By my account, once our complicated working day was done and all our flat- eared barley was gathered in and carted away, the Derby twins and Brooker Higgs, unmarried men in a village dismayingly short of unmarried women, set off for the woods, while most of us, the rest of us, restored ourselves at home, took stock. We shook our heads and searched our hearts, until we had persuaded ourselves that Master Kent was too good and just a man to sell our fields. He'd always taken care of us. We'd always taken care of him. Besides, what was the evidence of any sale? A bearded, skew- whiff gentleman? A chart? The counting of our heads? No, we should not be mistrustful. We should face the rest day with easy hearts, and then enjoy the gleaning that would follow it, with our own Gleaning Queen the first to bend and pick a grain. We should expect our seasons to unfold in all their usual sequences, and so on through the harvests and the years. Everything was bound to keep its shape. That's what we thought. We were calm and leisurely. But, unlike the three bachelors, we had not found and eaten fairy caps and then concocted ways of getting even with the thieving birds, especially the white ones from the master's cote. Nor had we stumbled on a moonball, fatter than a blacksmith's head, but too tindery to eat. Such a dry and hollow moonball is good, as any tree scamp knows, for taking flames from here to there. It's good, if you are so inclined, while everybody sleeps and only night's black agents are at work, for taking fire into the master's yards.
Of course, those fairy- headed men did not intend to kill so many of the master's doves. Or even mean to start a fire. Their plan was only to create a little smoke and drive the birds away. But when their moonball lantern was pushed before first light into the loft, among the bone- dry chaff and litter that the doves had gleaned and brought inside for nesting, it wasn't long before its smolder took to flame and the flame, encouraged by the frenzy of flapping wings, spread along the underside of roof beams, fed by timber oils, and found the top bales of that summer's hay. A bird will stay away from smoke. So these doves could seek the corners of their loft, or beat themselves against the roofing laths, or try to peck an opening. But who truly knows what doves might do in fires? Perhaps, a dove will simply sit and coo, too foolish to do otherwise, until its feathers are singed black, until its flesh is roasted to the bone. Whatever happened, this is certain: the stable yard this morning smells of undeserving meat. And the twins and Brooker Higgs have woken to the worst dawn of their lives.
In any other place but here, such willful arsonists would end up gibbeted. They'd be on hooks in common view and providing sustenance to the same thieving birds they'd hoped to keep from gleaning. But, as I've said, these fields are far from anywhere, two days by post- horse, three days by chariot, before you find a market square; we have no magistrate or constable; and Master Kent, our landowner, is just. And he is timid when it comes to laws and punishments. He'd rather tolerate a wrongdoer among his working hands than rob a family of their father, husband, son. Of course, the burning down of the master's stable and his cote, the loss of hay and doves, is not a felony that should pass unpunished entirely. If the perpetrators are identifi ed, they can expect a beating, followed by a lengthy sojourn sleeping rough, beyond our boundaries. Some of their family stock a pair of goats, perhaps, some weaner pigs might well be claimed in recompense. But their lives will never be at stake, not here. So maybe it is better for the bachelors to hold their nerve, come out to fight their own fire, seem innocent, and hope that everyone will take the blaze to be an act of God. Bad luck, in other words, and not a soul to blame.
Excerpted from Harvest by Jim Crace. Copyright © 2013 by Jim Crace. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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