Under the chapel of sky, the wheat whispered to John McIntosh. It spoke of the rain, the sun, the rich, rich earth, of his father and grandfather who had worked these fields before him, and of Daniel, who would work them after he was gone.
Daniel watched the wheat bow as his father passed through the south field. Even after a decade, Daniel still struggled against the stalks.
John stopped, planted his hands on his waist. His body ached and not just from the pains of work and age. Arching his back, he breathed deeply. The new wheat smelled dry, and with no rain in the forecast, the field would need water tomorrow.
Hesitantly, Daniel put his hand on his father’s elbow. Something was wrong, but his father had always spoken to the wheat better than his family.
The wind had tangled his boy’s straw-colored hair. His blue eyes were deep as infinity. Daniel was still small and skinny, like he had been at fourteen, but John knew the muscle would come.
The wheat would see to that.
The thought cut like a threshing blade.
“Went to the doctor,” John said, struggling to keep his voice flat. “Been having fierce pain in my back…” He was dithering when he knew to-the-point was needed. The wheat caressed the legs of his jeans, giving John courage. “This will be my last harvest.”
Through the winter, the wheat slept.
John mourned in silence, like he’d done when his wife had died. But seasons pass, and minute by minute, the days lengthened and warmed, and the wheat came alive again. As the harvest neared, John took Daniel into the south field, where the wheat heads hung heavy and golden. John scrapped kernels into his hand and handed them to his son. He drew sharply a breath.
As the wheat had grown taller, his father had grown frailer. Daniel had urged him to rest, but his father only worried about the wheat. Daniel knew the drugs no longer masked the pain, but his father had declined stronger pills because they would cloud his mind, making him incapable of bringing in the harvest.
“Is it time?” John asked.
Daniel rubbed the kernels between his hands then opened his palm. The breeze swirled the chaff away. The kernels popped between his teeth and grew softer as he chewed. His father watched him, eyes wide, pain momentarily forgotten. Daniel wanted to be right in his assessment… the kernels should to be soft, but not gluey. Soon, he thought; then looking at his father, too soon.
“I think it’s ready,” he said after he knew he could delay no longer.
John rubbed a wheat head between his own leathery palms. The chaff, like earthly skin, flew into the wind. The kernels weren’t ready yet.
Three days, the wheat whispered.
John eyed the grey clouds on the western horizon. A hard rain now would ruin the crop.
Daniel looked at his dusty boots. Like his father’s face, the wheat seemed to droop. Some men had an ear for the wheat. Those were farmers who could will their lives from the land.
The wheat closed in around John like arms holding him up. For the first time in his life, he didn’t want the harvest to end, but they had already cut the east field. The northwest field would be ready tomorrow. Soon the season would be over. Too soon.
“The east field is fallow next season.” John said. The stalks bent closer to hear his words, and if necessary to whisper to him what needed to be said. Like his father, John never seemed to know what to say.
“I know,” Daniel said, irritated. He wanted his father to talk to him.
All John’s life the wheat had demanded his labor, his attention, his blood. When he died, he hoped his soul came back as a stalk of hard red winter wheat.
The wheat sighed and bent close once again, whispering assurances. The wheat would watch over his boy as it had watched over him.
Daniel felt the heat of the sun reflect off the golden shafts. He strained to hear anything, but he heard nothing, no matter how he tried. To lie hurt, but the truth would hurt his father even more.
“Look around you, son,” his father said. “This isn’t wheat. It’s the sweat of my grandfather, when this was nothing but dust. It’s the tears of my father, when the rains were late. It’s the blood of my life, when the banks tried to bleed me dry.”
But all Daniel saw was wheat. All he heard, wind.
As they worked to bring in the northwest field, John McIntosh collapsed. Daniel found him, a ring of wheat bent over him in prayer.
Glassy eyes, reflecting gold, stared up at the vault of heaven. “Bring the harvest home, son,” John whispered, his voice barely a rustle, and then he went quietly, like the fields into fallow.
Daniel left his father there, in the arms of the wheat. The harvest had to come in. Unlike Daniel, the wheat was ready.
On the morning he cremated his father, Daniel went into the south field alone. In his hands he carried a simple box; inside, the ashes of a simple man.
Although Daniel tried not to, he cried.
The earth drank his tears.
Around him, the wheat sighed and bowed. It caressed him until his sadness flowed away. As Daniel stared across the golden wheat, heads heavy beneath the infinite blue sky, he heard his father’s voice in the rustle of the stalks.
“I am ready,” he said.
D. Thomas Minton recently traded a tropical Pacific Island for the Pacific Northwest of the continental USA, and now lives a short walk from vineyards and an alpaca farm. When not writing, he can be found working in his garden with his wife, daughter, and too many cats. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, InterGalactic Medicine Show and numerous other publications.