What Ye Sow by Joshua Keown
The scream splits the stillness of the balmy autumn night. It tears out from a raw throat, one that has become accustomed to pure, unfiltered agony of late. Though the noise is unmistakably human, it bears something of a bestial quality, bringing to mind the tortured yelp of a dying dog. In matters of life and death, man will always revert to his basest instincts. When civility and reason are stripped away, only the animal remains.
And this animal screams. It wails in torment.
Soon enough, a second voice lends its own howls to the barbaric din, and together they create a symphony of anguish and despair. The duet is joined in ghastly chorus by the family’s cattle dogs, who bark in tandem. As though interpreting this as a call to action, the crickets in the cornfields stridulate a mournful melody, an accompaniment to the sounds of suffering.
The racket rouses us from our slumber earlier than intended; the autumn equinox is still a day away. It’s no bother though—watching the peoplefolk always proves entertaining. The hellish sounds emanate from the farmstead’s barn; the man has been busy fashioning his guardian angels in there for several days. Morning, noon, and night, he toils away in preparation for our coming, just as he does every year. We wonder how he’d react if we were to tell him that these superstitious rituals are worthless.
Tonight though, our attention is not drawn to the outbuilding nor to the macabre shows he performs inside its four walls. We have observed the man’s brand of sadism so many times over that it has lost all appeal. Over the years, his hand has become a practiced one, and his process has become methodical, mechanical. He regards his angels as nothing more than cattle these days, fodder for the slaughter. Even the most talented artist loses his touch when his craft becomes a chore. What was once a delightful distraction for us has become a bore. We lose interest a little more each cycle.
No, tonight we leave the man to his devices in that makeshift abattoir, and instead approach his home. It has stood here for several centuries now, and we have watched its inhabitants come and go. This land, our patch of Hell on Earth, is known to the peoplefolk as the Idaho Panhandle. The man has lived here all his life, was born in this very house, just like the three generations of forefathers that preceded him. We snake our way up the white siding like creeper vines, and alight outside a dormer window on the second story of the farmhouse. There, with his pockmarked face pressed against the glass, the boy watches the barn with widened eyes. He too must have been woken from his sleep by the ruckus. The man’s family is all too familiar with his acts of barbarism, but until this night, the child has always managed to avoid witnessing it directly.
Though we are mere inches from the boy’s face, separated only by a single pane of glass, he cannot see us. Nobody here sees us unless we desire, and we do not desire so very often; we are much more comfortable playing the passive observer. Though we have been here with the man since his inception, he has only glimpsed us a handful of times. His father before him was never graced with the sight of our true form. The boy has yet to bear witness to us, though perhaps this is the year that changes.
It’s the boy’s curiosity that stokes our own. His gaze is fixed on the barn, but his expression is difficult to gauge. We wonder what he’s thinking right now. Sometimes, he can be read like an open book, but tonight a black cloud hangs heavy over his mind and obfuscates his thoughts. We study the lines furrowed into his brow, the sunken black pits of his eyes. The boy is barely thirteen, yet those eyes have seen horrors unimaginable to all but the most depraved of minds. But this, etched into his features as he watches, is it disgust? Or is it perhaps fascination?
Below us, the man creeps out from the barn, as unaware of his son’s eyes on him as he is of ours. His face is concealed beneath a dirty sackcloth mask and the butcher’s apron he wears is discolored by various bodily fluids. Most of it is blood, ranging from the stark maroon of his most recent exploits through to the blackened splatters that are well over a decade old. We think that if the stains were to be isolated, it would be possible to date them like the rings on the inside of a tree; through this gory tapestry, we could trace the man’s victims all the way back to the first, some sixteen years prior.
The outsiders had turned up here just over a week ago. Their cacophony preceded them, carried across the cropland on the breeze. Distasteful music screeched from the tinny speakers of the campervan they rode in, accompanied by their braying and hollering. They numbered five, and were just as loud and obnoxious as their taste in music. Festivalgoers, the man would learn, out-of-state city folk lost in the Idaho backwoods on their way down to Sun Valley. Liberal types from Seattle, they did little to endear themselves to the man, but he bit his tongue. Their arrival had been most fortuitous, as the man had yet to procure his offerings to the harvest. He thanked us for our gracious boon, but truthfully, their coming here was mere coincidence. If indeed it was fate, then it was something even greater than us that had orchestrated it.
Of the quintet, only two saw this morn’s dawn. Three had already been made into angels, and tonight the fourth and final joins the heavenly host. All that remains is Eve, Eve the pure, Eve the virginal. The man always chooses different biblical names for his guardian angels, but the harvest sacrifice remains the same, always a female, always re-christened as Eve. This girl is the sixteenth.
The man scans the horizon, then flicks his eyes over to the house. Wisely, the boy ducks down below the sill just as his father’s gaze reaches his bedroom window. He lets his stare linger for a minute or so, and we can feel the boy’s heart pounding against his ribcage. For a brief moment, all is still: the sounds from the barn fade to dull whimpers, the dogs settle down, even the crickets silence their songs.
A beat passes. Two. Then, satisfied that his actions have gone unseen, the man turns on his heel and re-enters the barn before hauling his latest creation out. In a past life, this young man was called Brad, but now he has been reborn as Raphael. Tonight, Raphael will rejoin his friends as one of the man’s angels; he will stand sentinel on the farm’s perimeter, dead eyes pointed at the fields. Toward our domain.
Although his methods have become tedious, the end result remains a work of morbid beauty, and we can’t help but marvel as he drags the angel to its new home. There is scant evidence to suggest the technique was ever practiced but nonetheless, the man took the Norse ritual of the blood eagle and altered it to suit his purposes. Within his bloody workshop, he severs and splits the ribs from the spinal column then pulls the lungs out through the aperture, thus giving the impression of wings.
At the point where clearing meets field, a large wooden cross lies flat in the grass, waiting. After much exertion and cussing, the man binds the angel to it, then hammers nails through the palms and the feet. He takes care when he secures the lungwings in place, the act almost one of reverence. The man is God, bestowing the gift of flight to his chosen adherents.
Inside, the boy is so focused on the scene unfolding before him that he does not notice the woman, his mother, entering the bedroom. Not until it is too late, anyway. She lumbers across the room, her gait thrown off by the belly swollen with child. With the back of her hand, she strikes him across the cheek, sending him sprawling across the mattress.
“What the hell are you still doing up, you sniveling little shit?” She snarls, tombstone teeth mere inches from his face, spittle hitting the already reddened cheek.
“No, please don’t Ma, I’m sorry! I’m sorry Ma!” He whimpers, but his pleas fall on deaf ears. She hits him again, once, twice, thrice. We look away. Though he is her own flesh and blood, the fruit of her loins, the woman hates the boy with fervor. It is not that the boy is a troublesome sort; on the contrary, he does all he can to avoid the ire of his parents.
She hates the boy, for he is an embodiment of the moral decay that infests this place. He is the sins of the father brought to life, a manifestation of his evil. And yet, she could never find the right words to articulate her resentment, for how does one tell a child you are both his mother and sister?
So, like many things in this household, the truth is left unspoken, and the mutual loathing festers. She expresses herself not with words, but with bruises. When he is alone in his room at night, the boy sits and wonders why the woman hates him so, and sometimes he weeps about it, and othertimes he feels that rage and that hatred too. Most often though, the boy will lie in his bed and he will think about what life would be like without the man and the woman. He will think about sneaking into their bedroom and holding a pillow over their heads, or taking the 20 gauge shotgun his father keeps in the toolshed and blowing a cavity into their chests. Perhaps he would use the hunting knife his father gave him on his tenth birthday to dig around in those cavities and find out for himself if either of them really had hearts beating in there.
This is one such night. The boy buries himself under the duvet, face flushed and slick with burning tears. He fantasizes, oh how he fantasizes, such a warped imagination. He curses his parents to any god that might listen, and listen we do, and we hatch a little scheme of our own. Perhaps a change is long overdue, we think. Maybe it is time for the son to oust the father. We lean in close, and we murmur into the boy’s ear. We stoke the choleric furnace and coax his darkest desires from the pits in which they dwell.
The equinox approaches. One night remains.
A new day dawns. In the kitchen, the woman sips lukewarm coffee and stares out the bay window at nothing in particular. The man sits at the dinner table, a pipe resting in the crook of his mouth. He chuckles softly to himself whilst he reads the newspaper, a private joke for him and him alone. The woman avoids eye contact and says nothing to him; she has learned not to disturb him of a morning.
Though we cannot see the paper from where we linger, we know that were we to approach, were we to lean over his shoulder and take a peek for ourselves, we would see that the headline reads, “ANGELMAKER UPHOLDS MACABRE YEARLY TRADITION.” We would also note that the articles are dated for almost a year prior. The man repeats this ritual every year without fail, for he is both a creature of habit and the nostalgic sort.
Once they have fulfilled their purpose, the man takes his angels the next state over to discard them, where they are inevitably found. We think the man gets a thrill from it; he fetishizes the reputation as much as he does the bloodletting itself.
The paper he reads is not today’s, but rather that which details his sordid exploits of yesteryear, the last time his annual offering was made. An oblation to us, the gods of this territory. His kin had taken to calling us the Harvesters, a name we feel is befitting. Our relationship with his forebearers spans generations; it could be traced all the way back to when they first settled here, sometime in the early 19th Century. Before that, this land was inhabited by a tribe of the Nez Percé. Their names for us were much less pleasant, and they had no interest in any sort of alliance. The displacers were far more agreeable.
Though there is much we still do not understand about the peoplefolk, tradition is something we have learned much about. It is something practiced in all of their cultures, this passing down of rituals. Through repetition, these beliefs, no matter how abstract or bizarre, become de facto. They become gospel. The man does not know why he does what he does, never stops to question the absurdity of it all; he only knows that he must. This is his heritage, passed down from father to son for generations. He must preserve the tradition.
Take the virgin, for instance. There is a perceived divinity in the pure, the unblemished, and the peoplefolk believe this is what we crave. In truth, we couldn’t care less about the form the sacrifice takes, we simply find that we have quite the ravenous appetite after a year of slumber. This custom is as useless as his crucified angels; if we wished to flay the hides from their bones, those pathetic scarecrows would grant no protection. Despite these facts, the man will offer us the sacrifice of Eve Sixteen tonight, a gift we will be expected to graciously accept. Then he and his family will be safe for another cycle, as the tradition dictates.
However, we have a feeling things may go differently this year. Here comes the boy; he is creeping his way downstairs. His mother, physically here but mentally adrift, pays him no mind. His father is too lost in his reveries to notice, even as the boy sneaks out the back door behind him, down the dirt path and toward the barn. Our curiosity piqued, we leave the pair to their uncomfortable silence and pursue the child.
We crowd inside the outbuilding and regard the boy with keen interest; he is crouched down by the fence of the large livestock pens. This is where the man keeps his victims before the metamorphosis. Before he transforms them into angels. The boy is eye to eye with the girl, and is struggling to keep her quiet as she babbles incoherent word vomit. Her voice is nasal, her tone high-pitched, and she teeters on the brink of tears. We can sense the boy’s frustration, and it is infectious. For a brief moment, we consider revealing ourselves and tearing her head from her shoulders, if only to stop the infernal noise.
“God, will you shut up? Just shut the hell up and listen to me!” The terseness of the boy’s tone shocks the girl, but it does the trick. He pinches the bridge of his nose as she sniffles.
They sit in awkward silence for a minute or two, and then the boy sighs. Leaning forward, he caresses Eve’s face with his fingertips as he tells her, “Look, I’m here to help. I promise. I want out of here just the same as you. But you’ve gotta trust me, okay?” She doesn’t—not entirely, anyway—but still she nods.
His fingers move to stroke her hair and in hushed tones, the boy relays his plan. It is a maladroit one, we think, but it excites us all the same. We collectively quiver with anticipation.
Tomorrow is the night of the equinox.
The cockerel is yet to crow and the sun has barely peeked above the horizon, yet the couple is already awake. For them—and for us—today marks the most important day of the year. The equinox is here, and today is the day the Harvesters come to reap.
In the kitchen, the man devours a breakfast fit for royalty. The woman had toiled in the wee dark hours of the morning to prepare it, for her husband shall need his strength today. She wants nothing to do with us, and is sewing in the living room. At first, we vow to spend the entire day watching over the boy with thousands of eager eyes—we wouldn’t want to miss a single moment of what he has planned, after all—but the boy does nothing. Nothing at all. He sits on the edge of his bed in silence, head bowed to his chest. Hours trickle by. Growing impatient, our tendrils poke and prod inside his head, but just as it had the previous night, a fog obscures his thoughts. His mind refuses to betray even a morsel, and we soon get bored of trying.
Frustrated with the boy, we cast out from the farmhouse and down to the barn. Here we find the man; done with breakfast, he is now busy preparing Eve Sixteen for tonight. He strips the girl nude, then hoses her down as he would an animal. The yelps she makes only elicit a hyena-like cackle, and as she towels herself down, the man leers. The rest of the afternoon is spent making her look presentable—divine, even. Sixteen is made to wear an off-white gown, simple and plain, but beautiful nonetheless; she might even be the most radiant of all the Eves. The man is surprisingly gentle as he does up her hair, and when he is finished, he forces a crown of barbed wire around her head; the same crude crown of thorns is worn by her angel-made friends. He stands back to appraise his handiwork, and we find ourselves lost in admiration too. The tears streaked down her cheeks, the gag in her mouth, the binds on her ankles and wrists—even they do not dispel the similitude of a goddess.
Ourselves and the man are preoccupied with the girl; we do not hear the creak of the barn door, we do not see the boy slip inside. Nor do we notice as he picks up the shovel propped by the wall. The man barely has time to turn around before the flat metal head connects with his nose and shatters the cartilage. He’s out cold instantly, and the boy wastes no time in cutting Eve loose. As the girl sobs quietly to herself he darts around the room, collecting some last-minute things. From a rack on the wall, he removes a sickle, then he approaches the prone man. It takes a minute of fishing around in his father’s pockets for the boy to find what he’s looking for: the keys to the man’s pick-up truck. Straightening up, he glances from the man to Eve; she is near catatonic. He does not look back to see if the girl follows as he leaves the barn, but she does. As do we.
In the front yard of the farm, the boy fumbles with the truck’s keys and swears under his breath. Eve has started spewing nonsense again, a bubble of snot clinging to her nose.
“Hurry, goddammit!” she bawls. “He could wake at any moment!”
“Fuck, I’m trying, I’m trying!”
On the house’s wraparound, one hand against a support beam and the other bracing her distended belly, the woman screams invective and curses the boy’s name to the heavens. She knows there will be hell to pay for all of them when the man appears. As if on cue, he lurches from the side of the house, eyes wide and wild, lips twisted into a snarl. The man has retrieved the shotgun from the toolshed and is aiming the barrel at the boy. The growl he makes is low and guttural; when civility and reason are stripped away, only the animal remains.
“Get away from the truck, boy, ‘afore I put a slug through you,” he barks.
Eve Sixteen lets the tears flow freely now. The boy simply looks skyward. Their escape has failed. It is all over. We glower, for it seems we were wrong about the boy. We hate being wrong. From the edge of the clearing, the man’s host of crucified angels seems to scowl in disapproval too. Ah well, it was most amusing while it lasted.
But something happens that we could not have foreseen. The boy steps up behind Eve, sickle drawn. He raises the blade to her throat and before the man has time to react, slices a gaping, jagged maw across it. Red froth bubbles and flows from both of her mouths before she hits the mud.
“Christ!” is all the man can think to say, as he drops the shotgun and bounds over to the girl. He clamps both of his hands around her neck, but the gore simply oozes through his fingers. She is dead within the minute. Head cradled in his red hands, the man weeps.
“You stupid son of a bitch. You’ve done gone doomed us all,” he mutters, eyes unfocused. Eyes that do not see as his son slips by him and toward the firearm. We feel that shiver of exhilaration again. Whisper our approval, coax him onward. From the veranda, the woman wails.
“Turn around.” It is the boy who speaks now, tone flat. Callous.
The man does. Then finds himself staring down the end of the shotgun. His lips move to say something but before the words are formed, the boy lowers the barrel and fires. At such close range, the slug blasts the man’s leg clean off and leaves nothing but a stump. Blood pumps and gushes as he howls and bellows.
This moment seems most opportune for us to reveal ourselves, so we do. The theatricality of our entrance excites us, and our spectators are stunned silent. The boy’s mouth hangs open. The woman shrieks herself hoarse. The man grovels in the dirt like a dog, in spite of his ruined leg. His hands cupped above his head in servility. We have never seen ourselves as we do not cast any reflection, but the peoplefolk have depicted us in their art for centuries: in carvings and sculptures, cave paintings to watercolors. Our body is an ill-defined mass, tenebrous and ever-shifting. It shimmers with an otherworldly iridescence. From this bulk, protrusions extend. They bear a semblance to the human form, figures in silhouette; they are the souls of those we have claimed in times past. Countless eyes, black and beady, on countless faces. Our name is legion, for we are many.
“You have failed us.” Though we speak from a hundred different points our voices unite as one, booming and imperious. Once more, we relish the dramatics. This place is our playhouse, the family our audience. “The offering is already dead. She is worthless to us now.”
“Hold on! You can have that little bastard,” The man splutters, face warped by pain and fury. He jabs a thumb in the boy’s direction, then rasps, “Take him instead!”
“No,” we reply, “We cannot take the boy, for he is impure.”
It is the truth. The boy has been defiled, desecrated by his father in more ways than one. Of course, we could still take him, but we keep up the charade. This year’s events have been the most thrilling in decades, and we wish to see them through to the bitter end. The man grimaces and hawks thick globs of blood. He is defeated and out of options, or so he thinks. His son is smarter, smarter than we gave him credit for too.
“Take the three of them,” the boy spits, and his voice is laced with venom. All traces of timidity are long gone. “Just leave me be, and you can have ’em all.”
It takes us a moment to understand, but when we do, something akin to glee blossoms inside of us. The three of them: father, mother, and the unborn child. An unblemished soul. A fulfillment of the meaningless custom. The boy follows the rules of the game, and restores our belief that he is ready. The son will replace the father. If we had lips, we would smile at his guile. We are starved—a hunger stoked by our year-long hibernation—and blinded by our greed, we take the boy’s offer without pause.
The man whimpers feebly, for he knows what comes next, has seen it happen many times over. We have something else in mind for him though. With little effort, we pick the man up and cast him deep into the cornfields, far from the farmhouse and the road. Far from any hope of salvation. He can be dealt with later; if the open wound doesn’t take him, the elements will. Either would be amusing for us to watch.
Our tendrils wrap and coil around the woman’s petite frame, hoisting her into the air. We squeeze, tighter and tighter. Watching as her face shifts from red, to purple, to blue. Still we do not loosen our grip, not until the woman bursts in an explosion of viscera and gore. She is consumed entirely, her soul added to our collection. Our body shudders, a sensation of euphoria brought on by the bloodletting.
In the chaos and pandemonium, we barely register the boy. Seizing the opportunity, he dives into the pick-up and forces the keys into the ignition. The car doesn’t start on the first few attempts, but we are too engrossed by our feast to pay much notice: only the animal remains. By the time we have regained our senses, the vehicle is hurtling down the dirt track, kicking up a cloud of dust in its wake. The boy has abandoned us. Betrayed us. Loping through the corn and wheat, we try to pursue him, but the truck moves too fast. Our efforts are futile.
We watch the boy as he shrinks into the distance, and were we capable of feeling any such thing, we might’ve called this moment a forlorn one. So certain were we, that he would uphold the family tradition, that he would perpetuate this legacy of bloodshed. With him gone, all that remains is this house and earth, tainted by its history of violence.
And us, of course. But what will become of us now? Will others come to inhabit this place, and we be granted more playthings? What if the peoplefolk learn of its sordid past? Will they bring their cruel steel machines and level this cursed land? Will they leave us with naught but the dying crops and barren pastures for company?
For the first time in our eon-spanning existence, we feel something. Something tangible and unwelcome. We feel afraid, so very afraid.
“Come back,” our voices cry in unison, the pick-up no more than a pinprick on the horizon. “Don’t leave us here alone.”
It’s too late, we realize. Our pleas fall on the deaf and indifferent cornfields. The boy is gone, long gone. Flown the nest for pastures new. His future is uncertain, but ours is starting to look very dark. The fear inside us expands into a cavernous abyss. It threatens to devour us from inside out. We reap what we have sown.
Joshua Keown lives on the outskirts of the North York Moors with his feral little hound of hell, Lola. Despite his proximity to Whitby and a lifetime aversion to being out in the sun, he would like it to be known that he is definitely not a vampire. Joshua has always been an avid enthusiast of the horror genre in all its forms, and he now writes ghastly, ghoulish stories of his own. His short story Krodha can be found in the Wild Violence anthology from Blood Rites Horror, and his debut novella, Maggot Brain, is coming soon, for which the full details can be found on his personal site, Night Terror Novels. Joshua can be found prowling almost every corner of the internet in some capacity, but is most easily reached on Instagram and Twitter @JDKAuthor.