The sun shines on the clearing at midday. My sisters and I have been up since dawn gathering flowers and shapely twigs, oddly-patterned leaves, feathers, beetle shells, bits of gristle. The fruits of our labor now hang around the great black oak at the base of the clearing. We fasten each artifact to a piece of twine, then weave it to a low hanging branch. Father always says it is important that we return to the earth some of what we take, a ritual that Mother had always observed. With all fourteen of us at work, the tree’s branches soon sag heavy with our prizes.
After the last token is secured, Sarah makes sure we line up from eldest to youngest, as is proper. In line, we smooth our pale smocks with muddy hands, grin at each other in our disheveled states. Elder begins to smooth the hair of younger, and so on down the chain. We do so in silence, well aware of the rules about gossip.
Little Agnes, I see, is still giddy from having found a frog that morning, biting back words that threaten to bubble out from behind her rosy lips. But I quickly give the signal: one finger to my mouth. Shush. And that is all she requires to understand. Still, I catch the gleam from a white knob of bone in her tiny hand, where she clutches the frog’s severed leg by the joint. She had been unwilling to leave such a fine specimen with the tree. Selfishness will be a harsh lesson for her to learn, as it had been for all of us who have borne the lash.
Bethena leads us back across the clearing to the hive, where we get ready for the day’s festivities. Father has spent years building out the segmented structure of mud and plaster, from back when “home” was nothing more than an overgrown field at the foot of a black oak. The safety we feel when we step inside is a testament of his love. In the outer, light-filled chambers we tend to daily chores. In the darker antechambers we dress, make our beds, and sleep as we walk, from eldest to youngest. We don’t know what took place at the blackest room in the center, though we often imagine it had once been Mother’s.
My sisters plait their hair with flowers and smudge their cheeks with wild berries. I admire stoic Hosannah. She has recently come into her womanhood. I remember well the shock as she pulled the dark, sticky rag from between her legs, amazed at the sight of blood without a wound. The change has become her, as everyone has noted, especially Father.
I smooth out my dress—the same one I wore for last year’s harvest. When I slip it on over my head, the sleeves end halfway to my elbows and the hem sits just below my knobby knees. I recall handing the same dress to Elinor last year covered in clay and grass and blood. She has laundered it well. But I will be needing a new dress come next season.
Once groomed, we emerge from the hive with linked hands, back to the clearing where the banquet tables have been set. The table linens match our dresses—cut from the same cloth. An enormous bounty of our finest forageables is on display. Fleshy mushrooms we plucked from decaying logs, overripe fruit with their sweet, fecund smell, great chunks of honeycomb in enormous glass jars at the center of each table, oozing in the afternoon light. Freshly cut poppies in bud vases, their curly stems giving the impression of worms writhing in heat. Pitchers of milk at each setting, their fat slowly pooling to the surface.
The visitors come annually from the city to delight in these offerings, lured by promises from beautiful Fay, the eldest and most favored. They will have their fill of honeycomb soaked in milk, admire our harvest, praise our fortitude. Always, they speak too loudly, their laughter echoing from deep inside their bellies all the way to the great oak, our trinkets trembling from the sound. Not in the soft whispers that Father commands we speak in when we address him. The low murmurs we sometimes exchange in secret, when we ask one another what we remember of Mother, what she looked like, had she fled, was she taken. The hushed greetings with which we acknowledge Father when he comes to our bedchamber to put his hand to Fay’s mouth and snuff out the candle in one swoop.
Every year, without fail, one of the visitors will pull Father aside and remark on the beauty of his many daughters. His jaw will tighten—perceptible only to those who know him well. A dark cloud that vanishes quickly, as clouds often do during the waning of the season. But we are familiar, from Father’s daily sermons, with how his words will later curdle when he calls them out by their true names: sinners. In those words we know the truth behind what we celebrate each year.
But that conversation is sure to be hours away. For now, Elinor bleaches the last of this morning’s clothes. Bethena shows Agnes how to drain poppies into milk. Sarah scatters a fistful of teeth beneath the black oak. When cast from her hand, the fillings flash gold in the light. As Father’s sixth, on the eve of my womanhood, I know well from Hosannah what responsibilities are expected of me. Polish the whetstone and sharpen the blades. When metal meets stone, the song of the scythe follows like the plaintive wail of a child, assuring me that the blows will come swift and clean. Because after the sun sets, the celebration will truly begin.
Stephanie Yu lives in Los Angeles with her partner Nate. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in carte blanche, Eclectica, and the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. You can find her on Twitter @stfu_stephanie.
Artwork: Natalia Drepina