Season of Reaping
By Ted Morrissey
Even before he slid back the barn door Frank Whittle knew the spectacle he would see; he heard it from outside, in spite of the pigs’ high-pitched squealing. He did not switch on the overheads but rather shined the flashlight inside the large pen where the pigs, more than a hundred head, were scampering in a counterclockwise circle, all together, like human marathoners who could not break free of the starting pack. It was the pigs’ instinctive method for cutting from the herd a member that was ill. When they sensed one of their number was faltering, they would begin this mad circular running until the sick pig fell out of synch and eventually collapsed on its side in the middle of the circle wheezing and waiting to be put from its misery. The healthy pigs would cease their running and move to the farthest side of the pen, leaving their fallen member isolated. On the farm it would be Frank or his hand that would remove the dying pig; in the old natural world a predator would fall upon the helpless animal and drag it off to its fate.
Frank shined his light about the pen but could not spot a pig that seemed to be struggling to keep pace. And normally the pigs would run in silence except for an occasional oinkish grunt. On this strange night their distressed squeals filled the barn, pealing off the walls and rafters. It was an alien cacophony, as if made by exotic creatures from a far-off land.
Unsettled by it, Frank backed away and shut the barn door, a bit too quickly and it thudded against the frame.
Everywhere on the farm it was the same: the animals were agitated and calling forth in ways Frank had never heard, not in fifty years of farm life.
It was the small herd of goats that most unnerved Frank. He had the sense they had been waiting for him, bleating accusingly in their old-womanish voices, their ebon eyes staring at him like polished anthracite, as they stood tightly together in their pen. Their voices seemed almost to form meaning, their pink-tongued bleats a mere wrung or two beneath words. Frank stood cascading the beam from one wizened, bearded face to the next, their white features taking on a lazuline cast in the artificial light.
His pulse was already racing before he began jogging along the dirt path back toward the house. He had not moved like this in more than a decade. With the haphazard shaking, the flashlight went out but it was no matter as Frank knew every square inch of the property. Besides, some lunar- and stellarlight rained down from the heavens. He had nearly reached the yard when he realized the animals had suddenly become quiet again. He stood on the path leading to the goat pen and beyond that the pond, and he listened keenly to the normal silence, which now took on a lavender shade of strangeness.
The wind scattered fallen leaves across the path. Frank panted and felt the drumming pulse in his neck; and he recalled, as he often did, that his father died of a stroke at an age just three years older than Frank now. Nevertheless he hurried farther along, still anxious to be home. He was occupied with trying to enliven the flashlight when he tripped over something on the dirt path—it was all he could manage to regain his balance and keep from falling. . . . Somehow the wild motions corrected the flashlight and its blue beam unexpectedly illuminated Max’s wolfish features as the big shepherd was sitting on his haunches at the edge of the yard, calmly facing the farmhouse.
Winded, Frank said, There you are, Maxy . . . holy crap . . . you nearly gave me . . . a coronary. . .
Max appeared to pay no attention to his master. Even his long thick tail lay in a curled C on the ground, moved not even a twitch by Frank’s arrival. Frank patted Max between his tall triangular ears, and the shepherd blinked once, perhaps in irritation. He was watching the house intently; in fact, given the angle of his head, the second storey.
Frank turned and shined the light toward his bedroom window—and was startled to see a spectral figure at the pulled-back curtain, white night-gowned Mrs. Whittle, who must have been surprised too as she quickly stepped away as if caught at something unseemly.
Frank knew not what to make of any of it. He went indoors, locked the kitchen door behind him, pulled off his overalls and boots; then went to his room, where his wife had already returned to bed and her gentle shoring. In the morning neither spoke of the night’s queer events, in the manner that one keeps a revealing dream to oneself.
Fall had come in dead earnest to the village. Along Main Street the maples, elms and oaks burned crimson. Against the northern sides of the square’s gazebo fallen leaves of yelloworange palette lay knee deep. Branches, becoming barer moment by moment, framed more and more of broken gray skies, sharding patterns like broken glass. It was the season of reaping, and prayers were raised to Saint Anthony of Lisbon, and appeals to a god of a fruitful caprice. Through the broken skies flew birds of migration, from the soon-frozen north to warmer reaches far beyond this homespun hamlet and its godly citizens, who clung together in the harsh light and whose souls wept in the dark. There was a chill at harvest time, and hoarfrost killed the flowers of summer remaining. Upon the frosted grass footsteps tracked of a night wanderer, bleached away by a weakening sun. It was the season of reaping. Apples still tinged with forbiddenness tempted children and adults alike, covered in sweet wonder warmed on stands in the weakening sun. And darkness came to the edges soon upon day’s end, especially in Hollis Woods, where stories filled the black spaces like goblins of your grandfather’s spinning, of your grandmother’s weaving. It was the season of reaping. The woods sentineled along the edge of the village like a disquieting stranger wandered there from a place stranger still, and even autumn’s fiery paint could not amend their darkness, bleaching the beams of a weakening sun and befogging bared limbs amassed against the blackening sky: It was the season of reaping.
Harvest celebration was held in a field on Old Man Stevenson’s property, though Old Man Stevenson had not attended the celebration for years. He would watch the goings-on from his house, using Belgian field glasses of tarnished brass he had brought home from the war, and he would eat the fare brought to him by a delegation of wives and daughters. The celebration was bountiful: turkeys, ducks and beeves, roasted slowly in firepits by delegations of husbands and sons taking shifts throughout the previous day and night. In the long, chill nights Old Man Stevenson’s homemade shine would be passed around, and many a village youth had his first taste of hard liquor in the small hours before harvest celebration. There were also potatoes, mashed and roasted and diced into salad. Corn, squash, pumpkins, beans . . . soups, chilies, all manner of gravies and sauces . . . canned preserves and jellies, bilberry, blackberry, blueberry, gooseberry, raspberry, strawberry . . . pickled eggs, pickled cucumbers, pickled asparagus . . . pies, cakes, tarts, puddings—but most plentiful were the apples: apple pies, apple cakes, apple donuts, apple pancakes, apples blintzes, apples crepes, apple streusels, apple bisques, apple muffins, apple breads, glazed apples, baked apples, fried apples, apple chips, apple taffy, apple ice cream . . . And there were the usual village legends: Mrs. Reynolds’ rabbit stew, Mrs. Abernathy’s quail in white gravy, Mrs. Johnston’s minted lamb-chops, Mrs. Phillips’s fried chicken and cornbread, Mrs. Whittle’s chicken and dumplings, Mrs. Smythe’s morel soufflé, Mrs. Moreland’s honey-glazed pork roast. . . .