumes and trinkets to which we have become accustomed, almost from the end of summer. The week before the end of October, I purchased half a dozen plastic jack-o-lanterns, several cut-out, broomstick riding witches and black cats, and felt almost ready to entertain. These items, displayed on the trees and walls of the house, I hoped would attract the village children. I also bought a supply of sticky sweets and chocolate goodies to hand out in the best Halloween tradition.
The night before All Saints’ day, while sitting in the bar of the Red Lion, I noticed that Pete, the landlord of the house had made no attempt to add seasonal decoration. The half-timbered walls and dark stained low wooden beams were made for a touch of Gothic horror.
“Do you not celebrate Halloween?” I asked him?
The moment I mentioned the time of year, a cloying hush fell over the ten or so drinkers. I felt their searing gazes burning into me. For a moment, I thought I had spoken some profane blasphemy.
Lowering my voice I added, “I ask because I’ve never seen children trick-or-treating like they do in the towns.”
“You’ll not see such tom-foolery celebrated in these parts. Maybe those city dwellers have nothing to fear with their bright lights, but here the night when the dead walk abroad is a night we fear most deeply.”
“Oh, come-on,” I said. “It’s only a bit of fun. A few sweets for children in fancy costumes.”
“It’s the one night of the year we keep our doors firmly barricaded. If any children come a knocking on your door my friend, you will be well advised to keep it firmly locked. Now I will be obliged if you make no more mention of this”
His manner and that of his customers unnerved me as I walked home that evening, but passing several houses with candle-lit lanterns in the windows, I put his reticence down to the likelihood that a night of partying would reduce his weekly profit margin.
The following evening, as darkness fell, I hung the lighted lanterns at the entrance to the porch of the house. I had already nailed the witches to the trees on the driveway from the road so that they pointed like direction arrows to my door. With sweets and chocolates displayed in bowls on a low table inside the porch, I waited.
I waited in vain for what must have been four hours. Several times, I went outside in the hope of seeing moving lights or figures under the street lamps. There seemed no sign of a living soul. By ten-o-clock, with wisps of cold mist drifting between the leafless trees, I came to the conclusion that this was another wasted Halloween. I closed the door, leaving the candles in the lanterns to burn themselves out, stoked up the log fire and settled down to read.
I must have slipped into a state of sleep from the warmth of the fire, before I was startled into wakefulness from a sudden noise. I jerked upright in the chair as my book fell with a thump onto the carpet. Apart from the ticking of the clock on the mantle there was only silence through the house. I was still trying to work out if it was imagination that had woken me when the same sound resolved into a tapping on the front door.
A visitor at such a late hour was most unusual. I was concerned as to who would call at this time. The door of my lounge opens onto the porch, the outer door of which, I remembered having left open to the night air. Moving quietly to the door, I pressed my ear against the wood for any sound that might identify my visitor. I believed I could detect faint whispering voices the way children whisper in classes when they should be studying.
I had an uncomfortable feeling, laced with fear. Whatever would children be calling for at this time. The clock indicated it was past eleven. Then I remembered the Halloween inviting lanterns pointing their way to my door. Of course! But still, this was much later for trick-or-treat than I expected.
At that moment, I regretted having no safety chain or peep-hole in the door. As I debated the predicament in my mind, another gentle tap caused me to jump in alarm. I was certain I heard the tiniest giggle from the other side of the door. It had to be two or more children calling for their trick or treat goodies.
Steeling myself, I reached out for the door handle. A small voice in the back of my mind urged me most vociferously not to open the door. But it was only children. What could be the harm in letting them have some of the chocolate treats?
I convinced my nervous state into believing the fear could be no more than due to waking so suddenly. I turned the door-knob. The door emits a creaking groan if opened slowly as in the best traditions of haunted houses. My intention was to use the effect to scare my visitors before I would step from the shadows like some ghastly ghoul.
As the entrance came into view the surprise hit me. I stared!
On the stone step stood a child, a girl of no more than ten years. She wore no mask, but she was made up to look the part. With long dark hair and pallid skin, I guessed she was meant to be a vampire. What caused me the astonishment was her attire. Dressed only in a white, short-sleeved smock that fell below her knees she must have been freezing. The garment may well have been a nightdress from my limited knowledge. Her hands were clasped across her stomach, and she clutched a raggedly dressed, china doll, while gazing at a point on the floor in front of her.
Bedraggled and dripping moisture, I could believe she had come in from the rain. Perhaps the mist had thickened since I had been inside. Behind her stood two more children, a boy and a girl dressed in similar gowns. Several years younger, these two could have been twins from their similar appearance
I looked into the moonlit night for a parent I could admonish for letting children wander the streets in such a state. There was no one in view. I opened my mouth to speak, but no sound could I utter as the girl looked up at me.
Shock hit me as if I had been thrown into an icy river. Her eyes, staring unblinking at me were large and black as a piece of jet. Entirely black, yet alive, glistening from the reflected light of my lounge.
I stepped back as she spoke. I was expecting her to say, ‘Trick or treat.’ The voice was hoarse as if from a sore throat. The words that came from her were, “Feed me!”
The other two shuffled forward into the light. Their eyes, totally black like the girl’s gazed at me as they echoed, “Feed me.”
A sensation came as of an icy hand gripping my throat and I could not prevent a shudder running through my body. “I have some chocolate which…” My tongue struggled to form the words.
“So, so cold,” she continued. “Let us in. Feed us.”
I was almost numb with an uncontrollable fear, yet I tried to think logically, they are only poor children. How could I refuse a little charity? I stepped back to allow them entry.
The events that proceeded my awakening in hospital I have no recollection. Apparently, a neighbour found me the following morning. He said that the door was open, and, with no response to his knock, he had entered. I was sitting in the chair before a fire that had long since gone out. Apparently, I was babbling about evil, dead children and not even knowing their names.
That is my story. You may believe it or not as you like. They say this is an old peoples’ home, and that I am not capable of looking after myself. I feel like a prisoner. I am certain, although the doctors will not admit, this is a mental asylum. They treat me reasonably well, but I feel the eyes of the other inmates burning me with contempt.
The children? They took nothing from me – nothing in any physical form that is. They took nothing other than forty years of my life.
© 2011 Robert A. Read