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A SOUL OMNIBUS by Nidhi Singh

[Sing together]

A soul! A soul! A soul-cake!
Please good Missus, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum, or a cherry,
any good thing to make us all merry,
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him who made us all.

Guisers, dressed in curious costumes, masked themselves from Aos Si that roamed the earth at this liminal hour. Frolicking mummers mimicked and mocked the malignant spirits who at one time caused us to fear and tremble. Tipteerers in Hobby Horse processions poked fun at Satan, whose kingdom our savior has plundered. Little children, of our Priscilla’s age, and more and less, carrying hollowed out, lit mangel-wurzels – punkies – called out to her as they passed from house to house.

“Let me out, let me out,” cried little Priscilla, scratching the frosty windowpane with her tiny nails. “Why can’t I spook like my friends and go trick-or-treating, Aunty?”

Criers dressed in black, ringing mournful bells, passed by Priscilla’s house, calling on the good Christ to remember the poor spirits. Kibitzers left dishes full of milk in the neighborhood churchyard, and lit candles to guide souls on their way and deflect them from haunting honest Christian folk.

Young people in the town square burnt bunches of straw on pitchforks, scaring witches of their awaiting punishment in Hell, while others knelt around them in circles, with lanterns that shuddered and death lights that flushed, praying for souls till the flames went out. Damsels, having gathered their skirts about their farthingales, sat in darkened rooms, gazing with auguring hope into mirrors, searching for the faces of their future husbands.

“Stay at home, little Priscilla,” warned Aunt Stern, “I will not have you mixing up with pagan druids, diviners, or bummers.”

Fairy sprites did perform their mystic gambols, and ilka elves near deep caverns were frolicking seen. It was all black, and gold: golden candlelights, pale-glowy pumpkins, and the yellow moonlight, flickering on jet-black cats and shadows black as ink.

“Tell me a story then.” Priscilla gripped her aunt’s knees. “Tell me a story, but not so scary.”

“I know no story eerie, and I am all weary, so tease me not, dearie,” replied Aunt Stern. Placing her poetry book in her lap, she poked into the fireplace. Days were short already, the sun was waning, and the winter dark was early this year, she thought.

Seeing her aunt pale and gaunt, Priscilla scowled and returned to dressing her cornhusk doll with yellow silk hair. But soon, a gentle scraping at the door broke the quiet of the darkled house.

As the girls leaned in to look, a pink hand, with long knurly fingers, and a pulpy wrist, vanishing into slimy hornwort-like spores, emerged through the door and began to fumble with the bolt. In its moist palm, it had a large, round, green marble of an unblinking eye, which darted about like a wobbly wheel.

“Look, Aunty – a hand!” cried Priscilla, her little knees clicking in fear.

Aunt Stern peered over her reading glasses. “What applesauce! It must be them tricksters spooking us – pay no attention, puss.” She clapped loudly, startling the poor hand, which groped about in seeming bewilderment before withdrawing itself through the oak door. And all seemed well again: Aunt Stern returned to her book by the fireplace, the flames crackled and spat, and the cricket by the stove went back to its shrill tune. But poor Priscilla was scared breathless. She was convinced it was no fevered pitch of her imagination, no trickery of lights, nor a clever spook of her friends: the hand was there; it was for real.

But she soon forgot about it when more singing came from the street:

God bless the master of this house,
the missus also,
And all the little children
that round your table grow.

Likewise young men and maidens,
your cattle and your store,
and all that dwells within your gates,
we wish you ten times more.

“Were Mama here, and Papa dear, would they grudge their girl some cupcake, and added cheer?” Priscilla pressed on: a little cheekily, thought Aunt Stern, a little too after her own style, and a little too less to her own liking.

“But they are not here, are they – flickering angel-dust now, in Heaven’s care. And I am here, and you too, in my charge and in my prayer.”

“Then why, like good missuses everywhere, don’t you make taffy apple treats, and barmbracks stuffed with pennies, and colcannons; and light candles in every room, and keep places for them at the dinner table?”

“Because in such customs I do not believe: good Christians do not bilk, nor tangled webs do weave.”

“How did they pass away, Aunty, tell me, why won’t you tell me, Aunty?”

“The Good Lord loved them, adorable souls, and couldn’t be without them; and the flowers, they withered on His stem.” Aunt Stern prodded yet some more in the hearth, the early cold making her numb, and soon dozed off, leaving Priscilla to her own devices.

As the evening passed, it grew cold. Suddenly, a strong draft of chilled air, like the frigid breath of a frozen fjord, sucked out the flames from the fireplace. Priscilla looked up in surprise. Again, the scraping sound came from the chimney, and the same hand, now black with soot, plopped on the ice-cold coals. It crawled itself out, and rubbed its green eye, which looked about, taking in the room and its occupants. Upon perceiving the sleeping aunt, the hand proceeded thence, and pulling itself up by the folds in her woolen cape, it perched on her shoulders. Draping its long tentacles around her neck, the hand began to squeeze on her throat. Aunt Stern, still fast asleep, began to fumble and choke.

“Hey,” Priscilla shouted, and though scared initially, she lunged at the hand. Her little fingers wrapped around the giant ham-cold mitt and tried to pull it off, but she was hardly a match for the brute’s strength. “Wake up, Aunt Stern, wake up,” she screamed, but her aunt wouldn’t stir. Soon, Aunt Stern began to make guttural sounds, as if the life breath was being sucked out of her. Terrified now, Priscilla bit the hand, and remembering the eye, scratched it furiously as well. That seemed to affect the hand deeply, for covering its bleeding eye with one finger, it leapt to the boarded floor and crawled back up the chimney whence it had come.

Aunt Stern came to suddenly and began to cough and sputter. Priscilla thumped her back with her tiny fists, till Aunt Stern recovered her breath and could compose herself. Priscilla fetched her water from the kettle on the stove, and her aunt felt better at last. She wrapped an arm around a shaking Priscilla and pressed her craggy cheek against hers. “Thank you, my dear,” she said, curiously cured of all her lyrical manners. “My, you are all a-flutter. Why… the fire has gone out! We must light it again. I feel so strangely out of breath – I had the strangest of dreams, as if a cold clammy hook was at my throat.”

“Aunt Stern, the same hand that came through the door climbed down the chimney and tried to strangle you. I tried to awaken you, but you were lifeless. I had to scratch its eye to make it go away. It wasn’t a dream, Aunty; it was no nightmare!”

Aunt Stern peered over her glasses at her niece. Her weathered face cracked into a wicked smile. “What blarney is this? You are making this up, aren’t you – because you want to go soulin’ and apple dookin’ with your friends? Is that it? And you think your aunt doesn’t love you? She does love you, silly, only she is afraid because you are all she’s got. This is an unruly night, and strange sights and sounds fill the air. All righty then, to the basement let us, and see what we can find you, and go snip-snip. And then you can go play with your friends. Promise your aunt that you will take care of yourself?” She spat into her hands, and warming them by vigorous rubbing, wiped away a large tear that Priscilla was bravely holding back, and scrubbed her dimpled cheeks with caroused thumbs till they shone a bright, ruddy red.

“But, Aunty…”

“Enough – shush. Be back before the clock strikes ten. And now, be good, and let’s see what costume we can put together for you,” she said, clicking her pinball and scissors clip together and winking at her.

More singing came from the street. Priscilla jumped down from her aunt’s lap and ran to the window. Her friends were outside once more, dressed in homemade masquerade costumes. “Alright, Aunty, give me a dress, a hat, an utterly creepy mask to wear – hurry,” she squealed, and grabbing her aunt’s hand, she dragged the bumbling lady down the stairs.

Down into the cellar,
and see what you can find,
If the barrels are not empty,
we hope you will prove kind.
We hope you will prove kind,
with your apples and strong beer,
and we’ll come no more a-souling
till this time next year.

To a quickly pinned-together woodland fairy dress of stretch velvet top in rich chocolate brown, and a multilayer skirt of spring greens and shimmering bronze colors, Aunt Stern added emerald rinky-dink wings, and sent little, deliriously happy Priscilla on her way. “Back by ten,” she shouted after her at the doorstep as Priscilla galloped over to her waiting gaggle of friends.

From house to house they went, singing, collecting candy, nutmeg cakes, and even gifts, to their heart’s content. The walks were carpeted in green. Aspen leaves, glancing white into the dark, flickered gracefully down to rain-damped earth. Mopokes sang in the silver birch to stay warm, while sylphs heard the singing at Samhain, and rows of lanterns on rose-clad wrought-iron fences strung the moonlight with yellow gleams. At the Phoenix Park the revelers gathered and whooped it up:

The lanes are very dirty;
my shoes are very thin,
I’ve got a little pocket
to put a penny in.
If you haven’t got a penny,
a ha’penny will do;
if you haven’t got a ha’penny,
it’s God bless you!

From the crowd, a man, holding a worn, curved staff, dressed in a woodpecker costume – a red headpiece, a blue fleece suit with a white feathery boa ruff fastened with a twisty tie, a short yellow pointy beak turned up at the end, and yellow shoes and socks – made his way through the throng of children and tapped on Priscilla’s shoulder.

“Pretty costume – a wood fairy is it not?” he said as Priscilla turned toward him. She nodded, relieved that her clumsy costume had the intended look.

“Your mother – fair wench – I knew her well.”

“Oh, really, and my Papa too?”

“Him as well.” The man grimaced. “And your aunt too. How fares she?”

“Quite well, thank you.”

“Hey, what say I pay her a visit this night? Surprise her a bit?” He opened his palm to reveal shiny-wrapped candy and pennies. “Here, have some. Go ahead, there’s more where that came from. I will bring you gifts when I visit – before the midnight hour – fine dolls and treats. Just keep the door latch open so I can sneak in on Aunt Stern and spook her some.”

The man’s hand was long, burnt-pink, and knurly – eerily familiar. As Priscilla’s fingers frisked and scooped up the treats, she noticed something green, glass-marble-like, underneath. Before the man could withdraw his hand, Priscilla saw it was the same eye that she’d scratched that evening! And there was an ugly scar just above the pink wrist where the hand seemed to have been stitched on.

“You…” Little Priscilla trembled. She threw the candy and pennies to the ground, and stepped back, and fled. She sprinted as fast as her small legs could carry her through the rain-swept paths and stopped for breath only when she reached home.

“Aunty, Aunty, I met the hand… the man with the hand!” she gasped.

“Calm down, little girl. What happened?”

Priscilla climbed to her aunt’s lap and told her about the woodpecker man. “And he knows you… and Mama and Papa too. Aunty, I am scared… He said he’d visit again… before midnight!”

“You are not making this up, are you, scaring your poor aunty?”

“I swear on you Aunty, cross my heart!”

Aunt Stern’s brow narrowed. She was quiet for a while. “Did the man by any chance carry a lituus? A crooked wand?”

“He was crooked all over, Aunty! Yes… he did carry a curved staff.”

“Alright then, you wanted to hear a story, didn’t you?”

Priscilla nodded, placing her cheek on her aunt’s bosom. She gaped at her with big round hazel eyes.

“Hark then,” her aunt began. “Once upon a time, there was a happy girl, Pomone, beautiful like a woodland glyph, just the way you’re dressed right now.”

“Pretty, just like Mama?”

“Just like your mama. She loved this man, this childhood friend, handsome and fine.”

“Just like Papa?”

“Yes, like him. But this evil woodland lord, this Pikus, this taker of auspices, loved this girl too. The girl, unmoving, scorned his love, for she had eyes for only one man. Pikus tried to take her by force, and to hide from this powerful lord, she and her lover took refuge in her sister’s house.”

“This house, Aunty?”

“Like this house, baby. This lord, in his mad frenzy, with his men, stormed the house where the couple was hiding. The lovers escaped to the roof, where Pikus chased them. A scuffle ensued, and Pikus fell over the edge, but he managed to grab Pomone’s wrist. It was clear he wanted to take her down with him. The boy had no choice but to lop off the fiend’s hand to save the girl.”

“And that hand was the one that crawled in here today?”

“It would seem so, though I find it quite ludicrous. They say the dead rise on this day, not that I believe it, for one last hideous carnival, one Danse Macabre, one last chance to take revenge on their enemies on earth, before they move on their journey to the next world. But it’s just a tale. I won’t have you imagining any of this balderdash as true!”

“And this evil lord hates you for sheltering Mama?”

“I guess so. Come let’s play out the legend completely, once we have started on one.”

“What do we do, Aunty?”

“Let us make masks, and disguise ourselves, and light candles in our house; and make treats – bloody floats, spider web cupcakes, and marshmallow bones – and pray. And we need to get rid of that costume of yours. We be attracting no more woodpeckers to wood, fairies or not. Shiny pie-pans and cheval-glass windsocks let us wear, and change our places, to shy him off.”

“Will you do that, Aunty?”

“Yes, let us play.”

They did all that, moving from room to room, lighting candles, and finally baking the treats. Then they sat by the hearth and read their little books, cold fear gnawing, making their racing hearts wretched.

* * *

Before the midnight hour, strange wails filled the air, chimneys were blown down, and the hand once more crawled down the fireplace that had been struck cold and ashen. It looked about with a desperate craving, and took a careful look at the two disguised occupants frozen stiff with fear – thankfully not recognizing them. Then it passed out of the living room, and the girls could hear it banging doors, shifting beds, and knocking chairs about in its frantic search. As the midnight hour struck, and the church bells pealed, a moaning and crying filled up the winds, and sulphurous and tormenting flames lit up the pale skies. The hand swooshed over the hardboard floor, not moving of its own volition, but being sucked out, as if by a strange power, smashing against the smoking logs, and its bloody eye, twisted in agony, gazed one last time at them in unbearable anguish before being snatched up the chimney – never to appear again.

The lamenting ceased and all was restful again; the crisp breeze once again whispered through the aspen leaves as they delicately fluttered down to the invigorated, rain-washed earth.

“Happy Halloween, Aunty.” Priscilla leaned forward, and pecked her aunt’s cheeks.

* * *

Author’s end note: Reverend M P Holme of Tattenhall, Cheshire, discovered the original soul cake song from a local schoolgirl’s notebook in 1891.

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AUTHOR BIO:

Nidhi Singh studied English Literature at Delhi University. Her previously published work includes The Proof Diaries, The Benefit Season, Games Girls Play, Japji Sahib: An Interpretation in Humility, and Bollywood: A Tribute to Mediocrity. Her short stories have appeared in Fabula Argentea, Romance Magazine, Under the Bed, and Nebula Rift. She lives near the sea in Kutch, India.

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WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “A Soul Omnibus”

Author Nidhi Singh treats us to a perfect Halloween piece. The whimsical language pulls us into little Priscilla’s world and carries us through a wonderfully satisfying tale that’s just plain fun.