Jack o' Lantern
Carlos Lorenzo Castro
Halloween. A day that always fills me with apprehensive dread and loathing in my middle age. It wasn't always like that before. I can remember times in my childhood when it was a joyful celebration filled with adolescent wonder and mischievousness. When even through the costumes, make-up, and bad wigs, you could see that youthful exuberance of what being a kid was all about. But all that changed for me back in October 31, 1975.
You can thank ol' Jacob Bartaugh for that. The memory he left me shall forever be a dark and indelible reminder of the inhumanity that insanity and rage can cause.
Jacob Bartaugh was a man of little education whose background he would often recount in a gregarious manner to anyone willing to listen. His roots were seeded from the old south: Arkansas, to be precise. This is not to say his pedigree was standard for all those who reside there, only that he was a victim of circumstance. Or at least I would like to believe that.
He grew up poor with no inclination of ever attending public school. In his words, "Schoolin' was for dem dar indjits." I can't remember the day he moved to our quiet town of Maryville, Indiana. He was always there.
Jacob was easily angered, and many of us neighborhood children found it a pure joy to be the cause of his scorn. To us he was Goliath and we the Davids who hurled rocks against his rage. It is my belief that every town has a Jacob in it. His gaunt, cragged face, right jaw swollen out with tobacco, ragged and torn blue overalls, and worn-to-the-heels work boots were a staple of his persona. Though the years would change, his appearance never did. Devils are often untouched by time, are they not?
One of the first recollections I have of ol' Jacob's evil occurred on a hot summer afternoon. You see, I was part of the unfortunate family unblessed to live next door to his home. Anyway, to recount the story and make it short, I was feeding the family pet, Lady. She was a mix of British bulldog and pit bull, a true mutt of a dog. I remember, as I did my duty, hearing a terror-filled shrill that erupted in the air. It was accompanied by a sound reminiscent of tearing carpet.
As I looked through the peephole of the wooden fence, I saw, to my horror, rabbits being hung by their feet and gutted alive, their intestines dangling and splashing upon the weed-covered ground with a sickening sloshing sound.
The rusted wood- and metal-framed cages of the animals lined the back of an old, decrepit tool shed. I could see many of the fear-stricken animals running nervously in circles inside their prisons, and I could hear ol' Jacob singing as he did his deed. What made the whole event even that much more surreal was that he was singing a nursery rhyme. That song, even to this day, haunts me. As he mutilated each hanging animal, his low, off-key voice sang, "Mary had a little lamb" over and over again. His eyes, placid and dull, never once changed; even when he was enraged, they always remained cold and calculating. No matter what he did, his visage always remained the same. Lifeless and soulless.
In mid-verse he turned his gaze toward me, as if he was looking straight through the fence, and said, "Don't worry none ... you can touch 'em if ya like. They don't bite." The leer on his face revealed what little remained of his rotten, stained teeth.
It was then that I knew ol' Jacob was pretty much insane.
A couple of years would pass after I witnessed Jacob's skinnings. Along with their passing there came a precursor to the events leading up to Maryville's Fall Festival, an infamous moment burned in our town's history and leaving Jacob's evil ingrained in legend.
Ol' Jacob had always taken a liking to treating his wife as if she were a punching bag. The bruises and scratches on her face were a constant and never seemed to have the time to heal. To those who saw Annabelle, that being her name, the marks just seemed so common to her features that no ever one took to questioning her at all. I guess many of us in town had become indifferent to her wounds and mental anguish. What did we care? We didn't actually have to live with the devil.
Rumor had it that Mayor Stubblefield and Annabelle took a liking to each other. There were also murmurs around town of conjugal visits by the mayor during the day, when Jacob was out working. But of course most of this is circumstantial hearsay that would never hold up in a court of law. Yet, being one of little sense and much male aggressiveness, these rumors fueled the fires of Jacob's rage, giving him more of a reason to abuse poor Annabelle. Believe me, it was not a pretty sight, seeing her run outside naked while a drunken Jacob chased her around, lashing at her with a leather strap. Then once he caught up to his wife he would be drag her back into the house by her hair.
My only regret is that I stayed silent along with all the others. But we would all pay that price on Halloween night in '75.
Maryville's Fall Festival pretty much typified small-town Americana. Every town has a certain time of the year when the community bands together in celebration of a historical event unique to itself. Ours was the final week of October. During that time the town of Maryville would be privy to parades, carnivals, fairs, and one of the most esteemed events of them all, the Jack-o-lantern carving contest.
It was an event of legendary proportions to our small town. There were some who took this contest so seriously that they would actually plan their contribution six months in advance. Of course, the cash prize of $500 and a year's supply of cattle feed donated by McClain's farm supplies were pretty desirable awards. The judges never seemed to change, year in and year out: school principal Davies, who was a World War II veteran and who walked with a limp; Erwin McClain, owner of the farm supply store that sponsored most of the events during the festival; and last but not least, Mayor Stubblefield himself.
I remember that night distinctly. I hadn't slept much the evening before. Ol Jacob was taking the lash to Annabelle pretty good so I could hear her wails even through the walls and fence that kept their house and ours separated. I had tried covering my ears with pillows, but to no avail. The screams just continued to go on for hours, until finally they came to an abrupt end.
Suffice to say, as I made my way from one carnival ride to the next, my lack of sleep deprived me of their enjoyment. That, and the hot dog and cotton candy that seemed to want to exit my system with each fast-paced ride I ventured on.
I remember making my way through the crowd toward the grandstand. Neon and halogen lights flared over the skyline, leaving the edges of my vision fuzzy and unfocused. The lights of each ride seemed to make the world around me dreamlike and unreal: a distortion of reality and the surreal. Other kids also walked by in their Halloween costumes, making their way toward the grandstand.
A long table ran across the stage, which was adorned with the typical festive decor appropriate to this part of the season. Standing behind each covered presentation were the contestants, who looked very nervous and excited. All except Jacob Bartaugh, who just wore his usual solemn and somber mask.
He had been champ for the last four consecutive years. Even in winning, his countenance never wavered from its usual seriousness. But I noticed something this year that seemed a bit different. Something hidden behind his wrinkled cragged features; a dark glint in the eyes.
Even as the applause rang for each of the passing presentations, his steel-eyed gaze never changed. It was then that I recognized that dark look from before. From the gutting of the rabbits. Only it wasn't the actions of his past that had brought about that evil glint, it was something newer. Something recent.
Time ceased to exist at that moment. At least to me it did. Even the cheers from the crowd had faded into oblivion. I had gazed upon the face of evil and in return had been seen. For it was then that Jacob looked upon me.
Even as Mayor Stubblefield drew back the cover to reveal the madman's work of art, I had known what he had done. For even as the crowd gasped in horror and ran frantically from the site, I remained frozen. My eyes locked upon the face of evil that stared back at me.
Jacob spoke in a calm, heartless manner.
"Don't worry none ... you can touch it if ya like. It won't bite."
That was a moment of pure legend, as well as truth; Jacob's truth. Neither his prosecution nor his death by electric chair ever erased the memory of his evil. Annabelle's blood continues to spill even to this day. Its red-coated liquid forever stains my dreams. I'm a man now, no longer the child who had borne witness to the insanity of Jacob Bartaugh. Yet there is one thought that lingers in my mind, one thing that is more haunting than Annabelle's head on the table. It is that final look that ol' Jacob had given me. That look of recognition, as if he had seen something of himself within me. But perhaps I'm simply reminiscing about something that is best left dead. Dead as Jacob Bartaugh.
I guess there's a part of me that simply wants to understand what kind of heart it takes to do such a deed. And whether I have it inside of me, as well. You see, right now, as I have related this tale of my past, I am sitting in my car across the street from my home. I work the graveyard shift at the local sawmill. I thought I would come home early and surprise my wife, but it seems I am surprised myself. You see, there's a red BMW parked in my driveway, and I know that it belongs to my wife's boss.
It's three a.m. and as cold as death out here. I think that before I go in the house I will stop by the tool shed first and get my axe. Strange ... I can't stop singing "Mary had a little lamb..."
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM