The Harvest  by Shirley Chan

Competition: Flash Fiction Challenge 2013, 2nd Round

Genre: Horror  Location: An outdoor music concert  Object: Animal crackers

Original Illustration by Yevgenia Nayberg

Blood rushed through Elsa’s eardrums and the loud pounding of her heart drowned out the sounds of the dark forest. She couldn’t see or hear anything.

She stopped and crouched between the giant gnarled roots of an ancient tree, commanding her burning lungs to breathe silently instead of gasping for air. Every muscle ached and her smashed cheekbone throbbed, but Elsa smiled through the searing pain. Her left hand curled protectively around the Cracker that she had taken from the Baker. She had escaped.

Earlier that evening, the Baker and his merry band arrived in Elsa’s small village without warning. The Bakers never give warning.

The village had been left in peace for a decade, so the smaller children didn’t understand the truth about the Harvest. They skipped to the square and sang along to the music, thinking a concert or festival was about to start.

Within an hour, a rude stage was erected and festooned with colorful lanterns. The monstrous cast iron oven required more work. It was as large as a cottage, with a door that could accommodate a fully grown man, and it took the visitors several hours to roll it to the village center.

Elsa watched them from the perimeter. Across the square, the Baker watched as well. He was tall and thin, with an unhealthy pallor. The pale skin stretched down his face like moist raw dough hung upon a wire frame. He looked exactly the same as he did ten years ago, when her father was taken.

A hand grasped at her side, and she flinched. “Come play with us, Elsa!”

“Be quiet, Erik.” Elsa scolded her brother and checked her pocket carefully. She had been planning her revenge for too long. She couldn’t let anyone discover it early.

Her mother squeezed Elsa’s hand. “Let the children enjoy themselves. They will never feel this free again.”

Elsa looked at Erik, his eyes wide and trusting, and forced herself to smile. “Go play.” The smile stayed frozen on her face as she watched him run away, fighting the urge to hold him so tightly that they couldn’t take him away.

Up on the stage, surrounded by cheerful musicians and bright lights, the Baker grinned down at the crowd of Animals, allowed to roam free and fatten up for so many years. It was time for Harvest: the Eaters were hungry for meat again.

He lifted a hand, and the music stopped. Most of the villagers were already quietly watching the stage. The children returned to their families, fidgeting a little.

The Baker stretched the pasty skin around his mouth into a grin and lifted a bright red tin. “Animals! Come up if your Cracker is chosen.”

Elsa felt a tug on her sleeve and looked down. “Do I have a cracker?” Erik asked hopefully. She nodded, keeping her face blank. “Everyone has a Cracker.”

Erik smiled and turned back to the stage.

“Pieter.” The Baker held up a Cracker that was so lifelike, it seemed to breathe. There was no need for names, everyone could see who it was, but the Bakers always took perverse pride in showmanship.

Pieter walked up slowly as the musicians played a jaunty march. He was a large man, skin tanned and toughened by decades of farming in the sun. He climbed onstage and nodded stoically at his family.

A wave of heat swept over the crowd as Pieter opened the oven door, walked in, and closed the door behind himself. The music stopped, and everything was silent.

The Baker chose again.

“Jeannette.” All eyes turned to a young woman with curly red hair who shook her head and backed away on unsteady legs. The music began again. It was a waltz this time.

“Easy, girl,” the Baker said, watching her carefully. Suddenly, she turned and ran toward the forest. He sighed. He hated when the Animals got spooked.

Everyone had turned to watch Jeannette, but Elsa watched the stage. The Baker shook his head and snapped one leg off the cookie in his hand.

Halfway to the trees, Jeannette screamed and fell down. She continued to crawl, dragging a trail of bloody flesh behind one hip, where a leg used to be.

The Baker was annoyed. This Animal wasn’t learning its lesson. He crushed an arm this time. As Jeannette’s screams filled the air, the band played their waltz louder. She stopped moving after a few long minutes.

Elsa felt Erik’s hand, clutching her and trembling. Now he understood.

“What a waste of perfectly good food,” the Baker said. He reached into the tin again, and Elsa could feel him touch her. He had chosen her Cracker.

She eased Erik’s hand off hers, checked her pocket, and began walking up. She had to be fast. She had prepared for years, and now she only had one chance.

The Baker had not revealed the Cracker, but Elsa was quickly approaching the stage. Confused, some musicians started playing a lively polka, while others stayed silent.

The Baker looked pleased that this Animal was so well-behaved and held her Cracker up high. Elsa smiled as she lunged at him, pulling a short, sharpened stick out of her pocket and stabbing him in the eye.

The Baker’s hands splayed open and dropped the Cracker. It hit the ground. Elsa felt a hard hit against the side of her face and staggered, tasting her own hot blood. Dizzy, she groped the floor blindly and found the cookie. There was a small piece broken off one cheek, but it was intact.

Clutching it carefully, Elsa ran for the forest as the Baker’s howls of pain echoed in the village behind her.

As she hid beneath the tree, Elsa felt a giant shadow reach down toward her, darker than the dark night. It lifted her up roughly, and pieces of her body crumbled off drily like a cookie. She was an Animal and meant to be eaten. There was no escape.

 

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Shirley Chan writes for a living. This makes it hard to write for herself. Somehow she perseveres with generous amounts of whiskey. Stay in school, kids!



 


 

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