Gray light filtered through the fog that floated just above the trees, not yet burned off by the mid-morning sun. The legs of his pants were heavy with dew that clung to the new grass and made the spider webs glisten. The small clearing was quiet except for the sounds his spade made as he broke the topsoil, and for the tittering of a few chickens around the yard.
He plunged the spade into the ground, pressed it deeper with the sole of his boot, and flipped it over, slowly creating rows of moist, turned soil into which he would later stoop and lay seed. Plunge, press, flip. Plunge, press, flip. The lines in his hands and around his nails were the same color as the fresh dirt. He smelled dirt, and he smelled of dirt.
He looked up from his work and turned toward the farmhouse to see Tera standing in the doorway. The farmhouse was constructed of hand-hewn lumber cut from trees he himself fell when they cleared the ground here. It was not quite crude but it was simple, only one room and a dirt floor. It kept the weather out but didn’t let much light in.
No sooner had Randel looked than Tera turned and went back inside. He let his eyes leave the house and slide across the clearing to where he was working. There was still a lot of dirt to turn but he planted his spade in the ground and walked to the house, the chickens scattering as he approached.
The horror on his wife’s face was evident the moment he entered.
“What is it?”
She pointed to where their son squatted in the corner, his back to them. He appeared to be drawing with a stick on the dirt floor.
Randel’s blood turned cold. He knew—even before he looked over his son’s shoulder—he knew what he would see. It was a crude drawing, a mixture of curved and jagged lines, but the resemblance was obvious: the Tombola.
“It’s early this year,” he said without taking his eyes from the drawing, the spade and soil forgotten. “Why’s it so early? I’ve barely started planting…” His voice trailed off.
She crossed the room and took his arm.
“We must go.”
* * * * *
They emerged from beneath the trees near the small village. Other families emerged alongside, the men still in clothes soiled by dirt of planting and the women wearing bonnets and cooking aprons. Other children, he knew, had been scratching the same etchings as their son had into the dirt.
“It’s too early,” Randel said. “We shouldn’t be here.”
“We must,” she countered. “For the good of the community.”
He stared at her. The good of the community? Did she really believe that? Did anyone?
They joined the crowd at the town square, nearly a hundred other members of the community craning their necks to see the elders on the raised platform at the center of the village. No one spoke louder than a whisper. Families huddled close together.
“The Tombola is here,” began one of the elders.
“It’s too early!” someone shouted before he could continue.
The elder met the speaker’s eyes.
“The children have signaled it,” he said. “Can there be any doubt?”
No one challenged his statement.
“Then let us line up and begin the drawing.”
Randel followed his wife into the line that formed and slowly moved past the front of the platform. Few spoke, but the occasional shriek rose when a black stone was drawn.
Soon it was Tera’s turn to draw. She reached into the wooden bucket and then withdrew her closed fist. Her eyes met his and then they both looked down as she opened her hand.
Relief flooded through them both.
Randel stepped up to the bucket and reached in. He felt the cool stones there and grasped one. He kept his eyes on his wife as he opened his fist. Her wail confirmed his luck.
* * * * *
He was bound, alone, to a post just beyond the edge of the community. Four had chosen black, one positioned at each cardinal direction from the village. He was west.
It was almost dark. He strained his eyes to see beneath the trees and listened. Would the Tombola choose him, all eyes and jagged teeth? Would he be chosen to protect the community?
From somewhere before him came the sound of a tree crashing down. He closed his eyes. He thought of his wife, his son, and the crops.