Hush, my child, or they will hear
Your petulant voice in the cold night air –
That shrill, hard pitch shreds their ears,
And those that get caught
Stay out of the woods!
That’s where they live, where they watch
And hunt for foolish kids
That show their parents’ words such scorn
And fade away
Like the fog at morn.
Steer clear of the waters,
Be they shallow or deep, they’ll pull you down
To their cold, dark depths
Where they like to sleep –
Where they steal your breath.
Hush and heed my warnings, my words,
Flee the woods and waters beyond.
Hush and head, my darling child,
If you wish to see tomorrow’s dawn.
As Dad scooped eggs out of the pan, Matt eyed the remainder with a calculating eye. He knew he’d eaten a massive pile already, but he still felt hollow. He reminded himself that there was toast waiting on the table and restrained himself to a third of the remaining eggs and bacon. There was always the chance that Mom and Sarah wouldn’t want any more.
He set the plate on the table and added two pieces of toast before he sat down. They were golden and heavy with butter. He spooned a bite of eggs onto a corner and took a bite with a loud crunch followed by an mm of pleasure. Similar sounds chorused around the table, broken only by the occasional scrape of a chair as someone went back for more. With each bite, the gray light grew and warmed to a rich gold.
When he’d consumed the last crumb on his plate (and checked to be sure that was no more left), Matt wrapped his hand around his stomach and leaned back with a contented groan. The first serving had finally made it to his belly, and he was feeling pleasantly full. Closing his eyes, he pictured going back to bed and sighed wistfully. Not today. Around him, the happy chewing sounds continued, but soon enough, everyone would be finished. And the fields were waiting.
Groaning internally, Matt opened his eyes, picked up his plate, and carried it over to the basin. There were no scraps to scrape off, so he set the plate down, picked up the kettle, and started pumping. When it was full, he shifted the empty skillet aside and put the water on to boil. He mouthed his silent thank you to the fire and then nearly jumped out of his skin when a hand landed gently on his shoulder.
“Thanks, Matt,” his mother said as she leaned around him to set down her own plate. “I’ll leave the dishes to you and Sarah. Join us in the fields as soon as you can.”
“Yes, Mom!” Matt perked up at the unexpected reprieve.
“No dawdling.” Her voice was stern, but her lips curved affectionately as she squeezed his shoulder. Matt grinned back.
With newly energized steps, Matt rushed to the kitchen. His dad was standing in front of the old stove with a wooden spoon in one hand and a plate in the other. Matt’s mouth watered as he watched his dad scoop a large pile of yellow eggs and crisp bacon onto the plate. Dad turned with the plate, caught sight of Matt and grinned.
“Right on time,” he said and jerked his head toward the pan. “Grab a plate before it’s all gone.”
More than happy to comply, Matt hurried to the cupboard while Dad carried his plate to the little kitchen table. Plate in hand, Matt turned to the stove and nearly genuflected when he saw the huge cast iron skillet filled with eggs and bacon. Mom had cooked enough for an army! Grinning with anticipation, Matt reached for the wooden spoon. When his hand closed around it, he felt the heat that had seeped into the wood and paused. Glancing down at the burner and the flickering light beneath it, he bit his lip for a millisecond.
“Thank you for cooking the food,” he mouthed soundlessly.
When there was no response, he sighed with relief and eagerly started scooping eggs and bacon onto his plate. He had to force himself to stop and leave some for Mom and Sarah – he felt like he could eat the entire pan of food and still be hungry!
In two steps, he was sitting at the table and eating his first bite of hot, juicy bacon (cooked to the perfect amount of crispness). Matt moaned with sheer bliss and shoved in another piece. For an unknown length of time, Matt’s world narrowed down to delicious bacon and bite after bite of light, fluffy eggs.
As the food on his plate dwindled, he slowly became aware of Sarah sitting across from him and eating with the same single-mindedness. The table clunked hollowly as Mom set a plate of toast in between them.
“Get some toast, and don’t be afraid to go back for seconds,” she said, settling behind her own plate. “We’ll need the energy.”
Squeaking wood almost drowned out her last sentence as Dad took her at her word, pushed his chair back from the table, and headed back to the stove. Matt was right behind him.
Matt nodded dumbly, rubbing the grit from his eyes. Then, his head dropped forward, and he sat for another minute, not moving. Eyes closed. Under him, the bed felt so soft and welcoming.
“Again?” The wail shrieked through the wall.
Eyes snapping open, Matt shot upright, pushed himself off the bed, and immediately stumbled, bending over with a groan. It didn’t really hurt – whatever Mom had done really worked – but he felt a little like one of his sister’s wooden toys that had strings running through the arms, legs, and back. Only someone pulled his string too tight.
With another groan, he pushed himself upright and stumbled across the creaking wooden floor to the battered wooden dresser. Pulling open the drawer was harder than it should be. So was bending over to pull on his pants. When he finally got them up and buttoned, he stared glumly at his shoes and socks. Blowing out a breath, he sat back down on the bed and reached down.
The sound that came out of him made him think of a rusty door hinge. Hand on his shoe, he hung there a moment with his head by his knee. Then, with a sigh, he pulled himself back up. It took two tries to get his foot up to his knee. Repeating the process was equally slow.
Fully dressed, he sat for a moment and rested back on straight arms. The bed was cool under his hands. Sighing, he let his head fall back for a second before pushing up.
After two steps, he smelled cooking eggs and bacon, and his stomach growled like a rabid dog. Suddenly, he was starving!
He was swimming through a sea of winds that spun and whirled without moving as they shouted, calling out to each other in panicked voices. Their cries buffeted him and sent him reeling from one to the other. Each burst burned, and although Matt tried to right himself, his body wouldn’t obey. Tossing and turning helplessly, he tried to understand, but their words sounded strange and twisted. Like the ones he knew but different.
They weren’t talking to him. Matt stopped struggling as he understood. They were calling out to each other, and he was the air they were shouting through. But where were they? Why were they afraid?
A pair of vices crushed his shoulders, and aches erupted through him, waking Matt with a start. He gasped, and his eyes popped open. His mom was leaning over him, silhouetted in the dim half-light. Her hands curved around his shoulders as she shook him gently.
“Matt, wake up.”
Matt flinched back from her, and the pain spread to his stomach. Closing his eyes, he tried to roll over, but his muscles refused. He flopped back into the bed like a fish out of water. With each twitch, energy leaked from his body like breath. As soon as he stopped moving though, the weight of his limbs pulled him downward. His eyelids fluttered once before he began to sink back into sleep.
There was a soft sound, and then a warm hand flattened against his chest. A familiar wind swept through him, cooling and soothing the burning aches to a dull throb. Matt groaned, and his eyes opened once more.
“Better?” his mother asked softly.
He nodded and groaned again as he pushed himself upright. That took all his energy, and he slumped against her side.
“Mm-hm,” he mumbled, breathing in her sweet floral scent and closing his eyes. Her lips brushed his forehead, and she hugged him briefly with a sigh before setting him upright and looking him in the eye.
“I know you’re tired,” she murmured, brushing his hair back from his face, “but you need to get up.”
“Yes, Mother,” he said, yawning in the middle of it. He remembered to cover his mouth before he finished. She half smiled then stood.
“Get dressed in your work clothes while I wake your sister.”
“Sarah,” Dad called. “I need you.”
Sarah jumped up so fast Matt felt a breeze from the motion. Blearily, he followed the blur that was his sister as she dashed to Dad. Dad’s breathing still echoed, and his hands were clumsier than usual. But he was tying a bundle of wheat when she came to a screeching halt in front of him. An instant later, she ran over to gather up another bundle of wheat and tie it while Dad reached for yet another.
Matt blinked hard. Dad and Sarah were gathering wheat. Brow furrowing, Matt turned his head slowly to the left. Sure enough, his mother held the scythe firmly and swung it with grim determination. Eyes widening, Matt followed the angle of the swing. She cut a nice clean swath through the wheat – much more accurate than his had been. But Dad was still shaking from using it.
Frowning, Matt struggled to sit all the way up. She’d been working non-stop since they started, but although her clothing had already begun to darken with sweat as they’d gathered the wheat, she’d still looked as put-together as she always did. Now, the darkness was spreading rapidly. Her hair was already coming free, falling down on her back and neck. There, sweat plastered it to her skin. As his own breathing began to quiet, Matt could hear how each swing made hers more ragged.
Convulsively, Matt pushed himself to his feet and stumbled backward in reaction to the sudden screaming burn of his muscles and lungs. The burst of pain faded quickly as he straightened fully, and he only stumbled a little as he walked determinedly to Dad and Sarah. Bending to gather the wheat stretched the muscles he’d so recently abused swinging the scythe, creating a strange mix of pain and relief. He blew out a breath. He could do this.
As he fell back into the pattern – cut, bend, gather, bundle, tie – the ache of his back and arms began to fade, overwhelmed by new burning aches in his legs and backside. When the pain became unbearable, he bent his knees. When that became too hard, he knelt and crawled forward. When that became too much, he stood again. Doggedly shifting from position to position, he pushed himself forward.
As long as they were working, he would, too.
Matt didn’t even think to object but stumbled the few steps to the edge of the field and collapsed on his behind. Leaning his elbows on his knees, he let his head fall back and tried to catch his breath. His lungs screamed with each burst of cool air, and his heart pounded in his ears. He listened to them numbly and stared up at the sky.
Turning his head to the side felt like the hardest thing he’d ever done. Even his eyes seemed too tired to focus properly at first. Or maybe that was because the blackened ladle was so close to them, and the heat boiling from him made the cool water in it shimmer like a cruel mirage.
Suddenly, all the aches, pains, and burning were consumed by a ravenous thirst. He snatched the ladle and brought it to his mouth. The abused muscles of his arms shook and twitched enough to send splashes of water onto his shirt and legs, but even that felt good – cool and soothing. And the sweet taste of it was like a gift, a new breath of life. He couldn’t get enough of it fast enough, and he could feel it spreading through his body, dulling the aches and dousing the fires.
It was empty too soon. But small hands took it from him and an instant later it reappeared, miraculously full again. The second round was even more refreshing, and this time, some of the coolness reached his brain. Like a water pumped that was finally primed enough to run. Shaking his head to clear it, he did his best to calm his breathing.
“Are you all right?”
Sarah was kneeling next to him. Her hair was frazzled and curling around her sweaty face in wisps. Her little face was screwed up with concern.
“Do you want more?”
He swallowed, promptly coughed and wheezed, and shook his head.
“Thanks,” he managed.