The Reaper’s Run
By Brooke Freeman
Momma drew the coat collar close around my neck and buttoned the last button. She then smoothed the edges of the sleeves before giving me one last quick squeeze around the waist.
"Remember," she said somberly. "The crows are your friend."
I nodded, throat tight and unable to speak. It was time to go. And we both knew it. The town was waiting for us.
It was a cloudy day outside, ominous grey clouds hanging low over the village. It often was on Harvest Day. The town was nearly empty, most of them opting to gather at the cornfields that lay west of the main clump of houses. I could see a few parents, like mine, ushering their children through the streets, heading in the direction of the fields. Most of the children plodded slowly while their parents tugged at them to go faster. They knew we were running late. And they couldn't start without us all.
Sure enough, by the time we reached the edge of the cornfield, most of the town was waiting, and a row of children was already forming. They stood shoulder to shoulder, facing the field. Most looked grey in the face and nervous, as I imagine I was. No one was ever happy on harvest day.
My mother gave me a quick peck before giving me a gentle push to line up with the other kids. I chose a spot beside my friend, Maisie, who was the same age as I was. She was dressed in a dark green tunic dress and wore brown boots. A brown jacket that was slightly too big for her, hung upon her skinny shoulders. My mother had dressed me similarly, except I wore a green jacket and a brown shirt and breeches. Better for running, she said.
Maisie looked at me but said nothing. Regardless, the fear was apparent in her big blue eyes. I grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze to comfort her. Ever since we turned nine, we knew this day was coming. We had both counted down the days till our tenth birthdays arrived, knowing full well this day marked the beginning of the possible end.
We did not talk about it to our parents. We were never allowed to. Harvest Day must never be spoken of until the day of. It was bad luck. But, even though we would never admit it to our parents, Maisie and I stayed up late during our sleepovers and would sometimes whisper about this day, wondering out loud what it would be like. What we would wear. And if we'd run fast enough.
The loud clang of a hand-bell broke the air as the Town leader, a petite and elderly man, signaled for the whispering crowd to fall silent. The sun was setting. It was time.
"Look at the light, Maisie," I whispered, low enough that none of the grown-ups could hear. We both looked up towards the sky, as did the other kids in the line, as we watched the last golden ray disappear against the grey sky, coating us and the fields in darkness.
Another clang of a bell. Time to get into position.
I let go of Maisie's hand and crouched on the ground, feeling the cold earth against my bare fingers. The other kids followed suit, taking their runner positions.
The crows are our friends, I thought to myself.
And then the third ring of the bell.
The row of children took off into the cornfield, as did I, my surroundings becoming a blur of green and yellow. That last ring was a signal. It was loose now, running with us. We just needed to be able to outrun it for the length of the field.
My mother's words of advice came to mind once again.
This is a sprint. Not a Marathon. Run now and you can run tomorrow.
My feet pounded against the earth, eyes trained on the path ahead. Corn stalks whipped against my face, cutting shallow cuts into my cheeks. I couldn't help but wondering where Maisie was. She had been right behind.
I snuck a glance backward. No one was there. But in the distance, I could hear the labored breathe of the other kids. Momma had told me not to think about them.
There is no going back, darling. No turning back for any reason.
Not even for Maisie? I had asked.
My mother somberly shook her head. Not even for Maisie.
Then there came a scream far to my left. I didn't recognize it, but it chilled me to the bone all the same. Now it wasn't just running. It was hunting.
This was where the second part of the strategy of this run kicked in. You didn't just have to be fast, you had to change directions. Very few kids could outrun it. But if you confused it as to your location, you did have a chance. The tricky part wasn't getting disoriented as to which way was out. And with no reference besides the endless rows of corn, it was very easy to get lost.
I bolted to my right before making a big loop, trying to be mentally aware of which way was out. More and more noises could be heard. The shuffling of corn stalks became more and more frantic as children began to panic. The sharp screams and squeals of children either cracking beneath the pressure or being found amidst the corn.
But none of these screams were Maisie's. So I kept on. I finished making my wide loop. I had to be getting close.
But then I smelled it. A sickly metallic scent. It was close. Despite all my running and changing directions, it was close.
I stopped, flattening myself against the ground and listening closely for any sound or sign at all.
This wasn't supposed to happen. You could run from The Reaper. But you rarely succeeded in hiding from him.
The shuffling of corn stalks began to grow more and more scattered and quiet. This is when I realized that either I was in this field alone, or the other children were trying to hide like me, giving up on the whole running and changing directions strategy.
A long, long painful silence fell upon the field. All I could hear was the wind blowing a path through the corn, stalks shuffling against each other. This silence was broken by the caw of a murder of crows as they flew up from a patch of corn in front of me. My stomach dropped.
The crows are your friends.
It was here. And right in front of me. Moving slowly in my direction.
I slowly surveyed my surroundings in an attempt to formulate a plan of escape. As soon as I started running, it would know exactly where I was. Then I saw her.
She was crouching against the ground, like me but now she was slowly rising. I wanted to yell and scream at her to get back down. It would know where she was if she made any movement.
Dear God, please don't let her run. Please.
She was standing all the way now. I knew then, that she was going to run. And I had to think fast. I grabbed a corn husk from around my feet that I had spotted when I was close to the ground. And then I threw it as far as I could in the opposite direction.
As soon as the stalks rustling against the husk could be heard, a force tore through the corn in that direction. I had to act fast.
I bolted forward and grabbed Maisie's hand, no longer caring about being quiet. This was our chance and we had to take it.
"Come on!" I hissed to her. She needed no urging because she was already running with me.
I was faster than Maisie but that rule of leaving others behind was already broken. Now I was just focused on getting us both out and alive.
To my surprise, we were only running for only a few seconds when we broke out on the other side of the cornfield. We both fell flat out on the grass, greeted by the sight of the town on the other side, its inhabitants holding lanterns and torches close to their faces. Turns out we had stopped and hidden mere yards away from the finish line.
My mother rushed to us both, hugging me and crying into my hair.
Maisie's parents did much of the same.
When they had finally gathered themselves, we stood, facing the field and the darkness it held within.
Maisie looked to her father. "Who else made it?"
He only shook his head. Another group of crows flew up from the center of the field and one last scream could be heard. We all knew what it meant. We were the last ones and Harvest Day was over for the rest of the year.