How To Carve A Jack-O-Lantern
Autumn (Halloween) 2019
Step One: Choose the Right Pumpkin
She points to one she claims is perfect.
“How is that different from this?” I snap, holding up the one I’d picked. It’s chilly, the farmer’s impatient, and I’m irritated that she thinks she’s better at this.
“This one’s still unripe.” Sabrina taps it with a finger, with the air of an expert. “See? (I don’t) You’ll spend ages scooping the flesh out.”
“Fine.” I put the pumpkin down. “You win.”
“It should be the size of your head.” Sabrina picks up her pumpkin. “That’s what Grandpa said.”
“Whatever.” I hand the farmer ten dollars.
Sarabeth’s mouth formed a perfect circle and her eyes went impossibly wide. ”Why?”
“It’s too small.” I replied, picking up two pumpkins in my hands. “Needs to be the size of your head.”
“Oh.” Sarabeth frowned, and pointed to another one. “How about that one?”
It was the day before Halloween, and we had managed to arrive at the farmer’s market before they’d run out of pumpkins. Sarabeth had insisted that, since she was a "big girl," she would pick and make her own lantern. Piles of tangerine—colored orbs were stacked up around us. Sarabeth was taking ages to choose.
“Hurry up!” I had forgotten to grab a warmer jacket, and the cold was searching out every uncovered part of my body. The air was crisp and when I spoke, fog surrounded my mouth like smoke from a dying cigarette.
“All done!” Sarabeth handed the farmer her money, giving him a huge grin, showing off the gap between her two incisors.
She bent down, and panted slightly as she picked up her pumpkin. I noticed that she was wearing Sabrina’s old mittens—the ones with silver snowflakes embroidered on them.
The pumpkins slowed me down, but Sarabeth was skipping ahead gaily, singing songs to herself. It was getting colder, and my ears felt numb.
Sarabeth looked slightly confused. “Why do we have three pumpkins?”
“Why do you think we do?” I was exhausted after a three hour athletics session, and so the words came out sounding harsher than I’d intended.
She didn’t notice. She was too busy puzzling over my question. I waited for her eyes to go wide with realization, and wasn’t disappointed.
“Oh!” She gasped. “I get it!” For a second, she looked almost pleased that she’d figured it out. Then she fell silent, and her skipping slowed down to a crawl.
“Yeah.” I reached out and squeezed her hand. She looked up, honey-brown eyes glittering with tears. It’s been almost a year, but she still hasn’t come to terms with it.
I haven’t either, really.
Step Two: Scoop Out the Flesh
She’s wearing denim overalls, and her blonde hair is bundled into a hat. Apparently, this part requires old clothes because it’s extra messy.
She wipes her knife on a cloth before slicing the top of the pumpkin off.
“You have to save it for later.” She grabs my hand when I’m about to throw it away. “To cover the lantern with.”
Mom doesn’t let us use knives to scrape the meat of the pumpkin out. So we use spoons, and later, our hands, tearing away flesh from the skin, digging out seeds and holding them up triumphantly as if they’re gold nuggets. Sabrina’s overalls, and my shirt, are covered with orange muck. It’s even in our fingernails.
“Baz! Don’t eat it!”
Sabrina loves acting like the older one.
Grandpa Tom taught Sabrina how to carve jack-o-lanterns, and she taught me. He would’ve taught me too, but I’d had the flu at the time. So she did. Like everything that involved her bossing me about, she ‘d relished the experience.
I had already scooped the majority of the flesh out, and I paused to wash my hands, which were filthy. Sarabeth was nowhere in sight. Mom was probably helping her out in the kitchen. I should have been helping her, but I was used to taking orders from little sisters, not giving them. And it would have felt strange.
Entering the house was like stepping into a sauna. The kitchen was warm, and smelled like cinnamon because Mom had been making doughnuts. It was freezing in the garage. I felt like my fingers had turned into pointy icicles—I’d taken my gloves off. I’d have gone inside, but Sabrina and I had always done this in the garage. She’d always said it was fun to deliberately make a mess.
She had been messy in general. Hair that was more knots and tangles than actual hair, odd shoes and mismatched socks, nails painted every color of the rainbow. Her eyes were blue and green and brown and gold, as if they had been painted several times. I’d use to think that whoever made humans had put in her, a little bit of everything in his toolkit, because there was no other way she could be so . . . distinctive. Quirky, even. With regard to everything in her life.
I took my knife again, and scraped out more pumpkin meat. Mom sometimes uses it to make pies, or a special kind of flapjack. Sabrina, for all she loved Halloween, hated eating anything with pumpkins in them.
Sabrina had been the only person in the whole school to belong to every single club. Chess. Soccer. Ballet. Knitting. If there was a problem in her schedule, if there was orchestra the same time as chess, she would run madly across the whole school, popping into each room, staying for maybe ten minutes before dashing off again, coming back because she’d forgotten her bag, and rushing away once more . . .
It was how she had lived. She had journeyed down the road called life like a friendly hurricane. Impacting everyone in her way...before suddenly dissipating into air.
This time last year, we’d known that Sabrina wouldn’t get a chance to carve a jack-o-lantern again. She had refused to cry over it. Well, she’d cried a little—when she was with me, or Dad or Mom—never in front of Sarabeth. Life is a cycle, she would say, and death is just one stage. I’m just moving on a little faster than all of you.
It had been too fast for me to grasp. She had fallen ill the day after her best friend’s birthday party, which was why Mom and Dad assumed it was due to over-excitement and/or hangover symptoms.
It was after her nose had bled for five minutes without stopping that we’d realized something was seriously wrong.
It was after three consecutive visits to the hospital that we realized there was nothing we could do about it.
Metastasis had occurred too quickly.
I threw my knife down, sweaty despite the autumn chill. Sabrina had died a week after New Year’s Eve, and, ever since then, I had been silently, almost unconsciously, counting down the days to the first Halloween without her. I suddenly wanted to rip apart the paper ghosts and rubber spiders Mom had decorated the house with; throw Sarabeth’s witch costume out of the window; hurl every pumpkin in sight into a garbage can.
I hated Halloween for daring to exist without her.
Step Three: Carving
“It should look like it’s smirking.” She says. “ Like it knows something you don’t. Like it knows the way to your bedroom, and it’s gonna scare you there.”
“How do you carve a smirk?” I demand. She smirks.
“Isn’t it brilliant?” Sarabeth beamed. Her hair, her face, her clothes—they were covered in flecks of orange. Looks like someone else inherited the messy gene. She was holding up a carved pumpkin, and asked the question in a way that showed she didn’t expect an answer to the contrary.
“Sure.” I grinned, ruffling her hair. Her pumpkin looked more like a chubby monkey than anything remotely scary, but of course I couldn’t tell her that.
Sabrina had always insisted on giving her jack-o-lanterns dimples. I had dimples, one on either cheek, something she’d been absurdly jealous about. If she didn’t have them, at least her lanterns did. It was her little quirk. She was Sabrina, and therefore even her jack-o-lanterns had to have something special; something different.
“Haven’t you finished making hers yet?” Sarabeth asked.
“Nope.” I replied. I had scooped the flesh out, but every time I thought of carving it...it was another reminder that she wasn’t there anymore.
Sarabeth looked at me intently, and nodded once, as if she understood. She looked more like Sabrina than I did—they’d both shared the insanely bright, sunshine yellow hair and double-jointed fingers. When Sabrina had died, Sarabeth had refused to let us take her to the mortuary. She had started screaming, in a high-pitched, croaky voice before going limp and eventually succumbing to tears.
An image in my mind of Sarabeth’s face, blotchy red and glazed with tear-stains , was shattered when I heard the house phone ringing. I went inside to take the call, after reminding Sarabeth to get extra candles.
It was Grandpa Tom. We chatted for about half an hour before he took a swipe at the subject we’d both been avoiding.
“Are we still at the jack-o-lanterns?” His voice was wheezy, from years of tobacco.
“Must be weird, without her correcting you every step of the way.”
Sabrina loved many things, but she loved correcting me best. No, Baz! That’s not how you do it! It would have been annoying if she hadn’t sounded so genuinely troubled by my mistakes. Thirteen years worth of Halloween pictures lay in the family album, encased in cellophane slips. Pictures of every pumpkin she and I had ever carved; of all the costumes we’d worn. Sabrina as a unicorn. Sabrina as a cowboy. Sabrina as a Chinese dragon, a fairy, a ballet dancer . . .
Last year, she had dressed up as . . . a pumpkin. Orange sweater, orange leggings, and a green hat. Hair shortened by chemotherapy, but it was still jaw-length, and even though she didn’t have dimples, her smile was happy.
“Yeah.” I said again. “It is.”
Grandpa Tom sighed.
“I won’t keep you. Give Sarabeth a kiss from me.”
When I came out, Sarabeth was lighting candles. She had already put about eight in her own lantern, and was trying to stick a few in mine. I noticed that someone had finished carving Sabrina’s lantern.
“Did you do this?” I asked, pointing at it, trying not to sound accusatory. I knew it couldn’t be Sarabeth; it looked too good.
She shook her head, ponytail swinging. “No. I think Dad did. I went in to look for all the candles, and it was done.
“Pretty quick job.” I remarked, picking the lantern up to get a better look. I couldn’t help feeling resentful. I would have liked to do it myself. Sabrina would have protested, but if she’d had to choose someone to carve her lantern, she’d have picked me to do it. I was her jack-o-lantern protégé’, after all.
The pumpkin was the perfect shade of orange. It was the color of the sun at sunset. It had an evil, pointy smirk. I traced my finger along it’s skin . . .
When I noticed it, I stopped breathing for a second.
The lantern fell out of my shaking hand. It narrowly escaped destruction by falling onto the grass instead of the concrete. I felt a chill that had nothing to do with the cold creep over me, the way darkness creeps into the day.
“Baz!!” Sarabeth exclaimed, crossing her arms and glaring at me. (She sounded uncannily like Sabrina, although I was too dazed to notice). “You could have broken it!"
My legs reacted to shock quicker than the rest of my body did. I ran inside the house, and slammed the door shut before sinking to the floor. I pressed a hand to my forehead. My skin felt clammy and wet. My breaths came bursting from my lung in short, ragged gasps.
The image of Sabrina’s lantern flooded my mind and burned my eyes.
Smirking, because it knew something I didn’t (it did! Dad hadn’t carved it . . .). A perfect smirk.
Right down to the dimples that had been carved into its cheeks.
Jyotsna Nair is a fifteen-year-old living in India (as well as her own imagination). She enjoys baking banana bread and consuming it over books.