It was getting along about dusk when the wind set the corn stalks to waving, and Akerman, getting nervous now, checked his rifle for the third time in as many minutes. The wind was crisp and cool. There was a bit of winter in every South Carolina autumn–a reminder of things to come, once the harvest season was done. Tillman, sitting on top of the combine harvester’s cupola, said, “The Wolf is in the corn.” Akerman looked up at him.
Tillman didn’t. “He’s running up and down the rows, seeking whom he may devour.”
That was from the first book of Peter, Akerman knew. Or part of it was anyway. Tillman wasn’t exactly a Biblical scholar. “Shut up, Tillman,” he said, again. “That ain’t helping.” Of course the Wolf was in the corn. Where else would he be?
Tillman looked down at Ackerman from his perch. His round face sagged with exhaustion. He hadn’t been getting much sleep. Then again, neither had Akerman. Tillman grunted, knuckled one eye like a sleepy infant and looked away, out over the field. Akerman followed his gaze, though he wanted to look anywhere other than at the corn.
The field rose up out of nothing, a splash of pale color running through the gullet of the black forest that surrounded it. It extended some length of the road, stalks bending low over the ditch like yellow fingers eternally reaching for something just out of sight. No one was really certain who owned it, but more than one person worked it. It was big and had never needed to be left fallow for long. The town shared it, and they shared the harvest, and everything that went with it when it came time.
Ackerman still had the straw he’d drawn, the bottom of it stained black with ink, when the time had come to see who was going out into the field. He’d been tempted to throw it back in Agatha McCaskey’s face, when she’d called out his name at the town meeting, but only for a moment. It was that time of year and everyone had to put their hand in to get the harvest in on time. That was how it had always been, and how it always would be, until some damn fool got wise and decided to turn this cornfield into a parking lot.
Two other combines sat in the field besides theirs. He and Tillman weren’t the only ones who had drawn black straws. From this distance, the machines looked to Ackerman like boats bobbing in a sea of gold and red. There were men on them as well —- Graham and McGill on the one, and Scott and Rutledge on another.
He could hear the sound of the radio McGill had insisted on bringing as it spat sound into the gathering dusk, though he couldn’t make out the song. Something olden and golden, that might have come on at the touch of the Fonz’s fist on the top of the jukebox, once upon a time. Right now it sounded tinny and disconcerting, and Ackerman wanted to shout for McGill to cut it off. But he didn’t. Some noise was better than none. Anything to mask the sounds the corn made in the wind.
The sky was a riot of purples and reds and the corn was a mass of yellow and orange–to Ackerman it resembled nothing so much as a tongue of flame stretched and flattened out across all of the world. Like Hell’s pilot light, as his daddy had been wont to say. Which, given where they were, and the circumstances, seemed about right to Ackerman.
He looked away, trying to still his nerves. He was already regretting that third cup of coffee. It was making him antsy, and his bladder was just on the cusp of being too full. He would need to take a piss soon, and he didn’t relish the thought of trying to do that and keep one eye on the corn. Ackerman looked towards the road, where the others were parked. Men and women sat in the back of pick-up trucks, or on top of cars, shotguns and rifles on their shoulders or across their knees.
Someone had lined the ditch with tiki torches bought from the local party store and lit them. There’d be some light, at least, when the sun finally set. And there were lights on the combines as well. Somehow, Ackerman didn’t think it’d be enough.
Ackerman looked up, and saw Tillman staring down at him through the sight of his rifle. Sweat glistened on his face and the barrel of his rifle trembled. For a moment, Ackerman thought Tillman had finally snapped, but then he heard it. The corn was rustling in the breeze, but not like normal. There was a purpose to this sound, one that set every hair on his scalp to twitching. He wanted to run, but he knew running wouldn’t do any good. Instead, he turned around, slow and careful, his rifle swinging up.
His mouth went dry and his heart gave a little spasm as he caught sight of it. It didn’t really look like a wolf. It didn’t look like anything, in particular, sitting there crouched in the corn. It was more the idea of a wolf, than anything in particular—-just the implication of a lean shape crouched amongst the stalks, tongue lolling, eyes mocking, as if to say, how do, buddy? Fine night for a harvest, ain’t it? Fine, fine, FINE.
It wasn’t really a wolf. It wasn’t really anything. But it was hungry. Hidden amongst the oranges and reds and yellows, the Wolf moved with them, padding slowly forward across the cracked ground, drawing closer and closer through every undulation of the corn stalks, moving in the bend and in the flex, moving in the curling leaves, until the breeze died and the corn stilled and then…the Wolf was gone, as if it had never been.
And maybe it hadn’t. Maybe it had all been his imagination, a result of misfiring neurons. But he knew better than that. Otherwise, why were they even out here waiting on the devil to make his appearance?
He was sweating despite the cold, and he clambered up onto the cab of the combine, getting further away from the corn and whatever was in it. He scraped his face with the heel of his hand, trying to clear the sweat, trying to force some feeling back into his face. “Did you see it?” Tillman hissed from above him. He was tense now, face stiff, eyes staring from their sockets. “Was that it? Hunh? Did you see it?” His voice rose in pitch and volume, and Ackerman wanted to slug him. His head ached, and Tillman’s voice was only making it worse.
“I saw it,” he said through gritted teeth. He rubbed his brow, massaging the rough skin over his eyes. The scars were still there, rough grooves of puckered flesh, barely visible but easy to find. He’d caught a bit of shrapnel on the other side of the world and though it had long since been pried out of his skull, he could still feel it quivering there between his eyes. A bit more force to the boom and he’d have been dead. If he’d been looking right, rather than left, if he’d been two inches shorter, or taller…if, if, if.
Ackerman rubbed harder as the pain swelled. The shrapnel had left him something to remember it by besides the corkscrew scars. Sometimes his head felt like an old pipe choked by roots, ready to crack and burst. The ache grew and grew until he thought he would die, and then it would fizzle like air out of a balloon, and he could see and think again, for a little while. He rolled the stone he’d picked up earlier in his palm, feeling the smoothness. Smooth things were best when he was having a funny turn. ‘Transference’ someone had called it–a nurse, he thought.
Damned if he could remember her name.
Roll the stone and take the pain out of his head; replace it with that lovely smooth feeling. It always worked, though not for long. Soon enough, the migraine would come back and his head would start to reverberate with pain. But for a moment he could think without it hurting. And he had a lot to think about. Like the fact he didn’t have to piss anymore. And that the sun was only a crimson slash on the horizon, the wind was picking up, and the Wolf was in the corn.
The Wolf was always in the corn, even when there was no corn, even when the ground had been scraped and plucked clean. The Wolf waited, just out of sight, until the first green shoots puckered the soil, and the first cool breeze corkscrewed down through the nascent rows. Then he prowled, moving faster and further as the field flourished, and rose wild, his eyes shining out through the stalks at the cars moving past. He got hungrier, too. By autumn, the Wolf had eaten every mouse, feral cat, stray dog, and wild pig that dared to pass through the field. By harvest time, no animal dared get close to those stalks and people kept their kids close. So the Wolf ran up and down the rows, hungry and mean and mad. “Seeking whom he may devour,” Ackerman murmured, rolling the stone.
“But desert beasts will lie down there, and their houses will be full of howling creatures; there owls will dwell, and the hairy ones will dance there,” Tillman muttered. More Bible verses. Isaiah 13:21, Ackerman thought. That passage was talking about Babylon, but there weren’t many miles between Babylon and a dirt track corn field in Jackapo County, South Carolina, as far as Tillman was concerned.
The corn rustled and swayed as if something long and low and lean were loping through it, circling the combine. The scripture died on Tillman’s lips, and Ackerman felt the sweat on his face turn clammy. He heard the stalks slap playfully against the side of the combine, like a kid trailing a stick down a fence line.
“He ain’t dancing, he’s just playing,” Ackerman said, after a moment, when the sound had faded and the rustling had stilled. “And quoting scripture at him isn’t going to make him go away.”
“How do you know?” Tillman snapped. He was sweating, too. “He’s the Devil, ain’t he?” Ackerman opened his mouth to reply, and then closed it. He didn’t know. Nobody knew, really. They called him the Wolf, because that was what he’d always been called. He might’ve been Satan, though last Ackerman had checked, Satan had cloven hooves, not paws made from corn husks and leaf-silk.
It didn’t matter what the Wolf was, really. All that mattered was that he had to be hunted down and scythed clean of the field so the harvest could be started and the cycle could be repeated next year. Some folk allowed that maybe the Wolf made the corn grow, but he had to be propitiated in the proper fashion. Only nobody really remembered what that fashion was, and besides which they were Christian folk, more or less, and human sacrifice had gone out with Abraham and Isaac.
So now they just threshed the Wolf out of the corn. They pulled him in and cut him out with the combine harvesters. It looked like a lot of fun when you were a kid, and not the one sitting out in the corn field at night. Not when you were the one waiting for the sun to go down, knowing, sure as sure, that that old bastard Wolf was watching you from behind the rows, all smiles and teeth, waiting for the engines to groan to life, so that oldest of rites could begin anew. God alone knew where the Wolf had come from, or where he went between harvests. Did he just sleep in the ground like a vampire? Or were there other fields like theirs, in other places, where the Wolf roamed?
Ackerman had read enough books in his time to know that theirs wasn’t a unique situation. It was an old tradition, spread across oceans and countries. Frazer had written about it in The Golden Bough. The French, the English, the Germans, they all had their traditions about the corn-wolf, the rye-wolf, the barley-wolf, the wolf behind the rows. Only maybe the Silesians’ wolf, or the Germans’, wasn’t as nasty as this one.
The Wolf sits in the corn and will tear you to pieces, that was what Ackerman’s grandmamma had always told him when he was full to bursting with the smells of pumpkin pie and hollowed out gourds, of wet leaves and fresh-cut stalks. A reminder that all the pleasures of the season were bought in blood. Ackerman shivered. The radio set mounted in the cab of the combine squawked, startling him.
“—id you see it?”
McGill, Ackerman knew. He snatched up the mic and said, “Yeah. He’s out and about early tonight.” The sun was almost completely down now, just a thin red line running over the tops of black trees. “What about y’all?”
“Something is out there. Might just be a dog, though.”
Tillman, still sitting above, laughed harshly. “It’s not a dog,” he shouted.
“Tillman says it’s not a dog,” Ackerman said into the mic.
“Tell Tillman to go fuck himself.”
“Ten-four,” Ackerman said, tossing the mic aside. He could hear the low, raspy growl of a harvester’s engine and knew the others had decided it was go-time. Once the Wolf showed himself, that was it. Do or die, no way out. Once you drew the straw, you had to do the deed, or die trying. He started up the combine. It was a John Deere Combine 9870 STS, green like a pea pod and as big as a tank. Tillman climbed down off the roof to stand half-in, half-out of the cab, his rifle covering the corn.
“The Lord bless and keep me, I shall not want…” Tillman muttered. His face was slick with sweat and his eyes looked glassy. “I shall fear no evil,” he added. He looked at Ackerman, who, for loss of anything else, said, “Amen.” He set the harvester into motion. The sound of corn being carried up the feederhouse and into the threshing drum filled his ears, drowning out even Tillman’s constant, muttered prayers.
He kept one eye on the other two combines, making note of where they were. Theoretically, they were all supposed to move in the same direction. The point was to drive the Wolf towards the line of cars and trucks on the other side of the ditch that marked the field’s edge. The Wolf couldn’t go over that ditch. Never had before, at least. They would hem him in with the combines, drive him back into the smallest possible space, and then burn it. It was a waste of good corn, but what was the point of a sacrifice otherwise? But sometimes…sometimes the Wolf got fancy.
The Wolf didn’t want to be burned. And he was damn hungry.
One of the other combines suddenly swerved. Ackerman sat up in his seat. “What’s he doing? What’s he doing?” Tillman asked, leaning away from the cab.
“Get back in here,” Ackerman snapped. “I don’t know, I…wait. Hear that?” The sound shuddered out over the field. “Something’s gone wrong with his feederhouse. Who is that? Is it McGill, or–?”
The afflicted combine swerved and swayed on its wheels, bouncing wildly as it suddenly careened towards them. Corn flew, spewing up out of the machine’s feeder throat and smacking against the cab. Ackerman couldn’t see who was in the cab, but he could hear them screaming. Graham, he thought, and McGill. He could hear the Wolf as well–a loud, triumphant snarl, like rain striking the corn, that rolled out towards him.
“They’re going to hit us,” Tillman yelled.
Ackerman didn’t bother to reply. He was too busy trying to get out of the way. The radio squawked and hissed, spitting static as he shifted and cursed the controls. The two combines crashed together with a sound like a house falling down and Ackerman was jolted hard in his seat. His rifle, which had been in his lap, clattered away, disappearing into the reel of the other combine. His machine skidded. The cutter bar of the other combine crunched into his engine, and dirt and stalks flew into the air, spraying his cab. Somewhere, a fuel line gave up the ghost, and he could smell it, thick on the air.
The two combines stalled out; Ackerman was nearly thrown from the cab. Tillman wasn’t so lucky. He hit the ground with a yelp and vanished into the rows. Ackerman heard his rifle go off, and flinched instinctively. The bullet puckered the windscreen of the cab, and his heart shuddered in his chest.
The radio squealed, demanding a reply, but he levered himself out of the cab instead. His head throbbed and his ribs felt as if someone had taken a baseball bat to him. “Tillman,” he croaked. Then, more loudly, “Tillman!”
He looked into the cab of the other combine where something wet and red marked the shattered window. It looked like the corn had spilled up the grain conveyer and spattered out of the reel before striking the window. It would have shot towards the cab like a bullet–like a lot of bullets–Akerman knew. But it shouldn’t have happened. “McGill,” he called out. The cutter bar of the other combine was still biting the ground, making a sound like a dying cat. He saw something twitch out of the corner of his eye. Tillman? He turned, his head spinning and chest aching.
Ackerman caught sight of something pale as it vanished into the corn. Heart thudding, he clambered down, though he knew he shouldn’t. That was what the Wolf wanted. The combine had cleared a space before it had stalled. Flattened stalks and churned earth moved slyly beneath his feet as he stepped across it. Spilled fuel crept through the gouges in the dirt, sending up fumes that stung his eyes and nose. He could hear the third combine growling away, and voices shouting. Someone was honking a car horn. The stalks rustled, and he stumbled after the flash of pale…a hand–Tillman’s hand. And it wasn’t pale, not all over. There was some red there, too.
He took a step towards the rows. Tillman moaned. Then he screamed. Ackerman cursed and lunged forward. He bulled through the stalks and stumbled over the mounded earth that marked the rows, pursuing Tillman’s increasingly shrill howls. The white lump of the other man’s hand was always just out of reach, barely in sight, and Ackerman knew the Wolf was pulling him along, faster and faster, like a dog playing keep away with its owner. Ackerman took a chance and thrust a hand out, reaching.
Tillman’s hand was wet and limp. His screams ceased, replaced by a rough, raspy chortle like corn stalks shaking in a high wind. Ackerman pulled the hand towards himself, but released it hastily when he saw the pink-stained nub of bone protruding. The hand was it. The rest of Tillman…well. The corn rustled louder still, from all directions, like a laugh track. The skin on his neck prickled, and he turned. The air was thick with the smell of cut corn and fuel from the wrecked combines. He couldn’t see anything but the corn rising all around him like the golden-topped spears of an army, where it wasn’t stained red with Tillman’s blood.
And then something snarled. Pain followed–but not the familiar ache of a migraine. He stumbled away from Tillman’s severed hand, off balance from the force of a blow he’d barely felt. There was blood on his cheek and on his fingers. He blinked. The leaves of the stalks whirled and danced in the breeze; and the Wolf slithered through them, jaws agape and eyes aflame. Its bay of triumph was thunderous in his ears and his head throbbed with the force of it. Ackerman threw up his arm as the leaves of the stalks washed over him, and for a moment he felt a terrible weight press against him. Then the breeze died, the leaves fell, and the Wolf was gone.
Ackerman leaned forward and cradled his throbbing head in his hands. His heart ached and he felt as if his head were about to burst open. Stray strands of corn silk and stray stalk leaves blew across the ground, rolling and slipping. In the soft rustle, he heard the patient padding of the Wolf. It was circling him, watching him from just out of the corner of his eye. It was enjoying this. It wanted to play a bit before the harvest. He had to get out of the field. He had to get away.
Ackerman got up and ran towards the edge of the field, his breath harsh and burning as it squeezed in and out of his lungs. He heard the rustle of stalks behind him and risked a glance. Saw nothing. But he heard the rasp of its breath as it bounded alongside him, keeping pace, setting the stalks to swaying. If he could get to the ditch he might just make it, he thought. If it didn’t just pull him down, as it had Tillman, if it didn’t head him off at the pass, if, if, if…
The crackle of husks beneath his own feet was loud, almost too loud, but he heard it all the same: the sound of paws digging in the dirt, pulling a lean body along behind him. He turned, not slowing, too scared to stop, but saw nothing. Nothing. But still the sound was there. The sound of running feet and a wet, greedy panting. He slid and fell as a rock rolled beneath his foot, yelping as his tail bone took the brunt. He scrambled up, looking around.
Graham loomed out of the dark, arms outstretched, head lolling. The corn stalks held him up like friendly hands, but only for a moment. There was a black stain on his chest and throat, and his face was slack and ugly in the moonlight. He toppled forward as Ackerman fell back, a scream in his throat. The body hit the dirt with a wet thump and didn’t move.
The Wolf plunged out of the corn and knocked Ackerman sprawling over Graham’s body. Buttons popped off of his shirt and his chest felt as if someone had used it as a cutting board. Warm wetness rolled down his belly; the pain hit him a moment later. Clutching his chest, he pushed himself up and looked around wildly.
He was all turned around. He couldn’t see anything over the tops of the corn, and it was dark besides. He could see nothing but the faint sheen of the combine’s lights glimmering through the close-packed rows.
The wind was rushing over the tops of the stalks now and the sound of it was so loud it drowned out even the growl of the third combine. He wondered where the others were. Were they coming to find him? Or had the Wolf already gotten them like it had Tillman and McGill? He’d heard stories about it when he was a kid, about the harvest going wrong, but he’d never expected it–never expected to be the one it went wrong for.
Then again, maybe it hadn’t. Maybe it was going exactly like it was supposed to. Oh, they didn’t call it a sacrifice, but that was what it was–six men sent into the corn to harry and be harried by the Wolf. Sometimes they got the Wolf, but sometimes, yeah sometimes, the Wolf got them. That was just the way of it. Blood for the season, blood for the harvest. The Wolf always went away, and always came back, and that was the way of it.
Ackerman got his feet under him and started to move, swatting aside the stalks to clear himself a path. He didn’t know whether he was going in the right direction, but if he stopped he was dead for certain. The ache in his chest grew worse and he left a trail of red to mark his path. Not that the Wolf needed it.
The whole field seemed to heave and surge about him and the rows closed in like the jaws of a trap. Every row looked the same in the dark, even the harvest moon overhead didn’t cast enough light to help him. It was a labyrinth of purples and blacks with flashes of yellow and orange, great swaths of color that all blended together. And always the Wolf, keeping pace, watching him. Occasionally it would lunge and send him racing away down this row or that one. He knew it was herding him, keeping him away from the ditch, away from safety.
When he saw the combines through the stalks he knew it was over. The Wolf snarled behind him and he turned slowly. The Wolf was hidden back and away, eyes gleaming like two balls of molten gold, and as Ackerman watched, it padded forward. Only it didn’t. Oh, it got closer, but the Wolf wasn’t walking, or loping, or even moving really–not in any way Ackerman understood the concept. He could see the thing clearly in the light cast by the combine.
It was the corn itself that was moving. The rows twisting and coiling to give some shape to the thing–the Wolf–that flowed through them like a bad dream. The corn stalks trembled and bent, shaping themselves into a vaguely lupine shape–a blocky head, ears, and gaping jaws with teeth made of the corn ears themselves, ripe and yellow.
The Wolf shifted forward, leaves forming paws and then drooping as it passed through them and onto the next row. Ackerman stared. It wasn’t in the corn. It was the corn. The Wolf’s baking soda breath washed over him. The stalks curled around him, cutting off his retreat. The golden eyes beat down on him, examining him. Examining the sacrifice. To their harvest-wolf, their corn-wolf, their corn-god. The Wolf growled again, a long hiss of stalks trembling and corn kernels rubbing together. The sound of wind and age and hunger, older than anything. Ackerman knew then that he couldn’t get away.
How could you run, how could you hide from something that had lived in the ground and in the harvest, year after year, always coming back, always rising again and again so long as the sacrifices were there? Whatever happened to him here, whether he made it or not, the Wolf would always be here.
But the harvest had to be brought in, regardless. The Wolf had to be placated with either fire or blood or both. Ackerman could hear people calling for him, could hear horns honking and rifles firing. The Wolf heard it too and turned slightly, snarling, annoyed maybe. Or perhaps fearful. Ackerman took a step back, then another, and another. Every step taking him closer to the combine with its leaking fuel lines. The Wolf kept pace, not lunging forward, just following him.
“You’re enjoying this, hunh?” Ackerman croaked, trying to keep its attention. “Bet this is just the best damn day for you, you mean old son of a bitch. You’re having yourself a high old time, ain’t you?” The golden eyes never wavered from him, never blinked or vanished. Even when he lost sight of the Wolf itself, the eyes were always there, always following him.
Ackerman’s head felt like it was about to pop; he couldn’t hear anything but his heart and the steady rustle-pant of the Wolf. But he could smell the fuel and see the fumes, and that was good enough. He fumbled in his pocket for his lighter. If he could lead it in, if he could trap it somehow, he might be able to burn it. If, if, if…ifs and maybes.
Corn husks crunched beneath his boots. He felt something grab his leg. He fell, the lighter spinning out of his hand. The ground moved under him. He was being dragged away from the combines, back into the untouched rows. The Wolf moved through all the corn, even the stuff that had been cut or flattened.
He screamed and shouted every Bible verse he could call to mind, and a few he’d only heard come out of Tillman’s mouth. Stalks bent over him like mourners at a funeral. He felt the Wolf’s teeth in his boot. He kicked out and tore himself free, though not without leaving some of himself behind. His sleeves and trouser legs were ripped and stained red as he fumbled towards the light.
There was no ‘if’ now. No ‘maybe’. Only the gold light of the promise in the Wolf’s eyes, the sound of the corn in the wind, and the feel of his own blood dripping down into the soil beneath his feet. But that was all right, he thought. That was the way of it. The pleasures of the season had to be bought in blood, just like his grandmamma had said. Tillman’s blood and McGill’s and Graham’s, and now his.
“Come on then,” he hissed. Something splashed beneath his feet. He glanced down. He was standing in a puddle of fuel. All around him, the wet stalks and leaves were trembling as the Wolf readied itself to leap. “Come on, you old bastard. Come and get me.” He scanned about and saw the lighter. He lunged for it and went to his knees in the fuel-soaked mud. The fumes choked him, made his eyes water, but his fingers closed on the lighter and he snatched it up.
The rows closest to him quivered. He could hear the Wolf padding closer and closer, teeth snapping. Going to eat you up, boy. Going to eat you all up, just like granny said, the Wolf was saying in its corn husk voice. It was too hungry to resist, too hungry to be clever, if it ever had been. Maybe it didn’t need to be clever because it would be back next year, and the year after; it would always be running up and down the rows, hungry forever and ever, seeking whom he might devour, amen.
But that was next year. That was somebody else’s problem. “Happy harvest, motherfucker,” Ackerman said, as he thumbed the lighter to life.
The Wolf leapt, its corn silk fur glistening with fuel.
Ackerman dropped the lighter.
Josh Reynolds is a professional freelance writer whose work has appeared in such anthologies as Historical Lovecraft, Steampunk Cthulhu and World War Cthulhu. He has also contributed to a number of media tie-in fiction lines, including Games Workshop’s Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 lines, as well as Gold Eagle’s Executioner line. To find out more about him, and his work, visit https://joshuamreynolds.wordpress.com/
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Story illustration by Robert Sankner.