I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
– Revelation 6:5-6
The man had worked the land for over twenty years and his father had worked that same patch of earth for nearly thirty seasons before him.
It was roughly ten square acres of what was once fertile soil, surrounded on three sides by tall pines and on the eastern edge, a creek, that when he was younger, would continue to flow through even the toughest of droughts. His father had built a dam and irrigation ditches to provide water for his crops and animals. Those channels, which had worked effortlessly for many seasons, now lay empty and parched; the creek that supplied them nothing more than a mosquito-filled moat.
He stood panting, drenched in sweat by the midday sun, scrutinizing the crow that had come to feast upon the seed he had just put into the otherwise barren soil. He cursed the animal under his breath before kicking a stone in it’s direction.
The rock bounced harmlessly through the dirt and the bird took to the sky, squawking irritably.
The man closed his eyes as a throbbing pain swelled up the leg from what remained of his right foot. He steadied himself against his plow, waiting for the pain to pass and damning his own ignorance. He and his wife had been forced to remove all but the largest toe on his right foot due to a case of frostbite he had gotten during the most recent winter. The surgical wounds made by he and his wife were anything but neat and were taking more time to heal that he had hoped.
The bird landed defiantly upon another patch of freshly seeded dirt, not far from the first. The man looked at the bird and spat. He feared he would never be able to rid himself of the vermin that had plagued his land. He also feared that his bad luck would remain and that the long winters would be the death of him.
Every season, numerous back-breaking hours would be spent plowing the wretched earth, and countless more removing each new seasons worth of rock and stone, and yet, each fall it would produce scarcely enough to keep his family alive; and most years, not even that.
The man looked over his field and spat once again at the ground before turning his head to the sky. When he was a younger man, he would look to the sky in order to pray to his God, both for guidance and in praise. This detestable plot of earth, years of poor harvests and dwindling luck however, had transformed him. While he would never find fault in a man who looked to the heavens and sensed the presence of God, he no longer felt such a connection.
His faith was lost, and his God with it.
The man’s wife, once youthful and vibrant – once beautiful and the man’s greatest pride – had become weathered and beaten, her skin barely able to remain tethered to her aging bones. Her long hair, now dry and brittle, had prematurely turned to gray. She sat on the modest porch of the modest home, which had been rebuilt several times atop the previous.
There was no actual telling how many generations had lived on and worked the land as there wasn’t much use for history when your very future was in question.
The house was much larger when it was first built, and filled with all that which made it a home. It consisted of two stories with a great room, a large kitchen and a dining room downstairs, and held three bedrooms above. The home was once filled with laughter, the voices of children, and music from a large upright piano, carried all the way to the new world from Switzerland and played by the farmer’s wife; and the farmer’s mother before her.
With each year’s failed crop, however, and each winter longer than the one before, contents of the house had been sold off to pay for necessities. The large kitchen that was attached to the rear of the house had been disassembled for firewood and to provide lumber to repair the barn; a much higher priority at the time. The entire upstairs had been gutted of flooring and many of the supporting lumber for the same reason, leaving the roof to sag in some areas.
The farmer stood behind his patch-work plow, consisting of several bowed oak branches as handles, secured to the main frame with various bits of twine and wire. The plow head, a large iron blade that was well past it’s prime, was attached to the base using the same methods. The whole ensemble was harnessed to an old mule named Pollyanna; as thin and gaunt as her master.
The wretched beast was covered with a shaggy dark brown coat and her mane and tail, both black, were matted with dirt. She stood, tail swishing at the ever present horse flies, waiting for the man to continue, all the while watching him with her yellowish eyes.
The man fetched a white handkerchief from his back pocket to wipe the sweat from his wrinkled brown face. He too had changed. He was once a handsome, muscular man, with a warm, inviting smile and a twinkle in his blue eyes. His smile had left him years ago, replaced by a persistent glower that concealed his teeth, decaying due to years of malnutrition and neglect, and the twinkle in his eyes had dimmed more with the loss of each child.
He had bought Pollyanna from a Christian family traveling through, destitute and desperate for money and food. Those were better times for the family; he had held over two hundred acres at the time, only to part ways with the majority of it since.
He offered them lodging and meals in return for working his land, but they refused his gifts and charity. Instead, they offered him the mule, for a very modest price. He wasn’t much interested in the animal – her hips jutting from her back and her belly low to the ground – but the family was a sight, and needed money to continue their pilgrimage. He paid them well beyond what he thought she was worth and took on the mule as a charitable act.
Since then, Pollyanna had been the one bright spot on this wretched piece of land. When she was first brought in, there were many other animals that grazed upon the lush grass. Most of those poor animals had gone, however, to find themselves either in shallow graves or upon a supper plate. Only Pollyanna, two pigs, ten chickens and and old mongrel of a dog named Rufus had survived up to that point. The last rooster died the winter before, which meant there would be no more chicks until the farmer got another.
For seasons too countless to remember, Pollyanna had pulled upon that plow, nibbled upon the field’s dry grass and drank from the creek’s now brackish water. She alone knew that the land would never produce; never provide a means; at least not while she continued to tread upon it.
A young girl of about twelve years made her way from the house, with a pail of water; fetched recently from the deep well and boiled to remove the many pollutants that have taken root there. In her other hand. She carried a large tin cup. The farmer watched her as she scrambled across the newly plowed terrain.
He wanted to smile. But upon seeing her, he was reminded of the others.
Children that didn’t make it.
Those that died during the long winter or the hot summer; those that died of small pox or yellow fever; those that were too weak to survive in such an wretched and vile place; Molly, James, Elizabeth, Zachary and the stillborn Michael; those that are buried in small shallow graves on the hill behind the house, each one beneath the boughs of a small pine.
Pollyanna had carried each small bundle up the hill to where they were placed in the earth. It was a duty she felt honored to perform; a small price to pay for being the very cause of the family’s plight. A small token of her gratitude and regret.
She had enjoyed each one of those children, having borne them all upon her back. During weekly excursions to town, she would sometimes carry several at a time, as they laughed and bounced about in a not uncomfortable way.
She watched this girl – the last of the children – as she ran in her own peculiar, clumsy way, carrying the heavy pail for her father.
Her name was Claire and she possessed the same demeanor as her father ten years back. Her smile was mischievous and infectious. She was long and lanky, wearing dresses far too short for her thin legs.
She also had a maturity about her, well beyond her years. Life on the farm was coming to an end and she was well aware of it. She had watched all five of her siblings pass on, and presumed she was next. Her knobby knees and ribs had become more pronounced, her blue eyes had become sunken and her long blonde hair had begun to fall out when she brushed it at night.
Claire approached her father and set the pail upon the dirt. She dipped the large cup into the water and extended it out to him. “It’s cold.” she smiled. “I kep’ it in the cellar all morning.”
The man nodded and took the cup in hand, placing his other hand upon the girl’s head and patted it lightly. He tipped the cup up to his mouth and drank, allowing much of it to spill from the corners of his mouth upon his shirt. He then handed the cup back and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
The crow squawked loudly and the farmer eyed it again scornfully. “Look’n like you may have to help me build a scarecrow.”
“No Daddy,” she pleaded, “we don’t want to scare them.”
The man eyed her suspiciously. “Why not?”
She handed him the tin cup, which he took to his lips and emptied. “Momma says they’re messengers.”
He dropped the empty tin cup into the pail and considered her words for a moment. “Does she?” he asked. He looked across the field at his wife, rocking in the chair he had built for her three seasons past, but she paid him no mind, continuing with her sewing.
“Yessir.” The child stood next to her father with an arm around his waist, her head leaning upon his protruding hip.
“Then what is this one saying?”
The girl thought a moment, closing her eyes tightly in concentration. “It says that Pollyanna’s thirsty too.”
The farmer smiled. “Then I guess you’d better give the ole girl some water.”
Claire picked up the pail and carried it over to Pollyanna and the old mule drank from it.
The farmer and Pollyanna worked for a few hours more and retired for the day, spending the remainder of it with Claire and her mother, sipping tea on the front porch and smoking his pipe.
The following day, pain had not yet subsided in the farmer’s foot and the wound had once again began to weep. He doused it with corn liquor and wrapped it tightly in boiled cloth. Later that night, as the a fever took hold from he would never recover.
Need more here.
After six days of repeated attempts to stave off infection and a botched attempt to remove the farmer’s fevered foot, Pollyanna was called upon to carry her master’s body to the hill.
It was Claire that led the mule to the place where her father was to be buried. It was she, who at his request, prepared a place beside her lost siblings; a shallow grave to be covered with rocks, beneath the bough of a large pine.
Immediately following the farmer’s burial, his wife rode upon Pollyanna to town, where the mule was once again sold.
Her new owner, a gruff looking man of fifty plus years, held her mouth open as he studied her teeth. “What on earth am I to do with this bag of bones?”
“Pollyanna has served us well.” The wife puffed. “She is the most rugged of animals either I or my deceased husband had ever the pleasure of owning.”
The man considered Pollyanna, shaking his head and sighed. “We’ll find some kind of use for her I s’pose.”
The mother extended her hand. “Good, it’s settled then.”
The two shook hands and the mother walked toward the door, gesturing for the girl. “Come along, Claire.”
Claire patted Pollyanna’s nose and stroked her neck and cried giant crocodile tears before her mother managed to pull her away.
“Goodbye, Pollyanna.” she called to the beast that is Famine, never knowing her true nature or purpose, “I’ll miss you.”
Pollyanna swished her tail once and then they were gone.