Red Rover, Red Rover

The clock in Market Square struck the hour. The men put down their farming tools and joined the women filing, in silent procession, toward the baseball diamond on the outskirts of town. The children were already there...the eligible ones between the ages of five and ten. The older children were in the Church, keeping any eye on those who were either too young to play the Game or had been eliminated in previous years. Adults were required to attend whether married or not, had children or not...it was one of the rules.

At the edge of the field closest to town, the children huddled in groups drawing strength from each other. Ten-year-old Ginny and five-year-old Kitty held hands. It was Kitty's first time playing the Game and she was apprehensive. Ginny sensed her anxiety. "Don't worry," she told the younger girl in a voice rich with six years of experience. "It's not so bad and it's only once a year." "Aren't you scared?" asked Kitty. Ginny laughed nervously. "Of course," she said, "but the bright side is that I'll be too old to play after this and I've been lucky so far."

In the bleachers, the adults were uneasy. They gazed out at the wide expanse of barren desert beyond the town, and waited for the arrival of the Winnowers. Nobody could remember when, or why, or how the Game had originated. One year, they had refused to allow the children to play and had paid the price...a failed harvest and crops which rotted in the ground. The entire town had almost starved. They had not tried to stop the Game again.

The Winnowers appeared like a cloud of locusts wavering on the horizon. Moving with alarming speed, they took their place at the opposite end of the diamond. Some of the women began to quietly cry as they recognized among the throng the once adorable little faces, now gaunt and haggard beneath the brown hoods. Kitty gripped Ginny's hand more tightly as the children shuffled closer together, hoping there was power in numbers. Some of the smaller ones got lost in the crowd of taller youngsters, but the Winnowers would not be deceived by hide-and-go-seek...that was not the Game they had come to play.

"Red Rover, Red Rover..." chanted the Winnowers in their high-pitched, shrill voices. They paused and a hush fell over the baseball diamond as fingers became crossed and wishes were made on non-existent stars. "Send Ginny right over!"

"No," cried Kitty, looking up into Ginny's pale face. Ginny pried her hand loose from Kitty's grasp. "It's allright," she said. "It's just my turn, that's all...at least I got to play a long time. Some only get one chance. I'm so glad they didn't choose you, Kitty." With a desperate shout, Ginny lunged toward the beckoning wave of Winnowers and tried to burst through their ranks. She didn't succeed...none ever had. The children, mesmerized for an eternal second, broke free of the spell and rushed toward the adults waiting in the bleachers, to be greeted by hugs, kisses and joyful tears.

"They picked Ginny, Mama," said Kitty in between heart-wrenching sobs, "she's a Winnower too now." Her mother nodded and blinked at the bright sky where her firstborn was being carried away. The Winnowers hovered momentarily over the fields and the young girl's blood fell like a scarlet shower upon the hungry earth. The coming season's harvest would be plentiful.

The piercing cry of their requiem, "Red Rover, Red Rover, they sent Ginny over," gradually faded as the Winnowers, holding aloft the empty husk that had once contained all that was good and kind and generous in Ginny's spirit, followed the east wind back into the desert.

Kitty's Papa held her tightly in his strong arms. "You won't have to play ever again, sweetheart," he said, choking on the words. "You're not eligible now they've taken Ginny." It was another one of the rules, the only one that still bore a human element. It wasn't especially prized under normal circumstances but in this particular case, it offered some small comfort...the Winnowers didn't care to play the Game with their brothers and sisters.

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