The sun was lowering in the purple skies, while tiny stars poked through the heavens above. A somber note held between Nightshade and Poysenberry as they headed to the line up, for their day’s end.
They were the last two to arrive. The land owner was nearly done calculating the SLP from the other Axies. When he noticed them straggling behind, he stood erect with his hands on his hips, glaring at them.
He then pointed a dirty finger at them both. ‘Do I need to clean both your ears?’ he said, wagging his finger. ‘Why don’t I go get a nice metal brush and scrape the insides of them? Huh?’
Poysenberry lowered his head.
‘Can’t hear the bell like everyone else?’
He couldn’t bear to look at the owner. The man had been getting grumpier and lashing out more at them since the past harvest moon. Poysenberry knew this and had done his best to avoid the moodiness. But since Nightshade came along, his mind had drifted elsewhere. To a more natural life. An imaginary world that he expected to be real outside those gates.
The land owner stomped toward them, moving another plant aside with his foot. ‘Let’s see how much you two have collected for the day.’ He then knelt and roughly took the vials that were hanging by a small twine on Poysenberry’s shell.
After gathering them in his hands, he took his precious time to count each one in front of Poysenberry, drawing each word out slow as possible. ‘One. . . two. . . three. . . ‘
Poysenberry lowered his head in shame, while Nightshade came up beside him and placed her paw onto his.
‘Cool your tail little hussy,’ said the land owner, noticing her beside Poysenberry. ‘Tonight is breeding night, but I don’t need any more chops on my farm. You got me?’ He then used the back of his hand to swat her paw off his.
Distracted and seemingly enraged by this gesture, he set Poysenberry’s vials down and then grabbed Nightshade, bringing her close to his face. ‘You little money sink,’ he said. ‘You’d better have gotten double the rest of these mutts have.’ With the same roughness, he yanked the vials hanging from the vines on her pumpkin and started to count them.
Poysenberry gave her a side glance, seeing the same sadness in her eyes he’d witnessed back at the cactus patch. He wanted to reach out to her, but knew that would make him an even bigger target to his owner’s potential wrath.
‘Fourteen. . . fifteen. . . sixteen. . .’
The man paused and stared over both their heads. Fire was in his eyes. His hackles quivered as his lip curled. He almost broke the vials as he slammed them onto the ground and rose to his feet.
Both Poysenberry and Nightshade turned to see what he was looking at. And there they saw Woodman dragging his feet as he walked to the line up. The old plant appeared worn out and tired. Maybe even a little disoriented.
‘And what do you know?’ said the man. ‘Of all my plants, who is the one to betray me today?’
Woodman paused and gazed up at his owner. There was no smirk on his face or even a hint of anger, but instead an expression of grief that a loving pet gives to its master.
‘The rest of you, drop your SLP on the ground and get into the hut!’
The line stayed in place, unsure of the command.
At that, the few remaining Axies lowered their SLP to the ground and slowly marched into the run-down hut.
‘As if you didn’t know it was a full moon tonight,’ said the owner, approaching Woodman. ‘As if you didn’t know it was getting more difficult to breed?’
Woodman bowed his head.
‘Yet this is how you betray me? How much are you gathering these days? I don’t even need to count by the look at your pitiful collection.’
The Axies entered the hut in a single file. Poysenberry and Nightshade were last to reach the door. They both lingered in the doorway and kept their eyes on Woodman.
The land owner picked up the vials, then snorted maliciously and kicked Woodman on the side. The Axie tumbled into the sands. Before he could move, the man kicked him again, and again, then finally he stomped his foot on the plant’s back.
Poysenberry saw Woodman’s face smash into the dirt. Yet, what surprised Poysenberry the most was that Woodman did not seem angry or made any attempt to fight back –– instead, he seemed to be genuinely apologetic to his owner. Defeated, like an old pet who can no longer manage a hike up the hill anymore or protect the children in the yard from intruders.
‘How come you want to do this to me?’ yelled the man. ‘On the night of the full moon!’
The man kicked Woodman’s back again, this time leaving his foot on his back and smashing the poor Axie’s face into the ground.
Nightshade nudged Poysenberry. He glanced at her, not trying to hide the concern on his face. She jutted her chin toward the hut then raised her eyebrows at him.
He took one last look at Woodman, feeling horrible for the plant, then reluctantly followed Nightshade inside. They stayed near the entrance, listening to the entire episode, hearing every chide and nasty remark, and every lashing out at the loyal Axie.
After what felt like an eternity, the owner quit and slowly put all the collected vials into his sack and headed for the gate. ‘Why don’t you just sleep outside tonight?’ He kept marching. ‘Let the wild Beasts get you for all I care!’ The man then slammed the gate shut and stormed off to his own hut in the distance.
The Axies were deathly quiet inside the hut. Each had taken to their mats and laid their heads down for the night, but most had their eyes open, looking into empty space. Even Antenna, Poo-head, and Specs were silent.
Shattering sounds drifted through the night air from the owner’s hut. Pots and pans must have been been thrown around, along with glass mugs or vials. Poysenberry caught Nightshade’s gaze. They said more than words could portray in those glances. Then their gazes turned outward into the darkening night, where Woodman lay in the dirt unmoved.
Poysenberry realised the owner had left their hut unlocked this evening. In his rage, he missed that small detail. Not that it mattered because no Axie inside had the guts to be caught outside on a such a night.
Poysenberry tried to check in on Woodman again, but the lights were growing too dark outside. As he squinted and concentrated his sights, he saw his fellow worker still laying unmoved in the dirt.
The owner left his hut and stomped his way behind theirs, opened and shut the gate loudly as he entered into the pure breed’s area.
Poysenberry checked on Woodman once more, who hadn’t moved an inch. None of the other Axies did a thing inside.
‘Screw it,’ said Poysenberry, standing to his feet. And with that momentum, he pushed open the door and walked into the night toward Woodman.
The moon was already shining full and bright overhead, while the stars flicked red and blue in the blackened skies. As Poysenberry got closer to Woodman, he halted. He felt unsure of himself. In the stillness, he thought he heard the old Axie sniffing. This made him stop in his tracks. Walking up to him could make the proud plant even more upset.
With a grimace on his face, Poysenberry was swaying back and forth between going to the Plant and heading back into the hut when he felt a breeze graze his side and saw Nightshade walking past him and going to lay in the dirt.
She sat herself down at one side of Woodman without saying anything to him and without even looking in his direction. Poysenberry swallowed his breath and followed her lead. He laid himself down on the other side of Woodman and kept his sights in the other direction.
The three of them lay there in the cool night, staying close enough to keep each other warm. After an hour or more, the owner left the pure breed’s section and headed straight to his own hut.
The night was calm. A few bugs could be heard singing in the far distance near the great river. And the moonlight shone in the clear sky, watching over the three Axies laying side by side.
To be continued…