The time for the harvest party was quickly approaching, and it kept the Cromwell House staff busy with the preparations. Downstairs rooms were cleaned and aired out, wood stacked for the bonfire, and cakes created. Every evening, I fell exhausted into my bed.
During the cleaning, I conveyed most of the plan to Beth. I was careful to do it away from the lilies. It took several hours as we didn’t have any chances to have a long conversation.
“Lori’s going to get a list from her friend,” I whispered as I passed Beth in the hall outside the kitchen. “And her friend is going to tell all the applicants to put names of family members on their emergency contact list. If they don’t have one, he’s going to encourage them to make one up.”
“Is that legal?” Beth whispered back.
“Probably not, but at least this way no one will look as if they are orphans.”
The preparation days sped by, and all too soon it was the morning of the harvest party. Garlands in fall colors of orange, brown, deep red, and yellow adorned the front porch. Vases were filled with autumn flowers such as chrysanthemums, asters, and celosias. The dining room table sported a golden runner and white and gold china dishes, ready for the Cromwell’s guests of honor. On the back lawn, portable tables and chairs were placed, along with long tables for the buffet. At the edge of the garden, the groundskeepers had prepared a place for a bonfire, and wood was stacked neatly to the side.
Everywhere I looked, there was beauty and an air of excitement. I found it hard to believe that I had an hand in decorating the manor. My usual party decorations consisted of streamers and balloons, not this elegant arrangement of harmonious colors. The staff was industrious until lunchtime, putting the finishing touches on table settings and gathering supplies for the various games and activities.
This time, lunch was held in the kitchen for all of the staff on a rotating schedule. Cook prepared platters of sandwiches, sliced fruit, and cut vegetables. The house staff ate first, followed by the gardeners, and then the guards. Beth took trays upstairs for the family. It took a few minutes for me to figure out who was missing.
“Cook, where’s Esther?”
“Eh? Oh, old Esther goes to her daughter’s the morning of the harvest party. Then the girl comes back with her for the celebration in the afternoon. I think it’s truly her only day off.” Cook began putting the leftover food away. “Let’s get this cleaned up so we can enjoy the rest of the day.”
I helped with the dishes and once Cook was satisfied, I went to her room to change. Beth told me the employees all wore their city clothes to the party. “You know, the ones you wear to town on your days off,” she clarified when I looked at her in confusion.
I pulled on a soft cashmere sweater in a dark blue, and black jeans. I brushed my hair out, letting it be free of the confines of a braid or bun. Then I called Lori.
“Are you ready?” I asked as soon as Lori picked up.
“Everything’s set. I’ll see you at four.”
I decided to wander around the garden while I reviewed our plan. I put on a dark wool jacket and headed outside. The garden beds were mostly empty this late in the season. A few pumpkins still clung to their vines — the ones that weren’t chosen for pies or carving. Corn stalks scratched against each other in the light breeze, and here and there a squished vegetable laid discarded. She could smell the sweet note of apples that were still on the trees, although most were already picked and in storage.
“What are you doing out here, Emma?” Joe’s gruff voice interrupted my thoughts.
I looked up to see him standing a few rows over. “Oh, hi. I’m just walking. Is that okay?”
“The party will be starting soon. You should get back.”
His abruptness didn’t surprise me after the way their last conversation ended. “Yes, okay. See you at the party.” I turned and made my way back to the house.
The Cromwell’s harvest party was the biggest one in town, as most of the town came. They had jack o’lantern carving contests, apple bobbing, corn hole, and more. There was enough food for everyone. I wondered where they got it all, since the house garden provided for the family and staff, but soon she realized the caterer brought most of it up. Only Cook’s treats were made at the house.
Lori arrived promptly at four o’clock, an hour after the party started, and I was waiting for her at the top of the driveway. We hugged, and I felt Lori slip something into the pocket of her jacket.
“Is that it?” I asked quietly.
“Yep, and everyone has someone to miss them.”
“Perfect. Once the bonfire starts, I’ll go see if those lilies will finally tell me the truth.”
“Have you seen the children yet?” Lori asked.
My mouth dropped open. I had forgotten all about wanting to see the Cromwell children in my desire to save the temporary workers. “No, but they should be out here tonight, don’t you think?”
Lori nodded, and together we headed to the buffet tables.
As the party wore on, I kept looking at all the children present, trying to see which ones looked like Mr. or Mrs. Cromwell. They were all moving so fast, though, darting between tables and dashing from one activity to another, that I finally gave up and figured they would be introduced when the bonfire was lit.
Finally, the sun’s last rays were beginning to disappear from the horizon, and Joe stood next to the teepee of kindling and sticks. A loud gong was heard from the house, and everyone turned towards it. Mr. and Mrs. Cromwell stood on the patio that led into the dining room, holding hands and smiling. Once the murmurs quieted, Mr. Cromwell raised his other hand and spoke in a loud voice that carried across the lawn.
“Welcome, friends, to our annual harvest party! I won’t tell you how many years our family has been hosting as you wouldn’t believe me anyway.” Polite chuckles scattered around the crowd. “Tonight is a special night, as our dear head housekeeper, Esther, is bringing her daughter to the house for training as her successor. Please help me welcome young Abigail to our staff!”
He released his wife’s hand and began clapping, while a young girl stepped out from the crowd to stand on the lowest stone step of the patio. The guests followed his action, and soon Abigail was blushing from the applause.
Mr. Cromwell waived his hand and silence descended. “Thank you. I’m sure she will make a wonderful head housekeeper when she’s old enough. Now, to the part you all have been waiting for. It’s not a harvest party without a bonfire, and as part of our ritual here at Cromwell house, we invite you to write down a wish for this coming season and burn it in the fire. Joe, if you please.”
Everyone turned back to the fire pit and watched as Joe took a punk from a bucket and lit the fuel-soaked kindling. With a rush, the fire caught and raced to the top of the teepee. Joe stepped back, and several other men came forward to add more logs to the inferno. I kept the Cromwells in my peripheral vision, and was startled to see them step down onto the grass and begin to mingle with the townsfolk. Beth told me they usually went back inside the house to their private drawing room.
“Now’s my chance,” I told Lori.
Before my friend could respond, I dashed to the kitchen door and raced to the entryway. The foyer was dim, lit only by the porch lights shining in the glass doors from outside. I could see well enough, however, and she stood between the two giant pots of lilies.
“Hello, beauties,” I said as calmly as I could.
“Hi, Emma. Enjoying the party?” Their collective voice still made chills go down my spine.
“Yes, thank you. But I was wondering if you could tell me something.”
“What? You probably hear more gossip than we do, since we cannot walk around.”
“True, but this is about you, so I’m sure you know the answer.”
“What?” They asked again.
“What really happens at the harvest parties?”
There was no answer. I figured the lilies wouldn’t tell her the truth. Truth…maybe I can trick them, I thought.
“Oh, well, I guess you don’t really know. Beth said you didn’t.” I began to walk away.
“Beth is a liar. We know!”
“Really? Can you tell me? I promise to keep your secret.”
There was a small gasp, almost as if the lilies all drew in a breath at the same time, and then they began speaking. “We are magic, you realize. Do you know magic?”
“I know you’re magic,” I responded. “Regular flowers don’t talk.”
“Yes,” the lilies giggled. “We are rare. We use our magic to help the Cromwells but it needs replenished or we lose it.”
“How do you help the Cromwells?”
“We keep them alive. Mrs. Cromwell is three-hundred and sixty years old next month.”
I drew in a breath. I wanted to ask if they were sure, if they were telling the truth, but I knew we could be interrupted at any moment. “And how do you need your magic replenished?”
“The lost ones’ souls.”
“Lost ones…do you mean the temporary workers?”
“Yes. At the end of the harvest party, Beth and Joe bring them to us, one by one. They can’t resist smelling us. We are beautiful and alluring. When they come near, we absorb their souls.”
“You kill them,” I stated flatly.
“Yes, but they do not go to waste. They feed us for a long time.”
“How? What do you mean?” I felt my stomach roll and fought to keep the nausea from overwhelming me.
“Blood and bone,” they replied.