If only rotted flesh had more appeal, then Peter wouldn’t have a problem. If Halloween were about swans gliding across glass-smooth waters, or roses in full, fat bloom, then he would have no trouble choosing an image to carve. As it was, though, the squat pumpkin sat untouched on Peter’s desk, next to the equally-neglected contest entry form, with its deadline in bold black: OCTOBER 31.
Peter sighed, pacing past posters of fractals and world-upside-down drawings by Escher. There were so many beautiful, brilliant things… Why did Halloween have to be so ugly?
“What are the other boys making?” his mother had asked. “Maybe they could help you…”
Peter had spent the past week listening to the “other boys” expound on their gruesome jack-o-lantern designs: intestine-munching zombies, hellhounds mauling one another, a Satan-possessed clown… How could Peter carve an appropriately ghoulish pumpkin, when just watching the ketchup fall in thick blood-drops off his classmates’ French fries made him queasy?
With another sigh, Peter slumped into his desk chair and plopped the three-dollar pumpkin on his lap, feeling glad he hadn’t wasted extra money on a carving kit. After a moment, he closed his eyes, and began to turn the pumpkin over in his hands, letting his thumbs run rollercoaster over the ridges. Something nice, but Halloween-y… Something nice, but Halloween-y… Something nice –
And then, in a lightning crackle-burst, he saw it — the perfect picture. Peter’s eyes flew open and he grabbed the carving knife. Within minutes, a slimy pile of orange guts sat in his trashcan. His hands were sticky and stringy, but for once he didn’t care — line by line, the image was coming alive.
In the end, the knife wasn’t enough. Peter used pencils and toothpicks to punch out the finer details. When he finally finished at five AM, his eyes felt as gritty as his hands. The peach-scented Glade candle he’d swiped from the bathroom fluttered wildly when he lit it. Peter turned off the desk lamp, sat back, and felt his breath catch. The scene glowed at him through the darkness, painted in warm yellow light:
A family of four, out trick-or-treating. The toddler son, dressed as Pooh Bear, was stopping to fix his mitten-paw, while his older sister, a haughty princess, swung her candy bucket high in the air. Behind them, the smiling parents walked hand-in-hand.
All the beauty of Halloween — none of the gore. Peter sat gazing at that joyful, candlelit moment for nearly a half-hour before extinguishing the flame.
The next day, his pumpkin beat out the demonic clown for the blue ribbon — making Peter, at twelve, the youngest to ever win the district-wide competition. The first thing he bought with his gift card prize was a carving kit.
In the years that followed, Peter won several more times, his designs becoming increasingly intricate — from six wary kittens investigating a cat costume, to a troupe of snappily-dressed skeletons enjoying their 200th class reunion. Before graduating from high school, he’d already had two designs featured in American Pumpkin Carver, and was earning regular paychecks from Genevieve’s Flowers, making original pumpkin creations for birthdays, fundraisers and even funerals.
Peter was at college, learning how to launch his own business, when he met a girl who could play the cello the way he could carve a pumpkin. And suddenly, carving just wasn’t the same without a little Bach playing in the background. Soon, Peter and Maria were strolling around campus hand-in-hand, Peter humming as Maria’s thumb rubbed dried orange bits from between his fingers.
One night, Peter led Maria through an array of celestial carvings — comets and constellations and planets, all strategically perched on tree-stumps. Just past Mercury, the very last stump stood empty. Peter lifted Maria onto it and gazed at her: the center of his universe. Sinking to his knees, he asked,
“Will you marry me?”
That winter, white gourds lined the church aisle, casting flickering patterns of snowflakes onto scattered rose-petals. The lanterns were so breathtaking that Peter had booked three more wedding jobs before the end of his own reception. Afterwards, a reporter commented, “Not many people can make a living carving pumpkins. How do you come up with the perfect design for every occasion?”
Peter shrugged and smiled. “I just pick up the pumpkin, close my eyes, and then, in a flash, I see it.”
Several decades and thousands of pumpkins later, when his hair was thin and his fingers crooked-bent with arthritis, Peter officially retired from carving. He still did charity work, though, and was out in his garage one afternoon, carving roly-poly puppies for the Humane Society, when he felt a small tug at his elbow.
Peter looked down to find little Katie peering up at him. Over in the doorway, Maria stood smiling, her snow-silk hair captured in a bun.
Peter smiled fondly at his granddaughter. “Yes, my dear?”
Katie pointed at the pumpkin in her grandpa’s liver-spotted hands. “Make one for me?” she asked meekly.
His heart did a little flip-flop — she’d never asked this before.
“Of course,” he said.
He set down the large pumpkin he was holding, and selected a petite round one, perfect for Katie’s small hands. Peter carefully balanced the pumpkin on his bony knee, closed his eyes, and waited…
…But the flash didn’t come.
Swallowing nervously, Peter opened his eyes. Katie stood on tiptoe, blinking hopefully. Peter hesitantly began to carve. Once finished, he held the pumpkin out to her shyly, almost fearfully.
There was a beat of clock-ticking silence, then Katie’s delighted shriek filled the garage. She hugged the pumpkin close, and pressed a soft kiss to her grandfather’s cheek.
“Thank you, Grandpa!”
She admired her new jack-o-lantern’s face: an equilateral triangle for each eye, one for the nose, and a gap-toothed, crescent-moon grin.
“Would you like to dance?” Katie asked. She made the pumpkin nod, and off they went.
And Peter watched his granddaughter twirl round and round, giggling and pink-cheeked, the most beautiful creation of all.
Gretchen Bassier has a BA in Psychology from the University of Michigan. She works in healthcare, and her socks are often mismatched.