Sunday, November 7, 2010

A selection from "Pumpkinhead" by Rajan Khanna

by Rajan Khanna

r.P walked out of his pumpkin-shaped house and paused on the
edge of the garden path. Even in the waning light, I could tell that
the colour in his face, which should have been a bright, glossy orange-gold, had faded to a dull fuscous hue. The skin sagged with a grayish cast. I had only picked that one a week earlier.
He bent his round head to the side and tapped it with one gloved hand. When he righted it again, he stared at me a moment before speaking. “I think there’s something wrong with this one,” he said.
“It’s deteriorating,” I said, smoothing down my dress. “But it looks like it still has some life in it. A few days at least.”
“No, it’ feels a bit odd on the left side. And my vision...I think I’ll need a new one right away. I keep...seeing things.”
“Okay,” I said, not knowing what else to say. “I’ll get you a new one right away. Do you want me to take it to her to carve?”
“No,” he said. “There’s no time. I’ll have to do it myself.”
I  nodded and went to pick a new pumpkin. The blight was getting worse. I would have to step up my efforts.
Luckily for me, I wasn’t dependent on the usual growing times that such pumpkins would require. While it would normally take months, Mr. P had supplied me with packets of Dr. Nikidik’s Magical Powder of Growing, obtained from one of his high-placed connections, which meant I could cultivate a new crop in less than a week.
I walked among the golden rinds, finally selecting one that was suitable for my employer’s purposes - large, evenly shaped and firm. I picked it, then brought it inside.
Mr. P sat at the table, his sagging head leaning against one gloved hand. It was tilted slightly to the side and he was waving the free fingers of his other hand in the air.
“Mr. P?” I said.
He tilted his head toward me. “Call me Jack,” he said, for the hundredth time. But I couldn’t. He was my employer, but more than that, he was a celebrity, and a close personal friend of the queen. In fact, if it wasn’t for his imminent need, she would be the one about to carve this pumpkin for him. He was basically part of the royal family.
 He held out his hands and I placed the pumpkin into them. His arms, which he kept covered at all times, were little more than wooden sticks, like broom handles, but they were strong and sturdy and he pulled the pumpkin closer, cradling it for a second before placing it on the table in front of him.
Fascinated, I longed to watch as he carved it, to see how it was done, but it was such an intimate act, so very personal, and I couldn’t bear to intrude upon it. As the knife penetrated the rind and into the tender inner flesh, I turned and left the house and returned to the field where I belonged.

I left the farm not long afterward, able to do very little after night fell and, truth be told, somewhat stumped as to a next step. I thought that some sleep might help, so I returned to the boarding house in which I stayed nearby in Winkie Country. That part of Oz was still strange to me, raised as I was in Quadling Country. But the queen had asked for the best, and word reached her that it was me. I won’t say that I wasn’t pleased to hear this, for I took pride in my accomplishments, but it also made me nervous and I feared being shown to be a fraud.
These thoughts continued to rattle around my head – my fears, my pride, my frustration at being unable to solve the problem before me – until I found sleep at last. When I awoke, early the next morning, I returned to Mr. P’s farm and bent down to the task once more.
My process was simple. Because I had the powder to aid growth, I had planted the seeds in batches, two at a time. One would be a test group, the other a normal group to compare it to. As each pair of batches matured, another would be a few days behind it and so forth. This allowed me to try out different techniques and theories as to what might be causing this.
The first thing I ruled out was infestation. For one, there were no signs of critters on or in the pumpkins. However, this being Oz, I didn’t trust my eyes alone, and so borrowed a pair of magnifying spectacles. But the only insects afflicting the crop were the flies hovering over the rotten pumpkins on the other side of the field. Every so often I would find a specimen that had been punctured or torn – the growth powder sometimes accelerated things too much - and my hands would punch through the rotten rind, into the maggot-strewn interior. I was used to critters of all kinds – snakes and worms and crickets and toads – but this challenged even my resolve.
Not all the rotten pumpkins lay at the other end of the field, though. Those that Mr. P took for his heads, no matter how short a time he wore them, he buried, in a plot of land adjacent to the pumpkin fields. In the last few months the number of graves had increased severely so that it looked like the graveyard of a small town, much like the town I grew up in. Looking at that field of buried heads made me think of my parents and how much I missed them. Their graves lay far away in Quadling Country.
If critters weren’t to blame, I thought, it might be the soil. So I planted some other crops beside the pumpkins – some squash, some beets, some cucumbers. All turned out fine. It was only the pumpkins that seemed to be affected.
It stymied me. As I tended the current crop, they looked good to my critical eye, plump and glossy, heavy to the hand. It seemed only when they were picked that they started to deteriorate, turning to mush within weeks. Once, Mr. P had told me, a head would last months for him. Possibly up to a year if well cared for. Some property in his body, or perhaps the force that animated it, kept them hardy. But recently, it was weeks, if that. The last had only endured for nine days.  I thought about what it might be like if I had to change my head every week and I wondered how I could function.
“How’s it coming?” came Mr. P’s voice from behind me.
I bent over the pumpkins, running my fingers across the creases. “I’m making progress,” I said. “But not as much as I would like.”
The voice came closer. “I feel better today,” he said. “The new head seems to help.”
I nodded, unable to face him. I couldn’t overcome the thought that I was letting him down. That I was failing him.
“Thank you for helping me,” he said. “I know you’re doing your best.”
I bowed my head.
“No. Really,” he said. “Please.” I stood up and turned to face him.
And almost screamed.
One of Mr P’s eyes sunk low on his pumpkin face, as if flowing down, as if made of wax. The other jaunted at an unusual angle, casting that side of the face in a demonic light. That eyebrow was high and menacing. The other was a deep, crude gash in the face. The nose was a mere slit, the mouth a vicious sneer tearing across the lower curve of the pumpkin.
“What is it?” he said, stumbling back.
I shook my head, unable, unwilling to speak the words.
I swallowed, trying to suppress my horror, to spare his feelings, but I was apparently ineffective, for he ran off, his wooden limbs pumping to put as much distance between us as possible.
When he was gone, I turned and collapsed among the pumpkins, running my fingers through the dirt to console myself, inhaling the earthy, mineral scent. My tears watered the soil, partially from fear, and partially from the knowledge that I had hurt my employer.