Another little story about Gape. Enjoy. 2800 words, 15-30 minute read.
The Love of the Harvest
It was a night of celebration, the pinnacle of the year, the great day of feast after the fields had been picked dry. Well, nearly dry.
Long-stem grains whipped in the windy afternoon below the knob. I watched from my place around the fire with friends under the clear skies above, talking about everything from winter woes to who’s family raised the most prosperous crops. Between myself and the rest of the village children, it was a contest. But later that day we would be sitting together, eating the surplus of the harvest before long days ahead in the field pulling grains.
“How many mushrooms did you bring?” asked Tiera.
“At least enough for everyone to get a half.”
“I love them. They’re so juicy and tart, yet meaty and filling at the same time. Father found three during the recent rains.”
“Did he pick all three?”
“Yes. Better to have some than none he always says. I don’t think more will grow there anyway. He was a little lost and stumbled upon them by accident. No chance of finding the same spot again.”
“And you, Tiera. How was your harvest?”
“Our roots? Most of them came up good. Plump and bright yellow. Some of them look like little people.”
One of the other children commented, “They look like that because they’re wild and rabid. Not like the neeps we harvested. Fat little blobs, almost perfectly round, and nearly black. That makes a good root.”
“Not all good roots are round,” argued Tiera.
“Children,” yelled one of the adults. “It’s time. Get over here.”
I tossed another log on the fire to keep it from burning out during the feast. While doing so, I wondered about father’s wood store for the winter and whether it would be enough. I would soon be building my own hut and wondered how I would manage my first year out of the den. Houses were a simple thing. Dig a pit about waist deep, erect some timber logs over the top, pack everything with mud and cover with straw and thatch. Still, it was a scary thought to run out of wood blocks before the last frost. In any case, I didn’t need to worry about it until the following year.
I caught Tierra staring from across the fire. “You coming?”
“I’ll race you.”
She darted off at a full sprint, and I gave chase. Her lead was too much to make up, but she always constructed games such that she would win. I didn’t mind. I preferred to see her happy for winning, even if she cheated.
Special logs had been brought out. Our best woodcutters had developed a skill for shaping long planks from the wood they harvested. A couple of them had gotten quite good at it. The pieces were long, some longer than two grown men, and perfectly straight. They were an arm’s length wide, and it took several men to carry one carefully. They were only brought out for special occasions such as this.
Two of the planks sat loaded with the newest pots and dishes from the cobblers. Some of them would be given away that night to Gwen and Hilcock, who would be nesting together for their first winter. A fine match, or so all the adults would say. Gwen was a rash old at seventeen years and had a reputation for being difficult. I suppose Hilcock was tough enough from the daily burden of chopping lumber to handle her. In only a year of chopping, he’d doubled in size, nearly matching the scale of the other woodsmen.
I didn’t care personally for bulk and stature. They talked a good game, but a well placed stone could knock any of them into a stupor.
“Don’t spill my grog or I’ll stomp you into the dirt,” said one of the woodcutters to another. They taunted each other like that daily.
My ambitions were more refined. While the woodcutters barked their loud comments to one another, the men I would be joining soon sat near the end of the table quietly. The hunters. They brought the big kills and defended the village from wild animals. They didn’t need to shout and make threats. They talked quietly among themselves.
Of course, they would need to accept me into their ranks, and I’d have to prove my skill with a sling and an arrow.
The adults hovered over the table, taking in the scents of each delicious dish. Gords and roots were praised among the crops, and each family brought their own variety. Early grains were boiled and steamed to softness, mixed with wax grubs, nettles, and wild lamias.
The tiny purple and pink sprigs from some of the lamias were scattered about the rest of the table. Most families gathered them in the woods for healing wounds, drying them for teas, or sometimes growing them on a small plot beside the garden. Tiera’s family wasted half a field growing their own breed with pink flowers and astringent leaves.
A punch to my arm twisted me sideways. Tiera was standing before me. “I thought you would bring enough appellas so I could have a whole one.”
I smirked. “Maybe there will be a surprise later for you.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You have one hidden for me?”
“I have one, but I’ll only give it to a nice girl.”
Her face went from glow to furnace, and she shoved me to the ground. “Gape. I don’t know why I bother with you.” She turned and ran for the other end of the table where her parents stood.
I dusted myself off and hauled to my feet. My bowels felt like a cave full of whisks and stingers, fluttering away in the darkness while stalking their innocent prey. It was time to eat. My head swiveled until connecting eyes with my father, who beckoned me with an open hand. I ran to him and turned, my shoulder against his hip. I stared across the table at Tiera, who pretended to ignore me.
“Look at this feast,” started one of the village elders. He was shorter than most of the other men, with a long white beard marking his age, at least twice as long as Father’s. His clothing wasn’t the traditional mat-fibers of a hare, like mine, but a fine woven cloth from threads; something of a luxury that would be handed down to his son someday.
He continued. “We’ve done well this year, and honored Zielle that we remain strong in our production whilst the gods smile upon us with their bounty. A wondering flock is always in search of fresh foods in the wild. We stay the course, working with Natron to cultivate that which we need. This day of feast is a celebration of the great fire, and the decision to remain on fertile ground after Zielle sacrificed himself for all of us. Surely he smiles upon us now from the heavens, reminding the gods that we can live as a civilized people, without roaming or ravaging the world around us.”
It was the same speech every year, with slight differences. At the same time, it never grew old. I pictured Zielle charging into the burning forest to combat the will of the gods and allow the first village of Abundanti to thrive. Every opportunity to keep wandering was offered to that original tribe, yet they remained, learning the magic of harvesting crops from seed.
“With such abundance, we shall all be quite well through the winter. But forget not your fellow man. As Zielle sacrificed for us, we must sacrifice for one another. That was the wish of civilized culture, a kind culture, a culture that could stray from the nomadic lifestyle and settle by this wonderful silvery lake, content within our abilities. Therefore, if someone is starving, we shall feed him. If he’s cold, we shall offer warmth. If he’s thirsty, give him drink. This is the way in which the gods continue to protect us from those lost wandering souls who scavenge in the south and the great fires of the forests. In this way we honor them and each other.”
“Take what you will from this table, remembering that everything here was offered by the sweat and blood of your friends. May we never forget the ways of the wise who brought us to such comfort and salvation.”
A very young girl cried out, “Can we eat now?”
Laughter abounded, and the elder grinned from ear to ear. “Yes, my dear. Now we may eat.”
I went straight for the cooked strips of elk meat procured by the hunters. While everyone else dug into tubers and lamias and leafy greens, I sank my teeth into the savory smoked flavor of red steak. Hunters weren’t well regarded. Some claimed them to be less in line with the will of Zielle, but part of the bounty of our lands were the migrating herds that passed through. In my mind, these creatures were sent to us by the gods as a reward for our steadfastness to a permanent home.
But the tender meats represented something else. They were always cooked over open flame, and I wondered about different methods of preparation. Drying had been tried before, but unless dried in the smoke of a greenwood fire, the cuts tended to rot in the sun. Boiling made them somewhat soggy and tasteless. It seemed, if one asked an elder, that meat was intended for the fire, and nothing else would bring out its flavor in the same manner.
The only way to change their mind would be to experiment, just like Gregor had done with plants. Perhaps I could find a magic in the flesh of animals like he had discovered in plants. Perhaps one day, I would migrate away from this place with the traders, and take my discoveries to the capital city. Maybe they would teach me the magic of Gregor, or maybe it was just a passing fancy.
In either case, the ability to hunt game was a connection to our ancestors, to Zielle himself. But alas, I kept my wondering to myself. The others wouldn’t have it. The grain mashers were praised for their ability to turn hard seeds into dust for bread, or broth for beer. The woodcutters kept us warm. Just about everyone participated in the harvests. Hunters were hunters. While meat was prized enough to earn them a meager living, and skins kept us warm, they remained the lowest among our ranks. Even those who raised hares and other furry beasts were better liked, despite the resources they consumed to keep their animals healthy.
Still I had interest.
I took from one of the many bowls of appella mushrooms, closing my eyes as I enjoyed the fruity essence that came with a healthy bite. My secret cove in the woods was beginning to run dry of them, and I sought to save whatever I could through the winter by leaving them on the ground spread.
That was another curiosity. Mushrooms tended to grow and spread like other plants, clumping together in certain places at certain times, yet they produced no seed. The elders claimed they sowed seeds too small for us to see. Some even insisted that wild ones should be cut, as they bled onto the soil to make more. I figured that nobody really knew, and everything was speculation. Even Gregor the Wise had never discovered their growth habit, even if he could make powerful medicines from them.
The conversation around me trickled through my internal thoughts, and I found myself staring at Tiera as she stared back. My father was lost in some conversation about his share of the grain harvest that year, and I nodded in the direction of our little hut. Tierra smiled, and the two of us snuck away.
The dome of Father’s house looked bare; in desperate need of thatching. I entered through the opening and crept toward my bed of straw and down feathers. Buried under one side of the bedding were two whole appellas I had hidden the night before. I picked them carefully from the soft leaves of their wrap and carried them outside.
Her eyes lit up as I handed her one.
“Enjoy it. I won’t be able to collect more for a while.”
“Why?” she asked before taking a bite.
“They’re disappearing, and they need time to re-grow. Every time I travel to the cove, there are fewer, and the ones I gathered for the feast nearly exhausted the patch. If only I could find a way to make them reproduce.”
“If you could farm appellas, you’d never have to work a field again.”
I shrugged. “Work doesn’t bother me, but I want to understand what makes them grow. I’ve tried some experiments.”
“Experiments? Like Gregor?”
“I wish I had his wisdom. I’ve tried planting them whole or split. I’ve taken tiny ones before they mature and divided them before laying them down. I’ve tried watering them, leaving them in the sun, burying with leaves, but nothing works. There was one that sprouted in an area I worked, but I have no idea why it grew. I’ve been very careful to remember where I put each one and what I did to it, but I’m no closer to finding the secret.”
“My father says that mushrooms are a gift from the gods. He thinks Natron has blessed you with their abundance. Swears that you sacrificed a ton of grain to gain her approval.”
“Ha. I have no grains to burn. We barely make it through the winter as we are. Even our woodpile is meager, and I had to barter appellas to build it up this year.”
She shrugged while taking another bite.
“What would you think of me if I learned to hunt?”
Her mouth stopped moving before a hard swallow. “Why would you want to hunt? You have to figure out this mushroom mystery.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I really like meats too, and I have ideas for preparing those.”
Tiera laughed. “You’re trying to be Gregor. You had better learn to write, or invent your own letters. Maybe that’s why Natron likes you.”
I lowered my head. She was the same as everyone else. I handed her the other mushroom and started back toward the feast.
“What?” I turned back to her.
She shrugged. “Maybe.” Her eyes darted this way and that, as if searching the ground for weeds. “Maybe it’s enough that you keep your mushrooms. You can do whatever you want, and we’d still have enough to eat.”
Crimson flushed under her skin as her eyebrows relaxed. “I mean. You’d—everyone would still like you.”
Her head dropped. “I think I have to be getting back.”
I took a chance. “Would mushrooms be enough? Enough to, um. You know.”
“Enough to build a nest.”
“Um.” I swallowed hard. “Yes. Would your father approve?”
“My father only approves of grain smashers, but he’ll let me choose who I fancy.”
“And who do you fancy?”
Her eyes sharpened, like a fiery spirit had entered through the ears and taken control of her body. She raced toward me and gave a firm shove that knocked me to the ground.
“Gape. If you want to ask me something, you should just ask. You might have better luck.”
“Fine. Will you nest with me?” Inside my chest, blood-flow was arrested by a stopped heart. The next seconds seemed to last forever. In slow motion, her eyes softened again, and her stare darted between the mushrooms in either hand.
She knelt beside me and handed the unbroken one back. “Maybe.”
“Make this mushroom grow a new one, and I’ll nest with you.”
“You must be joking.”
She smiled and winked. “I need to get back to the feast before I’m missed. Wouldn’t want my father to catch me sneaking off with a hunter, now would I?”
I couldn’t help but smile to myself as she raced away. I didn’t know if she was bluffing or serious, but I did know that I wanted to leave more of a mark on the world than a straw-covered hole in the ground. I knew that if there were terms, then there was a chance. And I knew that she was pushing me in a direction that I wanted to go.
I stared at the delicious red appella in my hand. The force with which it had been thrust there knocked some white powder loose from the underside. It was a common thing to find. Every mushroom contained within it a little dirt that could never be fully cleaned. I wiped my hand clean on my tunic and picked myself up.
“Someday, little mushroom, I will discover your secrets.”