He first arrived at their farm in the spring, at the start of corn planting season. Emily and her family had just sat down at the table for supper when a knock sounded on the door. Her father and mother looked at each other questioningly, and then her father rose to answer it.
The man was tall, well over six feet and looming above Emily's father. From the inside of their small cabin, the entire family could see him standing on the front porch and knew instantly that he was a stranger.
Emily took in the sight of his skin, bronzed from the sun. His hair was a light brown. She noticed that his clothes were old, even ragged, providing little protection against the elements.
Her father invited the man inside, but he declined. Instead, he explained that he was interested in helping out on their farm.
Emily glanced at her two brothers, John and Edgar, and then at her mother, who was pretending not to eavesdrop on the conversation taking place on the porch.
"I ask only for breakfast and supper each day," the man told Emily's father. "I have everything else I need, but I want to be of use."
Emily's father stepped farther out onto the porch and closed the door behind him. Emily turned to her mother, eyebrows raised. "Who do you think that is?" she whispered.
Her mother returned her puzzled look. "From the way he's dressed, he might simply be looking for a sure meal each day in exchange for work."
"Do you think Pa will agree?" John asked eagerly, but their mother just shushed him.
They weren't tenant farmers; Emily's father owned the land. But he had a weak heart and struggled to keep up with the tasks of running the farm, even with two healthy teenage boys helping him.
Times were hard now, especially for farmers trying to coax what they could from the unforgiving soil. Emily saw the fear on her mother's face every time her husband complained of pain in his chest.
Several minutes later, Emily's father came back into the house and shook his head in bewilderment. "Looks like we have a new farmhand," he said. "The man doesn't want any payment other than two meals a day."
John and Edgar, who often bickered over their share of allotted chores, gave each other wide grins, but Emily's mother looked troubled. "Did he say where he's from?" she asked. "He looks like he's fallen on hard times."
Emily's father sat down at the table and avoided meeting her mother's stare. "Most of us have fallen on hard times, Mildred. Somehow, though, I think that man's doing okay. Says his name is William. He starts tomorrow morning."
Emily's mother still didn't pick up her fork. "But shouldn't we know more about him, Henry? Where's he staying? None of the neighbors have mentioned him."
Her father cleared his throat. "What I'm about to say doesn't leave this table. Understood?" He looked up at them, and they all nodded, eyes wide at his warning tone. "I don't think that man is... like us. My grandfather used to tell us stories, which he heard when he was a boy in Germany. He said there are creatures that live in the nearby lakes and rivers and offer to help farmers with their labor. No one really knows why; maybe they're lonely and long to be around humans, but they insist that everyone be treated fairly." Emily's father gave his sons a pointed stare. "So I'd better not catch you two trying to get out of doing your share of the work just because we have extra help now."
Emily, along with her mother and two brothers, stared at her father in disbelief. He just went on eating.
"Those are only fairy tales," Emily's mother finally blurted, but her father shrugged.
"Maybe so, Mildred. Maybe so. He might just be passing through. But we're in no position to turn away extra help. Make sure you have his meals ready for him every day."
Her father raised his head again to regard his family. "And none of you are to offer him anything else. He might be dressed in rags, but don't try to give him new clothes, or any other kind of gift."
Everyone was too stunned to ask about the reason for this rule her father declared. Emily's mother shifted in her chair, pushing away her plate of food as though she was no longer hungry. "Do you think we've made some kind of bargain with the devil, Henry?" she whispered.
"The devil normally drives a harder bargain than that," her father replied.
That night, after everyone else had fallen asleep, Emily tossed and turned on her mattress filled with corn shucks. Worry nagged her about the stranger who had appeared at their door. Why had he chosen Emily's family?
Their closest neighbors were a mile away, a little lower in the valley, and some of them were facing far more dire circumstances. Emily's family certainly wasn't prosperous, but they had dairy cows, chickens for eggs, and hogs for meat. So far, they'd never gone hungry.
Emily was eighteen and unmarried, still living at home with her family and feeling more of a liability than of use. She helped her mother with the daily household chores, and she milked the cows and tended to the chickens and hogs, but she was unable to do the hard labor her brothers managed.
Maybe if this man named William proved helpful to her father, Emily wouldn't feel such guilt pulling at her. She determined to be as nice to the stranger as possible. Even if he stayed only through the harvest later that year, his help would be invaluable. Emily would make him feel welcome, so he would be sure to return each day. It was the least she could do for her family.
The entire household was already awake before dawn the following morning, waiting for the new farmhand to arrive. Emily smoothed her hands over her dress and made sure her long blonde hair was pinned back neatly from her face, and then she helped her mother cook breakfast by the light of an oil lamp.
While her father paced back and forth in the front room, dressed in his usual shirt and overalls, and her brothers sat at the table and fidgeted, Emily's mother set aside a plate for William with generous helpings of ham, biscuits, eggs, and grits.
When his knock sounded on the door, Emily's mother made a point to answer it. William stood on the porch and stared down at her with an unreadable expression.
Emily stood a few feet behind her mother and noticed that the man's clothes were damp, as was his hair. She thought of the story her father told the night before and shivered.
Emily's mother introduced herself, and then she gestured for William to come inside. "Won't you join us for breakfast, William? We're just about to eat."
The man shook his head. "No, ma'am, I'll take my meal out here. Thank you," he added, as if he'd been prompted on his manners.
Emily's mother brought his plate to him, and he thanked her again before heading down the porch steps. Emily watched from the window as William walked to the edge of their yard and sat down on an old wooden bench beside the garden, the plate balanced on his lap.
"Emily." Her father's voice was sharp, and she turned, blushing. "Come eat and leave that man be."
Her brothers snorted and nudged each other, and Edgar opened his mouth to tease Emily, but a warning look from their father silenced him.
As interested as Emily was in the new farmhand, she didn't have much of a chance to interact with him. He stayed outside in the field with her father and brothers while she helped her mother.
"How do you think he's working out?" Emily finally asked midway through that first morning as she and her mother washed clothes by hand.
"I'm sure he's doing just fine," her mother replied, and the brusque tone of her voice discouraged Emily from asking anything else.
At dinnertime, her father and brothers returned to the cabin for their midday meal. "William doesn't want dinner?" her mother asked as she served them.
"Just breakfast and supper," her father said. The family ate in silence, and then he added, "The man's a hard worker."
Emily's brothers nodded in unison. She could tell they were happy to have someone help out with the numerous tasks assigned to them.
That evening as the light faded in the sky, Emily was able to catch another glance of the man while he sat outside at what had become his place to eat, next to the garden. He devoured his supper of cured ham, potatoes, and corn and washed it down with a glass of milk. No one was able to resist the pies Emily's mother made, and William was no exception.
He left his dirty dishes on the porch, right in front of the door, and left without saying goodnight.
And so his first day at the farm ended.
As weeks passed, he showed up each morning and left each evening like clockwork, and Emily's father grew fonder of the man, though he said William never talked much. The farmhand was able to keep peace between John and Edgar, making sure the chores were allotted to them fairly.
Nearby farmers also noticed William's presence and asked Emily's father about his new help, but her father simply told them that William was a transient farmhand looking for extra work for the season until harvesting was finished.
Even as William continued working at the farm, he never set foot in the cabin. When he left each evening, Emily wondered just where he went. If her father was to be believed, the man headed back to the nearby river, just a short distance through the woods behind their cabin.
Emily was often given the task of carrying William's breakfast and supper plates to him. Although she made sure her hair and clothes were neat, and she gave him warm smiles and tried to engage him in conversation, he normally provided only one-word answers to her questions. He was always polite, but distant. Yet his reserved manner didn't stop Emily from thinking about him.
There was little privacy in the cabin, but as spring stretched into summer, and the fresh night breeze drifted through the open windows, Emily waited until she was sure everyone else was asleep, and then she slipped a hand beneath the thin sheet covering her and explored her body. Even then, she thought about William. Especially then.
She tried to move as little as possible as she rolled her nipples between her fingers, feeling them stiffen, but she found that her hips rocked all on their own, and she had to make a conscious effort to keep them still. It felt so good to touch herself this way, and when she did, a tingling sensation between her thighs beckoned her fingers to travel lower, and she stroked herself there.
The first time it happened, Emily was caught completely unawares. She had a hand in her underwear, furiously rubbing herself, feeling something exquisite building inside her. She imagined William beside her in the small bed; she imagined what his mouth would feel like around her hard nipples, and then her body stiffened and shuddered.
Emily couldn't suppress a moan, and her eyes widened in fear that someone had overheard her, even as her fingers kept working at the slick wet nub that brought her so much pleasure.
Once Emily discovered what she could do to herself simply using her fingers, she was desperate to do it again and again. During the day, she could find privacy only in the outhouse. There, she hiked up her skirt and slipped a hand into her underwear. Within minutes, that blissful shivering sensation grabbed hold of her.
In the heat of a July afternoon, Emily was returning from one of her furtive trips to the outhouse when she noticed William entering the barn alone. Her father and brothers were still out in the field.
Wiping her right hand on her dress, Emily blushed when she realized how often she imagined William while she was touching herself. After a quick glance around, she followed him to the old towering wooden structure and peeked inside.
William seemed to sense her presence immediately, for he turned to face her, and she stepped into the barn.
The shadows enveloped them both, and as she moved closer to him, she could feel the heat of the midday sun radiating from his skin. She smelled the earth and wind, and his fresh sweat, on his clothes. Standing so near him, Emily saw that his eyes were the color of the nearby river.
She pressed a hand against his arm and felt the muscles rippling beneath his shirt. "Can I bring you something to eat from the kitchen, William? I know you normally skip dinner, but maybe you'd like a ham biscuit."
He gave her a friendly smile, even as he stared down at her hand on his arm. "No thank you, Emily. Your mother's excellent cooking stays with me till the evening."
Emily's grin was playful. "Ma can't take all the credit for the cooking. I help her in the kitchen, you know."
Now his smile widened, and she saw a flash of white teeth, perfect in his head. "I do know. You'll make a good wife someday."
Emily gazed up at him, trying to understand the meaning behind his remark. "Have you ever been married, William?"
He let out a burst of laughter, and the sound surprised her. He was normally composed and serious, even as her father and brothers joked. "Never."
"Well," she said, trying to sound flirtatious, "I'm sure you'll make a good husband someday."
William's face darkened briefly. "I don't know about that, Emily. I think I'm meant to be alone."
She tried to hide her disappointment. Maybe William had some kind of shady past he didn't want to discuss. Maybe he was running from it.
Her hand fell from his arm, but to her surprise, he grabbed her fingers in his own. Emily looked up at him once more and saw the tenderness in his eyes.
Before she could stop herself, she stood on her tiptoes and pressed her free hand to his neck, guiding his head downward. He didn't resist, and when her lips met his, he released a small muffled moan.
The kiss deepened, and her hand moved to his cheek. William slowly withdrew from her and brought her fingers to his lips. "I can smell your sex on your fingers," he said with a grin.
Her heartbeat thumped in her ears, drowning out all other sound as William opened his mouth and licked her fingers. Her breath grew shallow while she watched him taste her. Sometimes, after Emily had pleasured herself, she sucked her wet fingers and enjoyed the taste of the tangy fluid on her tongue, but she never imagined someone else would want to do the same.
William suddenly dropped her hand. "You should go," he said. His voice was hoarse, as though he'd been shouting. "I need to get back to work."
She stared at him in confusion, afraid she was being rejected, but as he turned away, she caught sight of the bulge in his pants and struggled to hide her smile. She had pleased him, after all.
A week later, Emily was helping out in the kitchen, wiping the sweat from her brow, when her mother handed her a jar of preserves. "Take that to Mrs. Harrison," she said. "She's been under the weather, and those preserves are her favorite."
Emily nodded, grateful for any reason to escape the roasting kitchen with its hot stove. She headed outside, pausing just long enough to look around and see if she could spot William. And she did—he was a distant figure, toiling in the field beside her father and brothers. A smile appeared on her lips without warning.
Mrs. Harrison was a widow and one of their closest neighbors. Her oldest son and his wife now ran the small farm she'd begun with her husband decades ago. As Emily walked down the dirt road, the jar of preserves clutched tightly in her hand, she remembered that Mrs. Harrison had been a renowned seamstress in her younger days, and an idea began to shape itself in her mind.
Emily recalled her father's admonition against offering William any gifts, but after what she and William did together in the barn, Emily couldn't imagine why that senseless rule would still apply. William had shown that he was fond of her; wouldn't he appreciate a gift from her now, and take it as an indication that she was fond of him, too?
Mrs. Harrison was glad to see her; she appeared happy for the company as she sat in the front room while her daughter-in-law busied herself with household chores the older woman could no longer manage.
Emily answered politely as Mrs. Harrison inquired about her family and their health. When the woman asked about William, Emily was relieved that she wouldn't have to mention him first.
"Our farmhand has been so helpful," Emily said, and Mrs. Harrison smiled and nodded. "I'd like to thank him for all his hard work. His clothes are little more than rags, and I thought he would be pleased with a new shirt. I understand you haven't been feeling well, Mrs. Harrison, but do you still do any sewing? I'm afraid I don't have any money to pay you, but I'd be happy to help out with chores you might have around here."
Mrs. Harrison tilted her head, and Emily felt her cheeks grow warm as the woman studied her. "If you'll help Agnes with churning butter, I'll make a shirt for your farmhand," Mrs. Harrison said. "My fingers aren't as nimble as they used to be, but it will be a fine shirt. It will last. Do you know his size?"
Emily shook her head. "He's about the size of your son, but several inches taller, I think."
Agnes, Mrs. Harrison's daughter-in-law, was only too happy to accept the extra help. They arranged for Emily to arrive an hour before dawn each day, when the air was still cool. Emily could take care of churning the butter, and she would still be back home in plenty of time to begin the chores she was assigned there.
When Emily left Mrs. Harrison's house and returned home, she told her mother she planned to wake extra early for the next few weeks and help out at their neighbors' farm. Her mother gave her a curious look, but Emily only shrugged. "They're not lucky enough to have extra help like we do," she said.
Her mother patted her head. "You're a sweet girl, Emily."
Emily felt a twinge of guilt at her deception, but it dissipated when she imagined how pleased William would be with his new shirt.
For the next several weeks, Emily arrived at the Harrisons' farm early and set about churning butter, making sure she didn't do it too fast, since the summer had brought warmer temperatures. In the winter months, churning had to be done more quickly, and she often broke out in a sweat despite the cold. Now, in the pleasant morning air, she hummed a tune under her breath as she worked.
Mrs. Harrison was always eager to show Emily the progress she was making on William's shirt. It was a beautiful forest green color. "Do you think he'll be happy with it?" the old woman asked Emily.
"I think he'll love it," she replied with a grin.
When the shirt was finally finished, Emily could barely wait to present it to William. She wanted to do it in private, and so she kept an eye out for him when he was working in the field, hoping he'd venture to the barn on his own.
Late in the afternoon, he did just that, and Emily hurriedly followed him, the shirt held to her chest. William was sorting through a box of her father's tools, making a racket, and he didn't hear her approach at first.
Emily cleared her throat, and he whirled around. "Hello, Emily," he said when he saw her, and she stepped forward shyly.
"I have something for you," she said, and then held out the shirt to him. "You've been so good to us, William, and we appreciate all your hard work. I asked a neighbor to make this for you. I would have made it myself, but I'm not very talented at sewing..."
William looked from her to the shirt, and then back at her again. He took the garment from her and smiled, but Emily could see the sadness in his eyes. "All this time, you've apparently considered your family in my debt, Emily," he said. "Now that you've paid me, I won't return."
She reached out to him. "No, William, it's not a payment—it's a gift!"
It was as if he didn't hear her. He turned on his heel and left her standing there, and she watched in horror as he made his way to where her father was working in the field.