by Julie Behrens
The corn was overdue to come down. The ears hung heavy on their stalks, near bursting their husks with yellow-sweet chin-running juice, their gold-silk tassels turned brown. Soon, if I could get it done, that field would be stubble, like a man’s morning beard, and you could see all the way to the creek way far back and visible now only by the trees that marked it, to the road beyond the big house, and cows on either side. A big piece of land for a woman to manage alone. It was my first autumn on the farm since the rest of my family had died, and I was dangerously late in my work.
But I was glad the stalks had been left to grow high as I ran into the corn that night, the footsteps of large men in boots stomping after me like an oncoming train. I ran, because they had come to kill me, and the corn was the best refuge I had. My bare feet were hard as boots and quiet, and it was dark. The harvest moon was rising up above the fields like a gourd, and it made the fields look angry and dry. I ran blind, and the men behind me ran blind.
There were lights in the corn. Shining, bobbing orbs, like miniatures of the full moon. I hadn’t seen those ominous lights in years; Gram had warned me about them as a child. Never go near them, she said. Strange folk. Let them have their share. But I ran towards them; better the lights in the corn than the men with the clubs.
When I heard the dogs bay, I choked on the sobs that tried to close up my throat.
I fell hard, flat on my face, and came up with a mouthful of dirt and my head ringing. I needed to move, move! But my tears fell on the dirt and my feet and knees and hands and face bled in the dirt, and I couldn’t get up.
There were lights above me and before me. A strange face was lit by the lantern she held aloft, a jar of many fireflies; so many their glow was radiant. There were other faces and other lanterns behind her.
“Tell us what comes,” one of the faces said, in a voice like rustling dry grass.
“They’ve come to kill me,” I said, my voice sounding weak and wet by comparison. “My family died, early last spring. It was a family farm, now it’s just me. My land – my responsibility,” I amended, in case they considered it their land too. “They want to kill me so they can take it.”
“You grow the corn,” said the one nearest me. She knelt, and her face had a paper-like quality, like a wasp’s nest. Her hair fell forward over her shoulders, and I gasped, because it was corn silk, not hair at all but yellow corn silk and her eyes were like the turquoise stones in the mountains. There was a rough woven basket on her arm, full of ears of corn.
The others crowded around me, and I saw their beautiful faces, pumpkin-orange and eggplant-purple and bark-gray, and here and there, bits poked out of them, like a scarecrow – sticks or grass or vines. Their clothes were finely woven and strange, cloaks and rough dresses made of spun cottonwood fluff and bison down and raw flax.
She pulled me to my feet, and said, without looking at the others, “Protect the one who grows the corn, who allow us our share without greed.” The others moved off; their lanterns went dark, and their movement went silent. She led me away, and I heard screams cut short in the dark.
She took me to her home, a huge dome like a hollowed-out haystack, and I collapsed into her arms as soon as she drew shut the door, my rescuer, an unlooked for salvation. This hut didn’t exist on our land, but here it was. This woman didn’t exist in my world, but here she was. She held me and let me sob, a strange little wild thing she’d caught in the fields. When I kissed her, I expected her skin to be dry and brittle, but it wasn’t, it was soft and supple. I tangled my dark fingers into her corn silk hair and she gasped, delight and surprise in her eyes. I asked her, I begged her, stay with me, touch me, and chase away the terror with a different kind of gasping, heart-pounding exertion.
Her bed was soft, as was the rest of her skin, under her clothes. I wondered at the rustling sound her body made, like she was all straw inside, or corn husks. I asked her to show me how to please her, and she guided my hand, and I guided hers. Her fingers were long and slender and cool and smooth as they rubbed me, and entered me. She lay between my legs, and I spread them wide for her. I felt her expand inside me; fill me, moving like ivy tendrils to explore me. She brought me to climax, watching me intently, rolling and rubbing and pushing. She rode my hand until she clenched and cried out, and her body shivered from head to toe, a wave of pleasure like wind on grass. I fell asleep with the blood of my enemies soaking into my land, and the weight of a strange lover on me, skin to skin, no matter what kind of skin.
I woke in the morning in the corn field, bloody-kneed and sore in several ways and exhausted. I stumbled back to the house. The sheriff was there, and took my statement. It was true, what I said – I’d run from a group of men, ran into the corn, they’d followed me, they didn’t find me. Never mind that no one found those men. Just their footprints, leading into the corn, but not out of it.
No one else came to kill me, to send my land to auction, that year or the next. I learned to work the plow better, and get the corn in on time, more or less. I had a couple of fellows try to get at my land by a different angle, through my pants. I wasn’t having any of that either.
She planted something in me that day, something that’s still growing. Sometimes my fingers or toes look green – not sick, but a healthy, growing green. My hair’s begun to turn white, though I’m still young. Sometimes when I move I feel a hum and a rasp inside my body, like whatever’s working in there isn’t all muscle and bone and blood, but maybe some vines and roots and branches too. I thrill at each new hint that I’m changing.
And every year, when I see the lights in the corn, I run out to her, and we’re together a little while under the harvest moon, waiting for the day I won’t be just a visitor, but I will belong, truly, and we will go home together.