A reaper meets a blacksmith.
The fields lie, golden in the sun, to the horizon. Forth goes shimmering the heat of the day, trembling in its ecstasy of distance, the wheat wavering in its grip, ripe and blooming with welcome in its readiness. Intense the birthing of the fattened grain, bursting with the fine hair of completion, the nodding heads of replete ambition, the swollen ears of maturity and fruition.
The wind arrives and stirs the waiting horde, creating waves of silver, grey amongst the gold, the serried lines of standing grass bending to the touch, to flash bright in the sunlight before returning to their upright stance. Dry surfaces rub together to produce a rattling sound, the harmony of millions seeming like a rushing stream to greet the passing current of air. The fields live in motion, at play with the dance of the wind.
The harvest awaits, impatient now with preparation fulfilled.
I pass a finger along the blade, lightly, savouring its fresh sharpness from the whetting stone, its delicious curve and reflective steel, so fit for purpose and intent. My hand holds the wooden stock, handled to smooth familiarity by the years of use, and a thrill of recognition runs through my bones, a knowledge that the time is here. I sway with movement as my body remembers the motions of other years, other harvests Yes, now is the moment.
My fingers close tighter on the handle as I lift the scythe and walk down to the clamouring wheat.
To the untutored eye, the vast fields of ripened wheat, heaving like the sea to the horizon and beyond, seem more than a lone reaper can achieve before the rain comes and smashes the crop to the ground. The answer lies in the rhythm established by the reaper, the measured pace and metronomic swing that sends the blade in a perfect arc, slicing stems with exact calculation, the falling rows lying in precise position with their fellows, a trail of ordered devastation left behind, a swathe of harvest keeping pace with the steady footfall of the dance. This choreographed progress through the endless wheat is effortless, inexorable, deceptively quick to drive a road into the golden swarm and, turning and returning, widening it as the stems fall in their uniform ranks, obedient to the skill and keenness of the blade.
The reaper marches purposefully through the rippling field, rhythmic swing flashing steel midst the ripened crop, steady pace devouring the miles. He walks the distances tirelessly, always a steady, relentless speed, the very definition of form and movement in the grip of talented ease and practice. This is his calling, his reason for being, and the wheat bows before him as servant to his mastery. Even the cloudless sky holds back the thought of rain in deference to his skill. The mills will grind in the days to come and there will be bread on every table.
When the night spreads its dark cloak upon the fields, the reaper goes to the river, washes the dust and sweat from his brow, and takes the road to the village for his leisure. In The Lionheart pub he puts aside the scythe, leans back in a chair and sips at the strong ale of reward. All around him the crowd swirls, a constant hum of relaxation and chatter, won through the day’s labours. The reaper allows the atmosphere to wash over him, the contentment of the day easing fatigue from his limbs as the alcohol does its work. He sits alone until a broad-shouldered bull of a man, dark of countenance but wide of smile, drops into the chair opposite.
“Ho, fellow,” he greets the Reaper. “Drinking alone on such a night? Come, you’ll allow me to buy thee an ale and trade a few words, I’ll wager.”
The Reaper regarded him from the deep silence that seemed to cloak him, as though to speak was unnatural to him. Yet, when the newcomer was shifting uncomfortably in the absence of any response to his offer, an answer came in a voice both quiet and yet sonorous in its depth.
“Aye, John, ‘tis kind of you to offer. I’ll not say thee nay, just as you would not deny me.”
The man turned in his seat to beckon with two fingers at the landlord behind the bar. An almost imperceptible nod confirmed his message was received. John turned back to the Reaper.
“And how is it you know my name?”
“Is not the blacksmith known throughout the village? There’s no one goes without need of his services at one time or another. And you, being the only one in the village…” The reaper fell quiet again.
John pointed a finger at the scythe resting against the wall beside the Reaper. “And you be a reaper unless my guess is wrong, yet I know not your name.”
The Reaper smiled. “You have me there, ‘tis true. I know your name by many an account, since your fame has spread beyond this humble village. You’re a blacksmith of some repute, John.”
For a moment, the blacksmith had no response to this, a look of surprise widening his eyes and his mouth dropping open. But he could not let this go unanswered. “Beyond the village? But why should anyone care what befalls in this little place? Still less how well the blacksmith plies his trade. Crowbury be no more than ten mile from here, yet I know not whether it has a smith, let alone his name.”
“It’s often the way of things,” replied the Reaper. “Skill has little need of the news of fame, yet fame will noise excellence abroad regardless. I’ve heard your name far beyond Crowbury, John.”
Once again, the blacksmith was silenced by this revelation, but he recovered quickly. “And why should this concern a reaper? Is there something you require of me that you find your way to this village and ask after the local smithy? A new scythe, perhaps.” He glanced again at the instrument leaning against the wall.
“No, no, old Bright Fang has served me well these many years and I am well used to the feel and swing of her. See how the handle is worn to a shine by the use of my hands, note the curve of the blade where I have whetted her to utter sharpness. We are workmates of long standing and she’ll be my companion for seasons to come, I’m sure. But it’s true that I came here looking for you.”
John’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Just a moment; there’s something not quite right here. You may have known my name by hearing of my skills, but how did you know that I was the smith you sought? You’ve not seen me before, I’ll warrant. And any road up, it was I who decided to speak to thee in the first place. Explain that, if you will.”
The Reaper shook his head. “You’re not a man easily fooled, are thee, John? But just look at thee. Those broad shoulders, blackened hands, face reddened by the constant glare of the fire, how could you be anything other than a smith? Your trade has marked you just as clearly as the scythe marks me. And, as for our meeting, it was you who chose me, remember. I merely came to the place where you’d most likely be at this hour, and you, being who you are, were good enough to offer a stranger a drink.”
John stared at the Reaper for a moment, then shrugged. “Well, I guess it all makes sense in the end. But you’ve not told me your name yet. And I’ll not work for a man who refuses his own name.”
“My name is Adam,” said the Reaper. “But it’s not for work that I seek you out, John. More that I have something for thee.”
The blacksmith sat back in surprise. “For me? A stranger who brings me a gift? Now that’s a hard one to believe. What’s your game, Adam?”
“Oh, it’s no game. Come now, take a long look at my face. Do you not know me at all? I think you’ll find I’m no stranger after all.”
John considered the face that regarded him with such confidence over the table. There was something familiar about Adam, it was true. Surely he had seen those eyes before. Deep sunken, they were too dark to betray colour, yet their depths held a spark that spoke to John’s memory. The blacksmith stroked his bearded chin as he tried to remember where he’d seen that face before. He started back in recognition.
“”You! I’ve not looked for you in many a long year. ‘Tis no wonder I missed the signs. And calling yourself Adam the Reaper, hey?”
“It’s a name I’ve had a long time. But not that you ever knew that, I’ll grant you. But I thought you would know me in time. Memory does not easily forget those who stand close in the bad times. And you had enough of those when young. As I recall, you held tightly to my hand when we stood by your mother’s death bed. Then, but two years later, your father was killed when trying to rescue Jonas from the mill fire. I was busy that day but heard your cries even so. And I watched over you until you were big and strong enough to work with your uncle in the smithy.”
“Yes, yes, I remember it all.” John’s eyes were fixed on the past with that unfocused look of things seen from afar. For a time there was silence between them, both apparently lost in the events of long ago. It was the blacksmith who spoke at last.
“And now you return with a gift for me.”
“That I do, John. And I think it is time we left this place.” The Reaper stood and hefted the scythe in the crook of his arm. He watched as the blacksmith downed the last of his drink.
Then, without another word and, hardly remarked by the crowd, now settled into its general numbness induced by the ale, they left the pub and walked out into the dark.
The fields lie in darkness now, lit only by the pale moon that rides, high and full, in the clouded sky. Its light fades from silver to grey as the wisps of vapour pass before it, only to wax with the passing of the cloud. The wheat stands in orderly ranks, painted in a wan glow by the moonlight in places, in others in deep and dark shadow.
Still the wind blows and the wheat bends to its touch, the waves of its movement like the sea running up the sand and then retreating again as it gathers itself for another try. The hiss of dry grass rubbing together mimics the sound of the waves on the sand. A hunting owl, silent and ghostly, swoops low above the wheat and, far off, a fox shrieks into the night.
I stand on the slight rise at the edge of the field and survey the waiting harvest. From here, its serried ranks seem a massed army, seething with slight movement, the heads nodding and the sound of the wheat a murmured conversation below the level of interpretation. Like a trained horde it waits, neither impatient nor eager, merely aware of its impending moment and ready for the order to serve. Warriors schooled in the death of passions, in the subjugation of self to the communal will of the master.
I take hold of the scythe with both hands, lifting the blade to shoulder height, and march with measured pace down to the edge of the crop. Then a practice swing, a pace forward, and the nightly harvest begins. Only dimly am I aware of the faces in that brief moment before they tumble before me. In this instant of the summation of their lives, they are resigned, impassive, some even relieved, that it is time at last. Like the millions that have preceded them, this is the single guaranteed achievement of their being, and all doubts and concerns and struggles have vanished in this singular fate that binds them all in obedience. They fall before me in those ranks unbroken, laid together as they stood, regular and uniform, an army at rest.
The blade swings and slices through the gathered horde, my body following it with practised ease, legs moving at the same steady pace, arms swinging in the monotonous rhythm. Sweat starts and cools on my brow, the wind competing with my movement to prevent it falling into my eyes. And the scythe rises and falls, rises and falls, the bodies drop down to lie forgotten behind me.
Then John’s face appears amongst the crowd and, for a moment , the swing hesitates and the blade misses. I stop and touch the blacksmith on the shoulder.
“‘Tis rest I bring you, John,” I say.
He answers, “Yes, I know.” We nod and I return to the swinging of the scythe as he drops soundlessly into the dark following me.
‘Tis only the living call me grim.
Word count: 2,196
For Weekly SCREAMS!!! October 15 2021
Prompt: The Final Blow.
Note: I know, it’s not really horror but it wanted to be written. It’s time someone else won anyway.