Issue #30, Honorable Mention #2

Bruce Golden’s short stories have been published in more than 30 anthologies and across a score of countries. His novel, Monster Town, is a satirical take on the world of the hard-boiled detective, one populated by the monsters of old black and white horror movies. http://goldentales.tripod.com

 

The Harvest Christ

by Bruce Golden

 

If I was gonna do it, I knew I needed to get dusting. I had been thinking about it for days, and now it was already Holiday Eve. But flies and fleas! I didn’t know how I was gonna keep my promise to Gramps, and still do what was right.

The right thing seemed like the wrong thing, and the other way round. It was way too much for a scrawny sprout of only eleven harvests to figure out, so I put my hand in my pocket and grabbed hold of my lucky goldstone. I hoped it would help me think better.

Gramps had given me his goldstone just before he was chosen to become one with the south field. He said it had come from Faraway. I used to love to fold up on the porch and listen to him talk about Faraway, and the things he called cities. Cities, he said, were giant-sized communities with more people than you could count—and I could count all the way to a hundred and beyond. Of course, Gramps had never actually lived in a city, but he believed what he’d heard about them. He said once upon a time there were thousands of cities, that is until the rainfire destroyed them. I knew all about the rainfire, the swarms of hoppers, ol’ demon Drought—those things were landstory. They were part of the soil, they were in every seed, every drop of water. But cities? I wasn’t sure if I believed in them. Some day, though, I wanted to have a looksee for myself. After one or two more harvests, I was gonna dust a trail to Faraway and see what I could see.

Right now, I had a promise to keep.

It was a cool day, but warm enough in the sunshine. The wind was playing with the chaff in the south field. I’d been out there saying Hey to Gramps. That’s what reminded me I couldn’t put off my promise to him any longer.

So I made a trail back to the hub. On the way I saw a bunch of girls carving up their Holiday jack-o’-hearts. My sister, Heather, was there, and so was my mom, who was showing them how it was done right. They were all giggling and smiling and carrying-on strange-like. Heather herself had been acting funny of late. I didn’t know if it was cause she was older than me or cause she was a girl. But she wasn’t the same Heather I used to have mud fights with. All I knew was she had her eyes on Billy Wagoner, and that lately she always seemed to smell of honeysuckle.

“Konner!”

My mom waved me over, but I didn’t want to get too close to them silly girls, so I shuffled my feet as I walked, and let the dirt run up over my toes. I was going so slow, she came over to get me.

“Konner, where are your brothers?”

“Don’t know.”

“Well, I want you to make sure they’re not getting into any trouble. You know how your brothers are.”

“Ah, flies and fleas, Mom. I’ve got better things to do than looking after those sprouts.”

“Go on now,” she said, and I heard the sternness in her voice. “You find out what kind of mischief they’re up to, and put a stop to it.”

“All right.”

Her expression softened then, and so did her voice. “Are you excited about Holiday?”

“Yeah,” I said, bundling in my real excitement.

“Well, you be sure to have fun now, okay?”

“Sure, Mom.” I noticed she was wearing the walnut shell pendant Dad had given her a long time ago. She was particular about when she wore it. I liked how when it caught the sunlight, the tiny piece of crystal inside the shell would sparkle all different colors. I think it made her feel special.

“It won’t be long, Konner, before you’re all grown up, so you have fun while you can.”

“Don’t you and Dad have fun on Holiday?” I asked, not caring to think about the day when I wouldn’t have any fun.

“Sure we do. It’s just a different kind of fun. Have you thought about your Holiday wish yet?”

“Yes.” I’d known for a long time what I was gonna wish for.

“Well good. I hope you get your wish. Now you make a trail and find out what Kobey and Kory are up to.”

“Okay.”

I headed off, meaning to do what she said, but the Trouble Brothers would have to wait. I had something else I had to get done first.

Closer to the hub I saw most of the trees and bushes were already wearing their Holiday clothes, though some of the final decorating was still going on. Some women were going here and there, putting on hats and belts and scarves and anything else they could make fit. I knew those clothes would scare Pestilence away for another harvest, but I couldn’t figure how. They didn’t scare me. Some looked so downright odd, I had to laugh. Maybe that’s how they worked. Maybe ol’ Pestilence didn’t care for laughter.

As I approached the elders’ lodge, Henry Olmstead walked out and cornered me.

“Konner Grainwell, what are you up to?”

“Nothing, Mr. Olmstead,” I said, hoping I didn’t look as nervous I felt.

“Shouldn’t you be out practicing your cupid bow?”

“I’m not old enough for the shoot, Mr. Olmstead.”

“Rainfire, boy! I wasn’t any bigger than you when I took my first shoot. Well, anyway, you go have some fun.” He reached into a bowl he was carrying and held out his hand.

“Here’s a sweetstick for you. Take it now,” he urged, “and don’t tell Ms. Olmstead I gave you one before the party.” He winked and walked off towards the hub where lots of folks were busy getting ready for Holiday.

“Thanks, Mr. Olmstead.”

He just waved the back of his hand and kept trailing.

I was right there then—right outside the elders’ lodge. All I had to do was sneak in, grab Gram’s marker, and sneak back out. It was all I had to do to keep my promise to Gramps. I put my hand in my pocket and grabbed my goldstone. I told myself it was okay, that nobody would be hurt by it. If Grams was chosen next year, Grampa would be happy and I’d keep my promise. But I stood there way too long, trying to make myself believe it, and picking at my courage.

“Konner?”

It was Grams with little Hazel in tow.

“Konner, I need you to take Hazel home. She’s tired and I still have lots to do.”

Flies and fleas! I’d been so close.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like my little sister. In fact, she was my favorite—not much trouble usually, not like Kobey and Kory. She was only five, and not mooning after boys like Heather. I thought Hazel was just the cutest little thing, with her big, wide-open blue eyes and corn silk hair. Right now though, I had something more important to do.

“Do you hear me, Konner?”

“Yes, Grams.” I knew there was no way round taking Hazel home. I’d just have to sneak back later.

“That’s a good boy, Konner. Your Gramps used to say, ‘We can always count on Konner.’”

That made me feel good, and it also reminded me of my promise. Grams didn’t know anything about the promise. That was just between Gramps and me.

I liked Grams well enough. She was a nice old lady, but she spent most of her time smoking weed and talking with the other elders. Whenever I saw her, it made me think of Gramps. Before he became one with the south field, Gramps would spend a lot of time with me, telling me stories and singing old songs. I missed him. I wouldn’t forget my promise to him. After he was chosen, he asked me to be sure and take care of Grams when he was gone. He made me promise when her time came, I’d make sure she was with him. I promised I would, and I always try to keep my promises.

*

The sun had fallen to that point where the sky takes on a more serious attitude—you know, beautiful and grim at the same time. I could never figure out how it changed itself. One moment it’s this soft, friendly blue, then the next time you look up it’s got these angry streaks of red and orange. I figured it was like a warning. Here comes the black night—beware! I didn’t waste much time looking at it though, cause Holiday Eve was in full bloom.

I heard the music long before I dusted off for the hub. Anyone with any kind of instrument would be playing tonight. When I got there the dancing had already started. I thought dancing was for girls, though I saw some older boys trying to step with the music. Of course I’d seen older boys do crazier things where girls were concerned.

My eyes went right to the tables, where all manner of good stuff was laid out. I saw sweet breads and pies, jams and tater crisps, and enough spiced cider to drown ol’ demon Drought himself. I couldn’t wait to stuff my belly, but I had to make a careful trail. Those darn jack-o’-hearts were strung up all over the place, candles burning inside them so they were aglow. I saw some girls lingering under their carvings, hoping for a kiss. They reminded me of trapdoor spiders, just waiting to pounce.

I wasn’t planning on kissing anyone, except maybe my mom or little Hazel, so I avoided those orange gourds like they were Pestilence himself. I told myself I’d have a little snackdo first, then I’d sneak back to the elders’ lodge when it was dark. I had just grabbed myself a taste of sweet bread, when I spied Kobey and Kory under another table. They had their peashooters and were popping girls in the head when they weren’t looking.

It might have been funny if I wasn’t sure I’d be the one who’d suffer for their mischief. So I dusted over, grabbed the two of them, and relieved them of their shooters. Both were filthy-looking. Kory stood there scratching his butt as usual. Kobey tried to look defiant.

“You two cause any trouble and you’re gonna be at one with your sister, Henna, in the east field.” I didn’t like to think about my dead baby sister, Henna, who was born still and never had a chance to even see the sun, but I knew it would scare the seed right out of those two sprouts. “Now both of you go wash up, or I’m gonna find Dad and tell him what you’ve been up to, and that’ll be the end of your Holiday.”

I let go of them and they dusted off like a couple of field mice. I figured chances were about even they’d actually get clean. I thought I’d better take care of what I had to take care of then. Afterwards I could—

Darned if I wasn’t standing there thinking when all of a sudden this girl swoops in like a red-tailed hawk and kisses me! Her lips were pressing against mine before I could even see who she was.

Now, the truth is, except for the shock of it all, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I mean, it was the first time any girl not family had kissed me. When she pulled away I saw it was Dandy. I should have known. Even though she had seen one more harvest than me, Dandy had been making eyes in my direction for some time. Now she just stood there grinning.

I looked up and there it was. A big ol’ jack-o’-hearts, smiling down at me just like Dandy was doing—like I was a rooster, all plucked and stuffed and ready for mealtime. Darn those sprouts! Trying to keep them out of trouble had landed me square in Dandy’s trap.

Dandy looked like she was about to say something when my mom walked up with Hazel.

“Hello, Dandelion, happy Holiday,” said my mom, then looked at me and smiled that smile moms get that make you think they know everything.

“Happy Holiday, Ms. Grainwell,” replied Dandy all sweet-like.

“Konner, it’s time for the sing and I want you to take Hazel with you.”

I took little Hazel’s hand, figuring it was a good excuse to get away from Dandy. But she followed us to where the others were getting in line for the sing. I tried to ignore her.

I didn’t care much for the sing, but if you weren’t joined you were still considered a sprout as far as the sing was concerned. It was the only time I wished I had a wife like my big brother Kyle. I didn’t mind singing the songs, cause they were kind of scary and fun. I just didn’t like having to parade round the hub so all the grownups could coo and ah about how cute we all were.

I don’t know who started it, but we trailed off real slow as soon as the first song began. I noticed Dandy was right behind me, but I didn’t pay any attention to her. I held onto Hazel as I sang, and watched her trying her best to remember the words.

 

Tell me, tell me landstory.

Back when fire burned the sea,

Rivers wept and mountains roared,

Hot winds sang a frightful chord.

Tell me, tell me landstory,

About when people had to flee.

When hoppers rose up in swarm,

Laying bare where once was corn.

 

Ahead of me Heather walking real close to Billy Wagoner. I figured if he wasn’t careful, they’d be joined before another harvest. I looked round and saw the Trouble Brothers. They seemed to be behaving themselves, acting more serious than usual. But I knew why. The songs still scared them a little.

 

Tell me, tell me, tell me please,

That someday there’ll be more trees.

Say ol’ demon Drought is dead,

Then I’ll lie down on my bed.

 

Round and round we trailed and sang. I knew it would have been a real good time to sneak into the elders’ lodge, cause they were all watching the sing. But I couldn’t very well get away with Hazel in tow and everyone watching, especially Mom and Dad. They were holding each other, touching and kissing, and looking so happy when us sprouts trailed by. Dad was usually all leather and salt, except when he was around Mom. It was a sight to see how she could soften him up no matter what his mood.

 

Tell me, tell me, I do pray,

What I’ll eat this Holiday.

Say the poppers will fly right,

And grant the wish I wish tonight.

Tell me, tell me landstory.

How I wonder what I’ll be.

 

When the sing ended, I noticed some of the elders headed back to their lodge. I knew then I’d have to wait until morning to do what I had to do. It was like a weight bearing down on me had been lifted. Since I wasn’t worrying about it anymore, I stuffed as much of that good food into me as I could while doing my best to avoid Dandy.

When once I spotted her heading my way, I dusted off in the other direction. Keeping to where it was dark, I made a trail round the hub to the other side. As I did, I spotted two older kids all twisted up together like Gram’s special mustard pretzels. I recognized it was Burt Ploughhorse and Lily Landesgard. They were half naked and kissing, and I could tell by the way they were moving and the sounds they were making that they were planting seed.

I knew what they were doing was for the good of the community, but it still seemed silly to me. I stayed out of sight and made my way back to the party.

It wasn’t long after that when Mom and Dad began rounding up everyone for bed. The Trouble Brothers tried to sneak off, but Dad snatched them up by their shirts and lifted them off the ground till they stopped squirming.

“You sprouts need to get to sleep soon, so the Santa will come,” said Grams as we trailed off towards our lodge. Kobey and Kory started whispering real excited to each other, and Hazel looked up at Grams, her big blue eyes filled with wonder. Last harvest I’d snuck out early and saw it was the elders who actually hid the candy. So I figured the Santa must have been at one with the earth for many harvests, and that, so all of us sprouts weren’t disappointed, the elders kept doing his good work for him.

When we got to the lodge, everyone else went inside. I stayed out so I could look at the moon. It was full and kind of orange. It made me think of Dandy’s jack-o’-hearts, and that got me to remembering the kiss. That made me think about the pair I’d seen planting seed. I’d heard talk from the older boys that it was a fun thing. But it sure sounded painful, and I couldn’t see the sense in it—except for making babies. Of course I knew the more sprouts, the better for the community. So when a boy and girl got together and started planting seed, the elders always acted all happy.

I put my hand in my pocket, took hold of my goldstone, and stared at the moon. I didn’t want to think about girls, I wanted to think about Faraway, and what I might find when I got there. I sure hoped I’d catch a popper and get my Holiday wish. I was worried if I didn’t—

“You need to get to sleep, Son,” said my dad, stepping outside and looking up at the moon himself.

“Dad…?” I said, then hesitated.

“What is it, Son?”

“How important is a promise?”

He looked at me as if he were sizing up a new calf. “A man’s only as good as his word, Konner.”

I already knew the truth of that. I guess I just wanted to hear it said.

“Don’t forget you got your chores to do tomorrow.”

“But, Dad, tomorrow’s Holiday,” I protested, even though I knew it would do no good. When did I ever not have to do chores? Never, that’s when.

“It may be Holiday, but the pigs still have to eat, and the tools still have to be cleaned.”

“I know, Dad,” I said, getting up to go in. But as I did, I gave one last thought to Faraway. I thought about how when I dusted off to Faraway there wouldn’t be any more chores to do. I couldn’t wait for that day to come.

*

It was Holiday, and just cause I didn’t believe in the Santa anymore, didn’t mean I wasn’t gonna get up early and find as much candy as I could stuff in my pockets. Mom helped Hazel and the Trouble Brothers were on their own, so I did pretty well. Afterwards I hid it all in my secret place, so Kobey and Kory couldn’t get their dirty hands on it.

Then I did all my chores, and by the time I was finished I knew the Holiday shoot had started. So I made a trail to the gully where the older boys, with their cupid bows, were trying their best to hit whichever jack-o’-hearts was carved by the girl they were sweet on. Some weren’t even coming close. Others were so bad they were splitting open the wrong pumpkins, much to the frustration of some girls. I saw Heather get all excited when Billie Wagoner shot one right through the heart-shaped mouth she’d carved. That was about all I could take.

Most all of the elders, including Grams, had pulled up chairs to smoke their weed and watch the shoot. So I knew it was now or never. I dusted a trail, squeezing my goldstone the whole way.

As I neared the elder’s lodge, the sky grew dark. The wind passed over me and I shivered. A mean-looking dusky cloud was blowing in from the east. I could see a big old bull in its shape. I kept watch for a minute, then snuck inside as slow as an earthworm. It didn’t seem like anyone was there.

I’d never been in the elders’ lodge before, cause sprouts weren’t allowed. It looked like any other lodge, only bigger. As I searched for where they kept the markers I spied this picture hanging on the wall. It scared the fertilizer right out me. Either that or the candy I’d eaten that morning was disagreeing with my insides. It was a creepy-looking thing, painted in more shades of brown and red than I knew there was. It was some kind of monster, all fangs and claws but almost like it wasn’t really there—like a goblin made of wind. I guessed it must have been somebody’s idea of ol’ demon Drought.

Even though it was just a picture, I backed away from it real easy-like. That bumped me right into what I was looking for. All the elders’ markers were in this big bowl sitting there on the table. Quick as I could, I found Gram’s marker and put it in my pocket. I started to go but got this queer itch to take a last look at ol’ demon Drought. His eyes gave me the shiver-tingles. I was sure he knew what I was up to. So I dusted it out of there before I gathered any other strange thoughts.

Once outside, I made a trail back to our lodge, going real slow like everything was okay. But everything wasn’t okay—at least not with me. And it was more than ol’ demon Drought looking over my shoulder. I knew what I’d done wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. But I didn’t know any other way to make sure I kept my promise to Gramps. I just hoped some day I wouldn’t feel as bad as I did right then.

*

By evening, everyone had gathered at the hub for Last Supper. I couldn’t help but notice something was in the air—something you could almost feel, like a thick morning dew. Nothing I could see, but I could sense it. It was more in the way folks were talking—or not talking. They were a bit bridled, not as free and easy, as if they were waiting to be set loose. I knew what they were waiting for.

Before anyone could eat, the Harvest Christ had to be chosen. My dad and Mr. Landesgard made a trail to the elders’ lodge and brought back the big bowl with all the markers. I tried not to show it, but I was feeling real bad about then. I didn’t want to be there, but I knew I had to be. Young or old, sick or cripple, everyone took part in the choosing of the Harvest Christ. I knew it was a great honor to be chosen, and that only doubled my guilt.

Since the bowl was filled with all the elders’ markers, or was supposed to be, none of them could pick. So, after everyone quieted down, Mr. Landesgard reached in, stirred his hand round, and pulled out a marker. My hands were in my pockets—the right one clenched round my goldstone, the left Gram’s marker.

“Henry Olmstead,” he announced, holding up the marker for all to see.

Everyone started clapping and shouting and I looked to over to old Mr. Olmstead to see how he was taking it.

He was all smiles, shaking hands with everyone. He seemed happy, but… there was something about his smile I couldn’t quite figure. Something different—like he was trying too hard.

Anyway, someone had put the harvest wreath on his head and a big knife in his hand, and everyone was coaxing him to get Last Supper going. Mr. Olmstead waved the knife above his head and there was more clapping. Then he brought it down and began carving the Eater Bunny.

I swear it was the biggest rabbit I’d ever seen. Even skinned and barbecued up nice and juicy like, it was as big as a ki-yote. It was such a grand scene, full of laughter and fine-smelling food, that it made me wonder for a moment whether or not I’d get the honor of carving the Eater Bunny some day. Right then, I didn’t feel bad at all. Flies and fleas, I even let Dandy sit by me for Last Supper.

*

It was long after dark when I climbed aboard the wagon with the rest of my family. I was about to burst from all the good stuff I’d eaten, and more than ready to get some sleep. But Holiday wasn’t over yet. The whole community was loading up the wagons and making a trail out to the fallow north field where the Holiday fire was already blazing.

When Henry Olmstead’s body was being laid aboard one of the wagons, I started feeling guilty again. Earlier, when he’d drunk from the harvest gourd, I’d turned away so I wouldn’t see. I squeezed my goldstone and tried not to think about what was in that drink.

Not that there was anything so terrible to see. I’d watched when Gramps was chosen. It was like he’d gone to sleep. But this time I couldn’t help feeling bad about what I’d done, even though I’d kept my word to Gramps. I knew the Harvest Christ would be made at one with the north field this Holiday, and Gramps wanted Grams to be with him in the south. That’s what I’d promised. So I couldn’t let her be chosen—not this Holiday—even if it meant maybe depriving her of the honor. I was sure she’d be chosen next year when it was time for the south field again.

When everyone had gathered near the fire, Henry Olmstead was carried carefully from the wagon. They took off his clothes and gently laid him into the place that had been prepared. As they covered him up, Ms. Olmstead stepped forward, looking real proud-like, and delivered the Holiday thanksgiving.

“The earth is the land, and we are the earth. Bless this land and the bounty of its harvest. We who take from the land, now give back to the land. May all of our harvests be so bountiful.”

Then everyone joined in for the last part.

The earth is the land, and we are the earth.”

After that, everyone trailed off to stand round the fire. No one said a word, cause we weren’t supposed to. The littlest sprouts were shushed if they tried to speak, and even the Trouble Brothers knew better than to make any noise.

I already knew what my Holiday wish was, so I tossed my popping corn into the fire like everyone else. As I stood there, waiting, hoping to catch one of the poppers so I’d get my wish, I thought about Faraway and Gramps and Grams and old Henry Olmstead. I wondered if they celebrated Holiday in Faraway. I sure hoped so, cause I’d miss all the food and the fun. Who knows, I might even miss getting kissed under a jack-o’-hearts.

The poppers had started flying all round me. I waited, ready to grab one if it came my way, cause you had to catch them on the fly to really get your wish. I saw Heather catch one and get all excited, then pop! One shot off to my right, but I was quick. I caught it, wished my wish again, and tossed it into my mouth.

I was feeling real good when everyone began loading back into the wagons. Just knowing I’d get my Holiday wish made everything I’d worried about seem okay. Maybe I wouldn’t get it right away, but some day…

 

Copyright 2017 by Bruce Golden