Harvest Party

Hansen Calloway looks up from hammering the last electrical spike into the rich earth of his family’s cemetery to see the sultry, raven-haired Sarai Blackriver heft a bloody cow haunch over the stone fence. She blows him a kiss before disappearing into the nearby woods.

“What the Hell?” Hansen calls after her. He is wondering how the tiny woman is even strong enough to lift that much cow when a shriek sounds overhead. Turkey vultures circle gracefully in the crisp autumn sky above him.

Hansen’s normally open and friendly features contract into a lemon-sucking face. So that’s how she wants to play it. Tempting carrion birds to the Calloway family cemetery on Revival Day is dirty. But family feuds have no rules and the Calloway/Blackriver feud is old and bitter.

Hansen looks around the cemetery, feeling thwarted. He had been moments away from bringing the Ancestral Calloways back to help harvest and enjoy their legacy. But the vultures circle ever lower. He sighs.

The well-preserved Ancestors don’t smell or look dead to humans, but animals know the difference. None of the county’s five Families keep a dog. His parents—the only other living Calloways—are home preparing the welcome meal; it’s up to him to get rid of the damn birds.

He unplugs the wires that lead from the spikes to the generator and drags the haunch to his golf cart outside the gate. Thank God there are towels in it. As he drives the vulture bait away from the cemetery down the orchard path, Hansen reflects that if he doesn’t clear things up with Sarai this year’s Harvest Party is going to be awkward.

Whenever families feud, eventually two of their idiot kids get swept up in the romance and forbiddeness of it all and have quick, frantic sex in a station wagon. Hansen had thought he was too loyal to be one of those. But that was two months ago and he hadn’t yet worked up the nerve to tell Sarai it had all been a mistake.

Blackrivers are dangerous and witchy. Though nearly a century has passed since the last feud death, it was Blackrivers who started it. They killed a living Calloway. Blackrivers don’t see killing the living as a truly big deal. So Hansen has kept his distance from Sarai, hoping his silence over time would make things clear to her. Weasel, he chides himself.

He stops the golf cart and deposits the towel-wrapped cow leg between two Jonagold trees. Hansen rinses the cow blood from his hands with the jug of distilled water for prepping the electrical spikes. His fingers chill in the crisp air and he stuffs his hands in his hoodie. He’d gotten it two years ago as a high school graduation present from Grandma Rose. He smiles as he walks back to the golf cart, anxious to get back to the cemetery.

Grandma Rose died last spring after planting season and this Harvest is her first reawakening.  After she died, he kept thinking of things he’d like to tell her. He’d saved them up because he knew could always tell her in the fall. Inside the county Death had lost its sting.

The living on all the county’s Ancestral Farms are reviving their dead today. It is a beautiful tradition. In the 1850’s, a young Calloway invented the generators and the Blackrivers designed the hexes. Now the dead come back for two weeks twice a year—planting and harvest—to work and to witness the family legacy grow. In Ancestral Families, his grandmother had instilled in him, you don’t truly start to live until you die. She taught him that family was everything.

Suddenly, he frowns.  The Ancestors are everything to Sarai, too. She must be desperate if she feels justified in siccing carrion birds on his Ancestors. She might do anything. He races the golf cart back to the exposed, defenseless cemetery. He remembers the Calloways’ retaliation for the ancient Blackriver killing, the act that fueled the ancient feud: living Calloways had dismembered the sleeping Ancestor who killed their kin.


Hansen parks the golf cart back at the cemetery under a sunset gold sky. He jumps out and over the stone fence and races toward the generator, but nothing looks out of place. What can she have done? Doubtfully, he reconnects the wires and pushes down the plunger. Electricity crackles in the air around him and Hansen’s thick, blond hair stands on end around his face.

The doors below each headstone creak open. The inside of each door is painted with the Calloway family motto: The Farm is for the Family and the Family is for the Farm. These words center the reanimated and remind them what is important. Hansen always smiles when the doors open, enviously happy for his relatives. How wonderful to awaken into eternal reward, with the ancient words of family welcoming you back. With joyful shouts, the Calloways awaken.

Hansen embraces his relatives one after the other. Great Aunt Virginia, a prohibition moonshine mixer, kisses him with cold but well-preserved lips.  He musses Great Great Uncle Danny’s hair. The kid, who had died of diphtheria, grins at Hansen before rushing into his parents’ arms. One by one they emerge until a multitude of 64 Calloways stands chatting in the sunset, recounting their dreams from the past six months.

Abner, the oldest Calloway Ancestor, stumbles out of his grave last of all and looks toward his brother Josiah’s grave. The crowd hushes as Abner limps toward the one still-closed door. Hansen’s heart pounds in his ears. Did Sarai do this?

Possibly she didn’t. Josiah had been having the Last Dream for a few years. In the death sleep, sometimes poorly-preserved Ancestors dream a blinding blue-white light in the center of their vision. The light grows and grows until they don’t reawaken. Like the dismembered Blackriver.

Abner wails and falls to his knees beside Josiah’s grave. Virginia steps up and puts a hand on Abner’s shoulder.

“It’s all right, Virgie,” Abner says. “We’ve been expecting it. He died too far from home.” Josiah had died in Kansas where he’d moved when it was still a territory to help vote Kansas into the Union as a free state. They brought his body back to Massachusetts, but he had decomposed somewhat before he could be prepped with the hexes.

The family has been prepared for Josiah’s final passing and they comfort one another as they seal his door and leave the cemetery, walking toward the barbeque Hansen’s parents are preparing. They whisper loving words and sweet memories of Josiah all the way down the gravel path.

Hansen stands by the golf cart, guiltily detached from his family. On one of their nights together, he’d told Sarai about Josiah and the light. If she wanted subtle revenge, Josiah was the perfect target. He was suddenly as desperate to talk to Sarai as he had been to avoid her. Josiah’s final repose might be natural, or he might be to blame. And who could be next?

The last bunch of Calloways amble past the golf cart and tears sting Hansen’s eyes when he sees her at last—Grandma Rose. She beams and welcomes his unabashed hug, the kind of full-on bear hug that grandmas get that even mothers don’t.

“There’s so much I want to tell you.” Hansen says happily. As he closes his eyes, enjoying the embrace, he inhales sharply. A vision of Sarai’s glowering face tamps down his joy and guilt chokes him. His family is sacred. He betrayed them with the daughter of the enemy.

“What is it?” she asks, patting his shoulder. “You can tell me anything.”

Not this. Not this, He thinks.

But she smiles knowingly. “You’d be surprised what I understand now. They always said reanimation brings perspective, and they were right. I feel different. Like my mind was clouded before, but no longer.” Grandma Rose laughs warmly. “You really don’t start to live until you die!”

“I wrote down everything I wanted to say.” Hansen shakes his head. “Can’t remember all of it right now, but I’ll read it to you.” He smiles reassurance at Grandma Rose. He closes his eyes and nods silent assent to Sarai. He will call her and they will meet tonight. Weasel no more. He thinks. Just dead meat.


That evening Hansen waits in the apple orchard parking lot where he and Sarai had flirted and made out for weeks and eventually…Hansen blocks that memory. He is here to confront Sarai—to learn the extent of his betrayal.

It is a good time to meet. All across the county the living and the revived are feasting together in warmly lit homesteads; two living young people won’t be missed.

He hears an engine and gravel plinking off a car. As the headlights get closer he can make out the banjoey thrumming of Mumford and Sons booming from old speakers. Sarai. Her station wagon pulls up alongside him. She cuts the engine and the music dies, leaving only the sound of wind through fall leaves.

Hansen angrily yanks her driver’s side door handle. It’s locked. Sarai cranks down the window and smiles a cutting smile with gleaming white teeth.

“Opening the door for a lady? Aren’t you suddenly the gentleman again,” She says with a noticeable lack of either flirtatiousness or humor.

“What did you do?” he demands.

“You sure have been playing hard to get,” she says. “It took a bleeding cow leg to turn your head.”

“It wasn’t worth it, Sarai!  I was a weasel and never called, but you didn’t have to kill him!”

“He was already dead.” Sarai shrugs nonchalantly. Shaking with guilt and rage, Hansen slams his big fist on her car’s roof.

“Your fight is with me!” he roars. “You keep your spells and your poison brews away from my family!” A sob catches in his throat and Sarai stares, openmouthed at him with beautiful wide eyes.

“I was talking about the cow. We’d already butchered him for market.” She catches his wrist in her warm hand. “Hansen, who’s dead?” Hansen glances down at her concerned face. A new death could turn the cold feud hot again and Sarai seems as scared as he is.

“Josiah,” he says. “It wasn’t you then? It was really the light?”

“You thought I’d kill him?” Sarai says, indignant.

“There were the vultures,” Hansen says lamely.

“They were to get your attention, numbskull.” Relief floods him. It was just the light. His betrayal of his family only went so far as a foolish fling. Sarai unlocks her door and looks at Hansen. “Open it, Prince Charming.”

He obeys and she bounces out. She is dressed to kill and beautiful in her anger. Her sundress hugs her curvy hips and her church-girl shrug is buttoned in a suggestive V below her cleavage. A fabric wrinkle over her butt makes Hansen’s hands itch to smooth it out.  Sarai motions him to follow her down the cart path through the orchard.

“So,” she says, “you and I are over, obviously.”

Hansen blurts, “It’s the whole star-crossed lovers thing. We’re not going to unite our families with our true, true love.” Sarai snorts, but he continues, “We betrayed them.”

“Right,” she says. “So why did you go with me, if you care so much what they think.” Hansen takes a breath, inhaling the scent of apples—the fresh ones on the trees and the sweet fermenting ones that had fallen.

“You’re beautiful and it was forbidden, but it was more than that. We work all our lives to reap our rewards in death. With you, it felt good to simply be alive. Like everything could be about right now and not about after.” Sarai stops walking and Hansen turns to look at her. “And you?”

“Definitely the lure of the forbidden,” she says. “I’m pregnant.”

Hansen’s jaw drops. From the frantic muck of thoughts that burst into his head, the one that rises to his lips is, “You really shouldn’t have lifted that cow haunch.” Sarai laughs and starts walking again. Hansen stumbles after her.

“Most men would ask questions. ‘Is it mine?’—It is. ‘Are you keeping it?’—I am. ‘When is it due?’—Right after planting season. ‘Do I have to marry you?’ –No. But I want child support. And you have to be there.” She pauses for a moment. “And don’t pull the ignoring me crap again. Have I covered everything? Sorry. I’ve had more time to process this.”

Hansen slows to a stop and grabs Sarai’s elbow. “You’re sure you’re pregnant?” he asks, thinking it a good question.

Sarai laughs at him. Hansen’s glazed look suddenly comes into sharp focus and he half-smiles. “Are you going to hyphenate the baby’s last name? Blackriver-Calloway?”

Sarai’s eyes boggle and she laughs. “Oh Hansen,” she says, “true love this isn’t, but I do like you.” She shakes her head. “There’s one more question you’ll think to ask when your brain crawls back: ‘Who else knows?’—I told no one, but it won’t take a minute for all the old Blackriver midwives to figure it out. So we’ve got, like a day, maybe before everyone knows. The Harvest Party is going to be awkward.”


The Harvest Party is the following evening in the show barn, the only venue big enough to accommodate the four hundred living and dead members of the five Ancestral Families. A long banquet table down the room’s center offers pleasingly blackened smoked pork, roasted corn on the cob, and steaming cider spiced with clove and cinnamon.

Fairfields, Blueferns, and MacDougals wander freely through the whole reception hall, eating and chatting about the coming harvest or commenting on the garlands of red orange leaves and white Christmas lights framing the barn doors. As usual, the Calloways stay on the north half of the barn and the Blackrivers keep to the south. The banquet table provides a barricade.

Hansen arrives late to the party and alone. He fills a mug with cider and scans the room for Sarai. She stands in a corner looking brow beaten and harried. A dozen or so reanimated cousins and aunties stand around her talking gravely to each other—but not to Sarai. They know.

“Is it true dear?” Hansen jumps. Grandma Rose gently squeezes his elbow with a soft, cold hand. Hansen opens his mouth to deny, but closes it again and nods confirmation. His grandmother hugs him and he feels like the small boy who ran to her on stormy nights. Tears sting his eyes, but he won’t let them spill over. “Do you love her?”

“I don’t know.” Hansen clears his throat to prevent crying. “I like her. I should have found someone else. But now…” He gestures to Sarai in the corner, beleaguered by relatives.

“Do you wish it would all just go away? The whole mess with the Blackriver girl.” Grandma Rose strokes the side of his face. Her hand doesn’t shake anymore. She can embroider again like she loved to do before her palsy started.

“I wish it had never happened. But it’s happening now. Unless something awful happens.” He grimaces. Farmers know intimately how blood and death are tied to reproduction.

“So that would be bad?” His grandmother asks.

Hansen narrows his eyes at her. “It would be horrible,” he says. Grandma Rose is different somehow.

“Then you’d better go to her,” says Grandma Rose. “I overheard that Maura Blackriver crushed lambsear berries into that mug of cider she’s bringing Sarai.” She points across the room to the ancient Blackriver matriarch making her way to Sarai’s corner with a steaming mug. “She’ll lose the baby.”

“No!” Hansen sprints around the barricade table, plunging toward the crowd toward Sarai. Gasps escape from the crowd. The first Calloway in decades to cross to the south side picks frantically through the stunned Ancestors mumbling ‘excuse mes.’

The Blackriver Aunties stand shoulder to shoulder around Sarai, but the large young Hansen breaks through with one apologetic shove. He reaches Sarai at the same moment the poisoned mug reaches her hand.

Sarai glares at him as she accepts the mug. “What are you doing?” Her eyes are puffy and her nose is Kleenex-chapped.

“Don’t drink that!” He shouts. The din in the dining room hushes.  “It’s poisoned! You’ll lose the baby!” Conversation explodes around him. Blackrivers cry denials as Sarai squints suspiciously at the mug.

For a microsecond Hansen relaxes. She won’t drink it. The baby is safe. But Maura rolls her eyes and says, “Dear you can’t trust a Calloway.” Hansen realizes that they won’t stop even if Sarai dumps that particular mug. As long as she trusts her family, the baby is in danger.

He snatches the mug out of Sarai’s hands. “I’ll prove it to you,” he shouts above the clamor of the families. Well I don’t have a uterus, so this is just going to suck a lot for a few days.  He gulps the cider and turns to Sarai. “You watch. I’m going to get sick. Then you’ll know!”

Sarai gapes at him. The room quiets down and Maura starts to laugh. Hansen whirls on her.

“What’s funny?” He demands. Then black spots crackle across his vision. He pitches forward and vomits. The crowd of Aunties backs away from the mess. He drops to his knees and looks up at a horrified Sarai, trying to compose an ‘I told you so’ look.

“Oh true apothecary, thy drugs are quick!” Maura laughs.

“Huh?” Hansen whispers. He curls on his side shivering violently. He vomits a second and third time. His embarrassment fades quickly in the face of unbelievable pain. His parents burst through the crowd to his side, Grandma Rose right behind them.

“What did you do, Maura?” His grandmother asks.

“Sarai lost perspective about what is truly important.” Said Maura smirking. “You understand about perspective, Rose.” She grins and motions to Hansen. “I didn’t intend to get the boy; that was lucky. No antidote, of course.”

“Oh Hansen!” says Grandma Rose, kneeling to squeeze his hand.  “I’m sorry. I didn’t know there was enough lambsear in that to kill an adult or I wouldn’t have said anything.” Hansen’s mother wails and cradles Hansen’s head in her lap, rocking.

Grandma Rose sighs and says, “At least we can talk next planting season. You’ll understand then how wonderful our reward is.” She smiles and rises. “It’ll only hurt a little longer, then everything will change. Excuse me. I’ll need to go see about preparing your hexes.” She disappears into the crowd of Ancestors. She is not even going to stay with him until the end. I didn’t mean it to be the end, he thinks helplessly.

Through black spots Hansen sees all the Ancestors, for whom death is no big deal, turn away from his last moments to talk excitedly of funerals and hexes. He catches remarks on how he is fortunate to enter his rest while still in his prime.

Only the families’ few living members gather around him, holding vigil in a semicircle.  Fifteen of them. So few of the living serving so many of the dead.

“You meant to kill me?” Sarai says numbly to Maura.

“I can see you’re angry, dear. But you’ll understand when you pass.” Maura stalks off through the crowd to greet a MacDougal cousin.

Hansen’s father gently guides the flabbergasted Sarai down to the small huddle around Hansen. “We’ll make sure no one hurts you or the baby,” he says. “That’s the last Calloway, you’ve got in there.” She looks down at Hansen’s shivering body.

“You were supposed to be there,” She says flatly. Hansen nods.

“Two weeks. Twice a year,” he whispers. He hopes it will be enough time. That he can be a good enough father because family counts the most. But not in the way he’d always thought.

“Inside my door,” Hansen says to his parents, coughing, “Put ‘The Farm is for the Living.’ Three times. In big letters” Hansen’s uncontrolled shivers slow. He looks up at Sarai. His breath comes shallow and it is hard to speak.  “When I wake up and meet our kid—I don’t want to lose perspective.”

He shudders. The flickering black spots obscure almost everything in his vision. At the center a pinprick of blue white light pierces through and begins to grow.

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