Saturday, October 15, 2011

Anatomy of a Weird Tale: "The Scythe"

Technically, Ray Bradbury's story "The Scythe" (first published in 1943) is set in April and May, but its concern with grim reaping also locates it within the heart of the October Country.  This is a perfect time, then, to take a closer look at the workings of Bradbury's classic tale.

Ominousness is immediately invoked, as the story's opening sentence conveys a sense of the end of the line: "Quite suddenly there was no more road" (175).  Drew Erickson--a farmer deracinated by Dust Bowl exigencies--and his starving family have driven up to a lone white house flanking a broad wheat field.  Hoping to get some food from whomever lives in the place, Drew sets out from his car but even as he crosses the threshold he knows "there was death in the house" (176).  He discovers an old man, apparently recently deceased, stretched out on the bed in his grave clothes, clutching a single, ripe blade of wheat.  A scythe leans up against the well next to the dead man's bed, seeming less an inanimate tool than a looming presence that has been keeping vigil.

On the pillow next to him, the late John Buhr has left his last will and testament.  The house and farm are bequeathed to the reader of the letter, as are the scythe and "the task ordained thereto" (177).  Curiously, Buhr concludes by pointing out that he's "only the giver, not the ordainer."  Meanwhile, the sickle blade of the scythe bears the enigmatic engraving "WHO WIELDS ME--WIELDS THE WORLD."  The Erickson family has stumbled upon a dramatic reversal of fortune, but Drew's wife Molly is understandably wary about the impromptu inheritance: "It's too good to be true," she asserts. "There must be some trick to it."

Drew, though, is the first to discover that there is indeed a catch.  The wheat field proves to be no ordinary piece of real estate, growing
"crooked, wild, like a crazy thing" (181).  Its irregular clusters of ripe stalks rot soon after being cut, only to be replaced by fresh green sprouts the next morning.  In the midst of his reaping labors, Drew is haunted by "sad voices" begging him to stay his hand, and to his horror he instinctively feels that he has committed accidental matricide with a swipe of his scythe.  "I cut down one stalk of wheat and I killed her," a frantic Drew relates to Molly.  She dismisses his concern as silly superstition, but then a letter arrives in the mail a week later notifying Drew of his mother's death from heart failure.

Typical of Bradbury's work, a metaphor has been given a literal (and dire) turn: Drew is a reaper not just of wheat but of human lives meta-physically linked to the stalks.  The agricultural landscape accordingly transforms into a site of Lovecraftian "cosmic dread" (note as well how Bradbury's tale prefigures Stephen King works such as "Children of the Corn," Pet Sematary, and "N.").  Drew blanches at the thought that the terrible power of this preternatural field stretches back through prehistory:
Quite suddenly he felt very old.  The valley seemed ancient, mummified, secretive, dried and bent and powerful.  When the Indians danced on the prairie it had been here, this field.  The same sky, the same wind, the same wheat.  And, before the Indians?  Some Cro-Magnon, gnarled and shag-haired, wielding a crude wooden scythe, perhaps, prowling down through the living wheat... (183-4)
In many narratives, the revelation of the wheat field's sublime aspect might have served as the climax, but Bradbury wrests more mileage (or should I say, acreage?) out of the premise.  Compelled to provide food and shelter for his family, Drew continues on at the farm.  He mows the wheat down methodically: "Up, down.  Up, down.  Obsessed with the idea of being the wielder of the scythe.  He, himself!  It burst upon him in a mad, wild surge of strength and horror" (184).  Along with this sense of personal import, though, is Drew's realization of the burden of incredible responsibility.  "I got to stay here all my life," he tells Molly.  "Can't nobody else mess with that wheat; they wouldn't know where to cut and not to cut.  They might cut the wrong parts."  With this, an earlier line from John Buhr's will--"alone in the world as it has been decreed" (176, italics mine)--takes on frightful new meaning.

Drew tries to be smart about his predicament.  He decides that whenever he comes to the stalks corresponding to the lives of Molly and the kids, he will just leave that wheat standing.  Yet when he brings death "to three of his old, loved friends in Missouri" (185), Drew vows to put aside the scythe.  He "was done with reaping, done for good and all," he insists as he locks the scythe in the cellar.

In the middle of the night, however, Drew discovers that his duty is not easily shirked; the harvesting must go on.  He awakens to find that he has sleep-walked out into the field, and his scythe is now back in hand.  The somnambulistic trek unveils Drew's utter lack of free will.  He is a slave to the ordained task, controlled by the very instrument he wields: "The scythe held him, grew into his palms, forced him to walk" (186).  The scenario worsens when Drew looks back and sees his farmhouse engulfed by flames.  The place is a smoldering ruin by the time he races back, but his family lies

haphazardly, leveling green and ripe wheat alike.  Here the most harrowing aspect of Bradbury's tale emerges, as the author posits an uncanny cause for the widespread ills of the mid-20th Century world:
Bombs shattered London, Moscow, Tokyo. 
The blade swung insanely. 
And the kilns of Belsen and Buchenwald took fire.
The blade sang, crimson wet. 
And mushrooms vomited out blind suns at White Sands, Hiroshima, Bikini, and up, through, and in continental Siberian skies.
The grain wept in a green rain, falling. 
Korea, Indo-China, Egypt, India trembled; Asia stirred, Africa woke in the night... (189)
The notion of mass death precipitated by a singular madman (cf. Adolf Hitler's maniacal warmongering) is one that no doubt resonated with Bradbury's contemporary audience. 

"The Scythe" has been famously lampooned by The Simpsons (the
"Reaper Madness" segment of Treehouse of Horror XIV), but there's no denying the gravitas of Bradbury's original tale.  It cuts straight to the heart of our worst dreads--of losing our loved ones, of having no control over our own fates.  I would venture to say that never in his illustrious career has Bradbury presented his readers with a darker harvest.

Work Cited

Bradbury, Ray.  "The Scythe."  The October Country.  New York: Del Rey Books, 1991.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

I first read The Scythe in high school back in the 70's. I was riveted to my seat by this story. Bradbury beautifully captured a texture of waining Summer and an approaching darkness, even though as you said, the story takes place in the Spring.

It's the perfect Halloween story.

(I also loved The Simpsons Reaper Madness.)