During this time the weather changed and the voice on the radio brought uneasy news about barricades, policemen, and tear gas in the city.
Ansel Adams, "Corn Field, Indian Farm near Tuba City, in Rain, 1941"
I harvest corn on my plot. The next plot over is Larry’s. On the other side, past the razor wire and weeds, Guillermo feeds his goat. Quickly I move through the stalks with a bucket while Red sniffs the furrows. Signs are posted at the fence lines: Restricted. No Trespassing. Area Patrolled.
I glance to the left and Larry waves, his long, gangly arm covered in mud. He lopes over and climbs through the fence where the razor wire’s been cut.
Larry acts neighborly, but it’s hard to tell. His goggles are slung around his skinny neck. “Hey,” he says. He wants to know what I’ve heard.
“I haven’t heard anything,” I say. “Were you expecting to hear something?”
“No,” Larry says. “But you never know.”
He wipes a muddy forearm across his face. The sun’s blood red. At a middle distance, an airplane sweeps low, tracing figure eights over Guillermo’s farm.
From planting to harvest is eighty-five days. To get a continuous crop, I stagger seeding three weeks apart. I mix nitrogen with partially rotted compost for fertilizer and sift it through my fingers. With a paring, knife I cut weeds.
“We could use some rain,” he says.
I know Larry is married. He and his wife are trying to have a baby, but I’ve never seen his wife.
“I’ve got a story for you,” says Larry.
“I’m not in the mood right now,” I say.
Larry puts his goggles on, fitting them carefully over his eyes.
“Fine,” he says. “See ya.”
From planting to harvest is eighty-five days. To get a continuous crop, I stagger seeding three weeks apart. I mix nitrogen with partially rotted compost for fertilizer and sift it through my fingers. With a paring knife I cut weeds. I test the silk tassels poking through the leaves. If they’re brown, I break off an ear with a snap.
When I have two pecks I take them to the house, stopping at the garrafón to drink. The water gleams and splashes in the cup. I appreciate how perfect it is, how pure. I give Red water too, and he lies beside me, lapping. In the dirt around him there’s a ring of rust-colored hair.
Sometimes, at the periphery, I see Guillermo, followed by his goat and two chickens. I’ve caught his chickens nibbling my corn before, and shooed them away with a rake.
Guillermo speaks only Spanish so I try to converse with the little I know.
“Hola,” I say.
We both look at the ratty dirt road.
“Has oído algo?” I ask.
“No,” Guillermo says. “Esperabas escuchar algo?”
“No,” I say.
Guillermo is a stout man, bald, with a weave of beard across his jaw. The creases in his face are limned with dirt and sweat. His scraped, swollen hands rub his ribs.
“Estoy enfermo,” Guillermo tells me. “Tengo problemas con mi estómago.”
I ask if he’s seen the doctor. He says he can’t afford it.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” I say, my middle and ring finger slow. I know she and Guillermo must need food,
Half-hidden in the corn stalks, I see Guillermo’s daughter Gwen, who is deaf. Hearing loss is not unusual now. In the year before she died, my wife went slowly deaf. I learned basic sign language so I’d know when she wanted to eat, take a bath, or drink water. Sometimes, now, I sign with Gwen, but it’s a struggle to shape my fingers. They get tangled when I speak.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” I say, my middle and ring finger slow. I know she and Guillermo must need food, water, seeds.
Gwen is eleven, with a frail beauty like a paper lantern. Colorless lips, eyes gray and distant.
“What difference would that possibly make?” she signs.
The land here is flat. Once, in good weather, it reached far as the eye could see: blocks of dull bunch grass against dirt grids and green stalks. Now, through the haze, hills rise toward a slate-colored sky. The sun is big, and looks like a hole cut in air. The voice on the radio says the weather’s unsteady, but not to worry.
Not long ago my wife and I lived in this house and were happy. Before she got ill we’d planned to have a baby, raise a family. We made one list of girl names and another of boys’. Enid, Grace, Zora, Enoch, Nick. We talked about building a crib out of wood. There were more neighbors then. We traded freely and for dinner had roots, red vegetables, and occasionally a piece of meat. Later there were fewer plots, and those that remained were reduced. Fences appeared, crowned with razor wire.
Since my wife died, I’ve eaten mostly corn. In the mornings now it’s corn with pepper, for lunch corn with salt. Evenings I cut corn from the cob into a wax cup, mix in sugar, and spoon it to my mouth. It’s high in vitamins and fiber, but poor in protein, so sometimes in the field Red and I eat bugs. Grasshoppers, we’ve found, are quite tasty.
It’s been at least a year since her death. The time of year, the season, is difficult to determine. A year ago it was very warm, and the last six months have been warmer still.
A fine layer of Red’s hair is everywhere: the floor, chairs, and bedspread. He lies beside me, gnawing a cob. When he’s finished, he sprawls, panting.
Larry’s limbs are dangerously skinny, his joints knobbly and odd. In the plastic lenses of his goggles, his eyes are enlarged.
The water trucks come every other day, and so do the airplanes, flying in low to leave behind a swath of white clouds. Guillermo says there are chemicals in those clouds. He says they’re spraying something on us.
I turn on the radio. The voice says that people in cities might have to stand in line for water. We’re advised to ration, to share with neighbors if needed. Times are tough, says the voice, but with hope all things are possible.
There’s a knock, and I open the door to find Larry holding a rake. Larry’s limbs are dangerously skinny, his joints knobbly and odd. In the plastic lenses of his goggles, his eyes are enlarged. He says his wife’s not well; he wants a clean towel. I have one in the hall. Larry says there were complications with the pregnancy, and when I ask if there’s anything I can do he shakes his head.
Have I heard anything? he wants to know.
“On the radio this morning there were promises of protection,” I say, “but no official measures were proposed.”
We’ve heard these promises before, and we’re skeptical. Even so, they give comfort.
“There’s a security hotline,” I say. I write the number on a piece of paper and tell Larry to call if he sees anything unusual. He squints at me.
“You okay?” he says. “You don’t look so good.”
“I’m tired,” I say.
Larry hoists his rake over his shoulder and lopes away.
I appreciate Larry’s concern, but I’m suspicious. I know he wants my plot. Guillermo does too. They act friendly, but it occurs to me that, if given the opportunity, they would stab me to death in my sleep.
In the days before she was deaf, my wife sang a song she’d learned as a girl, a song her mother taught her. It was about a wolf with green eyes that watched people. Whomever the wolf followed was protected. Anyone who saw the wolf felt calm. I loved this song, and every night as we washed dishes I asked my wife to sing it. The melody was simple and flitted around a minor key. When my wife went deaf, she stopped singing and speaking. Then her skin turned yellow and she died. During this time the weather changed and the voice on the radio brought uneasy news about barricades, policemen, and tear gas in the city.
I wake up thirsty in the morning. The sun’s already out, burning like a torch. I dress and move into the field with my goggles, anticipating the spigot and a long, clean drink. When I get there and kneel in the mud, the water tastes like a gift. Red drinks greedily from his plastic bowl beside me.
I look up to see Guillermo watching from his plot. He has his goat on a leash.
“Oye,” he yells.
Approaching, he asks, “Está buena el agua?” His voice has something veiled, waiting.
“Sí,” I say.
Guillermo has his own garrafón I’ve seen them on his plot. Of course, he and Gwen drink more than I do by myself, and his goat and chickens might drink more than Red.
“Quieres beber?” I ask him. I have a canteen I could fill. The voice on the radio instructs us to be neighborly despite the circumstances: there is hope in community, says the voice, the fact that we’re in this together. On occasion Guillermo brings me a fresh egg or two, but only on occasion.
“Have you heard anything?” I ask.
Guillermo tells me he doesn’t want a drink. He says he just had one, and that his water is better than mine. He chuckles when he says this, so I’ll know he’s kidding.
“Quieres que te cuente una historia?” Guillermo asks.
“No en este momento,” I tell him.
Guillermo shrugs, turns, and walks away, pulling his goat behind.
Today Gwen’s wearing a white dress soiled with dirt. A dull wind lifts the hem. When she sits cross-legged beside me, my fingers struggle to sign a sentence.
“Have you heard anything?” I ask.
“Good one,” she signs.
I took the picture with a Polaroid camera I’d borrowed from a neighbor, an antique thing with a half-rusted shutter, worn buttons, and a strip of black tape covering the lens. “How about this?” my wife signed, and posed, legs crossed, looking over her shoulder with a goofy half-smile. I lifted the tape and clicked. Her green pajamas, a size too big, hung off her shoulder and Red, who’d just run in from outside, got in the frame, his tongue hanging out. He’d been drinking water, and his beard was wet. My wife and I looked at the picture and laughed.
“It’s a keeper,” she signed.
Tonight, after eating, I clear away the corn and set to grinding cobs. Dried, broken, and ground, they make a crude, somewhat effective fuel for cooking. Then I lie near the radio, my ear against its speaker, my body flat to the floor. Near me, Red’s ribs rise and fall. The radio plays advertisements for water delivery and national songs, and the voice makes an announcement, saying that while we’re encouraged to remain hopeful and supportive, we’re not to use certain words when talking to our neighbors. The voice asks us, for example, not to use words that refer to the state. The word “National” should not be used as an adjective, the voice says.
It’s been raining heavily for days. At first, I was happy—the crops were in need—but the downpour won’t stop. The few remaining trees are being brutalized.
My wife appears every night in my dreams. In a thistle patch, for instance, dress flicking in the wind, her long hair lifted. Or she squats in the dust, singing the song about the wolf. On her knees I see mosquito bites. I sign to her from the stove, but her eyes won’t focus. Sometimes she shivers near the grave at the edge of my plot, a place I will never go again.
It’s been raining heavily for days. At first, I was happy—the crops were in need—but the downpour won’t stop. The few remaining trees are being brutalized. Puddles cover the access roads, and at night searchlights crisscross the hills. There are thousands of mosquitoes on Larry’s plot, on Guillermo’s, and on mine. I hear them humming at the screens, trying to get in.
Because it’s permanent grassland here, the plots are sub-irrigated with weirs, canals, a pump station, and gates. The equipment once moisturized the roots, but it’s rusty now, unreliable. The drains don’t work. The fields flood in heavy rain.
At first, I tried draining the furrows with a bucket. I kicked at gullies with my boot, but the crops are ruined. Even if it stops raining now, the soil’s too damaged to take seeds, and even if it does the ears will come up shriveled and burst.
I wander the rows in the rain, plucking up drowned grasshoppers and popping them into my mouth. I try binding cornstalks for fuel, but they’re too wet to burn. I set out a barrel to collect rainwater, but the voice on the radio says the water’s too dangerous to drink.
While I wait out the rain, I find ways to keep myself occupied. For instance, I’ve started cataloguing sounds. On old government envelopes, I scribble down what I hear or have heard, what the sounds are like, and what I feel when I hear them.
Larry’s voice sounds like an alarm with a dying battery. It starts forcefully but gets tinny, flat. It doesn’t carry. He came over yesterday to tell me he’d seen something unusual and had called the security hotline, but he wouldn’t tell me what he saw. His voice was flat, like he was reciting lines from a book.
Guillermo’s voice is more like the grinding of a gear, low, like something stuck. When he asks, “Has oído algo” in that stuck voice, it’s painful to the ear, and when I say, “No, I haven’t heard anything,” Guillermo grunts, and his eyes dart side to side, as though he can’t understand me, and this makes him angry.
The high-pitched whine of the mosquitoes sounds like the whistling of a kettle. The rain sounds like the pounding of a drum.
The rain has not let up. There’s standing water on the roads. The water trucks can’t get through. Two inches above my ankle a mosquito bite looks infected: red dots radiate from
a purple welt.
In memory, I hear the music of my wife’s voice, how it soothed or spiked when she was pleased, how it carried at night when she sang, putting plates away. Later, when her hearing disappeared, she stopped speaking, but she still made sounds: grunts to get my attention, a surprised hum when Red licked her face.
I haven’t heard Red’s bark, a high, chewed-off yelp, in weeks. For a while he managed a half-growl, but soon even this effort exhausted him.
The voice on the radio, which reminds me to be grateful, is the only reliable sound left besides crickets, wind, and now and then a plane passing quietly in the hills.
The rain has not let up. There’s standing water on the roads. The water trucks can’t get through. Two inches above my ankle a mosquito bite looks infected: red dots radiate from a purple welt.
There’s a knock at my door. It’s Guillermo. Gwen is with him, her little hand in his. They’re soaked to the bone and Gwen has a web of matted gauze around her head. Guillermo says a swarm of mosquitoes attacked her face, and it’s covered with dozens of suppurating bites.
“Tienes medicina?” Guillermo asks me, his voice grinding.
No doubt he’s looking for ointment and clean bandages. I tell him no.
I hear sounds: scratching and half squawks. I move the curtain and search my crops with a flashlight. In the shadows I see one of Guillermo’s chickens pecking at my ruined corn.
Through a slit in the gauze, Gwen’s gray eyes assess me. I should be neighborly and invite them in, but I’m frightened.
There’s a pause, and Guillermo asks if I’ve heard anything.
I tell him no and shut the door.
My own cough is wet and percussive. I should see a doctor, but the print on the new health bill is too fine to read. The voice on the radio explained that this was for our own protection.
I go to the garrafón and fill my water cup, which is chewed at the rim. I trek back to the house through the mud. I think about the water, how lucky I am to have it, how cool it will be, how sweet. Outside, the sun’s going down, and I listen as rain beats the roof of my house. Red’s beside me in the kitchen, breathing heavily. He’s practically bald on both sides.
I put the lamp on the table and practice sign language. My hand shadows look like flowers curling and refolding. I practice phrases. In the phrase “Are you okay?” the fingers must move quickly. In “I miss you,” the word “miss” is made by pointing at my face.
In the middle of the night, amid the patter of rain, I hear sounds: scratching and half squawks. I move the curtain and search my crops with a flashlight. In the shadows I see one of Guillermo’s chickens pecking at my ruined corn. Isolated in a beam of light, his furtive movements look comical: the repeated motion of his stupid beak, the flash of his black, beady eye.
I spray myself head to foot with mosquito repellent and walk into the field. I creep barefoot through the mud. The chicken has pulled an ear of corn up by its silk and is pecking at its kernels, so absorbed he doesn’t notice my approach. Desperately I try not to cough. I don’t want to startle him. I seize the chicken’s neck and wring it. The sound is dry and strangely delicate, like twigs snapping.
In the kitchen, I yank out feathers. They make small popping sounds. I stuff the whole bird in the oven, crossing the chicken’s stippled yellow legs so they’ll fit. Soon, the smell of roast meat rises like a spell. Red comes in, tongue out, whining.
The meat is stringy and tasteless but I tear into the flesh. I eat so the grease smears my face. When I’ve finished half and wrapped the rest for later, I give the meat-strewn carcass to Red, who chases it around the kitchen with an energy I haven’t seen in months. I know the bones are dangerous, but I want to make him happy. After, I collapse in bed in a deep, dreamless sleep.
I wake up with my stomach cramping, ravenous with thirst. The smell of roast chicken still hangs in the house. When I remember what I’ve done, I’m afraid. I know it won’t go well with Guillermo. He’ll crawl through my crops or chop down my door with an axe. Gwen’s gray eyes will stare me down, her face bright scarlet with bites. Word will spread, and Larry will turn on me, too. Someone will call the hotline. I’ll be named by the voice on the radio as someone to watch.
I need to do something neighborly. If Larry hasn’t heard yet, I might divert the damage. With the last of the flour I bake a corn pie. When it’s done, I run across my plot in the rain, holding the pie aloft. No lights are on at Larry’s. I knock, but no one answers. I look up. No planes.
Back at my house, it’s intensely still. On the radio, the voice is humming a national song. Chicken bones and flour cover the floor. Things made more sense once, I’m sure of it. On the table, in my cup, some water remains. I lift it to my mouth and see the reflection of my face, which is thin and reminds me of times when I was face to face with others.
I start to get a fresh cup from the garrafón and notice halfway there that Red’s not with me. I loop back and see him sprawled on the porch, but he doesn’t lift his head when I call. I go to him, lift his ear, and whisper, “Here, boy.”
Red’s lost a lot of weight in recent months, but he’s still heavy. Lugging him on my shoulder to the far edge of the plot hurts. What’s left of his hair comes off in my hands. I plunk Red on the mud near my wife’s grave and go back for the shovel. It takes two hours to dig the hole, bury him, and fill the hole back in. My muscles aren’t what they were. Not once do I cry, and for this I am grateful.
As I’m patting down the last shovelfuls of dirt, Gwen appears. Her hair is plastered to her skull, and she’s wearing clothes that look like they’re made from old upholstery. Scabs cover her face. She sits down cross-legged in the mud, and I squat nearby. She signs with difficulty now, slowly.
I understand already that my death will be quiet, that no one will know. I try to be grateful, but I can’t. Instead, I put it out of my mind.
“I’m sorry about Red,” she says.
“It was just a matter of time,” I say.
“I suppose,” she says. “Was he your dog for long?”
“Yes,” I tell her. “I think so.”
My hands are covered with mud. We sit quietly for a minute in the rain. The up-turned dirt around the grave is thickening into a paste.
Gwen says, “I saw you take one of our chickens.”
“He was on my land,” I tell her.
I’m speaking slowly.
“If you say so,” Gwen says.
“He was,” I say. I make the sign for “not guilty.”
“My father’s furious. He says he’s going to kill you.”
I don’t know what to sign to this. I understand already that my death will be quiet, that no one will know. I try to be grateful, but I can’t. Instead, I put it out of my mind.
“You want to hear a story?” Gwen asks.
The drizzle’s more like a heavy mist now. A wash of broken stalks and grassland blurs against the eye.
“Sure,” I say.
She begins. Her fingers move faster.
“Once there was a woman,” she says, “She was tall and arrived at night on long legs. She had hips and stormy hair. Wind lifted her dress. She favored those who worked in the fields and scooped them up during storms and other disasters, keeping them safe. When the children of farmers were sick, she healed them. News of this woman traveled through the country, but the police didn’t like it. They arrived with bullhorns. They yelled and shot arrows, which the woman snapped in her fists. The police threw rocks, which she caught and ground to dust in her teeth. Police swarmed her legs and poked needles in her feet, filling her with tranquilizers, so that the woman fell in the fields and her long hair spread out across the crops. They put her on a platform, and the woman’s legs hung off the edge. Without ceremony, the executioner chopped off her head. The End.”
On the other side of the barbed wire, Guillermo’s goat is staring at us. His jaw moves mechanically, chewing nothing.
Gwen sits back quietly. The mist settled on her face and neck looks like sweat. Gwen’s hands had moved fluently as she told the story, not once missing a beat, as though she’d told it many times. I’m amazed she can sign so well.
“That story was terrible,” I sign. “I didn’t like it at all. What happened to the farmers? The children?”
On the other side of the barbed wire, Guillermo’s goat is staring at us. His jaw moves mechanically, chewing nothing.
A new garrafón has finally been delivered. I lug it through the mud, but when I hook it to the spigot and drink, something’s not right. The water burns my mouth.
I go back to the house. The voice on the radio says we can’t go on living like this. The time is now. We must draw on the last of our strength. There are other announcements too, but it’s difficult to listen.
The mosquito repellent is spent. I imagine Larry tunneling beneath the earth with a shovel, asking questions in his hard-to-hear voice. I imagine Guillermo coming through the fields with an axe, the words “Has oído algo” ground in his mouth.
In a brown paper bag by the door, a few fresh ears are left. I pick up the bag and start to shuck, looking, as I do, at the photo of my wife in her over-sized pajamas. My missing fills the house and moves out through the air. Even now I hear her voice around me. Its melody is carried on the air like a howl. “You’ve lived too long,” she seems to say.
Anthony Tognazzini has new work appearing in Crazyhorse, Forklift, Ohio, and TriQuarterly. His fiction collection, I Carry A Hammer in My Pocket for Occasions Such As These, is available from BOA Editions. He lives in Brooklyn.