THE GHOST OF THANKSGIVING
Written and Illustrated by Armand A. Gagnon
November 25, 1993
San Buenaventura, California
He was uninvited: indeed he wasn't there. He had somehow appeared, coming out of the woods on that cold and dreary Thanksgiving Day, knocking on our door seeking shelter from the storm. And what an odd holiday evening that it turned out being because of him. This gentleman had brought his own brand of Thanksgiving merrymaking into our family circle on that austere, wet day back on that November twenty-eighth.
It all took place back on our family's South Dakota farm, one afternoon some thirty-six years ago. The rain had fallen so hard, much like it's doing today, and, naturally, we had built a fire in the fireplace to warm our chilled insides. In those days of scanty food supplies and harsh living conditions, we hadn't much to eat on that particular Thanksgiving Day. So my father and I grabbed our shotguns, along with my older brother too, and out into the icy fields we hiked to hunt pheasant for the holiday meal. In that part of the country, and during the hunting season, pheasant was quite plentiful. Our hounds, Juneau and Bessie, accompanied us off into those haunted woods. We didn't seem all too sure as to what to expect that day.
The air was bitingly chilly, I recall, and as the two of us boys and Pop with pups entered the woods, we immediately felt the chill deepen, penetrating our skin through our overcoats. We knew that we had to advance quietly, watching our every step along the way, lest the game take flight. Gradually, the winds picked up force and velocity. Then trees began to whine and howl as autumnal leaves started to shower us ever so delicately. Next thing, Juneau took off towards the northern part of the woods. I believe that she had caught a scent of something. The wind continued to cry like a coyote, then sing like a bird, like tearing a riveted sky to shreds on such a glistening day.
Suddenly , Bessie froze in her tracks. Staring straight ahead, she spotted our feast! A golden pheasant! I positioned myself, poised my rifle, and steadied my gaze, peering right down the pipe of that double barrel shotgun. I held my breath, gritted my teeth, tightened my grip on the handle, was ready to pull the trigger with a soft squeeze that wouldn't jolt the rifle and.... poof! The bird vanished. Into thin air! No, it didn't fly away nor take off on me. It simply knew I was pointing my gun its way and slowly disintegrated before our very eyes!
"Must be magic or somethin'. I ain't never seen nothin' like it before," Pop mused.
"You saw that too?" I asked in utter disbelief. "The damn quail just disappeared!"
"Pheasant, you mean. That was a gold pheasant and would of made a damn tasty Thanksgivin' meal."
"But the blasted thing didn't just fly off or anything like that. It was just .... gone. In a flash," my brother Everett added, mighty bewildered.
"You know, Billie, they always said that these woods was haunted. Well, there you go."
"Well I'll be damned if I'm gonna set back and watch our holiday meal vanish into thin air like that. Hell if I've ever seen anything like it."
"C'mon. Let's git. Follow Bessie. Into the woods we go. We'll catch that runnin' bird, if it takes us all damn Thanksgiving Day to do it. Gotta eat you know," Pop confirmed.
I had heard from the local townspeople of Piedmont that those woods were indeed haunted, but I never would have believed it until that Thanksgiving Day of 1957. So on into the woods we forged, in further search of our holiday dinner. The chilly gusts cut through us like a knife, shredding the tormented meadow in every direction. Soon, it didn't take too very long to lay our eyes on more pheasant, for it was that part of the country during that time of the year, as I have already mentioned.
We kept a watchful vigil, moving forward ever so cautiously, avoiding the shattering crunch of dead leaves. We then came upon four birds perched quietly. We waited a few minutes, aimed our rifles, and squeezed our triggers ever so slightly, my brother and I. Shots rang out, thunderously in unison, breaking the still of the peaceful holiday Thursday morning. The game rose into the air together, as if floating on the clouds, then all four of them vanished slowly, one after the other, like phantom fowl fleeing into the edges of eternity! Astonishing, really.
Then Juneau took off at lightning speed, having spotted a bird we hadn't seen. Off we were in an instant, following the dog in pursuit. From a distance we saw Juneau leap up, hind legs lifting with her paws extended, and catch a pheasant by the neck, just in a nick of time as it was already into its upward ascent. The big bird almost got away, but hadn't this time.
"Good girl, Juneau. Good girl."
"Looks like we're gonna be eatin' today after all." Everett gleamed.
"She looks like a big one all right. Feast or famine, that's what she is, you hear. Just feast or famine."
Juneau had crushed the bird's throat, cutting off his air supply in an instant. The pheasant was truly a majestic bird. Now it lay morbidly still, like a lifeless rock.
We wrapped our catch in paper and made an about face heading towards the orchards, not too far from Wiley's farm. We knew that in order to make our Thanksgiving dinner a real feast, we would have to pick some plums out in the orchards, find potatoes and turnip in the adjacent fields, and pluck the squash from our very own garden.
The trek to the plum tree fields was beautiful, I recall, as a Navy blue pastel sky hosted the brightest and puffiest of white clouds. There must have been a break in the storm. Pumpkins and cornfields overlooked the honeycombed hills. Such a November chill in the morning on a long frigid holiday weekend. There was nothing like it, nothing with which to compare.
As we crossed the meadow, we entered into a hollow. Just outside the woods, we happened to look skyward to notice a flock of geese heading south for the wintertime. They honked a merry journeyed note in unison. Bessie and Juneau and the rest of us gazed at them, following their paths with intention. Suddenly they swooped down, spontaneously earthward, and flew into the woods, like razor quick darts. Then they gradually vanished into the crisp morning air, like tiny ghost ships out at a foggy sea, their honks to be heard no more after having echoed among the branches.
"Well, I will be damned this time round," I exclaimed. "Did everybody see what I just saw?"
"We're going crazy or somethin, Billie?."
Those woods really were haunted! It seemed that not many townsfolk did ever come up to these parts of the woods and all. Not even many hunters, for that matter. It was becoming a rather strange, memorable Thanksgiving morning, at best.
"Come on, let's go git some walnuts," Pop insisted.
Mom's gonna bake some pie," I added.
"And don't forget the walnut bread, neither," Everett chimed in.
So off we headed for Wiley's farm to get plums. As the winds blew harder, we could hear the woods moan, as if voices were in the very wind, yet within the tress and outlying meadows too. It was eerie. When we arrived at the orchard, we picked and plucked the juiciest of purple plums, filling our two baskets to their brims. For in those days, and in those parts, neighbors didn't mind sharing with others. There were no unfriendly signs that read "No trespassing".
The late morning was becoming grayer, the sky heavier once again. So we walked across some cornfields dotted with cabbage stocks. We took a large pumpkin out of someone's pumpkin patch and headed on into the walnut grove. Steamed pumpkin slices with butter and cinnamon. M-m-m-m, nice. They would go nicely with the pies. Pop was first to shake a tree down as we watched the walnuts fall from the heavens, dropping to the ground like hail. Everett must've stuffed his brown paper sack with more than fifty walnuts that day.
"Looks like we'll be havin' plenty a walnut bread along with a hearty dinner tonight. Gotta get them turnips too, though, then we'll be done."
"And tally ho for the potatoes too", I included.
So on to the potato field we strolled with the dogs, and the pheasant (now stuffed in our gunny sack) along with our walnut sacks and bags of plums. It was beginning to look like our shopping list was almost complete. We added turnip to our list along the way. Though it didn't always seem that we struggled often during those days, Mom and Pop always made sure that we had more than was necessary come holiday time. When the chips were down at times for them over the years, they somehow were always able to keep it from us kids.
Then a light drizzle began to fall, slowly turning to rain before too long. We were not far from our house at that juncture. We had brought in lots of firewood to keep us dry earlier that morning, I recall, and as I got inside, putting the holiday main course down on the table, Mom greeted us warmly. Then she requested that Everett rekindle the fire.
A storm was brewing.
"Looks like we come out of them fields just in a nick of time," Pop said. "And not a minute sooner," he added. The autumn rains had finally begun to fall.
Mom then disappeared into the kitchen to wash the plums and turnips. Pop feathered the pheasant, then skinned it, and before too long the bird was cleaned, rinsed, and stuffed with walnut dressing and diced bread crumbs with orange peel ruffles added. Mom rinsed the pheasant's neck and giblets, then she simmered them on the stove at a low flame in mountain spring water, adding parsley and onions with celery sticks. This would make a fine broth that would be utilized in making the gravy mix. When all was prepared and done with, there would be spread before our hungry eyes roast pheasant in mushroom gravy sauce, baked potatoes, steamed turnip, tossed salad, candied yams, marshmallow sweet potatoes, hot buttered squash, wine, water, peas and piping hot plum and walnut pies for dessert!
For our appetizers, before the Thanksgiving feast, Everett put out the dry wine to savor with some exotic, imported pepper cheese with French sourdough rolls. As the aroma of the roasting pheasant mellowed the entire house, warming our mirth and pleasure with the day's capture, we watched the embers slowly crackle and pop in the fireplace. Yes, the holidays were finally upon us once again, and you could even see it on the canine faces of Bessie and Juneau, feel the frost on the windowpanes.
The winds began to hiss, shaking the entire house and sounding the window shutters. It reminded us of the whining of the trees out in the hollow just yonder, where Juneau had caught the vanishing, fleeing pheasant.
"Before you know it, Christmas will be here," Pop said as he popped the cork off of a wine bottle,
"Pop, are those woods really haunted, like them townsfolk say?" asked Everett.
"Nope. That's just pure superstition my boy, just talk, that's all."
"Then how do you account for the vanishing game, Pop?," I politely countered.
" I don't know. We got the bird, right here don't we? It don't look like she vanished too far."
I wasn't so sure that I agreed completely with what Pop said. But the time for grace had arrived. Mom lit the candles. A flaming, Canadian sunset sky smeared across an horizon of puffy magical clouds in the far distance to the west. It looked like the rain had abated at least for the moment, as the darkness of the day was setting in.
Then Pop recited the Lord's Prayer:
"Our Father, who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name;
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in Heaven.." etc.
"Well, Happy Thanksgiving to everybody," Mom blessed us. "We have much to be thankful for on this very special day, today."
And so we did. We dug into our holiday meal with true gusto. As a prolonged silence fell over the table, the clinking of silverware and glasses was all that could be heard. Our napkins became more soiled with gravy sauce and stuffing. How everything tasted so fresh, right out of nature's garden and her woods. A burning coziness soon permeated our entire home and hearth.
And yet somehow, the drowsy afternoon hours drifted by us, almost unnoticed. The dogs snoozed peacefully on the carpet near the fireplace, having tastefully devoured the scraps and leftovers. Stomachs satiated we were, one and all.
Yet as I was savoring the scrumptious fowl of fortune we had amazingly caught out in those haunted meadows, a weird sensation began to overtake me. There was a musty bite to the meat. Dizziness, somehow, had gotten the better of me. I leaned back in my chair, sipped the dry white wine, then put down my cloth napkin, dropping my head into my chest.
Boy What's wrong with ya?" Pop interrogated me.
Nothing I could recall. I reawakened in an instant, coming out of my stupor.
....The Pilgrims are
arriving, on those bulky, smelly ships of theirs,"
I began to say. "It's
a cloudy day and they look hungry... and angry...."
"What's that boy yappin' about, anyway?" Pop queried.
"....and weary with fatigue. The look of death and starvation is written all over their faces. They want to kill. To kill each and every one of them." My brother and Mom stared at me in utter disbelief.
"Billie. Do you feel alight?" Mom asked, comforting me.
"...they are invading their homes, pointing muskets toward the caves, telling them to leave or they'll die. Commanding them to git off of their land...."
"I think Billie must, be dreamin' or somethin'," Everett commented. "Billie, are you reciting some poetry from school like that'?"
"...I see ships, lots of ships coming through the mornin' fog, anchoring just off the beach. Them Indians are runnin' scared. Someone is shouting out 'Elder Brewster' it...."
Blackness. Darkness. I couldn't remember a thing after that. I fell to the dining room floor in my efforts to make it to the bathroom. The next thing I recall was Pop and Everett lifting me off of the rug and dragging me over to the fireplace to bring me back to my senses.
"Maybe we should call for a country doctor," Mom suggested, fearful and worried.
"Do they make house visits on holidays?" someone garbled.
"I dunno. We can sure as hell try, can't we?" I heard a voice saying.
" Now Billie, don't you be a worryin' now, hear?."
Visions of Pilgrims and Indians, savages and boars, deer and elk, filled my mind, like a revolving mirror of images out of our nation's deep past. Some planter, or was he a Puritan, or maybe an Indian squaw perhaps, was carrying a knapsack full of dead partridges and quail. My proximity to the fireplace made me sweat and suddenly feel feverish.
"Call the doctor. Billie don't look too good to me."
"To me neither," I heard someone add.
Mom rushed to the phone, dialing a doctor Newcomb, who apparently did house calls for the needy, elderly, and the sick.
"Somehow the pheasant must not have agreed with me, " I concluded. "It did taste good though." I was starting to come to. A long silence followed, then only the embers of the fire would speak. Soon, Everett began to slump in his chair also.
"What's wrong with you?" Pop asked. "You got somethin' ailin' ya too?"
"...They've come to this creek, or this swampy lagoon, and they have three Indians with their hands tied behind their backs, ridin' on horseback...." Everett began to monologue.
Hell, was he going crazy now, too, along with me?
....and they have pulled up their corn from the ground, against their wishes. I am hearing some odd language, some Indian-talk. There's a struggle of sorts going on...."
Then Everett fell to the floor, much like I had done. Pop tried to break his fall but failed from preventing him from hitting his head on the stony side of the chimney. Then Mom returned to the front room, I think.
"Doctor Newcomb should be on his way. He says that he gets real busy on holidays like this one, Thanksgiving and Christmas and all. But he'll be here, and soon," Mom assured us.
"So just what the hell is goin' on here? Would someone please be kind enough to tell me?" Pop popped.
I looked over at my brother and we both knew that we were under some kind of sickness. We were reciting words involuntarily, just coming out of our mouths were the strangest and most unpredictable of things! Yet I couldn't control it. It was a like being in a trance. We became weaker by the minute and began to start fainting. I knew that it must have been something in the pheasant that we ate.
"...and there's firing of musket shots in the air. Confusion. Indians are runnin' helterskelter. One of them Indian chiefs is trying to say somethin' to 'em. He's holdin' up some cornhusks, showin' em somethin'..."
By this time. Pop was becoming scared. He didn't know what to do. So he lay us down, Everett and me on the rug, close to the fire. He opened a window for us to breathe some of that fresh autumn air. And blew in, it did.
"Ah, they'll be alight. They both must've ate somethin' that went bad, that's all. Not to worry folks it's Thanksgivin' after all, no sense in gittin' alarmed."
As Pop stood up he began to sway a bit too. He braced himself on the fireplace mantle in an effort to maintain his balance. He gestured to Mom to get him some soda, which she fetched from the ice-box. He downed the entire can in two gulps! Then he began in a throaty monotone too, much like Everett did:
"I can see 'em plane as day. There are Pilgrims and Injuns hoverin' around a bonfire, all talkin about feastin' together. There's deer and antelope, rabbit and fish, corn and squash, pumpkin and apples, all spread out on this makeshift table on tree stumps. One of them Injuns says that they're gonna celebrate for three whole days! Wait .... wait..."
Silence again. A long pause.
"..the fightin is done with, over for now, one of the young tribesman is sayin'..."
As I looked up from my tipped perspective down on the rug floor, I noticed Pop's eyes were bulged out as if he were hypnotized or something, talking and rambling on endlessly.
"What were you saying?" Mom pleaded to Pop. "Let your father talk."
"...There's spread before me a long table, lots of movement, people of all kinds, with a huge turkey on the table with baked pumpkin, succotash, Lima beans, and ears of corn, everywhere. Some Injun is removing the seeds from inside a pumpkin gourd and stuffing it with, why with honey and ... butter and apple cider...That's the damnedest thing... Now, one of them Pilgrims with a tall brown hat is sayin' somethin', real loud like...."
Mom must have thought we were all crazy by now. She suggested that Pop drink
some of the corn liquor from Kentucky we had in the kitchen pantry. But Pop carried on:
"...I, William Bradford. Governor of Ye Colony do solemnly pronounce ...
....Inasmuch as our great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat and beans, squashes and vegetables, and has made the forests abound with game, and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as He has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience..."
"Honey," Mom interrupted him, "please take some of this Kentucky corn liquor."
"...Now, I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, and ye Indians alike, with your wives and little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of nine and twelve in the daytime, on Thursday, November 29th of the year of our Lord, 1623...."
Everett and I were trying to get up and shake off our intoxicated slumber. Mom was about to cry. Juneau and Bessie were asleep by the fireplace. Pop finally stopped rambling long enough to pass out on the sofa. I thought for a moment that we were all going crazy with visions. We tried to revive Pop with some water, but it sure didn't help.
Dr. Newcomb comin'?"
"He's on his way now."
"Does he still drive that old 49 Packard?"
"Probably", Mom replied assuring me. "Hopefully he won't git stuck out somewheres."
Mom poured Pop a shot of corn liquor, tilting his head back and administering it to him as if it were cough syrup. I finally managed to stand up and look out the window. The trees outside seemed very different: ominous and leaning toward me somehow. The rains were beginning to fall harder again. I stared back down at the floor and saw Pop and Everett sprawled on the ground, decked out. I glanced over at the dinner table and peered at the half-eaten pheasant. It no longer shone of golden. I was hoping that Dr. Newcomb would be arriving soon, for I was not feeling any better.
Mom pulled me by my shirt sleeve and was trying to tell me something. Her eyes were hollow and distant.
"Billie...I'm not feeling too good either. Something we ate, I'm sure."
* * * * * * *
On a slippery, wet icy South Dakotan country road drove Dr. Newcomb toward his intended destination. Autumn leaves fell before his path, blown against his windshield by the chilly downpour. The wind whipped them free of the glass as the doctor looked out over the desolate fields, occasionally spotting a cabin in the woods with a smoking chimney. Everyone must be having their turkey dinner on this Thanksgiving holiday, he thought to himself. Yet he couldn't understand the nature of the call for which he was on. He had to leave his family and children behind him on this truest of American holidays.
The road winded him and carried him forward into the bleakness of the wintry chill. The rains were pattering louder against the hood of his Packard as he could see some of the droplets turning to hail. He rolled down his window to clear the steam that had accumulated on the window's interior from his breath. The heater felt comforting to him. He finally located the house of his destination in the gray smear of the Thanksgiving bite. It was a house of stone with a tall chimney emitting black smoke. He parked the car in the driveway, removed his mittens, took out his little black bag and stethoscope, and approached the door with a cautious, but friendly knock.
A woman answered the door with a blank, whitened stare on her face. She asked who the caller was, then began to recite how our Pilgrim forefathers had set forth this most special of days to thank our Lord for His bountiful harvest, to give alms to Almighty God, and to christen the last Thursday of the calendar in honor of Our Heavenly Father in thanksgiving for His creation and earthly abundance.
Dr Newcomb remained silent, looking into the living room, hoping to escape from the chilling elements out of doors.
"Indeed, it is a day to be thankful.. Ma'am", the doctor replied. "I was called to this residence because someone is ill."
"Yes", Everett answered coming to his senses. "Come in, doctor."
Dr. Newcomb entered the premises, took off his mittens and warmed his hands over the fire. Pop approached him, wide-eyed and sterile-faced, reciting more Pilgrim lore:
"... and we all sat down with these red-skinned visitors and feasted for three days and three nights, in all hopes that the Lord our God would stave off the famine and hunger til yet another year....
Pop continued on:
"...with the venison, quail, pheasant, duck, goose and gander, cornbread and pumpkin seeds.."
Then Dr. Newcomb, while putting down his black bag, looked up at me and asked why he had been called to our house. My mind was beginning to clear somewhat.
" I think, Doctor, that we have eaten some foul meat."
"Very funny, very comical indeed," he retorted immediately.
I really hadn't attempted the pun intentionally. I proceeded to tell him that we were all acting rather strangely and that the pheasant must have affected us, somehow. He proceeded to look into my mouth, then he took my temperature, gave me a dose of soda water, and suggested that I lie down. I tried to tell him that we were having visions and visitations from out of the past and that we were, in some way, under the influence of some spell or charm, or a drunken stupor by something we had eaten.
The country doctor then kindly took a peek into Pop's throat, took his temperature too, then he lay him down on the rug by the fireside, for he was beginning to shiver. He asked Pop to take some deep breaths, inhaling then exhaling ever so methodically. Then he asked him:
"And just how much of this corn liquor, here, have you consumed, or need I ask?"
"...It was Squanto, the generous one who helped us through it all.." Pop croaked involuntarily.
Dr. Newcomb then asked Everett if we had spoiled dairy products in the house, if we had consumed any pills with alcohol or had any tobacco. Then he became strangely quiet and indeed sullen. He thought for a bit, then responded thus:
"I believe that you all here are suffering a delusion of sorts. I can't help you. I'm only a general practitioner, a medical doctor, that's all, not a psychologist. I do have family waiting for me at home on this Thanksgiving Day. So, if you all will excuse me, I must be off. I'm sorry. I don't mean to be rude."
I then desperately pleaded with the doctor to stay, to even join us for the Thanksgiving holiday if he were so inclined, considering how far he had come and all. He relaxed soon afterward, warmed himself by the fireside, and asked us to carefully relate our hunting outing to him, so as to give him any possible medical clues as to our current condition. Everett was first to join in:
"Alright, doc. You see, we went huntin' in these woods and saw our game disappear, like ghost birds or somethin'. One of the dogs caught this pheasant, we picked plums and walnuts after that. Then we come home and Mom cooked dinner."
"How long ago did you finish eating?" Dr. Newcomb asked of us.
"I don't know. A few hours, maybe?"
"Was there anything in the pheasant that tasted different or odd?"
"No. Not to me anyways."
I begged to differ once again, this time with my brother, however.
"And what is all this talk about Pilgrims and Indians and such?"
No one could readily answer that one.
"Well.. I'll tell you," Dr. Newcomb continued, "I'm going to prepare some ginger tea with a squirt of lemon and honey and have you sip it real slowly. Then, I want you all to rest, then to take a few deep breaths, and nod off if need be. Alright?"
"Alright that's fine by me," I answered him. "Whatever you say."
Dr. Newcomb asked Mom if he could use the kitchen stove to heat water to prepare the tea bags. He checked my heartbeat, took Everett's pulse, made sure Pop kept the thermometer in his mouth, and waited patiently for the water to boil.
''It's wintertime coming soon," the doctor proceeded, "and this chilly storm has everyone feeling slightly under the weather, I believe. But you'll be feeling better in no time at all," he assured us.
When the water had boiled and Mom fixed the tea, the doctor administered it to us with great care and caution. He tilted my head back ever so gently, then insisted that I rest by the fireside. He had Pop put a blanket around himself to prevent shivering. The Thanksgiving afternoon wore on, and I was starting to feel sleepy. The mellowness of the fire, with its soft soothing warmth and comforting crackle and pop, drifted me off into a pleasant early evening slumber.
I had a most vivid dream shortly after I closed my eyes. I saw clearly a rugged campsite in the mountains overlooking a beach. British vessels were anchored off the coast in ships with high masts, not too far from the shoreline. Someone was trying to tell me something, to let me know that I was suddenly in grave danger, pointing behind me and telling me I've got to beware! As I quickly turned around, a mountain lion was leaping through the air, heading directly toward me. I somehow had a dead turkey in my sack and the wildcat drooled with hunger as saliva dripped from his every daggered tooth. Its jaw opened wide at me as I ran screaming down to the shoreline, crying out loud for help. I hit the sand, fell forward and landed on my stomach which had caught afire, dropped my catch, and arose again only to dive into icy cold waters, putting out the flames on my belt buckle, and then I swam desperately through the opposing breakers, headed out towards the Mayflower ship on a sea of troubled waters. I tried in vain to scream out for more help, but the impending waves overtook my voice, drenching my every word, salting my tongue and gums. Something was pulling me downward, below the water's surface, to the ocean's floor. My head eventually broke to the surface and once again I could see the Mayflower bobbing up and down over the ocean's waves. I cried for them to wait for me, to wait ... wait... please wait for me...
Then I awoke, suddenly, feeling my heart pounding violently in my chest!
I heard a knock at the door. Was l still dreaming? The knocking sounded again, this time much louder.
I suddenly froze. The mountain lion! Had it returned to kill me? No. Wildcats don't knock on people's doors. They just barge in, like the one who soared towards me in my dream.
Pop, who must have finally gotten up while I slept, was first to reach the door. As he opened it, I could feel the biting chill and icy winds sweeping through our home and hearts, dampening the holiday flavor ever so coldly and disturbing the tranquil flames in our fireplace. A log fell heavy onto the fire just at that moment. Pop stared out into the bleakness. He paused while saying nothing. I arose to approach the doorway and there, before us, there stood this husky gentleman of medium stature in Pilgrim's clothing! Such odd, colorless attire, was my first thought. He ported on his person a lengthy, 17th Century, wide-barreled musket with a hunting dog sitting by his boots.
"Have you seen Clementine in these parts?" the stranger asked us.
"Who?" Pop inquired of the stranger.
"Clementine, my pet bird. She must've flew out this way. Been looking for her all morning. I think that she got scared. She flew off into that forest yonder, and Darius couldn't pick her up, her trail and scent that is," he concluded, pointing toward the neighboring woods.
Pop turned and glanced at me in wonderment. Dr. Newcomb was still fooling with his home brewed teas and cinnamon sticks.
"Well, just what kind of bird is Clementine, anyhow?" 'Pop interrogated of the gentleman.
"A pheasant," he clarified.
We all stopped and looked among ourselves.
· "Who're you all talking to?" Dr. Newcomb cried out loud. "Close that door. It's freezing out there," he commanded us.
I invited the strange Thanksgiving visitor inside. He left his dog Darius outside on the porch. He somehow carried a glow about him, an odd light of sorts shall I say.
"By God, I can see right through him. This man's a ghost!" shouted out Dr. Newcomb.
"What's going on out here?" queried Mom as she came closer to us.
I simply couldn't believe my eyes and what they beheld. A Pilgrim off of some lost ghost ship. Pop turned to us in disbelief, wide-eyed and looking scared. His mind suddenly seemed much clearer.
"Come in," I demanded closing the door behind him. "In, out of the chill."
I saw Dr Newcomb unexpectedly stand up quickly. He looked about himself, twitching somewhat, then he went into our kitchen to look out the window into the storm, then he snapped his head abruptly around, looking rather bewildered. Mom took her apron off with a nervous air about her. Pop's eyes were pasted wide open, like white saucers from outer space.
Then, Bessie and Juneau suddenly awoke, snapping their heads alertly around. What was I seeing? I couldn't help but ask myself. Was I still dreaming? Mom came to the doorway looking out beyond, toward the woods.
"Who are you?"
"I am, your kind Madam, an intruder this day. Sh...sh..." the ghost replied. "Do you hear?"
"No," Mom replied. "I don't hear. Hear what?"
"Those sounds, the natives. You can't hear them?"
"Wait," I interjected, "yes, I do hear something. Listen. Just listen."
"Sounds like chantin"' Pop added, still visibly shaken.
"Hey! I hear drums poundin", Everett exclaimed. He stood up and started tapping his foot.
l listened intently. The beat grew louder, the sonority deeper. It sounded like hooting, or human-like owl imitations, pleasantly embellished in rhythm and song. I then thought of the corn liquor, peered down into my glass and swirled it around. I had drunken some. But not enough for me to be seeing things, especially things of this sort! Of this, I was most certain. This was something I simply couldn't understand.
Then the strange Pilgrim ghost-of-a-man gently placed his musket, with the rest of our rifles, above the mantle on our hanging racks. He then removed his brimmed hat, warmed his hands over the fire and asked if he could only sit down a few minutes until the rains stopped. We obliged him, though we were somewhat taken aback by his presence, his outlandish appearance, his musky odor. He elucidated a shiny transparency all about him, kind of like an angel's halo. You literally could see right through him, almost completely through at times, if you stared at the stranger long enough! For this very one quality and attribute, alone, I knew for certain that he was a living ghost!
"I don't hear anything outside," Dr. Newcomb stated flatly.
"You can't hear that, those drums poundin?" Everett asked him.
"Nope. I don't hear any drumming at all. Nothing whatsoever."
The drum beats were growing ever so louder and more intense. Pop and Mom looked out the window, then Mom pulled back gasping. Pop hugged her on the spot then pulled her away from the kitchen window. Everett and I ran to the window. As we looked out into the wintry scene, reminding us of a Currier and Ives painted landscape of sorts, we spotted these Indians! Lots of them, all in headgear and such. Some seemed to be drumming on primitive-type bongos with deerskin covers while others were dancing around a campfire, a blaze they must've started out in our own front yard. The four of us abruptly turned around to see the Pilgrim ghost (if I may refer to him thus) fanning the fire in our fireplace. He then studied us from head to toe, then looked down into the carpet.
"They're celebrating out there," he began with a hint of British accent, "and they're going to sacrifice a pheasant this time. But not Gertrude, I hope, thanks be to God Almighty."
Dr. Newcomb then regarded us with an eerie curiosity, then approached the kitchen window, and staring out the windowpane declared: "I see nothing out there. Just dampness and rainfall."
Everett and I looked at one another, surprised by what the doctor had said. So, we began to huddle over the other window, peering out into the empty blackness. First we saw a young squaw holding out a dead pheasant well over the bonfire, and a blonde, Irish-looking lady dressed up like an ear of corn! We then watched an entire religious ceremony or ritual unfold before our very eyes. Why Dr. Newcomb couldn't see nor hear this I couldn't comprehend. We suddenly saw an Indian digging a small hole into the dirt with his bare hands. He put a dead fish into the little hole he had dug and, covering it with dirt, stuck a cornhusk on top of it, standing the corn upright. It must have been some symbolic gesture over harvest time, or something.
"Hey lookie there," Pop delighted, "that woman is gonna dance for us! What in God's name are them people doin' out there in that cold anyhow?"
"Look." Everett suddenly gladdened, " Look at that huge wine bottle! Hee...Haw..."
Once the Pilgrim ghost man realized what we were witnessing, he came over to our window and said:
"Her name is Matilija. She's our corn maiden for this year's harvest."
"And precisely in what year is this harvest celebration?" I couldn't help but ask our ghost of Thanksgiving.
"Why, it's 1622 of course, in the year of our Lord God," he answered me.
Squinting my eyes to see more clearly, I could make out that this cornhusker lady was adorned in corsages with corn garlands interwoven within. White popcorn was strung all around her neck like a chain. She wore yellowed corn husks all about her person, had grown lengthy pigtails, and her dress reminded me of a country Dutch girl out of old New Amsterdam.
"That, my dear fellows, is our Maiden of the Maize," instructed the ghost Pilgrim.
"What, might I ask, is that?"
"Or who is she, for the God's sake?"
"It's an old Indian legend we learned from them. It's a fertility rite, you may say. The Maiden of the Maize, as the Spaniards called it for corn, would dance for the harvest festival to bring a good crop for that following year. As she danced over the fire she would peel off her corn kernels, one by one, throwing them into the fire, to see who would marry and have children, or whose love wasn't true."
"How was she able to foretell that with poppin' corn over the fire?" Pop then asked.
"Well, according to the legend, and I may have it wrong or not clear here, if the kernel on the fire didn't burst, then that meant that her lover had been faithful to her. However, if it did burst or blacken, that meant infidelity. But if it swelled slowly into a blossoming kernel, it meant children and family forthcoming," concluded our partially invisible, partly visible Pilgrim phantom guest.
We all gazed in amazement out of our kitchen window on that Thanksgiving Day. What a live performance to witness, what a spectacle to behold! That dancing lady, or Matilda as he'd called her, then flung off all of her corn kernels into the fire with lots of hooting and howling and dancing to follow. Then more incessant drumming. Some of the Indians were hauling about eight or so deer onto a blanket, then dragged them up to the fire pit for further roasting, I imagine. The oddest thing, or rather what stood most out of place in my mind, was this gigantic bottle of wine or colored water standing beside these Indians. And that pheasant was still smoking over that fire now, yet my family and me knew all too well that it wasn't the ghost's pet bird Gertrude. We all glued our eyes and ears on the rituals going on just outside our door, soaking it all in, totally absorbed in the pageantry of it all .
A few Pilgrim folk were now approaching the campfire with smiles on their faces. The ruddy glow of the fire's embers displayed mirth and merriment upon every English countenance intermixed with the redskins. I pressed my ear to the window glass to hear what I could, if anything. The windowpane felt like ice.
"Now this is twelve thousand, I repeat, twelve thousand gallons..." I could barely hear someone saying. The ghostly Pilgrim touched me on the shoulder saying it was 12,000 gallons of sweet red fermented wine.
"This is preposterous!" screamed Dr. Newcomb, suddenly. " Now I'm beginning to believe that I've eaten something funny, seeing this ghost and all. It's Thanksgiving isn't it? not Halloween."
It struck me then and there that Dr. Newcomb could recognize the ghost Pilgrim visibly only, but nothing more. He was not seeing what we were seeing outside in our front yard. Yet he could see the same Pilgrim ghost that we did, only inside our home. How could this possibly be? I wondered silently to myself.
"Is that your Gertrude quail out there, a-fryin' over the open fire pit?" Pop asked the ghost quite boldly.
"No," our ghost of Thanksgiving replied contently, " it's not her, thank God Almighty. She has more of a golden and reddish color to her."
"So why do they need a wine bottle so big and so tall?" I asked him while I looked out onto the festive celebration, deliberately changing the topic of conversation. Just as I did so, I began to notice that all the Indians and Pilgrims, and the pheasant and the Dutch lady with the long pigtails were all turning partly transparent, just like our visitor. Ghostlike!
"We use such a gigantic wine cask in an annual ritual of autumnal good fortune to show abundance of the harvest, you see. To us settlers, it signifies good health and fine wealth. We brought this custom over with us from our two-year's stay in Holland. But on a more practical side of things, we have more fun watching the children slide down the bottle's neck on the day that the harvest has been brought in and gathered."
Then, a brief pause in his speech. Hence, he carried on: "But, my time is run short. I must leave this place now," he concluded quite soberly.
"Where will you go now?" Mom asked him.
"In search of Gertrude. Maybe she's got herself lost in the woods, or maybe she's been captured, and hopefully she's hasn't been et yet. Maybe I'll never know, but I haven't surrendered to the idea of losing her just now. Our Lord God Almighty on this blessed day proclaimed this harvest, so only He knows. He knows, in His infinite wisdom."
We glanced quickly and uneasily at one another once again as the ghost had said this. He then bowed with his hat off clutched in his hands, thanked us, and marched backwards into and through our closed mahogany door, disappearing before our very own eyes, like a steaming, evaporating mist! We looked out the windows once again and everything had returned to normal. The merrymakers with their harvest festivities were gone, no longer! Dr. Newcomb looked dumbfounded and crestfallen.
"Well, I will be damned," he admitted. "How in all creation do you explain that?"
"That's just what we said when we was huntin' out yonder in them woods," Pop added.
"Just like that, up in smoke before your eyes. Hard to believe, ain't it?" Everett continued on.
"Makes you feel like you're goin' crazy or somethin', don't it?"
Dr. Newcomb then proceeded to gather his coat, black bag and stethoscope. He then meticulously put on his mittens that had been warming over the fireplace mantle, then suddenly looked upward toward the wall.
"Look! He left his gun here," the doctor exclaimed. 'That ghost, he forgot his gun."
"What about Darius, his dog?" I asked. That canine ghost, too, had disappeared.
But, that 17th Century musket remained hanging there over our fireplace mantle.
"Well, I'm getting out of this house. It's haunted," Dr. Newcomb fretted. "I would say that pheasant you all ate was spooked, too, or something strange like that. It's far beyond me and my knowledge of medicine and modern day science."
"Well, she come out of them haunted woods, so they say," Pop divined.
"Haunted or not," Everett said, referring to Dr. Newcomb, " you didn't eat that pheasant with us today, and yet you saw him, that spirit."
And with that remark, Dr. Newcomb remained silent. He bundled himself as much as he could, got to the door, bid us farewell and promised us that he wouldn't be sending us a bill for his services. Had Juneau accidentally caught that Pilgrim's pet pheasant Gertrude? God only knows. I took the musket from off of the wall hanging above the fireplace, admiring the beauty and craftsmanship of the ancient 350-year-old relic. What a museum piece, I thought aloud. The next thing I realized, shaking off my pensive mood, was Dr. Newcomb driving away from our house, out into the cold and dampness as the taillights of his 1949 Packard shone red in the blustery mist. And the Thanksgiving chill cut even deeper into our souls on that 28th of November, nineteen hundred and fifty-seven, in the year of our Lord.
Taken from my collection of four short stories, Festival of Holiday Miniatures (1993)
All Rights Reserved
To order THE SPANISH SAMPLER:
Thanksgiving and its Historical Antecedents
Origins of Hallowe'en
Hallowe'en Poem: Winds of October
Origins of Christmas