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The Flax Fields

Stunning Short Stories of Fantasy and Science Fiction

My red rooster had been crowing for two hours now, and so I were awake, drinking my tea and looking over a frosted windowsill toward the hills and the abbey, wishing my ma could still be with me to offer her council, for I sorely needed her advice.

As a young woman, Ma had been sent to the fields to cut the flax and then to work at the abbey. There, she’d had so much work piled on her, down in the dismal rooms where the likes of us be sent to slave away for the priests, so high and mighty they was, whose robes always needed mending. Added to that, all the stitching of the hems of the fine linen that the nuns wove drove her nearly blind, it did.

I got my beginning in the flax fields when life still kissed Ma sweetly, her lying between the stalks as the sun left the sky on a July evening with Tom from Thomashire, a young hired man. Or it might have been John Smythe from Gladdington, another young lad whose eye she’d caught. It don’t matter as I never knew either of my possible fathers.

There was stories my ma heard from her grandmothers about the reaping of the young, but the songs and soft tunes of the lutes carried over the fields at eventide blended with the buzz of the flies and the robins. The shade of birch trees turned these tales into just bad dreams of an ancient time.

My ma said that the attention of her two courtiers was like liquor to her, but one day they both kissed her hand, bid adieu, and never passed through our village again. She always smiled when she talked of them, and I don’t begrudge her a summer of happiness.

I had my summer in the flax as well. My young man were called Tom, too. I loved looking at our arms laced together as we lay in the soft tills, cool by the stocks of flax, my skin honey-brown against his, the shade of an indigo sky. His hair were the color of russet leaves, and his silver earrings tickled my neck.

To get the best fiber from flax, you got to harvest it while the plant’s still green. Ma were green, herself, in her summer, as I were in mine. I had me my own girl child who I gave the name Autumn, born with her father’s russet hair and my honey colored skin. And it were because of her that I be up so early, letting that red rooster pester me out of a warm bed.

Ma died the winter before Autumn turned four, and as it be with us common folk, what little powers she had came rightfully to me. She were barely cold in the grave when I’d find myself stirring under the new moon and go out plucking rashbone and fiddleneck, or talking to some dead ol’ auntie of the brewer’s, whose son was kind but slow witted. I’d be delivering messages or making tinctures all the next day, rain or shine, didn’t matter.

There was folks with greater power who did greater good or grief. No matter to me, but the strange thing of it were that as wee as she be, my daughter began to know things that she shouldn’t have until I’d followed my ma across the fields. She’d listen to the sound of wild geese and predict an early snow, or say that her grandma had come in the middle of the night to tell her that there was rot in our goat Bessy’s left front hoof.

I lifted up Bessy’s leg and smelled the rot before I saw it. “Why don’t Ma tell me herself?”

Autumn hunched her little shoulders. “Don’t know.”

One Sunday after Mass, as we was walking out of the church, Autumn ran up to Elder Goverlund and took his hand.

“You could get rid of these warts if you’d just wash in the milk of a mare a week after she’s foaled.” She then gave him a very pretty curtsy, something I never taught her. Weren’t no reason. Who’d we curtsy to?

I scooped her away as I apologized to the old man.

Not a month later, before Mass this time, as we was walking up the steps, Elder Goverlund tipped his hat.

“Well, now, little miss.” Putting his hat back on his head, he held out his hands, palms up and then down. Not a wart to be seen. “You’ve learned well by your dear ma for someone so small.”

After he went into the church, I took my daughter by the arm and pulled her into the graveyard until we was standing at my ma’s stone.

As much as Autumn were sunlight and music to me, there was a twist in my stomach and an ache in my heart. “What’s this about? Did your grandma speak to you about Elder Goverlund’s warts?”

Autumn’s eyes was the color of tea brewed black in its cup. She looked round the graves, and then back at me. “No, Ma, it wasn’t her this time.” She pointed to where Tandy Woodhouse had rested for ten years. “She told me.”

My hair tingling at the root beneath my cap. “She speaks to you?”

Her little head bobbed up and down. “They all do. And sometimes the birds, and once a mouse I caught making a nest in one of the kettles.”

After mass, I asked Elder Goverlund not to mention what Autumn had done, for the sake of a little girl who didn’t need to be bothered by villagers with warts and afflictions.

When he didn’t return my gaze, I knew trouble were on the way.

One evening right before Autumn was turned six, sitting on the chamber pot in the room we slept, she announced that a grand man in a black robe with fancy lace at his collar were coming to call the next day. And so, I’d been up with the rooster’s call, knowing we was having a visit.

Sure enough, at seven o’clock sharp our door received a brisk knock, and then the Abbot walked in without the manners to be asked. First thing I noticed were the liver spots on his hands. If I’d liked him better, I would have offered to get rid of them. Instead, I wondered what he were doing calling at my cottage with the chicken shit in the yard and the three half-wild geese that kept the curs and vagabonds away.

I glance out. The geese rocked like they was all drunkards, not a one had tried to bite the holy bottom of the Abbot.

Autumn had crawled out of her trundle bed that lay next to mine. I picked her up and held her small warm body close to mine. I felt myself witch inside, ready to throw a spell to protect my daughter, but all my knowing that Ma taught me floated away like dandelion puff.

The Abbot, wily as he were, simply smiled. “This is the girl then.”

I were powerless by the hexing of his smile. I watched myself hand Autumn to him as though my soul be hanging from the rafters. Yet, my body standing there all frozen and still, felt like it be minced, my heart paining me like a hundred knives been pushed through its core.

At least he gave me the grace to go with her, even though, unlike Ma, I had no talent with needle or thread. He figured I’d be less trouble that way, I suppose.

She never did cry, my little girl, whenever I were let to be with her, a few minutes a day in the vegetable patch, or in the quick glances we’d snatch while I was on my knees scrubbing floors. Best times was when she be allowed to come down to the scullery where I’d be peeling potatoes or the like, and she’d sit on a stool eating a pasty cake Cook would hand to her.

I once raised my eyes to the ceiling. “What goes on up in those upper rooms?”

An impish grin formed on Autumn’s face. “I cannot tell you, Ma.”

Two mice scurried out of their holes. Wooden spoons rose from the counter and paddle their bottoms like they was little tykes until one ran through an open door and the orange scullery cat pounced on the other.

I tried to sound approving. “Hmm, I suppose what you be learning is of some use.”

But visits became rarer, and when Autumn did come down to me, I’d take note how she’d grown taller and how her cheeks lost their roundness. The more and more distant she became until she never visited at all. When I’d try to catch her eye if we were to pass in a hallway, there were no hint she remembered that I were Ma to her. That would be the times I’d be wondering what had happened to our little farm and missing my own ma.

Then one day I seen Autumn donned in the black linen walking in a line with her eyes to the floor with the other nuns, her robe whispering its spell with theirs.

Over the years, I tried to listen to the secrets the robes held, but all I heard was a scramble of noise like the squawking of geese far off in the sky. I had no gift for interpretation, but the old stories ran through my mind of how the linen held secrets from the thousand-year-old fields. The abbey used to spill the blood of the young workers, which gave the flax the power to open the voices of our ancestors. And since then, they’d been listening, listening, writing down what they heard, mining secrets of the past when the whole world, it was said, had been doused with magic.

We simple folk was told in Mass that the abbey worked for all of us so that our meek existences would be remembered once we was laid in our graves. I sometimes wondered if that might be a curse, our lives was such petty things. Why would I want to recall the callouses on my hand or the heartbreak of having a gifted child taken from me?

The Abbot preached that his glory was our glory, and the abbey’s power was the people’s power because it held the memories of all of our ancestors. The more stories of the dead he knew, the better he could guide what would become of our future.

But what really happened through the years was that he grew younger, though we was all too afraid to gossip about it. I’d scrubbed near his door enough times to smell something rich and iron-like wafting from it.

Early one morning before even the mice was awake, a monk came to the scullery to plead to Cook to give him some provisions as he were planning to escape.

“The Abbot uses this place for his own vanity,” he told us. “I will not be part of it anymore.”

As I watched him scramble over the wall clutching a bag of vittles that Cook kindly gave him, my heart trembled for my Autumn and the things she must be privy to in that horrible room.

During harvest, Cook and I was up long before the cock crowed fixing up the midday meals for the workers. Autumn’s time in the fields was coming about. I wanted to tell Cook, “What a shame it is that Autumn won’t have her own merry season, find a handsome lad her own age to lie the summer with. What a shame she already wears the whispering robes and her work-smock will stay laced in the sweet night air.”

But I kept my lips sealed on this, my Autumn, my skillful one, the Abbot’s prize. I would do nothing to put her in danger, though I still gathered a few of my own charms on a rare night when most of the abbey were asleep. The conjuring of a scullery maid would make no more impact than a leaf landing on the roof, but I wanted to do what little I could to protect her.

On a hot day when my sweat dripped to the spots I’d just scrubbed in the great hallway, Autumn walked right past me as though I was a speck of dust and disappeared into the Abbot’s chamber. I wondered why she weren’t with the young people in the fields and then felt a strange fluttering in my heart. I put my hand to it before I pushed my brush across the dark wood for the last time. Death climb up my left arm until the day’s warmth and my own last breath blended together. I followed Autumn’s path over the whorled grains of the floor and the small scratches that I knew from memory and walked through the Abbot’s door without even considering how.

Autumn gasped, and her head snapped toward where my shell hovered and watched. I took in her thin face and the question on the Abbot’s. He stood behind a large table, his back to an opened window. Outside, the sun beat down gold on the fields. His face held the look of a boy of twenty-five, sixty years younger than he were the day he robbed me of my girl.

Autumn gave me a long look, like she used to as a child when we shared a secret. I ventured over to get a closer peek to see what lay on the table as she stepped next to the Abbot. There be a large book opened to blank pages, a slender blade with a gold hilt, and two thin cloths, the kind we used for bandages.

Autumn bowed her head to him. “I heard my ma say, ‘Good-bye,’ sir. She’s dead, just now.”

He did not have the wit to know she’d lied, that I were there giving him my evil eye.

“Attend to her later.” The Abbot lowered his head over the blank page. “You must tell me everything. The robes are losing their power. The voices are weakening.”

He stood up and took her chin, raising her head so that he forced her to look at him. “You have done your duty well. Your blood and your ability to hear the dead is by far the strongest the abbey has ever known. You’ve given me the secret of youth, but I fear even you are weakening. I will need to cut deeper.”

The Abbot was deaf to the dead? No wonder he had no clue that I stood there a witness.

But he had other powers. “Now.”

Autumn jerked in an attempt to step backward. Her face strained in resistance, but he reeled her closer and forced her to open her palms to him. Oh, my dear child. They both was crisscrossed with thin scars. He picked up the blade and sliced both hands, tracing the lines until blood poured onto a parchment. Bright red words formed across the page.

I never learned to read and being dead did not change that, but the Abbot smiled. Ah, he was handsome now. My insides curdled at the sight of him.

He took the cloths and bound her hands. “You’ve contacted some very ancient souls. Good work.”

Autumn wrapped her arms around her waist. “Who does this come from? We don’t do this sort of thing anymore.” She read more and then shook her head. “I will not do this.”

The Abbot reached for her. Her body stiffened as he held her arms. I flung myself across the table, wanting to rip him from her, but I fell through his body and almost out the window.

When I turned, his eyes had widened with greed.

“The dead have given wise counsel. The fields need blood. And they need our lovemaking. Autumn, think of the child, you and I will have and the knowledge we will gain from conceiving him on such a day.”

Autumn finally shook free from his clutch. “But the dead don’t leave, and the more we find and bring back, the more stories I must listen to, all of their complaints and accusations. Whisperings fill my head until I cannot hear myself. I wake and see their faces, imploring me to release them, and I have to tell them I cannot, that they are tied to this land for as long as this abbey is here.”

I felt a cold draft fall over the substance that I now were made of.

The Abbot pointed to the door. “Nonsense. Leave me now.”

I followed Autumn out. She slid to the floor.

“I wish I could join you, Ma.”

I knelt beside her and touched the wrappings on her poor hands. I couldn’t feel the bindings. “None of that, now.”

“But there are so many of the dead.”

It was then I sense how many was with us. The room were filled with generations past, their shells passing through one another. I sensed how much hunger there be for light and rest. The longer dead, the more desperate they was to go.

Two priests appeared and lifted my body in silence, not even bothering to give Autumn a glance. The cloths that bound her hands was stained with her blood.

I settled my ethereal bottom on the floor next to my daughter and watched myself being carried off. “At least it won’t be me who will clean the stain from this hallway floor. But why are no fine ones gathered here with the dead? No priest or nuns in their whispering robes?”

Autumn released a long sigh. “There are a few, the lucky ones who tried to run away. They are always caught and the punishment is death. The rest of us molder here with the Abbot.”

“None of you pass on natural?”

How hallow Autumn’s eyes had grown. “Not as long as the flax keeps growing, but the soil has become hungry for fresh blood. The Abbot has taken most of the stories we can share and used what he has learned to turn grow younger.”

She spread her arms as though to hold all of the wandering dead in the hall.

“The rest of the nuns and priests grow weaker, but not so weak to pass on. He needs us to listen to these souls. But our blood is no longer enough to substitute. The soil needs to be replenished and new robes made with from the flax filled with tales of the ancestors of the harvesters. Their oldest ancestors with the oldest stories.”

I felt myself being pulled away from Autumn into the crowded room. I slipped away farther, losing myself amid the shells and shadows, and was pushed outside to the fields where other souls passed through the flax like the wind.

The sun were setting now. I felt like a moth waking for the night. I let a breeze carry me to my old farm, relieved to see it in good order and a young family taking care of it. Then found myself at the graveyard, my body tossed by the black robes into a grave that could have been dug deeper for dignity’s sake. A nun muttered the Sending Words quickly and helped the gravediggers shovel the dirt over me. None of my neighbors was there in the flesh, but Tandy Woodhouse watched from her grave as though she were tethered.

There was more dead than living crowded on the land, but the night was summer sweet. Laughter of young men and women rimmed the small fires that lit the land like stars. Minstrel songs drifted through the air, and the place in my soul where my heart had once taken space burned like a small flame made of honey and tears.

Many of the dead hovered close to the fires as though they could feel the heat. Mary Gwynn, who I grew up with, wandered through an open window of her old house where her son still lived, and a child with shoes laced with sinew, something done long before Ma’s childhood, followed an old man to a barn repeating, “Mister, Mister, I got something to tell you.”

Like the faint buzz of bees, I could hear the whispering of the dead to those they loved still on earth.

The mare’s foal will be breech unless you turn it now.

The joists are rotting, fool. Fix your roof before the rain.

Lavender and rosemary, grind it together, then…

I passed through the village, and then to the tall plants that pulled at my memories. My shell brushed against others with no more sensation than the touch of butterfly wings. I tried to talk, especially to the faces that I’d known in my life. Consternation filled the eyes of the newly dead, the ones like me. Our voices could be heard by the living, the ones who had the gift of listening, but we was deaf to each other.

The eyes of the longest dead had no light at all, as though their souls had leached out as new generations forgot them. I wandered aimlessly searching for Ma in the throng. Finally, a line of light traced the eastern hills and the roosters in the village began to crow, their jagged voices echoing, cutting the night from the day.

Near the abbey walls, the great doors opened. The Abbot and Autumn walked out with the nuns and priests, all in their black robes, following like a trail of ants.

A voice startled me. “He’s as old as this place, you know.”

I turned and faced the young monk who Cook had helped, his face paler than the white sky above our heads. “The Abbot is afraid and will do anything to keep from dying. Imagine what it would be like to come face-to-face with all of us, a thousand years of souls who should have left this world.”

I wanted to take the young man’s hand. How was I to survive an eternity where there was no flesh, no touch?

We followed the procession to the fields where the young ones was ready to work after their night’s revelry, oblivious to the black robes behind them holding their scythes.

The Abbot pulled Autumn with an invisible chord toward the field. I felt something familiar and kind next to me, and there my ma were. The dead stood in the fields and their shells reflected the dew on the sheaths of flax. The blood would seep from the bodies of the young lovers into the dew, the ground, the strands growing around us, and then mingle with the child’s blood in the inhumane mating that the Abbot would force on my daughter.

The Abbot flung off his robe and stood naked, his beauty blazed across to us repellently splendid. He raised his right hand and grasped the slim golden blade with his left. The black robes raised their scythes in unison.

I remembered then that Autumn could listen to all of us, so I screamed her name. The monk beside me joined in. Ma saw what my lips formed and cried out with me. Those around us began shouting. Our screams vibrated through the fields. The Abbot, deaf as he was, felt our strength and shuddered.

Autumn reached for the Abbot’s knife before he could take a life. She ran her hands over the blade until her blood fell to the ground. A word formed in the dirt. The monk next to me read it aloud. “Speak!” His voice rang out over the field, and all, even the long dead, could hear it. “Speak!”

The living ran out of their houses and cheered with the dead. The black robes dropped their scythes and covered their ears. Autumn took the Abbot’s head between her hands and painted it with her blood as the reverberations of our voices grew. The Abbot’s ears opened to the dead and his face crumpled in pain, unable like my Autumn to stay sane in the cacophony.

We watched him age until nothing were left of him but his own shell. And then the dead circled around him.


The fields blossomed blue, though it be the wrong time of year. The living, young and old, turned in smiles to each other. Many of the scythes and black linen robes fell to the ground, as priests and nuns long past their time simply disappeared. Those that were left, my Autumn included, flung off their coverings. There be a roar like none heard before and the abbey collapsed, one hall at a time, until only a mountain of fine dust were left.

The longest dead was the first to leave not long after. They vanished into long slow sighs. Whether into the light of the sun or a greater light, Ma and I will soon discover. Autumn has told us our passing over is at hand, so I have told my story, outright, with my own strong voice for the living to hear that there is now nothing to fear in death, unless you’re that bastard, the Abbot.


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The Flax Field, AletheaEason (copyright 2020; all rights reserved.)

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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Alethea Eason

Alethea Eason is a poet, fantasy writer, artist, and retired educator, who lives in Silver City, New Mexico. She loves the intersection of desert and mountains, ravens, hiking under intensely blue skies, having community, Tai Chi, and that first sip of very strong and very hot coffee every morning.
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