Welcome to the Night Harvest. For the entire month of October, we’ll be featuring scary stories and illustrations from talented authors and artists around the globe. I hope you stay awhile. After all, the Night Harvest is quite a scream. You can see the live list of participants and their posts dates on this link.
Follow the buzz on twitter using the official hashtag #NightHarvest. Oh, and don’t forget to scroll to the bottom of this post for a giveaway!
The Girl in the Tree
by Colleen Britton
The trees cast no shadows with the setting of the sun, a wan, white disc that was neither bright nor warm. Mist wove through the trunks and beaded on the fingertips of the branches and along the apple skins. It was the eve of November, and the harvest was about to begin.
A girl sat in the crook of a tree, kicking her feet and blowing on cold hands. Her breath whistled through her fingers like the cry of a mourning dove. She wore her hair in two braids over her shoulders, and her clothes were a rumple of patchwork. A coarse cloth bag hung at her waist.
A lantern hung from the branch above her. It glowed brighter and more brilliant as darkness descended, casting a golden pool on the beaten grass beneath the tree. Shadows appeared, crawling out from unseen places. But the girl was not afraid. She was waiting.
She had been waiting an entire year for this night, just as she had waited every year, for many years. The people in the village beyond the trees used to wait, too. Once, they would have lit fires and sang songs in a language they no longer remembered. But not now. Those days had long since passed, and the memory of the girl was passing, too. Swinging her feet, she could almost taste the crackling smoke of the ancient bone fires.
The first to come arrived after vespers. A hulking shape that appeared in the darkness and settled just beyond the lantern light. It was a hut, if you could even call it that, on chicken feet. The feet scratched at the earth, then settled down like a hen over her nest. After a moment, the ragged cloth over the doorway twitched, and a withered crone stepped nose-first into the night.
“Good evening,” said the girl.
The crone narrowed her birdlike black eyes. Skirts dragging on the wet grass, she approached the tree with the help of a knotty walking stick. The girl knew better—this woman needed no help. She stood, chewing her gums, scrutinizing the apples on the tree.
“It’s a fine harvest this year,” said the girl. She thrust out her hand. “What have you brought me for one of my apples?”
The crone screwed up her face, working her jaw as if she would speak. She did not. Instead, she opened her palm, and from thin air, produced an egg, its shell black and cracked. The girl took it, and shook it next to her ear. Something rattled inside and uttered dark oaths in a gravelly voice.
“I accept,” said the girl, slipping the egg into her bag.
The crone pushed her open hand toward the girl, clutching her fingers expectantly.
“Of course, of course,” said the girl. She reached up into the branches of the tree and picked an apple. Its golden skin seemed to glow in the lantern light. “Take this,” she said. “Use it as you will.”
The crone snatched it from her with lightning quickness. She snuffled it with her long nose. Apparently satisfied, she gave the slightest of nods, the barest respects. With that, she turned and galloped back to her hut, her knotty stick all but forgotten. She disappeared behind the cloth, and the hut shot up on its chicken feet. Digging its claws into the earth, it darted into the night.
The girl patted the egg through the bag. It snarled curses at her, but she paid it no mind. It was a promising start. She laughed like the tinkling of bells. The leaves rustled in the trees.
At the witching hour, hoof beats rang out against the frost-hardened ground. A horse pulling a vardo emerged from the darkness. Its driver, a bent old woman, hauled back on the reins, jerking the animal to a stop. She crawled down the wagon wheel, and the girl slid out of the tree to meet her.
“You got a new horse,” said the girl. She patted its foamy neck, admiring its rolling human eyes.
“A fine one, yes. It’s the innkeeper,” said the old woman. “I wore the blacksmith out.”
The girl stroked the trembling creature. “A shame,” she said. “But come, friend. What have you brought me?”
The old woman pulled a paper-wrapped package out of the folds of her cloak. She handed it to the girl. “Gingerbread,” she said. “Spicy and sweet, from the shingles of my house.”
The girl put the gingerbread into her bag. The old woman brought the same thing every year, but that was alright. She was very old—although not nearly as old as she—and the girl knew that sometimes, when you got old, you forgot things. What gifts you gave, the languages you once spoke, and the smell of bone fires.
“Thank you,” said the girl. She reached up into the tree, and picked an apple with brilliant green flesh. It was the kind you could cover with caramel to cover what was inside. “Take this. Use it as you will.”
The old woman accepted the apple gratefully, and the two beamed at each other like a grandmother to her ancient daughter. Then the girl helped her climb back into her wagon, and as soon as her old friend had settled, she landed a sharp smack on the horse’s rump. Its human eyes rolled, and it bolted into the night.
As the girl clambered back up into the branches, she couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. The egg and the gingerbread were both good, but once she had received more and better. When times were wilder and the bone fires burned high. When people still believed in the girl in the tree. No matter. Dawn was hours off yet. There was still time.
The black of night began to pale. Soon, bakers would rise to make their bread, and holy men would chant their matins. The girl blew another breath through her hands. Somewhere, a mourning dove answered.
Nighttime was nearly over, and only the two had come. Once, people would have fought to see her, offering anything to take part in the harvest. Animals, blood, children. Now it was cursed eggs and paltry sweets, gifts fit for something far less than she. It seemed even the nightwalkers were starting to forget. The girl leaned her cheek on her fist and sighed. She would wait just a little longer.
All but the brightest of the stars had vanished when the girl heard the footsteps. A fox, she thought, or a cat, but as it stepped into the lantern light, she could see it was a woman. A very pretty, actually beautiful woman, wearing beautiful clothes. She held up her skirts as she walked, and picked her way carefully through the grass. The girl had never seen her before.
“Are you lost?” she asked, leering down from the tree.
The beautiful woman dropped the hem of her skirts. She smoothed them, then clasped her hands in front of her. “I have something,” she said. “For you.”
The girl smiled. “Go home, child. You know not what you ask.”
The beautiful woman lifted her chin, eyes haughty. She was clearly not used to being told what to do. “I won’t leave until you give me what I came for.”
The girl laughed, the tinkling of bells. “I’ll give you another chance—are you sure you’re not lost?”
The beautiful woman flushed with anger, red spots staining white cheeks. “I know what you are. And I know what you do. Take my offering, and give me one of your apples.”
The girl slipped out of the tree and meandered toward the beautiful woman. Such rudeness from someone who claimed to know her! She held out her hand. “What have you brought me?”
The beautiful woman looked down at her as though she were a beggar. She pulled a purse from her belt and shook five gold coins into the girl’s open palm. The girl stared at them.
“Is that not enough?” asked the woman with a sneer.
The girl turned her hand, tipping the coins onto the ground. “That you would offer such a thing tells me you do not know who you’re dealing with,” she said. “But, perhaps we can strike a deal.”
The beautiful woman eyed the coins in the grass. She lifted her gaze back to the girl. “What do you want?”
“First,” said the girl, “tell me why you want one of my apples. Why have you come to the harvest?”
The beautiful woman’s pretty mouth twisted. “My business is my own.”
Such manners would have made the girl angry once. In another time, she might have risen up and done something terrible, something they would remember for years to come. But she only shrugged and turned back toward her tree.
“There is a girl,” the beautiful woman said quickly. “My husband’s daughter. She is the fairest—”
The girl shared a private smile with the shadows. She waved her hand, silencing the beautiful woman. “Say no more. I’ll give you what you came for.”
Jealousy was such a pitiful thing, but it was also full of power. She went back to her tree and searched its branches, fists on her hips. At last, she found what she was looking for—an apple, bright and red. She plucked it and offered it to the beautiful woman. The sight of it made her pretty eyes grow big, and even the girl’s own mouth watered. The temptation to take even one bite was terrible.
“Take this,” said the girl. “Use it as you will. I ask for nothing in return.”
The beautiful woman wondered at it, transfixed. Her gaze shifted slowly back to the girl. “Why do you take nothing for it?”
The beautiful woman’s face was pale now, and there was a hungry look about her. A starving fox. A skinny cat.
The girl held the fruit at arm’s length. Hesitantly, the beautiful woman reached out and took the apple. She cupped it in both hands, its shiny red skin reflecting onto her face. The color of blood.
The girl only smiled. “Go. It is nearly dawn, and there’s no time to waste.”
The beautiful woman, unused to orders, flushed again. She began to stoop as if to pick up the coins, but she picked up her skirts instead, clutching the apple to her chest. She did not look back as she fled into the trees.
The girl scooped up one of the coins and bit it. The soft gold bent under her sharp teeth. She flipped it into the grass, a grin splitting her face. The beautiful woman thought she had gotten something for nothing, but the true price would be paid when the apple was bitten. It didn’t matter if the she succumbed and ate it or if she fed it to her fair stepdaughter. It was a blood sacrifice one way, the sale of a soul the other. A true offering, a good offering, one from days of old. The beautiful woman could never forget the girl in the tree for as long as she lived and after. That alone would keep the memory of the bone fires warm for years to come.
Humming an ancient song, the girl swung up into the branches. She turned the lantern down, drowning the wick, bathing herself in shadow. A cool wind shook the trees, and a few wizened apples dropped to the ground. The first hint of morning appeared in the sky, a white blush that promised nothing. It was November now, and the harvest was over.
Anyone may enter the giveaway. This includes the artist and writers contributing to the Night Harvest, as well as the readers of the stories. Enjoy!