The Planting

By Harlon Stafford

The winter had been long and cold, made longer and colder for Mirak because his wife Soolah had died. Barely one month into the blustery winter, Soolah had taken ill and died in the bed they had shared all of their adult life. Mirak buried her in the small garden in the back yard, shoveling away a drift of snow, and hacking through the frozen ground to prepare her grave. He fashioned a simple headstone out of a large piece of rock, carefully chiseling her name, but it was quickly swallowed up by the cruel, disrespectful snows of winter.

Childless and living alone in the high prairielands, Mirak and Soolah had spent the late summers harvesting their crops, and the autumns preparing for the winter, storing their food, stacking the firewood, and weatherproofing their house. They knew that out where they lived, they would be unable to travel to the villages for supplies; they needed to be completely self-sufficient to make it through the winter, and to be prepared for the planting in the spring. The prediction had been for this winter to be one of the worst, and so it had been.

After Soolah died, Mirak tried to go on with his winter chores, keeping the fires stoked and tending to the seeds and plantlings, as they had done together so many winters before. Frequently, he would gaze out of the kitchen window, to where Soolah’s headstone lay buried under the snow. He would look up to the sky, and wonder how a winter could be so brutal on a world with two suns.

Mirak found his most steady solace working in the cellar, where he could hide from the cutting winter winds. Here, he kept the essential ingredients to his highly successful farming business. Mirak was known all over the vast province for his crops; his booth at the annual harvest market in Parma Village was always one of the busiest. The seeds and plantlings were carefully nurtured in the cellar, each kind had its own way of being handled and stored. Some preferred to be kept very warm through the winter, and so Mirak had built a room in the cellar, with stacks of seed trays, and a wood burning stove in the middle. He kept the stove burning throughout the winter, mothering the embryonic crops, periodically feeding them the nectar that he and Soolah had developed. It was this special nectar that Mirak believed gave his crops the distinct edge over all the others.

Some of the seeds and plantlings did not respond as well to the warmth of the stove, and for them there was a separate room next door that absorbed just enough heat to keep the frost away. There was nothing worse for his crops than the dangerous frost that these winters brought with them in abundance.

All through this coldest of winters, Mirak tended to his seeds. So lonely was he since Soolah had died, that he spent almost all of his time in the cellar, surfacing only to prepare and eat his meals in the kitchen that overlooked Soolah’s garden. Then it was back down to the cellar, back to his babies. A bed roll was now a permanent fixture on the floor next to the warm stove.

At night, next to the stove, with the flames casting eerie shadows across the room, Mirak talked to his seeds, and they would listen. He would drink his wine and strum his old stringtar, his worn fingers not bouncing as nimbly along the fretboard as they had in his younger days, but still able to pick the right notes and chords. He would find himself caught up in the music, start to hum the melodies to go along with the chords being strummed, and eventually he would sing, when he could remember the words. The songs he and Soolah used to sing. The music that they had shared together all those years. The music they had played to entertain the crops. The songs brought tears to his eyes as he remembered the days past, but he continued to sing because he swore the seeds were asking him to go on.

One morning as Mirak patiently fed each seed and plantling the nectar, he noticed a seed tray in the corner, down by the floor, that was missing the handwritten label he had been so careful to attach to each tray. After finishing the nectar feeding, he kneeled down to pick up the tray. In it were five small seeds, the likes of which he had never seen. Underneath the seeds was a piece of paper, neatly folded to a size that perfectly fit the bottom of the tray. Carefully, he tilted the tray so that the five seeds fell into his palm. He set the tray down, picked up the edge of the paper and unfolded it. His eyes widened as Soolah’s handwriting stared into his soul.

"My Dear Mirak," the note began. "The seeds you hold are the finest seeds we will have ever planted. They are a special hybrid I have been working on as a surprise for you, but I fear we may not be able to enjoy their harvest together."

Mirak gasped. "She knew she was going to die!" He welled up as he read on.

"Take care of these five seeds like you have cared for no others. Keep them warm, and let them drink deeply of our nectar for two weeks before planting. And plant them alone, in the small garden, away from the others. These seeds are very special root plants, and they need your attention."

Mirak looked up and out through the transom. He wondered if she also knew he was going to bury her in the small garden.

"The winter is hard, but summer and harvest will be glorious, my sweet. You will see. I love you, Soolah."

Mirak refolded the paper and stuffed it into his pocket. He looked down at the seeds in his one hand and reached up to dab a tear with his other. He picked up the seed tray and gently placed Soolah’s five seeds on the bottom. He looked at the stack of seed trays surrounding him and eyed what he thought was the best position for the tray. He walked over and removed the tray that was there, replacing it with Soolah’s tray. He labeled the tray simply "Soolah", sat down by the stove and cried.

In the days that followed, Mirak continued to nurture all the seeds and plantlings, but he always spent more time with Soolah’s seeds. He held them, made sure they were close to the stove, and that the stove had plenty of wood. He talked to them, told them stories of Soolah, their courtship, their life together out here in the prairielands. He sang to them the songs that he and Soolah sang to each other.

Slowly, the suns began to turn the winter away. The winds were no longer harsh, and the snow was melting away. As the drifts melted into the fertile soil, Soolah’s headstone in the small garden smiled at the sky. Mirak could feel the planting approach. Two weeks, he figured. Two more weeks until the planting.

The last two weeks before the planting were always busy. The long winters made him want to trek to the village at the first thaw, but it had to wait. There was much work to be done to be ready for the planting. The tools needed to be retrieved from storage. The tilling plows needed to be oiled. The workbeestes who conveniently hibernated through the winters needed to be awakened, fed and exercised. And of course the nectar feedings were intensified. Soolah’s seeds were now ready to join the others in the feedings. Mirak would feed all of the other seeds and plantlings first, then devote his full attention to the five seeds, taking the tray and the nectar vials and sitting cross-legged on the floor near the stove. In turn, each of the five seeds got Mirak’s full concentration, as he made certain they drank deeply of the nectar, as Soolah had willed.

With so much to do, the two weeks flew by, until the planting time had arrived. On the first day of the planting, Mirak was up before the suns. His first order of business was to plant Soolah’s five seeds in the small garden. Carrying the specially labeled tray out to the garden, Mirak paused at the headstone.

"The planting is upon us, my love. I wish you were here with me, I’ve missed you so much. I have your seeds, I have kept them warm through the winter, told them stories and sang to them our songs. For the last two weeks they drank deeply our nectar. And now they will join you in the small garden."

Gently, in a neat row, Mirak planted Soolah’s seeds an arms length away from where she rested. He wiped the soil from his weathered hands, rubbing them on his pants in a way that used to annoy her so. "The other seeds are ready. The planting awaits." He said this as much to himself as to the headstone, and started the first of many long days of planting.

When all the seeds and plantlings had been committed to the soil, the weary Mirak rested. He still needed to go to the village, but that could wait. Yes, he needed supplies, but he also knew there would be many questions from the villagers when they found out about Soolah’s death. He needed to rest and regain some measure of strength before he would be ready for that.

A few days later, he felt as ready as he was ever going to be. Armed with a long list of needed supplies, Mirak hitched his wagon to the two strongest workbeestes and began the day long trek into Parma Village.

The suns were just going down as Mirak pulled into the village green. The sky was aflame in the spectacle of a spring sunsset. Tired, he approached the inn where he and Soolah always stayed whenever they traveled into town.

"Well now, Mirak. Survived another winter at the old homestead, did ya?" bellowed Tosso, the overweight and overloud innkeeper. Tosso’s eyes made contact with Mirak and he instantly felt that something was different. "Where’s the missus today?"

This was the inevitable question that he had been dreading. Mirak’s eyes made momentary contact with Tosso’s then looked away. "Soolah didn’t make it through the winter, Tosso. She has passed on."

"Oh Mirak. I am so sorry." Tosso, though large, loud and borderline obnoxious, was a kind soul, who always treated Mirak and Soolah well when they guested at his inn. He was obviously embarrassed at his choice of greetings.

"Thanks, Tosso. I miss her so. But, the planting must go on, and my supplies are low. I’ll be seeing Ringlo tomorrow when the suns rise to re-stock, then I’ll be on my way back. I’ll only be staying the one night."

"Mirak, old friend, your room is on me tonight. Let me know if there is anything you need."

"Tosso, you’re a good man. Thank you."

Mirak took the key and headed to his room. Inside, he locked the door and laid on the bed. He hadn’t slept on a bed in months, having spent the last months of winter, and even the weeks of the planting, sleeping in the bed roll in the stove room of the cellar. The suns had not yet completely gone down, and Mirak was asleep.

He awoke early and eagerly ate the fresh baked bread that Tosso always provided to his guests in the mornings. After eating, Mirak headed off to visit the supply store and his old friend, Ringlo.

"Mirak, it is good to see you, my friend," Ringlo said as soon as Mirak had entered his store. "I am so sorry to hear about Soolah. She was a fine woman, way ahead of her time. We are all going to miss her. How are you holding up, Mirak?"

"News travels fast in Parma Village these days," said Mirak. "But thank you for the kind words, Ringlo. She was one-of-a-kind, and her passing made for a very long winter. But, I think I’m holding up fine, keeping myself busy with chores and the planting. Of course, I’m running low on supplies."

"Of course. I have already set aside your usual stock of supplies, in the same amounts you buy every year. It’s all packed and ready to go for you, Mirak." Ringlo paused as he looked at Mirak, thinking how the long harsh winter and Soolah’s passing had aged his good friend. "It’s a long way back out to the homestead, if you need any help, I can come along and give you a hand with the supplies. Stay and help you tend the crops. Anything at all, Mirak, just let me know."

"Ringlo, you are a good friend. But, I can manage. I think the solitude has actually helped me cope with Soolah’s passing. I start working with the seeds and the crops the way we always did together, and it feels like she’s still with me, helping. Guiding me, instructing me still on how to water the fields, how to feed with the nectar, how to talk and sing to the crops. These plants are still our babies, Ringlo, not mine, ours. Soolah and Mirak. Her being has been so much a part of mine for so long. It may sound strange, old friend, but sometimes I have to see her headstone in the garden to remind me that she really is gone."

"Mirak, I always marveled at the relationship that you and Soolah shared together, and I always believed that you somehow transferred the essence of your love for each other right into your crops. I can see that although Soolah is gone, that essence is as strong as ever. I look forward to seeing you again at harvest, my friend. Travel safely."

"I will Ringlo. And thank you for everything," Mirak said, as he paid for his supplies. He loaded his supplies and was soon allowing Parma Village to become a distant speck on the horizon behind him.

He arrived at the homestead just as the suns were putting away their palettes for the evening. He made his way into the house, and looked out the kitchen window. Through the dusky gray, he could make out the silhouette of Soolah’s headstone. He thought about her seeds, but felt a comfort that Soolah was looking after them. Turning away from the window, he walked down the short hall and peeked into the bedroom they had shared before her passing. For a moment, he thought about sleeping alone in their bed that night for the first time. But he couldn’t bring himself to do that quite yet. He made his way down to the cellar, where his bed roll still lay sprawled on the floor, next to the now cold and quiet stove.

He crawled into the bed roll, and looked at the walls of seed trays, all empty now, their babies having moved into the next phase of their lives. Exhausted from his travels, Mirak fell asleep alone in his cellar.

As the days passed, Mirak would walk through the rows and rows of crops as they broke through the surface of the soil and slowly reached up towards the warmth of the suns. He bid them all good day, dripped their ration of nectar at their feet, and talked to them. Some days, he brought his stringtar along, strummed and sang songs. It was on those days that he felt the best. The days where music filled his soul, the melodies and lyrics took him to the places and moments that defined his life together with Soolah.

The summer, the growing season, was a good one. As harsh as the winter had been, the summer was making up for it with one glorious, nurturing day after another. An occasional afternoon shower was all that broke up the string of warm days filled with double sunshine. So far, the growing season had yet to see any of the fierce winds and eddies that could strike the prairielands with little warning.

As harvest time approached, Mirak intensified the nectar feedings as he and Soolah had always done in the final days of the growing season. He made especially sure that Soolah’s plants, in the small garden near her headstone, drank deeply of the nectar. These five plants responded well to the nectar; the leaves that hinted at the special fruit maturing under the soil were thick and lush, alive with a color Mirak had never seen in any of the other crops. He always sang to these five plants the songs that Soolah had loved most. He thought she would have appreciated that.

One night, as Mirak slept in the cellar, he was awakened by the fierce howling of a prairieland eddy. He could hear the door upstairs slamming back and forth. The shutters on the windows were rattling even the thickest panes of glass. The noise was deep and thundering, he could feel it in his chest as much as he could hear it with his ears. He ran outside to check his crops. They were bending back and forth in the winds, but not breaking. His crops had withstood summer eddies before, he was hoping that they could withstand this barrage as well. They were strong, he thought to himself. They will be fine.

Then he thought about Soolah’s plants. They were a new breed, they had never experienced an eddy before. He ran against the wind to the small garden, the gate slamming opened and closed in the gusting howls. He looked over to where her plants poked the top of their heads out of the soil and stopped dead in his tracks. A circle of stones surrounded the five subsoil plants, forming a short barrier that prevented the eddy from lifting the plants out of the soil and tossing them to the hungry howls.

Already breathless from the winds slamming into his face, Mirak kneeled to shield himself and regain his composure. When he did, he leaned against the wind and headed for the relative safety of the house. Standing at the kitchen window, he stared at the short stone fence in the small garden and shook his head, certain that this had to be the work of Soolah.

In the morning, Mirak heard a knocking at his door. The winds had stopped, so it wasn’t the eddy still making his doors and shutters jump. Approaching the door, he noticed that it was stuck in an open position, the two top hinges having been ripped from the frame. "Ringlo! What are you doing here?"

"Mirak, you’re all right. The eddy passed through the village the other day, and left a number of buildings in shambles. I knew it was heading your way, so I wanted to come out and make sure you were all right - are you?"

"Yes, yes I am fine. It was a noisy eddy, but I think we came through it without too much damage. Other than this door, of course."

Ringlo laughed. "I see that. How did the crops hold up? We are so close to harvest, and some of the others had extensive crop damage that will really hurt them at the market."

"I think we survived. I checked on them last night, and they were bending to the eddy, but they were fighting back. We should go check, just to make certain."

Mirak and Ringlo headed out to the fields to check on the crops. The leaves and stems and branches were coated with a light film of dust and looked like they had been in a fight, but they were all standing upright and had survived. These were strong plants, Mirak and Soolah had bred them that way.

"Looks like we survived, Ringlo," Mirak said to his old friend. Mirak felt a strange reluctance to tell Ringlo of Soolah’s plants.

Ringlo nodded and smiled at Mirak. "You know, I didn’t just come out here to make sure you weathered the eddy."

Mirak looked at Ringlo, "Oh?"

"I thought you might need some help with harvest this year, and I came to offer my services. You’re not getting any younger you know, and you don’t have Soolah here to help. And you and Soolah were so possessive of each other that you refused to have any children that could help at harvest time. So, I just thought I would come out to help."

Mirak grinned, "Ringlo, you know it wasn’t that we were so possessive of each other - we tried to have children, we just couldn’t. But you’re right, it would be nice to have children to help with the harvest!" Mirak laughed at the thought. "At least they would be good for something! Save their old man some wear and tear."

"So, do you want my help, or are you going to continue to be a hard-headed stubborn old fool?"

"Well, I’ll probably continue to be a hard-headed stubborn old fool, but your help would be greatly appreciated anyway. Let’s go inside and eat, and we’ll talk about the harvest."

In the kitchen, Mirak prepared a homestead breakfast. Looking out the window, he noticed that Soolah’s plants looked just as they did the day before the eddy hit. And the stone circle was gone. Maybe the eddy had kicked up so much prairieland debris that there only appeared to have been a stone circle surrounding the plants.

Mirak felt the urge to talk to Ringlo about Soolah’s plants and what he had seen in the small garden at the height of the eddy. "Ringlo?"

"Yes, Mirak?"

No, he’ll just think I’m an old man losing his mind out here in the prairielands all alone, he thought. "Something hot to drink?"

"I thought you’d never ask. Thanks."

They sat at the table, and when they finished eating, they discussed the harvest.

"Soolah and I always started with the root plants at the far end of the field. We dig them up, bring them to the barn and hang them upside down. They stay there until just before we go to market. Then we drop a few drips of nectar on the very top of the stems to keep them fresh."

"If that’s the way you and Soolah always did it, that’s good enough for me," Ringlo replied.

Throughout the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, Mirak shared with Ringlo all the secrets of harvest that he and Soolah had collected over the years.

"And finally," Mirak said, deciding to overlook his previous reluctance, "There are five special plants in the small garden near Soolah’s grave. I am saving those for last. Once we have harvested the entire field of crops and have prepared them for market, we will harvest Soolah’s plants."

Ringlo smiled at the old man’s eccentric ways. "I look forward to seeing Soolah’s plants."

For days, Ringlo and Mirak worked the field, harvesting the crops. They dug up the root plants and hung them upside down. They picked fruits from branches and packed them in shipping barrels. They shucked the grains. They packaged, jarred, canned and salted away enough of the crops to last the next winter, then packaged, jarred, canned and salted the rest for market.

When the harvest was almost complete, Ringlo was impressed. "I see now why your booth at the harvest market is always so busy. These are some fine crops here Mirak. You and Soolah should be proud."

Mirak smiled. "Thanks, Ringlo. We have always been proud of our crops."

That afternoon, they finished with all the crops in the field. As they ate their evening meal, Mirak said "Tomorrow, when the suns rise, we harvest Soolah’s plants. Ringlo, the seeds from which these five plants come were seeds that Soolah felt very strongly about. While I am anxious to see what fruit they bear, at the same time I am afraid. And I don’t know why. They seem so different from anything we have harvested before. Their color, their smell, the way I feel when I feed them the nectar. Maybe it’s just that I keep thinking these are Soolah’s plants, and I worry that I won’t be able to care for them as well as Soolah would have if she had lived."

"Now, Mirak, what is there to be afraid of? If Soolah’s seeds from the other crops are any indication, whatever fruit they bear is certain to be memorable. Get some sleep, and don’t worry."

"You’re right, Ringlo. We should get some sleep. Ringlo?"

"Yes, Mirak?"

"Thanks for being here. I’m not sure how I could have made it through harvest by myself this year."

"Mirak, it has been an honor. Now get some sleep."

Mirak was up again before the suns, pacing in the kitchen, glancing out the window into the early darkness. Time passed slowly as he paced and glanced, but finally the suns pulled themselves over the horizon, leaking their light onto the prairielands.

"Up at the crack of dawn, Mirak?" asked Ringlo as he rubbed his eyes.

"Before the crack of dawn. I couldn’t sleep Ringlo," Mirak replied. "Ready?"

"I guess so. Let me get my boots."

Mirak and Ringlo went out the back door, shovels in hand. The early morning sky blazed with the color of fire. A gentle breeze blew their hair. They opened the gate to the small garden and paused at Soolah’s headstone. "It’s time Soolah," Mirak whispered.

Mirak knelt down by the first plant. He ran his fingers through the top of the root plant, the thin coarse leaves thickly bunched, feeling almost hair-like. He took a deep breath, stood and pushed the shovel into the ground, well away from the plant so as not to damage the fruit under the soil. He methodically dug a wide circle around the plant, deeper and deeper until he felt the soil around the plant was loose enough to start pulling. He started to pull, but met with a firm resistance. This was either a very heavy root plant, or the root went down deeper than he anticipated.

"Ringlo, come give me a hand."

Ringlo came over to the opposite side of the plant from Mirak. Between them, they pulled and pulled. The fruit slowly loosened and inched its way to the surface. Soon, Mirak and Ringlo pulled the large fruit completely out of the soil and laid it flat on the ground. They looked, and jumped back in awe at what they saw.

"It’s a body!" Ringlo cried.

Mirak’s knees weakened and he whispered, "I see that."

Speechless, they stood and stared, looking at the body, then back again at each other while they regained their senses. Mirak overcame his fright, thinking to himself, these are Soolah’s plants, they would not do us any harm.

"Let’s dig up the others, Ringlo. Give me a hand."

Ringlo swallowed hard, but moved to help Mirak with the other plants.

The two friends carefully shoveled and dug and pulled and loosened the other plants. They were all bodies, and they laid them all out on the ground under the warming rays of the suns.

Mirak and Ringlo sat amidst the bodies, looking at each other then back again at the bodies. There appeared to be four boys and one girl. The girl was the first one in the row and the first one they had pulled out of the soil.

As the suns warmed the harvested bodies, they started to move, slowly at first, flexing their arms and legs. Turning their necks and heads, licking their lips. Carefully, the girl propped herself up on her arms, raising her head and neck from the ground. She reached up to her face with one hand to wipe away dirt from her eyes, but her hands were so dirty, her wipe had little effect. She started to shake her head back and forth, still trying to knock off the dirt. Sitting up, she looked first at Ringlo, then over at Mirak. She stared at Mirak for several minutes then a smile worked its way to her dirty lips.


Stunned into silence, Mirak looked at the girl as the boys started to sit up and shake the dirt from their faces.


Clearing his throat and wiping away tears, Mirak looked over at Soolah’s headstone and smiled. He looked back over to the girl and said, "Yes, honey, I’m here."

Still too weak to stand, Mirak crawled over to the girl and gave her a hug, trying to wipe the dirt off her face. The boys slowly started to crawl over to where Mirak and their sister sat in the dirt in the small garden. One by one, Mirak hugged each of the boys.

"We need to get all of you cleaned up," Mirak said to the boys and the girl, but he was still paralyzed with joy and surprise to move himself.

Finally, the boys stood and took their first tentative steps. Mirak pointed the way, and they walked into the house. Mirak stood, steadied himself and helped the girl to her feet. With his arms around her, they made their way towards the house.

Ringlo, silent as this most personal harvest unfolded before him, stood up and approached Mirak and the girl.

"You know Mirak," he said, putting his arm around the new father, "she has her mother’s eyes."

Copyright © 1999 by Harlon Stafford

Aphelion's Lettercolumn

Return to the Aphelion main page.