Fallow - A Halloween Story
The troubles began at the end of winter. The snows, the source of the spring surge that filled the Uchee River and overflowed its banks, had been light that year, barely dusting the peaks of the Ogmulgee mountains. The Farmer and his family stayed snug in their modest home, feeding off smoked meats and preserves from the prior year. If there were no floods His land along the riverbank would not be fertile enough for planting.
The situation worsened with the coming of spring. The western rains did not arrive in their normal abundance, leaving the high fields too dry. But still he planted and prayed, hoping the rains would come in time for the growing season. His prayers were not answered. For a while there was hope. Healthy sprouts emerged, promising a good season and although the anticipated harvest would not be what he expected, it would be enough.
That hope was crushed when the summer drought began. The crops withered in the fields under the brutal heat. He was forced to harvest early and plow what was ruined back into the dry soil. It was then the Farmer knew it would not be enough.
So, he sat on his porch, his shotgun resting in his lap as he patted his old hound dog Rufus on the head. His family hid in the woods beyond the dead cornfield, ready to flee if things did not work out. They would not work out. He sat up when he heard the rumbling engines of the heavy trucks that always arrived this time of year. They were coming for his Portion and he would not have it. He lifted his shotgun, checking it one more time. There were three shells in the magazine, another ten in his vest pocket. Like the harvest, it wasn’t enough. As the trucks came into view on the dusty road leading to his house, he stood.
“You ready, Rufus?” he said.
The old dog licked his hand then looked at him with rueful eyes.
The Farmer grinned.
“I hear you,” he said.
The trucks stopped before his house. The doors swung open and four people emerged wearing heavy jackets, canvas pants and boots, their faces covered by thick scarves that rested on their shoulders. Each of them carried automatic rifles. From the rear of the second truck voices drifted, words of reassurance being spoken to calm those whose sobbing caused The Farmer’s hands to instinctively tighten around his shotgun. One of the nomads approached him, walking to the edge of his stairs.
“That’s close enough,” The Farmer said.
The nomad halted, lowered the rifle then pulled down the face scarf, revealing the hard face of a middle age woman.
“Where’s the Portion,” she said.
“In the shed out back,” The Farmer replied.
The nomad motioned with her head. As The Farmer moved toward the stairs Rufus jumped to his paws, growling as he bared his teeth. The Nomad took aim at the dog.
“Down, boy!” The Farmer shouted.
Rufus sat, still showing his teeth. The Nomad kept her gun trained on the dog.
“Did you come to kill a dog or did you come to get your Portion?” The Farmer said.
“Meat is meat,” the Nomad replied.
The Farmer climbed down the stairs then sauntered around the back of his home to the shed. He heard the trucks rev up as they followed. He unlocked the shed then opened the wide doors as the nomads approached. They brushed by him then into the shed. In moments they returned, their arms fill with his hard-earned harvest. Three trips they took before it was all gone.
The Nomad stood before him.
“Not much,” she said. “We hear you’re supposed to be the best.”
“Hard season,” The Farmer replied.
The woman spit at his feet. “Where’s your family?”
The Farmer’s eyes met the Nomad’s.
“Like I said, hard season.”
The Nomad smirked. “We left enough. We expect more next year.”
The nomads climbed into their trucks then drove away. Rufus jumped from the porch, barking as he chased them. As they went down the road the canvas on the rear truck opened. Faces appeared, faces filled with fear and desperation. The Farmer looked away. There was nothing he could to for them. Those who couldn't pay with their Portion had given family instead. He waited until he was sure the trucks were far away before firing one shot into the air. His family would hear that shot then come out of hiding. He went inside his home to the old ham radio which shared a table with the sewing machine. He cranked the charger until he had enough power then radioed The Elder.
“Yes, Farmer?” The Elder spoke with a voice burdened by wisdom and time.
“We need to meet,” The Farmer said. “Next year may be no better than this year.”
“I’ll gather the others,” The Elder said. “We’ll meet at First Oak. You sure you want to do this? We could reach out to the Citizens.”
“They’re no better,” The Farmer said. “We need to handle this ourselves. We’ll meet at First Oak. Tomorrow.”
The Farmer exited his back door, striding across his barren field to the woods. His Wife and Daughter emerged from the brush, both draped in heavy camouflage jackets, his daughter tucked under his Wife’s protective grip. In Her right hand she held the handgun. She put the gun in her jacket pocket, the stoic look on her face giving way to relief. They embraced; a family hug that was too short lived.
“They’re gone,” he said.
“For now,” she replied.
“They took too much,” he said.
“We have more stashed in the caves.”
“I don’t know if it’s enough.”
The Farmer reached down then lifted his daughter into his arms. He looked into her fearful eyes and knew what had to be done.
“Will the bad men come back?” she asked.
“No,” The Farmer replied. “The bad men won’t come back. Daddy is going to make sure of it.”
The Farmer’s Wife looked at him skeptically and he shook his head. Once they were in the house he carried his Daughter to her room then tucked her in bed.
“Get some rest, little bird,” he said. “Mommy and I are going to lay down, too.”
“Okay, big bird,” she said. She held his cheeks with her small hands then kissed his nose.
His Wife waited for him as he left the room.
“You shouldn’t tell her things that aren’t true,” she said. “The Nomads will be back.”
“I didn’t lie,” The Farmer replied. “I called the Elder.”
The Wife’s eyes widened. The Farmer handed his shotgun to his Wife then took the handgun from her.
“I should be back by nightfall,” he said. “If I’m not, take her and go to the caves. Stay there until someone comes for you.”
The Farmer and his Wife kissed for a long time, like they used to when they were young. They held each other for a moment longer then let each other go. The Farmer went to his shed. As he reached the building Rufus met him, the old hound dog panting hard.
“You can’t go with me,” the Farmer said. “Get on that porch and keep an eye out. I’ll be back at sundown.”
He patted the dog on its head and it licked his hand before ambling off to the front porch. The Farmer climbed into his truck. It started with a loud bang and belched a cloud of white smoke before settling into a steady idle. He backed the truck out of the shed then stopped to climb out and close the shed doors. Climbing back into the truck, he drove down the road to the Meeting Oak.
He was not the first to arrive. Blacksmith’s truck was there, as was Potter’s and Beekeeper. He could see the Meeting Oak’s canopy towering over the other trees, its branches shedding its leaves as the tree crept toward a winter’s sleep. As he trudged down the narrow path he heard other trucks pull up and doors slamming. The others gathered around him; they nodded and shook hands. There was little talk; everyone saving their words for what was about to take place.
They reached the oak. The massive tree dwarfed the men and women sitting in a half circle under its branches. Sitting before the trunk, flanked by her great-great-great grandchildren was The Elder. She seemed frail wrapped in her familiar woolen blanket, her wrinkled face resembling a land with many rivers. A small knit cap covered her head, strands of gray hair extending from beneath it.
“I’m glad you all could come,” she said, her voice resonating across the clearing. “The Nomads came and they took too much. If they come again, we will starve. They will take us, keep the weak, sell the strong and kill the useless. There is Unbalance.”
The Farmer nodded with the others. He knew what would come next, words that had not been uttered under the meeting oak in centuries, words than none but the Elder had heard beyond bedtime stories.
The Elder gazed at each of those gathered with a certainty that belied her age.
“We must reclaim the Balance, for without it we Farmers and Nomads will perish. One cannot exist without the other, but all must be equal. There must be a Summoning.”
The murmurs under the tree were fearful and tense, yet no one protested. They had all seen. Someone had lost their family but would not speak up because of shame. They waited for the Elder to speak again.
“We will draw straws to decide,” she said.
The Farmer stepped forward.
“There is no need,” he said. “I will do it.”
Shock and dismay swept through the gathering like a fire through dry season grass.
“No,” the Elder said. “You are the strongest.”
“Which is why I should be the one,” he replied.
The Elder looked at The Farmer a moment longer. There was sadness in her eyes, yet he knew she understood.
“So be it,” she finally said. “Return in three days. I will be ready. I hope you will.”
The Farmer nodded.
When the farmer reached home his Wife and Daughter were fast asleep. He undressed then washed up, deciding not to shower for it would disturb his Wife. Afterwards he sat before the fireplace, the embers still glowing from the earlier fire. He watched the radiant specks rise with the updraft then disappear as they cooled. After a few more minutes he went to the room then climbed into bed as quietly as possible. No sooner did he lay his head on the pillow did his Wife speak.
“Who did they choose?” she asked.
“Me,” he replied.
Her arms wrapped around his body, her hands pressing into his chest as she snuggled against his back. He felt her tears against his back and fought to hold back his own.
“How many days do you have?” she asked.
They made love that night and every night until the time came for him to leave. That day he spent with his daughter, playing in the fields and the nearby woods. He listened to her ramblings as if she was a skilled storyteller, her voice so full of wonder and innocence. If there was any doubt of doing what he had to do, it was erased that day. He would not let them have his family. He would not let them die.
That night he tucked her in and read her a story. Once she was fast asleep he went to the bedroom and changed clothes. His Wife watched, her arms folded tight about her body.
“You should wait until morning,” she said.
“I told them I would come tonight,” he said. “Night is best.”
His wife came to him then hugged him.
“Please,” she said.
They kissed, then he pushed her away.
“Goodbye,” he said. “Never let her forget me. When she is older, tell her why.”
The Farmer left his house. Rufus trotted to his side.
“Stay, boy,” he said.
Rufus ignored him, keeping pace with him as he walked down the road toward the woods in the fading light. The Farmer knelt before Rufus taking his head between his calloused hand and shaking it.
"Go on home, boy," he said. "Mama and Baby need you."
He stood then walked away. Rufus did not follow, but he howled until the Farmer disappeared from his sight. It was almost midnight when he reached the meeting tree. The elder waited, standing before the blazing bonfire that acted as a beacon and help him find his way.
“You came,” she said. “I was not sure you would.”
“I am a man of my word,” he said.
“Which is why it had to be you. I’m sorry.”
The Farmer took off his shirt, dropping it on the ground beside him. He sat as he took off his shoes and socks, then unbuckled his belt. He tossed his belt aside then took off his pants and underwear. The Farmer took a deep breath then closed his eyes.
“Let’s get on with it,” he said.
The elder knelt before him, holding an old gourd in her trembling hands.
“Open your mouth,” she commanded.
The Farmer did as he was told. He expected the elixir to be bitter, but it was slightly sweet and cool. He opened his eyes and the elder handed him the gourd.
“Drink all if it,” she said.
She stood and began walking away.
“How long will it take?” the Farmer asked.
“Not long,” the elder replied.
“Tell my family I love them,” he said. He raised the gourd to his lips then drank the rest. The liquid settled in his stomach, transforming from cool to warm. The farmer sweated despite the cool night against his exposed skin. Soon his stomach burned as if he had swallowed fire. He tried to remain calm, but the scream that burst from inside exposed his pain. He rolled in the high grass trying to quench the fire that consumed every inch of his body. He felt himself expanding, like a container about to burst. Hair sprouted from his skin, thick and coarse. His nails on his feet and hands peeled back as long claws replaced him. His mouth crowded with sharp teeth, pushing his face forward into a long snout. The scream become a howl that ripped through the night air.
The thing that was the Farmer stood on two legs. Its slitted pupils widened into black orbs that sucked in what little light the night shared. It sniffed, recognizing a scent that brought anger to it. That scent belonged to something it wanted to tear apart.
Another scent over took the first, one that calmed it. It turned to see a small being standing before it. It looked into the being’s eyes and felt complacent.
“Who are you?” the being said.
The thing that was the Farmer did not understand.
“WHO ARE YOU?” the being shouted.
The words cut through its thoughts, reaching a deeper consciousness.
“I am…the Farmer.”
The being he now recognized as the elder smiled.
“Hold on to who you are,” she said. “And when this is done, you might be able to return to us.”
The elder’s expression became hard.
“Now you must hunt,” she said.
The Farmer faded back into the darkness, the creature taking his place. The scent that drove him mad with hate overwhelmed him and he ran through the night, seeking its source. He found it hours later, rising from a camp at a river’s edge. The beast did not hesitate. It ran into the camp, tearing the others apart with its claws and teeth, caring not what it killed. The screams and shouts angered it more and it continued its rampage, ignoring the sharp pains throughout its body. It did not stop until the camp fell silent. But the stench persisted. It searched the camp until it found a survivor. The being recognized the face and it fell away, replaced by the Farmer. The farmer grabbed the man by his bloodied shirt then pulled him to his feet.
“Tell your people,” he growled, ‘that I protect them. For every one you take, ten of you will die.”
He dropped the man on the ground then watched as he ran into the darkness. He was about to walk away when he heard other voices, sounds of those he came to protect. He tracked the sounds to a metal box with a locked door. With the swipe of his hand he broke the lock. The people inside scream upon the sight of him and he stepped away.
“Do not be afraid,” he said as soothing as he could. “You are free. Wait until the morning, then go home to your loved ones.”
The thing that was the farmer turned away from the others, picking up the scent of hate. The being he freed would not do what it was told. It would return with others. It howled again, then loped into the darkness in pursuit. The being would lead it to the others, so it could finish what it was summoned to do. It would not stop until its loved ones were safe. It would continue, until the fields were fallow again.