Vivianne the Witch breathes a sigh across the lip of her mug. Her breath teases the steam into occult swirls while stars glitter in the dark, liquid contents.
Vivianne murmurs one final prayer. She then upends the mug, splashing its contents over the edge of her property line.
The town’s bell tower strikes midnight as the last drops of Vivianne’s potion trickles from the mug. Midnight, the Witching Hour, the first hour of Halloween.
Between dings of the bell counting from one to twelve, Vivianne whispers, “I’m thinking it should be the jack-o-lanterns this year.”
And as she wills it, so mote it be.
_ _ _
Life begins with fire.
It blossoms into thought as flesh transforms from gourd to human. Where before the jack-o-lantern of a cat under the moon rested on a white plank porch, Cat rests in a gown the color of moonlight with her feet folded gracefully beneath her hips.
Cat’s complexion matches the moon, while the hair on her head and the fur of her tail are the bright pumpkin orange of her previous form. Her eyes are an even more luminous shade of pumpkin than her hair, as vibrant as the wick of a candle.
Cat studies the market street in front of her. There are other plank porches like this one; shop windows decorated with autumn leaves; strings of orange, green, and purple lights that decorate yards and rooftops. There are other transformed jack-o-lanterns too.
Some rise immediately from their perches, but not Cat; first, she must absorb every detail of the world around her.
A clock with a round, bright face towers over the market shops, ticking away the minutes. Smoke and molasses flavor the air. Leaves rustle. Bats chirp and chatter. There are details beneath details for every sight, scent, and sound.
Cat’s fur-tipped ears flick in curiosity.
Other lanterns explore with their hands what Cat observes passively. They scavenge costumes and instruments from the shops with their unlocked doors. Their merry explorations spill into the street and there congregate.
One lantern with long, spidery fingers waves at Cat.
Cat waves back.
Cat is pleased, she having her perch and Spider having his street, until Spider’s wave changes to a beckon.
Cat shakes her head.
Spider frowns and beckons more urgently.
Cat shakes her head again and stands up. She gestures in the opposite direction and takes her leave without waiting for Spider’s approval.
Another road runs parallel to the market; more to see, smell, and hear. Cat explores the back alley with her feet as well as her eyes.
There are no porches here. Instead, Cat prowls among the backs of buildings. A bicycle leans against the fence. A drain smells like leaves and petrichor. Decorations hang from a tree whose branches scrape against the nearby building with every shift in the wind. And the walls – they remember. Ectoplasmic memories imprint upon the wood and bricks those shadowy phantoms of Halloweens past.
Cat follows the ectoplasmic memories, acting them out as she makes sense of them.
One year, Vivianne the Witch gave every spider in town a human form.
Cat pantomimes a spider’s movement under a streetlight, holding out her hands with her fingers extended so that her shadow resembles a spider. The shadow skitters across the brick wall and stretches into human proportions. The fingers keep moving until they reach for the nearest string of lights.
Cat pretends to pull it down, weaving it into something burning and beautiful.
Another year, Vivianne the Witch gave every scarecrow a human form. The scarecrows spread their long arms like crows wings and chased the crows through the streets.
Cat’s shadow imitates the scarecrows. She balances on her toes with arms spread wide, hopping and chasing in mimicry of the scarecrows which in turn had mimicked their capricious prey. She detours at a lamppost and swings around it to feel the whoosh of flight.
Then there was the year Vivianne the Witch awakened the houses themselves.
Cat imagines herself a house. She sits and digs in her own lot, exploring the texture of her foundation. When her arms are stained to the elbows with soil and grit, she acts out the conjoined houses that once reclined on their backs like lovers and gazed up at the cold October stars as if their romance could change the cold to heat. Cat is only one lantern, however, so her hand grasps empty air.
Until it doesn’t.
Cat slants her gaze to the right. Another lantern crouches next to her, holding her hand in his. He grins.
His grin is wider than Cat’s. It spans his face from one ear to the other, full of pointed teeth which glow in the moonlight even paler than his moon-white flesh.
Cat drops his hand. Or attempts to. Grin holds onto hers, smirking.
Cat hisses, rolls to her feet like her namesake, and pulls her hand free. He didn’t have permission to touch her. Nobody should touch anybody without permission.
Grin looks down to his hand, then hers. His grin turns into an equally exaggerated frown.
Cat arches her eyebrows.
Grin touches a hand to his heart and bows his head apologetically.
Cat’s tail dances, thoughtful. Then she strides to a nearby porch and beckons for Grin to follow.
She points to an ectoplasmic memory, sharing her treasure. But Grin has other ideas. He tosses his head, grabs the chains of a porch swing, and hauls himself onto the back of it. The metal screeches under his weight as he swings twice then leaps to a balcony, climbs up to a window ledge, and summarily scales a rooftop. He leers over the edge, urging Cat to follow him.
She eyes the porch swing. She doesn’t trust the screechy metal chains, but she wonders if rooftops have memories like walls do.
So Cat prowls the street to a pair of houses linked by a fence. The house to the left is only one story high.
Cat pounces from the fence onto the rooftop to search for more ectoplasmic memories. Roofs do remember!
Cat’s tail dances faster, excited.
One year, Vivianne the Witch gave a human form to every gravestone from the graveyard at the western edge of town. The gravestones shambled into the town en masse, where they climbed on top of the houses where the people they memorialized once resided. Standing proud and grim as gargoyles, the gravestones gave reverberating orations to honor their deceased.
Tink. Something small strikes a pipe sticking out of the rooftop next to Cat.
Another small something swooshes between her cleavage and down the front of her billowing gown. Cat looks up to another pair of glowing eyes gazing down at her from the roof of a taller house. The eyes belong to Grin.
His lips tug into another huge, crescent smile.
Cat scowls at him.
Grin takes a third, small something out of his pocket and bites the tip of it, still smiling that devilish smile.
Cat fishes the second something out of her dress. It is a piece of candy corn. She throws it at Grin, who dodges it. Again, he beckons for her to follow.
Cat scavenges the rooftop for the first piece of candy corn, the one that struck the metal pipe. Thus armed, she pursues Grin.
Her chase leads Cat back to the market street. The revelry of her fellow lanterns looks different from above. More ectoplasmic memories are visible from this vantage point – skeletal trick-or-treaters, candy apple romances, and a parade of costumes marching and dancing their way from one end of town to the other and back again.
Cat finds Grin on ground level, hiding among the revelers.
Well, not hiding, exactly.
He bribes a crow close with the candy then attempts to scoop it up. For the most part, that is as far as his game goes. The crows are craftier than Grin. Cat is crafty too.
She clutches the single piece of candy corn in her hand as she works her way her toward him, crossing from rooftop to rooftop.
When she feels that she is close enough, she takes aim. Throws. Strikes him in the middle of his large, lantern eyes.
Grin jolts in surprise, but his surprise passes quickly. It only takes him a moment to find Cat’s hiding place. He smirks and shakes his head in amused reproach.
Cat reads the warning in Grin’s expression paired with his heavy palm full of candy.
She flees before he can retaliate. She runs to the church and graveyard at the western edge of town, looking over her shoulder to make sure Grin is following. The sparkle in her eyes and the inviting twitch of her tail give him permission to continue their game of chase and harass.
The churchyard has its own ectoplasmic memories to compel her.
One year, Vivianne the Witch gave a human form to every bell in town. Among the stores and houses, bell memories were few and far between, mostly limited to shop doors and the clock tower. In the churchyard, the memories of bells were everywhere. Church bells and hand bells alike chimed clarion tones in a festive chorus.
Cat and Grin join a game of small bell memories playing tag. They duck and hide among old gravestones, giving away their locations with the crunch of leaves beneath their feet.
There was also a year when Vivianne the Witch gave a human form to every gross of fallen leaves. This year’s leaves don’t remember the occasion, but their trees do. The fallen leaves, returned to life after fading, had climbed back into their trees and played amid their branches for the entire duration of the Witching Hour.
Cat circles one of the trees, wondering if she and Grin would have just as much fun playing up there. He joins her, circling around the other way.
Cat closes her orbit. Grin does too. They stop on opposite sides of the tree, less than an arm’s length apart.
Cat holds out her hands. Grin leans his head around the tree to study her.
She nods. He takes her hands. It’s an incredible sensation, the pads of his fingertips touching hers. Soft and warm like the inside of a pumpkin while the candle burns – but dry, not sticky. And when she tightens her grip, his fingers don’t squish like pumpkin meat. They squeeze back, solid like the tree between them.
Such wondrous things, hands.
Cat releases one of Grin’s hands to explore the other. She holds it up to her face so her eyes illuminate it. In the orange light, she studies every groove. Fine lines like spider legs. Rounded fingernails like roofing tiles.
She brushes the tip of her nose against his knuckles. She studies his smell of pumpkin, smoke, and candy corn.
This one hand interests her more than all of the ectoplasmic memories in town. She could study his hand all night. But there’s more to observe. So she traces her attention up from his hand to his wrist, his arm, his shoulder. Her ears twitch, listening to the way his breath quickens when she reaches his chest.
His jack-o-lantern smile slips into something pensive. His fingers – soft as pumpkin, solid as tree bark – brush her lips. Those delightful fingers. She doesn’t need to hear his question to understand what he’s asking. She lifts her hand and mirrors his gesture, touching her fingers to his lips.
Their hands frame each other’s faces. Their noses touch. Their mouths drift closer.
_ _ _
Nestled in front of her fireplace, Vivianne the Witch smiles into a steaming mug. She may spend her Halloweens alone, but the power to bring others together is a beautiful thing, even if it’s just for this one, most magical night of the year.