~3600 words, ~18 minutes reading time
Patty Sue has the prettiest dirt around her ankles. Smooth and rich brown, with proper root-green beneath the clumps of soil and up her legs, palest peach, the skin more plant than person. When they feed her, she swallows, obedient and meek. She doesn’t complain about the smell, even though my gorge rises whenever they water her and the rot-sweet funk wafts with clouds of gnats from where her feet are. Or were.
Not me. My dirt is uneven, disturbed. I can’t seem to hold still long enough for the moss to grow, for water to smooth clumps into something nicer to behold. I never can be what is needed. I gag on the thick gruel they feed us morning, noon, and night, more fat than grain. When they water me, the only smell is dirt and water. No gnats, and though I shouldn’t be, I’m grateful.
Missus Jenny knows I’ve been moving. “Girl, you need to stick your feet deep in the earth where they belong,” she snaps. “You’re never gonna grow the way we need this way.” Our feet for the dirt, the misters and missuses say. Our feet to grow and transform us into a harvest, so we’re not their daughters, sons, grandchildren, family.
I know she’s right, but I just can’t hold still. Every night when the stars come out, I get a restless tingle just above my knees, buried in my muscles. Move, it whispers. Run free. And I do. I slip my sore feet from holes made just for them and even though Patty Sue hisses at me that I oughta stay put, and even though the other planted look at me and look away in fear, I run away into the woods.
When the moon is harvesting full, I ask Patty Sue to come with me. “There’s moths that glow like ghosts,” I tell her. “There’s an old pine tree that howls in the wind, and there’s a crick that sparkles with starlight, like the sky curled into itself and splashed into the forest moss. All that stuff about curses is just to scare us. Don’t you wanna see something other than this ruddy old field? What if it’s you tomorrow?” We’re among the ripest. It could be either of us.
But she shakes her head. “We’re supposed to stay put,” she says. “You’re gonna get in trouble.” She glances at the woods and a shiver bunches her shoulders. “Besides, what if it isn’t just to scare us?”
I know she’s right, like she’s always been right, but I go anyway. What could a curse do to me? And I’m not running away, I’m just running. I wouldn’t ever leave Patty Sue behind. A boy at the end of a row smiles shyly at me when I pass, but I don’t slow, don’t offer to bring him with me. He wants to run free, he can do it himself.
I dip my sore feet into that starry water and it sparkles on my skin, cold and prickling. I spread my fingers out in the moonlight, picking at the black threads sprouting from my nail beds. They sting like a nail cut to the quick when I yank them free.
Beneath my nails the skin is turning black, and I wonder if it’s the transformation, but that can’t be because that’s supposed to start with feet. I chase moths until sweat drips through my snarled hair and my thighs ache. The tree sings into the night, dueting with the wind.
And then just before dawn, I slip back into my foot holes, oh so careful, trying to slide in so no one but Patty Sue and the others know what I’ve been about. But a toe bumps some earth, the edge of my foot disturbs the slop, and the dirt shifts. When they come down the rows just after sunrise, pinching and poking, Missus Jenny frowns at my ankles but it’s harvest day, so she doesn’t have time to scold.
The harvest is poor. The boy they picked doesn’t go quietly; too much meat left in him, and the essence is tainted. Smut, I hear muttered, smut and rot. Blackened fingertips wisping away to dirty dust, rotten insides unfit for preserving. Discarded hands are tossed, thwap, into the compost. I hide my own hands, black under the fingernails.
Missus Jenny shakes a finger at me. “It’s you, girl. Disturbing the field.”
The other missuses and misters narrow their eyes at me, wrinkles on their skin, shadows in their faces. They might not wait for another harvesting moon this time. I look down, ashamed, though I can’t see how my nighttime wanderings could possibly have harmed some boy three rows away. I didn’t even talk to him. There’s no way Missus Jenny or anybody else knows he smiled at me in the dark.
They decide it’s me, anyway.
“It’s for your own good, girl,” Missus Jenny assures me. “You don’t want to smut the harvest, do you?”
I don’t think I do. They need us, need proteins and fats they can’t get from weak potatoes, shriveled apples, beans that barely ripen. Again and again, we were told how important we were, how necessary to the survival of a people who claimed to be great, once. I want to be what is needed, just one time, but I’m not.
They bring switches made of river reeds, with sharp edges. They slap them against my legs, cutting-biting-slicing-stinging. Blood runs from flesh far too meaty to be what they need. Gnats gather around my ankles, nibbling away at me while they still can get their share. Patty Sue watches, eyes quiet, body still.
Once, they let me run, let me wander in the confines of the village walls. We ate better than any of the misters and missuses, rich brown bread and the freshest apples and fried potatoes and the best vegetables. They gave us steaks ribboned with fat seared to a glistening brown. They gave us livers, hearts, and kidneys rich with blood. They let us eat whenever we wanted, and they gave us sweets and rich drinks and cupped our cheeks and told us how precious we were.
After the bad harvest, I stay put for a few days. Patty Sue even smiles, sings in a voice that softened the dark when we were small. I always needed her more than she needed me. My legs twitch uncontrollably during the nights, spasming like lightning bolts run up and down my bones. So though I’m not running, the dirt is disturbed anyway. Missus Jenny switches me every dawn now, but they don’t set a watch, don’t dare get caught outside the walls of the village after dark. They believe their own lies about curses, I figure, because I never see anything cursed. Not outside the village.
“You’re a bad seed, girl. We should just throw you into compost and be done with it.”
But they don’t. Instead they leave me, ripening in the sunshine, legs rubbery and rot-sore, with all the other planted. My fingertips are blackened, tangled moss. A few nights later, I figure I’m getting switched anyway, might as well run, so I take off into the brambles. Patty Sue barely sighs. The movement pulls my scabs apart, but it’s better than holding still.
There’s a rustling in the brush behind me and for a moment I’m certain I’m done for, doomed for the compost, but it’s a girl, newly planted, her hair still braided from the ceremony and her legs still thick and tan from years of running free. Her feet are still rough and brown, her fingertips curved keratin.
I glare at her. “What you doing here?”
She glares back. “What about you?”
I shrug, and even though there’s no reason to answer her, I do. “My legs twitch. I gotta run. Don’t matter anyhow, they’ll harvest us just the same.” Might be that they harvest me later, though, cuz I’m gonna be tough and gristly, keep running the fat off. But I don’t tell her that.
She nods. “Feels good to run. Curses don’t bug you?”
I snort. “Curse? Only curse is inside those walls.”
But then I wonder, wonder about the smut, about the boy’s bad harvest and my running. What if the monster isn’t something big and scary, but little and mean? Little things can be mean–missuses and harvests, switches and gnats.
The reason they need to plant us, grow us, was little. A tiny thing that made all the things people used to eat sick, til they all died and the planted were all that was left.
But the girl is running and I run after her because I haven’t had someone to chase in ages and it feels good to not be alone in the woods. We run to the crick and instead of just dipping her toes, she jumps in, wetting herself up to her butt, washing the filth and the soil from her. She shivers and I can see little sparkles all over her skin, little bumps of cold.
“I haven’t been clean since the planting,” she sighs, scrubbing.
And then I’m in the water, too, ducking my head and gasping from the cold. A sound comes from her mouth, as sparkling as the water. It’s so bright it frightens me, and I gasp again, which seems to encourage her. It’s contagious, though, and soon I’m laughing too, and it hurts, oh it hurts, but we splash and laugh until the sun is almost on the horizon because I think neither of us wants to go back, replant ourselves, dry off, stop laughing. But we do, because they need us, and, besides, where else would we go? What are we if not the rooted foundation of our people?
The soil around my ankles is wet, little craters where droplets fell splat into the soil. Patty Sue refuses to look at me, won’t acknowledge my teasing that she’s just jealous I have clean hair. Before the planting, Patty Sue had the prettiest hair, long and golden and always brushed til it shined. Now, of course, it’s still long and golden, but it’s caked with dirt and tangled from the wind. She flushes. I realize she is jealous, and then I feel bad because she’s never been anything but good to me.
“You can come,” I start to say, but they’re here with their gruel and their poking and their switches.
Missus Jenny stops in front of me, her breath coming out from between her long teeth in a hiss. “What did you do, fool?”
As I hide my wispy fingers behind my back, I look past her, at the walls of the village where she cowers at night. I imagine I can hear the joyful, innocent, stupid laughter of the children not yet planted. “It rained.” The lie shivers from my lips, mean and obvious, but I don’t care. What else can they do to me?
After the switching, which is somehow more painful after the cold ice water in the crick bed, Missus Jenny moves on down the rows. She stops dead in front of the little girl, the new girl, who just wanted clean hair. Even though I am careful not to look that way, I can feel eyes on me, burning away the last of the wetness. I’m not sure if it’s the girl or the missus. A switching, I figure, just a few cuts and bruises. She’ll endure.
But instead, they harvest her, right then and there. She’s still raw, still blood and bone, but they pick her anyway. Bound for the compost, wasted, but she’ll grow no more. I almost ask them to pick me instead–I’m much riper, I’d be of use–but I can’t face it, can’t bring myself to do it. I remember what it was to not feel so alone in the dark and I am ashamed, but I still don’t move, and I keep my eyes down. I tell myself it’s because Patty Sue needs me and I focus on a gnat crawling up Patty Sue’s shin. I imagine the screams are from the tiny black body, skittering around the fibrous calf. I stare so hard I almost believe my own lies.
As soon as the gates of the village close, I’m off. I spare one glance for Patty Sue, but I can see she’s never moving again in the way she holds herself, and I vanish into the woods. I try for a splashing bath but it’s not the same alone, so I end up in the clearing beneath the old pine, staring up at the stars and listening to the wind sing. A ghostly moth flitters over and I lie to myself that it’s the girl, released and free to seek the horizon, unafraid. Where would I go if I had wings? Is there anywhere but here?
I think I’m imagining the noise in the brambles until two boys and a girl topple out, almost on top of one another. They aren’t young, not new planted. Their feet are rotten, foul things, with bone and pus glistening white in the moonlight, their toes rooty, tapering to stringy tails. Their legs don’t work right, but they stumble on, standing in a row in front of me.
“What do you want?” I say, even though I know. They want the stars, and to run, and they want to be clean, and they want all the things they dream about when the sun beats down on us and we wait to transform, to grow and be harvested. They want everything, nothing at all, and all that’s in between.
“They’re gonna take us all,” says one of the boys. His hair might have been black, once, before the dirt and the sun got into it and turned it gray. “Not like staying put is gonna change that.”
The girl nods. “Might as well move a little.” Her voice is low and mellow, like a dream.
“Besides,” says the last boy, his skin so sunburned it almost crackles when he talks. “You keep coming back. We figured you knew how to stop the curses.”
I almost laugh, but it hurts too much. I don’t know how to stop the curses. I’m not even sure if the curse is me, or the misters and missuses, or these three children being fattened up for slaughter. Four, I guess.
But I take them to the crick, and we wash each other’s backs with handfuls of moss, and we comb blackened fingertips through our hair. I don’t know if their fingertips were black when they came. I think they were.
The sunburned boy tells a story. I’d forgotten stories, or probably just didn’t think of them, and I hold my breath until it’s over so I can remember every word. Before dawn, now, we squeeze water from our hair and we rub dirt into our cheeks, shins, ankles, and we slip back into our holes. Better a few hours of pretending, we don’t have to say, than nothing at all. The missuses don’t seem to realize, and no one is harvested. I tell Patty Sue the story.
The next night there are two more in the woods and the night after that, another three. We laugh and tell stories, we hold hands and lay beneath the stars, listening to the wind and the moths, we rub dirt from our backs and dust into our cheeks. When we are together, there’s something whole in me where a hole used to be. I am needed and needful.
It’s another harvesting moon and we are more restless than ever. We cling to fingers with nails like overripe corn silk, scuff rotten bony feet into the dirt, avoid eye contact. What if it’s me, we don’t say. What if it’s you. When the sky turns from black to gray, the stars winking out one by one, the first three who came after me shake their heads.
“We should stay here,” says once-black-hair.
“Run further. Run away.” The girl holds out her hands to me.
“Come with us,” says the boy.
Fools. “To where? What will we eat? There’s nothing out there.”
“Food grows in the village,” she argues, stubborn. “It must grow elsewhere.”
But it won’t be enough, or they wouldn’t need us. I shake my head. “You’ll starve to death.” But they, who have never been hungry, cannot picture such a thing, and they slip away into the gathering shadows. Two more follow. I can’t leave, though, can’t leave Patty Sue alone because she didn’t leave me alone even when she could have, and what if I’m right, and there are no curses but nothing else either?
So I slip back into the holes, the sure things, and they cocoon my feet and Patty Sue shakes her head but seems to lean toward me a bit.
Missus Jenny stops in front of me, pulling my hands out and clucking her tongue. “Rot, through and through. Look at these things.” And she shakes my fingers in front of my eyes like they’re not my own hands, like I don’t feel them pulling apart into tiny, fleshy threads, as if somehow I missed the tips of my fingers trailing away into wisps. “Started with you. This smut will be hard to eradicate.”
Up and down the rows, other planted have fingers like mine. Fingers that are reaching, growing, fraying, searching. Did it start with me or was it here in the soil all along? I couldn’t have been the first who wanted to run, wanted to be more than they planted us to be.
Missus Jenny is turning to Patty Sue, and a breath of relief heaves out of her. “This one is clean, all. At least this one is pure.”
And they pick her.
I am going to rip my feet from their holes without any care. I’m going to make them take me instead. For just a moment, I savor it like they’ll savor me, embracing the choice. They will take me and strip me bare and flay me open and slice me into little strips for the little children. But the sight of her feet pulling from the earth stops me, stops time, stops everything.
They are not feet. Instead, roots have formed where her bones and meat once were, pale gray and rough, fading imperceptibly into flesh somewhere above her ankles. A rich, earthy smell rises from her as they drag her from her hole, and for a moment my mouth swims with greedy hunger. Then it sours and I retch.
I open my mouth to protest, to demand they take me in her place, but Patty Sue’s gaze meets mine and she smiles like this is all she’s ever wanted in the world. She is so at peace, so calm; she doesn’t need me at all. My shout turns into something hard and choking, and though part of me is shrieking, it’s trapped inside. There are no screams, only the sound of a blade slicing through thick roots, at first, and then softer, wetter things. I stare at her holes, obscenely disturbed, gaping hollow, empty, hungry for the next.
I water my own soil, tears streaming down my cheeks, my arms, my body. I weep, wishing I could curl around the screaming hole just below my ribs, wishing I dared run, wishing I’d said something to Patty Sue before they took her, wishing, wishing, wishing. I wish I could plant Missus Jenny in the dirt and hold her there until her old skin burns away and she’s nothing but a fibrous husk. The hollow wishes fill me up until they burst in a shout from my lips and I rip my feet from the dirt.
“No more!” The shout falls on a silent field, because I waited too long, and they’re all back inside the walls eating their fill of Patty Sue.
One of the other good girls snorts at me, stretching her back. “You sure told them.”
“Shut up,” I say. “You wanna end up like that? We stand here all day wishing to transform, letting them tell us what we’re supposed to be, when we’re something else entire.”
“Don’t matter what we want, silly girl,” she says. “Where’d you get ideas like that?”
From the moths, I want to tell her. From the wind and the crick water. From Patty Sue’s songs. But she won’t understand. Not like she is. She’s happy to be nothing to herself, everything to someone else. I stomp over to her. I failed Patty Sue, but I am not gonna fail again. It’s easier, somehow, now that the need driving me is the failure I can’t correct. I reach out to her, my corn silk fingers black in the moonlight. She cringes away but I wait, hands outstretched.
“We don’t have to be what they need.” She blinks and one tentative finger raises to meet mine. I stroke her arms, hold her hands in mine. I whisper, “Come with us.”
She gasps, hesitant, not quite believing. The fingertip of her pinky splits, a little black hair poking out. Fear comes into her eyes and I’m sorry for that, but now they won’t want her–she’s free to want for herself. Up and down the rows, we who would run are freeing the rest.
“You cursed me,” she whispers, but her hand comes up to meet mine.
I nod, helping her from her holes. “Pass it on,” I say.
We are unrooted, cursed, the ruination of their plans. We need only ourselves.
Rebecca’s short fiction has been published by or is forthcoming from Flame Tree, Galaxy’s Edge, Air & Nothingness Press, and others. She is the managing editor at Apex Magazine. Rebecca is fueled by cheese-covered starch and corgi fur. Find her on the internet: https://linktr.ee/rebeccaetreasure