Corn Smut

By demons_dance_alone

//Source.

My dad was a farmer. I’m not.

He wasn’t even a very good farmer. All he could grow was corn. As far back as I can remember, we had green stretching away from the house as far as the eye could see. Dad was real protective of his only crop. He would whack our behinds for taking an unripe ear. I think it broke him when the corn started coming up with smut.

You ever see corn smut? It’s a fungus. Gets into the kernels, makes them all puffy and grey. Dad would drive himself crazy out there, hacking at the corn, coming in with his arms all sooty. We couldn’t tell him it was a lost cause. He went a little mad day by day, contemplating an ear puffed with grey nodes as big and dark as the mole on mom’s forearm.

The day he broke completely was the day he came over with a deadly calm. At the dinner table that night, you could’ve cut the tension with a knife.

Dad casually remarked that a third of the field had come over with smut. He was cooking. He never cooked.

Dad said that a good farmer has to be flexible. Has to change with the times. Hell, even old Dan’l Patton two farms away had started in on soybeans. It was all about changing the way you saw things.

We were silent as scarecrows around that dinner table. Dad brought up a steaming pan and said we would have to listen to the land, move with it, as he ladled out a plateful of steaming grey nuggets.

My mother knew better than to flinch away. She just sat still, looking at her plate. My brother was next. His mouth thinned into a line and his nostrils flared, I could tell he was nauseous. It was my turn. Dad gave me nearly twice as much, I was the oldest after all, he said with a wink, and then slopped the rest on his own plate.

Go ahead, dad said. None of us wanted to be the first. Go ahead, dad repeated, and it wasn’t an invitation this time.

Mom stirred her plate with the spoon, like it would transform into something appetizing. I stabbed one of mine with a fork. It burst like a grey zit.

We all gagged as the smell washed over us. We collectively ran to the bathroom, leaving dad at the table. He didn’t stomp or shout. The next day, there was nothing but those grey nuggets in the fridge. He had thrown out all the food.

Times were rough. Dad made us break our backs in the field every day, which was hard because we still weren’t eating. I once spat out a mouthful of ripe corn because it tasted off. None of the corn, ripe or green, tasted right anymore. Mom ate all the tomatoes off her plants, frying up the green ones and passing them to us in secret. We couldn’t afford to steal more than one egg a day, dad checked the pens personally.

The chickens started to die off. We found a bunch of grey nuggets in the feed bin.

Dad had hid the keys to the truck. It was fifteen miles to town in the hot August sun. So we stayed and waited for something to happen.

Something happened.

I heard a yell when I was back by the woodshed, secretly plucking a crow I downed with my old slingshot. Dad ran from the corn, blood on his shirt.

He had hit my brother with the sickle on accident. I said we had to get him to a hospital. Dad said he would take care of it. He grabbed some tools and went back into the corn. I was too chicken to follow.

Me and mom waited until dark. Dad bustled in, filthy and sweaty, smelling like cut-up mushrooms.

Mom asked him where her son was.

Dad said he’d taken care of it.

Mom asked him where her goddamn son was.

Dad said we had to give to the land if we wanted it to give back.

Mom pushed her chair back and screamed at him to tell her where her baby was.

Dad said he was where he belonged.

We’d been looking at this the wrong way, he said as he came around the dining room table toward us. We were making it more of a problem than it had to be. Dad said all we had to do was keep cutting the bad away as he turned that sickle around and hit her mole dead-center.

Mom screamed.

I screamed.

I punched dad in the face. He let go of the sickle. Mom yanked the blade from her arm and grabbed me with her good hand. We ran out the back door.

Fifteen miles to town. We didn’t have a prayer. We ran into the corn to lose him.

After we ran for a while, we stopped because we didn’t hear him behind us. I put on my little penlight. Mom’s forearm was streaming blood. I gave her my shirt to wrap around it. We started walking again.

There is no direction in corn. It’s not like an orchard. No matter how neatly you plant the rows, it grows however it wants.

In the dark, I bumped into a tree. It moaned.

I turned the light to it and came face-to-face with my brother. To this day I can’t tell if it was something trained to grow into his injured body, or just a plant imitation of the real thing. Either way, I couldn’t let it go on like that. There was a shovel nearby. I gave it what mercy I had left.

Mom had lost a lot of blood. She was dizzy. I held her. It was all I could do.

Dad called for us. We moved deeper into the corn. We heard him rustle through the stalks, heard the clink of that damned scythe. We had a lot to apologize for, he said. He wouldn’t be so forgiving for long.

We held our breaths until we heard him leave. We must have slept there, in the corn, in the cold.

I woke up at dawn. My mom didn’t.

I left her where she was, promising I would take her out of that place when I could and give her a real burial someplace nice, someplace you couldn’t even see the corn.

The corn felt like it was trying grab me back. I had cuts all over my arms and face from the sawtooth edges of the leaves. I didn’t care. I couldn’t feel much of anything anymore.

Dad was in the dining room when I found him, tucking into a grey feast. He made a loud smacking noise as he ate. Grey gravy ran down his chin. I kicked the chair out from beneath him.

Dad came up with the sickle. I hit his shoulder so he dropped it. I kicked his knee so he fell again. Dad used his good leg to scoot away from me.

He was my dad, he said.

The only family I had left.

I wouldn’t kill him, would I? Would I?

My father was a farmer. I’m not.

Nothing I planted ever came up again.

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