Jackie woke up early, pulled on his blue jeans and his sneakers, and set out before it was light. The sloshing of his feet on the leaf-scattered earth harmonized with the squeaky wheeled wagon, which followed like a cheerful red shadow as he walked. He strode past the pond, not stopping to skip stones. Not today. He set his shoulders instead toward the winding path that led to his pumpkin patch. Today, Jackie had a mission.
He kicked a tin can as he walked, all the while feeling as though he’d burst with his secret. He passed a row of cattails and couldn’t resist plucking on from the earth. He beat its head against a fence rail and blew on it, filling the autumn air with its snow. He pulled out his jackknife and cut a few for later. Then, remembering what day it was, he set them in the wagon and continued on.
Jackie’s mother was the brightest star in his heaven, the only star, since his dad died the year before. Today was mother’s birthday and he wanted to get her something special. A diamond necklace, maybe, or a sparkling silver bracelet.
The path dipped and rolled before him, into a valley and through a grove of pines. Jackie pulled his wagon up short at the edge of his pumpkin patch, smiling as his secret swelled inside him. He counted ten good-sized pumpkins, and at least a half dozen smaller ones. As he began to calculate, a frown chased away his smile. How much did a diamond necklace cost, he wondered?
He pulled out his knife, and as solemn as a surgeon, severed the pumpkins from their stems. He laid them gently in the wagon, careful to place the smaller ones on top. He stripped off his sweatshirt as he worked, a small, bent figure beneath a sailor blue sky. Around him, the trees echoed birdsong and wind hush, softly weeping lemon, red and orange…
When he’d placed the last pumpkin into his wagon, he sat on a fallen tree to rest. He collected handfuls of pinecones and laid them in the wagon, filled his tin can with acorns; little happy-faced men in brown berets he’d use for throwing practice later. He glanced up and saw a shiny red kite tail in the top of the tall oak tree. He shimmied to the top, cut it free, and laid it in the wagon.
He trudged to the end of the road, and finding the perfect spot, began to set up shop. He arranged the smallest pumpkins near the front, filling in the gaps with bunches of Black Eyed Susans that grew by the side of the road. Finally satisfied, he took out his marking pen and drew up a sign: PUMPKINS TWO FOR $1.00
He sat out the afternoon, chin in hands, until the sun began to cast long shadows across the road. His heart leapt and fell as an occasional car approached, slowed, and rumbled on. He sat until he knew it was very late, then pulled his wagon, as heavy as his heart, toward home.
By the time he reached their small farm, the red ribbon was trailing, bedraggled, in the dirt behind the wagon. He pulled it free, threw it on top of his lead, and went inside to lay the table for supper. He’d just set out the plates, when he heard mother’s car in the driveway. He turned from her when she entered the house, too ashamed to meet her eyes.
“Hello, Jackie.” She pulled him close. In the waning daylight, he thought he saw tears gathering in her eyes. “Thank you for the presents,” she said softly.
He nodded, feeling flags of shame spread across his cheeks.
When they’d finished their meal, Jackie went outside to gather kindling. He worked quickly as night fell, spooky, black as cats, around him.
Back inside, the house was cozy with firelights. The pinecones and acorns he’d gathered crackled and popped from the hearth, putting a good, woodsy scent in the air. He found mother in the kitchen, pulling a tray of roasted pumpkinseeds from the oven. She smiled when she saw him in the doorway.
“A special treat,” she said.
He ate them, one at a time, savoring each salty drop. Mother pointed to a bowl filled with orange pulp. “Tomorrow we’ll have pie.”
Jackie stared at his shoes. “I wanted to get you something nicer,” he said.
“Why, these are wonderful gifts, Jackie. Gifts from the earth. From the heart. The best kind of gifts in the world.” She held out her arms, and though he was a big boy now, nearly ten, he climbed into her lap and snuggled close. Over mother’s shoulder he saw cattails and Black Eyed Susans arranged in his tin can on the hearth. They danced in the shadows of the room. Glinting like diamonds in the firelight.
Photo by Elizabeth Pike
Story © M. Jean Pike 2001
*This story first appeared in the Fall, 2001 edition of Folklore! Magazine.