The Crop

By Penny Jones

They knew it was going to be a bad year for the crop, right from the spring. The envelopes had been split and spilled. Teeth marks marring the paper, which had been carefully stored away with the previous year’s seeds. The packages containing a mere fraction of what they should have held; the rat droppings and carefully woven nests, a sure sign of what had happened to the rest of them.

Those seeds that hadn’t been eaten were smaller and tougher than the ones usually chosen to be planted as spring slowly edged its way towards summer. Gnarled fingers twisted and turned them as they counted them out to the households that queued all along the lane for their share.

The bad luck didn’t stop once those meagre seeds were planted. Neat hills and furrows, scored and scarified, by claw and beak as birds rooted for seed and worm in the freshly tilled soil. The locals placed scarecrows amongst the crops, their leering sackcloth faces surveying over their land; sparkling shards of glass and metal chimed amongst them in the wind. Casting rays of light across the scarecrow’s stitched and sneering countenances; painting them in sun and shadow as they danced to the sound of the breeze. Though all to no affect, as each morning the villagers woke to a blanket of black covering their land, broken occasionally by the flash of red from a robin’s breast or the bright yellow of the blackbird’s beak – the bravery of the smaller birds intensifying as they squawked and squabbled over their meagre breakfast. No field or garden was left untouched as the birds made their methodical way across the furrowed land.

If by luck – though the villagers swore there was none – the remaining seeds – missed by beak and eye – began to grow. Delicate tendrils curled their way out from the soil. The start of stem and vine, twisting, as it birthed its way above the ground.

The villagers drew protective seals and sigils; circles surrounding in copper and salt. They checked with the elders, and in books and notes passed down through the generations. Each plant protected and tended as if a shrine to their gods. But still upon waking the stems and shoots were torn and ripped. Trails of slime from slug and snail dragged salt across the ground, until the villagers found their corpses, shrivelled and spare, nestled in the soil like bloated shoots. By the times the rains came, the crop was a fraction of what it should be.

The rain came down heavy. Those plants whose stunted roots had yet to gain much purchase were washed away, scattered and sunk in the rising river at the foot of the village. Those that were left stood shrivelled and shrunk on the swampy ground; a quagmire of stone and soil, the nutrients of the land now nothing more than silt at the bottom of the river.

The villagers cursed: the rain, their luck, their gods. They cursed each night as the cloud laded sky cast the ground in shadow. No spark of light from moon or star piercing the veil of tears that fell relentlessly. They cursed each morning’s occluded sky. Ponderous clouds, pregnant with rain to drop once more over their flooded lands. They cursed: the weather, themselves, each other; until the sky grew bright once more. It wasn’t long until they wished for the rain to return.

The summer had been the hottest they’d known. By July the river was nothing more than a scored line that wended its way through the village; its base now nothing more than sand and stone.

Still every day the villagers crept out to the fields; patiently gathering buckets and cans of water from the every decreasing rain barrels. Each morning they rose earlier to ensure that they did not scald and sear the crops leaves; the precious water lying in droplets on the leaves, casting prisms of light before evaporating into the early morning heat.

The children complained of parched lips and unquenched thirsts, as their parents eked out the meagre rations of water between their offspring – both child and crop. Each morning the villagers rose earlier, to ensure that their every decreasing rain barrels were due to the heat and not to their neighbours.

By the time autumn came there were only a handful of the crop remaining. Some households harvested them in ones or twos, others scoring away at the hardened vines, stacking them neatly in store and cellar. But even if the whole village’s crop was gathered together it wouldn’t be enough to last even a solitary household for the month of October. But still on the first day the villagers grabbed at saw and spoon and started to carve their stunted harvest.

For the first few days the villagers remained calm, October was here and the crop had failed, there was little to do, but place their crop upon their steps and take each night as it came.

The candles stuttered within their stunted crop; nubs and whittled sparks of wax shorn to fit into their shrivelled pumpkin heads; slitted eyes and sharp teeth lit from within, as the villagers prayed that those shrunken candles would last until the dawn. The crop stood sentinel night upon night, nestled against stoop and step as the equinoctial storms caused the lanes to run like rivers and the trees to shiver and snap within the gale’s grasp.

As the pumpkins ran out, the villagers huddled together against the night’s wild weather; friends and families taking refuge with one another; children celebrating the season with ghost stories, as they lay nose to toe in beds that sagged under the extra burden; lifelong grudges forgotten if not forgiven, as enemies opened their doors to one another. But still upon the third week their crop was gone, burnt, scattered to the livestock their carved faces disfigured by tusk and tooth.

The villagers gathered in the hall. Outside their children played in the weak autumn light, faces as ruddy as a pumpkin, as the cruel wind caressed their cheeks.

Each household held an envelope, the brown parchment marked by a myriad of fingers, some scored by a thousand folds, others crisp and pristine as if just out of the pack; but each one ancient, as old as their homes, their ancestors, their land; each an envelope that had held that year’s seed.

Some of the villagers complained that they had produced more; that the draw wasn’t valid; that only those that had been less productive, less fertile, less in favour should be the ones to enter in the draw. But as dusk crept round the hall – the children tired and cold, skulking in away from their games and the ever encroaching darkness – the final envelope was posted.

The honour of the draw fell upon the eldest of the village, she took slow steps up onto the podium, her feet scuffing and shuffling as she made her way up towards the box – but whether through sorrow or age her audience couldn’t tell.

Placing her arm within the box the elder winced, tears pricking her eyes as she withdrew the envelope, a familial name carefully printed upon it. She glanced down at the small, neat writing; her mouth open as she tried to force the name out from deep within her into the cold and darkening hall.

Before her the villagers waited, their spoons and saws – blunted and bent from hardened flesh – poised in their hands.

About Penny

Penny Jones knew she was a writer when she started to talk about herself in the third person (her family knew when Santa bought her a typewriter for Christmas when she was three). Penny’s debut collection “Suffer Little Children” published by Black Shuck Books was shortlisted for the 2020 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer, and her short story “Dendrochronology” published by Hersham Horror was shortlisted for the 2020 British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story. Her novella “Matryoshka” published by Hersham Horror was shortlisted for the 2022 British Fantasy Award for Best Novella.

She loves reading and will read pretty much anything you put in front of her, but her favourite authors are Stephen King, Shirley Jackson and John Wyndham. In fact Penny only got into writing to buy books, when she realised that there wasn’t that much money in writing she stayed for the cake.

You can find Penny at