Short Fiction by Gilli Fryzer – Winner of The Mechanics’ Summer Folk Tale Festival
At dawn, the dew rises like smoke towards the sun. On each holding, the men pull on their leggings, their flattest boots, swallow cold pump water. The running will be done this day and the price of winning her favour will be sweat and burn and the gut cough that follows the suck of corn dust, lung deep.
Nothing spoken as they stride downhill to the river. Quabb past the neck of corn on his land, fine and tall as the man himself. Fenny with the moon in a leathern sack across his shoulder, Girdin barefoot, stepping up from the ford; Crabbit closing in with his hasty sideways walk. Through field after field, spitting groundward for safety as they pass the final sheaf, each one sized up for trickery or ease as they go by. You know it yourself, eleven rows to a neck, a clean blade’s worth if you come at it right. Quabb’s has the better height: you’d expect that after last year’s blood. Crabbit’s is a lazy affair, too sparse to make good hiding. She’ll not lie there long, if at all. Carter mocks a swing at it as he passes. Mouse mutters a charm as he sees each neck, but you’ll scarce hear him.
Not a man amongst them but will seize your land if their blade catches her out. Careful of breath, they tread the stubble down where they can, mind how to place each step on the broken earth when the run is on. Skinning comes down from the top, wants more than the scrubland where nothing grows but brat after brat, each of them sallow and thin as rye. Ahead of the men, the boys race each other along the riverbank, past the gallows with its garland of rattling bone. Levet. Plover. Milk-haired Gort with the pale skin. Tongue-tied Peewit who can’t keep up, wall-eyed Silas, running for his dad, and Stag, the widow’s boy.
At the bridge, they risk the black water, knock each scythe for luck on the iron that gives this place its name. If you catch the smith in drink, he’ll tell how metal did cut faster than thirty men, back before the long dark and the floods. After loud talk like that you’ll spit on your blade same as anyone, and fear the moonlit grass on the way home. The smith reckons his great-great-grandad saw iron working, back as a boy, but Falk disbelieves the tale. Metal enters a man’s veins, maddening his thoughts, so he says, and you’d not cross the Caller’s word on it. Enough that a piece of it rests like a fallen sun in the river silt, the boys striking sparks like Butt’s anvil.
It’s a man’s work, running. Girdin wipes his blade on his leggings as he speaks. Mind the lads, now, Falk. Wake her with their noise, they will.
Plover spins his scythe, tests its balance. The honed edge flashes blue in the early light, his name sharp in its new-scratched glory. He nudges Levet as Falk climbs the parapet, begins to call order.
Mouse steps up for Cattlebank as he has this twenty year, with Carter just behind, out to hold again for Long Furrow. Touch your blade for luck that the sun will rise, that each moon-planted seed will strike.
Plover lifts his scythe again, feels the pull of metal.
Hi Tilt. Low Tilt. The Dip. Up come Crabbit, Levet, and Skinning, boot soles rubbed with mutton fat so the dust won’t stick, scythes whetstone sharp. Tight as teeth, the three of ‘em and you wouldn’t bet against.
Gort steps up for Goose Foot, prideful and wary. Girdin for the ford, Quabb for Leasow.
Plover’s scythe clatters down in his haste to stand for the Quarter. Quabb catches the boy a cuff, tells him to hook up before there’s blood on the ground and the running over before it’s begun. Silas, tallest and strongest of the lads, steps up for Rudd’s, the older men eying him sideways for the challenge.
Who’re you running for, Peewit?
Falk humours the boy. It must be Nap, on the edge of the hill, so easy pickings for the fastest if she runs true. Most look away as Peewit dribbles an answer, for words you’d not call it.
His grandad, ain’t that right, Peewit? Butt has stepped up, hammer in hand, of a level with the Caller even with the wall. It’s the law, Falk. He’s allowed.
I never said he weren’t. If the old man can’t hold his own, the lad must.
Right. Butt turns to the runners. And iron says he’ll hold.
Falk’s face tells nothing, but he leaves the smith be. Metal men don’t move easy.
Stag, you of age? The Caller glances at the burning sun. Fair enough, then. Widow’s in play.
Fenny comes up last. The dropped sack strikes up dust as he stands for Hell’s End. The men eye it where it lies, try to guess size, strength, run-line.
Butt draws his own blade and waits. You’d take a pace or two backwards at that, looking for clearance.
Falk counts heads once more, nods to Butt.
The smith steps into the circle, blade out. He lifts the sack and tosses it high so you can judge of the weight, the kick of it.
His knife catches the sun as he slits the red cord that binds her fast. The cry goes up from the men by the bridge, is heard by Skinning’s wife, nursing their sixth.
The hare kicks back sharp and is off, darting riverwards as Silas whips around and gives chase. First out the circle he is, with Gort, Levet and the rest of the boys on his shoulder, Peewit stumbling after. Stag has jumped the parapet and is racing down the narrow river edge instead, taking the bird line, surefooted and fast. Falk nods at the skill. Born in a sack and left on her step for the widow to raise, the boy need be quick if it’s land he wants.
There’s pushing down at the ford and Silas is out onto Girdin’s soil, sprinting hard now to be first at the neck. A boy’s error, breaking early, but you’ve made it yourself, learnt you need lungs for the uphill run to come.
The hare’s free, bounding across the ridges at the edge of the field but Girdin’s done his work, stopped what gaps he can and now the runners are all there, even red-faced Peewit, stumbling through the gate.
Easy now. Silas reaches the neck, but she’s not taken cover yet, is loping back, looking for the out. The runners fan across the field, stubble cracking underfoot. The risen sun is fierce on sweat-slicked skin, the air thick with orange dust. The men close in again, moving slow in the heat. The hare dives towards the standing corn and the boy is too quick to swing his scythe, has to cut again. A shout goes up as the neck hits the stubble, but the hare is gone and already the first men are casting about for its line.
Girdin tugs at Silas to show no hard feelings, but the boy’s away to the next. Fenny is quick to catch the dirt rising beyond the field and the men are on track again. Ahead of them the doe leaps the stubble bank onto Levet’s ground to put Low Tilt in play.
Peewit leans against Levet’s marker stone, licks the white foam of salt on his lips. Before he’s off again the shout rises as Low Tilt’s neck falls like a dead man. It’s Skinning takes it, a clean slice and all stalks down, but no blood spilt. The man sheathes his blade. It’s a blessing to win the neck, but it’d please his woman more to take the moon down, hare and holding.
This hare is young and strong, doubling back to send the men up towards Crabbits’ holding and then by magic she’s across the ground behind them, ears raised and nostrils aquiver. Carter cuts around the stubble edge, sees the doe whip through a gorse clump and then it’s a cry for Leasow from the leaders, running sunwards to head her off.
Falk watches from the bridge as Stag races up the slope from the ford, drops into the Leasow ditch and out of sight and it’s the hare that breaches first, loping up out of the ditch and along the boundary, the men trying to drive her into cover. Gort and Fenny sprint past Quabb for the standing corn. The hare spins on her hind legs, and suddenly she’s back across the ditch and through onto Cattlebank, Leasow’s neck still untouched.
Tom Quabb’s looking back at the sheaf like he can’t swallow its meaning. The men spit as they run past it, dry as they are, Gort and Fenny away before the ill-luck falls to them. Stag leaps from tussock to tussock, keeping ahead of them all, and nothing to do but follow his lead, with the hare gone from view.
Cattlebank and High Tilt next, and Stag races through both holdings, circling the standing corn and the men behind him too slow to catch sight of the doe running through. Mouse takes his own neck, swinging his blade against the sun as he does so, but Crabbit’s neck is too poor to stand for the reap, and falls windwards before Plover can claim his first cut.
Girdin drops to hands and knees, coughing up dirt. The hare has broken cover, is bounding back down the slope towards Goose Foot. Crabbit’s sideways gait lets him take the quicker line this time, the other runners crossing the top of the ridge so they can come down from above. Deep in Goose Foot the men regroup, spreading out nice and quiet. The corn is trampled, the doe nowhere to be seen.
Steady now, steady. Seven more holdings to get her through and an uphill finish by the looks of it. Gort’s neck falls to him unchallenged and the shout goes up. Skinning is sweating now, his land up at the Long Dip, and no-one wanting to be the final stand, the place where it all ends.
Butt and the Caller look from the bridge, see the running line cross the hill into the Quarter with Fenny‘s bald head at the front now, the widow’s lad out of sight again.
You’d be expecting that of him, says Falk, fast as he is.
Peewit’s dropped back now too, limping home westwards for other men to drive the hare onto his land. Beyond him, the pale head of Gort, turning back from Plover’s holding with a dark shape held in his fist. He heads down towards the Nap behind Peewit and even from the bridge you can make out the long ears of it.
Will we be having that, Falk? says the smith.
The Caller takes a grass blade from his mouth and considers.
Let’s see now, he says.
The neck, the neck! The cry goes up from the Quarter, and the runners are scattered now, scouting for the new line. Falk knows throats are closing with dust, eyes are raw.
It’s a young’un’s game, this though, he says.
Butt and Falk see Gort signal the find, his arms flailing as he shouts.
The runners turn as one man, scramble back down into the Nap. The cornered animal twitches, ears flattened as it bolts into the cover of the standing neck. The men spread out, cover the field edges to block escape. The sheaf closes around the hare and Peewit knuckles his eyes. Gort’s stuck close enough to touch the neck, steps up now for the claim.
You’ll not hear a breath given except for Peewit’s rasping.
Gort tests his blade, and as he lifts it, Stag shouts. He is leaping above the long grass, arms wide.
You see the doe break cover from behind him, streak towards Hell’s End. Fenny swears and bursts out of the Nap at a run again, the others quick to fall behind. Stag is already sprinting back down again, away from the others as they make their way past him, Fenny cursing Gort as he pushes on uphill.
Wrong hare, shouts Girdin, but Gort is deaf to warning. His scythe whistles as he swings for the kill.
It’s the widow’s boy knocks the blade from Gort’s grasp, takes him hard onto the stubble. The orange dust wraps a suncloud about them both. Mouse swings a leg to clear the standing corn, spits for safety as the big buck leaps across his boot and into the gorse, and now Stag is up and away too, without a word.
Girdin stands over Gort, boot to neck.
Can’t tell balls from a cunny, then, says Girdin.
Peewit tugs his own scythe free of its leather, slashes at the standing corn until the chaff whirls up and he’s blind for weeping.
That’ll do, says Mouse. His hand is on the boy’s shoulder. Blade away careful, there’s a lad.
Girdin shifts his weight, leans towards Gort.
Five still to play for, you see, he says. And it’s the mother runs through all. You mind your own balls, lad. Hard to stay alive hereabouts if she don’t take a fancy to you.
Falk’s watching close, sees Gort scramble up alone, the rest of the runners through Hell’s End already, with Fenny not breaking stride as he takes his own neck with a single swing.
Skinning is hard on the scut, pressing it tight, driving her into the Long Dip and across the threshed ground. His kids stare as the men flush the hare past the tin privy and into thistles, but she’s still through the corn in one bound and it’s Levet has the legs in him to duck past Skinning and take his first neck, thin as it is this high up.
Only the fastest left in the running now, and Skinning drops back, content to have the mother run through. Gort is tracking uphill towards the widow’s, blade out, but it’s Silas finds the doe and pushes her windward, down through the quick thorn and onto his own land for safety.
Rudds’s neck drops and you hear the shout again. The hare’s yellow pelt is black with sweat but she can still bolt between Crabbit’s open legs and take a downward tilt, fast into the tall corn on the edge of Long Furrow. Carter’s almost there but his limbs are those of a dead man, his lungs raw with grit and dust. Others are closing in, the stragglers catching up. From the bridge Falk and Butt see Gort’s pale face high up towards the ridge, creeping from thorn to thorn. Ahead of the mother, spits the smith, but Falk can see for himself, see the sin.
Fenny has his scythe in hand. Maybe not the last hold of the run, Carter’s, but everyone knows it’s the best land hereabouts. You’d not be blamed for making an end of it here like Carter himself did, back when he seized hare, neck, and holding, from old man Flay.
Fenny steps up and the harvest sun swells in front of him, blood-red against the blue. He swings blind, hears the shout start up as Carter’s neck falls clean behind the blade.
The stubble shifts and the doe rises from the flattened core. Carter is close enough to see the nostrils pumping, the inner ear scarlet with heat. Eyes flicker, black as silt. Mouse looks around in vain for Stag. Only the widow’s land’s waits, and there’s not a man standing that wants to be the one to take a hare off the widow.
Slowly those left fan out again. Time to make an end. She’s flushed easy enough now, weaving unsteadily as she’s forced uphill again, up towards the dark treeline and onto the widow’s ground. In the shadow of the widow’s hut the last sheaf of the run stands broad as a man, its stalks dark and cool where they meet the stubble. The hare lopes slowly across the last ridge in front of them. As the men come over the rise behind it Girdin spots the sheaf shake apart, then rest still. Mouse edges the neck on silent feet, signals the sunflash of metal deep within the corn.
Girdin counts heads. Carter, Fenny, Mouse, Crabbit and himself in at the finish, taking their time, each of them, knowing now what must be done. The widow’s door is shut tight, the chimney cold. Crabbit shrugs. It’s a man’s game, after all.
Stag’s not with us. He speaks out loud, more for the form of it. No one answers but if you were standing close, you’d get his meaning. Know it was said.
Crabbit, Carter, Fenny, Mouse and Girdin in a circle. Each seven paces back from the neck, with a spit to their blades for safety.
Now lads, says Mouse, so quiet you’d strain to hear him. No swing, then, just a straight throw.
For the mother.
For the mother, say all.
Five scythes pierce the neck, tumble with the body onto the dust. Gort’s blood clots the fallen corn, soaks into the parched earth.
Then Fenny, Mouse, Grabbit, Carter, Girdin, they all see it. And if you look up to the ridge quick enough, you’ll see it too.
Against a golden sky, a rising sliver of moon, and below it the boy and old woman, leaping and dancing like hares.
Illustration by Melanie Jones
Gilli Fryzer is a writer who lives and works in rural Kent. Her short stories and poetry have been published by The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Earthlines, Word Factory, and Litro, as well as performed live at various venues. Her short story The Basket Weaver’s Tale was one of the prizewinning stories in the 2015 Word Factory/Neil Gaiman competition to write a modern fable. Her work reflects her fascination with the liminal spaces between the worlds of the natural and supernatural.