Another year, another harvest. Plow, sow, reap, repeat. It is this endless cycle of fragile expectation that keeps me at my post, always watching. Dale brought me in the day of his son, George’s second birthday; now, Dale’s long gone, and George has taken his father’s place at the farm. Every day is slave’s labor in the fresh oven of Hell, but it’s a living.
George looked at me, sweat dripping from his brow and neck, his shirt drenched and covered with soot. “I see you’re doing a swell job as always, Jem.” He sticks his pick in the parched earth and heads to the hose. “If only you can make it goddamn rain,” he spits.
The truth is that the old Whittaker farm’s seeing its last years; corn’s at an all-time low and the cows just ain’t producing like they used to. Much of the silo’s gone empty, thanks to a rough winter and an unplanned vacation to the Bahamas – George’s interest in the land has gone flat. I can see it in his periwinkle eyes; it’s in the way he walks – it’s hopeless.
“Take me with you,” I mutter, but the hot wind takes it away, just like it does everything else.
Suddenly, a glistening raven lands on my shoulder. Its beady eyes sported a moisture with which I am unfamiliar, like looking into a bubbling oil pit. Its very presence hushed the wind. “You know what happens to bags like you once the land is sterile?” it asks, tauntingly. “They burn ‘em. Burn ‘em all.”
“You’re lying!” I hiss, biting through my stitched jaw. “George will never let that happen.” Would he? But the raven was already gone, a single feather stuck tangled in my shoulder. It wasn’t the first time I encountered the black pest, this I knew, but the details of our past conversation are lost to me.
Hours pass, and nothing changes. George’s pick still rests where he placed it last, and his once full bag of seeds is reduced to a bag of bird feed and a wilted canvas. The bird’s words resonate in my empty head, and suddenly twilight arrives with a refreshing, cool dew; shiny crickets butt against my dilapidated post. The night grows thick quick, and before long I am left alone in the unwelcoming darkness. There is no light shining from George’s house; it’s the one that allows me to rest secure each night, one that shone consistently for the past 47 years. Extinguished and deserted, the wind steals my frantic pleas: “Please, maker, let it rain. Let it rain.” I don’t want to burn.
Another day, another second closer to oblivion. George has not shown, for days, and I am forced to endure the silence and shadows of the season without my best friend.
“What did I tell you?” The raven flutters above, before landing this time on my head, crunching my straw hat – it was Dale’s. “I have to say I’m surprised, though; you held up for nearly five decades and largely unscathed. You’re not like the others, Jem.”
“Don’t call me that,” I warn, forcing the avian nuisance off of me. “They’ll show. He wouldn’t abandon his father’s land like that.”
No amount of thrusts can keep the bird from flying back on me. Its scaly feet ripped holes in my fabric. “Gone, gone, gone,” it sang, tearing stuffing from my interior, laughing. “So weeps the lonely scarecrow!”
Its cackles keep me awake for weeks.
Any sign of George and his family are obscured under a blanket of scorching sand. Sometimes I can make out the handle of the pick still stuck in the earth, and aside from the rickety, old house, it’s like they never existed. They took the truck late one night, along with the rest of their belongings. Looters got everything else. There was no goodbye, nothing at all, for me. All the time I kept the land secure amounted to nothing in the eyes of the deceitful human. Every modicum of hope I held in my flimsy body was eradicated with each thump of a hammer against a white For Sale sign near the house’s front porch.
The raven’s the only real friend I’ve ever had, I realize. While the traitors retreated into the unknown, the bird stayed at my perch, whispering its warnings and tales.
“Tell me about our first encounter,” I demand, my gaiety gone with the deserters. Visions of a different place, somewhere far away, fade in and out of my vision. “I recall a brown house and a little girl. What do you know about that?”
The raven is reluctant to speak, but eventually it gives in. “As I’m sure you’re realizing, this isn’t the first time you’ve been abandoned by the bipedal demons.” Rage boils within my sloppily stitched torso. “As a matter of fact, this is about the third time I’ve told you my stories,” the raven’s tone lifts. “I appreciate your attentiveness, given the circumstance.”
My eyes scan the empty, blue horizon, and suddenly it comes to me. “How many times would you like to tell those stories?”
The raven’s at a loss for words, ruffling its feathers.
“Let me down. Let me ruin their world just as they’ve regularly ruined mine.” Passion surges from my head down to my arms and legs. In an effort to make me seem more familiar to George, Dale gave me a pair of gloves and some old boots – it’s a shame he had such a spoiled son.
It doesn’t take the raven long to clip my binds, and I fall to the ground. Memories of my past lives, of all my brethren’s lives, populate my mind, and I scream – my voice obliterating the thick wind. With renewed animation, I grasp the traitor’s old pick, the wooden handle cool against my glove.
Another life, another harvest. A cycle shattered. I get to work.
Nobody visits Grandma anymore. Some say a life without the heavenly aroma of freshly baked cinnamon cookies on a chilly Christmas morning just isn’t worth living; in the brick wall of reality, Grandma was their keystone. That is, until she brought in the ceramic head.
“If you listen close, you’ll hear it, too,” she whispered, waiting a few seconds before adding: “You hear its beautiful song?” But it was always a simple no from me. No, I did not hear the statue’s funny quips about why an apple is dangerous, nor did it explain its opinion on healthcare. “Just listen, Martin! It’s all you need to do! Listen!”
“Maybe you should ask Greta,” I shoot, grinning at the thought of Grandma bugging my older sister with such nonsense. “You know she’s Wiccan?” As if that was some clarification.
The statue stared at me from its post on the mantle, largely unfinished. She claimed she couldn’t find the right color for them, thus she left them blank. Many times, I found myself staring into the pearl pits for what seemed like hours, thinking of the conversations we would have if it could speak.
Grandma pulled me in closer, my nose nearly pressed into hers. She didn’t blink. “Abadii tells me of the things you do behind the door, Martin. Tell me you’re not becoming one of them. Are you listening?” She broke away, her words turning to tiny whispers as she paced around the room. Apparently, she gave the head a name.
“Becoming what, Grandma?” Despite my trying to appear unfazed, the nervous quiver to my voice betrayed me. She never gave me a straight answer, always a concerned eyebrow and a painful groan.
The statue was only on the mantle for a day before my dad had to call an ambulance. “I don’t know what the fuck is happening, Cheryl, but you need to come home – now,” I heard him yell over the phone to Mom. Then to me: “What did she do after you called for me to come get you?”
“Can’t remember,” I replied, a lie. There was no forgetting the moment Abadii opened its eyes and whispered the command, healing my shattered soul.
The ceramic head still rests on the mantle where Grandma put it, though it now casts its glares behind crimson eyes; blood-spattered lips prepare its dark decrees. And I listen. For the first time, I finally listen, and its song is beautiful.
I was fifteen years old when the first one drowned. “Don’t worry about it,” Lana said quietly, as if we were in an audience’s presence. “It happens to all of us after a while.” We sat poking holes in the spongy marsh for what seemed like hours as the limp puppy finally sank out of sight into the blue abyss. Weak air pockets popped against the surface of the water, resembling ants flowing out of their nest; at first there was a surge of bubbles, until the final two or three slowly surfaced minutes later.
My girlfriend nudged my arm. “Hey, Joe.” She pecked my cheek. “It’ll be alright, okay?” I believed her. After all, I wasn’t such a terrible person. So my sister’s new puppy died – so what? It’s the circle of life; things die every day. All I did was speed up the process.
That night, we took the long way home like usual. Lana insisted we stop at Keppy’s for a smoothie. Despite my telling her I was feeling just fine, she didn’t buy any of it. “You can never stay sad with a cup of ice cream, Joe,” she chirped. “Things will pick up for us,” she promised.
Four months later, we were back at the bayou.
“I don’t know what happened!” I collapsed in her arms. Shutting my eyes hard enough wasn’t enough to wash away the sight of the strangled tomcat at the water’s edge. My hands burned from where I held the kitten, a cold reminder of my rampant fury. “You believe me, don’t you?”
“Of course, Joe.” She rubbed my back and stroked my hair. “Just another accident. Whose was it?”
“Kerry’s from across the street.”
This one was different than the first. For some reason, Lana didn’t seem so sympathetic. The night was still, making her rapid heartbeat that much more audible. She was an over-analytical human being, always over-thinking and anxious. “Do you still love me?”
“Forever and always,” was the last thing she said. As she looked in my eyes, I saw the demon. It possessed her small body, the orchestrator of these little evils. It was her fault I did those awful things. We took the short route back home, never saying goodbye when we reached her house.
The next day, Lana didn’t show up at school. She screened all my calls, wouldn’t answer any of my texts. So after school I found her crocheting in her room and we went to the swamp together.
A burning chain around her neck, I pressed her deceitful face into the soggy sludge. Lana tried breaking free, but that only made me tighten the chain. “I just love you so much, Lana; I’m doing this to save you.” Her cries were muffled under my muddy palm. I sat on her writhing body in the slush until the dark clouds passed, and I could see the reflection in her pale eyes. The obsidian demon stared back at me smirking, its eyes two colliding hurricanes.
“You won’t do it,” it hissed. “You’re too weak.”
“I’m doing this to save you, Lana,” I whispered, lacing my fingers around her neck. My thumbs press into her windpipe, the blood draining from her beautiful face. With each squeeze, the demon roared. Ravens gathered around us, taunting me. They were shouting their obscenities, but I kept strong. I had to save her — had to save us all.
At last she fell limp in my grasp, her cries frozen forever on her tongue. But the demon remained. It followed me to the water, displayed in my reflection. The devil in her eyes was me.
I was seventeen when the rest of them drowned, a king reborn.
Three maidens cast piercing glares my way. Tramps, the folk called them. Others knew them simply as the dark sisters. They tugged at the binds, squirming like a bunch of stretched worms against soaked tree trunks.
“Repent!” Father Pritchet gave them another lash across the face. The whip butchered their powdered skin like a bull carcass in a lion pit. “Admit your sins in front of your brothers and sisters! Shout it so the good Lord can hear your pathetic confession!” The sisters kept quiet, unflinching. This only further enraged the preacher.
Pritchet’s face burned as he turned to face us. His eyes were glassy and his fingers twitched and tightened against the whip. There was no question that he was back on the spirits again. “Dare you stand at your post, denying the good people of Neckam an admission of guilt in the possession of young Bette Ferstip?” The preacher pointed his scaly finger at me. “What about your little sister, Gloria? Will you not give her closure? Anything to ease her suffering? You three killed your mother, after all.” The silence was broken by a sneeze from the back. It was the baker, ol’ Maryann Callister – everybody told her flour would be the death of her. She swore it was the work of Satan and his three wenches.
“Speak!” The father whipped them another four times. Still nothing. Pritchet wiped the sweat from his brow. “Very well. You can die with your demons, harlots! Would dear Maryann please face the accused?” Mrs. Callister cut through the crowd and joined the preacher at the front. “Now tell us all what these sinister whores did to your health, Maryann.”
Despite being the source of Neckam’s sweet treats, Maryann evidently did not indulge in her product; she was gaunt, her apron barely clinging to her thin waist. She had been part of the community since migrating from the homeland sixty years ago. “They tarnished it, Father!” The audience hissed obscenities, curses of their own, as the woman coughed in a dark handkerchief. Dust danced in the dry wind. “They asked for a blackberry tart, but I explained that I ain’t got no blackberries, as the harvest was spread too thin. Most of this season’s batch was shipped to the capital, you see. And they left appalled! Shortly after was when I developed this painful cough!”
The crowd erupted. “Burn the witches!” they chanted. “Cast the flame, Father!”
And he did exactly as the spectators demanded. In seconds, the three women were ablaze. Their screams would haunt the square for centuries. Father Pritchet stood tall and proud, confident that he just ridded the land of some more of Satan’s slaves.
The death of my older sisters does not affect me. The stench of the burning hair and their screams were enough to send the rest of the villagers back to their cottages, but I watched every moment.
When the three girls walked in on me with the stones one afternoon, they threatened to tell the preacher. Everyone figured the village was rife with witches, thanks to hysteria in neighboring towns, and how great would they be regarded if they turned in the most powerful one of them all? So I casted a simple hex sealing their cancerous mouths and went to work.
“It’s such a shame it had to come to this,” I mentioned to Father Pritchet, who was scribbling something in a journal, still at his post near my burning relatives.
“We live in dark times, Gloria. The Devil’s shadow stretches far.”
“Indeed.” I walked back to my secret cottage in the woods, enjoying the smell of my sisters’ burning hair on the way. At the cusp of war, I entered my home with no bounds for the first time in a century.