The young woman stood near the sapling, content that the willow tree would grow strong and tall. She’d planted the tree in the fall when the autumn moon was still blood-red in the sky. The ground was soft and fertile, and she buried the root system deep into the earth to survive the harsh winter months. She was happy to see that her planning and praying paid off. 

Her name was Kelah. She was born in the days before The Harvest.  She was lucky… at least, that’s what her mother said.  

The cut off was the first blood moon of the fall. The elders of the village decided that any female born after the first blood moon would be sacrificed to appease the Harvest God, Mata. The rains stopped coming with regularity ten years prior and the village was starving. Neighboring villages, once reliable if uneasy partners in resources, were no longer friendly and no longer plentiful. The elders felt they had no choice. 

That first year, five girls were hanged by their necks on the branches of a large cottonwood tree near the bank of the river.  The elders, certain Mata was angered at the small number of sacrifices that first year, forced impregnation on every available woman.  The next year they sacrificed eight children. And finally, the rain came.

So it had been for twenty years of Kelah’s life. She’d grown up with women friends her age and older, but few women younger than her escaped The Harvest. Those who did were shunned by the village, often cast out in anger and despair for having the fortunate luck of not getting picked for that years’ sacrifice.  If they weren’t outright killed by those that had lost their baby in The Harvest, many simply drifted away, never to be seen again.

Kelah never felt fortunate, no matter how often her mother told her she was. The village was more kind to women born before The Harvest, but not by much. She had lost two friends to a murderous mob before she was ten.

The Willow Tree swayed in a gentle breeze and Kelah touched the delicate leaves, letting them glide through her fingers in streams of green color. She loved how the dangling limbs and gentle leaves made her feel, the embrace of a mother, the warmth of a womb. She was on the very edge of her village, Kol, near a stream that sprung up two years earlier. The rain was good that year and the previous year, but the elders continued their ritual, certain that if they stopped, Mata would send his dry plague back upon them.

Her reverie didn’t last long. She could hear Dender hollering her name through the woods on the other side of the stream. She didn’t have much time left, she knew. Before she began the process, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes, remembering her mother during the kinder years. She wished, for the last time, that her father had been less of a coward and a drunk. She wished she’d had a sister to play with, to share life with.

Kelah knew what Dender wanted. She’d always known. She’d escaped her duty to the village for too long already. This disobedience wouldn’t be accepted if it was any other woman, but Kelah had a way of making men nervous.  When she was twelve, she was to be wed to an elder named Garrett–expected to produce children the following year–she’d been off playing on her own, trying to find the perfect walking stick. She wanted to go on a grand adventure, far away from the village. Maybe even to the mountains that she’d heard about but never seen. If she could just find a perfect stick to lean upon. When Garrett learned that she was off on her own, tired of her insubordination, he attempted to drag her back into the village. He found her on the outskirts of the village, poking around a giant Oak Tree. He crept up behind her–normally she would have heard his labored breathing and heavy footsteps, but she was preoccupied, watching a worm wiggle its way out of the soft earth–and grabbed her around the waist. He came screaming back into the shelter of the center of the village, burned so badly that the skin turned black and began to rot off. He lost both arms up to his elbows but survived. Nobody ever touched Kelah again. 

And they dared not banish her, for rumors had swirled throughout the village that Kelah was Gata’s wrath. Gata was the god of fertility. It was said she was getting her vengeance on the death of so many girl sacrifices. The year after Garrett’s unfortunate calamity, the elders only hung three girls. The rains continued to come, and everyone was satisfied. Kelah was left alone, considered undesirable and a necessary plague.

That is, until Dender came along. He was, in every way, the opposite of Kelah. Whereas she was slight with dark hair and preferred to spend her time hiking through the forests or tending the small garden she began growing after the rains came back, Dender was a brute of a man. Nobody ever remembered him with hair, even as a child. His skin was pale and flabby, but he was as strong as a buck. He preferred to spend his time mating with any woman who was of age, and some who weren’t, and already at the age of twenty-two he was the proud father of more than a dozen children. He was first, always, to volunteer to pull the rope up the tree at Harvest time and relished watching the squirming bodies jerking from his knot. Sometimes he climbed the tree ahead of time and whispered down to the victims, calling their names one by one, as they struggled with their last breath. Even the elders thought Dender was hard to handle, but they never punished him. He was too valuable as a producer of children.

He’d heard the rumors about Kelah, but he didn’t believe she was the reason Garrett lost his arms. He laughed that day when Garrett returned from the fields, screaming, on fire. Dender accused him of doing it to himself–Garrett had a secret hobby of going into the woods and starting small fires, only Dender knew about it–and slapped his fat belly as he told the older man that he got what he deserved. 

Yet he didn’t approach Kelah, even as he refused to believe she could harm a man like himself. It wasn’t until her twentieth year, this year, that Dender really took notice of her–commenting on her breasts or her lean figure or her wavy hair every chance he could. And now he was chasing her through the forest, a lumbering, unkillable giant after a vulnerable deer.

He came at her from the other side of the stream, his red lips peeled back in a vicious smile, his sunbaked head pouring sweat. He kicked his fat legs through the water, taking a second to splash water up into his parched mouth, lapping up the water like a sick dog, eyes never leaving Kelah. 

Kelah stood in front of the willow tree, her safe harbor, and knew what Dender was after.  She’d seen him do it to other girls. Her friend, Lora, had a pup she loved more than her own family, and every time Dender got the chance, he kicked it. It was like he had an angry passion for it. The pup became a dog and even though he was a strong herding animal, he ran far away any time Dender came around.  Lora struck out at Dender during one such episode, as she was moving a small flock of sheep, throwing a large rock in his direction. It missed him by several feet but gave Dender a reason to knock her teeth out. Lora tried to appeal to the elders for help. They handed down justice with a wedding between the two, and Dender got another wife and child out of the deal while Lora lost everything. Sometimes Kelah would see Lora and wave and try and talk to her but the light was gone. 

Dender stepped onto Kelah’s side of the creek and she tensed as he approached her, his clothes soaked and sticking to his body. Kelah’s hands brushed against the willow tree like a mother soothing a child. She thought of running but figured it’d be worse for her later if she did. Dender was close to her now, a wide smile on his face. No warmth radiated from his eyes.

Kelah took an involuntary step back as Dender came right into her space. She’d expected him to say something, to make a sick comment, but he didn’t. The smile never left his face as he grabbed Kelah’s wrist and began to pull her toward the ground. With his other hand, he began loosening his pants. Then he spoke, a guttural sound coming from the bottom of a muddy ditch.

“You’re going to suck it now,” is all he said as he pulled her down to the earth.

Kelah fought back, but her tiny wrist in his grip was no match. She pulled harder, digging her heels into the ground. Dender frowned and with one sharp yank he pulled Kelah down on top of him.

Before she could react, he was pinning her body to his and ripping her top off with his free hand. She began to scream for help, but deep inside she knew nobody would come. Nobody ever came.

“…his red lips peeled back in a vicious smile,”

Kelah’s face was close to Dender’s piggish mouth and she could smell the charred pig on his breath. He was trying to kiss her with his wet lips and slippery tongue. She wrestled her head away from his grip, but her body was crushed between his chest and the hard ground beneath her. She could feel his member poking her stomach, searching for her womanhood. Her top was ripped and Dender went for her breast with his mouth. 

Kelah let out another scream and then felt heat. She felt the warmth spread throughout her entire body, tiny needle pricks of heat traveling up and down her spine and into her legs, arms and then into her neck, face and head. Dender stopped moving, his eyes wide as he felt the heat rush to him. His clothes began smoldering and he opened his mouth in astonishment. Then flame began to cover his body and he screamed. He threw himself off Kelah, his hands burned raw from touching her skin. He rolled over until he was in the water, dousing the flames that had sprouted up all over his body. He groaned in agony as he soaked beneath the surface of the water, only his head floating on top like a cork. He looked at Kelah with pained, fearful eyes. 

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