Laying on my side under a fluffy blanket, I stare at the tiny blue flowers embroidered on the white curtains trying to picture the face of the woman who stitched them. Father says she had straight honey-brown hair like mine with eyes as dark green as the spiky holly leaves growing behind our house. I don’t remember her at all.
What I do remember is the blood, red as the poisonous round berries, pooled around her body at the base of the towering willow tree. The bright, white moon reflected in the thick red liquid. The terrible swishing sound of the feathers.
It was an accident. Nobody knows why she left 3-year-old me sitting beside an empty wicker basket to climb the old twisty branches, but she did. She fell to the ground and it was hours before my father returned from working in the fields and found us. I was sitting silently beside the basket with the barn cat on my lap.
I lightly touch the three round scars on my left arm where the crow dug its talons into my soft skin. I wonder why I can’t remember her face but I can remember its oily black feathers were tinged with a hint of blue.
“Ayla, are you still awake?”
Father’s at my door so I close my eyes tight and don’t move. He wants to talk about me returning to school, but I can’t bear to face the guilt and shame in his deep, brown eyes. He thinks he failed me, but the truth is I’ve failed him.
He grabs my foot with his warm hand, giving it a gentle shake. Part of me wants to roll over and tell him everything, but it feels as if an enormous dam has been built around my heart and the truth would burst it open. My father doesn’t deserve the tidal wave of pain it would cause him, so I stay as still as I can.
Letting go of my foot, he moves around the room, trying to be quiet but the tiny glass perfume bottles on my dresser clink together as he opens and closes each wooden drawer. He slides a few books out of the bookshelf, ruffles the pages, and slides them back. He’s always searching my room for hints at what has changed between us, but it’s not an object to be discovered.
He moves to the window and I peek out from my blankets, taking in his broad shoulders and long greying hair pulled back with a light brown leather cord. He’s still in his faded blue bib overalls, the ones he wears every day for working on the farm. I wish I could reach around and grab the treasures out of the big front pocket like I did when I was little.
I used to lay the items out across my bedspread and touch each one as if they belonged in a museum. The well-worn and super soft red paisley handkerchief—more pink than red these days. The round silver watch his father gave him when he inherited the family farm a few years before I was born. My mother’s golden wedding ring slipped off her finger before she was buried in the cemetery right outside of town.
He turns around and I catch a brief glimpse of his round belly and his bushy grey beard before shutting my eyes tight again. He kisses my forehead and I smell the lingering woodsy vanilla scent of the pipe he smokes every night on the porch before bed. My uncles join him, and on nights when the work hasn’t been too brutal, they all bring out their guitars and we sing together. It hasn’t happened in a while though. It’s been a rough harvest.
When father reaches the door I hear a gasping, choking sound I know means he’s about to cry. He shuts the door tightly before the sobs fully form and I wonder if he’s thinking about my mother or me. Either way, it breaks me and my eyes burn hot with tears. I hate the way things are.
Three months ago I turned 13 and the strangeness started. I’d shove it all back if I could, but once you learn a thing it’s impossible to not know it. Although the sneaking and lies are temporary, it makes me feel horrible. Tonight I hope it will be the last time I sneak out. One last full moon harvest alone at the willow tree.
I’ve been laying fully dressed under the covers since nightfall, but everyone is up late because of the chaos caused today by my dad’s youngest brother. He likes to invent new ways to speed along the process of the harvest, and today he hooked up our old plow horse Checker to a new pulley system for shaking the almond trees. It didn’t work.
Checker got one of his legs tangled terribly in a rope and pulled it until the metal snapped. It spooked him so bad he ran far out into the wheat fields causing my father to lose several hours of work retrieving him. Although Checker only has a few cuts on his legs and chest, my father was terribly upset. I heard him punch the couch pillow when he came in for dinner, a rare outburst for him.
The farm isn’t doing well. I hear snippets of anxious conversations when my father and uncles don’t think I can hear them. They’ve discussed selling off parts of the land, but none of them want to lose any of the property their father and grandfather farmed. I wish I could help, but I’m afraid my problems only complicate matters. I’m a distraction.
Framed by wispy dark clouds, I stare at the large white moon outside and the calling inside me swells and grows until it’s almost a wail. I try to picture my mother’s face and how her lips would look making such a sound. No. All I see is bright red blood and blue-black feathers. Her face remains below the rippling waves, a blurry almost-image. I twist my blankets and wipe my tears onto my pillow.
The one face I can see clearly is Penelope, with her tiny upturned nose and bright pink cheeks. She’s the one who decided I was an outcast at school and spread the rumors about me kissing every boy in town. Penelope with the bright shiny golden hair. Penelope with the pretty homemade dresses and colorful satin ribbons. Penelope with a sharp tongue and mocking laugh.
I jump out of bed to stop myself from thinking of her hurtful words and walk quietly to the window. Pulling it open slowly, I lean out so I can peek at the porch to see if anyone is still sitting in the wooden rocking chairs. It’s empty.
Throwing my legs over the window ledge, I drop to the ground and pull my grey work boots and a small wicker basket out from where I stashed them in the bushes. I slip on my boots, pull up the hood of my faded red jacket, grasp the basket handle tight, and take off at a run.
The farm looks different at night. All the noise, the sharp edges and straight lines, fade into a blanket of muted softness in the silvery light. I run past the large barn filled with sleeping animals, the row of hulking metal plows, and into the almond orchard. Twinkling stars dance amongst the rows of trees hidden occasionally by dark fast moving clouds.
Low grumbling voices call in the dark around me in a language I don’t understand and I spin in circles trying to see them. They are too quick. I feel their eyes watching me and it brings with it the familiar fluttering of fear in my chest.
Can I trust them? Just because they call me to the place my mother died doesn’t mean they know anything about her. Hope feels dangerous, but I have it anyway. It’s sugary and heavy, thick like honey. I stop running and slowly walk.
At the end of the orchard, the shadow of the willow tree waits for me—a twisting dark shape reaching out with sharp leafy fingers. With even slower steps, I approach the massive gloomy tree and slip under its long hanging branches. The voices follow me, surrounding me on all sides.
Slanted beams of moonlight illuminate them as they come—tiny lunar spotlights. They climb out of the branches above me, tunnel in from the ground below, and walk out of the shadows. Little dark hairless men no bigger than my hand. Made of dirt and roots they have tiny, watery black eyes and huge flat feet. In an instant, their voices go silent.
Each carries an acorn out in front of them with both hands. Taking turns, one at a time, they run forward and throw it into the basket. The small, oblong nuts make a soft thunk as they hit each other. I watch the tiny men, searching their blank faces for answers, but they give me none. They seem content with completing this harvest ritual—giving me a gift I have no idea what to do with.
On the first full moon I heard the voices and followed them to the willow tree. I screamed when the little men appeared. They threw acorns at me as I ran away, pelting me softly on my back. The next day I searched the space under the tree and found no little footprints or acorns—nothing to prove it had happened at all. They didn’t call for me again for an entire month and I decided it had been a very vivid dream.
The second full moon when I heard the voices I grabbed a basket for the acorns. I sat perfectly still as they filled it, exactly like I’m doing right now. When it was complete, they stood around me waiting for me to do or say something. I froze. It felt too unreal, too terrifying, and so I did nothing at all.
Minutes stretched into hours and eventually I must have fallen asleep. I woke up the next morning in my bed with no memory of walking home. I ran straight to the willow tree and found the basket exactly where I left it. The acorns were gone, but I at least had some proof it had been real.
My mind cloudy and jumbled and my vision blurry, I try to count the little creatures as they slink forward, throwing their acorns into my basket. All I can focus on is the soft thud of the nuts hitting each other. After a few minutes, it occurs to me it’s rhythmic—almost a song. Am I missing a message? I listen harder.
The last little man throws his acorn into the basket and steps into the shadows, leaving the space below the tree silent again. They stand still, watching me. Blinking. I bring one of the nuts to my nose and sniff it. It smells of earth and sunshine. My moment has arrived so I clear my throat and speak.
“Thank you for these treasures, but I wonder if any of you can talk to me. I have questions…about my mom.”
My voice sounds shaky and small. The little creatures respond by stomping their tiny feet on the ground and making a low humming sound. It’s the sound of thunder far off in the distance. It grows and grows around me and a new sensation blooms inside my chest—a loosening. My shoulders fall slightly and my hands become limp at my sides.
A deep voice outside the tree speaks my name and it echoes around me. The little men repeat my name over and over—a chant now matching the stomping.
“Ayla. Ayla. Ayla.”
The branches of the tree part and a face appears. It’s a beautiful man with high pointed cheekbones and brilliant sparkling green eyes. He reaches his large hand toward me and I let him pull me into the moonlight. My body vibrates with warmth and energy—I’m floating toward him.
Once my feet return to the ground I gasp. He isn’t a man, but rather the most majestic creature I’ve ever seen. Half-man, half-horse, he stands smiling at me with bright pink lips. I stare at his flowing golden hair, his thick palomino horse body, shiny black hooves, and swishing nearly white tail. Breathe, Ayla. Breathe.
“I’m Dawa and you’ve already met my helpers. I call them the Root Men, but they go by many names.”
He gestures to the little men who have followed me out. They stand silently in a circle around us and all at once bow so low to the ground their tiny noses touch the dirt. I’m not sure if they are bowing to me or him. I return the gesture regardless, bending at my waist and sweeping my arms out in front of me. A sound like giggling follows.
“I wish we could have met under different circumstances, Ayla, but I’m afraid you are in danger.”
He points at the darkening clouds and I see they are swirling. Deep black with a hint of blue. Feathers. Dawa’s voice is breathy and fast. He paws the ground with his front hooves.
“They are coming for you, as they did your mother.”
The words feel like a key turning inside me. Horribly, vividly, the memory comes. Its razor-sharp clarity knocks me to my knees and I cover my ears and rock back and forth. No. No. No.
Mother and I are on an apple hunt weaving through the rows of trees looking for signs the bright red fruit is ready to be harvested. I’m not paying attention though because our old barn cat Theo is chasing birds and I want to make sure he doesn’t catch one. A bright warm sun sits high in the sky and I’m wearing my favorite daisy sundress without shoes.
I chase Theo through the tall green grass of the orchard until he climbs into the branches of the old willow tree. The moment Theo reaches the top the sky around us turns dark. The sun has been replaced by inky black swirling clouds dancing, twirling, and falling. It can’t be right. The sky can’t fall. Can it?
Mother screams and runs to me. She sets the wicker basket below the tree, holds my face in her soft hands, and speaks slowly and firmly. Her dark green eyes are wide.
“Sit beside the basket and look toward the house. No matter what happens, do not look behind you. Do not move and stay quiet. Not a sound. It’s extremely important, Ayla. I need you to promise.”
I nod. We’ve played this game before. The “don’t move” game. Mother’s serious about it and I listen. She breaks off a low branch of the tree, holds it in her hand, and climbs. I think she’s going to rescue Theo, but he’s beside me now. He climbs into my lap and I close my eyes tight.
I cover my ears, but the sounds wiggle through my fingers and I hear them anyway. Terrible low growls. Mother’s ragged uneven breathing. A ripping sound. Mother’s long scream.
A loud thump shakes the ground behind me. I don’t turn around, but I do open my eyes. A horrible creature crouches low in front of me with dozens of long spidery legs. It’s got bright yellow cat-like eyes and is covered with inky black feathers with a tinge of blue. Its tongue darts in and out of its tiny red mouth.
It grabs hold of my arm with one of its legs and three spiky nails pierce my skin. Mother would be proud. I don’t make a sound. I don’t move. I stay right beside the basket.
Dawa pulls my hands from my ears. Tears fall hot from my eyes. Mother was killed by these creatures and they are coming for me. The centaur grabs my shoulders and shakes them gently. His dark green eyes are wide and his voice is firm.
“You must come with me. Now!”
The little men have turned away from us and are facing the clouds. The sky is falling. It’s coming. Dawa grabs my hand and swings me onto his back. I hold onto his neck as he takes off at a run. When the creatures dive low behind us I don’t make a sound. Mother would be proud.
Author’s note: I ran out of time for this story and am disappointed it’s more of a first chapter again than a complete short story. Regardless, I hope you enjoyed meeting Ayla and stepping into her world for a bit. Let me know what you think in the comments below. Thank you!
Short Story Challenge | Week 49
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about a family-run farm. We had to include the words temporary, invent, trust, horse, burst, pulley, dam, punch, and checker.
Write With Us
Prompt: The phone rings at 3 a.m.
Include: supreme, emerald, careless, traffic, liberate, adolescence, lousy, wave, environment, oval
My 52-Week Challenge Journey
- What is the 52-week challenge?
- Week 1: The Heart and the Stone
- Week 2: The Biggest Little Gift
- Week 3: It Bearly Fits
- Week 4: The Claire in Clarity
- Week 5: The Family Tree
- Week 6: Through the Glass Windshield
- Week 7: The Final Goodbye
- Week 8: Sunset, Sunrise
- Week 9: Returning Home
- Week 10: The Water
- Week 11: Aw, Phooey!
- Week 12: Meeting Time
- Week 13: The Old Man
- Week 14: Dani and the Queen
- Week 15: The Golden Muse
- Week 16: Honeymoon Treasure Hunt
- Week 17: The Red-Haired Beauty
- Week 18: Playing Games
- Week 19: One Thing
- Week 20: The Child
- Week 21: The Carrot
- Week 22: Apple Stars
- Week 23: Something in the Water
- Week 24: Midnight Wedding Vows
- Week 25: Chocolate Kisses
- Week 26: The Island
- Week 27: Take Me By the Hand
- Week 28: When the Snow Falls
- Week 29: Stitches in the Woods
- Week 30: The Peacock Effect
- Week 31: New Experiences
- Week 32: Blood Moon Messenger
- Week 33: The Masterpiece
- Week 34: The Blackberry Quest
- Week 35: The Broken Shell
- Week 36: The Octopus in the Room
- Week 37: With a Touch of the Tapestry
- Week 38: Meet Me at the Elephant Ears
- Week 39: The Wheels on the Bus
- Week 40: Room 313
- Week 41: The Cornfield
- Week 42: Afraid of the Dark
- Week 43: The Abandoned Church
- Week 44: Let’s Go to the Ocean
- Week 45: A Night at the Carnival
- Week 46: Late Night Visitor
- Week 47: Chalky Hands
- Week 48: Under the Sign