The farm grounds are always empty the day after the sky lantern festival. Anthony stares out at the lie of the land, the shape and swell of hillocks and wet fields. For these few hours in the year, he is completely alone. The part-time boys, those lads continually slipping up and letting loose heifers into haylofts, they’ve run off with buttery, peppermint-smelling schoolgirls. The carpenter has been collecting them all morning, shining kerosene lamps on bright-eyed children in forested areas, cutting short elopements inspired by the glory of last night’s lanterns. He brings them to attention with a few prods of a pitchfork, and in the instant between the end of their dumb, warm solitude and that harsh reintroduction into the biting air of the ugly universe, the carpenter catches in their faces the pathetic and raw look of true love.
Beddington is normally in charge of lecturing the dimpled and disgraced couples in the front room of the main house, but even he has pulled a disappearing act. Anthony had found his uncle in the spare bedroom behind the greenhouse around midday, wrapped around a soft and supple milkmaid. Her ankles, hanging off the bed, were marked with the crenulated imprint of woolen socks. Beddington had one hand in her fair hair.
The landowner and maid have an understanding, put into practice only once yearly. Unbeknownst to them, Anthony is well-aware of the liaison, and though he’s not sure if he approves, he goes above and beyond the nephew’s call of duty to protect them. Every year, a week or so prior to the festival, Anthony gathers the farm boys in the barn and terrifies them with legends concerning a greenhouse ghoul, coated in constrictive vines and red lilies. For days afterward not even the carpenter will enter the greenhouse, something Anthony’s uncle thinks is indicative of spiritual approval (“even ghosts want us to be together” he whispers to her in the corridor). Beddington and his home-grown, milk-fed inamorata are convinced the gods are looking after them.
Though they lie now in flagrante delicto, there is no chance of detection so late in the morning. All of the farmhands have long made for neighboring villages. They are visiting their Ma and Pa, or buying confectioner’s sugar and cake flour with their holiday bonus. The postman has come and gone, bearing the usual: advertisements for this fertilizer or that brand of halters, and a love letter or two for a Beddington employee. Anthony and the carpenter, who open the mail together, observe the former with more distaste that the latter. Beddington’s is a dairy farm and has no need for fertilizer nor halters, but both men have been contaminated with a secondhand appreciation of adolescent desire and the sickness that inevitably accompanies it. Sometimes they make brief corrections to the letters, usually purely grammatical but recently varying into stylistic territory (“how terrible, ‘love’ and ‘grovel’ do not rhyme”).
It is Anthony’s eleventh consecutive year at Beddington’s. He does not stand much taller than he did at fifteen, and the core of him conserves most of the same traits, including the prodigal memory that made him a brief county legend. Though this particular knack is what convinced Beddington to hire him, Anthony often wishes he could remember less.
For example: Anthony can recall, with an easy accuracy and perfection that mortifies him, his first and last sky lantern festival. In his mind’s eye, there he is, a barely pubescent kid, standing in line to collect his wages from the overseer. Pockets heavy with coins, fodder for wire and lights, there he is zipping across plots and over fences. They arrive in time to set up the preparations: tables dragged from townhouses and lain in the square, piled high with cretonne and oil paints, smart girls in pantyhose standing beside them, leaning against beaus and balustrades. The farmhands tighten wire and curl it around their wrists, shaping it into perfect circles. Anthony remembers holding the fabric down while the ladies put wax pencil to paper and draw for hours, dots and curlicues framing pastoral scenes and red barns. Fermented juice is passed around, leaving the artists tipsy and giving way to drawings considerably more risqué than the township is used to, filled in with warm orange pastels and off-set with pink lace. Anthony had refused all drink and so his recollection of the hours that followed is considerably clearer than that of his compatriots. At midnight they’d gathered up the lanterns, like mothers picking up children, and carried them to a nearby field. Standing in the grass, they struck matches together and lit the candles tucked into the wire chassis of the lanterns. For a moment nothing happened, and they all felt silly, gussied up as they were in their best and brightest, holding out greasy paper trimmed with ribbons and copper. Then, slowly, as though uncertain and unhappy to be leaving home, as though they were only cautious and frightened children, the lanterns began to rise, trembling. There was no wind, and no moon, and for once adolescents looked up at the night sky and thoroughly ignored the stars. They stood rooted as the lights rushed up, in a sudden gush of longing, towards the timberline and, from there, to the heavens. Watching them go, aligned perfectly in what seemed like a divine order, Anthony was sure he’d found God.
It was not until later, when he had jumped over the fence and was nearing the Beddington property, that he began to think differently. In the darkness he only noticed the blood by the time his boots were in it. The outline of her grey silhouette quivered, and her head was flat on the ground, turned towards him. Anthony remembers that her eyes had been open, and for a few seconds a lantern floating just overhead illuminated the silky whites and red-ringed pupils. Anthony can’t recall, for the life of him, the interval between those eyes and his dragging his uncle Beddington from the sleepy milkmaid’s arms (“what, slow down, hey, let me put on my – hey, hey, Anthony!”). It seems cruel to him that those minutes should have been erased, but not those that came immediately afterwards: running across the grounds, thump, her huge black-white back and maw, filled with wire, Beddinton’s “oh damn”. And his own hands, the ones that carried the rifle.