A Harvest to Remember by Jonathan McAnulty

They say a girl always remembers her first time.

It was autumn and I was sixteen years of age. The smell of summer haying had been replaced with that of ripened apples. Our livestock had been moved out of the grazing fields and nearer the barns. Churlwood was bathed in a blanket of golden crimson and the promise of winter was heavy in the morning air. It was my favorite season and Lamashan was my favorite month; I wanted to make it a harvest to remember.

***

My mother saw it coming. She tried to warn my Pap, but he, like many men before him, refused to admit his oldest daughter was growing up. I heard her talking to him one afternoon in the small barn. I was hiding in the loft, escaping my chores, resting in the hay, enjoying the warmth and smell of dry grass; they were below, thinking themselves alone.

“She’s getting’ ta that age,” says my Mum, “If you’re not keepin’ yer eye on her, you’re going ta find she’s taken some young man.”

“Ary’s just a girl,” says Pap, “head in the clouds half the time.”

“She’s been thinkin’ o’ it,” says Mum, “I sees her lookin’ at some o’ those men that come by. I was a youngun’ once too. I know that look.”

“Don’t see it half as often as I use’ ta,” jokes Pap, but he adds, trying to soothe her, “I’ll watch ‘er.”

***

She cornered me later, as I was scooping up the eggs from their hiding spots in the yard grass.

“I know yer goin’ ta,” she said, standing by the yard gate. The wind was blowing, whipping her graying hair about her shoulders. The smell of smoke was on that wind. My father and my brothers were preparing meat for the winter.

“It’s just nature, Arysta, and ye can only fight nature so long,” continued Mum, “I was a youngun’ once too. I know how it is. Ye think ye’ll live ferever and ye ‘ave no worries. But the world’s not like that ‘n if yer not careful ye’ll be hurt. I don’t want ta see my oldest daughter hurt.”

“Yes Mum,” I answered, trying to be demure, trying to sound neither sullen nor furtive. I don’t know if I fooled her. Likely not. My mother was no fool. She had a way of knowing what was what. I had seen a man only the day before and I knew he was going to be my first. I had been planning it all that day.

***

He was exactly the sort my mother had warned me about, time and again; a young warrior, handsome, strong, exciting. He was part of a group making camp just beyond our fields. They were heading east and laying over for a couple of days while they bartered with the farmers for food and supplies before continuing on.

Sneaking away from our farm I crouched in the woods beyond their tents, watching them through the foliage, waiting to catch him alone. I wanted to talk to him. The woods smelled of changing leaves and I could hear the scamper of the squirrels as they ran across the dry forest floor, gathering their winter stores.

The Lady was with me. My man, as I already considered him, left the encampment to gather wood under the red leaves of the forest. I followed him for a while, unseen, through the stillness of the trees, admiring the way he moved. He was young and well built, with strong arms and a strong back.

I startled him, when at last he saw me, but I was lithe and tanned and pretty. When he found I was a farmer’s daughter he soon grew relaxed in his manner.

We talked awhile and he told me of some of his adventures. He talked of chasing goblins through their tunnels, near Sandpoint to the south; of fighting ghouls in fields of corn. He was showing off, trying to impress me. It was cute. I coyly asked to see his sword and he drew it out.

I was genuinely interested. “It’s so big,” I said playfully, “Is it magical?”

“Of course it is,” he answered with a laugh. I could tell he was lying but I laughed with him before changing the topic.

“Do ye swim,” I asked.

“A little,” he replied. He had a nice accent. Different from the folks I had grown up around.

“I like ta swim,” said I, baiting the hook, “There’s a pond down through the woods, a quiet pond,” I pointed in the right direction, “I swim there sometimes. Especially at night.”

“Do you?”

“I’ll be swimming there tonight.” I said this with a small bashful smile. He grinned, taking my meaning.

“Maybe, I’ll see you there,” he answered and I knew he would come. We talked a while longer but I had said all I wanted to say. I soon left with a wave and a smile, returning to my chores.

***

Of course Mum asked me where I had disappeared to. I don’t think my answer fooled her much but she had pigs that needed butchering and I had goats to milk. She let it be, or so I thought.

That evening, as I slipped out of my room, into the yard, I heard my oldest brother, Aaryn, following. I figured Mum had set him the task of watching me but I knew his tricks. I lost him easily in the north woods before I headed west, down to the pond.

***

The pond was a favorite haunt of mine, with its smell of water and mud. I knew every inch of its rocky bank and the hidden secrets of its dark waters. I knew every turtle and frog there by sight and they knew me. No one else in my family liked to swim and I considered the pond to be my own personal retreat. I long known my first would be there .

I arrived before the young warrior, just as I had planned. Stripping down I dived into the pond, putting some of my nervous energy to work as I swam out. The water was cold but I didn’t care. Anticipation warmed me.

The night was bright with life. The stars shone clear in the autumn sky. The moon was bright and orange near the horizon, just visible above the trees. I had never before felt so alive.

He came through the woods like a vision. He was armored and his sword hung easily on his waist. For a moment doubt gripped me and I wondered if I should be there. I began to feel anxious but as he saw me in the water, he smiled. The gentle kindness of his smile drove all my doubts away.

“Hi there,” I called playfully, with just my head above the water, “did ye come ta swim with me.”

“That water must be freezing,” was his reply and I laughed, for he did look a little cold.

“I like it,” I said, “And here I thought ye were a brave man. Are ye afraid o’ a little water.”

“Not likely,” said he. He took off his chain shirt and let his belt and sword drop to the ground atop it. I waited till he had undressed before moving closer to the shore. He put a toe in the water but didn’t make it much further.

“That is cold!”

I laughed. “I have a blanket near my clothes.”

He turned to look for it.

As he turned away, I moved up and out of the water, willing the change to come upon me. I could feel the cold heat of the moonlight on me as my skin rippled and my teeth grew. The night air played across my auburn fur. The crimson leaves, hidden in the night, sang me a song filled with joy and death.

He continued to search for the nonexistent blanket as I moved behind him. I took a moment to admire the curve of his back and the softness of his skin. I reached forward, thinking to stroke his spine as he looked the other way.

Something must have warned him at the last moment for he turned back towards me. His smile vanished. Fear filled his face. He was unarmed and defenseless. I was the embodiment of death.

Heeding the long lectures of my elders, I took no chances. I went straight for his throat. My teeth tore open his veins even as my claws ripped open his bare belly.

He was mine. All mine. My first man. My first kill. He fell to the ground and I was upon him, savaging him. I tore his flesh. I drank his blood and ate his heart. My domination was total. My conquest complete.

Aaryn found me there while I was still reveling in my kill. He scolded me but I noticed with some satisfaction that nothing kept him from eating the stomach. After I had cast both armor and sword into the pond, hiding them forever, he helped me carry home the rest of my kill. There the harvest would be butchered and smoked, made ready for a winter respite.