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Remembering Ray Bradbury
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
A few Halloweens ago, I read this passage from Bradbury's The Halloween Tree aloud at a party. Still one of my favorites.


They ran down through the ravine at a swift rush, all laughing, jostling, all elbows and ankles, all steamy snort and roustabout, to stop in collision when Tom Skelton stopped and pointed up the path.

"There," he whispered. "There's the only house in town worth visiting on Halloween! There!"

"Yeah!" said everyone.

For it was true. The house was special and fine and tall and dark. There must have been a thousand windows in its sides, all shimmering with cold stars. It looked as if it had been cut out of black marble instead of built out of timbers, and inside? who could guess how many rooms, halls, breezeways, attics. Superior and inferior attics, some higher than others, some more filled with dust and webs and ancient leaves or gold buried above ground in the sky but lost away so high no ladder in town could take you there.

The house beckoned with its towers, invited with its gummed-shut doors. Pirate ships are a tonic. Ancient forts are a boon. But a house, a haunted house, on All Hallows' Eve? Eight small hearts beat up an absolute storm of glory and approbation.

"Come on."

But they were already crowding up the path. Until they stood at last by a crumbling wall, looking up and up and still farther up at the great tombyard top of the old house. For that's what it seemed. The high mountain peak of the mansion was littered with what looked like black bones or iron rods, and enough chimneys to choke out smoke signals from three dozen fires on sooty hearths hidden far below in the dim bowels of this monster place. With so many chimneys, the roof seemed a vast cemetery, each chimney signifying the burial place of some old god of fire or enchantress of steam, smoke, and firefly spark. Even as they watched, a kind of bleak exhalation of soot breathed up out of some four dozen flues, darkening the sky still more, and putting out some few stars.

"Boy," said Tom Skelton, "Pipkin sure knows what he's talking about!"

"Boy," said all, agreeing.

They crept along a weed-infested path toward the crumpled front porch.

Tom Skelton, alone, itched his bony foot up on the first porchstep. The others gasped at his bravery. So, now, finally in a mob, a compact mass of sweating boys moved up on the porch amid fierce cries of the planks underfoot, and shudderings of their bodies. Each wished to pull back, swivel about, run, but found himself trapped against the boy behind or in front or to the side. So, with a pseudopod thrust out here or there, the amoebic form, the large perspiration of boys leaned and made a run and a stop to the front door of the house which was as tall as a coffin and twice as thin.

They stood there for a long moment, various hands reaching out like the legs of an immense spider as if to twist that cold knob or reach up for the knocker on that front door. Meanwhile, the wooden floorings of the porch sank and wallowed beneath their weight, threatening at every shift of proportion to give way and fling them into some cockroach abyss beneath. The planks, each tuned to an A or an F or a C, sang out their uncanny music as heavy shoes scraped on them. And if there had been time and it were noon, they might have danced out a cadaver's tune or a skeleton's rigadoon, for who can resist an ancient porch which, like a gigantic xylophone, only wants to be jumped on to make music?

But they were not thinking this.

Henry--Hank Smith (for that's who it was), hidden inside his black Witch's costume, cried: "Look!"

And all looked at the knocker on the door.

Tom's hand trembled out to touch it.

"A Marley knocker!"

"What?"

"You know, Scrooge and Marley, a Christmas Carol!" whispered Tom.

And indeed the face that made up the knocker on the door was the face of a man with a dread toothache, his jaw bandaged, his hair askew, his teeth prolapsed, his eyes wild.

Dead-as-a-doornail Marley, friend to Scrooge, inhabitor of lands beyond the grave, doomed to wander this earth forever until ...

"Knock," said Henry-Hank.

Tom Skelton took hold of old Marley's cold and grisly jaw, lifted it, and let it fall.

All jumped at the concussion!

The entire house shook. Its bones ground together. Shades snap-furled up so that windows blinked wide their ghastly eyes.

Tom Skelton cat-leaped to the porch rail, staring up.

On the rooftop, weird weathercocks spun. Two-headed roosters whirled in the sneezed wind. A gargoyle on the western rim of the house erupted twin snorts of rain-funnel dust. And down the long snaking serpentine rainspouts of the house, after the sneeze had died and the weathercocks ceased spinning, vagrant wisps of autumn leaf and cobweb fell gusting out onto the dark grass.

Tom whirled to look at the faintly shuddering windows. Moonlit reflections trembled in the glass like schools of disturbed silver minnows. Then the front door gave a shake, a twist of its knob, a grimace of its Marley knocker, and flung itself wide.

The wind made by the suddenly opening door almost knocked the boys off the porch. They seized one another's elbows, yelling.

Then the darkness within the house inhaled. A wind sucked through the gaping door. It pulled at the boys, dragging them across the porch. They had to lean back so as not to be snatched into the deep dark hall. They struggled, shouted, clutched the porch rails. But then the wind ceased.

Darkness moved within darkness.

Inside the house, a long way off, someone was walking toward the door. Whoever it was must have been dressed all in black for they could see nothing but a pale white face drifting on the air.

An evil smile came and hung in the doorway before them.

Behind the smile, the tall man hid in shadow. They could see his eyes now, small pinpoints of green fire in little charred pits of sockets, looking out at them.

"Well," said Tom. "Er--trick or treat?"

"Trick?" said the smile in the dark. "Treat?"

"Yes, sir."

The wind played a flute in a chimney somewhere; an old song about time and dark and far places. The tall man shut up his smile like a bright pocketknife.

"No treats," he said. "Only--trick!"

The door slammed!

The house thundered with showers of dust.

Dust puffed out the rainspout again in fluffs, like an emergence of downy cats.

Dust gasped from open windows. Dust snorted from the porchboards under their feet.

The boys stared at the locked shut-fast front door. The Marley knocker was not scowling now, but smiling an evil smile.

"What's he mean?" asked Tom. "No treats, only trick?"

Backing off around the side of the house they were astonished at the sounds it made. A whole rigamarole of whispers, squeaks, creaks, wails, and murmurs, and the night wind was careful to let the boys hear them all. With every step they took, the great house leaned after them with soft groans.

They rounded the far side of the house and stopped.

For there was the Tree.

And it was such a tree as they had never seen in all their lives.

It stood in the middle of a vast yard behind the terribly strange house. And this tree rose up some one hundred feet in the air, taller than the high roofs and full and round and well branched, and covered all over with rich assortments of red and brown and yellow autumn leaves.

"But," whispered Tom, "oh, look. What's up in that tree!"

For the Tree was hung with a variety of pumpkins of every shape and size and a number of tints and hues of smoky yellow or bright orange.

"A pumpkin tree," someone said.

"No," said Tom.

The wind blew among the high branches and tossed their bright burdens, softly.

"A Halloween Tree," said Tom.

And he was right.

The pumpkins on the Tree were not mere pumpkins. Each had a face sliced in it. Each face was different. Every eye was a stranger eye. Every nose was a weirder nose. Every mouth smiled hideously in some new way.

There must have been a thousand pumpkins on this tree, hung high and on every branch. A thousand smiles. A thousand grimaces. And twice-times-a-thousand glares and winks and blinks and leerings of fresh-cut eyes.

And as the boys watched, a new thing happened.

The pumpkins began to come alive.

One by one, starting at the bottom of the Tree and the nearest pumpkins, candles took fire within the raw interiors. This one and then that and this and then still another, and on up and around, three pumpkins here, seven pumpkins still higher, a dozen clustered beyond, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand pumpkins lit their candles, which is to say brightened up their faces, showed fire in their square or round or curiously slanted eyes. Flame guttered in their toothed mouths. Sparks leaped out their ripe-cut ears.

And from somewhere two voices, three or maybe four voices whispered and chanted a kind of singsong or old sea shanty of the sky and time and the earth turning over into sleep. The rainspouts blew spiderdust:

"It's big, it's broad ..."

A voice smoked from the rooftop chimney:

"It's broad, it's bright ...
It fills the sky of All Hallows' Night ..."


From open windows somewhere, cobwebs drifted:

"The strangest sight you've ever seen.
The Monster Tree on Halloween."


The candles flickered and flared. The wind crooned in, the wind crooned out the pumpkin mouths, tuning the song:

"The leaves have burned to gold and red
The grass is brown, the old year dead,
But hang the harvest high, Oh see!
The candle constellations on the Halloween Tree!"


Tom felt his mouth stir like a small mouse, wanting to sing:

"The stars they turn, the candles burn
And the mouse-leaves scurry on the cold wind bourne,
And a mob of smiles shine down on thee
From the gourds hung high on the Halloween Tree.

The smile of the Witch, and the smile of the Cat,
The smile of the Beast, the smile of the Bat,
The smile of the Reaper taking his fee
All cut and glimmer on the Halloween Tree ..."


Smoke seemed to sift from Tom's mouth:

"Halloween Tree ..."

All the boys whispered it:

"Halloween ... Tree ..."

And then there was silence.

And during the silence the last of the triples and quadruples of All Hallows' Tree candles were lit in titanic constellations woven up through the black branches and peeking down through the twigs and crisp leaves.

And the Tree had now become one vast substantial Smile.

The last of the pumpkins now were lit. The air around the Tree was Indian-summer-breathing warm. The Tree exhaled sooty smoke and raw-pumpkin smell upon them.

"Gosh," said Tom Skelton.

"Hey, what kind of place is this?" asked Henry-Hank, the Witch. "I mean, first the house, that man and no treats only tricks, and now--? I never saw a tree like this in my life. Like a Christmas tree only bigger and all those candles and pumpkins. What's it mean? What's it celebrate?"

"Celebrate!" a vast voice whispered somewhere, perhaps in a chimney soot bellows, or perhaps all the windows of the house opened like mouths at the same moment behind them, sliding up, sliding down, announcing the word "Celebrate!" with breathings-out of darkness. "Yes," said the gigantic whisper, which trembled the candles in the pumpkins. "... celebration ..."

The boys leaped around.

But the house was still. The windows were closed and brimmed with pools of moonlight.

"Last one in's an Old Maid!" cried Tom, suddenly.

And a bon of leaves lay waiting like old fires, old gold.

And the boys ran and dived at the huge lovely pile of autumn treasure.

And in the moment of diving, about to vanish beneath the leaves in crisp swarms, yelling, shouting, shoving, falling, there was an immense gulp of breath, a seizing in of air. The boys yelped, pulled back as if an invisible whip had struck them.

For coming up out of the pile of leaves was a bony white hand, all by itself.

And following it, all smiles, hidden one moment but now revealed as it slid upward, was a white skull.

And what had been a delicious pool of oak and elm and poplar leaves to thrash and sink and hide in, now became the last place on all this world the boys wanted to be. For the white bony hand was flying on the air. And the white skull rose to hover before them.

And the boys fell back, colliding, sneezing out their air in panics, until in one wild mass they fell flat upon the earth and writhed and tore at the grass to fight free, scramble, try to run.

"Help!" they cried.

"Oh, yes, help," said the Skull.

Then peal after peal of laughter froze them further as the hand upon the air, the bony skeleton hand, reached up, took hold of the white skull face and--peeled it down and off!

The boys blinked once behind their masks. Their jaws dropped, though none could see them dropping.

The huge man in dark clothes soared up out of the leaves, taller and yet taller. He grew like a tree. He put out branches that were hands. He stood framed against the Halloween Tree itself, his outstretched arms and long white bony fingers festooned with orange globes of fire and burning smiles. His eyes were pressed tight as he roared his laughter. His mouth gaped wide to let an autumn wind rush out.

"Not treat, boys, no, not Treat! Trick, boys, Trick! Trick!"

They lay there waiting for the earthquake to come. And it came. The tall man's laughter took hold of the ground and gave it a shake. This tremor, passed through their bones, came out their mouths. And it came out in the form of still more laughter!

They sat up amid the ruins of the thrashed-about leaf pile, surprised. They put their hands to their masks to feel the hot air leaping out in small gusts of echoing mirth.

Then they looked up at the man as if to verify their surprise.

"Yes, boys, that, that was a Trick! You'd forgotten? No, you never knew!"

And he leaned against the Tree, finishing out his fits of happiness, shaking the trunk, making the thousand pumpkins shiver and the fires inside to smoke and dance.

Warmed by their laughter, the boys got up to feel their bones and see if anything was broken. Nothing was. They stood in a small mob under the Halloween Tree, waiting, for they knew this was only the beginning of something new and special and grand and fine.

"Well," said Tom Skelton.

"Well, Tom," said the man.

"Tom?" cried everyone else. "Is that you?"

Tom, in the Skeleton mask, stiffened.

"Or is it Bob or Fred, no, no, that must be Ralph," said the man, quickly.

"All of those!" sighed Tom, clapping his mask hard in place, relieved.

"Yeah, all!" said everyone.

The man nodded, smiling. "Well now! Now you know something about Halloween you never knew before. How did you like my Trick?"

"Trick, yes, trick." The boys were catching fire with the idea. It made all the good glue go out of their joints and put a little dust of sin in their blood. They felt it stir around until it pumped on up to light their eyes and stretch their lips to show their happy-dog teeth.

"Yeah, sure."

"Is this what you used to do on Halloween?" asked the Witch boy.

"This, and more. But, let me introduce myself! Moundshroud is the name. Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud. Does that have a ring, boys? Does it sound for you?"

It sounds, the boys thought, oh, oh, it sounds ...!

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