A wad of chewed gum secures the crumpled note stuck to the farmhouse door: Georg. Today’s the Summer Solstice parade. Greta yanks the paper down, and the gum breaks into sticky grey strings, wet with saliva.
Her breakfast of canned beans threatens to decorate the porch. She frowns at her lab-mix, Shadow. “Not much of a guard dog, are you?”
Shadow whines and hides her nose in her paws.
In the months since she took possession of her late father’s farm, Greta’s never seen or heard any visitors. She’s miles from nowhere in the middle of the prairies, but food regularly appears on the porch.
The farm pantry was stocked with cans of beans and rows of mason jars—most of them filled with a pinkish substance—the colour of flesh. It might be fruit. So far, she hasn’t been hungry enough to open one.
The week after she arrived, a seemingly flawless apple appeared on the porch. She stared but couldn’t quite bring herself to bite it. Within hours it shriveled and turned black.
The gifts kept arriving, but she never caught even a glimpse of the gift giver. Everything went onto the compost pile.
Finally, she drove three hours to the nearest animal shelter and adopted a dog. Shadow was cheaper than security cameras and more reliable. Or so she thought.
Heat builds over the fields and shimmers in the still air. The only sound the droning buzz of bees and dragonflies.
This is the first note she’s received. Georg is her twin brother’s name, but she assumed his identity two decades past. Holding it up by a corner, Greta examines the yellowed paper. No time, no place, no signature. She reaches over the porch railing and releases the note. It flutters down to the hard-packed dirt. She’s not about to start bringing any anonymous leavings into the house. Mother taught her that much.
Shadow nudges the back of her knee with a tattered tennis ball. The air is still as death, but when she turns back, the note is gone.
From the porch, she tosses the ball for Shadow, who bounds down the dirt driveway, then veers into knee-deep brown grass and toward the family plot.
Crows perch silently on the iron fence enclosing the graveyard. They stare at her. Greta shudders. The brown, dusty fields radiate menace.
Burying bodies so close to the house, it’s medieval. In the spring after the final paperwork is done, she’ll search for an accommodating church and see about having the graves relocated somewhere more appropriate.
Since returning, only once did she open the rusty gate, enter the cemetery and walk through the rows of black headstones. Carved with names and dates, some are so old they’ve sunk and tilted. All mark the final resting places of men. Father, her older brother, other male ancestors.
Where are the women buried? She’s sure she knows, the memory just out of reach. Her skin crawls.
Her childhood are vague impressions of a nasty, domineering man, endless hard work, gnawing hunger, and a terrified, bruised Mother.
Georg ran away when he was eight. The same day Mother lost a finger in a farm accident. There must have been more to it, but no matter how much she pleaded, Mother refused to provide details.
“You were both doomed,” Mother would whisper. “I could only save one. You.”
Father didn’t allow the twins to play together. Georg had friends, other boys his age, and they all ignored Greta. There were no other girls her age. At the time, the twin’s adult brother, Baldur, was already Father’s right-hand man, emulating him in every way. He had no time for children.
The tension built to an almost unbearable level. Then, Mother fled with Greta in the middle of the night.
Greta asked her mother about Georg, “What if he returns?”
Long dresses would have marked them and made it difficult to run. Mother took clothing from Baldur and Georg. Warm and serviceable, dark and woolen—Greta kept wearing it even after they were settled.
Their neighbours in the city often mistook her for a boy. “Best not to correct them,” Mother said.
Greta cut her hair short and rummaged additional masculine clothing from a nearby thrift store. Having a man in the house, no matter how slightly built, seemed to keep them safer. Mother told fortunes and sold simple healing potions. Greta drove a delivery van. They got by.
On her death bed, Mother extracted promises from Greta. “I know I’m not leaving you with much, but no matter what, swear you won’t seek out your father or return to the farm. Don’t let anyone cremate me. Burial only. Swear.”
Despite Greta’s promise, there was no money for a burial. She begged and argued with a stony-faced official. Mother was cremated.
Greta didn’t believe in life after death, and she’d secretly laughed at clients who believed her mother’s fortunes. Mother was the superstitious one.
Twenty years had passed and, near as Greta could remember, Father never had any interest in his daughter. However, she hadn’t forgotten how mean and vindictive he was. She’d keep one promise to her mother. She wouldn’t seek him out.
One day, there came a knock on the apartment door. Greta thought it was the landlord coming to evict her for unpaid rent.
Instead, an officious, rancid-smelling man waited in the hall. He inquired if she was Georg.
“You resemble your father.” the man exposed sharp little teeth in what Greta supposed was an attempt at a smile. “He’s dead.” His expression didn’t change.
He told her Baldur died years earlier, and their father bequeathed the farm to Georg, provided he could be found. Failing that, it would pass to the town council.
She wondered whether this man was part of the council but didn’t ask. The inheritance came with a trust to pay property taxes and the like, but not much more.
“You must live there, or everything is forfeit.” The man glowered at her raised eyebrows. “We’d know. The trust will transfer to you in one year’s time.”
She didn’t argue. Her tenuous ties to the city died with Mother. With Father gone, she couldn’t think of a reason not to accept the inheritance.
Greta sighs. Where is that dog?
“Shadow,” she calls and wanders up the driveway
The fields are straw brown, the result of weeks of dry, scorching heat. They stretch to the horizon in every direction, the farmstead a dark smudge in a furrowed sea of dust. It seems impossible that anything grows out here, but the sacks of grain and bales of hay in the barn are testament to the fact it can be done.
She reads agriculture books, and next year she’ll try farming. She’d hoped to ask for advice from locals in the village, but they are secretive and resistant to her overtures. A couple of Mother’s incantations and spells might help, but she’s reluctant. It feels silly to be the one practicing mother’s craft when she doesn’t believe in it.
According to a reference volume she borrowed from the city library, the low haze bank to the south might mean rain. Fingers crossed. She should try again to speak to the villagers.
She travelled into the village a handful of times. Though with one general store and a circle of ancient houses, it’s more of a crossroad. The dry-stacked fences and some of the building foundations are constructed of the same dark mottled stone as the headstones in the family plot. She has yet to see any local women.
In response to a question about her mother’s family, the sullen shopkeeper made a phlegmy noise deep in his throat. “Gone. Good riddance.” He didn’t answer her other questions.
On her last visit, Shadow refused to get out of the car, and she found all the shops closed.
The hum of insects takes on an unsettling musical quality. Distracting.
“Shadow,” she calls again.
The noise isn’t insects; it’s faint strains of discordant music. The haze is a distant cloud of dust. It creeps along the road toward her. The porch floor vibrates. Flocks of crows swoop overhead, cawing and screeching, heading south.
Memories whisper. Greta stares at the horizon. Her instincts scream. Run. Hide.
Slamming through the front door, she grabs her barn coat off a hook. The pockets are heavy with shotgun shells.
The gun isn’t in the front hall closet.
A cacophony of music erupts. Like a winter wind, it invades every nook and cranny. Greta huddles in the hall closet, hands over her ears. The music abruptly cuts off.
“Georg. Come out and join us, Georg.” The voice has a masculine timbre, but no human throat can make that sound.
A buried memory is tugged free, untangled. She remembers now. The solstice parade has arrived. There’s no escape.
Slowly, she walks onto the porch. It’s almost noon, but the skies are twilight dark. Farm vehicles line her driveway like something out of a nineteenth-century museum. A splintering wooden manure spreader. An ancient John Deere steel plow. A hay rake with rusty iron wheels. All illuminated with torches.
Massive draft horses stomp and snort. Their manes blow in a non-existent wind revealing glowing ember eyes. The beasts are hitched to carts and wagons.
The back of the parade disappears into a sooty stain like the opening into a mine shaft. Clusters of men ride the floats, playing homemade instruments or singing in low voices. Some dance, their movements jerky and graceless.
The lead float is the largest wagon. Black and white ribbons, and sheaves of grain are tied to its rails. Several men mill around a stain mottled bentwood chair in the centre. It’s empty.
Father and Baldur beckon, movements lurching, mouths twisted in rictus grins.
A movement at the corner of Greta’s eye. Head low and ruff raised, Shadow’s teeth are bared. “Here, girl.” Greta pats her thigh. Shadow slinks toward her. She reaches out and the dog bites her hand.
Before Greta can react, arms lift her onto the wagon, onto the chair.
A low chant, “Georg. Georg.”
“Choose.” The rancid man from the apartment is beside her, motioning to the back of the parade. Maggots wriggle in the ruined flesh of his neck. “It took too long to find you. We’re depleted. Choose. Choose several.”
The women appear. In their long dresses they shuffle behind the last wagon, eyes downcast. Several are thickly pregnant. A murder of crows circles above.
Greta scans the farmhouse, the graveyard, the barn. More memories crowd in. She remembers the sacrifice her mother made. Greta had the truth inside her all along—Georg is dead, his body hidden by Mother’s bone magic.
Hot pain stabs through Greta’s heart. Bone magic hid her from them until she failed to sustain it. It blocked her memories too. Mother’s sacrifice is in vain because Greta didn’t take her death bed promises seriously enough.
The men bind the woman’s powers. They steal them.
She should never have returned, but there’s no changing that now. Mother knew and she taught Greta what she needed to know. Blood magic.
Beneath a sheaf of wheat, a rusty reaping hook hangs from the side of the chair.
“I choose all of the men,” she intones and for the first time in decades she doesn’t try to deepen her voice. “All of them.”
Her bitten hand clasps the wooden handle. Her blood binds it and she brandishes it. Shadow howls, a gleeful sound.
Greta smiles, showing her teeth. The women lift their heads and smile with her.
Somewhere near the back of the group, she catches a glimpse of her mother, nodding her approval before shimmering out of sight.
The men scream. A high pitched, glorious sound that abruptly cuts off, along with the music.
KT Wagner’s stories have previously appeared in The Twisted Book of Shadows, Daily Science Fiction, Factor Four Magazine, Cosmic Horror Monthly, and other publications. You can find out more at Wagner’s site: www.northernlightsgothic.com
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[…] “A Harrowing Beyond the Furrows” by KT Wagner . . . MAR 20, 2023 […]