Catchlight - The Princess and The Pumpkin Baby It was hot the day I helped my Dad harvest the Butternut Pumpkins. I got prickled all over from the vines and wicked sunburned too. I spent hours hunched over, slowly broiling, while I carried the little oval Pumpkins to the crate on the back of Dad’s Massey Ferguson Tractor. My body was working hard, but my mind was drifting off into imaginary games. To most people they were Pumpkin vines with huge leaves and long stems covered in grabby, scratchy little hairs. But I knew they were really thorn bushes trying to capture the Princess and trap her forever. The Princess had to use her secateurs to cut those thorny vines and fling them over her shoulder. “Penny,” said the King, “Don’t do that, you’ll kill them and they’ve got another harvest in them yet.” “But they’re trying to catch me. They’re going to drag me into the forest and trap me,” I said. “We don’t have a forest, we’ve got apple trees.” “Dad, you’re ruining it,” I said. “You’ve had too much sun; you’re as red as a beetroot. Go inside and tell your brother he’s got to help for awhile.” I didn’t need to be told twice. I dropped my secateurs on the crate and headed back to the house, the muddy clumps on my gumboots growing as I walked. It was a pretty big paddock, nearly five acres of black dense soil and I was at exactly the wrong end of it. There were dragons hiding in the Poplar trees that flanked the field. If I’d still had my secateurs, I could have sent them packing, but as it was, I was pretty vulnerable. “Clear off you ugly sods. I’ve got a magic sword." The Dragons could see I was lying and they started gathering up their iridescent wings to pounce on me. I’d be a good lunch, I’d been pre-cooked. My only option was to run for my life. The ground was tricky, my gumboots were too big and slapped against my calves as I ran. I pondered not believing in Dragons as I panted my way towards the gate. I almost made it out of the paddock before one of those evil Pumpkin vines wrapped around my foot. I face planted so hard that one of my gumboots came flying over my head, raining mud as it went. I thought about crying, but I was too far from anyone to be heard, so I just got up and shook off the dirt instead. My gumboot had flown miles, well a couple of feet anyway. I got up and trudged over to get it. As I bent to pick it up, I saw something. It was a baby Butternut Pumpkin, hiding from the Dragons beneath a Pumpkin leaf. What a precious little creature it was. I sank to my knees and collected the baby into my hands. It looked so frightened. It had a little head, a chubby bottom and a beak for a nose made out of its prickly Pumpkin stem. “Don’t worry; I’ve looked after all kinds of baby animals before.” I cradled it carefully in one arm while I put my mud covered foot back inside my gumboot. I carried my precious cargo towards my house and safety. I had to take care; the world was a cruel place where Pumpkins were concerned. They sometimes got eaten, not by me though, I hated Pumpkin. We passed the horse paddock but I didn’t have time to waste talking to them today. They followed as I walked along the fence line, wondering why I wasn’t stopping to tell stories and feed them apples. “Sorry, I’ve got a very important job to do.” I passed the hens as they foraged around the big implement shed. They ran up to me, expecting me to feed them as usual. “No hens! It’s not food, it’s a baby.” Hens, they were clueless. I could see Crustabread’s pigsty. His breakfast was still sitting in the big white bucket by his gate. I’d been about to feed him when I’d seen Dad starting the tractor and had run off to help him instead. Crustabread would be starving and even madder than usual. He was a wild pig that one of Dad’s mates had brought home for me when he was a baby. They’d killed his Mother when they were hunting. He was small, hairy and mean, but I loved him. He wasn’t going to get eaten; Dad said he’d taste awful, which was lucky for Crustabread. On a farm, it paid to taste bad. As I walked up to his sty, Crustabread jumped up at the gate, squealing and carrying on like crazy. I carefully rested the little Pumpkin baby on the gate post while I bent down to pick up the bucket. When I stood up, the baby was gone. “Crustabread, you better not have!” I slid the bolt across and raced inside. I found myself in the middle of a hostage situation. My precious baby was in the jaws of the greediest piglet I’d seen in all my six months of pig rearing experience. I tried the calm approach, slurping carefully through the mud, asking Crustabread very nicely to drop the baby. But he just stood staring at me, jaws clamped around the baby’s chubby bottom, ready to bite down at any second. I considered running at him, but I thought the better of it. I’d tried catching Crustabread lots of times before and it had never ended well. I shuddered at the memory of the time he got in the big glasshouse. It hardly seemed fair that I was the one who got the spanking, I only ate one tomato, it was Crustabread who ate the rest. If anyone deserved a spank it was him. I had an idea. One careful step at a time, I walked backwards toward the gate and reached for the bucket full of pig breakfast. Crustabread saw it immediately, dropped the innocent baby in the sticky mud and charged towards me. It was too late to throw the food from the gate and run like I usually did. I closed my eyes and felt myself soaring through the air, landing with a squelch, flat on my back. When I opened my eyes, Crustabread’s face was inches from mine, picking up apple peels and bits of bread off my chest where they’d fallen in the collision. “Ugh,” I said. “Ugh,” said the pig. Crustabread was a quick and very tickly eater. He was done in no time and I was able to scramble to my feet and rescue the baby before he remembered it. I made a dash for the gate and slammed it behind me. “Oh little baby, I hope you’re okay?” I cradled the poor, muddy little creature in my arms. It only had a couple of small dents from Crustabread’s teeth. All things considered, it had come off a lot better than I had. Mum was right, kids were a strain. I dragged my muddy self the rest of the way to the house and kicked off my boots on the veranda. Mum met me just inside the front door, with one of those expressions that you know is going to end in “bath.” Sure enough, I was pushed down the hall towards the bathroom. “And don’t you come out until you’re clean,” Mum said. My new baby needed a bath too, so I figured we might as well share. I was careful not to get the water too hot; it wouldn’t do to cook him. By the time I was finished, we were both rosy and clean. Parts of me were a lot rosier than others, though, and I cringed as I dried myself off with a towel. Once I was dressed, I carried my baby to the kitchen to meet my Mum. “Oh, does Dad want that for dinner?” Mum asked. My mouth dropped in horror. Did anyone think of anything other than their stomach around here? “No. It’s not a Pumpkin, it’s a baby. I found it under a leaf when I fell over ‘cos Dragons were chasing me. Seriously. Look at my back, I’m burned and everything. Someone left this poor baby just laying there, probably a Queen or something, like that mean one in Snow White.” “Penny, it’s a Pumpkin.” “You’re so rude Mum.” Mum rolled her eyes at me. I’d saved more baby rabbits and possums than any other kid around, but this was the first time she’d seen me try to save food. “Fine, it’s a baby. What’s its name?” I thought about it for a minute. I’d named Crustabread after my favourite cartoon giant and used up every other character name I knew on all the other farm animals. I was completely out of new ideas. “He’s, um, his name is… Mr Pumpkin.” I said. It was my worst name ever, but it stuck. I made Mr Pumpkin a bed in the shoe box where I usually kept my plastic farm animals. It was summer; they didn’t need a house. I ‘borrowed’ a couple of pillow cases from the hall cupboard and made a little bed in the shoe box for Mr Pumpkin. He was much easier to carry around that way and he looked much less edible. Just in case, I got my big brother Jim to write on the box in vivid marker, 'I am not food,' it read. “I think he needs some eyes.” Jim said. Jim was older than me and really good at drawing, so I trusted his opinion. “Can you give him eyes and a mouth, but you have to be careful, okay?” Jim was great, he had imagination too. He told awesome stories and he was always happy to come and hunt dragons with me. He very carefully drew two eyes, just by Mr Pumpkin’s stemmy nose. They were just little black circles but they did the trick. Jim added another little black circle under the nose, for the mouth. “He looks real surprised.” I said. “He’s just got his first ever mouth, of course he’s surprised.” He made a good point. Like I said, Jim knew stuff. Lucky for me, Butternut Pumpkins last ages. Mr Pumpkin and I had some great times together that summer. When I hitched the cart that I made from a nail box and pram wheels to my pet sheep Arthur, Mr Pumpkin came along for the ride. It was always quite a ride; there wasn’t any suspension for one thing. Until Mr Pumpkin came along, Sam the Spaniel had ridden on my lap in the cart, but there was no room now. I don’t think Sam minded. We had a few more Dragon encounters that summer, but I wasn’t scared if I was with Arthur. He was named after a great king who certainly wasn’t scared of Dragons. You couldn’t steer Arthur, or stop him. Once I got him hitched to the cart and climbed in, Arthur would charge off in whatever direction he was pointing. That’s why I always pointed him towards the orchard instead of the house, so we wouldn’t end up dodging cars on the main road. That’s also why I never got to drive my Arthur cart to school, which was a shame because it would have been the best show and tell ever. Plus it would have saved a lot of walking. I introduced Mr Pumpkin to the horses, they thought he was pretty boring and didn’t want much to do with him aside from a quick sniff. I avoided Abba the goat though. She could eat anything; I knew it for a fact because she ate one of my Trixie Belden books. That goat was not to be trusted. Like summer holidays, Butternut Pumpkins don’t last forever. Mr Pumpkin had done pretty well; it was a good three weeks before his bottom began to wrinkle and his face puckered up. I’d done my very best to protect him and he was dying anyway. “It’s not your fault, Penny,” Mum said, “Pumpkins have much shorter lives than us, like Butterflies, and he’s lived to be a very old man, thanks to you.” It wasn’t much comfort but I was glad I’d saved him from being eaten. I wasn’t ready to let go yet though. I still tucked him into his shoebox bed at night and cuddled him under the blankets. A day or so after he’d first begun to pucker, he started to sag. Worse still, he wet the bed. “Okay Penny, that’s enough, if you leave it any longer, he’ll explode all over your sheets.” Mum said. I wasn’t sure if I thought that would be really gross, or really cool. Still, Mum was right; it was all over for Mr Pumpkin. His forehead had drooped so far that it was obscuring his eyes completely. “He’s dead.” I told Jim. “I can see that, Midget. Let’s go bury him eh?” Jim said. He took Dad’s spade with the red handle and we walked out to the garden. “Where do you think would be a good spot?” Jim asked. “Under the Gooseberry bush, I reckon.” Mum had told me once that you found babies under Gooseberry bushes, and Mr Pumpkin had been a baby. Jim dug the grave for me. It was really deep and nice and square. Jim always did things the right way. I gave Mr Pumpkin one last kiss; I had to be really careful because he was very squidgy. Jim solemnly took the box from my hands and laid it in the hole that he had dug. “Mr Pumpkin was a very good Pumpkin,” I said. “He wasn’t scared of Dragons or riding in my Arthur cart. If he’d gone to school, he would have clobbered Lindsey Marshall for me, probably. I hope he goes to a Heaven where there aren’t any pigs.” You couldn’t try to save as many baby birds as I had without learning how to deliver a good eulogy. “The End,” I said. “Amen,” said Jim. “Oh yeah. Amen.” Jim filled in the grave carefully and I put a brick right beside it, so I’d know where Mr Pumpkin was. I would never have another pet Pumpkin; I’d learned the hard way how those little suckers will break your heart. A couple of months after we had buried him, it turned out that Mr Pumpkin must have been a girl, because he had babies. At first lots of little green sprouts appeared under the Gooseberry bush, and before long they’d spread all over the place. We ended up with dozens and dozens of baby Butternuts. Mum was right about babies under the Gooseberry bush after all. I didn’t make friends with any of them though; it didn’t pay to make friends with stuff your Mum was going to cook.