By Virginia Carraway Stark
“The storm is too bad, I can hear the orchard creaking… branches breaking…” She moaned.
I glowered at Margaret. “I know that, but what do you want me to do about it?”
Anytime my son left his pretty insipid wife on her own, I was inevitably left to ‘babysit’ her. She was passably good as a mother and as a wife for my son, I suppose. Anytime there was a crisis she felt to pieces, just like now. Stated the obvious was only one of her many failings.
I never tried to hide my scorn for her and turned away from her apologetic response, “I’m sorry Father, of course, we will have to wait and pray.”
Conciliatory should have been Margret’s middle name, while her concerns were pointless, I too, was afraid of the howling wind and the sound of wood breaking. The orchard had been in our family for many generations now and I could never remember a storm this bad before. The power was flickering. With a glare at Margaret, I opened the door to go outside, grabbing my coat as I did. The door blew into the house and I cursed under my breath as it hit the cupboard with a loud slam. I felt a small hand tug at my jacket.
“Can I come with you, Gramp?” I nodded. He was brave like his father and like me. He should be rewarded. Margaret wrung her hands, her terror evident all across her face and in the slump of her shoulders. My Grandson grabbed his coat and Margaret helped him put on his rubber boots, all the while fretting and worrying but not daring to gainsay the permission I had granted to little Clyde.
Outside the air was cold and fell. The orchard was in ruins, green peaches lay scattered under branches the size of my waist. Further down the line of trees I could see some of them had be felled by the winds. The green fruit had been scattered, the harvest ruined and perhaps the orchard itself. Clyde looked up at me with his large hazel eyes, he was scared but I didn’t blame his fear on the genes he had picked up from his mother this time, my own eyes were fearful as well. The wind was so heavy and thick you could see it whipping through the air itself, picking up leaves and unripened fruit with 0strange, fey hands. A barrage of peaches, branches and bits of bark hit us like rocks.
“Get out” With both heard the fell voice, inhuman, black as the night and evil as sin.
Clyde tugged on my jacket, “Gramps, I want to go back into the house!”
I had seen storms before that had left me filled with electricity and adrenaline but I had never felt a storm like this. Thunder roared only a split second after lightning hit a tree only a few trees down from us.
Blinded and deafened me and little Clyde stumbled through the storm. He clutched my leg the way he had when he had been a baby, not a big boy of seven. I clutched him back, afraid that the storm would take him. If it hadn’t been for Margret’s fearful nagging we never would have come out here. I couldn’t see the house, torrents of rain had been unleashed by the lightning. It wasn’t a normal rain though. There was something more in it just as there had been something more in the wind.
Faces… they weren’t human… twisted and evil. I wanted to retreat but I didn’t know which way to go.
“Can you see the houses, Clyde?”
The boy shook his head but then pointed, “I think it’s that way.” He had to scream to be heard over the wind. Staggering against the wind, I pulled Clyde along with me, our hands were wet with rain and we could barely hold on, but we did, because we had to. You do what you have to when survival is on the line.
We hadn’t gone far but I could see the dim figure of the house ahead of us and I squeezed Clyde’s hand and spared him a smile. It was like fighting through a bar room brawl trying to get to that door. I turned the handle and it didn’t move. The door was sealed shut. I banged on the door with the side of my hand. That little coward Margaret had locked the door behind us and left her own son to the mercy of whatever storm this was that hell itself seemed to have released.
I kicked and pounded at the door but either the wind was too loud or Margaret too dense to hear our distress and unlock the door. I told Clyde to hold on to the mailbox on the side of the house and I ran at the door and hit it with my shoulder until the sturdy wood started to give around the lock.
I grabbed Clyde and pulled him into the house, the door wouldn’t close properly behind me now but I pulled it shut as well as I could and roared out Margret’s name, “You fallow little bitch! Get in here!”
Except for the storm, the house was silent. Where had that stupid woman gone off to? I recalled the faces in the storm and shook my head as though I could erase the memory of their twisted evil. I had imagined it. It wasn’t real.
“Margaret, you stupid thing! You locked us out and scared your son half to death,” I called out but still there was no reply.
Angry at the storm, angry at the ruined orchard but even more angry at my daughter in law I took off my boots and put my jacket on a hook by the fire. Clyde followed suit, getting a chair so he could reach the hook. He was a smart boy, took after my son Ed and not a drop of his fool mother in him.
I went to the kitchen and put on a kettle for some tea. She must have hid when she heard us at the door, she probably panicked when she realized she had locked us out. She was always so eager to please that she would do these foolish things and then berate herself until she did even more foolish things.
I turned from the stove to see Margaret standing in the doorway. Her raven black hair had gone stark white and her grey eyes had turned yellow, more yellow than someone who had the jaundice, more yellow then a lemon. Her hair was wild as though she had been out in the storm and she held a kitchen knife in her hand.
“Margaret, what are you about? Have you taken leave of your senses?” I asked, but there was fear in my voice. She looked wrong, wrong the way the faces in the storm looked wrong. She stood tall, as I had never seen her stand before and her rosy cheeks were white.
Clyde came running into the kitchen when he heard me talking to his Ma. He loved her fiercely even if it was me and his Pa he looked up to. Without taking her eyes from me she grabbed Clyde as he came through the doorway and picked him up off his feet as though the sturdy child were as light as a newborn. She tucked him under his hand and put the knife to his throat.
“Mama?” Clyde asked. He was so surprised by this that he hadn’t even put it together that he had something to fear. He was always such a trusting child.
“Wind and hail, lightning and rain, all your work has come to vain,” She recited the strange words in a voice I could barely recognize as being Margaret. The words left her mouth like a curse and still she held that butcher knife to her child’s throat like he was an autumn pig for the slaughter.
“Margaret, come back to your senses, can’t you see, that’s your son, that’s your Clyde you’re holding,” At my words Clyde seemed to realize his danger. He didn’t cry, brave boy.
“Mama, put me down,” He said, looking up at her. He saw her face then and I saw true fear enter his heart.
“The orchard is no more,” The thing said in a voice that was a braying caw compared to Margret’s usual dulcet, timid tones.
“The orchard will go on, the orchard always goes on,” I said, knowing it was true but still fearing the wildness of the storm and the damage I had seen.
“You will make a sacrifice,” The thing said.
“Get out of my house,” Margaret turned, obeying my words but still carrying Clyde with her. His little head, covered in thick black hair disappearing through the door, headed towards the front door and the storm.
“Wait!” I called after her and she stopped, her hand on the door. Clyde was fighting her with all his strength but it seemed to make little difference to the thing that had taken over Margaret. She held him as easily as I would a kitten.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I am the storm,” She replied. Thunder cracked outside the window at her words.
“What do you want?”
“A sacrifice. I will take this child as my tribute as you have not followed the ways of your father. I will take him and go and leave you with no grandchild, no orchard and you to start over again.”
The thing smiled at me and pulled open the door I had broken to get back in. The storm blew into the house and with it went the power. All that lit the room was the sullen orange glow of the fire.
“I don’t know what you mean, but you don’t have a right to my grandson,” I realized, appalled, that I was weeping.
“Every first born belongs to the orchard. This is the first born just as you were second born.”
I saw that from his struggles Clyde had a thin line of blood along his throat. I remembered my older brother. He had been six when I had been five. He had died, the branch of a peach tree had fallen on him, or so I had been told. I had had a son before Clyde’s father as well. I didn’t think of him much anymore, it had been so long ago. I couldn’t remember what had happened to him, another accident, I thought, he had been about the same age as Clyde was now. He had died, that was all I knew. I sheen of sweat broke out across my brow. It wasn’t like me to forget something, not something big.
The thing that had been Margaret smiled a horrible smile and walked towards me, the knife now pointed at me, blade first.
“Your choice, old man,” she said, and I took the blade from her hands.
She crumpled to the floor in a heap in the doorway. I remembered something now, something, about a rock, a rock out in the orchard.
Clyde disentangled himself from the hag who had colour flowing back into her cheeks and her hair turned black once more before our eyes. She sat up, confused, the same insipid Margaret who had fiddled with the buttons on Clyde’s coat before locking us out of the house.
Clyde ran to me and wrapped his arms around me. I pulled him off of me and went over to the hooks to put my jacket back on. Outside the storm had calmed, just a little, as though it was listening, waiting. I pulled Clyde’s jacket off the hook and handed it to him.
“Gramps, where are we going?” He asked, he wouldn’t let his mother help him with the buttons and I didn’t’ have time to help him. Margaret took a step towards us and Clyde flinched away from her approach.
“We’re going away from her,” I said, pointing at the boy’s mother. “Is that good enough for you?”
He nodded and I tucked the butcher knife into my belt. I took him by the hand, Margaret, scared and confused let us go.
We walked through the storm, the damage to the orchard was bad, very bad. Perhaps irreparable. The winds didn’t oppose us now and we made good time to the half unearthed rock at the base of an oak tree, the only tree for acres that wasn’t peaches.
I set my grandson on the rock and prayed for mercy that a demon wouldn’t spare. I pulled out the blade from my belt and I saw that Clyde had wet himself. He didn’t move, he didn’t try to flee. I was his grandfather, his gramps and he would never try to escape.
I brought the knife down, swift and hard across his neck where the thin line of blood marked him and held him while the lifeblood fled him and ran over the boulder and stained my arms red.
The next morning dawned clear and bright. Ed came home in the early hours and we surveyed the damage to the orchard before breakfast. It wasn’t as bad as I had worried. The harvest would be poor this year but the trees would recover and we would have a good harvest the year after.
Margaret was making pancakes and went to wake up Clyde, “He’s a sleepy head today, he’s usually my little early bird.” She laughed.
Ed laughed with her, he loved her, I could see that. There would be more grandchildren in the making before I knew it.
Margaret came out of Clyde’s room, her eyes large and nervous, “He must have gone out already. Did you see him in the orchard? He isn’t in his room?”
I saw my arms soaked with blood but my memory was faded, what had that to do with Clyde? It must have been a random memory from the slaughter of last year’s hogs. We went out into the yard, calling Clyde’s name but he was nowhere to be found.
We searched high and low and then we called the neighbours, they had seen hide nor hair of him. Finally we called the police. Search parties were sent out but they never found him, never found a body.
The following year, Margaret was big with child and as stupid as ever. How I missed my grandson and looked forward to having a new child in the house. I loved being a grandfather and if I found some monster had taken my grandson I swore I would show no mercy, although the police concluded that the boy must have taken it into his head to go look at the storm and decreed it to be an act of God. There had been some flash floods, he probably got caught up in one of them.
In the meantime, it was a record year for peaches but my hands trembled every time I held a butcher knife. It’s the cross of old men to bear, these ravages of age.