It was summer. Hot and dry, with that exceptionally muffled quality particular to prairie summers. Over the endless fields of wheat and rye a harsh sun beamed, with neither a wisp of cloud in the sky, nor a whisper of wind in the air.
A young boy and girl were sitting atop an old white-washed fence, dangling their bare feet and munching on apples. The sound of their laughter play-tumbled with the hot air, now escaping through the sky and now sinking back into the dust. A dozen grazing cows with steaming hides and bright pink udders grazed nearby, their ears and tails flicking in sync as they chewed at the grass between their hooves.
On the other side of the fence stood a vast field of sunflowers, stolid and unmoving, frozen in salute under the breeze-less sun.
Having finished their fruit, the two children were feeding their cores to a lazily curious cow. As they licked their fingers and clapped their small hands in delight of the large animal, the bell around its neck jungled merrily. Cores gone, they took turns patting the beast goodbye before climbing down from the fence. Then, hand in hand, they weaved their way into the golden sea below.
The harvest was nearly upon them, and the sunflowers were bursting with seeds. The pair reached up – they had to tiptoe, for the giant flowers towered well over their small heads – and picked at them until hands and pockets and little aprons filled to overflowing. Then they sat in the sunflowers’ shade and ate and talked and sang to the tune of the cicadas.
A game of tag begun. Empty shells scattered as they ran, screaming, darting between the thick stalks of the sunflowers. They startled a resting crow, who fled up through the golden roof while cawing profanities unsuited for little ears. Beyond the walls of greenery surrounding them, the cowbells shook to the beat of their wearers.
Panting and dizzy, the children flopped down to rest, but with the spontaneity of youth a game of hide-and-go-seek was sought, and the girl-child took off into the flower-forest.
The little boy cooled his forehead on a sunflower stalk as he counted.
Then, bursting with excitement, the seeking began.
。 。 。 。 。
He ran, matching the sound of her tinkling laughter with his own as it echoed through the walls of thick stalks. Here and there, a footprint in the dirt, or a bent leaf at child-height, gently reaffirmed his direction, silently pushed him forward. Above them, a canopy of petals blocked the harsh summer sun, setting the ground alit with a hazy golden light. Under its cooling protection, the stalk-forest was alive with activity, and often he turned to the rustling of a rat scurrying under the forage, or a robin hopping for worms.
Suddenly, a gust of strong, hot wind burrowed through the flowers, bending their stems with its strength and ruffling his hair. The field resounded with the heated complaints of petals and leaves as they were sent tipping in all directions. The boy-child, slightly startled but quite unhurt, reflexively shut out the magnificent noise with his little palms and waited.
Little by little, the flowers calmed their fury and regained their composure. Carefully, he unstoppered his ears and listened. The sound of his own breathing filled his sunflower-covered world. In the din of the silence that followed, the tinkering of cowbells, muffled by the heat beyond the protection of the forest, cautiously regained form. A harmless grass snake, surely sulking if snakes can sulk, slithered by. It was followed by a pair of complaining squirrels and the shaky peep of a young quail somewhere beyond the thicket. A trio of rather ruffled sparrows landed on the ground by his feet, and assumed an unfazed expression as they groomed and comforted one other, as if each was saying, “That? Oh, that was nothing. You should have seen what happened last week.”
But Mother Nature was made wise by experience, and in less than a minute the disturbance was all but forgotten, as the residents of the sunflower forest returned to their usual activities.
The boy-child shook himself off and proceeded to do the same, when…
Wait, doesn’t something feel…off?
And what happened to the cicadas?
Suddenly he was clenching little droplets of cold sweat. The child began to run.
No answer, save for a pair of feet in the earth and the blood pounding between his ears.
The residents of the flower forest scurried into hiding as he blundered by, leaving with him a wave of silent loneliness. Through the thin roof of golden petals, he heard, or maybe felt, a distant boom, followed by a rumbling he couldn’t quite place. Thunder?
“Maria! Where are you?”
He could taste the urgency in his voice, and swallowed it, straining against the emotions that were fast overflowing.
Suddenly, the boy-child lost his footing and went sprawling into the dirt. Dimly, he registered an upturned root by his feet and the blood trickling from his knee. From this altitude, he could see the field from a new perspective, without the obstruction of the fan-like leaves that grew at his height. He looked about him now, and felt his heart stick in his throat.
Lying on the ground a few meters away, was a single familiar bonnet.
Half running, half crawling, he made his way over and gingerly picked up the piece. It was delicately made, detailed with embroidery, and would have been white if not for the dirt that now clung to the fabric. He dusted it off and placed it in his pocket.
A rustling to his right tickled at his ears. Relieved, he spun in the direction of the sound and peered carefully into the greenery.
“You dropped your bonnet, Maria. We’d better clean it, else your ma will give you a scolding.”
Another rustling, this time on his left. The boy-child followed the sound with his eyes, but the numerous stalks and leaves provided too thick a covering, like a strip of green cloth covering his eyes.
A light giggling tinkled behind him. He spun again, nearly upsetting himself a second time. With childlike innocence, he adopted a teasing attitude.
“I know you’re there, Maria. You can come out now.”
A light pattering of running feet sounded beyond the green walls, avoiding him as it ran past, giggling all the while.
“Hey!” He shouted, laughing. “Thats not fair! It’s my turn to hide.”
Guided by the sound of her voice as it reflected across the golden forest, he followed at an easy trot. She’ll get tired of it eventually, after all, he was the older of the two and could easily-
A little scream pierced through the sunflower field, untangling his thoughts and freezing him in place. The boy-child felt the smile on his face melt as the air around him chilled unnaturally.
This time, there was no answer.
“Maria! Maria! Where are you? Maria!”
Pushing aside the multitude of sunflower stalks, the boy broke into a run. The thick leaves brushed at his arms and face helplessly, as if yearning for him to stop, to turn around, to run in the opposite direction. A misplaced dead branch scratched at his cheek, breaking through the skin.
He saw the red first. A sparkling pool of the stuff, fresh and gleaming, bubbled away at his feet. It seeped into cracks in the dirt and formed little rivers reaching outward in all directions, like the petals of a flower. It filled the air with a sickening tinny smell and soaked through her dress, dyeing the crisp white fabric a vivid shade of maroon.
The ground slipped beneath his feet.
Then all was black.
The faint crunch of heavy boots marched steadily by. Muffled by the sunflowers, a metal door closed with a low thud, and the regular chop chop of a motor was quickly buried under yet another strong gust of wind.
And as the flower forest restored itself, the sharp cry of cicadas rose into the air.
。 。 。 。 。
The sea of gold was just how he remembered it to be. Not as towering, certainly, for he had grown, and now the flowers, so overpowering before, could only shake their heads at the sleek plate over his chest.
He took a deep breath and walked in, letting instinct take over as he carefully traced his way between the dense forest of flowers. Years of dead leaves, left untended since the Dawning, crunched faintly under his boots, as various small creatures scurried to safety under the protection of the golden canopy.
Undoing his helmet to reveal a short crop of hair and a single, thin scar on an otherwise unblemished cheek, the man closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. He stood there, rigid under the sun like the sunflowers themselves, as if doing so would return him to this field, would help him belong.
Without opening his eyes, he gave a curt nod.
“Area has been checked and cleared, sir. No sign of activity.”
A distant ringing of cowbells echoed in his mind.
“Collect all troops. We’re moving out.”
As the soldier trotted away, armour jingling, the man slowly opened his eyes. Reaching for a small pocket on his shoulder, he pulled out a tiny cut of embroidered fabric. He held it gingerly between two rough fingers, and watched as the wind stroked at the frayed white cloth.
Around him, the sound of her laughter rippled across the wind-blown petals.
word count: 1598