by Howard Eskildsen
Loose road gravel crunched under the whirling balloon tires of the old orange bike, while a pedal clicked rhythmically against the kickstand and a crooked tire rubbed intermittently against the frame. I did my best to balance on the front of the handlebars while Bernie, my older brother pedaled us away from the little white schoolhouse down a country road towards home.
Soon it would be too cold to ride the bike, and snow would hide the leaves cast our direction from isolated bands of trees scattered around the Nebraska farmhouses. But that day, the cool fresh breeze, laced with the smell of recently picked corn and dry alfalfa, urged us to hurry home before the lowering yellow sun found the horizon. It was Halloween, and who could tell what might be lurking after dark?
By an old twisted boxelder tree, the gravel road took a sharp left turn to the east. But we turned right, following a short lane between an empty cornfield and the barnyard where a dozen Holstein cattle waited patiently for hay and milking. The old, white house waited beyond the barn surrounded by elm and ash trees planted during the previous century. There always seemed to be something simmering on the stove that filled the house with warmth when we got home from school. Later in the evening a bushel basket full of corncobs would fuel the cast iron stove that I called the “squirt-gun eater” and heat the house until bedtime.
After a supper of chili soup and homemade bread, mom promised to help us get ready for Halloween and trick-or-treating. At the sound of the word, dad rolled his eyes, and with a grunt disappeared through the porch headed for the barn with Bernie a few steps behind. While mom cleaned the kitchen, I found a cardboard box and immediately hatched a plan to pass the time. Thirteen stairs up a narrow passage led to our bedrooms in the old house. Why not ride the box down the stairs? I was about to find out.
It didn’t matter that the door at the landing was always closed to keep precious heat downstairs where it would do the most good. I could just use a hand pressed to each wall to slow the descent before hitting the door. I tucked the flaps inside the box, folded myself into a sitting position inside and teetered at the top of the stairs. Instantly, I knew something was wrong with my plan. The stairway walls were slick as glass and my little hands could not to stop the acceleration. The box thumped faster and faster down the stairs, finally destroying itself in a giant CRASH! I became aware that the motion had stopped and that my left foot felt like it was on fire. My nose and lips were numb, but there was no visible blood, only a familiar sanguineous taste around the gums. The door flew open and mom’s bewildered face surveyed the damage. Trick or treat! “Go find your brother!” was all she said as she folded up the sad remnants of the box.
Soft light filtered from the part of the barn we called the milk house. To the right two glowing eyes, a steady green one, and a red one that winked its warning, leered from the barn. With each red wink, a powerful jolt of electricity surged through the barbed wire surrounding the barnyard somewhere in the darkness. That was the side of the barn to avoid, and I knew why. With the hair standing up on the back of my neck, I ran towards the safety of the milk house light. Out of breath, I looked for Bernie. “He’s feeding hay to the cows out back.” dad said without looking up from washing the milk bottles. I timidly made my way around the barn, on the opposite side of the electric fence. The star-studded outline of the Big Dipper grazed the horizon through the empty tree branches. “Won’t spill its milk tonight.” I mused half aloud.
“Shhhh!” whispered Bernie, “Ghosts!” A finger barely visible in the light filtering through cracks and knotholes in the barn pointed towards a shimmering apparition between the barn and the hay. The hay rustled and shook and several more glowing figures appeared and then slowly faded. I wanted to run, but that would put me further from my brother who was my only hope of protection. I stood trembling as my eyes gradually adapted to the dark, and I saw him shake some more hay and watched the cloud of dust glow as it passed beams of light from the knot holes in the barn wall.
“You’re doing that!” I whined.
“That was hay dust just then, but I really did see a ghost.” I relaxed only a little. My mind was convinced, but the rest of me wasn’t. What if he really had seen a ghost?
“Race you back to the house!” Bernie bounded off into the darkness. I shrieked like a girl and followed hot on his heels while wailing, “Berrrnnnaarrrrd!”
Back in the house, mom found a dark dress in my sister’s closet. Since Nancy was away at boarding school she wouldn’t have chance to object to Bernie using it to dress up as a girl for Halloween. My plans to go as a robot were smashed along with the box at the bottom of the stairs earlier. Mom cut the rim off of an old straw hat, and I used what was left, along with my old blue and yellow baby blanket, as a cape to pose as a “Thunder Rider.” I didn’t really know what they were, but I had seen them on the neighbor’s TV set and thought they were quite scary.
With a couple of paper bags from the Sixth Street Market, we loaded onto the old Ford and were off to terrorize the neighboring farmhouses. We visited the Crawford’s, the Margaretz’s, the Carlson’s and so on as the night turned into a blur of candy, kids, the smell of freshly harvested fields, and forgettable adult banter. The excitement mounted as we approached our best and last stop, the Bell place.
Ruth and Terry Bell lived in a three story brick house surrounded by towering elm and cottonwood trees. From the top of the gabled roof, turn-of-the-century lightning rods reached towards the stars. Behind their house, a low slough once carried waters from a giant spring in the middle of the prairie towards the Platte River. Though full of cattails and lined with willows and trees, water still occasionally coursed through the ancient channel after heavy rains.
A trail along edge of the slough ran from the main house, through the woods, to a small cottage where Grandma Bell, Terry’s mother, lived. As a young child, she had moved there with her parents to homestead on the prairie over three quarters of a century earlier. She told stories of Indians that followed the buffalo, and of “wallows” along the slough where the great shaggy beasts used to roll in the dust to get rid of fleas and lice. Spirits of the great beasts and the ancient people always seemed to linger in the shadows on Halloween night. We parked in the dark at the front of the castle-like structure and walked towards a light at the back of the house. Ruth greeted us with the usual, “Well I’ll be….” and offered sticks of gum as our treat.
“Which kind would you like?” she asked.
“Several kinds,” was my reply. She and mom chuckled a bit, and mom made it clear that I was only to have one piece.
Ruth invited us into the kitchen where she and mom visited for a while. “I have to go to the bathroom,” I announced. They told me to go ahead since I knew where it was. Yes, I did know, upstairs in the dark, and that was why I hesitated. When you’re five years old, imagination is your only reality, and mine was going wild. With a little urging, I left the kitchen through a door into an old “deserted” hall laced with the heavy odor of pipe tobacco. Grubby little fingers found the push-button light switch at the bottom of the curving staircase. Each step groaned and creaked as I made my way up the stairs.
I hesitated a bit at the top of the stairs and glanced towards a locked door on the right. Behind it, a narrow stairway led to the forbidden gabled third floor. I did not want to find out if the door was locked to keep something out or to keep something in. I ran quickly down the hall to the left and entered the safety of the lighted bathroom. Before returning downstairs, I hesitated to peek through the door left ajar beside the bathroom. This room was also forbidden, but was never locked. Eyes from the heads of deer and elk peered back from behind a gun rack. On a bench in the corner, a green box with yellow letters spelled out “high POWER.” I wondered what kind of magic spell Terry could weave with that box and the canister of “Black Powder” setting next to it. When I returned downstairs, the adults immediately asked if I had turned off the lights on the way back. Of course I hadn’t! I said nothing, but gave them my best innocent, pouty “Who? Me?” look.
It was time to run the ghostly gauntlet through the dark woods to Grandma Bell’s house. “I’ll race you!” Bernie called and he was off. I ran chasing his dark form silhouetted by the light in the distance. A mournful, “Berrrn…,” sputtered from my lips, but was repressed mid way to avoid disturbing the sleeping spirits.
Nearly out of breath, we knocked on the door of the tiny stone cottage. We were greeted by a gray-haired, kindly, wrinkled lady who looked about as old as one could get. “Come in, come in,” she urged. We floated through the door, following the aroma of popcorn and hot caramel. On the counter next to the old pitcher pump, a pan full of candied popcorn balls waited. “Help yourself.” she said with a chuckle in her voice. Though it was her cottage that always came to mind when I heard the story of Hansel and Gretel, I was never afraid in Grandma Bell’s house.
On the way home I relaxed. No more spooks, goblins or scares for another year; or so I thought. Bernie and I were arguing over who had the most candy when the car suddenly lurched to a stop with its engine silent about a quarter of a mile from our house. Mom sent Bernie and I home to get dad and some gas while she watched the car. I hesitated, but Bernie promised to protect me from shadowy forms in the dark cornfields. For several minutes we traded scary stories as we neared our barnyard. By the gnarled old boxelder the glow of our yard light clearly illuminated the lane, the barn and our home.
“Race you to the house!” Bernie said as he sprinted down the lane. With a start I ran through the gravel behind him wailing, “Berrrrnnnaaarrrddd!”
© Eskildoodle 2021