by Steven Cuffari
Percy Bild sliced two square yards of corn in a single swipe of his scythe.
Tad Gumphrey watched, smoking a cigarette. “Impressive,” he said.
“So do I have the job?” asked Percy.
Tad nodded and put his cigarette butt out in a portable ashtray. “Yeah, you got it. Pay’s on the first of the month. You start tomorrow.”
Percy smiled. “Thanks, Tad.”
“Thank your father. He’s the only reason you’re here.”
Percy forced himself to keep smiling. “Sure thing,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”
“Meet me out near the old barn at sunrise,” said Tad, pointing.
The sun was about to set, and the barn created a false horizon. Its rays contrasted the red of the building, creating shadows around it.
“What’s at the old barn?” asked Percy.
Tad smiled and pulled out another cigarette. “Just be there at sunrise.”
The sun set imperceptibly farther, and Percy nodded.
After leaving the farm, Percy drove to town. When he arrived, he parked his car on the street below his apartment above Bar Sligo on Carmont Street. He went upstairs and changed into his good clothes.
Percy woke up several hours later, and the last thing he could remember was putting on his good shoes to go downstairs to the bar. He gathered enough energy to lift his aching head. He saw his shoes in the corner covered in what looked like white paint. “Fuck,” he said, dropping his head back to the pillow.
“Mmmm…” Percy heard a female voice next to him.
“Oh damn…” Percy said.
The woman was completely naked, and she had a face and body that could drive ships to the rocks. He couldn’t remember her name.
She yawned and stretched and managed to caress his thigh in the process. “Come back to sleep,” she said.
The thought of sleeping next to her made Percy smile, but it also reminded him that he had places to be. He looked at the clock and jumped out of bed. “Shit…” he whispered. It was almost sunrise. He had enough time to shower and put on his work clothes.
“Just lock the door behind you,” he said to the woman. “I gotta go.”
The woman rolled onto her stomach and moaned just as Percy left.
When he got to the Gumphrey’s old barn, his head was still spinning from whatever had happened the night before. The sun was just peeking over the edge of the world, and Tad was waiting outside.
Percy parked his car by the road, and joined Tad, who was just lighting up a cigarette.
“You’re late,” said Tad.
“Sorry about that. Crazy night,” admitted Percy.
Tad put out the match for his cigarette in his portable ashtray. “No worries.” He puffed on the tobacco and studied Percy’s face.
“I think you’re good,” said Tad. “At scything. I saw what you did to that corn. You ready for a challenge?”
The sun’s rays trickled across the farm, and Percy waited before answering.
“It’s time,” Tad said, taking a puff of his cigarette and walking past Percy.
“Doesn’t matter anymore if you’re ready. You got no time to be anything else,” Tad said. He led Percy away from the old barn, down to an old small road that lead through the wheat fields.
Percy looked back past the old barn. “But the corn fields are over there,” he said to Tad.
Tad blew out a puff of smoke and said, “You’re not cutting corn today.”
Percy mumbled, “Alright,” and followed him.
As they walked through the wheat, the sun got higher, sending sinews of light through the tall grass and at their backs. Finally, they came to a clearing, in the middle of which was a large chain-link fence covered with plastic slats.
“This is where you’ll be working,” said Tad between puffs. They stopped at a line that seemed to circle the perimeter of the clearing.
“What is this place?” asked Percy.
Tad handed him a key. “Don’t forget to lock up while you work. There are always strays not far from here. They’re always trying to get in. That’s why we’ve got the fence.”
“Dogs? Are you serious?” said Percy, looking at the key.
“Don’t forget to lock the fence. That’s all,” Tad said.
“Wait a minute. This doesn’t seem right. What’s behind there?” demanded Percy.
Tad chortled. “Listen, Percy. Your father begged us to give you this job. You swing a mean scythe. But you’re not the brightest. This is an opportunity for you to make a lot of money. If you don’t want it, just say so. No worries.”
Percy frowned and looked at the key and the fence. “I just wanted to know what’s in there. Just curious.”
Tad laughed again. “You want to know what’s in there? Fine. You ever heard of vetch?”
“Vetch, no. What is that?” Percy frowned at the sound of it.
“Vetch is… well, it’s as valuable as diamonds, if not more. Every swing of that scythe is worth a lot of money. Did you think we were paying you so much because your father is our accountant?” Tad extinguished his cigarette in his portable ashtray.
“If it’s so valuable, why don’t you cut it yourself?” asked Percy.
Tad smiled and nodded. “You’re smarter that I thought. The problem with vetch is that it’s difficult to harvest. That’s why we’ve got you here. Your father told us you were looking for work and that you had skills.”
Percy smiled and straightened his posture. “My father told you that?”
Tad smiled. “It’s getting late. Why don’t you get to work? I’m looking forward to see how you do.” He looked at his watch and then at the ground, stepping away from the perimeter line. “Well, good luck,” he said, lighting up another cigarette.
Percy watched him disappear into the wheat fields then turned to face the fence.
Sunlight was now covering everything, and it was getting hotter.
Percy walked to the fence and took a deep breath as he unlocked it. His head still pounded with a hangover, and it reminded him of the beautiful woman with whom he had woken up. The thought made him smile, but he frowned at the pain in his head. He hoped to see the woman again once he was done working.
Percy forgot all about that when he saw the vetch for the first time. It was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. It looked like a cross between lavender and corn. Its husks and flowers were purple and blue with white, feathery hairs protruding from between its kernels. The husks seemed to be too heavy for their stalks. They sagged to the floor, making them seem like bushes. The wind blew through the stalks, and they seemed to whistle as they swayed against each other.
Something about the vetch made Percy smile. He wanted to reach out and touch it. Instead, he went to the shed in the corner and found the scythe. It looked brand-new. He picked it up by the snaith and grabbed the front grip with his right hand. He grabbed the back grip and gave it a trial swing.
“Nice,” he whispered.
Then he heard the sound of the fence door opening, followed by the unmistakable sound of a large dog growling. Without turning around, he lowered his head and whispered, “Oh shit…”
The dog began to bark, and Percy turned around, instinctively holding the scythe between him and the canine invader. He took a step back away from the dog, toward the field of vetch, but that only seemed to make the dog bark more.
“Stay back, doggie,” Percy said, taking another step back, trying to keep his balance. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
But the dog continued to bark more with each step that Percy took backward. Soon, the dog was almost frothing at the mouth, and it bolted at Percy.
Percy swung the scythe back, about to drive it through his fanged attacker when he tripped on his own feet. The scythe flew out of his hands, and the dog leapt on top of him. Percy tried to defend himself with as much strength as he could gather, but the dog was too strong. He licked Percy’s face mercilessly.
Percy began to laugh when he realized what the dog was doing. It whimpered, as dogs do, and nudged Percy’s head off the ground, just a few feet from the vetch.
When he stood up, the dog bit his pants and tried to drag him toward the fence, whimpering the whole time.
“What is it, dog? Don’t rip my pants!” he shouted. He knelt down and rubbed the dog’s neck, trying to calm him down. “Come on, let’s go,” he said.
Percy took the dog, no longer whimpering, to the fence and nudged him out. “See you later,” he said. When the dog realized that Percy wasn’t coming with him, it began to bark and snarl. Percy’s heart raced, and he pulled the door shut, locking it.
“Shit…” he whispered to himself. What the heck was that all about? he thought as the dog continued to bark. His head pounded in pain.
He turned around and looked at the vetch glimmering in the sun, now overhead. Its purple and blue husks rubbed against each other and made the sound of whispering crystal. He smiled and picked up the scythe, admiring again its precise construction before he got to work. He tried to tune out the sound of the dog barking as he readied his implement of harvest, but he couldn’t do it.
“Enough!” he shouted. It seemed like the headache from his hangover returned as he raised his voice. He grabbed his head, and the dog continued to bark. Taking a deep breath, he swung the scythe back, and the dog’s barking became louder. It echoed between his ears, making him feel like his head was about to split open.
“Damnit!” he shouted, lowering the scythe. He turned around and faced the fence, listening to the dog for a moment. “That’s it,” he said and rushed over to the fence. He unlocked the door and kicked it open, jumping out with the scythe ready to swing down into the barking dog. But when he looked around for his target, it was nowhere to be found. The barking faded to a whisper in his mind.
“What the fuck,” he said.
The wheat fields across the way waved in the wind. There was a silence there that seemed to beckon him, but the ache in his head compelled him to get his work done and get home to rest. He turned around and went back to the vetch, locking the fence door behind him.
The vetch tinkled in front of him, and he smiled. He wanted to touch it, caress it. Instead, he walked toward it, gripping the scythe firmly in his hands. He swung the blade back and aimed it with precision at the base of the purple and blue stalks. With one swing of the scythe, he cleared over two square yards of precious vetch.
Percy fell to his knees, smiling and looked at the spoils in front of him. Dozens of stalks lay fallen before him. As he beamed, he began to feel woozy. He held his head in his hand and tried to shake off the feeling. His hand was sticky, and when he pulled it away and looked at it, it was covered in blood. He looked down at the vetch in front of him and realized that he hadn’t hacked away the valuable stalks. He had hacked away at his own entrails, which now sprawled out before him.
As Percy fell to the ground, he dropped the scythe and tried to keep the rest of his innards from slopping out. His head hummed with pain, reminding him of the night before and the morning after. He wished now that he had stayed in bed next to that nameless, beautiful woman and let her lure his ship onto the rocks. And then, he was dead.
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