The Reaping

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
A short(ish) story written in the style of a traditional fairy tale, for purposes of constructive criticism.

Submitted: August 12, 2016

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Submitted: August 12, 2016

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Once upon a time, in a narrow valley cleaved by a burbling brook, there lived a family of poor tenant farmers. These were simple, hard-working folk, who won a living from the soil by the sweat of their brows, tending crops from seed to sickle. Life was not easy, for the lord of the land demanded his share of labour each week, but the earth was fertile and had always provided well enough for them.

And yet, one summer morn’, when the crop was still slender and green, a strange darkness came upon the sky. Fingers of black cloud mingled and merged overhead, and soon enough, a fearsome torrent came to lash the valley. Day rolled into night, and night into day, yet still the heavens poured, ‘til even the friendly brook sloshed and spat from the edges of its banks, while great sheet puddles clogged the pores of the soil, suffocating the wheat that stood within in.

Only with the coming of the third day did the rain relent, and when, at last, the stream shrank back within its banks, the family crept nervously from their stick-stone house. Yet their faces were soon grey as the sky, for the rich, crumbling earth had turned glossy and slick, and the slender stalks lay limp and dead and upon it.

“What are we to do, husband?”, said the farmer’s wife. “The crop is ruined, and there is no time to grow another before winter. If we have no grain to sell, then we will surely starve!”

For a while, the farmer was quiet, but at last he turned to his wife.

“Calm yourself, woman!”, he jeered. “Have we not done well these last few years? All this time, I have been a very clever man, and have set some money aside. And look”, he added, inspecting himself favourably. “Are we not fit and strong? Surely we can find work in the town this summer, so we will not go hungry.”

At this, his wife was reassured enough.

Each morning thence, even as the lark cleared its throat to sing, the farmer and his wife made off down the long track into town. There, they worked however they could, for merchants, craftsmen and other farmers, who knew little, it seemed, of their terrific tempest. At length, the chill of winter withered much of the work away, and the path was often blocked by heaped snowdrifts, but the savings they had gathered were just enough to stave off the worst of their hunger.

***

The following spring, they set out early onto the fields, and even the youngest came out to help, remembering well the meagreness of his winter rations. Before long, a vibrant green stubble cloaked the earth, and the brook burbled merrily amongst it, and all seemed right and well.

But then, one day, the gentle sky seemed suddenly to change its mood. As if stricken by some bereavement, a pall of dismal grey slid across on the valley, and soon enough, a drove of weeping droplets followed. Down the rain came, for two whole days and nights, and when the deluge finally eased, it was far too late for the crop, which lay bowed and broken in the mud.

“What are we to do now!?”, cried the farmer’s wife. “There is certainly no time to plant again, and we’ve already spent the last of our savings! Soon I won’t even be able to work in the town!”

Her hand made a circuit of her belly as she spoke, and her mind was filled with care for the child within. But beside her, the farmer stood just as quiet as ever, while the children looked on nervously from the doorway.

“I am old enough to work in town“, called the eldest, unable to bear the silence any longer. A moment later, his brother, who always followed him, announced the same.

“But you are not even ten years old!”, their mother snapped. “What work could you possibly do?”

“We have helped in the fields these last few years”, the boy insisted. “Why, last autumn I felled a tree with father’s axe.” At that, his chest puffed proudly outward, until the glare of his mother shrivelled it back.

“What fine children we have!”, the farmer declared, before she could berate his son.  “One day, I shall pass that axe on to you, my boy, just as my father passed it onto me.”

At this, the boy expanded again, for it was a very fine axe indeed, with a smooth, polished handle and a blade as keen as winter frost.

“Do not worry, wife”, the farmer added. “One way or another, we shall be alright, I give you my word on that.”

But this time, the woman worried still.

***

From that day forward, it was a band of four, two short, two tall, who made off along the track to town each morn’. Through the summer months, they found work well enough, for the crops still grew in all the lands all around, but the pay was measly, especially for the young ones. In the autumn, when the harvest was all chopped and threshed, the only work left was hard, manual labour unfit for a child, while the farmer’s wife soon grew too heavy with child to toil any more.

Suddenly, the farmer found himself alone on the cold, dark path to town, and though he worked ‘til long after dusk, what little food was left in the cupboard had soon dwindled to cobwebs and crumbs. In their hunger, the children took to foraging amongst the icy leaves, yet the few small berries that they came upon did precious little to fill them up.

A tide of frozen mist brought after it the first heavy snows of the season, and beneath their crystal cover, the farmer’s wife gave birth to her child. Now the family huddled together, cold and hungry in their stick-stone house.

“What are we to do, husband?”, she said, cradling the baby to her breast. “If I am to nourish this child, I must have more than a handful of berries and a little stale bread.”

 Again the farmer was silent, yet soon his expression betrayed some calculation. Suddenly, he sprang up towards the door.

 “Where are you going?”, the woman called after him.

 “To chop some wood”, he replied gruffly. “The air is fresh, and perhaps a remedy will come to me as I work.”

 For the rest of the day, he tramped to and fro the barren trees, returning each time with an armful of logs to pile against the house. Only with the coming of the night did he retire, and yet, in the early hours, while the stars still twinkled, an icy draft stirred the children in their sleep. Hours later, as the first pale rays danced across the sky, they rose shivering to set the fire.

 “Where is your father?”, said their mother from her bed.

 “I do not know”, replied the eldest. “But look, the axe has gone. Perhaps he has taken it to chop some more wood.”

 Yet, the farmer did not return that morning, nor even in the afternoon. Soon, the murk of evening sank into the narrow valley, and the children and their mother peered anxiously towards the door.

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

Through the silence, the rhythmic groan of crumpling snow grew louder. Suddenly, the door flew open in a puff of flakes.

 “Father, father!”, the children cried, running to greet him, and then they noticed the package beneath his arm.

“Is it food?”, they said, eyeing it greedily. “Where have you been?”

 But even as they huddled and milled, the farmer’s wife looked on in doubt.

 “Where is your axe, husband?”, she asked. “I do not see it about you.”

 “I have sold it in the town”, he mumbled, making himself interested in the package.

 “Sold it!?”, she exclaimed. “But what shall we do for firewood? The winter is not even half the way through!”

 “Not to worry”, he replied, as if the news were good. “Yesterday, I chopped up a stack of logs as high as the roof. They should last us well into spring”

Yet, as he troubled to avoid his wife’s glare, his eye fell accidentally upon his eldest son, and he hesitated with guilt.

“Don’t you worry either, child”, he said. “Next year, when the harvest comes in, I will have enough money to buy a new one, even sharper and finer than the last. But look here! I have bread and milk and a little cheese too!”

And at that, the children forgot all about the axe.

***

The winter, though, would not be rushed. As the dark, frigid days slid one into the next, the purse of coins bought by the axe soon grew hollow and light. Around the solstice, thick banks of snow-bearing cloud rolled down from the north, and beneath the blotted sky, day barely seemed to rise from night. Now the family starved within their stick-stone house, while the farmer’s wife feared for her new born, who had grown as pale and quiet as the valley beyond.

It was many days before the first veins of blue crept back across the heavens, and yet, when the family emerged from their frozen vault, it was in dark and sombre precession. The woman took the lead, a little package held against her bosom, wrapped tenderly in soft blankets.

They buried the child by a stand of rosehip bushes, for she had laughed and smiled at their tart berry taste, a rare glimpse of sweetness in her short and bitter life.

The very next day, the woman joined her husband in the town, and she worked even later than he, as if reluctant to return to the stick-stone house. Still, her labour brought in just enough pennies to see the family past the season’s lingering remains.

***

At last, winter gave way to spring, and, as if guilty for its absence, the sun returned with new force, painting swathes of vibrant colour across the pastel land. In their narrow valley, the family made themselves as busy as could be, and soon the rich earth was thick with promising growth.

Spring turned to summer, and the crop grew tall and strong, nurtured with the care of a fragile infant. Still troubled by memories of recent past, the farmer took to climbing the steep valley side each morning to peer across the sky. Yet, never did he see a cloud so dark and brooding as that that had harrowed them in the years before.

Until one day, that is.

“I shall return shortly”, he had announced, before setting out up the steep, winding track. At the top, he made for a stony knoll with a splendid view of all the land around, and there he rested, filling his lungs with the fresh hilltop air.

“A perfect day”, he muttered, peering up into the great unblemished bowl of blue.

At last, he could delay no longer, and set off the way he had come, but he had only gone a few small steps when a strange gloom seemed temper the bright sunshine. Turning, he watched in fear as the sky seemed to moulder before him, a mildewed stain that swelled from the very fabric of the air itself.

Now he ran, skipping and stumbling down the hillside path, but it was all to no avail, for soon enough, the rain came after him. Black currents of cloud stalked the valley from the above, and the downpour that they unleashed filled every nook and cranny, ’til all the land glistened and flowed.

It was four full days before the storm abated, and on the fields, the drowned wheat lay all about like so much trampled fodder. From the threshold of their stick-stone house, the family looked on, and even the farmer’s wife was silent now.

“What shall we do daddy?”, the eldest said at last. “How will you buy me a new axe now?”

The very question filled the farmer with rage, but as he turned to strike the selfish child, a strange shape caught the corner of his eye. At the end of the house, a figure had appeared, dressed in a long cloak of rough leather patches, the deep hood covering all but a pale chin and a pair of broad, black lips.

“Good day”, the figure said, in damp, hollow voice like the echo from a rotting log. “A most unfortunate squall”, it added, and the lips curled upward, sliding back over a row of yellow-stained teeth. Yet, even as it smiled, the patter of the rain seemed to thin, and the sky grew brighter overhead.

“What do you want, sir?”, said the farmer, eying the string of crimson jewels beneath the visitor’s chin. “Has the lord of the land sent you here? We have been kept here by the rains these last few days, as you can see.”

In spite of the low brim of the hood, the head within seemed to follow the farmer easily as he stepped around his son, and the smile upon the lips was unabating.

“I come not from your lord”, came the smooth, empty reply. “And I seek nothing from you except, perhaps, a bargain.”

“A bargain!?”, exclaimed the farmer. “We having no goods to barter here! Look about you: the rain has destroyed our wheat, as it did last year and the year before that! We are ruined!”

“This, I see”, said the figure. “A most unfortunate chain of events. But what if a solution were at hand? A means to a fortune that no storm could wash away?”

“Speak plainly, sir!”, said the farmer, squinting as a bright shaft of sunlight spilled suddenly from the clouds. “What solution could there be for such a disaster?”

“This”, replied the figure, and an arm rose amongst the leathery cloak, from which a row of long, pale fingers peeled slowly open. Warily, the farmer leaned in, but he saw nothing in the palm but a mound of greyish powder.

“Is this some joke!?”, he exclaimed. “What need could we have for a handful of sand!?”

“Ignorant peon!”, the figure spat. “What lies beneath your nose is not sand, but seed - as any good farmer should know.”

The farmer frowned, but before he could look again, the fingers had curled back and the arm was lost again within the folds of the cloak.

“Seeds are no use to us in any case”, muttered the farmer. “The valley is waterlogged, and even if it dries, there is not the time to grow a crop before the winter.”

“Oh, there is time”, the silky voice replied. “This seed produces a special crop, you see. Scatter them thinly, and prodigious growth will soon be all around you.”

As the figure spoke, a spindly white forefinger slid from the fabric to fondle the string of jewels.

“And what would you want in exchange for such a thing?”, asked the farmer. “As I told you, we have nothing to barter.”

“A small share of the proceeds is all that I seek”, replied the lips. “A mere handful by comparison.”

Still, the farmer hesitated, for the newcomer filled him with unease, yet, as he looked across his family, he saw how thin and wretched they had become, and then, on the valley side, his eye found the stand of rosehips, and the rickety cross beside it.

“What do I have to lose?”, he said at last. “We will plant your seeds, and if anything grows, you shall have your share.”

A peculiar quiver disrupted the lips for a moment, before the smile settled back into place.

“A month from now, payment will be due”, said the voice. “Have a care, for if it is late, the price may rise considerably.”

Out slid the hand, to tip the dusty mound into the farmer’s palm.

“Father! Father! Let me see!”, called the eldest, and such was the ardour of the children that, by the time he had turned to thank the figure, the figure had already slipped away.

***

That afternoon, the family took the granules and scattered them over the fields, just as they had been instructed. But the clouds had already closed in again, and as the rain began to fall, they did not dare hope for much. When morning came, they made off glumly into town, and yet, when they returned that night, the ground seemed strangely firm beneath their feet, neither slipping nor splashing as it had before.

The next day broke to the same dull drone, and yet, when the farmer went to stand in the doorway, he was greeted by a most unexpected sight. All across the fields, the ground was suddenly awash with shoots of green, poking up amongst the old, dead stalks like lawn grass. And by the time evening came, these shoots had already doubled in height, while in the morning they were twice as tall again!

From the edge of the field, the farmer and his wife looked on in astonishment, and the children danced and sang with joy.

“What a fine crop of wheat has come, to make us rich and fill our tums“, they sang, caring little about the soaking they received.

With each day that went by, the crop continued to grow, rising past knee height by the end of the first week, while a week after that, it crowded at the farmer’s hips as he waded into it. In the third week, plump seed heads swelled from the top of each stem, and the seeds about them looked fat and juicy even in their coats of green.

All too soon, four weeks had passed, and the crop was so tall then that even the eldest child was lost amongst it. All across the top, a raft of golden-yellow floated, as if the ears had been gilded by the very sunshine that peeked beneath the clouds each evening.

“Did I not say we would be well?”, called the farmer to his wife. “The crop is already twice the weight of our best year!”

“And the rain seems not to bother it”, the wife replied with a grin. “Who knows how it should be by the end of the season?”

Yet, even as he rejoiced, a peculiar sensation chilled the farmer’s skin, and he turned to find the hooded figure stood once again by the corner of the house.

“I see you are pleased”, said the rancid voice through those black, curling lips.

“But it is time for the reaping, for I have come to collect my payment.”

Now the farmer and his wife looked at each other, then out across the fields, and greedy thoughts grew between their minds.

“Come, fellow”, said the farmer. “There is more than a month of the growing season left! What would my neighbours think of me if I should harvest such a fine crop so far ahead of time?”

At first, the figure gave no reply, its head turning slowly down the valley, before returning to the waiting pair.

“Do you mean to refuse me, and break our bargain?”, it hissed.

“Why view it in such a sour way?”, the farmer replied. “Come back in a month, and I shall give you twice the payment at no extra cost to yourself. What say you?”

Again the figure was silent, though the mere hint of a smirk tweaked the corners of its mouth.

“Very well”, it said. “The choice is made.”

A moment later, a gust of wind ripped across the valley, and the farmer and his wife cowered at the threshold of their stick-stone house. By the time they looked back along the wall, the figure had disappeared.

***

The rain came down with a fearful zeal in the days that followed, yet the glut of water seemed only to spur the crops more quickly upward. Soon they were as tall as the farmer himself, who looked upon them in smug contentment, pleased with the cleverness of his decision.

Yet, for all his self-congratulation, the first signs of trouble already crept along the narrow valley, if only he had been looking for them. Despite the downpour, the stream neither surged nor spat as it had before, but instead was a lifeless trickle, its dull surface stirred only by the impact of the falling droplets. At the edges of the flourishing fields, the foliage browned and curled, as though the sap dried within it, while the petals of the summer flowers laid grey and withered upon the ground.

Soon, even the crop itself began to change, growing darker in colour, while a strange, scaly callous like tree bark began to spread across its stalks.

Only now did the farmer see the danger around him, and set out urgently to bring the crop in, but his old, rusty sickle barely scratched its woody hide, and his wrist soon ached from the jarring blows. Thinking quickly, he returned to the stick-stone house to pull the case from under his bed, but when he opened it, he found no axe within, and the memory of the winter came flooding back to him.

In desperation, he made off into town, to speak with the merchants and the lenders.

“You should see them, sir!”, he said with all the zeal he could muster. “Fields of wheat as tall as apple trees, and with great, round seeds to match!”

Yet, each of them replied the same:

“Every summer, it seems, you come to town and tell some far-fetched story. A great storm, you say, and yet no other farmer ever seems to notice it.”

Then they would look up into the bright blue sky, and their faces would crease with doubt.

“No, sir, I think the problem lies elsewhere. Perhaps you have lost your way with the crops, or the land itself has turned to barrenness. What fool would make such a loan with so little chance of repayment?”

And with that, they would turn him away. Still, he persisted for a while, but the answer did not change, and at last he returned to the stick-stone house, filled with gloom.

As if to compound his woes, the very next day, that same sickly presence that he had felt before came upon him once again, and he went outside to find the hooded figure at the corner of the house.

“Have you come to gloat?”, snapped the farmer.

“Not at all”, replied the figure, though his smile was as sickly as ever. “Rather, I have come for my payment. Our solemn bargain was that you should pay me last month, but I am obliged to give you a second chance.”

“Payment!?”, cried the farmer in disbelief. “What payment could I possibly give? Look at the cankered coppice you have made of my fields!”

“Did I not warn you of the cost of breaking our pact?”, the figure replied.

But the farmer was unappeased.

“You and your riddles!”, he cried. “And now you come to demand further payment still! What, pray, might that be, anyway? The roof from my house, perhaps!?”

“I should not deprive you of a roof in such inclement weather”, it mused, tilting its head slowly upward. But even as it spoke, the downpour seemed to thin, and brightness crept overhead.

“Nevertheless, you did break your bargain with me, and such things should not to be taken lightly. For this, I will require your whole harvest, to the very last seed and stalk.”

Now the head turned toward the old, rusty sickle, cast angrily into the mud. “If you agree, I shall take it in myself”, it added. “And that will be an end of it.”

At this, the farmer snorted with laughter.

“And how would you fell these mailed monstrosities?”, he jeered. “Do you have a bow saw hidden under that cloak? And what of us this winter? We haven’t gathered even a single penny in town, so diligently have we cared for your cursed crops. No sir, one way or another we will bring in this harvest and be justly rewarded for it. Now be gone with you!”

The rain seemed to thicken then, and soon the figure grew faint amongst it, as if melting in amongst the dense stalks, before, at last, he was gone.

Yet the farmer was filled with a new determination, and set to pondering all the morning long. At last an idea came to him, and so he made off along the damp stream bed, squeezing past the giant stalks that crowded in on it. At open ground, he headed up the slope towards the neck of the valley, where craggy cliffs rose at either flank, and hefty boulders cradled chips of shattered flint. Soon he found a piece of just the right shape, its edge already keen as a razor blade, and then, from the carcass of a tumbled tree, he tore a good, straight branch, before setting off back down the trail.

It was late in the evening by the time he returned home, so he sat beside the hearth, lashing the stone to the end of the stick, while the rain in turn lashed the stick-stone walls.

“Look at this, wife”, he said, when he had finished. “See how sharp this axe that I have fashioned is? A match even for my old iron blade, I’d say. With a tool as fine as this, we’ll have those hulking crops down in no time, and with any luck, the seeds may still be sold, for horse fodder at least.”

Then he turned in to bed, and though the rain poured more fiercely than ever, he slept as soundly as a log, content that he would soon settled their troubles once and for all.

***

In the morning, the farmer rose early, and strode to the door with the axe in hand and a fierce resolve upon his face.

Yet, the door did not swing shut behind him.

“What wrong, husband?”, called the wife towards his unmoving silhouette.

“No…”, a whispered voice returned. “What is this?”, he said, growing louder. As the farmer took a faltering step across the threshold, the others spilled past him to see what the matter was. But the matter was soon all about them, for ahead, above and all around, a wall of towering trunks all but blotted the world beyond.

Frantically, the family searched around the house, pushing and prying into the gaps between the stalks, but even the place where the track had been was now shrunk to a vanishing sliver.

“Daddy!”, the children cried in fear. “What are we to do daddy? We are trapped!”

“We shall see about that!”, said the farmer, raising his stone axe up to his shoulder. But when he brought it down, the head simply bounced with a twang from the woody husk, snapping his hand painfully from the shaft. Setting his grip more firmly now, the farmer lifted the axe high above his head, before wrenching it down with a fearful roar.

A fearful roar that ended with a sickening snap. For, as the edge met the bark, the stone exploded in a thousand pointed shards, while the wooden shaft kinked sharply back on itself. Now the farmer stood in shock, a trickle of blood upon his brow, while waves of rain swept like laughter across the house.

***

For the remainder of the day, the family scrabbled and scratched at the gnarled palisade, but each tool they brought to beat against it was soon either blunted or broken. Gathering the last of their will and possessions, they made little piles of cloth and other things, and tried desperately to set them on fire, but the rain soon dowsed the fitful flames, and even when they caught for a while, the fire did little but stain the rugged hide.

At last, the day grew old, and in the shadow of the high barricade, darkness fell thick upon the stick-stone house. There was little to do now but to wait and hope for some salvation, but with the night, the rain gathered again, and as the family huddled in their beds, frightened and alone, strange creaking noises came from all around, terrifying and tormenting them.

***

High above the narrow valley, the cloaked figure stood, peering down from amongst the glistening foliage. Quietly, it surveyed the scene, and the long, black lips curled slowly upward. Once, a bright brook had burbled through the fields below, but now the valley bore a new occupant, a dark, fibrous mass, as if the soil itself had bubbled upwards, consuming all. At its edges, a pale rim of parched ground faded grudgingly back to green, yet within there was neither sprig nor leaf, nor a single stick or stone to be seen.

Slowly, smoothly, the figure slid down the winding path, and soon the growth loomed overhead, yet the figure seemed quite untroubled, settling comfortably at its edge. Soon after, the rain seemed to sputter and vanish, and as the clouds thinned overhead, golden sunshine soon spilled down through the cracks. Yet the figure simply waited, resting patiently while the radiant rays warmed the land.

Midday, and in the beating sun, even the vast, malignant thicket began to dry, and as it shrivelled, fine wrinkles seemed to spread across its scaly hide. Then, in the deepest folds, cracks began to form, creeping cracks that searched to meet one another, opening and deepening until, at last, each stalk was a puzzle of jagged fissures.

Movement.

Movement and a new sound: the dull thud of hefty chunks landing on the ground. One by one, the great, black seed-maces began to topple inward, and as the figure looked on, the whole unseemly mass seemed to collapse upon itself, as if sinking into some great chasm. When at last it had come to rest, there was nothing left but a lake of dark, powdery residue, so fine that even the gentle breeze stirred it easily.

Except in one small place, that is.

For, near its centre, a strange form protruded from the swarthy blot, pale and grey like the stony outcrops above. Already, the figure was on the move, sliding smoothly through the billowing dust. Soon, it came to the edge of the mound, and then the smile on the lips was broader than ever, for what lay ahead was a stick-stone house no more, nor even really stick or stone, but a formless heap of grit and grain, as if crushed to a pulp by some tremendous force.

Now, the figure stooped, reaching out to poke and probe at the loose material with those long, pale fingers. At last it came to something, a pocket of quite different hue, and in the fingers went, digging and delving with a ravenous glee. A moment later, the smile quivered and the fingers slid back, and between them sat a glassy jewel, sparkling crimson in the bright sunlight.

***

Far across the land, in a pleasant dell filled with shoots of barley wheat, a young tenant farmer and his wife worked diligently in the evening cool. Around them, three young children laughed and played, chasing one another around the trees and through the bushes, sending birds flapping up into the air.

And yet, they were not alone.

From a shallow rise, a dark figure looked on in quiet contemplation. Slowly, a long, pale finger caressed the lace at its neck, one of a pair, each strung with crimson jewels.

It had been a fine day, a warm, sunny day, and yet, as the farmer levered up a stubborn weed, a strange shadow seemed to slide across his back. Turning, he looked up towards the sky, and his brow furrowed with doubt. A moment later, a fat raindrop dripped down upon his head.


© Copyright 2017 DVA4347. All rights reserved.

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