Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Lesson in All Hallow’s Reading–Part 3

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Halloween is fast approaching, and a favorite author of mine, Mr. Neil Gaiman, has proposed a new tradition. All Hallow’s Read.

Inspired, I wrote a short story for my kids and am sharing it with you too.
Happy Halloween!

title

Part 3

Language Arts came around again, after lunch as always, and as Katie had been having a fairly busy day with her other classes, she had almost forgot Mr. Lars and his suspicion. However, after class, Mr. Lars was waiting at the door for her.

“So Katie, how’d you like the book you read yesterday?”

“Well… um… it was a little dark” she said, “but I told it in a light and funny way, so it was ok...”

“Was the pig your favorite part too? The same as your reading buddy?” Mr. Lars asked. “Rather good how Lucy rescued it for her little brother, wasn’t it, seeing as it was his favorite toy.”

“Yea,” Answered Katie, “that’s probably why Jaxon liked it.”

“You didn’t bother to read the book, did you?” accused Mr. Lars. “The pig was Lucy’s.” Not waiting for her answer, he continued. “I ought to fail you on this assignment! You were not following instructions and I am very disappointed, especially after the talk we had!”

“I’m sorry Mr. Lars! Honestly! I was going to read it… but…” she began, but Mr. Lars interrupted gently. “But he was scared, right? Your reading buddy was scared.”

“Yes sir.” She answered meekly. “He specifically said that he was scared of dogs.”

“I saw you Katie.” Mr. Lars said. “I was watching you and I could tell that the two of you were giggling and carrying on and very obviously not reading the story that I assigned to you. That was very sweet of you, your caring for the boy’s feelings, but this exercise was more important than you realize or give it credit for. You did not uphold your part. I should give you a failing grade for the whole assignment, but I’m going to give you a second chance instead.” He pulled a small paperback novel from his jacket, the overly long black one that he had taken to wearing as the weather got cooler, and he handed it to her. “This is a novel about the history of our town, Hickory Falls. Some of it you have heard before, no doubt, but this is more in-depth. It covers some of the older lore and traditions. I want you to read this over the weekend and write an essay on the history. You must include your opinions on how it might connect to our current Halloween traditions. It’s due the Tuesday before Halloween. Not a day later. No excuses. Do a good job on this, and we’ll forget about your fibbing to me and your failure to complete the reading assignment with little Jaxon. If not, there will be consequences.”

Almost in tears, Katie stuffed the book into her backpack and made her way to her next class. She made it through math and science and finally PE. She was quiet on the bus back home and all through dinner too. When questioned about her mood at the table, she mumbled about having a bad week and being tired. Eventually, she was able to make some excuses and went upstairs to bed early.

dejected

After slouching into her old flannel P.Js, and brushing her teeth, she pulled the dog-eared old book out of her bag and looked at it. “Hallow’s Eve in Hickory Falls – Our Past and Present”. A quick look inside showed that the ‘present’ was more than 30 years ago. The temptation to toss it on the desk, ignore it, and take an “F”, passed quickly. She was angry, but not unreasonable enough to sacrifice her history of good grades. She climbed into bed, snugged under the warm blankets. She opened the old book, and began to read.

It started with the typical hype and glory of a cheesy tourist brochure. The founding fathers. The first settlers. The first church, and the first school. On and on. Blah blah blah. As Mr. Lars had suggested, all of this was stuff that she’d studied before in her community culture lessons, and it was, no doubt, incredibly similar to all such lessons, about any small American town, anywhere, but determinedly, she plowed through it. A couple of chapters in, about the time that the people of the town had really settled in and gained a good degree of stability, there was a chilling tale of the peaceful community beset by tragedy. One after another, six children disappeared, never to be seen again. Their disappearances were never explained.

Katie put the book down, feeling troubled. She’d never heard about this woeful part of the town’s history before. She listened to the fall wind blow through the trees outside her window, and allowed the sadness of this long ago loss flow through her. After a short consideration, she assumed that the story of the missing children was removed from her previous classes in order to keep her elementary history lessons more bright and cheery. It was getting late by this time, so she put the book down, and turned off the lights. The storm continued to build outside, but she was quickly asleep despite the wails and whistles of the wind gusts shivering through the branches of the old oak out front.

The weather had taken a definite turn for the worse by morning. After breakfast, and after glancing outside and at the weather channel, Katie decided it would be a good day to stay inside and read. She parked herself on the living sofa, with her book and a fuzzy blanket, and started reading again, middle of the chapter, where she’d left off the night before. Following the tragedy of the missing children, the town went through a series of upheavals. For many years, it looked as if the town itself was in danger of disappearing, as disappointment followed misadventure followed misdeeds. This was not part of the sanitized history that Katie had studied previously. This was dismal indeed! But in the year 1877, for some unknown reason, the town held its first annual Fall and All Hallow’s Eve Festival. It was a simple enough event with the details recorded in the annals of the local church. A community harvest feast, potlatch dinner, and for fun, the school teacher read a number of ‘tales most frightful’ and the children were taken on a hayride through the dark.

For many years following, the town thrived. Farms flourished and businesses arrived. By the 1920’s the town had grown so well, and had so much automobile traffic, that they could boast of one of the first ever electric traffic lights in the region, and each fall, they continued to host the annual Fall and All Hallow’s Eve Festival. Until 1942. In that year, a women’s group from the Baptist church protested the event. With the Second World War in full swing, these ladies objected to the frivolity, waste, and occult-ish theme. After much argument, and perhaps owing to a depressed economy and mood, the Festival was cancelled, and life went on.

protest

In October of 1944, little Sarah Jonson, six years old, disappeared while walking home from school. The community was upset, but as the girl was known for defying her parents and playing down by the river, it was assumed that she’d fallen in drowned. A few days later, the Carter children, brother and sister, also went missing. These kids were also known to frequently play in the woods by the river and, as the rains had been high, it was again assumed that the missing children were swept to their doom – other town children were warned away and kept close to home. A week before Halloween, Willy Marks was taken. His family lived across town from the river. He had been recently seen playing by the family barn, but he suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. It finally became clear to the townsfolk that perhaps something more horrible than a swollen river was to blame for their losses. Autumn storms grew worse in the area that month, and the already distressed residents were found to be exchanging wild stories of thumps on their roofs at night, growls from their cellars, and eerie howling that warbled out of the woods on the winds. Two more children disappeared.

At that moment, the lamp behind Katie’s head flickered off, as did all the power in the house. The winds outside had been growing in intensity all day and branches were creaking and cracking and swaying madly. Katie’s dad had been worried about the overhead power lines, and it seemed that his prediction had come true. Fortunately, her family owned a generator, and while not wanting to waste the power to light the whole house, Katie’s mom used it to light up the kitchen area while she cooked. Katie moved to the dining table to continue reading the book.

As in the town’s past, these missing children of the ‘40s, were never seen alive again. Several days after Halloween evening, as the keeper of the town’s cemetery cleaned up a family plot in the rear of the gardens, he heard a disturbance out beyond the grounds of the cemetery itself, outside of the perimeter fence, and past the boundaries that marked the blessed and sacred earth. Investigation uncovered a horror. Within a small grove of old trees, he found the six small bodies of the lost children. Arms wrapped around one another, no marks upon them, and all six deceased. Their eyes were frozen open in utter terror. When the sheriff and coroner came to investigate, tragedy on top of tragedy was discovered as more small skeletons were found in the mossy detritus beneath the fresh corpses. Six small skeletons. Very old.
The children were buried. The old bones too were prayed over and interred. The area behind the cemetery was fenced off and left to grow thick with brush and vines and ivy.

graveyard

Families fell apart and moved away. Businesses closed. Churches closed. As the town sunk into deeper and deeper trouble, a new mayor was elected in 1954 and this optimistic representative of the people was desperate to find some way, some miracle, to save his city. Studying records of the past and more prosperous times, he found flyers and posters about the Fall and All Hallow’s Festival. He remembered the joy of celebrating at these events as a small child, and barely remembering the pain of losing classmates who were not quite the right age to be his peers, he decided to revive the tradition, simplifying the name to “Hickory Falls All Hallow’s Eve Fest”. Some questioned the move, but the celebration turned out to be a great success. The event was great fun when repeated the next year as well, and so it continued as a renewed, and much loved, tradition for many years, thriving as the town thrived.

The chapter ended and Katie was filled with dread. She could guess what the next chapter would bring, and she was correct. The town thrived as long as the festival continued, but this was to end too soon. In the late 1960’s, in a strong and conservative backlash against the hippy, flower child, Woodstock culture of the day, the local churches again rose up against the “ungodly Pagan perversion of a feast”. Yanking on some of the fundamentalist religious and backwards cultural attitudes present in parts of the community at the time, the church killed the festival in 1967. And again, by fall of 1968, children began to disappear.

The first to go missing were the unschooled, almost feral, kids belonging to a troublesome transient family. Nobody believed the parents’ protests of innocence, and at first the couple was thrown in jail. However, unable to prove any actual wrong doing, they were released and run out of town. But then the pastor’s son disappeared while on a supervised boy scout outing, and a police officer’s daughter disappeared from her own bedroom from their locked home. A farmer’s boy, and a no-nonsense strong boy at that, never made it home from the fields, and the librarian’s eldest child, a tall lanky high school senior studying for his final exams, was taken from the cellar of the town library itself as he studied. That boy’s name was Colin Lars.

Chilled, Katie put the book down. Lars. Like her teacher. It had to be the same family. Cold shivers traveled up and down her arms and it was several moments before she could pick the book up and read further.

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