The Samhain Gate
Henry Merrill had a job to do, and it was far from the work he was accustomed to.
Looking down in disgust at the rotten pumpkin beneath his worn boot he steadied himself on the long handled shovel he carried into the field and wiped the remnants of seeds and pulp from the sole and gazed at the back of the farm field. It was cold this year, and he turned his collar up and began the long trek over the pumpkin patch toward a stand of trees and bramble known to him now as the Samhain Gate.
Last year, before this all started, the Gate was just a half-acre his father apparently leased to an old man by the name of Jeb Crandall. When Henry was younger he assumed the man was a squatter, and when he questioned his father about it, the elder Merrill only laughed.
“Jeb has earned the right to occupy that land son, and don’t let no one tell you any different. I have an arrangement with Mr. Crandall, and that’s all you need to know about it.”
And so Henry did leave it be for many years, and as time passed, Jeb Crandall melted into the landscape of the farm. But with those passing years came hard times for the Merrills and their farm. Hard work and determination had got them through it, but not without a price. Henry could read between the lines, he knew the signs, and he knew that his father was not well.
Before His father died a year and a half ago, Warren Merrill sat with his son Henry at the dinner table and told him of his arrangement with Jeb Crandall.
“Strange as it sounds Henry, Jeb Crandall was the man from whom I bought this land.
For the fifty years before us, Jeb used to farm it just like we have been doing all these years, growing the corn higher than a man most seasons. It’s good land you see, and I reckon it was steal when he sold it to me for the price he did”.
Henry’s father pushed his food about his plate and took a sip of lemonade before continuing.
“’Course all good things come with a price, but Jeb explained things to me, so it wasn’t like I didn’t know what I was getting into back then. The main acreage was to plant crops of my choice, and with the success of Jeb’s corn all those years, I thought it a right smart decision to stick with it. Now the back two acres, near the deadfall patch, was to be planted every year with pumpkins, and he was to be able to stay in the small cabin that he had built.”
Henry’s father finished the rest of his dinner and wiped the corner of his mouth and rose from the table.
“There is a bit more to the bargain we struck, but that’s a story that can wait till another day. We still have a bit of work to do before sundown.”
Henry’s father grabbed his work gloves and jacket from the cabinet near the door and paused while looking through the screen at the rows of corn swaying gently in the golden sunlight. Without turning to his son, Warren Merrill said almost as an afterthought,
“If by chance I don’t get to tell you the rest of the story, Jeb can fill you in. Just ask him before October comes….yea, best if you talk to him before that.”
With those final words, Henry’s father put on his work jacket and made his way to the barn yelling for the dogs as he went.
Autumn turned to winter and the subject was never discussed. And when Warren Merrill passed the following spring, the subject was buried with him.
Henry crossed the pumpkin patch now finally reaching the deadfall, or The Samhain Gate, and cursed the bitter wind as he sat on the trunk of a fallen burr oak. It was still light, but the overcast October sky cast a morbid monochromatic tint to the cursed grounds. He had plenty of time. He had made sure of that since it was his first year. He opened the thermos of hot coffee he brought with him and poured the steaming liquid into the cap.
The heat felt good on his cold hands as he took a sip and muttered into the chill of wind,
“I didn’t ask for this”
Henry was now well aware of the “bargain” that was struck between his father and Jeb Crandall. He understood now why when his father passed and he had him laid to rest in the town cemetery, Jeb stood outside the fence staring at the service with a hopeless expression on his face.
Henry stretched his legs and sipped his coffee while staring ahead at the two foot round hole in the ground surrounded by bramble and thicket. He could smell it already, just like last year. But he had time. Yes, he had until nightfall to perform his task.
A light moan, that sounded a thousand miles away, escaped through the hole in the ground.
Henry finished his coffee, poured another and thought back to his meeting with Jeb last summer.
That summer following his father’s funeral was the hottest Henry could ever remember. By the time July rolled in the temperature was near 90 most every day, and the nights were just as relentless and offered little if no relief. Henry rose with the sun and worked the fields that now belonged to him until sundown, never giving the loneliness he felt a chance to grab hold.
He missed his father dearly. His laugh, the way he worked the dogs, his work ethic, even the way he would nod off to sleep at the diner table and refuse to admit that he had.
There were ghosts in Henry’s house. He was too young to remember his mother. She had passed before they bought the farm, but his father made sure that Henry knew all about her, and with their Sunday visits to the town cemetery, Warren had made sure that Henry understood how wonderful his mother must have been.
Now he walked the dark halls of the house alone; not in pity, but without direction or purpose. Countless nights he sat by the window, staring out to the fields and feeling the warm wind on his face. It was not until a moonlit night in August that Henry first saw Jeb Crandall in the rows looking back.
Upon waking the next morning, Henry felt that it was time to pay a visit to the back field
and have an over due talk with Jeb Crandall. He had not spoken to the man after his father’s death. In fact, now that Henry had thought about it, he had never spoken to Jeb in his life. Maybe a wave occasionally from the tractor, but that was the extent of contact between them. It was astonishing to Henry to find out that he knew so little of the man, but never the less it was past the time for a “face to face” with the mysterious Mr. Crandall. He was not too concerned whether he would find Jeb at home. Jeb was always home. At 9:00 a.m. the temperature was near 90 degrees as Henry made his way through the rows of corn towards the deadfall. The shadows in the rows offered some cool relief from the morning sun, but did nothing to oppress the humidity that rose from the ground in stifling waves. He cleared the field, which now opened to the pumpkin patch and saw a thin ribbon of smoke rising from the small cabin within the deadfall the housed Jeb Crandall. Henry pulled a rag from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his brow before he began to cross the uneven ground covered with twisted vines. The land was different back here. He could not quite put his finger on it, but the soil emitted an odor that was not all that pleasant. It smelled ancient, used, not unlike the soil and dust occupying a tomb. He was amazed that anything could grow within it, but the pumpkin patch was flourishing.
Maybe this was just some new type of fertilizer that Crandall was experimenting with. Whatever the case may be, it did not mix well with the heat, and Henry felt his stomach lurch and put his rag to his mouth. He waited for a bit until the feeling passed, then continued on to the cabin, calling out Jeb’s name as he approached.
He found the old man in back of the cabin, tending a kettle set over fire and could smell strong coffee drifting up with the smoke.
“Henry” The old man nodded at him. His tone was neither friendly nor hostile, but somewhat indifferent and he sounded unsurprised to see him.
“Hello Jeb” Henry replied, unsure as to what to say next.
“Coffee is ready. Not the best you’ve probably ever had, but not the worst I reckon either”.
Henry replied that he would love a cup and sat down upon a tree stump across from the man.
Jeb filled two mugs and wordlessly handed one to Henry who blew on the surface and took a sip.
“Your right” he said with a smile, “not the best, but not the worst”.
The man returned the smile, drank deeply from his mug and scratched at his sparse grey beard.
“Come to ask about your father, have you”? Jeb asked, not looking at Henry but rather into the fire.
“Not sure how much he told you, or how much you believe. Your father, rest his soul, didn’t believe at first either. Not until I showed him, but I might be getting ahead of myself now. How much did he tell you”?
Now the man was looking at Henry, and he felt a chill run through him despite the morning ‘s heat.
“ I guess I’m not really sure what you mean. My father told me that you had owned and farmed this land before us and sold him the property”. Henry stated probably more assertively than he should have.
When Jeb did not reply, Henry continued in a friendlier manner.
“He also told me that there was an agreement between the two of you that this back field was to be planted with a pumpkin crop every year and that you could remain living within this deadfall in your cabin. I want you to know that I will still honor that agreement, I see no problem with that”.
“No problem with that eh”? Jeb laughed in reply and continued.
“Now don’t think I’m laughing at you or your generous offer to let me stay, but there is a bit more to the agreement than what your father told you”.
His tone softened a bit and Jeb went on speaking.
“Look Henry, you’re a good man. I know that. Your father was a good man as well, none finer. But what is going on here is a bit more complicated than you may think”.
“Then why don’t you tell me of this complicated matter”? Henry interjected.
When Jeb began gazing into the fire once again, Henry thought of some of the things his father had said before he died.
“There was a time when my father tried to explain things to me. He spoke of the land agreement, but also told me there was more to the agreement than that. Something about a price to pay, but he was well aware of it and knew what he was getting into. He also said that it was a story for another day, but if by some chance that day never came, I was to ask you about it. He said to talk to you before October came”.
Jeb now looked up from the fire at Henry, he expression given to sadness.
“He really didn’t tell you did he? Warren Merrill was a good man as I’ve said. I had nothing but respect for him when he agreed to relieve me of my duty when the time came. But I never expected him to go first”.
Henry for the first time noticed how old the man was, yes, much older than his father, and much more frail. But he carried himself with a dignity and strength that made him appear younger.
“I don’t think that I understand”. Henry said. “What duty? What agreement?
Jeb stood and filled Henry’s mug once more, put the pot back on the fire and and sat down with his elbows on his boney knees.
“Well young Merrill” Jeb sighed, “I guess your father left it to me to tell you the story of the Samhain Gate, and so I shall. I don’t blame you if you find the story rubbish, as your father first did, but all I ask is that you keep an open mind. And come this October, I shall prove what I say, and then you can decide for yourself, for I don’t think that these bones of mine will see another October after this one”.
When Henry only stared at the man and did not reply, Jeb nodded with a grunt and began.
“This small patch of land around us here is much more than what it seems. I guess you could call it a portal of some sort. A portal to another place. And not a good place either, but an evil place. The term Samhain comes from Celtic folklore celebrating the final harvest and the night of the dead that you now know as All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. This land has had that name as long as my father or I can remember. Samhain was a night of great celebration accentuated with great bonfires; dancing and most importantly, the dead were summoned to attend. Now this invitation was considered acceptable, since folks back then wanted to commune with lost loved ones for a spell. The tradition was carried out for centuries and still takes place today, but most of the ceremonies these days are considered Pagan rituals and result in no more than a spiritual celebration for those involved. But there are a few places in this world where the veil between the two worlds is weak. Once the void is breached, it becomes a pathway from their world to ours. And like clockwork every year, they come”.
“Who comes Jeb”? Henry asked.
“Don’t know what you call them. Spirits, demons or the Devil himself, but try like hell they do”.
Jeb stood and stretched his lanky frame and walked to a small clearing near the deadfall.
He cleared away some vines from the ground and exposed a hole in the ground no more than a couple of feet wide.
“This here is that gate Henry”.
Henry sat up and slowly walked over to where Jeb was standing and looked into the hole.
“Looks like a burrow of some sort Jeb. Badger or wolverine would be my guess. I’ve seen dozens of them growing up around here”. Henry commented.
“Yeah” the old man replied. “That it does. But don’t let it fool ya boy, I’ve been caretaker of this gate for fifty years now, and my father for the fifty before”.
“So where are the spirits”? Henry asked, trying to keep a straight face and not insult the man and his beliefs. “Do we chant for them, or summon them with a dance of some sort”?
Now Henry could no longer hold back his grin and the affect was not lost on Jeb.
“I’m not saying you have to believe me now. Matter a fact; I would be a little worried if you did. I just want to tell you the history, what responsibilities the caretaker has, and the agreement I had with your father. As for what you take from this, I will not judge. But at least accompany me this fall on the thirty first of October, witness what happens and then make your Judgment”.
The old man was almost pleading with Henry now, and he had not the heart to disappoint him.
“Tell you what Jeb, I promise that I will be here on Halloween. You can show me whatever it is you wish. But I think I’ve seen enough today, and you know that the field need tending. Thanks for the coffee and the hospitality”.
Henry turned to walk away and Jeb made no effort to stop him. The old man remained where he was, staring into the hole in the ground.
When Henry reached the pumpkin patch, he heard Jeb call out.
“Make sure you get here before sundown Henry. There are a few more things I need to show you before”.
Henry turned, signaled the man with a wave and walked back into the cornfield while shaking his head and wondering why his father had ever made an agreement with a nut case like Jeb.
Now, more than a year later, Henry sat shivering in the cold in front of the same hole in the ground Jeb had showed him that warm summer morning. The memory of that day was still very clear to him. From the smell and taste of Jebs coffee, to the doubts he had of the man’s sanity as he left him. He had no doubts now. No, not after what he witnessed last fall. He had kept his promise to Jeb and came to the cabin on the day known as Halloween. Last year the weather had been much better. The colorful leaves still clung to the trees refusing to let go, while the warm and humid air carried the scent of hay and apples. Henry remembered picking an apple off a tree he passed on the way to Jebs. He could still remember the sweet taste as he crossed the field.
Henry decided that it was time to get on with his task. He rubbed his cold hands together and rose from his oak tree seat and crossed the small clearing to where he laid his shovel.
Another moan escaped the hole, this one louder than the last and was accompanied with the now familiar smell of rot and decay.
“Looks like it’s time I get a move on it.” He said to a crow that landed nearby and was now observing him.
Henry picked up the shovel and walked over to a series of mounds that where located near the back of the hole and put the blade of the shovel into the earth. He noticed that the crow had followed him and had now flown up to a branch directly overhead.
He did not want to do this; it was the work of mad men. He wanted to run. Leave all this behind. Then he thought back to last autumn and the voice and memory of Jeb Crandall
echoed in his mind…
“It’s all very simple Henry” Jeb declared when he arrived on that beautiful day last October. He had arrived expecting the man to be conducting a séance of some sort complete with candles, and for all he knew a crystal ball as well. But he was surprised to see Jeb sitting in his usual spot with a shovel in his hands.
“All you have to do is dig son. That’s the only responsibility of the caretaker”.
“Don’t you mean undertaker”? Henry joked back.
Jeb ignored the comment and motioned for Henry to follow him near the hole in the ground, which now was cleared of all vines.
“Lean in here Henry. Can you smell it”?
Henry fell back as the foul smell assaulted him.
“Smells like that Badger up and died in there Jeb”. Henry said, coughing the words out.
The old man just laughed and walked away from the hole.
“That there is the gate Henry. One of the few real gates left in this world. Don’t know why it is or how it started. All I know is that it needs protecting. As I told you before, on this night, after sundown, this gate opens up for a bit and spills forth the filth from the world below trying to enter our world. Again, I don’t know why or how, just that it happens. What you smell is them coming. Oh yeah, they are mighty anxious to escape and they try like hell every year”.
Henry regained his composure and retreated from the hole as well.
“And I guess you are the one to stop them Jeb”?
The old man sat rubbing his hands together and waited before his reply.
“No. It isn’t me that keeps them out. I just release the guardian. That’s my job. You see Henry, every caretaker, who I am now, eventually becomes the guardian after his passing. No mortal soul can stop the surge; it has to be a special entity. My father agreed to be the caretaker about a hundred years ago, and thus agreed to be the guardian after his passing. Which when that time came, made me accept the job of caretaker. That is until my passing”.
The sun was now sinking behind the trees and filtered orange beams of light across the clearing. Henry would have thought it beautiful if not for the subject of the conversation.
“So where is your father, or the guardian now”? Henry asked with some apprehension.
Jeb stood again and had Henry follow him back to the gate, going through a small opening that led to a series of mounds neatly in a row, now almost buried with the falling leaves.
Henry felt his knees weaken slightly as the reality set in of what those mounds actually where.
Jeb noticed his reaction and nodded. “There’re graves Henry. Graves of all the past caretakers who became guardians. My father being the last here”.
“This is insane Jeb. I really don’t care what your beliefs are or even if you want to create a family plot back here. But you couldn’t expect my family to participate in this”! Henry said feeling the anger build inside.
“I know how you feel. I didn’t believe it either in the beginning. Thought my Daddy a fool as well. But I saw it myself Henry. And you will too. Course you don’t have to have anything to do with this. That’s your decision. But I will tell you that your father knew. And he also agreed to be the gatekeeper after my time was up. Guess he couldn’t bring himself to tell you that, but it’s true. That’s part of the bargain for living and farming this land. You know what you Daddy paid for this farm? Did he ever tell you”?
Henry nodded that he did not. He was fixated on the gate once again. There was a slight breeze blowing up from the hole now filling the clearing with the rancid smell of decay.
“Five dollars was all he paid Henry. I would call that the bargain of a lifetime considering.
Do you think it is a coincidence that these fields out produce any other in the state year after year? It’s a reward boy! A reward for doing the job here that needs to be done”.
Jeb was beginning to get worked up himself and walked away from Henry, sitting back down on the wooden bench near the mounds. He pulled a flask from his pocket and took a swallow. The burning liquid felt good on his dry throat and he handed the flask to Henry.
Henry ignored the gesture and turned his attention back to the hole in the ground, which now was emitting a soft but horrible sound. A sick greenish light was beginning to glow from within the hole and Henry backed up to where Jeb sat.
“They’re coming now”. Jeb stated.
Henry could not understand. What he was seeing was not natural. It was ridiculous to think that the man’s story was true, but he could think of no other explanation for the things he was seeing and hearing now. It was chilling to him to see something and not know what it was. The moaning grew louder and more insistent now, as the gate began to glow a brighter green. Henry’s mind was spinning and the only thing he could think of to say was,
“Jeb, do something”.
“I’m about to. I told you that my father was now the guardian. Only he can block their way. But first I must unblock his way”.
Jeb took another swallow from the flask, and this time Henry accepted when it was handed to him. The old man stood and grabbed his shovel, heading over to the row of dirt mounds.
“ I have to free him first Henry”. The man said and began shoveling the dirt away from the mound. The sound the shovel made and the thud of the soil as it was being pilled up made Henry think of his father’s funeral. The one at the town cemetery. Now it became clear to Henry why Jeb was upset. His father Warren was to be buried here, to continue to cycle.
Henry tried to move from the bench but could not as he watched the old man carefully shovel the dirt to one side. He took small amounts and soon began to use his hands to clear away the debris. From his pocket he took a small candle and lit a match with his thumbnail. He placed the candle at the top of the mound and returned to the bench to sit with Henry.
By now the horrible sounds coming from the gate where deafening and Henry covered his ears, but the smell was beginning to make him dizzy. He looked over at Jeb and realized that the man was not fazed by the assault to their senses.
“You don’t ever get used to it, but you learn to tolerate it”. Jeb yelled over the chorus of hell bound voices.
“What are you going to do now”? Henry screamed back.
“Nothing! My work is done. It’s up to the guardian now”!
The wind had now picked up and was swirling the leaves and braches. Henry had seen something like this before out west. They called it a dust devil. But they never had those here. He pulled his tee shirt up over his head for protection when he noticed movement from the corner of his eye. Although the wind was swirling violently, the candle, which Jeb placed in the ground, remained lit, and from beneath its glow, Henry saw the bone white digits of a skeletal hand reaching into the air. He stared in horror as the boney arm slowly reached the edge of the mound and lifted its body from the shallow grave. The creature moved like a spider crawling from its dirt lair, its legs bending at odd angles as it steadied itself and finally stood erect. It turned towards them and the moss covered skull nodded at the two men with its eternal death grin. It began it’s awkward stride towards the hole, testing it’s footing as it went. When it reached the gate, the skeletal remains of Jeb’s father knelt upon the ground and began a hideous crawl into the hole.
The screams and howls that followed this never reached Henry’s ears, for he had passed out and fallen from the bench.
When he awoke he heard the sounds of the shovel again.
He rolled his head to the side and saw Jeb patting down the mound of dirt with his shovel.
“I see your back with us. At least it’s over for another year”. The old man murmured. Then Jeb looked over and Henry could see tears in the eyes of the old man.
“Please Henry, please let this be my last time”.
Henry rolled his head back and drifted into the comforting blackness once again.
The brisk wind blew Henry’s hat off and brought him back from the memory of last year.
Jeb died that following spring after showing him the gate, and Henry made a promise to be the gatekeeper when Jeb asked. He buried the man next to his father, another mound near the Samhain Gate. Henry realized that his father could be no part of this legacy, but a Merrill had made the promise, and a Merrill would keep it.
He wished it were warm like last year, but then again, maybe the chill would keep the smell down.
The sun would not set today, but Henry could tell even through the clouds, that the time was drawing near. He would not wait as long as Jeb had. The man told him that it really didn’t matter, but Henry thought that Jeb was getting curious and pushing the envelope in hopes of getting a glimpse of the horrors that came up through that hole. Henry was not that curious, and when the first sign of the dust devil appeared, he stood before the mound he created just last spring and put his foot on the shovel. He glanced up at the crow still watching him with its small black eyes.
“Got a good view”? He grunted as he sunk the shovel in the dirt.
“It’s going to be a hell of a show”.