This story was shortlisted for the Sean O'Faolain Prize at the Cork International Short Story Festival
She sat on the top step of the porch and looked out over her father’s fields and thought, this was just how corn ought to be.
It began not far from the bottom step; a wall of plants that ran in hundreds of rows, lines of vivid green, straighter than any man’s hand could sew. Each stalk and leaf, each fibrous cob capsule was perfectly identical in colour and shape and size, she saw with pride; clones of themselves like the same letter typed over and over from a keyboard. The plants nearest her looked almost mature, having been printed that morning, but it would be months, she knew, before the golden kernels developed their juicy sweetness. She shuffled over to line herself up with the middle of one row and squinted down the center until the leaves and stalks mingled and merged into one green blur on a far off horizon, and she nodded happily at the day’s progress. She breathed in the static scentless air. All was still in front of her, every plant perfectly motionless under the permanently colorless heavens.
She stood and raised herself up on her clean, bare tiptoes and looked over the top of the fields. She saw the edge of the corn and watched the impressive sleek machines, made miniatures by distance, gliding back and forth, printing more perfect rows of plants that aged almost instantly. She was delighted at their faultless movements for she had helped with the coding this season.
One day, she thought, she would like to inherit the farm. The farm with its great expanses of circuited surfaces that lit up the heavens with a luminescent green when the plastic domed sky faded to dark at night, the farm and its fast machines that made things to eat out of nothing but electricity and orders, the farm’s marvelous metal shed with all the endlessly fascinating screens and knobs and buttons. She thought of all the wonderful things, aside from corn, that she could create in the fields herself if she could get the permits. But she was only 10 and a half this season so for now she just stood watching the fields, a contented expression upon a face of pale freckles.
She felt the electrical charge disappear from the air and the corn was gone, leaving only bare acres of glowing green and black circuit boards stretching over the land. Cold panic filled her petite frame. Then, a microsecond later, CRACK, like an electric whip, and the plants reappeared. She blinked then spun around towards the farmhouse.
“Pa!” she called, legs bent, hands cupped around cherry red lips. “Pa! The corn’s flickerin’!”
She waited. Nothing. She stamped one foot.
The great glass-like panels that made up the farmhouse faded from dark grey to clear in front of her revealing the entire living room, a mixture of metal surfaces and electronic screens. One panel slid to the side and her father stepped onto the porch. He wore a quiet and kind face, a smart shirt and a denim jacket that held a small remote in its pocket. He knelt to talk to her.
“Pa,” she said again, quiet and impatient. “It’s flickering!”
“Now calm down darlin’,” her father placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. His hands were soft and clean. “Just now? What happened?”
“Yes just now just this second,” she replied, eyes wide and earnest. “Well, I was just watching the printin’ and all of a sudden ZAP! the corn was gone and now it’s back ag —”
“Good girl,” he said. He kissed her soft forehead and rose to his feet while the farmhouse reverted to grey behind him.
Shiny boots tapped on plastic porch stairs.
“I’m coming with you!” she yelled, bare feet bounding after.
She followed her father’s long strides, swift but composed, around the side of the farmhouse and down the path towards the shed. On either side of them, between the path and the corn, lay great printing and picking and sorting machines, square-shaped and smooth-skinned computers made of plastic and wires, illuminated ‘on’ buttons like all-seeing eyes, cooling fans that purred as they breathed. She slowed to run a hand along one’s clean and reflective belly and it acknowledged her with a soft glow. CRACK. An electric pulse in the air. Beyond the machines, the corn flickered again.
She reached the shed, a looming structure of thick metal, just as her father heaved the door open to reveal a cosmos of blinking lights. As they entered, the room grew brighter around them illuminating the shed’s many screen and control panels that lined the walls like an electronic patchwork quilt. The air hummed and vibrated. She thought that being inside the shed felt like being swallowed by a great computer and ending up in his button-filled belly.
“Pa look!” she squealed, half-excited half-alarmed, and his gaze followed her finger to a flashing red lightening bolt symbol on a panel on the far side of the room.
“More electricity,” he mumbled, not instruction but narration, and he took off towards the red light at a quickened pace, shoes rapping against the metal floor.
“More electricity!” she called, skipping frantically after him.
CRACK, came the sound from outside and the light in the shed wavered.
Her father pulled out the small remote from his demin jacket pocket and plugged it into a glowing slot in the control panel. He began moving his finger in patterns over its smooth, shiny surface like a blind man reading brail. Above him, the words amps and volts and watts appeared in green on a black screen next to numbers with many digits that now began increasing and growing brighter as they did so. As the numbers climbed the hum in the room grew louder and louder, like an airplane taking flight, until she almost had to jam her fingers in her ears to block out the vibrating air but then slowly, slowly, the red symbol faded to white and the noise lessened and her father’s body relaxed.
They listened. Outside, the corn was quiet.
“Hmmm,” he said to himself, brow furrowed in the screen’s green light. “I thought we had enough this season. I’m sure we were under the new quota.”
“What’s the matter pa?” she asked, dark hair stuck to sweaty pink cheeks. “Will we be in trouble?” He looked down, almost surprised to see her standing next to him, and his brow smoothed.
“Hm? Oh no, darlin’. We’ll just hafta use less during pickin’. Or we might hafta borrow some from next year’s allocation, that’s all. We’re fine though. Just fine.” He knelt down beside her again, hand returning to her shoulder.
“Say,” he said. His eyes were a dark hesitation but he continued. “Say… Can you do me a favor, darlin’? I need to stay here and watch this screen for a while. Can you run and see if the machines printed any bad corn on the edge of the field? If there’s a bug don’t go near it. Just run back and I’ll shut it down. We just… we can’t afford another plague.”
A memory of last season’s fields of black and rotting corn came to her, corn that had matured too fast for them to pick, an electronic bug in the system, her father’s face an ashen ghost as he wandered through the ruined crops.
“Sure pa,” she said, spun, and set off at a run back across the shed and out the open door.
“Don’t get too close!” he called after her. “And be careful of the fresh stalks!”
She turned right and pelted towards the silent wall of stalks and straight into the first row she came to. She loved to run through the newly printed corn. She loved to run anywhere because of the curious way the eternally still air came to life with cool resistance as she raced through it, rushing past her face and making her eyes water and causing her dress to billow and puff around her skinny knees. But she particularly loved to run through the newly printed corn because of the electricity, a sort of leftover static that clung to the plants like super charged aphids.
She ran with her hands outstretched and brushing the thick droopy leaves thwack thwack thwack bare feet smacking against the glass above a maze of circuit boards slap slap slap. Her damp hair began to rise and hover, strand by strand, around her pink cheeks, electrically charged atoms tickling her soft skin and making her lips tingle. Her mother would be mad at all the knots in her hair, she thought. She ran through neither sun nor shadow for all around her, the day was flat and colourless; the tall rows of corn cast no shadows in the even light of the sky.
She tore excitedly down the quiet corridor and after a few minutes the glass began to feel warmer beneath her feet. Here, the stalks were much smaller; freshly printed corn that crackled and hummed and shot small sparks from the stalks to the leaves. She slowed to a jog and drew her hands away from the plants. Her hair stood on end. To her left, 50 yards down, she saw the machines. Smooth skins, square-shaped on metal stilts with clear glass tubes the width of the young corn protruding from their underbellies. They still slid effortlessly along the glass ground, printing perfect young plants one by one, particle by particle, conjuring the colour and texture and taste into solid existence. She scanned the nearby shoots, just printed. They stood in perfect mimicry of each other. No bad corn, no plague, she thought with relief.
She was about to start back to tell her father the good news when she hesitated and began instead to walk towards the machines for a closer look, for it was rare for her to be this near to a working printer without her father. She wanted to see the corn being created, to see the birth of another living thing. It seemed just magical to her, to give life. But as she walked, something nearby caused her to freeze.
She spun around slowly. There’s a space in the corn, she thought. It was almost as if she had sensed it: just a few stalks missing among the thousands, five rows back and three to the right.
She retraced her steps and turned right and saw it. A small square of air, as wide as her outstretched arms each way, void of its allotted plant life. The farm’s pallid air filled the space. But there was something else as well. Below the air where the corn should be, in the glass floor that usually covered the circuit boards, a perfectly square hole had formed.
Aside from being a hole, she thought it looked to be perfectly harmless. No wires dangled loose — they were severed cleanly along the edges of the space — and the corn around it appeared unhurt. The bottom seemed to be some kind of dark metal.
She glanced around quickly calculated the distance of the machines from the hole, and the time it took her to get here, and decided it must have appeared during the flickering.
She came down to one knee on the smooth glass and peered into the space and she saw that the base of the hole was a rough brown flooring. She thought it looked to be made out of some sort of crumb, like the top of the apple pie her mother’s oven printed, but much darker and finer.
“What’s under the corn, pa?” she’d asked her father seasons ago, sitting on the porch after printing.
“The circuit boards, darlin’ you know that.”
“But what’s under that?”
He’d been chewing on his electric pipe. She remembered because she loved the whirring noise it made.
“Well, it’s called earth darlin’ and it’s pretty messy stuff,” he said. “It’s what we build on. It’s not much use for anything besides that.”
And she’d thought nothing more of it.
Now, trying not to think of what her father might say if he saw her doing something so foolish, she flattened herself against the glass floor and, heart hurrying, reached a small hand down into the hole and towards the peculiar earth. She half expected to be zapped by electricity or have her fingertips chewed by a submerged machine but instead her fingers just slid partway into the substance. Cool, coarse, dry.
She slid closer still, head and shoulders hanging over the hole, and plunged her other hand into the earth beside the first one. She wriggled them both, caressing the material and delighting in its gritty feel against her tender skin. She dug her hands down further still and the earth found its way under her fingernails.
A faint smell filled her nostrils, replacing the almost odorless machine-scented air surrounding the new corn. It was nothing like she’d ever smelled before, a complicated smell with many layers, a smell that seemed to somehow have its own history. It didn’t smell new, like the machines and the freshly printed corn, she thought, and it made her feel much older than her 10 years.
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply and was suddenly overcome by an intense and puzzling yearning, an impossible nostalgia, for something she never knew… a throbbing insect hum echoing across the evening acres, a threadbare scarecrow’s lopsided hat, the wet smell of dark and pregnant clouds in humid summer skies, dry wind blowing dust across the fields rustling leaves and waking wind chimes and making dogs howl. Instantly, her heart knew of the baking earth on her bare feet and the warm sun on her shoulders, the cool silken water of the babbling brook. It was within this earth and within her somehow, somewhere deep down; a father’s rough hands, a mother’s homemade treat, the dirty soles of her own feet.
She closed both her hands around the brown fragments and brought a pile of it up into the air, spread her finger and watched with frozen fascination as it tumbled from her grasp in a fine curtain and cascaded back into its home.
Earth, she thought.
Then, the hole began to buzz. The severed wires sparked brightly and she felt a sharp pain in her elbow. She dropped the earth, pulled her head out of the hole and shuffled backwards, hot light reflected in her misty eyes, and watched with panic and a sudden aching sorrow as the circuit boards began to knit themselves back together.
Slowly, the hole grew smaller and smaller until it was the width of a mature corn stalk then it closed over completely with a muffled electrical crack! leaving behind only a smooth floor of black and green circuit boards under cool glass. Many yards away, a printing machine turned towards her and began on its way to fill the space.
She sat on her knees, mouth hanging open, and looked down at her dirty hands. Her lip trembled. Then she brushed every crumb from her shaking fingertips and ran home in tears.