He ran calloused, chapped hands over rugged, rough hewn rubber.
Jake often came out here, into the isolation of the field. There wasn’t much to see. The blight had taken care of that. It came and it went in intervals. Such an unpredictable cycle of bountiful and weak harvest would drive most farmers mad but he knew exactly what was happening.
He took a bite of a strawberry and gazed off down the lonely dirt road. The strawberries were his favorite, especially now as there were so few left. Sweet, a little plump and occasionally tart. It reminded him of Lily and it didn’t hurt that the red flesh of the fruit was reminiscent of his little girl’s shock of red hair. Her complexion, although beautiful, did afford a few trials. He often had to keep her out of the sun, not just for the benefit of her fair skin but because of how it made her skin blacken and blister beneath the harmful rays.
He caressed the rubber with one hand and ate with the other. This tire swing was her favorite, he had tied it to the lonely old oak that held the midway point between his home and the barn. The tree’s shade helped. He remembered the first time she had seen the swing. He had marched her from the house under a blanket and then removed it to with a showman like flourish to present the apparatus to her. Her squeals of joy still sang in his heart and he remembered how the strawberries seemed to flourish when she was near.
God, she was a treasure to him. All four feet of freckles and frivolity. He taught her how to tie the blanket around her head like a shawl and showed her where the best patches of shade had been in the fields. He built a scarecrow in the rows (now forgotten and forlorn, a distressing tribute to his current state of mind) not just to protect the crops but to provide more shaded protection for the girl.
Jake would often emerge from the house, pitcher of iced tea and toast with strawberry jam in hand and bear witness to Lily conversing with the straw sentinel. He reacted with shock the first time that it descended from its post and approached the girl but he held his ground. From afar, he watched as the child, clad in a Mickey Mouse bedecked blanket (it was her favorite character), spoke to the sentient figure. The Straw Man (whom she nicknamed Pluto, naturally) would crouch on his haunches and nod at her enthusiastic patter. He never spoke a word, but Lily told her father that he was a friendly being. Jake watched as Pluto gently patted and caressed her crimson locks before offering a friendly wave. As he climbed back onto his perch, Jake approached his daughter and the two had a lovely picnic in the shade provided by their faceless friend.
That was then. This was now.
The berries had withered. Pluto was silent, unmoving. The world around Jake had stopped after Lily had vanished. He never called the cops because he had expected it to occur as it had many times before, but it still hurt his hard scrabbled heart. She had vanished into the night without warning and had yet to return. The blight settled in, everything turning to rot. Symbolically and systematically, Jake removed the tire swing from the old oak and brought it back to the rack behind the barn. Here, he hung it amidst several others, each one marking one of her disappearances. As he gazed at his sun parched property, he counted the tires. Ten swung gently in the light summer breeze. That would make sense, he thought, because Lily had just celebrated her tenth birthday.
He missed her, yes of course. He missed her spirit and the way her mere presence brought literal life to the world around her. He missed the bonding moments as he showed her the best way to avoid the sun.
“Ol’ Mr. Sun is big and bright, but then again he might just bite.”
Jake sighed. Even the old stand where he had peddled his wares was starting to peel and sag. It was his least favorite time but…
… then he smiled.
He finished the strawberry, leaves and all. At his feet, a tiny bloom of red amongst the rot ridden leaves. Before his eyes, the blight sloughed off revealing a tiny yet healthy bloom of sweet, red fruit. As he gazed downwards, a tiny hand struggled from beneath the soil. A homunculi form gripped around the fruit as an embryonic head burst forth from the Earth. Around him, the green began to spread. A wind picked up, carrying on it the scent of youthful exuberance and sun dappled joy. In the fields beyond the barn, the lonely scarecrow stirred and unmistakably raised a fleshless hand in greeting. Jake waved back.
He bent low and gently – oh, so gently – plucked the writhing fruit. Clasping it in his weathered hands, he shielded it from the bite of ol’ Mr. Sun.
He walked with pep in his step as the growing green followed his path back home. He let out an excited “Hooah!” and carried the fruit upstairs. He placed it gently on a bed under the Mickey Mouse blanket and softly closed the door. This would be the 11th Harvest and he knew that, as a pre-teen, Lily would want some privacy.
He whistled one of his favorite Beatles tunes to himself as he proceeded downstairs. He had much to do.. there was a cake to bake, a swing to build.. or was she getting too old for that?… well, as a single father he still had much to figure out but no matter. All would come in time.
For just as the crops withered and bloomed with each of the girl’s passing and rebirths he too found his life constantly reinvigorated. He knew the circumstances were odd, but she was his gem from the salt of the Earth, his downy red phoenix from the encrusted ashes.
He jauntily pulled a sack of flour out of the pantry and set about his task. The sun gleamed in past the branches of the old oak and Jake was happy once more.
Bright days were ahead for this would be the most bountiful harvest of them all.