The Corn Bride
by The Somnambulist Society
This salutary tale is a sharp reminder that, if you deal with the Devil, even unwittingly, be prepared to pay your dues…
by The Somnambulist Society
This salutary tale is a sharp reminder that, if you deal with the Devil, even unwittingly, be prepared to pay your dues…
The crops of rye, corn and wheat had grown tall that summer, their stalks turning from green to gold in the blink of an eye. Purple and blue cornflowers blinked from within the swaying sheaths, like the alert eyes of wild animals hidden in their dens. The wind that drifted through the fields announced the turn of the seasons, the heady mid-summer air becoming a little colder every passing day.
The children of the village were told not to linger beside the fields, not before the harvest had been taken in. They were told not to go picking flowers among the golden stalks, or to chase each other into the thickening fields once the crops had grown above their shoulders; for it was said the Devil and his wife lived there. The Devil, who with his iron club would snatch away little boys and girls, for his wife to suckle upon her iron teats filled with hot tar. Then, she would pound them in her butter churn, to make a bloody paste to feed her pack of hungry barley-wolves.
Karl, the miller, had known of these stories when he was a boy. He had stood in the lane beside the fields with his playmates over countless summers, hoping to see the Devil in his black hat stalking the tall spikes of wheat. He had watched as the farmers threw their knives marked with three crosses into the fields, shouting ‘There you have it, corn-mother!’, hoping to fright the spirits into leaving the crops until after the harvest was taken in. Each passing year, it had seemed more and more absurd to him, like watching small children hold their breath as they passed a graveyard. The power was in their belief, after all. He had never known any child in the village to go missing. Then again, none had been foolish enough to go into the fields alone before the harvest.
As a young man, he had been expected to join in with the sowing, then later the reaping and the threshing, his hands becoming calloused with each beat of the flail and swing of the scythe. The late summer sun was oppressive in the fields, a smothering heat that settled in the soil and blistered your feet. Karl resented having to work the harvest in those early years before he took over the running of his father’s mill. He was far more comfortable among the turning, wheezing grindstones and gears, and the clouds of flour dust than outside toiling at the wretched earth.
He had taken no wife, not yet anyway. None of the women in the village took his fancy, or at least that is what he told the menfolk. He enjoyed his solitude for the most part, though sometimes he felt the ache of loneliness in his heart, alone in the mill. Sometimes, for want of company, he would make little corn dollies from the loose stalks in his workshop and leave them perched atop the hearth of his cottage. His family now long since departed, it was a melancholy gesture that went a little way toward filling the silence of an empty home.
Karl dreamt, sometimes. He dreamt of being back in the fields, the weeks before the harvest, where the stalks of rye, barley and corn stood as tall as a man, their bristling points quivering in the summer heat. He was always alone, standing deep in the heart of the fields, the horizon hidden under a wave of burnished golden stalks. It was silent there, eerie-quiet among the swaying spires that smelled of earth and ripening seed. He would feel afraid, not knowing which way to turn, or how to find his way out of the seemingly endless field; then behind him, he would hear the sound of breathing. Heavy, animal breath, that seemed both far and yet inescapably near. The sound of feet padding through the tall stems, dry leaves crunching underfoot as it came closer toward him.
The more he ran, the deeper he went, until he found himself within a clearing of sorts, a circle of flattened wheat large enough for a horse and cart to pass through. There, he would cower, as he felt himself become a child once again, snuffling and weeping in his night-clothes as the monsters at the door came a-scratching. Then, all at once, the animal-breathing would suddenly stop.
And then, out of the shadowy stalks, she would come. With her long, pale arms outstretched to grab Karl.
He told no one of these midnight terrors. He kept them to himself, in his bed that dripped with the cold sweat of nightmares, each night a little harder to bear than the last. He would sometimes stay at the mill far into the twilight hours, unwilling to face his bed alone. Even the corn dollies, with their feeble imitation of life, were of no comfort to him in that empty cottage. The image of the field, and those cold, cruel hands that were pale as a river-bloated body coming toward him, were enough to keep him awake until the first crow of the cockerel.
Karl rarely left his mill or his cottage, though when he did, it was always with some purpose. To pay the village taxes, or to attend mass. It was on one such day, as he walked along the lane beside the fields, that he met a woman he had never seen before. A woman who was more beautiful than any he had ever laid eyes on. Her hair was as golden as summer dawn, and her eyes sparkled with emerald wildfire.
She was, he supposed, a traveller from some other village hired to help sow the fields before the summer. It was strange though that she worked alone, tramping along the furrows with her linen bag full of seeds; Karl could see no other men or women around the field, not even a local boy with his bag full of stones to scare away the birds. He noted too that her pale skin was marked with flecks of earth, and her boots were tarred with the rich loam of the freshly turned soil. Quite despite himself, he called out to her:
“Ho, there! What brings you here to work the field alone?” He called from the lane. She stood up from her crouching among the deep furrows, and dusting her hands upon her dress, she replied:
“None but myself, sir. I prefer to work out here alone, without the chitter-chattering of old maids and cow-brained yeoman.” She smiled as she leant back a little to ease her aching back, in a way that sent a quiver of longing through Karl as he regarded her. He would be late for mass if he dawdled here; but then again, so we would she. We shall be sinners together then, he thought to himself. He stepped across the lane, and over the open field toward her. She raised a dark eyebrow as he approached but stood where she was without protest.
“It is unsafe for a young woman to work the field alone, you know.” Said Karl, as he tucked the loose folds of his shirt into his leather britches. “There might be a bilwis waiting to break into the field, to snatch you away for his bride.”
The woman snorted with derision and crouched back down to attend to her bag of seeds. “I shall take my chances, sir. After all, for all I know you could be a corn-demon, trying to snare poor women of the fields. All the same…” She hitched up her skirt a little, to reveal the jaeger-knife tucked into her leather boot, “I keep my wits about me.“
Karl nodded, and crouching alongside her, began to dig little craters in the earth with his fingers, into which she poured the seeds of barley. They worked like this all through the day, until the dimming sunset came upon them. Then, with nowhere of importance for either of them to go as night began to fall, they walked down the lane toward Karl’s cottage. And soon, they settled together in the newfound warmth of Karl’s bed. It was to be the first of many nights spent together.
They were a happy, contented pair for many summers. Their quarrels were brief, and their love for one another immeasurable. They chose not to marry, though many in the village suggested otherwise; but Karl and his beloved saw little value in the strange rituals of matrimony, no more than they regarded the superstitions of the wheat-harvests. Karl found soon that he made fewer and fewer corn dollies, though sometimes his paramour would jest that they were his children. “Soon, I shall bring you babes of my own.” She would say, “One for each of your little corn-dollies.“
The nightmares that had plagued him ceased almost as soon as they shared a bed. No more did he wake in a cold sweat, with the lingering phantom of long pale hands reaching toward him weighing heavy on his unquiet mind. And soon, as she had promised him, the house was alive with the laughter and cries of seven wonderful babes; three boys and four girls. All with hair as flaxen as a wheat field in summer, and skin as pale as a snowdrop. They spun and danced between their mothers’ skirts and clung to their fathers’ broad shoulders like giggling imps of mischief. It was blissful and love-bright in that cottage, for many a season until the bad years came upon them.
One day, many years after they had first met, Karl’s beloved grew sick. She lay in their bed, her breath rattling like dry leaves in the wind, and her pale skin as cold as a gravestone in winter. The children wept terribly for their mother, and Karl could not be dragged from her sickbed, to work the mill.
Then, something began to rot the harvests all across the countryside. The fields turned a strange hue, like dead flesh upon a corpse. The rye turned foul; St Anthony’s Fire set people in villages far away to dancing like their bodies were aflame, spreading madness and fits wherever it went. People began to burn the fields, to smoke out the pestilence. Great clouds of smoke could be seen by many as far as the Black Forest, as frightened men and women now purged crops that they had worked so hard to nourish all summer long.
It looked as though the rot would come to Karl’s village; with no wheat, corn, rye or barley to grind in the mill, there would be no coin in Karl’s purse. And with no coin, there would be no food for his seven grown children, and their dear sick mother. Karl fretted, and howled at the sky, sitting forlornly beside the mill’s grindstone as it turned its final, guttering circles across the last of the villagers’ grain.
One night, with his beloved shivering in their bed in the attic of the cottage, and his seven children sleeping in their cots, Karl sat by his hearth, turning one of his old corn dollies between his shaking hands. He felt the meagre warmth of the fireplace on his fingers as he curled the dry rasps of the corn dollies little arms, his faced creased with worry. How would he feed his children? His beloved? Himself?
There was a knock at the cottage door. A resounding, dense knock, as if somebody had struck the door with iron. Karl looked to his children in their cots, but they were fast asleep. Perhaps he was hearing things? No, the knock came again. Insistent, and resonant, like the dull ringing of a cracked church-bell buried beneath a dark lake.
Karl stood up from his place by the hearth, the corn dolly still held between his fingers. He walked toward the cottage door and opened the metal latch, to see who or what it was that had chosen to visit him on this night of all nights.
The door opened, and the Devil stood before Karl, immense and dark with eyes that flamed, with a great black hat perched atop his head like a thundercloud. He smiled with a flinty grin that made Karl’s heart quiver, and he bowed with mock civility before the open cottage door. His filthy greatcoat swept the floor as he bent down to enter the cottage, and in his hand, he held a club made from black iron. The Devil put a finger to his lips to ask for silence, then stepped aside, to make room for his wife to enter the cottage.
She was bone-white, body bloated like a toad, with blistered skin that seemed to shimmer with sweat. Her long hair was lank and black as night, and her great iron teats hung down to her knees. The smell of tar and burning pitch announced her as she entered the cottage. She did not smile, as her husband the Devil had done, but stared at Karl with eyes as dull as a mooncalf’s, her nose a-twitching in the air for the scent of young children fresh for the picking.
The Devil, huge as he was with shoulders broad as a carthorse, drew up a seat beside the hearth. He gestured for Karl to sit beside him, while the Devil’s wife sat squat on the floor beside the children’s cots, her white nostrils flaring. The Devil placed his iron club between his knees and drew out a long black pipe from his greatcoat. Lighting it with a coal from the fire, he sucked the pipe, which belched out a plume of smoke that sparkled with green motes of light.
The Devil spoke to Karl. His voice was like the whisper of ocean waves over shingle-stones.
“Your lovely bride is not what she appears, Karl the miller. She is our daughter, and we have come to take her home with us, to our castle among the wheat stalks. That is the way things are, and the way things shall be.” The Devil gestured to his wife with a long, curled finger, and her eyes flickered toward him. The Devil pointed up the ladder to the attic room, where Karl’s beloved lay. Without uttering a word, the Devil’s wife shuffled over to the ladder, and climbed it with a strange kind of nimbleness, as if she weighed nothing at all.
Karl stood up, to try and bar the way, but found he could not leave his seat. He was stuck as if held in the grips of a deep, swampy mire. The Devil tapped his pipe on the hearthstone, and looked at Karl with eyes that burned with infernal flames:
“You cannot keep her, Karl the miller. She is ours, and always will be. Do not think that you can keep the Devil from his duties, as one father to another. Children are tricksy, meddlesome things, and sometimes we must punish them accordingly for their sins.”
The Devils wife, her pale skin shining in the light of the hearth, carried Karl’s beloved across her shoulder like a sack of barley. She did not protest, nor cry out, but simply hung like a rag across the arms of the Devil’s wife as she carried her toward the door. For a moment, Karl saw as his beloved looked up, to see her children asleep in their cots. She whimpered, like an animal caught in a cruel snare, before falling silent across her mother’s shoulder. The Devil rose from his seat and followed his wife toward the cottage door.
Karl found himself freed of his invisible bonds. The corn dolly dropping from his trembling fingers, he ran toward the door, and out into the night to follow his beloved. He saw in the moonlight, as the Devil’s wife carried her toward the lane beside the fields, where the golden stalks shone white in the light of the moon. The crops had grown tall that year, too lofty for a man to see over; it seemed as if the field stretched off forever toward the horizon, like an endless sea of shifting sand.
The Devil stopped a little way before he reached the lane and turned to meet Karl as he came running from the cottage. The Devils’ eyes still glowed with an infernal light, brighter than the coals of the cottage hearth. With his iron club slung across one shoulder, he stopped Karl with his free hand; to Karl, it was like running hard into the branch of a great oak tree and sent him rolling to the ground with such force it almost knocked the life out of him.
The Devil told Karl, “By the by, the crops this year will ripen well, free of rot and pestilence. You will do well from it, Karl the miller. But there will be a price. Oh yes, for there is always a price.”
The Devil leant over Karl, casting a shadow so thick that it almost choked the night:
“You have seven babes born from our daughter’s womb. Those seven now belong to me. Each year, you will bring me one, the night before the harvest. You will leave them in a clearing in the middle of the field, where the crops grow tallest, and the air is at its stillest. If you do not, I will take all your babes at once, and without warning; and then I will come for you, Karl the miller.”
Karl clutched at the grass at his feet; his mind gripped with fear, and with despair. One babe, for each year of harvest? One year alone to love each child, then one by one to hand them over to the Devil of the fields.
The Devil smiled his flinty grin, then stood up, dusting off his greatcoat. He carried the subtle odour of rot upon his garments and the bilious tang of sulphur upon his breath. Tipping his black hat to Karl, the Devil vanished, leaving the distraught miller alone in the moonlight beside the field. Karl returned to the cottage and his sleeping children. And he slept in his now-empty bed, the scent of his beloved still clinging to the sweat-soaked sheets.
The Devil, for his part, kept his side of the agreement.
The harvest endured. The famine and the rot that plagued the other villagers never came to Karl’s village. At mass, the priest said it was a sign of the great virtue and piety of the congregation, and that they should give thanks for being spared the angel of death’s pestilent scythe. But Karl, alone in the grinding and turning of the mill, knew that soon the Devil would come to take his due.
The eldest child, his first daughter, was the first to be taken. She fought him, biting and kicking as he carried her by the moonlight into the swaying sheaths, into the clearing where time seemed to stand still in the moonlight. He did not watch as those cold, pale hands reached out from the shadows, as his daughter was pulled screaming through the rustling pillars of barley. He covered his ears, to shut out the sounds of pulping, crushing, bloody pounding that followed him as he walked out of the fields.
He tried to spare the youngest of his babes the terror of their sacrifice. He laced their milk with herbs, to make them sleep heavy, dreamless slumbers. Then he would carry them, their little bodies snuffling against his shoulders as he walked like a dead man through the moonlit fields. He would lie them upon the trampled-smooth stalks, a golden bed of dusty- down to rest their sleeping heads. Sometimes, he heard them wake as he left the field. He did not want to think of it, as they awoke alone, in a moonlit clearing, cold and confused as to where their father was. They would crease their little faces with tears and rub their wet eyes with clenched fists like little field mice. They would wail as the stalks began to rattle, and out of the dark, dry earth, their mother would come to take them away, her white arms reaching toward their little faces with her broken nails and blistered skin.
Soon, there was but one child left, so young he was barely able to say his name. Karl cried and howled to nothing in the rattling thunder of the mill, his last child in all the world soon to be taken to the field. He did not think to ask what would happen to them; he doubted that he would ever know for sure.
Karl knew at this moment that he was a coward, to forsake his children rather than face the devils’ wrath. But he could still live out what little years he had free of damnation, before the final judgement of his soul. Maybe start another family, given time. Who knew what the next season might bring?
And so, his son’s warm, soft hand in his own, Karl led his last child into the field of barley, rye and wheat, under the light of a hunter’s moon. His little son slept soundly, as Karl laid him in the field, not daring to look behind him as he heard the sound of heavy, animal breathing from within the ivory stalks.
Karl knew this last act would damn his soul forever; for the Devil would have his due, in this life or the next.