By: L. M. Mercer
The young woman bent over and her long tresses fell forward to almost touch the ground as she shuffled through a pile of stones at her feet until she found one she liked. When she picked up the rock it felt heavy in her grasp. The solid weight of the smooth stone pressed down on her fingers and gravity’s pull almost caused them to open. As she tightened her grip on the rock, Rebecca did not relish the gruesome task that had fallen on her to perform.
Each year the “Harvest” came and each year this horrible duty fell to her alone. Over the past few years, with each passing “Harvest,” it had become more difficult for her to complete the simple chore. A few weeks past she had finally gained enough courage to ask the chief elder if the ancient ceremony was still necessary. Rebecca had swiftly received a brutal backhand to her jaw that sent her crashing to the floor and a shouted reminder that not only was the town’s success at stake but its’ very survival relied on the yearly completion of the “Harvest” ritual.
When she hefted the stone and further tested its weight, Rebecca wondered, as she did every year at this time, why the task had originally fallen to her; why she was destined to repeat the task year after year without a reprieve. As of late she had also begun to wonder if someone else would have been a better choice for this important task. Rebecca allowed the hand which clutched the stone to hang at her side and adjusted the black fabric to veil her completely from head to foot. As she moved the material into its proper position once more, she thought to herself that, after being worn so many times, the robe ought to hang right. But it never did.
As she impatiently waited for this year’s “Chosen One” to arrive at the small clearing in the center of the partially harvested wheat field, Rebecca remembered how she came to be standing in that spot. As she looked back she knew her entire life had been altered dramatically during her ninth year.
* * *
It was a warm summer day when the town elders had walked up the uneven path to her family’s door and demanded to speak with her ailing father. Rebecca was forced to stand in the far corner of the room during as they began a very important discussion. She listened as the elders discussed her life thus far and her potential future – as if she wasn’t listening. She stood there in silence.
The numerous holes in her tattered stockings revealed patches of pale skin beneath. Her tiny, grimy hands clasped her narrow waist lightly as the elders informed her father of their decision.
Long stress-filled hours passed while the elders explained how they had selected Rebecca to take up the task of “Maid’s Apprentice.” She had been chosen to study the mysterious rituals and practices of the “Death’s Maid” and would one day take up the mantle and duties of that ancient position.
Her father stood and Rebecca rushed forward to his side. This sudden movement had startled him, causing him to off-balance the rustic bench he was sitting on. It toppled to the floor with a loud thud. In anger he slammed his large, work-warped fist down on the table top. As a result his cup fell over, spilling its contents onto the dirt floor.
She tried to calm him while he protested the town elders’ high-handed decision to choose his daughter. Rebecca was his only child and the last living member of his family as well. Now she was now cursed as the next “Death’s Maid.”
Her aged father struggled against the other men when Rebecca was pulled from his side and scooped off the floor by two elders. She was carried away, all the while kicking and crying out to her father for help. Unable to resist their actions for more than a few minutes, her withered father collapsed inside his front door. He cried at his loss, the remainder of his family, as Rebecca’s screams faded away. When her protests could no longer be heard through the woods the final elder left the hut.
Stopping after a few steps, the elder softly spoke five simple words to the broken man as a final warning, “Forget not the coming ‘Harvest.’”
The next few months passed quickly for young Rebecca. Those long days were filled with studies of the “Harvest” ritual and how the practice came to be an important part of everyone’s lives. Her nights were spent divided between rest and caring for the elderly, dying “Death’s Maid,” whom she would soon replace.
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