The old man walked along the border of his property, feeling the cold squish up through his boots like a rising damp. There was nothing here but scrub and fallen tree limbs, tangled together in a fractured web, but something about the edge of his land came as a comfort in the dying days of autumn. Here was a view of the last forty years of his life, breakback and hard-fought. If he stood at the edge of the barn and looked west, he could almost see the entirety of his parcel floating in waves, undulating rows of wheat stubble bowing to the sunset. He didn’t need photographs or old letters. Here was the seed of his memory, tucked deep down into the velvety soil.
His wife had found the land first. She had been a young mother--19 when they had their first and only child--and had been early in suffering from empty nest syndrome. Their little chick left for college when she was just 40, too young for the change and too advanced in years to carry another. She had redecorated every room in their tiny clapboard house, taken up knitting, tried her hand at making wedding cakes. Nothing held her interest long enough to make her forget the sadness that dwelled in her like a cancer, and when she saw the newspaper listing for a property auction, it seemed to answer a question that neither of them knew had been asked.
“I’m too old to be a farmer,” he’d said when she showed him the paper. It had been creased nearly to death by the time it came across his breakfast plate; she’d folded and unfolded it a hundred times, reading their future in between 75 printed words and then hiding it away until she was ready to face it. There was no disdain in his voice, only a sense of mild humor that his wife of 22 years could still surprise him.
“You’re too old to be a Boy Scout. Too old to take a fall with dignity. Not too old to be a farmer,” she’d said, and her ruthless optimism drew something up in him, as well. The feeling that things weren’t finished, that perhaps they had finally outgrown their little house and their small life.
It was good, even when it was bad. Every week brought a new stress and some inventive form of pain for his body, but when the sunlight was good and the rains came, he thought he had found a new puzzle piece. Something he hadn’t known was missing in him would come together, click, and on to the next thing. It was that way for her, too, and when he pressed himself to her as she stood at the range and kissed her sweat-dampened hair, or looked up in the afternoon from fieldwork and saw her smiling over her garden, he knew they had made the right choice.
November limbs rattled like bones in the gathering dusky gloom and he looked up, unaware of how he had walked so far while his mind unraveled from its spool. The house was half a mile away now with its windows glowing a sickly yellow, holding in all the things he’d come outside to escape. And here, now, was the harvester. He’d almost forgotten it.
It was a hulking shape against the sky, a massive piece of machinery sitting hunched on nearly-frozen ground like a crusty dinosaur. It had been abandoned in late summer after breaking down; he hadn’t the heart to haul it out. Now it looked as sad and old as he was, left to rust in a softly-waving universe. It once was useful and now was not, sitting so patiently in its atmosphere of sour oil and metallic blood-smell, waiting for the day when someone could make it feel alive again.
He contemplated it for a long while, until the dark coiled around him, and although he was as cold as he had ever been he began walking towards the road.
It was all crunchy gravel and pine needles, a curve in the middle of a pass between towns that rarely saw much traffic, but he thought he’d seen headlights flash by during his walk. His mind had been in far-off places, too busy to register it until now.
His heart did a slow roll in his chest. It didn’t do to worry about things he couldn’t control, but there was a bad feeling in the air; an oppression, like the weight of loss will leave. There had been a blood moon not two nights before and it was stamped into his mind now, a symbol of things turned. A lock that cannot be undone.
The road gleamed white in the dark like snow except for a misshapen patch in the bend. He waited for it to move, and when it didn’t he stopped walking altogether to sniff the atmosphere. Here was the blood-tang he’d smelled before, back at the harvester, only this was the real thing. The deer rolled an eye up to look at him, pitiful in the darkness and in its finality. He knelt beside it, touched the otherworldly-soft pelt.
It was a dangerous place to be, but he pushed the thought away. There were sounds now, the last sounds it would ever make, and somehow that was the saddest of all. He bent at the waist and buried his face in the velvet of its throat and wept silently. Blood seeped from the last stutter-throbs of the animal’s heart and onto his flannel shirt, warming him and then turning cold.
When it was over, he wiped his face with his gnarled old-man hands and his thoughts went to her, as they so often did. He thought of her smiling over her garden, of the harvester rotting in the moonlight.
He stood, hunch-backed against the night, and began.
Amanda Crum is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in publications such as the Bluegrass Accolade and Dark Eclipse and in several anthologies, including Beyond The Hill and Two Eyes Open. Her first chapbook of horror-inspired poetry, The Madness In Our Marrow, was shortlisted for a Bram Stoker Award nomination in 2015. She is also the co-editor of Whiskey Shivers Magazine, alongside friend and fellow writer Chris Shea. She currently lives in Kentucky with her husband and two children.