The melodic sound of the Cicadas echoed across the honey colored grass field. The cool breeze caressed the tree tops that lined the open plateau and speckles of pollen wafted about the currents helplessly. An almost too warm early morning sun beamed down painting the landscape with a golden hue, except for the patch of ground under the shade of the elm leaves. All the branches formed a natural umbrella, cooling the area down just enough from to remain comfortable.
An old wooden swing wrapped around a low-hanging branch swayed back and forth with each passing zephyr. Amongst the massive roots of the ancient tree a book sat propped up as the breeze made its way through the narrative without a reader; pages flapping as it passed by. A loafing figure rested; his head up against the bulk of the tree, ankles crossed as he slowly chewed on a wheat stalk. His straw-hat frayed at the ends of the brim and sat low on his head. With fingers interlaced his hands sat on his belly. His stomach rose and fell rhythmically while light puffy clouds made a slow craw across the azure sky.
A soft, crunching sound broke the calm as if a lumbering monster stomped across the field toward him. Not so much attempting stealth, but reticence at approaching. Half asleep, he cocked his head in the disturbance’s direction without opening his eyes. He became aware of labored breathing, as if a horse had suffered great pain for hours before allowing to rest. The sound grew louder and excessive heat seemed to envelop him despite his resting in the shade. It drew so near that the cicadas silenced themselves and the zephyrs halted their meandering. An uncomfortable silence descended over the field until the resting figure felt compelled to sit up. Looking over to the where he felt the invading presence he saw a girl, perhaps thirteen years old.
“Excuse me, but may I take part in the shade of your elm tree?” the girl asked grasping the edges of her sun dress and offered a small curtsy.
“It’s free shade, in a free field; A free country for that matter. I’m obliged to share I reckon,” the straw-hat boy replied.
“You are very kind,” she said, her eyes followed the rim of shade that separated the ground under the tree from the heat and light of the sun beyond. She huffed slightly before taking a reluctant step in. The straw-hat boy shifted from his lounging to sit up.
“Kinda nice bein’ out of the burning sun, ain’t it now?” he asked being polite and turning his attention to the unexpected companion.
“It certainly is to be appreciated come the summer sun,” she replied, pulling a small shawl from her forearm and flapping it out before laying it down on the ground to sit. She sat with her feet out to one side and made sure to cover her knees. Planting her hand on the shawl covered ground with one hand she rested her body weight to that side and let her other hand fall to her lap. They sat there in silence for a while surveying the landscape out before them until she let out an exaggerated sigh.
“You be expecting something?” the straw-hat boy asked?
“It being summer and all, I was hoping for some games. There’s so much to do in the autumn with harvest and the winter is something awful with the snow and bitter cold. Do you like games?” she asked with a raise of her eyebrow.
“They be a mighty good time if ya play ‘em right? And the wager is worth the betting,” he responded.
The girl ran her free hand through her raven-black hair and frowned. “Oh, gamblin’ be a mighty great sin if the adult folk find out you been bettin’ on things. Possibly get a woopin’,” she said, with an odd little smile.
“Gamblin’ is a pass time for sport and fun. Ain’t no sin unless someone gets hurt. I reckon only the fool gets hurt. But they’s be getting hurt no matter what they figure or do, on account of them having no brains in the first place.”
“Some would say preying on a fool is the devil’s trade. Are you god fearing? Or perhaps one of those nasty non-believers?” she asked with a scowl.
The straw-hat boy pushed off from the ground with his hands and rested his back against the huge elm behind him. “Oh, I’m a believer, sure as rain and sunshine bathe the earth.”
The raven-haired girl smiled from her scowl and tucked some hair behind her ear. She massaged her neck before undoing a button at the top of her sundress’s collar. “What shall we play then? I do hate to waste summer days simply lounging.”
“How about some truth or dare,” the straw-hat boy offered. The girl nodded. “I’ll go first,” the boy said. The girl nodded with a grin.
“Alright, truth or dare?”
“Truth,” the raven-haired girl said.
“Are you playing hookie today?”
“Yes,” she responded with a giggle. “Truth or dare,” she continued.
“Crow like a raven,” she offered. The straw-hat boy stood up and tucked his fists into his arm pits and cawed as loud as he could. A few seconds passed and the cicadas replied back with melodic clicking. The two smiled at each other and he sat back down.
The boy raised an eyebrow and the girl smiled. “Truth,” she responded as she scratched at her lower neck. The boy grimaced for a moment while he thought. He felt that oppressive heat pulse toward him again and looked at her sidelong as she undid another button.
“Are you of baby making age?” he asked rubbing his chin.
The raven-haired girl feigned shock as she giggled. “I’ve been on the right side of puberty for a while now,” she smiled and leaned forward. “And to be tellin’ all truth, I’ve noticed even the older men gandering at the more tender parts of my body.”
The boy leaned against the tree without sitting. Chewing on his straw stick he nodded. The coolness returned to his shade.
“Truth or dare?” the raven-haired girl asked.
The girl rested a finger on her chin for a moment contemplating certain things. “Being a god fearing soul, would you gamble with a demon?”
He stopped chewing for a moment and looked directly at her. She sat, still propped up with one arm as the other one slowly massaged the exposed skin of her upper chest. That heat pushed up toward him again. Nodding, he grabbed his straw and pointed it at her.
“I’m a better gambler than a demon is a foul sinner, ain’t nothing truer than that,” he finally offered.
“Oh goodie,” she replied, clapping her hands together as the boy’s face lost its stern countenance.
“Your turn. Truth or dare?” the straw-hat boy said planting his fists on his hips. She nodded.
“About time,” he said. “Show me one of your blossoms, clear of any obstruction.”
Instead of a frown or protest, the raven-haired girl raised an eyebrow and the edges of her mouth curled in an ever so slight grin. He watched as she undid several buttons, so slow he felt the pounding of his heart in his ears for what seemed like hours. That pulsing heat covered him again until he felt beads of sweat roll down the side of his face. She undid the last button and pushed the fabric of her dress aside. Revealing a supple, rounded breast, quarter sized areola, with a small perky button nipple, the boy stared for what seemed ages.
“That be a right beautiful breast to be honest and sure,” he said sitting back down, never moving his eyes. She smiled and covered herself. He frowned and jammed the straw back between his teeth.
“What would you have to offer me, if I agreed to indulge your little desires?” she asked.
“You can be giving me what I might want? You got yourself some kind of special powers?” he asked, trying not to sound naïve.
She took a deep breath and sighed again. The cool air of the shaded elm became singed with the small taint of sulfur and the boy sat up right, his back like a rigid pole.
“If you have something worth offering up as collateral, I can grant you just about anything,” she said fanning herself with her free hand.
“Well, I’m not so sure of what being good collateral is, ‘cept maybe the shoes on my feet and the soul the lord gave me,” he said pulling his pants pockets out to show there emptiness and shrugged.
A faint smile creased her lips. “A used pair of shoes would be worthless… a used soul however always has a bit of value.”
“Right then,” he said sitting across from her Indian style. “I’ll wager my crummy old soul if you put up something equally valuable,” he said folding his arms across his chest. She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips, waiting. “Ways I sees it is, even with all your sultriness and the like, I’m guessing your honey pot hasn’t been dipped yet. So, whatever the contest we chose be, if I be the winning one, I get to dip that pot to my delight,” he said with a devilish grin, the glint in his eye shinned, despite the tree’s shade.
“You are a nasty little boy, aren’t you?” the raven-haired girl asked placing a hand on her chest, trying to catch her breathe.
“I’m supposing that if I be wagerin’ for my soul, it be at least as valuable as your innocence,” he said with a single nod, as if that settled the matter.
“Very well you despicable little boy.”
She held out her hand and the boy shook it. The longer the boy held her hand, the hotter his flesh became, almost to the point of searing it. He pulled back and rubbed his hand on his knee, not wanting to flinch.
“Now what sort of sinful wager shall we come up with? I would say that whatever it be, it must measure on extraordinary, otherwise it would be a wasted venture regardless of the prize.”
The two stared at each other, drawing out the moment without blinking and a passing cloud dimmed the burning sunlight. A crow’s caw broke the stalemate and the raven-haired girl smiled.
“Ah, the lovely crow provides the answer,” she said, now with a full blown grin. “Climb up to that top branch, with the crow’s nest and pluck out the largest egg. You mustn’t crack or break it, or get pecked by the crow. Bring it to me, unscathed and you shall have my unspoiled honey pot, for your delight.”
The straw-hat boy grinned wickedly at that moment, but the raven-haired girl continued. “If of course you crack the egg, or dare I hope, fall from the tree, you immediately lose, and I get that darling little soul of yours. Do we have a deal?”
The straw-hat boy cocked his head up toward the tippy top of the tree’s crown and rubbed his chin in contemplation.
“Alright. With one exception to sweeten the pot, you have your bettin’ stakes set,” he said crossing his arms over his chest.
“What could possibly be sweeter than a young girl’s virtue?” she asked not bothering to hide her consternation.
“One little kiss,” the straw-hat boy replied, puckering up his lips.
The raven-haired girl rolled her eyes in mild disgust but acquiesced. The boy bounced with excitement as she leaned toward him. He tasted her sugary lips as they met his and his heart raced. She pushed her tongue ever so gently into his mouth and he met it with his. Reaching for her left breast he cupped it in a gentle squeeze that quickly became a pinch. Launching a smack that wacked him right across the face, the raven-haired girl leapt back and growled in revulsion.
“Such cheap behavior! You heathen. I hope you fall from the highest branch for taking liberties with my generosity. Get to climbing before I claim your soul out of forfeit,” she hollered, pointing to the tree’s trunk.
Still pleased with himself, the straw-hat boy approached the trunk rubbing his cheek, the feel of her breast still tickled his fingertips. Shooting her a look with a little smirk on his face he spit on his palms and rubbed them together.
“You see, the trick to tree climbing is to take your time and pick the right branches. I’m pretty much an expert, so this won’t be nothin’. Best be getting your mind set to giving me my due.”
The raven-haired girl simultaneously grinned and frowned at him in a way that made his man parts tingle and his skin crawl all at once. He froze for a moment in her gaze and she spoke.
“I must confess part of me is hoping you succeed in your quest. I do admit to a small bit of fancy on your part. But, that sweet little soul of yours calls to me still. I will let fate do as it wills. If it helps though, I’ll wish you good luck,” she finished, with a wink.
The straw-hat boy felt his cheeks flush as heat from his collar welled up to his ears. Shuffling his feet for a moment he turned to the elm’s trunk and grabbed at the first handhold he could find. Within moments he passed beyond the huge, thigh-thick stalks near the base and up toward the easier to hold limbs. As he pushed passed the dense layers of leaves a cool zephyr caressed his face. Breathing in the cooler air soothed his lungs and he continued.
Ever upward he kept a constant eye on the crow’s nest clutching the tree’s crown. In the distance he heard an adult crow protest his approach. Aware of the bird’s anger, he paid it no mind. But as he ascended, the branches became thinner and his movement caused a swaying that rocked the nest side to side by a couple of feet. The cawing became louder and several crows began to circle. He paused his approach and let them get accustomed to his presence. Taking the moment, he gazed downward to spy a look at the raven-haired girl. For the briefest of moments he saw not a sultry young girl, but a beast. One of frightful visage, deformed and twisted with mangled limbs and gnarled horns. He gasped at the sight before his eyes slammed shut. Heart palpitations thumped at his chest before he found the nerve to open his eyes once more.
“Oh my valiant young man, are you quite sure you are alright? I would hate to win our wager by forfeiture,” the raven-haired girl called up from the elm’s shade.
The straw-hat boy leered at her sideways for a long minute before cracking a smile. “I’m just enjoying the view. It’s a great loss to not see the world from different angles,” he hollered back, as he curled his lip slightly; a bit of bile welling up in the back of his throat.
Fanning herself she stared back up at him with an eyebrow raised. He pursed his lips and shook his head in a slight way. He could hear her breathing from his lofty position. The gravel-like scrapping sound shot a vision of that beast he saw into his mind for a second. Foul temptress, he heard himself think, before he turned to the next branch. Shaking his head at the situation he eyed the thinning branches and groaned at himself with the thought of just how far he could go before demanding too much of the twigs.
Fortunately, the crows were shrewd craftsman. They constructed their nest not exactly at the tops of the branches; certainly way higher than any mother would approve of her boy climbing up to, but not so high as to be impossible to reach. The straw-hat boy went as far as he dared, testing the branches to their limits before stopping. Resting his foot in a crook, he reached up, but still several feet from the twiggy clump. The crow’s cawing became frantic as several began circling his position. Nodding to himself he reached up and bent the branch down toward him so he could reach inside.
The mother crow was having none of this and swooped down for a strafing attack. Landing straight on the straw-hat boy’s shoulder she began to peck furiously. He slapped the bird away with force and the bird slammed into several branches before it lay still several branches down. In one quick motion he scooped two eggs from the nest and slipped one in each pocket. As he did so, a sharp stabbing pain shot from his ankle up his leg. Another crow pierced his flesh as it pecked at his tendons. He cried out and kicked his foot into the air in an attempt to shoo the bird. The other bird came to its senses and joined the attack. The straw-hat boy let go of the branch holding the nest, and the recoil launched it into flight. One of the birds broke off their attack but not before nipping at his ear. He swatted at the bird and lost his grip on his handhold.
Falling through the fragile branches, they broke as his mass plowed through them. He heard the raven-haired girl gasp, or possibly giggle as he descended in rapid fashion. Flailing he grabbed for anything to hold until his hip impacted on a branch with girth enough to withstand him. Pain shot through his spine and he almost lost his grip as the rest of his body dangled, a dozen or so feet from the ground. Finding a foot hold he steadied himself. The blood pounded through his veins as he gasped for air. Long moments passed before he began his descent. Touching his foot on solid ground he looked up at the crown of the tree and his face contorted into a rage-filled sneer.
“Dirty old uncle crow,” he seethed.
“My word, you adventurous young lad. You gave me quite the scare,” the raven-haired girl said, still seated. The total lack of concern on her face made obvious.
“Oh that,” the straw-hat boy asked glancing back up for a second. “That wasn’t nothing. I’ve had worse scrapes,” he said brushing his hands together while making his way toward her.
“Well now that would be a tale to hear. But to our current matter; Do you have my egg? I’m certainly looking forward to your failure and the possession of your soul.”
He frowned at her. “You’re turning out to be no fun at all.”
“A wager is a wager. Show me the egg.”
The straw-hat boy stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a mashed and gooey mess. The raven-haired girl began laughing. At first it seemed high pitched and little-girl like, it then morphed into a guttural, phlegmy, cackling thing that assaulted the straw-hat boy’s ears.
“Well! You’ve lost you disgusting little boy. No innocent honey pot for you,” the raven-haired girl said.
As he looked at her she began to change. The leaves and grass under her feet began to smolder and her dress tore away from her body until she stood naked; but no pretty girl remained. A gnarled and disturbing beast, covered in brown and grey mottled skin stood before the straw-hat boy. The beast’s breath steamed from its nostrils and heated the air until the boy’s nose stung.
“The souls of the innocent are so tasty and sweet. I will eat yours and enjoy your torment!” the monster bellowed unfurling its wings and lunging forward.
Undeterred, the straw-hat boy extended his hand and held his palm out before the creature.
“You cheated!” he stated bluntly. “You have no sweet honey pot for me to enjoy. Our wager was a soul for a honey pot. And you have neither,” he said, still standing firm.
“I’ll devour you just the same. You failed my little one and for that you will die. No matter that I lied. Didn’t your father ever teach you about lies?”
“My father taught me much,” he said, pulling another egg out of his pocket. “But I’ve learned a thing or two about corruption and deceit.”
The beast that was the raven-haired girl stared at the crow’s egg nestled in the palm of the straw-hat boy’s hand. “You little whelp. I’ll make sure you never father a child of your own to cheat a demon as such.”
“I’m older than I look and the father of many things, not the least of all being lies,” the straw-hat boy offered; his smile beaming bright white teeth as his eyes, just for a moment, pulsed red. “It’s disappointing that you could not recognize family when it offers you hospitality under the shade of such a lovely tree,” he grumbled as he grabbed the creature’s wrist.
“Never make wagers you cannot fulfill,” he seethed.
In a frantic flailing attempt to escape, the creature that was the raven-haired girl pulled away, twisting and turning. Making it to the edge of the shade, it looked out toward a freedom it would never again have. And just on the horizon a gleaming white star glimmered.
The anguished cries of the helpless beast echoed out into the morning sun and the cicadas chanted back. The insects roused themselves into a frenzy until once again they settled down into silence and nothing, save the flipping of book pages in the gentle breeze could be heard from under the shade tree.
Doug is a writer, editor, and sometimes artist. Also a blogger, novelist, short story writer, and a poet. After going to college, serving as a Navy sailor, single parenthood, he learned to appreciate life. He’s not perfect, but he’s always trying to improve on the person he was yesterday.