No Such Luck: The Machine

Photo by Hartwig HKD (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Hartwig HKD (copied from Flickr)

We found it when we harvested the corn. It was a bit like a loom or a mangle, and somehow a bit like a scarecrow. The machine had been hidden by the tall plants, which swayed in unison in the wind, seeming to wave at you with their leaves. The corn tasted good that year, but the mystery of the machine left an uncomfortable after-taste. It was a bad year for mosquitoes, and there was a poor yield of apples. Mushrooms of many kinds proliferated, some of which we had never seen before.

We burnt the machine that evening. No-one suggested it. There was no discussion. If I looked at it too long I felt like I could begin to discern its purpose. Something familiar in the shapes of the beams, the curves of the levers and cogs, was unbearable. We couldn’t have dragged it off into the woods, for fear that it would somehow come walking back, reappear one morning back in the middle of the field. To hurl it into the river would put it on a level with the swords and jewellery we offered up at solstice. Burning it was the only option. The next day we razed the cornfield too, even though it wasn’t due that year.

For a while we were free. Busy dealing with the harvest. Noticing the autumn taste in the air, the darkening of the leaves, the moon following the path the sun had traced in spring. Chopping the wood and cleaning the hearth. But slowly everyone began to feel suspicious of each other. There had been such recognisable pieces of wood in the machine, re-purposed to unknown ends. A leg from a table. A panel from a wardrobe, an off-cut from a doorway. But who had taken them? Who had such disregard for the village that they would steal and lie and build something in secret?

By festival time none of us would look each other in the eye. Conversations were clipped. Even our children had picked up on the mood, and rarely played with each other, or if they did their games were bitter and spiteful.

The only villager who seemed oblivious was Jed. He stood out a mile, walking down to the well to draw a bucket, whistling a harvest tune, greeting everyone with a cheery “Morning!”. Slowly he became the focus of our suspicions. His father had been a carpenter. His mother had kept leeches. They had both died in the last outbreak of the plague, and he had never taken a wife. He lived alone in his hut at the edge of the village. He did his fair share of work in the fields, of course, took his part in the celebrations, but never really expressed a strong opinion about anything. He didn’t vote at council, unless there was already a big majority. Until the discovery of the machine most of us had thought him a bit of a simpleton. But had it all been an act?

Rumours started. He had been seen at full moon walking with no purpose along the edge of the cornfield. He had been caught early one morning going through the woodpile. A passing iron merchant had spent over an hour in his hut, and had come out laden with pots of honey and jam. What had they been traded for?

By the time of the next feast day the mood of the village had turned ugly. Water boiled to steam over the fire. Dogs barked unchecked. We ate in silence, staring down at our plates. Apart from Jed, who loudly declared the corn the sweetest, the wine the smoothest, the berries the juiciest he had ever tasted. The mayor slammed down his mug, and pointed. First at Jed, then at the pyre.

Jed smiled and began to hum a tune. We rushed to find rope and tinder and flint. Jed let himself be tied up, smiling and with his eyes closed. Once the fire was lit we all turned our backs, no-one any comfort to anyone else.

The next morning we burnt his house, and his books, and afterwards covered the ground in clay and lime. Later we even planted nettles across the path. It was seven years before we grew anything in the field again. At the end of that summer, when we harvested the corn, we found another machine.

Ralph Cumbers

About Ralph Cumbers

Ralph Cumbers is a writer, musician and builder from London.

Ralph Cumbers is a writer, musician and builder from London.

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