The night sets early that bitter evening in October, and the owls stick their heads from their twisted perches and blink, blink so unnervingly that you always have the sensation of being watched.
Oh yes, it is a bitter night in October indeed. The trees have half lost their leaves, and appear as wretched as children who have tried to cut their hair all by themselves and become half-bald in the process. Great clumps of wet leaves, browning in puddles, make your feet slip underfoot. The night spreads slowly across the sky like a stain – a liquid stain of something horrible.
There are no people for miles around in this forest, only you… walking, walking, your breath hot in your throat, because you took your bike earlier in the day and got lost in this forest. Now you walk on this grim path, looking for a way out. The air is like a chill breath on your neck, the rosehips drip in bunches, and the spiked chestnuts brush your face as you push through the trees and try to find the road.
Your bike? You had to leave it behind. Hours ago, when it became mired in mud. It was impossible to ride or wheel beside you with the thick glug of clay caked all over your wheels.
But the worst thing of all isn’t that. It isn’t that you are going to get in trouble for leaving your bike. It is that you forgot to tell your parents where you would be. And so you know that while they are probably worried about where you were, they will have no idea where to come looking for you. And it is getting darker and darker. It is getting colder and colder.
Whoooo….! You suddenly hear an unearthly sound rising up from the earth. You make a squeak of terror! Your heart beats loudly in your throat. Is it nearby? Or does it echo from behind the mountains, the great ridges that enclose the valley?
Was it a wolf? You hope not. You imagine a beast with tough jaws, dripping with a cold froth, large teeth ready to snap you in two. A wolf! Please don’t let it be a wolf, you tell yourself. Please don’t let it be a wolf. And your feet pound the footpath, and you wrap your jacket more tightly around your body and you feel your heart beating in your neck, in your belly, like a tiny, hard drum.
Suddenly you realize with a sinking feeling, that you are not alone in this forest. Above the brittle wind there is a murmur. Goblins! You know it is goblins. You’ve heard stories that there are goblins in this forest. And on this scary dark evening, the voices sound exactly like goblins should sound. They have manic voices.
There must be many of them here, you think. Very many of them. Somewhere nearby. They are close, but not too close – their voices are murmurs, and you can’t make out what they are saying. But you stop walking then, very suddenly, and stand very still. Goblins. You can’t bear it. You’ve read books about goblins. You have heard that they bite the noses off little children, and can spirit you away as though you never existed. Oh it is a very bad idea to meet goblins on this path.
Then you remember something else – goblins can smell you. From a mile away, at least.
Your eyes dart around the forest path. The light is almost gone. But there, in a pool at the bottom of a gnarled old tree, is a patch of mud. Mud. Perhaps mud will do it, you think. You move slowly, quiet as a hunted animal. Trembling, you crouch and rub the mud on your face and neck. Your hands, too. Anywhere you can see skin showing.
The mud is icy and sends shivers through your body as you rub it on your goosebumps. But finally it is done. You stand up. Muddy. Cold as Antarctica. The voices murmur and then suddenly rise more loudly than ever. You jump. Too late to run! You don’t even know where to run to. You dart behind a tree. You hide behind that tree. You lean against the chill bark and wait to see the dread goblins.
Here they are now! They emerge onto the forest path. You cannot see them properly for the mud in your eyes. You are far too frightened to move even a fraction to wipe the mud away. You crouch low and hope they won’t see you. Hope with every breath in your body that they don’t smell you.
“Here,” says one of them finally. “Put your things down here.”
The rest of them stop. Right in front of the tree where you are. You remember goblins and their keen senses, their sense of smell matched just as easily by their sense of vision. You cower behind the tree, with just one eye peeping out. You try to breathe quietly. But your heart is so loud you think anyone could hear it, even in outer space.
You can’t make anything out except for the shape of them in the darkness. They are faintly orange with the small lamps they carry, and have large round heads. In fact, they seem to be all head, with very little body at all. You think there must be legs and a tummy carrying them along, but in the darkness with the mud in your eyes you it is difficult to see. It is perhaps better not to see. Slowly you let yourself slide down until you are completely hidden behind the tree.
“What shall we do with our knives?-“
“Put them behind that tree-“
Your heart stops still. You listen, not daring to look. Footsteps. The sound of knives being thrown in a heap. Thank goodness. It is at a tree on the other side of the path.
“A story, a story!”
“Yes, on this cold night…”
“This frigid night…”
“Give us a story to make our bones dance,” says one of the goblins excitedly.
“Yes, yes,” says the first goblin. “Gather around then.”
There is the sound of more scuffling and the goblins settle down. Right behind your tree. They are so close that you can smell them. They smell of toadstools and truffles and pears rotting in the grass. You can hear them giggling to each other. You suddenly realize that they are goblin children. This must be why none of them have smelt you yet. They’re far too excited to pay attention.
“Has anyone a flame?” asks the first goblin. He sounds older than the rest. He must be their teacher or uncle.
“Yes, Uncle,” say the goblins.
“Light it then,” says the Uncle. “And don’t let it go out. I am going to tell you a story of something more terrible than anything you’ve ever imagined. You think you are strong? You think you can fight a fight as good as the best of them. You are wrong, my children, wrong. This is a cautionary tale for you. About the wicked that lives in the world.”
“Oh, I’m scared already!” says a small voice. “I don’t want to listen. Let me hide behind this tree….”
Your tree! No! you want to shout. And then the Uncle says,
“No, Piper, stay here. This is a scary tale, but you ought to know it. This is a story about something that really happens, every October, to thousands and thousands of little ones like you. You’ll be scared, but it’s for your own good. I want to tell you about Humans.”
“Humans!” squeaks another of the goblins, and they all chant “Ooh I love stories about Humans! Humans! Humans!…” until the Uncle says,
“Quiet! Do you want me to tell this story or don’t you?”
The children goblins settle down for their story. You feel sick to your bones. A scary story about humans? If they find you after a story like this, they will surely attack you. You lay quiet. Listening.
“Well, then,” says the Uncle. “Humans are the most ferocious creatures you will ever see walk on this earth. They are made of fat and muscle and hair, a most disgusting combination. Their heads are studded with two slimy eyeballs that move in every direction. Their mouths, when they open, are red and cavernous, and inside there is a grotesque glistening tongue and many sharp teeth.”
“Ohhhh…” say the children goblins. They are so horrified that they don’t know what to say. The Uncle continues.
“On the ends of their fingers are fingernails, sharp little knives that they file down with metal. If they didn’t do this, their fingernails would grow so long and curly that they would resemble monstrous horns. But the worst thing about them is their appetites! Disgusting creatures. They move through forests like this one, eating everything in their path. No plant or animal is safe. Yes, humans are everywhere, in the forest and out of it. Listen carefully, for there could even be one nearby now…”
Oh no. Does the Uncle know you were there? You don’t dare to breathe. The children are quiet, listening. In the great silence of the now inky-dark forest, the Uncle’s voice rises amongst the trees.
“Children, on the thirty-first of October each year, we reach the zenith of the Human horrors. Every year, on this night, do you know what those dread Humans do? They take a head – it could be anyone’s head here, a head just like yours. They cradle it in cruel fingers. They caress it coldly. Then they TWIST it! Quickly! They separate head from body.”
“Ohhhh, ohhh…” cry the children goblins. “I’m going to be sick!” says one in a plaintive voice.
“I’m telling you for your own good!” replies the Uncle. “But we have not got to the worst of it yet. Here they stand, with a once-warm head throbbing between their fingers. Your head, Frangenslop. Or your head, little Pansywick. And they take a great big knife…”
One of the goblins starts to scream, and then they all scream together. The screams of goblin children ring out through the forest. There is a great noise of wailing, crying, screaming and scrabbling. It is ferocious and terrible.
“…And they cut the insides of the head out!” says the Uncle over the noise. “And they leave holes for the eyes and mouth. And inside it they put a burning flame, a candle, and put the head on a stick outside their front door. There! Now you know the horror of Humans on the thirty-first of October.”
The screaming continues. You hear a great noise as the goblin children stand up and start bashing around the forest floor, looking for their knives in the darkness, wailing for their mothers.
In the hubbub, there is suddenly a crashing sound and one of the goblins spins around the tree, the tree you are hiding behind. In the weak flame of his torch he sees you. You see him. You look at each other.
And then the child cries AAARGGH!!! and screeching madly, turns and runs through the foliage, through the darkness. The other children follow him. Crashing and screaming and shouting, they disappear into the darkness.
You listen to the sounds of them fading away. You stay slumped on the ground against the tree, relieved to have survived such a horrific experience. You are no longer scared. You saw in the torchlight what the creatures were.
They were not goblins at all. They were little talking pumpkins.
And on this night, the night of the thirty-first of October, they were much, much more scared than you!
LET’S CHAT ABOUT THE STORIES ~ IDEAS FOR TALKING WITH KIDS
1. Can you think of some other creatures that might think Humans are scary? What would their Halloween stories be?
SHORT STORY FOR KIDS WRITTEN BY JADE MAITRE
HEADER ILLUSTRATION BY ROMOLO TAVANI