[Happy Hallowe’en everyone! Here’s a story for you — enjoy! Some of you who’ve known me for a long time might recognize the origins for this one…]
The joke rose. It bubbled up from the dark heart of the earth. It gathered cruelty as it climbed to the surface, drawn by a land blood-soaked in caprice and malice. It reached the surface and expanded. The joke leaped into the air, then fell back to earth, drenching the soil, spreading contagion, setting up the punchline. When it was done, there was the metallic click of an opening switchblade.
Ed Hargitay didn’t hear the click. He didn’t need to be told about the land, though. He didn’t need to be told about its hostility, perversity and treachery. He knew all about those things. He felt them every day. He felt them in the lightness of his wallet. He felt them in his banker’s gaze. He felt them in his clenched-gut insomniac nights. He felt them in the labor that tenderized his muscles and ground his bones.
Yet still Ed hoped. He lived by the farmer’s credo: There’s always next year. Ed hoped for the best when the eternal pervasiveness of the worst seemed an edict from God. He was eager to believe a happy lie. Egged on by the joke, the land had been telling him a lie all summer, a lie bright and shining. And so Ed Hargitay drove into Regent a happy man.
Regent, Saskatchewan, was a town that showed what happened when Nature decided that enough was enough and it was time for the people to go. The buildings and the citizens were fatigued, washed out, grey. And dry. Dry bungalows slumped, exhausted, on wide, dry lawns. Dry old men shuffled down the street with dry, limping steps. Dust hovered everywhere, laying claim to its domain.
Ed hit the post office and bank, then dropped in at the Regent Hotel for a beer before he headed home. No one stayed at the hotel now, but plenty came by to drink. The building flaked scales of white paint on the outside. A rusted Coca-Cola sign hung over a door that a strong wind could carry off. Inside, orange booths bracketed scarred Formica tables. There was nothing new here, nothing renovated, nothing restored. But the seats were solid enough to sit on, and the tables held drinks without rocking. That was enough.
Jake Reimer saw Ed come in and waved. Ed waved back and headed over to a seat at the counter beside Jake. The bar stool squeaked as he sat down.
“Drove by your place today,” Jake said. He took a sip from his beer. “By God, Ed, you must be living right.”
“If I am, I don’t know what I changed that was wrong.” But he grinned wider. “A Blue,” he told the bartender.
“That wheat, man.”
“I know. I know. It’s beautiful.”
“Tell me what you’re doing. I can’t even raise dust.”
Jake wasn’t alone. The land was crying vengeance this year, and seemed ready to shake the last of the family farms from its back. To those who had prayed for rain, the land had brought rain. Rain in torrents, rain in rivers, rain in a drowning deluge. Huge swatches of farmland were deep in water, mock rice paddies, wiped out for the year, perhaps longer. And to those who had prayed for sun, the land had brought sun. Sun as a dragon’s roar, scorching crops to desiccated stubble, and with the sun had come the wind, breaking the soil and sending it flying, turning it to grit in the nose, grit in the lungs, and brown in the sky. But there was a tiny strip of limbo, where the worst of the rain and the sun and the wind cancelled each other out. This year, Ed’s farm had found the right place and the right time.
“Guess it was just my turn,” said Ed.
“Finally,” Jake clapped him on the back.
No jealousy for Ed’s luck. No envy. Ed having good fortune in a year of darkness was really only par for the course. When others were doing well, he was the one who managed to find the double-whammy plagues of sun and rain. Ed had been the land’s designated kill for over a decade. He’d earned a fluke or two.
Ed joked a while longer with Jake. He finished his beer, kicked the bull around with a few other friends, got a few more pats on the back. The community mascot, the sign that the bad times could not last forever, Ed left the bar and drove home, mood kite-high, this close to giggling euphoria. When he reached his farm, he stopped his truck halfway to the house and got out. He walked into the wheat. He turned around slowly, taking in the golden ocean, feeling its balm. The wheat stood high and proud and perfect, a bright yellow glow even under the brown clouds and dirty air. He ran a hand over the wheat, closing his fingers gently around the ripe heads.
He felt a scalpel slice into his palm.
He jerked his hand away and stared at the cut. It was deep. He could see parted muscle. He pulled a rag out of his pocket and wrapped it tightly around his hand. The blood soaked through, drenching the cloth. He looked at the wheat. It nodded knowingly in a slight breeze.
Feeling weird, feeling buzzy, Ed walked back to the truck. He drove the rest of the way home, trying to concoct a theory of fluke that his gut would accept.
Janet came to kiss him when he stepped inside. “What happened to your hand?” she asked.
“Grabbed a nail.” Ed lied to deny, for himself, that anything unusual had just happened. But everything he did now was a lie. His smile when his eight-year-old son Kevin looked up from the Wii to say hi, the way he sat down to dinner, his every gesture of habit and normality, a lie, a lie, a lie.
In the days that followed, he kept up the lie. He bottled the anxiety of his cut palm, corked it, shoved it into his mind’s cellar. It stayed there. His palm healed. The summer continued to promise bounty. The land continued to smile.
And then this happened.
Ed began his harvest, the big, beautiful, stave-off-the-banker harvest. Things were good, things were wonderful. Weren’t they? Of course they were. So why, as he climbed into his harvester, was Ed so frightened he wanted to throw up? Why was there a scream balled up at the back of his throat?
Halfway through the day, the lie broke down. There was a grinding explosion of sound, the roaring clang of broken metal. Sunlight flashed off shrapnel. The harvester moaned to a halt. Ed’s scream almost left his throat. He turned off the engine. He sat for a moment with breath held and eyes staring at the hostile blue sky. Then he lowered his eyes to see the twisted, mangled, broken blades of the harvester.
Ed stared at the nonsensical wreckage, and felt the punchline closing in on him. There was nothing more important now than reaching his family and protecting them from the joke. He leaped from the harvester and ran back to the farmhouse. He was a safe distance from the wheat on either side. It stood straight and still. It was keeping a straight face.
Ed found Janet in the study. She was at the computer, balancing books. “Where’s Kevin?” Ed asked.
“Playing with the dog.”
Janet turned to look at him. She must have hard the fear in his voice.
“Out in the wheat. Can you go get him? It’s time to eat.”
“Yes.” Throat pain-dry, Ed looked out the study window at the swaying, sea-wave motion of the wheat.
The lie collapsed for good and all.
“There’s no wind,” said Ed.
The wheat heaved back and forth, convulsed with laughter at the joke.
“What?” Janet said, but Ed was running out of the house.
He stopped at the edge of field. He was terrified. He could feel the joke, a steel-jawed trap, poised, about to snap shut. He knew how his part was going to play out, and he wished that he had kissed Janet good-bye. He stared at the wheat. A single stalk stopped swaying. Its head parted down the middle, showing the glint of fishhook teeth. Then klak, the mouth snapped shut.
“Dad? Mum?” Kevin’s voice, rising in disbelief and fear.
“Kevin!” Ed yelled, and he plunged into the wheat, playing his part to the bitter end.
The wheat waited until he found Kevin and the dog. And then there was the klaklaklak of a million castanets, and Ed’s scream was ready at last, and the land delivered the punchline.
It was time to eat.
(c) 2014 by David Annandale