“Mom, Dad… I’m sorry.”
Matt was sure that apologizing would be awful, and with the sick feeling he got in his stomach just from thinking about it, he probably wouldn’t have tried without the wind’s gentle support. He stood in the field, facing the wagon and his parents with his pulse pounding and wished he could absorb some of the wind’s confidence. Even though the air wasn’t blowing, he could feel the wind all around him. There was no horrible pressure like yesterday’s anger or even a few moments ago when it held him so sternly. This was simply a sense of presence, and with it, a feeling of warm approval.
His parents turned at his words, and he needed that comfort. He held his breath in the silence. Then, some of the stiffness in their shoulders and faces eased. Mom nodded and started to speak, still frowning. Matt winced internally at the lecture he knew was coming, but Dad shook his head, stopping it before it started. Laying a hand on Matt’s shoulder, he squeezed gently.
“Ready to learn to use that scythe?” he asked.
That simply, Matt was forgiven. Swallowing against the knot in his throat, he nodded vigorously. Following his dad into the field, Matt felt the warmth around him glow and grow. Stopping abruptly, he closed his eyes, and thought at the wind: Thank you.
There was no response in words. And after a moment, the strong feeling of presence faded. Matt sighed and focused on his dad’s directions.
“Take one grip in your left hand and the other with your right.” Dad followed his own instructions as he spoke, showing Matt how the left hand counterbalanced the weight of the blade and cradle (that name still baffled Matt). “You can use the weight to help your swing, but be careful. Don’t swing wildly, and aim low to the ground” He swung forcefully from right to left. Matt flinched back from it, but the only thing it cut was a three-foot swath of wheat. The cut plants were caught by the cradle and swept together to the left.
As Matt watched, his dad took a step forward and swung the scythe again. Then, he took another step. In another handful of steps, he had a rectangle cut into the field about the size of their kitchen table.
“Sarah, Matt, you can both help with this part.” Mom brushed by Matt and began picking up the fallen wheat. Once she had about enough to fill her hand, she gathered it into a bundle and loosely tied it with the twine Sarah had brought from the house.
“But…Dad wants me to help him,” Matt objected hesitantly.
“You will.” Her voice was soft and grim. “He’s going to need a break in a little while. When he does, you’ll get your turn with the scythe.”
Frowning thoughtfully, Matt obediently began to gather the fallen stalks. Why would Dad need a break? Following mom’s lead and wrapping a handful of wheat with twine, Matt snuck a glance back at his dad. The motion didn’t seem very difficult… Matt’s eyes widened, and his fingers fumbled. Dad’s neck was really dark. Popping upright, Matt sidestepped quickly to where he could see and couldn’t believe how red his dad’s face was already. Beads of sweat were pouring down it and soaking his shirt.
“No lollygagging, Matt.”
Startled, Matt jumped and turned back. Sarah and Mom had already gathered the rest of the cut wheat, bound it, stacked it, and moved up to the next section. Matt bent down immediately to grab the wheat he’d dropped and catch up. Soon, he, Sarah, and Mom had fallen into a rhythm where at any one moment, one of them was cutting twine, one was gathering the wheat, and one was tying off a bundle.
But even as Matt bent and bundled and gathered, he kept one eye on his dad. Although all he could see was his dad’s back, that was enough to see the spreading darkness down the center of his shirt and under his arms. And as the three of them got better at their bundling, they began to catch up. By the time the three patches merged into one, they were moving fast enough that sometimes, they ran out of wheat to bundle, and as they stood waiting, the only sound was Dad’s heavy breathing. Even the wind was silent.
In that eerie silence, the wheezing breaths grew harsher and harsher. Matt was sure that Dad would stop any minute, but he pushed on until his swings became clumsy and unsteady. Matt heard his mom’s gasp when a stumble brought the blades swinging back towards his leg. Dad pulled it back and rested the scythe on the ground. Matt started forward, but after a second, Dad lifted it again and almost desperately swept it across two more sections before dropping it and half-collapsing, bent over coughing with his elbows on his knees.
“Sarah, go get a pail of water and a cup,” Mom said softly.
Wide-eyed, Sarah nodded and sprinted back across the fields towards the yard. Matt took one look at Dad’s red face, grabbed the scythe, and pulled it away in case Dad keeled over onto it.
“It’s not as easy as it was when I was fifteen,” Dad gasped.
“You were a lot younger when you were fifteen,” Mom said exasperatedly, “and you worked in the fields every day. Without a tractor.”
“I know, I know.” He waved a hand at her and pushed to standing with a groan. “But it needs done.” He coughed and wiped chaff off his face. “I even forgot the handkerchief. Put one over your face before you start the next section, Matt.” He coughed again.
Scythe in hand, Matt turned. The field of wheat seemed to go on forever. The tiny row that his dad had worked so hard to cut wasn’t even… he struggled to guess what fraction of the field. It was about half the width. That had to be less than a tenth of the whole field. No, less than a twentieth. A lot less. And Dad could barely stand. Matt looked from the field to the tool: a bit of wood and metal. It was impossible. Helplessly, he looked up at his parents.
“How…” One glance at their faces froze the words on his lips. They knew. They’d known before they even started. But Dad had still… Swallowing, Matt took a deep breath, dug in his pocket for a kerchief, and tied it around his face. “Like this?”
Still coughing and wiping at his face, Dad nodded. The pressure of the kerchief felt strange on Matt’s face, and the day was suddenly hotter. Stifling. Wrinkling his nose (which made the kerchief shift oddly), Matt turned back to the endless field.
The scythe felt heavy and awkward in his hand. Hesitantly, he gripped it the way Dad had shown him. Putting his left hand on that weird handle made it easier to hold all those blades up, but the weight pulled at him like current in a river. He could resist it, but he couldn’t stop it.
“Use the weight to help your swing,” Dad reminded him mid-cough. “But keep it controlled.”
Matt nodded without looking back. Swallowing, he squared his shoulders and lifted the heavy blades up and to the right. They pulled back down the whole time, greedy to cut and slice. At the top of the swing, he reversed it and drove them through the wheat. Too high. The scythe cut the wheat in short strips, not long stalks like Dad had done. And it wasn’t a full row. Frowning, Matt took a step forward and tried again. This time, he hit low enough. It wasn’t as neat a cut as Dad’s had been, but it left enough wheat to bundle.
“That’s it, Matt!” His dad called encouragingly from behind him. “You’re doing fine.”
Licking his lips, Matt took another step forward and another swing. Then another. And another. With each one, his control got better, and he slowly began to move faster, falling into a rhythm as his world narrowed down to the wheat and the scythe. Swing. Step. Swing. Step.
There was no sense of time. No awareness of his family behind him. He didn’t even hear the wind or the birds crying out as they passed overhead. At the same time, he felt the beat of the sun stronger, like it was branding the back of his neck and arms. The kerchief that had felt so strange at first now stuck to his face like a second skin, and each breath drawn through it and the chaff stuck to it was a struggle. And the pull of the scythe seemed to reach further across his shoulders and back with each swing. At first, it had felt kind of good, satisfying. Then, satisfaction had turned to an ache and an ache to a pain.
His arms trembled, and he had to work harder each time to keep the cut where he wanted it. His lungs began to burn, and his heartbeat rang through his ears. Sweat stung his eyes, and he stumbled. Catching himself, he let the scythe rest briefly on the ground and gasped for air.
“That’s enough for now, Matt.” His mom laid a firm hand on his arm before he could raise it again. “Get some water.”
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 pump 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.
“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.
“Mom, Dad… I’m sorry.”