The British pumpkin soldier was about to die, but all he felt was the chill of autumn. Maybe that was all death was, he reflected, the chilling of the warm skin of summer. He tried to remember a song about that he had heard once, on one of the long marches during the war. The words were lost to him though. He had lost them just as he had lost the other gourdsmen of his battalion, just as he had lost the embossed permit of existence given by the Queen upon his return to England that proved he was not a creature of black magic.
He was being pursued. The de-animation spell unleashed at the war’s conclusion and spoken with a power that flashed out over all the field of Flanders was still searching for him, dogging him along the long lanes of southern England.
The soldier was cold. There was a rime of frost around the edges of his eyes and mouth that the flickering glow of the flame in his face could not dislodge. He was propped beside a wall at the edge of a field, near where a lane led down out of the hills. He had been traveling north when weariness had overtaken him and he’d settled himself to wait beside the wall.
A boy was walking down the lane, leading a dun cow with sleepy eyes, and the soldier hailed him, waving a thin arm of twig and knotted pine.
The boy stared.
“Tell me something, son.” The pumpkin soldier had not spoken in a long time, and his voice came surprisingly soft in his own ears. It rasped like dry leaves.
He wanted word of the war. He wanted to know how it was seen in these sleepy hills and along the dusty lanes.
“What are they calling it now?” he asked the boy, forcing volume into his voice. “The final push? The last days of the war? What do they call it?”
“The Bailiwick Offensive,” the boy said. He had a simple, honest face, round and plump like a pumpkin’s.
“Bailiwick.” The soldier’s orange skin tightened as he smiled. “Duffy O’Donnell, they called him, as it was his name. But we called him the Bailiwick. That was a gourdsman the Queen could be proud of.”
The soldier’s voice failed, wracked by coughs that almost blew out his flame. He tried to catch his breath, afraid the boy would lose interest and continue down the lane. He needed someone to speak with, someone who wasn’t simply another shadow on the road.
“The Prussians had metal soldiers, you know,” he said when he had voice again.
The boy nodded gravely. “My pa told me.”
Evening was coming on. The moon would be visible soon. The soldier could feel its weight overhead, lost in the grey-blue emptiness of dusk.
“But your pa never saw them.” Leaves skittered across the lane. “I did. I saw them in the lowlands, massed in their thousands. What’s a gourdsman going to do against an army like that, you ask yourself. I was only a sprout, barely into my first season out of the nursery fields. I was born there, in Belgium. You don’t grow gourdsmen here.”
“You don’t grow them anywhere now, pa says.”
The soldier nodded at that, his bulbous head rocking on a neck of coiled wicker. “True enough. Those fields are frosted over, I’m sure. Plowed up. Rows of corn, likely, mowed for the season as far as the eye can see.” He sighed deeply, and the flame danced up into his eyes. “That was rich soil. I can still taste it.”
“What did the soldiers look like?” the boy asked.
“The Prussians?” The soldier leaned in toward the question as though it was a warm fire. “Like a nightmare.
All gleaming iron flanks and blades for fingers. They spat flames, but wicker doesn’t burn like you’d think. Our bodies were thick with resin. Didn’t burn easily.”
“Ma carves our pumpkins. They’re tough but . . .” The boy shrugged.
“Ah yes.” The soldier inclined his head again. “Blades bit into even the best of us. Old Bailiwick himself met his end that way. Thousands of good gourdsmen died at the hands of those iron butchers.” He winked his eye. “But you know the story. I’m sure you do. You know his secret.”
“He summoned the Diggers.”
“The Diggers. Bailiwick’s masterstroke.” The soldier slapped a hand of twigs on a wooden knee. “All of us gourdsmen and our sling-vines up there on the surface, where the real action was going on a hundred feet below. Those Prussian soldiers might have heard it through their feet if we hadn’t been fighting so hard just to keep them distracted.”
The cow the boy was bringing in from pasture lowed plaintively, and the boy glanced over his shoulder.
“Imagine what war would be like in the sea,” the soldier said, ignoring the animal. Speaking had for a moment warmed him in his wicker joints and the pulp of his pale flesh. “Combat at every level, there on the surface but also—if you had the right soldiers, if you had the Diggers—way down deep in the depths.”
“Did you ever see a Digger?”
The pumpkin turned his head side-to-side slowly. “Never did. But saw what they did. We all saw. And right before Bailiwick himself got carved, he saw it too. Knew his plan had worked. The ground opening up under the Prussians’ feet, swallowing soldiers and tanks and supply trains. We just held on and watched, dug in our roots and prayed we weren’t too close when the mines opened up.”
There was a man coming up the path now as well.
“What are you doing there, Hal? Get that cow home.”
“There’s a gourdsman, pa. Says he saw Bailiwick.”
The man came up beside the boy and spat. The wind picked up, and the soldier’s loose clothing flapped around him like a scarecrow’s. It had gotten colder. The soldier found it difficult to raise his head.
“There ain’t no gourdsmen left,” the man said. “That’s a pumpkin from Old Keller’s cart. Fell off likely as he was taking the last of his harvest to market.”
“Very true,” the soldier agreed. His voice sounded now even more like leaves. “The de-animation spells were spoken as soon as the Armistice was signed. Disarmament is a necessary portion of peace. We were marching to Brussels when it hit. Then there were only sticks and broken twigs and a late harvest scattered on the roadside.”
“It missed this one, pa,” the boy said. “Maybe the spells let some go.”
“Indeed,” the pumpkin agreed again. “One in a thousand, perhaps. We found our way to the shores of the land we had defended and never seen. A few of us were greeted as heroes. I saw the Queen once, from a distance, when they passed out our permits of existence. Lovely placard, though I lost it some time back.”
“Nothing there, boy,” the old man said. He reached down and pulled the pumpkin from where it was lodged against the stones and sticks beside the wall. “Keller won’t mind if we help ourselves.”
The soldier continued speaking as the man carried his head down the path. The boy held the cow’s lead in one hand and rested his other on the pumpkin’s smooth skin.
“We travelled together for a time,” the soldier was saying, “those of us who were left. There were shows. We did reenactments, drew crowds in Manchester. But the others got lost one by one. Maybe,” he said, “maybe the spells were just slow in coming.”
In the cottage, the man set the pumpkin on the table before his wife.
“You’re half-blind, Jeremiah,” she said. “That’s not from Keller’s fields. Someone’s already carved it into a jack-o-lantern.” She peeked in one of the eyeholes. “Still seems fresh though. Must have been a leftover from the fair.”
The soldier was still speaking, but the boy could only hear it in the whisper of wind at the windowsill. The moon was visible now, a tiny crescent trailing the sun’s grave in the west. “But it was a glorious charge, Bailiwick’s was,” the soldier said. “We fell on those metal beasts with a fury, to be sure.”
“I’ll chop it up,” the woman said. “Still plenty of rind left to make a pie, and someone’s already taken the trouble to clean out the seeds. Just got these new blades from market to try.”
The blades were clean and sharp. They were Prussian steel, and the pumpkin groaned.
“There’s a candle in here,” the woman said as she began to cut. “Looks like it’s just gone out.”
The boy had pie that night, spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon. He took it to the back stoop and ate, watching the stars and the low orange moon that was curved like a sad smile on the horizon. He wondered where the rest of the soldiers had gone. He wondered what sort of soldier might be called up and then forgotten for the next war.
Frost came in the night, and in the morning, icy blades gleamed in every field.
Stephen Case is a professor and historian of astronomy. His fiction and reviews have appeared in Strange Horizons, Black Gate, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. His novel First Fleet is available from Axiomatic Publishing, and his book on the nineteenth-century British astronomer Sir John Herschel is forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press.