The Harvest Queen

Mollie Ficek

MAR Vol. XXXIII, no. 2

It was early September, the air cooling from the burn of summer sun, when Priscilla Fischer, that bag of a woman, drove her car into a dry ditch. After hours, and the inability to pry her bulk from the seat or call a car down the empty road, she died behind the wheel from overcooking her heart, the meat of her settling into the driver’s seat for as long as she would come to know of forever. Priscilla was our schoolteacher.

Her funeral was held at the Presbyterian Church, and Pastor Mark was kind enough to keep it short. The children stayed home for less than a week, running whirlwinds around their mothers’ kitchens and trampling trails through their fathers’ lawns. Then, with the urgency only a farmer’s wife can wield, the call went out—over the long electric lines and into the city—seeking a new teacher for the Haley Township School. Our school had just enough chairs to hold the behinds of the last generation of Haley. And it was our lone teacher’s work to build these small minds until the age of fourteen, when they would drive off to the next county, in carloads of their inattentive friends, and either die around a sharp bend in the road or graduate from high school.

Besides our school, Haley has little. One street crosses one other. On the first sits a line of churches—the Presbyterian, the Episcopalian, the Catholic, and the Methodist—three of which have silenced their long-rung bells and locked their windows. Unless there is a funeral, Sunday service is held at the Presbyterian, the church with the strongest roof. As a concession to our dwindling congregations (and the accidental hanging death of our priest, Father Ivan), when one of us passes from this life into some other, Pastor Mark does the dead respect, and lays that soul to rest in scripture under the roof of their own church. Every other Sunday and the days in between, each erected stand of rubble is inhabited only by squirrels, and mice, and the souls of the dead if they decide to stay awhile. Beyond the churches, an old bank lies barren and wishing repair of an antique window. The cross street leads past the burned-down bar to the grain elevators, their cylindrical steeples reaching ever high. Train tracks like stitched wounds pass between the elevators and cut on through the flat land.

It was early September, and harvest had begun. Semi-trucks of wheat—sprung from fields all over the county—dumped their spoils, and trains long as winter nights took them away, whips of dust trailing behind them as they rolled.

Shortly after our call was made, it was answered, and Rabina drove to the city to collect our new teacher. Rabina, known for her sound disposition and rigid self-composure, took to her just blushingly at first. Only after settling the woman and her meager belongings into the upstairs apartment where she was to board, and inviting her down for a late dinner of beef stew and biscuits, did Rabina lose her poise and give in to the gossip she so stoutly despised to telephone her sister and tell her everything she knew about the beautiful stranger.

Word traveled how word does in small towns. Soon, we all knew her name was Gloria. That she was young—how young we didn’t know—and quiet, and something about her made Rabina, a woman who refused a handkerchief at her own lover’s funeral, talk so quickly she had to stop to catch her breath.

On Monday the children returned from school and barely ate dinner, every vegetable and forkful of hotdish pushed away, even dessert abandoned for words in their hurried mouths.

We love her, they said.

What did you learn today? we said.

We learned Miss Gloria’s hair is the color of snowflakes or rabbit fur or fresh milk.

No, lightning strikes, said Mary.

No, the moon in all its fullness against the blackest sky, said Maryann.

What did you learn in math? we said, a subject they suffered through.

Miss Gloria has over two thousand hairs on her arm, said Henry.

Miss Gloria has two beautiful eyes and two beautiful ears and two beautiful lips and two beautiful legs and two beautiful—

Tell us about science class, we said.

Han thought for a moment. You see, the chemistry of love is a complex thing. It first begins with pheromones, with smell.

Miss Gloria smells like apricots and prairie plums, said Lonnie.

No, like honey and fresh water.

Our resolve wilting, we said, And in English class? Did you learn anything in English class?

Rory smiled and held his fork in midair, signaling a pause. When she reads to us, her voice sounds like harpsichords and heaven-made music.

It sounds like lullabies, said little Johnny.

It sounds like the sounds dreams make in your head when you’re sleeping.

Annie took a dreamy drink of water. It sounds like the quiet whistle of prairie grass in the springtime when you lie naked on the soft earth, the flowers stirring above you, and the sun white-hot on your skin, and in the distance you can hear the train’s steady rocking rhythm and the whole world feels for the first time electrified and alive in that moment, and moving in every atom and in every direction and in every cell of your bare body. It sounds like that.

The children nodded their heads and cleaned their plates and floated off to bed. We stayed up late and frowned at one another.

After two days of this mysterious spell, afraid it would break but also afraid it wouldn’t—curious to know the cause, and mildly concerned for the educational wherewithal of the children—the rest of us set out to be introduced. A meeting was called at the Methodist, the church with the largest hall, to meet this infamous Miss Gloria. The whole town showed, even those without children. Hamil Grates, the hermit, even left from his hole and joined us, sipping iced tea and leeching lemon bars. We arrived early, and she was late. The rest of us grew agitated in our anticipation, checking and rechecking the door.

Our anxiety dissolved when Gloria descended the stairs to join us. Our world was magnified, altered forever. Those of us sitting, stood. Those of us standing, moved instantly toward her. Rabina, in her late- night phone calls, had done her no justice. She was everything the children said and more. She was pale as the moment before fainting, her blond hair like the white-star of a welding flame. She was walking magic—pink-lipped and vibrating light. She quickened something in each of us that blushed our cheeks and dried out our mouths. We hurried to hear her speak her name to us. Gloria—the name, a round thing that forced the tip of our tongues to the back of our teeth before releasing wide, like a mouth parted in prayer. Gloria. We rushed to extend our hands to her like a gift we hoped she would accept.

Gloria made her way around the room, her hand delicate as any flower. And most of us lingered there, her hand in ours, happy to be attached to her in some way. We begged her to drink coffee, to try desserts we cursed ourselves for not making better, and she thanked us, graciously nibbling on some of everything.

By the time the evening was through—the rest of us willing to stay all night, but the mistress of our attention tiring—Gloria had received the first of her proposals. Delmar, the soft and impatient fool he was, wouldn’t let go. He asked for her hand in marriage while he still held it. And Gloria laughed, a laugh that sent electricity down the cables of our spines, and heat into the most private parts of our anatomy. A laugh we wished would linger, a steady vibration against the drums inside our ears. But she pulled her hand away and thanked us all and declined everyone but Rabina from walking her home.

We stumbled home and lay awake, bodies buzzing, minds replaying each moment in the hall, each possibility of a life with Gloria in it.

Delmar turned up the lights on his combine and mowed down his ready field, writing a relief of Gloria’s name like a crop circle in his spring wheat. Betty hesitated, too, as she stretched the blankets above her. She looked across the long bed at her husband, and for the first time in their forty-four-year marriage, imagined sharing that space with one extra person. Even Pastor Mark was moved. Gathering a group of the children together, he unlocked all four churches and timed them to pull the long ropes one, then the other, until a loud chime jangled throughout the town for everyone to hear. The bells rang loud and long into the night as if to thank God for what he delivered to us.

In the weeks to follow there was a pulse in Haley like we had never known, a current that perhaps even the longest dead did not remember. We ransacked packed closets, shook out discarded suits and skirts. Found ties and scarves and pantyhose. We cut and shaved and waxed and styled our hair. We fogged our living rooms and bathrooms with sprays of old perfume and cologne in hopes of finding the most alluring scent. We washed laundry, and ironed and mended, too. We raked our yards. We trimmed hedges and burned barrels of cut branches, and mowed long lawns. We painted on lipstick and dabbed on aftershave. We made up our faces and then our beds. We groomed. We preened. We scoured.

In the mornings, those of us with children walked them to school and lingered, only returning when Gloria’s kind words sent us home. We joined her, too, after classes—the children crowding around like ducklings, not one of them running on ahead. We took turns bringing gifts to Rabina’s home (fall flowers plucked from gardens, rich chocolate desserts, embroidered handkerchiefs and rings), and asked to call on Gloria on Friday and Saturday nights, along with every other. She was generous with her time at first—answering or shyly deflecting our questions, softly asking her own in return.

By the end of September, Gloria received eleven marriage proposals. And three more from Delmar who returned from the city one afternoon with her name inked across his hairy chest, under which pumped his idiot heart. One of the proposals was from George Hill—who called upon her through an open window, surrounded in the dark by candles that spelled out his question. His brother Davis used the last scraps of his inheritance to fill Haley with the music from ten orchestras from the city, playing day and night the Canon in D. Pastor Mark asked her during his Sunday sermon. Billy dressed up like his son Rory and took her hand during science class, asking for elopement while his wife Barb waited for them outside in the honeymoon getaway car. Rose proclaimed herself on hunger strike until Gloria answered—wasting her body away in the center of town so that we could all see her love and her anguish and the bones of her chest.

To all, she declined. But there was, however, one person with whom Gloria chose to spend her time. For some unrecognizable reason, she developed a fondness for, and quick friendship with, Hamil Grates. Hamil had closed his front door to the world after his wife and young daughter were found at the bottom of a stock pond in early spring some ten years prior, and we were, for the most part, happy for it. He withered away on his own and the rest of us didn’t have to bear witness. But somehow, it was Hamil, the old troll, who won Gloria’s affection.

Betty passed word that she had seen Hamil with his cane and Gloria, slowly along, walking the train tracks early one morning. Barb concurred. Out her window one afternoon, she saw the two in the hermit’s neglected backyard in conversation over coffee. Word spread like infection that Gloria herself had said she treasured the old man. As if he were some kind of companion. As if he were some kind of prize to win.

Soon, Hamil would join Gloria after school for a stroll, and she would all but ignore the rest of us with our white teeth and our combed hair and our perfumed collarbones. He didn’t bother to shave his foul beard, nor comb his wild hair. He invited her to his unkempt home, and dined at Rabina’s more and more each week, picking his teeth at the end of every meal. The current that sparked like a live wire through the cross streets of our small town was dimming, glowing ever fainter, and we, all decorated in our new desire, could feel it ebb.

The dead, too, must have felt it and grown greedy. For, on a chill night in early October, Hamil fell down a steep staircase in his own home and died there, at the bottom, his neck crooked as his useless cane waiting at the top.

Hamil’s funeral was held at the Catholic, the church with the longest aisle, and Gloria cried the entire length of it as Rabina walked her down. Pastor Mark extended the ceremonies, offering her time to say goodbye and allowing us to bear witness. Hamil was buried next to his wife and, like the rest of our dead, in the cemetery that grows ever wide on a green hill overlooking town. We tried to offer comfort, first with our shoulders and hands, and then with fistfuls of dirt over the coffin for closure. But Gloria was rigid, cold. She rejected our hands. She didn’t accept shoulders. She turned her wet eyes away from our gesture with the earth. Gloria walked home alone, and we trailed behind her, broken and consumed by our loss.

Not two days later, Gloria tried to leave Haley. She convinced Rabina to drive her back to the city, and the dumb woman could find no way to refuse her. Before they got far, Rabina’s car proved unreliable and when she pulled onto the stretch of blacktop that ran away from town, the engine lolled, then hummed, then failed altogether. It was fortunate that in his dimness, Delmar was on an afternoon drive to nowhere in particular and happened upon them. He was able to bring them safely home.

That night, the wind rose and the trees shook and the weather rumbled in the clouds and sent down lightning the color of Gloria’s hair, and sent down rain, too. The storm took the phone lines out, and they weren’t swiftly repaired. Two days later, Gloria was discovered tired and tangled in a high barbed-wire fence on the Hills’ forested land, a bag of her clothing already thrown over, free on the other side.

Gloria withdrew. She began to wear heavier clothes, scarves around her head and neck, and hats, bracing herself for a cold which had not yet come. She canceled afternoon classes, then days of school. She stopped attending Sunday service. It wasn’t long before Rabina refused to open her door, refused to take any more dishes of squash soup and our homeopathic remedies, or return empty Crock-Pots.

By mid-October, we hardly saw our Gloria. Our kitchens were dusty and yards cluttered with leaves left unattended from the storm. Rabina, too, stopped going out. She stopped her late-night phone calls. She became selfish, conspiratorial. She had been overheard saying that Gloria lived with her on the main level of the house, suggesting even that Gloria reminded her of her long-dead love, the way he walked, the way he brushed his hair. The old woman was not to be trusted. There was no way to know what she was saying about us. No way to know if she was filling Gloria’s fragile head with lies and turning her against us all, the levelheaded and in love.

We called an emergency meeting at the Episcopalian, the church with the tallest tower, and looked down upon Gloria’s open window. This was our first glimpse of her in days—our beauty lying face-down on her pillow. We jostled each other for a longer look.

I miss her, Jim said, and his wife, Dotty, agreed.

She could be ill, Billy said.

We wouldn’t know.

Davis nervously smoked the tobacco in his pipe.

That witch is keeping her locked away, said Rose, skeletal, almost rabid in the dim light.

Let’s break the damn door down! yelled Delmar.

Shhh, you dunce, said Betty. Now listen here, I know just what we can do.

Betty came up with the plan. We would throw a party, a harvest party, in Gloria’s honor so she would have to attend. There she would see that we meant her no harm, that we loved her only. That we wanted her to be happy here, with all of us.

For a week, we prepared with the singular vision of greatness: to create the most beautiful evening Haley had ever seen. Farmers came in from their fields, halted harvest—their wheat still tall, and susceptible to the first frost. The men built an elaborate bandstand and cleaned up the town—fixing the bank’s broken window, painting the church walls and repairing their roofs, tearing down the rest of the bar and taking away its debris. Their wives enlisted older children in baking—sweet breads and honeyed muffins and caramel rolls with buttered pecans. The children had a special job, too, trying each day they were with her at school, and each day they were not, to convince Gloria to come out of her nest to attend.

The day arrived and our insides were tight like balled fists. Each one of us spent hours in front of the mirror, fixing our clothing and hair, and practicing all we would offer if Gloria would listen.

The party began at dusk. Pumpkins orange as traffic cones lined the street, their bellies hollowed and carrying fire. Cornstalks and strings of woven leaves stood tall against streetlights and mailboxes. Cornucopias overflowing with garden goods sat atop hay bales. In the center of town, where the two streets met, a long table held pots of beans, and dishes overflowing with stews and creamy soups, boiling sauces and generous heaps of meat. All the yeast breads and sweet breads and baked treats joined the table. On one end, a wash bin of apples bobbed in spirited water, next to boiled sugar candies and apples covered in caramel and drizzled with chocolate, for the children. On the other end of the table, for the adults, bowls of cinnamon spiked cider and jugs of pumpkin pie redeye waited for thirsty cups.

A few of the men gathered dried wood and built a bonfire on the street, but waited to light it. Pastor Mark and the Hill Brothers practiced making noise on their music machines, filling the air with honks and strums and a caucus of unattached beats, but hesitated to begin a song. Everyone slowed themselves—took drinks but didn’t touch the food. Not yet. Gloria was missing and we, all of us, waited. Time slowed, then quickened, then crawled again. People grew anxious and sipped more cider. Little Johnny kicked over one of the cornstalks, and no one stopped him when he kicked another.

Finally, someone whispered, She’s here, and we inhaled—all the air of our little town a swift intake of breath. When we saw her, our heads were dizzy without oxygen or consequence. She was wearing a winter coat and long dark pants, but she looked adorned in a gown of fading horizon light, all pink and orange and blue, wrapping its way around her softly. Rabina walked beside her, and her eyes were quick darts on everyone she passed, as if at any moment she would strike and swallow up one of the children. Gloria nodded as she passed, and we exhaled.

The children ran to her and circled all around, telling her of the feast we had made. The band began to play and some of us danced, looking toward Gloria to see if she was watching. The children helped her make a plate, rushed to serve her bread pudding and pork roast and sweet potatoes with burnt marshmallows. She sat with them and we gave her space. Billy brought her a drink but didn’t linger. It was important, Betty made sure we all knew, not to burden her with our love and our eagerness, but to allow her to come back slowly into our waiting, open arms.

We served ourselves and ate and drank and laughed, the first time in a long time the constriction of our insides relaxed to make room for laughter. The food was delicious, the best we’d ever done at potlucks or funerals or celebrations of any kind, and the drink intoxicating, wet down our thirsty throats. For hours we ate and danced and warmed our hands around the fire and the children joined us. It was the happiest Haley had ever been—from the beginning of its history to the little left it had—and the dead must have felt it, too, for they spirited the wind which made all our clothes dance, and made the fire wide and tall. The men played their songs, drunk as they were jubilant, and Gloria got up from her chair to join the children. She held the hands of the littlest ones and we all watched her, her hair like flames, her eyes bright, and then a smile on the soft sculpture of her face.

We thought: This was the perfect time, if any. Barb and Betty, with all of us behind, brought forward the harvest crown they had woven from leaves and twigs and flowers and every grain of their artistic faculty. We presented it to Gloria in the center of the circle just as the music stopped.

Will you be our Harvest Queen? Barb said, pushing the crown into Gloria’s unexpecting hands.

She held it awkwardly, and looked at us. She looked at the band, who were quietly watching, and then at the children, whose eyes were upon her face.

Gloria placed the harvest crown on the top of Lonnie’s head. It was too big.

It’s for you, Miss Gloria, she said, and took it off. They made it just for you.

I can’t, said Gloria.

Please wear it, Delmar said, pushing from the back of our horde toward her.

Please wear it, echoed Jim and Dotty, too.

Please wear it, we all said together.

No, said Gloria. Then again, she said it louder. She unwrapped herself from the children and began to back away.

You don’t understand, said Betty. We made it just for you to wear.

No, she said.

I won’t wear it, she said.

Gloria continued backing away. She backed past the pots and stews, the breads and the bobbing apples. She backed up more quickly now, past the place where the bar had been. She kept going. We followed her, imploring in all our goodwill and affection that she could be our only queen. She quickened past the first of the grain elevators, and didn’t slow. Soon she was running without looking back and we were fast after her.

Gloria! we called.

Come back! we shouted.

We love you! we screamed. Don’t you see how much love we have?

Gloria was far ahead when we saw it. In the distance, the train rolled toward our elevators for its overnight rest and early morning haul. We were behind her, the quickest of us, that dumb beast Delmar. We were running as fast as we could to catch her, to stop her and make her understand, make her our queen, the queen of our hearts and all the parts of our bodies, and the queen of our dying prairie grass town that only she could reignite, only she could take from the hands of the dead and bring back to life.
The train blew its whistle, splitting open the night with its music, and our hearts were pounding the same thump thump thump rhythm as wheels on the tracks, and everything in the whole world was in motion, only beautiful and slow.

Gloria looked back once more, and Delmar reached out his clumsy hand to grab her, but missed. She ran up the tracks and then with a moment’s pause, turned toward the train, her legs so fast it looked like she was flying. The train again blew its loud, long horn, and then hit her. It hit her. And all we saw was everything, and all we heard was deafening.

Those of us far ahead, collapsed—our knees split open on the sharp rocks. Those of us behind, turned to shield the children. We cried, and carried them away in the dark night toward the light of the fire.

What happened? said Mary.

What’s going on? said Henry.

Let me go, said Johnny, kicking at his father’s chest.

There were those of us who lingered. Rabina climbed the tracks and lay down, screaming at the dead to take her, too, but the train was stopped and would be until someone could clean up the mess, and all Rabina did was get dirty. Delmar sobbed, big, huge, stupid cries that echoed off everything in the motionless night. Pastor Mark bent his head and slowly began to pray. He spoke the words as if he were saying them in that steady rhythm for the very first time.

Besides Rabina, there were others who thought to leave the earth that night along with Gloria. Davis stood in his living room with the barrel of his gun next to his temple for one hour, smoking his pipe and trying to make up his mind. His brother George tempted fate by trying to slice open the wrist of his left hand, but slipping, he cut an orange instead. He sat at his kitchen table and ate it, piece by piece.

By morning, that current that ran wild through our town had faded. It was dimmer than when Gloria had chosen Hamil as her companion, dimmer than when she locked herself up in Rabina’s home. It was barely there, registering only slightly in our heads and on our skin like the small electric shock from the tip of a finger. Even that first day, we reminisced in small groups, trying to recollect her.

Her hair was the color of straw, right? asked Barb as she flipped through a beauty magazine.

I think you’re right, said Betty.

Maybe we could take turns teaching at the school? said Dotty. I’m good with numbers.

Delmar was the only one who couldn’t let her go, his small brain incapable of evolution. In the following week, he took beautiful hat boxes that had been his mother’s, and fought off the birds for what was left of Gloria. He stacked them tall and convinced Pastor Mark to speak over her. Because Gloria had no religion that any of us knew, and because the boxes were beginning to smell, we held her funeral in the cemetery. Pastor Mark was kind enough to keep it short. When it was time, we covered the boxes with dirt and wiped our hands clean on our jeans and T-shirts.

Delmar was kneeling near her grave and couldn’t bring himself to offer the handful of earth he held. He wiped snot from his nose on the sleeve of his finest shirt.

But she was magic, he said.

She was made of electricity, he sobbed.

Rabina laid her hand on his shoulder in a small, kind gesture.

There, there, she said.

There, there, we said and soothed him, too, one by one.

Then we turned, and walked together down the hill to our small town, the children running on ahead through the wildflowers.

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