The Onion Man
by Oli Jacobs
A man recalls a peculiar incident while staying in a small village, leading to the demise of his relationship…
Let me tell you about the weirdest break-up I experienced.
It began when I first met this girl who, for the sake of this story, we’ll call Ellen. She was cute, she was funny, and she had that certain It Factor that helps with the overall clicking required in a good courtship. One of the key things was that we shared a bizarre sense of humour, the kind that makes everyone else awkward or confused. Having little in-jokes about foil-obsessed Bavarians or dancing kangaroos, that sort of thing.
We had dated for about three months when it was decided that I’d meet her parents. That wasn’t when things went downhill, as her parents were actually pretty nice folk – the generic late-middle-aged couple that indulged in knick-knacks and baked goods, along with a penchant for knitwear. We met at a nice pub, shared a few drinks, and I was glad to find them as engaging and charming as Ellen was. I could definitely see where she got her personality.
A couple more months passed, along with more parental meetings in familiar places, until Ellen suggested we stay with them one weekend.
Now, this is where things started to turn.
Obviously I was looking forward to it, and the jaunt was arranged that evening. It then transpired that the particular date we would be visiting had been chosen for a reason; Ellen became very excited about showing me something, but was eager to keep it a surprise. Her parents were equally giddy over the prospect of our visit, and were equally secretive about why this weekend was so special. However, upon hearing about my impending sojourn, especially the fervour it inspired, my friends made the unanimous decision that I was going to be sacrificed by a cult.
Which was funny, at the time.
The weekend came around quickly, and we jumped in the car to spend some quality time with Ellen’s family. The village she hailed from was small and based deep within the rolling landscape of the county; you could stand atop some of the hills and have no idea that a few hundred people dwelled just slightly beyond the horizon. In fact, it wasn’t until we breached the crest that the tiny cottages and quaint shops revealed themselves to us.
Of course, the seeds planted by my friends about cults began to take root. Especially as we got closer to the village.
Dozens of banners lined the streets, declaring the village’s Autumn Festival. Emblems bedecked in various fruits and vegetables flanked beaming posters and exuberant signs celebrating the occasion. As we drove through, I caught Ellen smiling far wider than I’d ever seen before. Her eyes were wide and awestruck, and she waved with such joy at every villager who looked our way.
It already felt a bit weird, but then I heard the music.
A carnival-style tune flowed through the streets. It was slight, like a whistle, but punctuated by deep percussion and aggressive cymbals. You could see some villagers were bopping along to it, so deep in the festival spirit that they barely acknowledged the slight rain that fell.
It was all very curious, but thankfully easily forgotten when we got to Ellen parents’ home. We unpacked, declared our exhaustion from our journey, and promptly went to bed.
Instead of enjoying some alone time, I was instead audience to a manic Ellen telling me everything about the Autumn Festival. She explained that it happened every year, was in celebration of the changing of seasons and how it affected local crops, and the anticipation of some legendary figure.
I made a joke about it being Santa or the Easter Bunny, but instead of sarcastic laughter, Ellen met me with a cold stare and thin lips.
She told me, very seriously, that it was when The Onion Man came to visit.
Instantly, I had many questions that I kept to myself for fear of causing further offence. Who, or what, was The Onion Man? Was it a man made of onions? A man who grows onions? A simple seller of the bulb-shaped foodstuffs?
Or, and this was the most likely thought at the time, were they merely a figure of fun? A jester or fool linked to an ancient tradition?
Either way, at the time I couldn’t exactly laugh it off. I liked Ellen, and didn’t want to seem insensitive to something she so obviously was thrilled about. So I listened to her extol the wonder of The Onion Man and the Autumn Festival, and vowed to join her on the festivities through the weekend.
And you know what? It was actually alright. Imagine a harvest festival with creepier circus music, and you’d get the idea. There were stalls stocked with all sorts of crafts and handmade goodies, little shows involving puppets and over-caffeinated dancers, and naturally, a raffle. I actually won a jigsaw, which was nice. Personally, I had my eye on the local home-brew.
Although, looking back, it was probably made with onions.
By the time it was Sunday, the whole village was literally twitching with anticipation. The music had become fuller and more bombastic, and there was a sense that something special was about to happen. Of course, I already knew that special something was The Onion Man that Ellen giddily told me about.
I’ll be honest; I was mostly nodding and agreeing with everything she said. I just took the whole thing as a charming tradition that you find in small villages like this one. There was no sense of malevolence or danger – apart from the growing volume in music – and overall I was getting into the spirit of it all.
Then, the parade happened.
To start with, it was a normal parade. A few floats showcasing local groups and services, a band providing a source for all the music, and the Autumn Queen, who was obviously the daughter of one of the village’s officials.
As the last float passed, the music stopped.
The silence was unnerving, more so than the damned carnival cacophony that had permeated everywhere since our arrival. It seemed like there was a collective holding of breath, before a shrill whistling signalled the start of a new, even jauntier tune. I didn’t think it could get more manic and audibly tangled, but to my pained surprise the tempo quickened and, sure enough, the song of the circus became more anarchic and frenzied. The mood of the crowd joined in, their twitches turning to shaking to outright dancing and frolicking,
Then came the screaming.
It wasn’t anything horrific; it was actually someone seeing the arrival of a figure down the street. The person was quite thin, prancing between people on both sides of the street and handing them something from a large sack they carried on their back.
As they came into my view, I saw the person was dressed in a strange amalgamation of medieval jester-dress and modern leathers, a mish-mash of brash colours and maudlin brown. His eyes were wide and grin wider, and his expression didn’t shift from the rictus mania as he went from person to person, handing out small bundles.
Bundles containing a single onion.
Obviously, this was the legendary Onion Man.
Ellen actually grabbed my arm as he got closer, shaking it with excitement. It was like dating a child that was high on sugar. In fact, the whole town were acting like kids, with those who got their onion holding them aloft and almost worshipping them. It was, to put it mildly, quite something.
Then, he got to where we stood.
The Onion Man gave an onion to Ellen’s parent, then to Ellen – who actually squealed – and then to me. He stood there, and now he was in front of me I could see how absolutely grotesque he looked. His skin was cracked and white, and eyes stained yellow where the veins should be. His teeth glinted between his lips, and the corners of his mouth stretched painfully against his cheeks. He stared at me intensely, one arm outstretched with a single onion wrapped in what looked like rusted skin.
I smiled back, felt the hairs on my neck bristle as everyone stared at me, and politely declined the gift.
This did not go down well. The Onion Man began to shake violently, but never broke his manic expression. His eyes blazed and seemed to sink in his sockets, while his teeth sounded like they were cracking as he applied more pressure in his grin.
Around me, the crowd had gone silent, and the carnival tunes whispered in the air. I glanced over to Ellen as I felt the awkwardness of the situation, and saw her almost beckon me to pick up the onion.
So I did.
Just like that, The Onion Man burst into life again, bounding from foot to foot in a light jig. The music swelled up again, and the village seemed to release a collective gasp of relief. The rage that had begun to brim in The Onion Man’s eyes faded as he surveyed the crowd, but returned only slightly as he looked at me. As he pranced away, I looked back at Ellen and her parents, and saw that things were not as rosy as they once were.
Sure enough, the day ended with a confusing argument, and the silent treatment from Ellen’s parents. The whole journey home was the epitome of uncomfortable, and not even an hour had passed from me dropping her off that Ellen called me and broke things off. Apparently, we just didn’t connect.
So, yeah, that was the end of that. In the end, the best thing I got out of that particular rendezvous was a rather baffling story, and an onion. After all this time, I still have the damned onion.
And you know what? Every year, around the same date, the damn thing unravels and plays the same tune I heard in the village.
Sometimes, I swear I hear someone dancing outside.