Quite suddenly there was no more road. It ran down the valley like any other road, between slopes of barren, stony ground and live oak trees, and then past a broad field of wheat standing alone in the wilderness. It came up beside the small white house that belonged to the wheat field and then just faded out, as though there was no more use for it.
It didn't matter much, because just there the last of the gas was gone. Drew Erickson braked the ancient car to a stop and sat there, not speaking, staring at his big, rough farmer's hands.
Molly spoke, without moving where she lay in the corner beside him. "We must of took the wrong fork back yonder."
Molly's lips were almost as white as her face. Only they were dry, where her skin was damp with sweat. Her voice was flat with no expression in it.
"Drew," she said. "Drew, what are we a-goin' to do now?"
Drew stared at his hands. A farmer's hands, with the farm blown out from under them by the dry, hungry wind that never got enough good loam to eat.
The kids in the back seat woke up and pried themselves out of the dusty litter of bundles and bedding. They poked their heads over the back of the seat and said:
"What are we stoppin' for, Pa? Are we gonna eat now, Pa? Pa, we're awful hungry. Can we eat now, Pa?"
Drew closed his eyes. He hated the sight of his hands.
Molly's fingers touched his wrist. Very light, very soft. "Drew, maybe in the house there they'd spare us somethin' to eat?"
A white line showed around his mouth. "Beggin'," he said harshly. "Ain't none of us ever begged before. Ain't none of us ever goin' to."
Molly's hand tightened on his wrist. He turned and saw her eyes. He saw the eyes of Susie and little Drew, looking at him. Slowly all the stiffness went out of his neck and his back. His face got loose and blank, shapeless like a thing that has been beaten too hard and too long. He got out of the car and went up the path to the house. He walked uncertainly, like a man who is sick, or nearly blind.
The door of the house was open. Drew knocked three times. There was nothing inside but silence, and a white window curtain moving in the slow, hot air.
He knew it before he went in. He knew there was death in the house. It was that kind of silence.
He went through a small, clean living room and down a little hall. He wasn't thinking anything. He was past thinking. He was going toward the kitchen, unquestioning, like an animal.
Then he looked through an open door and saw the dead man. He was an old man, lying out on a clean white bed. He hadn't been dead long; not long enough to lose the last quiet look of peace. He must have known he was going to die, because he wore his grave clothes--an old black suit, brushed and neat, and a clean white shirt and a black tie.
A scythe leaned against the wall beside the bed. Between the old man's hands there was a blade of wheat, still fresh. A ripe blade, golden and heavy in the tassel.
Drew went into the bedroom, walking soft. There was a coldness on him. He took off his broken, dusty hat and stood by the bed, looking down.
The paper lay open on the pillow beside the old man's head. It was meant to he read. Maybe a request for burial, or to call a relative. Drew scowled over the words, moving his pale, dry lips.
To him who stands beside me at my death bed:
_Being of sound mind, and alone in the world as it has been decreed, I, John Buhr, do give and bequeath this farm, with all pertaining to it, to the man who is to come. Whatever his name or origin shall be, it will not matter. The farm is his, and the wheat; the scythe, and the task ordained thereto. Let him take them freely, and without question--and re
member that I, John Buhr, am only the giver, not the ordainer. To which I set my hand and seal this third day of April, 1938_.
((_Signed_)) _John Buhr_. Kyrie elйison!
Drew walked back through the house and opened the screen door. He said, "Molly, you come in. Kids, you stay in the car."
Molly came inside. He took her to the bedroom. She looked at the will, the scythe, the wheat field moving in a hot wind outside the window. Her white face tightened up and she bit her lips and held onto him. "It's too good to be true. There must be some trick to it."
Drew said, "Our luck's changin', that's all. We'll have work to do, stuff to eat, somethin' over our heads to keep rain off." He touched the scythe. It gleamed like a half-moon. Words were scratched on its blade: WHO WIELDS ME--WIELDS THE WORLD! It didn't mean much to him, right at that moment.
"Drew," Molly asked, staring at the old man's clasped hands, "why--why's he holdin' that wheat-stalk so hard in his fingers?"
Just then the heavy silence was broken by the sound of the kids scrambling up the front porch. Molly gasped.
They lived in the house. They buried the old man on a hill and said some words over him, and came back down and swept the house and unloaded the car and had something to eat, because there was food, lots of it, in the kitchen; and they did nothing for three days but fix the house and look at the land and lie in the good beds, and then look at one another in surprise that all this was happening this way, and their stomachs were full and there was even a cigar for him to smoke in the evenings
There was a small barn behind the house and in the barn a bull and three cows; and there was a well-house, a spring-house, under some big trees that kept it cool. And inside the well-house were big sides of beef and bacon and pork and mutton, enough to feed a family five times their size for a year, two years, maybe three. There was a churn and a box of cheese there, and big metal cans for the milk.
On the fourth morning Drew Erickson lay in bed looking at the scythe, and he knew it was time for him to work because there was ripe grain in the long field; he had seen it with his eyes, and he did not want to get soft. Three days' sitting were enough for any man. He roused himself in the first fresh smell of dawn and took the scythe and held it before him as he walked out into the field. He held it up in his hands and swung it down.
It was a big field of grain. Too big for one man to tend, and yet one man had tended it.
At the end of the first day of work, he walked in with the scythe riding his shoulder quietly, and there was a look on his face of a puzzled man. It was a wheat field the like of which he had never seen. It ripened only in separate clusters, each set off from the others. Wheat shouldn't do that. He didn't tell Molly. Nor did he tell her the other things about the field. About how, for instance, the wheat rotted within a few hours after he cut it down. Wheat shouldn't do that, either. He was not greatly worried. After all, there was food at hand.
The next morning the wheat he had left rotting, cut down, had taken hold and came up again in little green sprouts, with tiny roots, all born again.
Drew Erickson rubbed his chin, wondered what and why and how it acted that way, and what good it would be to him--he couldn't sell it. A couple of times during the day he walked far up in the hills to where the old man's grave was, just to be sure the old man was there, maybe with some notion he might get an idea there about the field. He looked down and saw how much land he owned. The wheat stretched three miles in one direction toward the mountains, and was about two acres wide, patches of it in seedlings, patches of it golden, patches of it green, patches of it fresh cut by his hand. But the old man said nothing concerning this; there were a lot of stones and dirt in his face now. The grave was in the sun and the wind and silence. So Drew Erickson walked back down to use the scythe, curious, enjoying it because it seemed important. He didn't know just why, but it was. Very, very important.
He couldn't just let the wheat stand. There were always new patches of it ripened, and in his figuring out loud to no one in particular he said, "If I cut the wheat for the next ten years, just as it ripens up, I don't think I'll pass the same spot twice. Such a damn big field." He shook his head. "That wheat ripens just so. Never too much of it so I can't cut all the ripe stuff each day. That leaves nothin' hut green grain. And the next mornin', sure enough, another patch of ripe stuff. . . ."
It was damned foolish to cut the grain when it rotted as quick as it fell. At the end of the week he decided to let it go a few days.
He lay in bed late, just listening to the silence in the house that wasn't anything like death silence, but a silence of things living well and happily.
He got up, dressed, and ate his breakfast slowly. He wasn't going to work. He went out to milk the cows, stood on the porch smoking a cigarette, walked about the back-yard a little and then came back in and asked Molly what he had gone out to do.
"Milk the cows," she said.
"Oh, yes," he said, and went out again. He found the cows waiting and full, and milked them and put the milk cans in the springhouse, hut thought of other things. The wheat. The scythe.
All through the morning he sat on the hack porch rolling cigarettes. He made a toy boat for little Drew and one for Susie, and then he churned some of the milk into butter and drew off the buttermilk, hut the sun was in his head, aching. It burned there. He wasn't hungry for lunch. He kept looking at the wheat and the wind bending and tipping and ruffling it. His arms flexed, his fingers, resting on his knee as he sat again on the porch, made a kind of grip in the empty air, itching. The pads of his palms itched and burned. He stood up and wiped his hands on his pants and sat down and tried to roll another cigarette and got mad at the mixings and threw it all away with a muttering. He had a feeling as if a third arm had been cut off of him, or he had lost something of himself. It had to do with his hands and his arms.
He heard the wind whisper in the field.
By one o'clock he was going in and out of the house, getting underfoot, thinking about digging an irrigation ditch, but all the time really thinking about the wheat and how ripe and beautiful it was, aching to be cut.
"Damn it to hell!"
He strode into the bedroom, took the scythe down off its wallpegs. He stood holding it. He felt cool. His hands stopped itching. His head didn't ache. The third arm was returned to him. He was intact again.
It was instinct. Illogical as lightning striking and not hurting. Each day the grain must be cut. It had to be cut. Why? Well, it just did, that was all. He laughed at the scythe in his big hands. Then, whistling, he took it out to the ripe and waiting field and did the work. He thought himself a little mad. Hell, it was an ordinary-enough wheat field, really, wasn't it? Almost.
The days loped away like gentle horses.
Drew Erickson began to understand his work as a sort of dry ache and hunger and need. Things built in his head.
One noon, Susie and little Drew giggled and played with the scythe while their father lunched in the kitchen. He heard them. He came out and took it away from them. He didn't yell at them. He just looked very concerned and locked the scythe up after that, when it wasn't being used.
He never missed a day, scything.
Up. Down. Up, down, and across. Back and up and down and across. Cutting. Up. Down.
Think about the old man and the wheat in his hands when he died.
Think about this dead land, with wheat living on it.
Think about the crazy patterns of ripe and green wheat, the way it grows!
Think about . . .
The wheat whirled in a full yellow tide at his ankles. The sky blackened. Drew Erickson dropped the scythe and bent over to hold his stomach, his eyes running blindly. The world reeled.
"I've killed somebody!" he gasped, choking, holding to his chest, falling to his knees beside the blade. "I've killed a lot--"
The sky revolved like a blue merry-go-round at the county fair in Kansas. But no music. Only a ringing in his ears.
Molly was sitting at the blue kitchen table peeling potatoes when he blundered into the kitchen, dragging the scythe behind him.
She swam around in the wet of his eyes.
She sat there, her hands fallen open, waiting for him to finally get it out.
"Get the things packed!" he said, looking at the floor.
"We're leaving," he said, dully.
"We're leaving?" she said.
"That old man. You know what he did here? It's the wheat, Molly, and this scythe. Every time you use the scythe on the wheat a thousand people die. You cut across them and--"
Molly got up and put the knife down and the potatoes to one side and said, understandingly, "We traveled a lot and haven't eaten good until the last month here, and you been workin' every day and you're tired--"
"I hear voices, sad voices, out there. In the wheat," he said. "Tellin' me to stop. Tellin' me not to kill them!"
He didn't hear her. "The field grows crooked, wild, like a crazy thing. I didn't tell you. But it's wrong."
She stared at him. His eyes were blue glass, nothing else.
"You think I'm crazy," he said, "but wait 'til I tell you. Oh, God, Molly, help me; I just killed my mother!"
"Stop it!" she said firmly.
"I cut down one stalk of wheat and I killed her. I felt her dyin', that's how I found out just now--"
"Drew!" Her voice was like a crack across the face, angry and afraid now. "Shut up!"
He mumbled. "Oh--Molly--"
The scythe dropped from his hands, clamored on the floor. She picked it up with a snap of anger and set it in one corner. "Ten years I been with you," she said. "Sometimes we had nothin' but dust and prayers in our mouths. Now, all this good luck sudden, and you can't bear up under it!"
She brought the Bible from the living room.
She rustled its pages over. They sounded like the wheat rustling in a small, slow wind. "You sit down and listen," she said.
A sound came in from the sunshine. The kids, laughing in the shade of the large live oak beside the house.
She read from the Bible, looking up now and again to see what was happening to Drew's face.
She read from the Bible each day after that. The following Wednesday, a week later, when Drew walked down to the distant town to see if there was any General Delivery mail, there was a letter.
He came home looking two hundred years old.
He held the letter out to Molly and told her what it said in a cold, uneven voice.
"Mother passed away--one o'clock Tuesday afternoon--her heart--"
All that Drew Erickson had to say was, "Get the kids in the _____ car, load it up with food. We're goin' on to California."
"Drew--" said his wife, holding the letter.
"You know yourself," he said, "this is poor grain land. Yet look how ripe it grows. I ain't told you all the things. It ripens in patches, a little each day. It ain't right. And when I cut it, it rots! And next mornin' it comes up without any help, growin' again! Last Tuesday, a week ago, when I cut the grain it was like rippin' my own flesh. I heard somebody scream. It sounded just like--And now, today, this letter."
She said, "We're stayin' here."
"We're stayin' here, where we're sure of eatin' and sleepin' and livin' decent and livin' long. I'm not starvin' my children down again, ever!"
The sky was blue through the windows. The sun slanted in, touching half of Molly's calm face, shining one eye bright blue. Four or five water drops hung and fell from the kitchen faucet slowly, shining, before Drew sighed. The sigh was husky and resigned and tired. He nodded, looking away. "All right," he said. "We'll stay."
He picked up the scythe weakly. The words on the metal leaped up with a sharp glitter.
WHO WIELDS ME--WIELDS THE WORLD!
"We'll stay. . . ."
Next morning he walked to the old man's grave. There was a single fresh sprout of wheat growing in the center of it. The same sprout, reborn, that the old man had held in his hands weeks before.
He talked to the old man, getting no answers.
"You worked the field all your life because you _had_ to, and one day you came across your own life growin' there. You knew it was yours. You cut it. And you went home, put on your grave clothes, and your heart gave out and you died. That's how it was, wasn't it? And you passed the land on to me, and when I die, I'm supposed to hand it over to someone else."
Drew's voice had awe in it. "How long a time has this been goin' on? With nobody knowin' about this field and its use except the man with the scythe . . ."
Quite suddenly he felt very old. The valley seemed ancient, mummified, secretive, dried and bent and powerful. When the Indians danced on the prairie it had been here, this field. The same sky, the same wind, the same wheat. And, before the Indians? Some Cro-Magnon, gnarled and shag-haired, wielding a crude wooden scythe, perhaps, prowling down through the living wheat.
Drew returned to work. Up, down. Up, down. Obsessed with the idea of being the wielder of _the_ scythe. He, himself! It burst upon him in a mad, wild surge of strength and horror.
Up! WHO WIELDS ME! Down! WIELDS THE WORLD!
He had to accept the job with some sort of philosophy. It was simply his way of getting food and housing for his family. They deserved eating and living decent, he thought, after all these years.
Up and down. Each grain a life he neatly cut into two pieces. If he planned it carefully--he looked at the wheat--why, he and Molly and the kids could live forever!
Once he found the place where the grain grew that was Molly and Susie and little Drew he would never cut it.
And then, like a signal, it came, quietly.
Right there, before him.
Another sweep of the scythe and he'd cut them away.
Molly, Drew, Susie. It was certain. Trembling, he knelt and looked at the few grains of wheat. They glowed at his touch.
He groaned with relief. What if he had cut them down, never guessing? He blew out his breath and got up and took the scythe and stood back away from the wheat and stood for a long while looking down.
Molly thought it awfully strange when he came home early and kissed her on the cheek, for no reason at all.
At dinner, Molly said, "You quit early today? Does--does the wheat still spoil when it falls?"
He nodded and took more meat.
She said, "You ought to write to the Agriculture people and have them come look at it."
"No," he said.
"I was just suggestin'," she said.
His eyes dilated. "I got to stay here all my life. Can't nobody else mess with that wheat; they wouldn't know where to cut and not to cut. They might cut the wrong parts."
"What wrong parts?"
"Nothin'," he said, chewing slowly. "Nothin' at all."
He slapped his fork down, hard. "Who knows _what_ they might want to do! Those government men! They might even--might even want to plow the whole field under!"
Molly nodded. "That's just what it needs," she said. "And start all over again, with new seed."
He didn't finish eating. "I'm not writin' any gover'ment, and I'm not handin' this field over to no stranger to cut, and that's that!" he said, and the screen door banged behind him.
He detoured around that place where the lives of his children and his wife grew up in the sun, and used his scythe on the far end of the field where he knew he would make no mistakes.
But he no longer liked the work. At the end of an hour he knew he had brought death to three of his old, loved friends in Missouri. He read their names on the cut grain and couldn't go on.
He locked the scythe in the cellar and put the key away. He was done with the reaping, done for good and all.
He smoked his pipe in the evening on the front porch, and told the kids stories to hear them laugh. But they didn't laugh much. They seemed withdrawn, tired and funny, like they weren't his children any more.
Molly complained of a headache, dragged around the house a little, went to bed early and fell into a deep sleep. That was funny, too. Molly always stayed up late and was full of vinegar.
The wheat field rippled with moonlight on it, making it into a sea.
It wanted cutting. Certain parts needed cutting _now_. Drew Erickson sat, swallowing quietly, trying not to look at it.
What'd happen to the world if he never went in the field again? What'd happen to people ripe for death, who waited the coming of the scythe?
He'd wait and see.
Molly was breathing softly when he blew out the oil lamp and got to bed. He couldn't sleep. He heard the wind in the wheat, felt the hunger to do the work in his arms and fingers.
In the middle of the night he found himself walking in the field, the scythe in his hands. Walking like a crazy man, walking and afraid, half-awake. He didn't remember unlocking the cellar door, getting the scythe, but here he was in the moonlight, walking in the grain.
Among these grains there were many who were old, weary, wanting so very much to sleep. The long, quiet, moonless sleep.
The scythe held him, grew into his palms, forced him to walk.
Somehow, struggling, he got free of it. He threw it down, ran off into the wheat, where he stopped and went down on his knees.
"I don't want to kill anymore," he said. "If I work with the scythe I'll have to kill Molly and the kids. Don't ask me to do that!"
The stars only sat in the sky, shining.
Behind him, he heard a dull, thumping sound.
Something shot up over the hill into the sky. It was like a living thing, with arms of red color, licking at the stars. Sparks fell into his face. The thick, hot odor of fire came with it.
Crying out, he got sluggishly, hopelessly, to his feet, looking at the big fire.
The little white house with the live oaks was roaring up in one savage bloom of fire. Heat rolled over the hill and he swam in it and went down in it, stumbling, drowning over his head.
By the time he got down the hill there was not a shingle, bolt or threshold of it that wasn't alive with flame. It made blistering, crackling, fumbling noises.
No one screamed inside. No one ran around or shouted.
He yelled in the yard. "Molly! Susie! Drew!"
He got no answer. He ran close in until his eyebrows withered and his skin crawled hot like paper burning, crisping, curling up in tight little curls.
The fire settled contentedly down to feed. Drew ran around the house a dozen times, all alone, trying to find a way in. Then he sat where the fire roasted his body and waited until all the walls had sunken down with fluttering crashes, until the last ceiling bent, blanketing the floors with molten plaster and scorched lathing. Until the flames died and smoke coughed up, and the new day came slowly; and there was nothing but embering ashes and an acid smoldering.
Disregarding the heat fanning from the leveled frames, Drew walked into the ruin. It was still too dark to see much. Red light glowed on his sweating throat. He stood like a stranger in a new and different land. Here--the kitchen. Charred tables, chairs, the iron stove, the cupboards. Here--the hall. Here the parlor and then over there was the bedroom where--
Where Molly was still alive.
She slept among fallen timbers and angry-colored pieces of wire spring and metal.
She slept as if nothing had happened. Her small white hands lay at her sides, flaked with sparks. Her calm face slept with a flaming lath across one cheek.
Drew stopped and didn't believe it. In the ruin of her smoking bedroom she lay on a glittering bed of sparks, her skin intact, her breast rising, falling, taking air.
Alive and sleeping after the fire, after the walls had roared down, after ceilings had collapsed upon her and flame had lived all about her.
His shoes smoked as he pushed through piles of fuming litter. It could have seared his feet off at the ankles, he wouldn't have known.
"Molly. . ."
He bent over her. She didn't move or hear him, and she didn't speak. She wasn't dead. She wasn't alive. She just lay there with the fire surrounding her and not touching her, not harming her in any way. Her cotton nightgown was streaked with ashes, but not burnt. Her brown hair was pillowed on a tumble of red-hot coals.
He touched her cheek, and it was cold, cold in the middle of hell. Tiny breaths trembled her half-smiling lips.
The children were there, too. Behind a veil of smoke he made out two smaller figures huddled in the ashes sleeping.
He carried all three of them out to the edge of the wheat field.
"Molly. Molly, wake up! Kids! Kids, wake up!"
They breathed and didn't move and went on sleeping.
"Kids, wake up! Your mother is--"
Dead? No, not dead. But--
He shook the kids as if they were to blame. They paid no attention; they were busy with their dreams. He put them back down and stood over them, his face cut with lines.
He knew why they'd slept through the fire and continued to sleep now. He knew why Molly just lay there, never wanting to laugh again.
The power of the wheat and the scythe.
Their lives, supposed to end yesterday, May 30th, 1938, had been prolonged simply because he refused to cut the grain. They should have died in the fire. That's the way it was meant to be. But since he had not used the scythe, nothing could hurt them. A house had flamed and fallen and still they lived, caught halfway, not dead, not alive. Simply--waiting. And all over the world thousands more just like them, victims of accidents, fires, disease, suicide, waited, slept just like Molly and her children slept. Not able to die, not able to live. All because a man was afraid of harvesting the ripe grain. All because one man thought he could stop working with a scythe and never work with that scythe again.
He looked down upon the children. The job had to be done every day and every day with never a stopping but going on, with never a pause, but always the harvesting, forever and forever and forever.
All right, he thought. All right. I'll use the scythe.
He didn't say good-by to his family. He turned with a slow-feeding anger and found the scythe and walked rapidly, then he began to trot, then he ran with long jolting strides into the field, raving, feeling the hunger in his arms, as the wheat whipped and flailed his legs. He pounded through it, shouting. He stopped.
"Molly!" he cried, and raised the blade and swung it down.
"Susie!" he cried. "Drew!" And swung the blade down again.
Somebody screamed. He didn't turn to look at the fire-ruined house.
And then, sobbing wildly, he rose above the grain again and again and hewed to left and right and to left and to right and to left and to right. Over and over and over! Slicing out huge scars in green wheat and ripe wheat, with no selection and no care, cursing, over and over, swearing, laughing, the blade swinging up in the sun and falling in the sun with a singing whistle! Down!
Bombs shattered London, Moscow, Tokyo.
The blade swung insanely.
And the kilns of Belsen and Buchenwald took fire.
The blade sang, crimson wet.
And mushrooms vomited out blind suns at White Sands, Hiroshima, Bikini, and up, through, and in continental Siberian skies.
The grain wept in a green rain, falling.
Korea, Indo-China, Egypt, India trembled; Asia stirred, Africa woke in the night. . . .
And the blade went on rising, crashing, severing, with the fury and the rage of a man who has lost and lost so much that he no longer cares what he does to the world.
Just a few short miles off the main highway, down a rough dirt road that leads to nowhere, just a few short miles from a highway jammed with traffic bound for California.
Once in a while during the long years a jalopy gets off the main highway, pulls up steaming in front of the charred ruin of a little white house at the end of the dirt road, to ask instructions from the farmer they see just beyond, the one who works insanely, wildly, without ever stopping, night and day, in the endless fields of wheat.
But they get no help and no answer. The farmer in the field is too busy, even after all these years; too busy slashing and chopping the green wheat instead of the ripe.
And Drew Erickson moves on with his scythe, with the light of blind suns and a look of white fire in his never-sleeping eyes, on and on and on....
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