I found him at a country fair. He sat apart from the other men, a distance only I noticed. Hearing the coin in my pocket, they turned when I approached. Money makes cocks of men. They tried hard to impress me with chest-bumping, fighting, and tidbitting. But this was the season for hiring, not mating.
Amused, he watched the others preening from his perch. Legs dangling over a bale of hay, weighed down by heavy boots, he seemed as a young as a child. From then on, he was the boy to me, despite the scruff on his chin and cheeks.
Coin clinking, I walked straight past the others. Feathers ruffled, they moved aside. I craned my neck up at the boy, his knees level with my face. My nose pinched at his tarry boots and the sweet hay. Up close, he was still the smallest. Overalls hung loose around narrow shoulders; bony wrists poked out of short sleeves. If I made this boy my hireling, my men would certainly judge both of us. Me, for my poor decision-making. The boy, for his weakness in wielding a scythe.
Perhaps my decision-making came from weakness. There was something of my late wife in his teasing smirk, a joke waiting on his lips; something perhaps of me in his sombre eyes, a secret hidden in the dark pupils. Or perhaps it was simply how his hair was the exact colour of the hay straw restlessly threaded between his fingers.
He accepted less than I offered for harvest work. All the preening men around us would have pushed the price higher. They’d have quoted outlandish praises of Mr so-and-so from the prior harvest or offered me some roughish story of a bull they tackled to the ground with their own bare hands.
Perhaps if I’d questioned the boy’s low prices, my shotgun would be resting on the wall now, not alert in my hands. My chair would be at the table, not facing the door. My eyes would be soft with sleep, not sharp to the slightest shifts in the darkness pressed at the window.
But money makes fools of men, so I shook hands with the boy. His palm was unusually soft and clean for a hireling. I was stung with an unfamiliar shame for my own, rough as old jute sacks, and the crescent moon of dirt under my fingernails. My hand twitched to bury itself in my pocket.
The next morning, the boy walked down the lane to my farm, his face a blank canvas for the burning colours of the rising sun. My dog ran to meet him, as she does to all new workers. But, instead of launching her paws and her slobber on the boy, she stopped a few inches from his heavy boots, peeled back her lips, and snarled.
The boy threw his hands in the air, and I threw down the last of the grain to the hens’ clucking delight. Hollering at the dog, I strode out of the yard, scattering birds, and crunched along the lane. The rising sun was licking the boy’s hair, setting alight each individual strand, while the dog’s teeth grazed his trouser cuffs. I lunged to grab her scruff and pull her away.
I apologised to the boy on behalf of the dog, which quirked a smile onto his face. I was unfathomably relieved to see that smile. It wouldn’t be the first time a new hireling turned tail on the first day. Never out of fear of the dog, but sometimes out of fear of lifting and swiping a scythe, morning to night, until Harvest Home.
Looking down at the dog, whose teeth were still bared, the boy confessed that dogs didn’t take to him as quickly as cats. It was a shame, he added, because his village was starving of cats since the villagers had culled them, gripped by witch fever.
Hopkins-fever, I corrected, as we walked back to the farmhouse. The sky was now a thin blue. Around us, the swish, thwick of the harvest fattened the air and the hedgerows chittered with insects.
You’re not a believer?
There was no judgement in the boy’s tone, only curiosity. A curiosity I was in these parts, outnumbered in my beliefs and my politics. My wife and my king, my only allies. One buried; one at war. I scolded myself for my loose tongue and didn’t answer him.
I am a man who prefers work to words, a trait of mine I introduced to this boy by handing him a scythe. Another confession: this was his first harvest and his first fieldwork. He grew up farming rabbits on the Breckland heaths with his father, a warrener, living in the upper floors of a lodge. I must be cursed, he laughed, for all the times a rabbit ran in front of my path. But of course, you don’t believe in those things, Sir.
No, I said, but I certainly believe in rabbits. I warned him of the traps in the woods circling the farm, teeth sharp enough to damage even a human leg.
Why he’d swapped rabbit for wheat, he didn’t explain. I didn’t pry. Instead, I guided his hand to the snath and the grip, showing him how to angle the scythe close to the ground, how to twist the body and arc wide to the left, and how to hone the blade. Our hands touching, my body curved around his, it wasn’t until we pulled apart that I realised I’d held my breath through the whole demonstration.
I didn’t see the boy until lunch, when my men drape themselves across bales and machinery in the yard to eat, drink, and make merry. The boy sat apart from the others, a distance only I noticed. My dog was shut away in my room. She barked pitifully at increasingly shorter intervals. But the chatter today was loud enough to drown her out as my men batted around news of Hopkins’ latest victory.
‘Larger than the Pendle trial,’ said one of my men, Wilson.
‘And not only women,’ whispered another, Davies, glancing over his shoulder, as if the accused had cut themselves down from their noose and were walking across the fields. ‘A vicar, would you believe it, from Brandeston. My sister is his parishioner. She’s stuffing silver coins up her chimney as we speak.’
‘Good to know that men can be devil-worshipers too,’ said Phillips. ‘Might get that witch pricker Stearne to test the carpenter whelp who keeps trying to hump my missus’s leg. Stearne’s needle will sniff out a wart on his body, and then I can drink to them breaking his neck.’
They all drank anyway, broken neck or not. There was mown crop to be gathered and blades to be peened. But beer and a warm sun makes idlers of men.
Except the boy. He brushed crumbs from his beard and picked up his scythe.
‘Back to the fields like a good dog?’ said Davies, his smile wicked as a blade.
‘He’s so green!’ laughed Wilson. ‘Boy, all you need to know is that his wife,’ he pointed at me, ‘was the bull with the bollocks. When she died, God bless her, this whole farm was castrated.’ He leaned forward with a proffered mug. ‘Stay awhile and drink some beer, the old man won’t squeak.’
The boy shook his head and walked towards the fields. He didn’t return until dusk, long after my men had slunk home. By way of thanks, I invited him into my home for supper. When he stepped over the threshold, he exclaimed at the lack of Bellarmine jugs. I told him it would take more than the threat of witchcraft to decorate the house with my urine.
As with the dog, I apologised on behalf of the meagre pottage. My wife, I said, was the cook. And, if my men were to be believed, she was everything else on this farm too.
The boy shook his fair head and scolded me letting my men make me the fool. Who is the one giving them their coin, Sir? You or your wife? He nodded at her portrait, staring down at us. With the boy in my house, the first guest since she’d died, I had the urge to turn her face to the wall.
I explained to the boy that crop had waned, blamed by some on the influx of witches. By my men, on me. I’d lost their respect like I’d lost my income. I was close to losing them altogether.
When the boy left, I climbed the stairs to my empty bed. The house was quiet, so I assumed my dog was asleep, tired from her constant barking. When I entered my room, she was dead.
The next day, when I woke up early to survey the farm and the fields, I noticed at least fifty new rows of wheat where, before, there had been stumbled soil. The day after, and the day after that, more wheat appeared. The strangest thing – more crop replaced the one which my men harvested. They promised no one had sowed any seed. It would be impossible for it to grow so quickly. Never had I experienced such a miraculous phenomenon. For the first time since boyhood, I visited church to pray to God because I did not know who else to thank.
My men did not abandon me. Seeing this too as a sign from God, they stayed late to harvest the crop, and I rewarded them handsomely. I took on more hirelings and paid some children from the nearby village to scare the birds from the fields. Every night, I celebrated my good fortune with the boy. I decorated the pottage with bacon, jelly, and eggs, and we drank deeply from flasks of ale. After those evenings, I did not mind sleeping in an empty bed because I was warm with food, drink, and laughter.
After three years of harvest in three weeks, my stockman paid me a visit. A heavy man, he lowered himself slowly into the chair in which the boy usually sat, his back to the portrait of my late wife.
‘The brood sows have had a litter each, with thirty pigs.’
I asked whether that was thirty pigs altogether.
‘No, Sir, thirty pigs per litter. That’s, well –’ He stared up at the ceiling, as if God’s angels would deliver him the total sum. ‘A lot of pigs.’
As I was promising to go to church every day from now on, the stockman leaned forward, his seat creaking. ‘After working so long on this farm, both for your father and now for you, I hope you see me as a friend.’ I reassured I did. ‘Well then. I don’t want to pry, merely to warn. See, your men are talking. They’re happy about the harvest, but not about your new-found favouritism. Especially for someone so green.’
A man deserves a little company, was my reply.
‘You can find that in the whorehouse.’ The stockman glances at the portrait of my late wife, as if in apology. ‘Or the hundreds of women in these parts who’d be happy to warm your supper and your bed in return for your house and your name.’
I told him to leave. My wife only recently deceased – this was a dishonour on her memory. My eye wasn’t for a woman right now. The stockman unplugged himself from the chair and, before he left, he turned to me at the threshold and said, ‘Well, Sir, that’s exactly the problem.’
I did heed my stockman’s warning. I kept my distance from the boy during the day and rescinded the night-time invitations. My heart became hard, and my house became hollow.
I heard nothing from the boy. He worked with as much vigour as the other men to bring the crops in before the end of harvest. As the equinox neared, my men talked with excitement about the festival. There was a lot to give thanks for this year. They hoped that the long-awaited Harvest Supper would brim with more meats, pudding, tarts, and ale than ever before. Their lips were already shaping songs, their toes already tapping out dances they would perform with local maids.
The abundant harvest had made me buoyant too. For the first time since my wife died, I whistled in the yard, joked with my men, and even visited nearby taverns for merriment and mead.
One night, when I was walking back woozily from a tavern, my feet led me through the woods rather than down the country lane. The moonlight was draped on trees like spiderwebs. Although I knew the woods weren’t bristling with goblins, and ghosts, and demons, the dark still crawled across my skin. Every skitter of an animal through the undergrowth clenched my stomach and my throat. Every low hoot of an owl froze the blood in my veins. Every step I took, I flinched with the ghostly pain of a trap around my ankle. Stumbling on roots and scratched by branches, I wondered what possessed me to take such a fraught path.
Then, only metres from the woods’ parameter, stood the boy. His features were sketched in silver while the darkness shrouded his body like a pall. I quickened my step to reach him sooner. As I stepped into his circle of warmth, he grabbed my hand and pulled me closer. By the moonlight, I kissed him. He pressed his soft lips to mine and breathed into my neck. His teeth grazed skin and his nails raked hair. When I opened my eyes, he was gone.
I walked the woods to find him again, frigid with fear. I begged God to help me. The eyes of my wife and my men stared at me from behind trees. My lips burned like hellfire. As my legs were growing heavy and my breathing was becoming ragged, an agonised scream cleaved my eardrums.
I ran to the noise. There, in a clearing, the air rich with the iron tang of blood, was a rabbit caught in a trap. I blinked, and the rabbit became the boy. Pain broke his beautiful face as he tried to tug his ankle from the trap, weighed down by heavy boots. As his soft lips shaped my name, I pulled out my pistol. By the moonlight, I murdered him.
Now I sit here, my finger teasing the trigger, waiting for Judgement Day to come. I do not know who will knock on the door. My men, my late wife, God. Or perhaps Judgement Day has already come with the withered crops, the dysentery culling my swine, or the mysterious fire that only yesterday burned down the barn and, with it, the entire harvest.
There is one knock I both dread and desire the most. I cock my gun, my eyes fixed to the door. The darkness presses at the window. The wait continues.