We are bringing in the wheat. In the more remote areas of southwest England, it is still some years before the advent of the combine harvester. The rust-mottled red tractor chugs slowly around the perimeter of the field, puffing clouds of pungent blue exhaust and dust. The old binder rattles behind it. Its turning vanes chop off the stalks at stubble level and steer the ripened grain into the machine’s maw, where it is swallowed and regurgitated as neatly bound sheaves. We children—five or six of us—and a bevy of uncles follow, stacking them into what my Devonshire relatives call stooks—round dozens of sheaves forming miniature wigwams.
It is August and hot by English standards. I am eight years old—more or less—and tired, sweaty, thirsty. My hands are sore from the stalks of the grain, the harsh binder twine, and the thistles that inevitably hide within the sheaves. My exposed skin prickles with sunburn. I am from the town but I am determined to keep up with my bronzed and toughened country cousins.
In addition, if I work hard, Uncle Fred has promised me a ride on the broad back of Violet, the bay Shire draft horse who, with the younger mare, Jessie, drowses in the meager shade of a hawthorn tree. The horses are fully harnessed, ready to take over if the tractor fails, as it so often does.
Above the tractor’s steady chug and drone, a skylark spills its endless cascade of sweet song. It is a sound that I forever and perversely still associate with the scent of my uncles—a heady masculine perfume compounded of cows, dried sweat, mud and manure. The uncles goad and tease me with rough affection. My face grows hotter and redder and I trot and stack, stack and trot.
At noon the aunts arrive with our lunch wrapped in checkered cloths and carried in wicker baskets. Among them, Auntie Win—distilled kindness, tall and ample with arms like fleshy hams; Auntie Frances—birdlike, tiny and neat, quietly energetic; Aunt Phyllis—a witch if ever there was one, skinny, sour and scolding. I avoid her and her acid gaze if humanly possible.
A boisterous group, we sit in whatever shade we can find, fidgeting in our attempts to find comfortable places on the prickly stubble. The food is unwrapped: generous slices of Devon pasty burst with potatoes laced with nutmeg, parsley and bacon fat; spicy homemade sausages wrapped in more heavy tough pastry; hard-boiled eggs; raisin-stuffed rock cakes. I eat and eat. The uncles laugh and urge me toward yet one more slice of pasty. I am famous for my capacity, but the sun is so hot that the food is making me slightly queasy, and I must disappoint them. The men drink rough cider and mugs of strong milky tea. For us children, there is scalded milk, whose taste and floating gobs of congealed cream I cannot bear; or we are offered bottles of carbonated liquid in virulent shades of red, green or yellow. The cousins consume this poisonous pop with glee. I try to follow their example but I have difficulty with such sweetness, and the bubbles tickle my soft palate, rise up the back of my nose, and cause me to choke and splutter. I long in vain for a glass of plain cold water.
After lunch, the standing grain is much reduced. The tractor puffs in ever-decreasing circles. One by one, the dogs arrive. Collies, terriers, and other mixed and motley canines from surrounding farms congregate around the field. They pant and gaze with fierce intensity at the shrinking circle of wheat. I pat a sheepdog named Sam, a usually responsive multicolored mutt, but he does little more than twitch a burr-studded tail, and does not take his eyes off the diminishing island of grain. The dogs are waiting. Some of the cousins have given up stacking, and have taken up stout sticks. They too wait.
The first rabbit appears; it streaks for the hedgerow, frantic white cottontail bobbing. A black dog is onto it in a trice. A thin high scream, and the rabbit lies disemboweled and bloody, the dog tearing at its corpse. More rabbits and an occasional rat break out, dogs, cousins and uncles in hot pursuit. Swiftly the air becomes heavy with the rusty smell of blood and spilled intestines. For a few minutes I find myself swept up in the frenzy. I have no weapon, but I yell wordlessly, and run this way and that. The circle of grain shrinks and shrinks. Animals and humans dart in every direction. The tractor chugs steadily. When a veritable flood of desperate creatures bursts forth, safety in numbers is briefly afforded. A few make it to the hedgerow, some disappear beneath the wheels of the binder.
A very young rabbit careens toward me and halts at my feet. Its black eyes bulge with panic, its small sides heave in terror. With a rush, the last of my excitement vanishes. I bend to snatch up the little animal and save it—but a cousin is there. With one savage blow, he cudgels it into oblivion.
I turn away and walk over to the horses. Tears of loss and sadness spill down my cheeks. I bury my nose in Violet’s warm, sweet-smelling hide and cover my ears to block the sounds: the barks, the pitiful shrieks, the thuds and yells. Violet chomps lazily at a nosebag of grain, ignoring me, my sobs and the mayhem in the field.
The sound of the tractor suddenly ceases. I turn around, wiping my eyes with a grubby fist. It has driven to the edge of the field and stopped. The uncle who has driven it is clambering stiffly down from its metal seat. It is over. The field is nothing now but stubble and stooks, blood and fur, dogs squabbling over small corpses. Cousins and uncles laugh and shout; they slap each other on the back in collective triumph and exultation.
Unnoticed, I pass through the gate out into the lane. The lark is still bursting with song. I am alone. I am from the town.
Thank you to Ann Brimacombe Elliot for sharing the complete text of her story “Harvest” for free on the web. The complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories. Click here to find the book on Amazon. E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.
Ann Brimacombe Elliot, originally from Britain, and her geologist husband have lived in Columbus since 1967. They have three out-of-town offspring and five exemplary grandsons. After fifteen years in medical research Ann started writing and editing medical literature. Her “creative” writing netted small successes in poetry and fiction, but she is most comfortable with creative nonfiction for which she has won several regional awards, including two Nonfiction Columbus Literary Awards and an Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Award. In 2000, Kent State published Charming the Bones, her biography of restoration artist, Margaret Colbert. Ann is working on another biography. Music is a passion—she plays viola—and also enjoys gardening, hiking, skiing and photography