NYC Midnight Short Story Competition, 2021 — Final Round
Synopsis: In the shadow of the Civil War, a widow laments the time she never had with her beloved.
Competition Assignment — 10th Place Overall (from top 50, initially from a pool of 5600 writers)
Genre: OPEN / Any
Subject: A Honey Moon
Character: A Poacher
Word Count: 1250, Time: 24 Hours
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Earth to Earth, by Amy Hypnarowski
The mud still smelt of death, for not all the blood had washed away.
The sun was just beginning to rise, and the field was peaceful and quiet. The morning mist clung like snow suspended above the grass, a graceful beauty in the way it suffocated the land and wove in and out of the damp earth. In the distance, a mourning dove spoke to the air, calling the mist away. And so it followed, melting effervescently into the trees, the night chill drifting away to a weak dawn warmth.
Anabelle’s skirt was soaked through.
She’d been kneeling all night, and her voice had long since run dry.
She’d told Charles about their son. About how he’d sneak out the door to the orchard. About how his hands were always dirty and she was always cleaning mud off his face.
She’d told him about their farm, about his thriving apple trees. Of how she’d wake every morning, tend the orchard, and feed the fox. His fox.
An oak tree creaked behind her as an owl landed on its branches.
Time passed in a breath.
“I think it’s mocking me,” Charles huffed.
Anabelle laughed, rolling in the bed to look out their window. On the ledge, silhouetted against the moon, the fox flicked its tail. Behind it, the bare apple trees of the orchard swayed in the early spring breeze, rustling hypnotically against the hoot of an owl. The fire of their small house — her father’s old house — crackled merrily in the hearth, the rug strewn with their discarded clothes.
An old clock ticked from atop her piano, Charles’ seedlings decorating the hood. Dozens of living plants, his gifts to her, gave the room life around them.
“I’d say mocking is too strong a word,” Anabelle mused, “Taunting, perhaps.”
Charles scoffed behind her, “Oh no, it’s mocking me. Even on our wedding night.”
Anabelle turned back towards her husband, intertwining her legs with his. A cool wind flitted across the room, chilling the sweat on their backs.
“That…may have something to do with me.” Anabelle’s eyes twinkled. “I’ve…sort of been feeding it.”
“You’ve been feeding it?” Charles lifted himself up on an elbow to better look at the fox. It chirped once. He narrowed his eyes. “That thing is the reason I nearly lost a leg!”
Anabelle ran her foot up his calf, tracing the heavy scars across his leg where her snare had cut into it. Charles inhaled sharply, his eyes darting back to hers.
“Yes, I remember,” she said, her voice a hoarse whisper. “Serves you right for trespassing.”
“I was hungry,” Charles said, shifting his body to cover hers. He moved his knees between her legs and bent low to kiss her neck.
He remembered the first time he’d seen the fox. He’d left home three years before, with little more than nothing. His father had been an ironworker, but Charles had a gift with plants. His mother had joked that he could sing their steel-bound garden to life. When he’d turned eighteen, she’d packed a bag for him: bread, dried meat, his father’s pistol, and a bag of seeds.
“You need dirt on your hands,” she’d said, kissing him on the cheek. “Find someplace to grow.”
Charles had traveled then, finding his way to the orchards of Pennsylvania, joyfully working the trees. But in winter, little grew, so he’d snuck back to one of the farms at dusk to hunt hares. He’d not made it far when a fox burst from the brush and he’d tripped, his leg catching in a snare. The wire tightened mercilessly around his calf, biting deep into his muscle. He’d collapsed to the ground, his bag of treasured seeds splitting open.
Anabelle had found him the next morning beneath an apple tree, blood soaking the grass around him. Her father, she thought, would have been proud of her snare work. “To catch a poacher,” her father had told her when he’d known he was dying. “It’ll be just you. You have to protect our land.”
Anabelle had raised her rifle, intent on doing just that.
It was then that she saw the fox, nibbling on seeds strewn next to the man.
Anabelle had looked back at the man, his eyes glazed with fever and pain, his bloody hands clutching what remained of a bag of seeds to his chest.
Curiosity had made her lower the rifle.
His tenderness had made her fall in love.
“You know,” Charles whispered, as he trailed his lips across her shoulders, “in England, they have thirty wedding nights.”
“That,” Anabelle said, wriggling playfully beneath him, “cannot be true.”
“It is!” Charles said. He lifted his head and caught her eyes. “For a whole month, the husband takes his wife across the country to meet all their family. A honeymoon.”
Anabelle looked at him, a strange expression in her eyes. “We have no family left.”
“Hmmm,” he said, reaching under her pillow and withdrawing a sprig of lavender — fresh, despite the challenge of winter. A testament to his talent. “Then I suppose it’ll just have to be us.”
He drew small circles across her chest with the flower, tracing it across her collarbone. “From this moon to the next,” Charles whispered, sealing his promise with a kiss, “from dusk to dawn, this time shall be ours.”
But that time had never come. For war cared not for the dreams of lovers.
Anabelle tucked lavender into his uniform a few mornings later, and he, the first apple blossom of the season into her hair. There was little to say that had not been shared the night before.
“Remember,” she said, as he kissed her one last time upon her brow. “You promised me thirty nights.”
He made it to the orchard gate when he stopped. Charles bent down, gathering the cool earth between his fingers and raising it to his lips. He breathed in the scent of the soil as he gazed across the trees, his eyes landing on the patches of rosemary and lavender that had grown from his mother’s seeds.
“Ana,” he said, rising to face her one last time, dirt on his face, “keep feeding the fox.”
Above her, the owl spoke, breaking Anabelle’s vigil with a hollow tenderness. She closed her eyes, remembering the feeling of Charles’ skin against hers. She leaned forward, pressing her cheek against the earth, imbuing it with her grief. She breathed in the smell of the damp soil, tasting the faint trace of burnt gunpowder on the dirt as she dug her hands into the mud, burying an apple seed deep within the soil.
“How many nights has it been?” asked the man from atop a wagon. He stood transfixed at the scene across the field.
“Seventeen, sir” said the driver.
“And she stays all night?”
There was silence from the onlookers.
“She must have loved him very much.”
Baptizing the bit of earth with her love, Anabelle lifted her face from the ground, tilting it to the dawn sun. She’d promised him thirty nights; the nights he’d promised her. From moon to moon, dusk to dawn.
Tonight, she’d return with a new seed and touch the earth that should have been his skin.
“From earth to earth,” she whispered.
Around her, a dozen women did the same. Together, they strode to the wagon, arm in arm, the widows of Gettysburg leaving their lovers to the fading mists and the mourning doves.