A Reaping
Benjamin Kessler

There was an eleventh plague.

Moths, powder-winged and paper-bodied, descended on all things. Moths batted against window screens, the inside of a lampshade. Moths, drawn to human sweat, landed on faces and on hands. Mineral dust floated when touched. But do not touch and wash your hands and do good to sweep the bodies off the porch.

“We should buy a vacuum,” Sarah said.

“They’ll die out.” Kurt replied.

“They lay eggs in the floor.”

“Then we will tear up the boards.”

“And the flour? And the cornmeal?”

“We will empty and replace them.”

It continued, this bargaining, until Sarah emptied the cabinets, the closets, the bookshelves, and scrubbed them with vinegar. The tart, high smell was made worse by the heat and the tightly shut windows to the point where it was unclear which was preferable: the infestation or the awful, burning odor.

As the summer stretched out the moths became more concerning to Kurt. Their appetites were insatiable, their numbers legion, and he had known in his life more than a few farmers who lost yield to their hunger. How a thing with no mouth could do such damage he was unsure.

So he hastened. They were to harvest early, to salvage what they could before the moths became fat with grain and then fat with eggs.

When the day came, Kurt and Sarah pulled Ellis from school. That morning, in his proper clothes, Ellis sat at the kitchen table and removed a penmanship notebook from his bag.

“Not today.” Kurt placed his hand over the book before Ellis could open it. His hands were terrifyingly large, though never unkind. Never had Kurt raised his hand to Ellis as his own father had with him. “You’re staying home today to help your mother and me. You can handle that?” Ellis said that he could, no problem. A plate full to its edges with eggs, pancakes, sausage, and bread toasted in bacon fat was placed before him. It was perhaps the best thing he had ever eaten. His parents split brown sugar oatmeal and black coffee.

“Not so fast,” Sarah said, admonishing. “It’s going to be very warm today. You’ll be sick.”

Though what was a little vomit? He was out of school, he was eating well. That night he would lie on the porch and shoot the remnants of the wheat stalks away with his pellet gun as he had every year before. It would be a good day.

A moth landed on his eggs and Ellis blew it away, spitting little pieces of soggy toast onto the tablecloth.

The shooing away of moths was like breathing, the beating of the heart—an automatic mechanism. The air would dance and a hand would fill the space, perhaps pushing away the delicate body, perhaps pushing away nothing at all. The air was filled with phantoms.

A moth fell from the ceiling and landed in the open butter dish. Kurt picked up the dish and poured the moth into his palm before handing the butter to Sarah. They nodded, wordless agreement, and she tipped it into the garbage.

Kurt rolled the moth’s plump body between his forefinger and thumb. Its legs squirmed wildly, but the butter weighing down its wings meant it could not fly. It’s body tapered to a point, much like how Ellis imagined the rocket ships looked in Henry Jones: Intergalactic Ranger, a grainy space serial that played on Saturday mornings. Ellis would listen intently, sitting close to the receiver as it crinkled in his ear.

On the ceiling, from where the moth had fallen, the kitchen light was blanketed by similar bodies so dense around their glowing prize that the light could barely escape. It was as though someone had placed a bed sheet over it.

Kurt threw the moth into the sink and it fell down the drain. Then he ran the water in three bursts.

“Go on up and get changed. No sense ruining your school clothes. We’ll be outside.”

Ellis pushed his plate away. There was still food on it, and as he turned up the stairs he could see his father taking half a pancake in his hand and mopping up syrup. Ellis put his shirt on a hanger and threw on a denim button up. It was his favorite, with hard elbow patches and chunky buttons. Thinking that one day he may grow out of it—like had been the case with the box of clothes now sitting in the hall closet—filled him with a pouty sadness. It would be food for the moths only.

Though donning the shirt also filled him with feelings of responsibility. He was working. He worked. His friends at school, they didn’t work, not like him. They had a paper route, maybe. They delivered groceries to old ladies, maybe. But they weren’t doing adult work.

Though Kurt had indulged and rented a gas-powered combine trailer, the task was still difficult. For the entirety of the daylight, Ellis followed behind his mother, the two of them heaving forkfuls of hewn wheat into the back of the farm truck.

“Stay back from it.”

“Bend your knees.”

“Don’t touch that.”

When the truck bed was full, she would drive to the barn, depositing the wheat beneath a canvas screen and leaving Ellis for a moment alone, watching his father run tight lines in the distance.

The earth, which up to that point had been shrouded in gold, unveiled itself in this harrowing. There was a ball he had lost, a pile of glass bottles, the remains of a dead animal. A fox, perhaps, though impossible to tell as it was now only a pile of mottled fur. It was a changed world. The sun shone brighter. The blue of sky hit the ground unfiltered and saturated.

And of course there were the moths. Those that survived the threshing quivered just above the ground. One near Ellis’ foot had been sliced in two, the head end still squirming. Ellis picked up the head half and allowed it to rest in his hand. It flailed, trying to turn itself over, walk on too few legs. The furry antenna that sprouted from above its eyes seemed to spasm, moving and then not. It was panicking. It was afraid of death.

Ellis pressed its head into the palm of his hand with his thumb. It was surprisingly easy to do.

“What’s that?” Sarah asked.

“Nothing.” Ellis dropped the body and wiped its yellow blood off on his pants.

They continued their work, the whir of the combine in the distance. As they walked the crunch of moth bodies sang beneath them.

“Do we have to do it all today?”

“As much as we can. Daddy’s worried we’ll lose it if we don’t.”

His father seemed to worry about so much. He worried about the way the house was settling. He worried about the truck’s clunking transmission. He worried on the phone about the price of grain. There he would be, his jaw set and his finger waving, telling Ellis not to leave his things on the stairs. Someone could trip. Someone could trip and break their neck.

When he was done, Kurt joined them in raking. They worked in silence until the sunset was half below the horizon, winnowing its dust across creation.

“I suppose that’s enough. Yes, I suppose.”

Ellis removed his jeans before going inside at the behest of his father, who beat them with the handle of a hayfork. From his pants rained dirt. But not dirt. It was aphids, fifty fitting on a fingernail, falling onto the concrete back porch step where Kurt would stomp them viciously.

“Were you standing in it?”

“What?” The flesh raised on Ellis’ legs from wind. His thighs, the skin cinched around the crotch of his underwear, were red from exertion.

“When it was cut, lying on the ground. You stand in it?” He was holding the jeans by two fingers away from his body.

He had. He had piled up it to his knees. He had thrown it around, played in it like a child. Though he didn’t say anything. Instead he looked in at the house, back door window dotted with moths. His mother was removing something from the refrigerator. She placed it onto the table and covered it with a tea towel.

“It’s fine. Just give me your shirt too.”

Ellis handed it to his father. He was naked to his shorts and boots. He shivered and then was still as warm wind swept up against the house. A moth landed in the space between his shoulder blades, as though its wings were a small extension of Ellis’ own body. How many did it take, landing upon him, to lift him with their collective flight? He flexed the muscles in his back and it winged away.

“Go on up and get changed. Dinner soon.”

He went into the house, pausing for a moment to look through the still crowded window. His father had placed his clothes on the ground. For a moment Ellis worried that he would burn them, that he would run them over with the combine, that he would bury them. But no. He simply dragged over the garden hose and sprayed them down, making mud of the dirt beneath. Ellis ran upstairs and changed into pajamas. It was, after all, past twilight.

And so they ate together, Ellis in his pajamas—pant legs too long, dragging on the floor, an almost unfamiliar softness—and his parents still in their torn work clothes. They ate the better half of a chicken that Tommy Donaldson’s father had brought over the day before, which Sarah had slaughtered. Ellis had watched through the spaces between his fingers as she slit its throat and held it so its blood would run. There had been collision and then nothing. Now the sound was that of forks clicking on plates, the gentle, satisfied humming of his father’s wordless answers to his mother’s questions, and, of course, the buzzing of moths. They were collectively exhausted. Too exhausted even to finish dinner, and they left the carcass of the chicken for the many moths to feast on, to taste with their feet. Wasn’t that what Ellis had heard before?

“Bedtime, hm?” Kurt said.

Perhaps it was. Perhaps this was the latest he had ever been awake. Perhaps even the birds outside were sleeping, burrowed into themselves as he had seen.

He accepted a kiss from his mother and plodded up the stairs, launching himself off the bottommost spindle, worn space rising with each spurt of growth. He wound the clock beside his bed. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, the exact number of rotations burned into his fingers through repetition. Its ticking was a honeyed thing.

Beneath the door frame shadows passed, following one another. And then the light was gone.

In the darkness behind closed eyes Ellis imagined his mother and father in their bed, a bed so much larger than his own, a bed one could really spread out in. It was a frequent image in his mind, the mystery behind their closed door. Though it too had been invaded by the moths. In his imaginings they flew from his parents’ open mouths, bloomed from their hands. When they spoke to one another it was only a droning buzz, moth-song sung. Ellis focused, knitting his brow, trying to will their faces back into his vision, their true faces.

But before he could find the picture in his mind he was sleeping.

Benjamin Kessler's work has appeared, or is forthcoming in, Hobart, DIAGRAM, Jet Fuel Review, Entropy, The Oakland Review, Epigraph, Superstition Review, The Masters Review, The Gravity of the Thing, What are Birds?, and Portland Review. "A Reaping," is an excerpt from his first novel. He lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.