Monday, December 26, 2011

The Christmas Count - Part 1 of 2

© 1991 by Henry Melton

Fred Jerret squinted his eyes against the light.  The sun was a white band of light stretching high across the sky.  The checkerboard fields of the farms he knew to be on the other side of the sky were washed out in the glare.  There was no change.  Winter should have come by now-it was past four P.M.
“Fred,” his wife, Dot, called across the field to him, as she stood at the back porch of their gray stone farm house.  “Fred, I need the list.”
“Okay! I’m coming.” Reluctantly, he stepped from furrow to furrow in the caked black earth until he reached the wide patch of grass he kept as a backyard for the kids to play in.
Waiting out in the field wouldn’t make winter happen any faster.  He had been a farmer for too many years to try to second-guess the climate control computer.  The Piedmont Herald would publish the day, but no one knew the exact moment.  The weather in their farming world was at the mercy of a real-time computer system far too concerned with solar flares and the heat balance of their self-contained space colony to give out predictions.
Fred had a couple of bucks down in the 4:15-4:20 spot in the betting pool that the boys at the general store were keeping.  He had wanted four P.M., but that spot had been taken.  Just as well, he thought.  Maybe I’ll win anyway.
Dot had vanished back into the house, and he slowed his pace a triffle.  He was born a farmer, and today he needed to be outside, soaking up the peace he knew was always there in his fields.
Joey had been gone all day, vanished at first sunlight.  He had not asked to leave.  It was a deliberate escape from the chores he knew he was responsible for.  Fred thought of the scolding he would give the boy.  There was a sick anger in his stomach.  He had said those words before, when Tim, his oldest, was sixteen.
A distant metallic rumble, like the legendary pre-space locomotives on rails, stopped Fred in his tracks.  It was difficult to see through the hazy sky that clouded the center of this cylindrical world, but he knew it was the sun shutters.  Three great metal gates had moved on their courses, restricting and channeling the sunlight that entered the world of Piedmont, shifting the energy balance.  For the next few weeks, more heat would be radiated from the back side of this enclosed world than would be let in through the great mirrors.  It would get colder.  Winter had begun.
Fred looked at his watch and shook his head.  Missed it by three minutes.
Inside, Dot looked up as he entered.  “Winter’s come,” he informed her.  “Here’s the list.” He handed the clipboard to her.  “I thought we had finished with the kitchen.”
Dot gave him a twisted little grin.  “Well ... I have to reduce the roach count.”   She pushed the selector button on the clipboard a few times until the roach count appeared on the display plate.  She subtracted two from the count and then gave it back to Fred.
He shook his head.  “Dot, this is not the day to kill roaches.  This is Christmas Eve.  Today we count the beasties, not try to wipe them out.”
She curled her lower lip.  “But they asked for it.  I had my pumpkin pies cooling on the cabinet and those two came after them.  I wasn’t about to let them get on my pies!”
Fred tried to hide a smile.  “Pumpkin, hmmm.  Well, if it was pumpkin, I won’t turn you in.  But don’t tell David about it.  He will take it as approval to go hunting the rats in the woodpile again.”
Dot nodded, then looked out the kitchen window to the fields and the woods beyond.  “Where are Kim and David? Haven’t they finished yet? With winter here, dark will come sooner.”
“Maybe I had better go looking for them.  I’ve got all the livestock counted and I keyed in the changes in the acreages for the insect estimates.” He sniffed the kitchen air.  “How soon is food?”
“Maybe another hour.  By the way, are you sure we won’t have any guests for Christmas dinner tomorrow?”
He shrugged.  “I guess not.  I made the invitations, but everyone was taken.” He was not terribly surprised.  After all there were three farming families for every one of the city folk.  Dot had come from Galvin, a manufacturing world that circled the Point in the same lazy orbit as Piedmont.  The world she had grown up in was nothing but one big city.  Even after all these years as his wife, living on the soil, she still tended to think of that city as a big place, rather than the handful of support and maintenance people it actually was.
He continued.  “I thought Charlie from river maintenance might come, but his wife had already made other arrangements.”  Maybe it would be better with just family this year.  If there was company coming, Dot would work herself to exhaustion to get the house spotlessly clean.
Outside, the air was already getting cooler.  Fred looked over his fields, freshly planted and waiting for the winter to make its appearance, and then leave for the long growing season.
Fred expected the winter to be colder than usual this year.  The ant infestation down by Southport had hurt a dozen farmers.  A good solid freeze or two would wipe out the nests.
Spot came bounding across the fields to meet him.  Fred clapped his hands together and the dog jumped high to snap the imaginary treat out of the air.  Spot knew there was nothing there, but he liked to play the game.  Sometimes Fred would fool him with the real thing.
Off to the east, a neighbor’s dog barked.  Spot lost interest in Fred and raced off, voicing his challenge.  Fred could just spot the tiny figures in the next farm over.  The curve of the ground rose enough to show a man building his Christmas fire.  Fred glanced at his watch and hurried on.
The strip of woods that bordered the Jerret farm was partly on his property, so he was responsible for it in the count.  It was the kids’ job to help him with that.
The high-pitched shout of five-year-old David helped him locate them quickly.  Kim and David were having a leaf fight.  Fred adjusted his path slightly so he kept out of sight behind a stand of oak as he approached.  Just yesterday, ten-year-old Kim had gotten a scolding from her mother about getting leaves in her hair.  Fred waited until the last moment, then stepped out from behind a tree just as David was dumping a double handful of leaves onto his older sister’s head.
“David!” Fred used his stern-father voice.  Both kids jumped.  David spilled most of the leaves off to the side of his target.  He guiltily brushed his hands against his trousers.
“Yes, Daddy?” he asked timidly.
Fred let a moment of silence grow.  But he had no intention of doing anvthing about the leaves.  The kids would get the necessary dusting from their mother.  It was her restriction, she would enforce it. Personally, Fred had nice memories of playing in the leaves when he was younger.
“David, you are going to have to help me with the fire.  Have you two finished your counts?”
David pouted.  “Why do I have to help with the fire?  That is Joey’s job.”
“Joey is not back yet.” His voice showed a little impatience.  “Now did you finish your counts?”
Kim gave a warning glance at her brother.  Now was not the time to complain about chores, not with Joey being out late again.  Daddy was likely going to be in a bad mood until he came home.
She spoke up, “Yes.  We counted twenty-two squirrels, and nine rabbits.  The mice don’t seem to be as bad this year, there were only ten in the sample square.  I didn’t spot the badger, but there were fresh signs.”
Fred tapped in the numbers on the clipboard.  “Are you sure all of these were on our side of the boundary line? We are not supposed to count the animals on any other property.”
She nodded, “I’m sure.  I think the rabbits moved their hole down by the gully since the last count.”
“How about the birds?”
 “I didn’t see any crows, but I saw five orioles.  David claims to have seen a cowbird, but I didn’t.”
Fred nodded.  “If David saw it, we count it.  The climate computer needs to know everything we see, so it can plan the right amount of rain to make and plan how many days of winter we need.”
“And summer?” asked David.
Fred smiled.  “Yes, and summer.  That’s why we have four counts: the Christmas Count, the Easter Count, the Earthday Count, and the Harvest Count.  We have a small, special world here in Piedmont and the counts are one of the ways we take care of our home.”
David’s attention had already wandered off to something in the sky by the time. Fred had finished saying that.  But Kim was older, and this time the words seemed to make some kind of impression on her.
David pointed.  “Daddy, look.”
Up high, halfway to the patchwork of fields on the other side of the sky, was a tiny speck moving south.  A man-shape and a set of wings.  It was too high for them to hear the sputtering of the tiny engine.
“A flier,” Fred said, “trying to make the run to Southport.  He’d better hurry.” He looked at his watch.  “And we had better run.  Dark will come in five minutes.”


Beth said...

I'll be reading this story, which I've loved since my own adolescence, to some fourth, fifth, and sixth graders this week. Thank you for it.

Henry Melton said...

You're welcome. Give my personal hello to the kids.

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