My favourite treat once more – a randomly combined title, picking two words from a list provided by Chuck Wendig. I got Reaper’s Coil, and it took me about three minutes to get some strands of an idea, two more days to put some more ideas and twists into it, and the time of writing to get the whole thing drawn together into a nice knot. The idea of the ropemaker’s barn came from somewhere in my memory of a programme on ropemaking and a visit to a craft museum where there was a rope barn. I think. One of those memories might be false. I give you 1500 words of…
The Reaper’s Coil
Nobody in Flightmans Bottom really knew the whole story. In the Dog and Duck they said a stranger walked in three days before the harvest, sat at the fire, downed an ale and left. The cleaner could not wipe up the pool of rainwater he left under the bench. “And believe me, Master Arun, I’ve tried!” echoed in the publican’s ears after he questioned her about it. Mrs Tildey had wiped it up, wrung her mop in the bucket, witnesses had seen the water in the bucket, and she had thrown it in the duckpond. The next evening, at opening time, the water was back.
It was the same in the window of the General Store. A pool of water, in amongst the tins of baked beans in their neat pyramid, just below the notice advertising the next fund-raiser for the village hall’s new roof. Try as Mrs Adamson might, there was no wiping up the water. There it lay and there it intended to lie, in spite of her best efforts to remove it.
Along the road, where it ran into Flightmans End, there was a long low barn. A stranger hearing the noises from it might think it was haunted. Groans and creaks, followed some minutes later by clanks and a strange whistling noise, were all part of the day’s work for Mr Knapper. Whether his ancestors had been flintworkers nobody could tell, but it was certain that he had taken over from his father, who had taken over from his father, as a master ropemaker, and this barn was his works. The groans accompanied the turning of the wheel to twist the threads into ropes, and the creaks emanated from the increasing strain on the resultant yarn as it screamed for release. When that release came, the clanking of the stays held back the whistling, shivering, snaking of the rope as it doubled back on itself, turning into a heavy cord, forever bound to itself by torque and tension.
Mr Knapper and his apprentice, Young Joe, pulled the released coils of the latest rope to one side, and started winding it around a drum. Joe turned the handle on the six-foot wide bobbin, while Mr Knapper guided it to lie sleek and smooth. Joe was excellent at the heavy work. His thick muscles were the pride of the village when it came to any feat of strength. He was the star of the tug-o-war team at the County Show, too. He was strong, but not bright, and the village called him their gentle giant.
Mr Knapper asked Joe about a thin coil of rope lying in a corner, since he did not recognise it as part of any order, nor did he remember making such a rope. Joe shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. Mr Knapper was puzzled, since Young Joe was unlikely to have made any rope on his own initiative, and something this size would not have attracted him. Joe liked a challenge for his muscles, and this was easily carried over one shoulder, as Mr Knapper could attest, since he moved it himself from the corner up onto the rack of ropes, to keep it tidy and prevent accidents.
It came as some surprise to Mr Knapper, then, to find this same rope back in the corner the next day when he opened up the barn.
Up on the hill, Farmer Richards walked through the top field with Old Joe, checking the progress of the wheat. It was ready. Old Joe confirmed after looking at the sky for half an hour (and consulting the seaweed that he kept in his pocket) that tomorrow would be fine. Farmer Richards sent his two boys, Arby and Bran, down to the village to roust out all hands to the harvest from dawn on the morrow and remind them of a harvest supper to reward them at the end of the day. Most would come anyway, but a few shirkers needed encouragement to work hard all day. He stepped into the farmhouse kitchen after rinsing his head and hands under the pump, and confirmed to his wife to prepare a fine spread. Mrs Richards set his dinner of venison stew in front of him, and started on the first batch of the dozens of loaves that would be required the next day.
As Farmer Richards ate, his gaze into the fire was distracted by the pool of water to one side. He pondered as he chewed. Had his missus been hanging washing by the fire? Surely she would have wrung it out firmly in the mangle first. Why was the puddle still there if the washing had dried? And had she not been busy on preserving plums today? He turned and checked the counter behind him. There were the rows of bottled plums, all lined up ready for a label in his wife’s neat lettering.
Farmer Richards knew better than to question his wife’s housekeeping. Marital harmony was maintained by each doing their own jobs, and doing them well. They had an understanding in these matters. The puddle was still there when they came down in the morning though, at which point Mrs Richards drew her husband’s attention to it and demanded he find an explanation for it, since she could find none. After a careful investigation of the stonework of the hearth, the state of the chimney, and a visual check of the house’s exterior, Farmer Richards shrugged expressively and said it was time for harvest. He left her sorting out cheeses and pickles, and baking the loaves that had risen nicely overnight. Time for the most important job of the year.
Lunchtime came and Farmer Richards called a break. Arby and Bran took round refreshments to each group of workers as they laid down their scythes and reapers and stretched out their backs. The women and children who gathered and stacked the corn into sheaves joined them, drinking fresh apple juice while the men quaffed ale. Farmer Richards had a word for each group, thanking them for their involvement: Widow Tildey with Mr Arun and his family; Mr Knapper with his missus and Young Joe with his cousins and their dog. The schoolteacher Miz Al had brought a gaggle of the boys together for an impromptu lesson and to keep them from under the feet of their own parents, who were relaxing under the oak tree with the better-behaved youngsters. Richards kept thinking he could see a stranger in their midst, but when he looked, he could see no-one. The stranger kept appearing on the edge of his vision, yet Richards would turn his head and lose him again. He could not really describe him, either, just a shape in a cloak, despite the heat of the day. Richards put it down to the strength of the sun and the depth of the shadows, and grabbed an apple juice for a moment’s respite of his own.
The lunch breaks drew to a close as those working on the far side of the field started up again and left those close in to catch up. The groups worked smoothly, the wheat was good quality, the weeds were minimal, and the ground was level. There were patches of damp ground every now and then, odd, since it was a few days since the last heavy rain, and dew would not accumulate in that fashion.
The shadows lengthened as the groups of harvesters drew together in the middle of the field, working their way through the last stands of wheat, to meet at the very centre. At last, they formed a ring around a patch of stalks standing tall amongst the devastation of their felled companions. Farmer Richards stepped forward, beckoned to Young Joe, and handed over a scythe. It had become a custom for Joe to complete the harvest, since he was the strongest among them. Joe took up his stance and raised his cutter.
What happened next was a debate that lasted all through the winter. Mr Arun, the publican, told anyone who asked that he saw snakes appearing from holes in the ground. Mrs Adamson could be drawn out on the subject if you cared to spend some time gossiping in the General Store, but you had to be ready with the tissues as she was still in mourning. Mr Knapper could attest to the existence of a strange coil of rope on the morning of the harvest that was nowhere to be seen the day after. Arby never spoke to anyone about it, even though he was probably the only one who really saw how Bran got his neck stuck in a loop of rope.
Farmer Richards never mentioned the strange cloaked shadow he could see out of the corner of his eye, wielding a scythe as the ropes slid out of the ground and carried off Mrs Tildey, Mr Adamson and his own adored Bran. After all, no one would have believed him.
(c) J M Pett 2014