Story: Winter Barley

Happy Halloween, everyone. Here’s a little story for the night that’s in it.

Winter Barley


Sally hid in the barley field and tried to ignore her mother’s cries.

She stared instead at the hungry mice as they shuffled back and forth near her feet; wanting to go round her, but fearing to as well. She pulled her heels in closer to her folded body, but they still didn’t trust her. She smelled like smoke to them and they knew about fire. They scampered from place to place in fear. She knew how they felt.

The smell of the smoke was all through her dress and her face was tear-slicked with sooty marks. Her hair had turned grey, like an old woman’s. She wished she were old; an old woman would be excused her mistakes because she was old. She wished she could put it all back. Sally bowed her head, waiting to grow old.

Her mother’s screams were getting closer now. Sally felt like running, but she couldn’t. She just curled up tighter and rolled to her side, keeping lower than the barley tops, so low she felt she might sink into the earth. The hungry mice ran off as she fell and she felt so alone then that she could cry. But she mustn’t—mustn’t make a sound.

She wasn’t alone. Her mother’s feet tramped the stalks all around her; circling, swaying, stumbling and scraping. Her mother’s crying was harsh and imploring. She begged and she swore. She cursed God himself. Sally curled up her fists to the sides of her head. The crying was burning her ears. She wished she could put it all back.

Then her mother went quiet, suddenly, as if Sally really had somehow wished all her crying away. One wish out of three, maybe, like in a fairy story.

Two wishes left. She wished away the fire. She wished back the barn.

But the smoke was still rolling in from the west. With her mother gone quiet, Sally could hear the crackling and crashing and the men calling as the frame gave way; they were pulling it down to help smother the flames.

All too soon, Sally caught strains of her mother again—a low moan, tired and soulless. It was worse than the crying and swearing had been. It no longer drowned out Sally’s own voice in her head.

I can’t put it back, mama, I don’t know how. I’m so sorry.

She risked looking up, over the barley tops; barely barley, still young and green and only part-grown. Winter barley, only good for the animals. The poor animals.

In the rolling smoke her mother was rocking. But she wasn’t alone.

Sally’s father had found her, had followed in silence, a scrap of charred skirt in his blistered right hand. He was crying as mama had been, but all silent, on his knees with his wife.

Rocking.

His whispers echoed her moan, mixing like some terrible harmony.

She’s dead love. She’s dead. She’s burned and she’s dead.

And he took her into his arms, though mama wouldn’t be held or comforted, and they struggled and cried like that.

Sally started to cry too, more silent still. She wished she could put it all back; the things she’d taken away. Their smiles, their peace of mind, their hearts. Their daughter.

The hungry mice had returned, finally willing to risk the smoke to get at the mess in the barn; spilt grain and scorched vegetables were a bounty that might never come again.

Sally decided she could do right by the mice at least.

So, with the wind coming in from the west and the flames choking out at the head of the field, she let go and blew away.

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