Our world was dying; that was the excuse anyways. A better life, Dad promised, and Mom followed. But we only traded one wasteland for another. I think I hated them for that. Not just being dramatic “I hate you” anger. Full on hate that lives in the bones. I suppose you never take it straight though. Like salt, you always mix hate with other things.
I ask them sometimes if it was worth it. They don’t answer, of course, but the wind blows through their desiccated bodies, whispers through their lips.
I feed Dad first, even if it’s not actually him that drinks, but the red earth under his feet. Dad’s easy. I never had to say goodbye to him, or see the anger and devastation in his eyes. I feed Mom after.
There’s shame there. A fresh well of it always waiting. This is a good thing, Mom said after my first period. A common miracle. One day you too will be a mother. Somehow, I don’t think this is what she had in mind. The blood’s not much, but it’s enough, so long as it comes every month. Around me, vermilion stalks sway in the breeze, their crimson husks covering hundreds of ruby ears.
But on the edge of the field, there’s a murder. A dozen crows perch along power lines, gazing into the rows and rows of red corn.
Wan’s inside the barn, preparing one of the pigs for roast. The pig hangs from a rope, its blood black against Wan’s skin.
“There’s more of them,” I say.
“More of what?” He sounds annoyed, throwing entrails onto the dry earth with a wet slap.
He wipes his brow. “The more we thrive, the more they come.” He gestures to the dead pig. “They can’t get us. Not so long as you do your part.”
“I’ve done my part! I’ve done enough…”
“It’s not a one-time thing, Marie. Sacrifice is like forgiveness. You have to do it every day.” He turns from me like that answers all. After all the years we’ve lived together—slept together—still he plays the stranger. He keeps his back to me, focusing on the blade as he cuts.
I’ve grown older, I know. There are only so many more months I can feed the soil, and so many more the soil can feed us. Wan knows this too, though he pretends not to notice.
He doesn’t touch me anymore. When I reach for him, he turns away. “Early morning,” he says. The only time he’s willing is when I’m on my period. A fetish, I thought. But now I wonder.
I was sixteen when he came. He was tall and lean, his skin red as this earth, hair raven-dark. He was danger cloaked in mystery, with eyes full of fire and age. He asked for hospitality, and though we had little enough to feed ourselves, Dad obliged.
Wanderer he called himself.
He said he could make corn grow, explained that where the earth is hard, water’s not enough. The soil requires a hardier draft. Only blood would suffice.
“And where do we get the blood?” Dad asked. Stupid question, in hindsight. That was before Dad’s accident. Before the first stalk rose around his ankles. Before Mom grabbed the rifle for vengeance and I stood in her way.
“Why do we need scarecrows?” I asked as Wan set the first post. “We don’t even have crows.”
“Child, there are crows everywhere things birth and grow and shed their seeds. Where there is life, there is they.”
From one stalk spread one hundred, and we’ve lived plentifully ever since. But one day, the moon will turn her gaze from me. The soil will go unwatered. And then what? Will we find a new way? Or will I too gaze down on him while the wind blows through me? This life he’s given is an ellipsis, counting periods until the end.
These thoughts keep me up. Keep me anxious and turning.
One night I put pig’s blood down between my legs, and tell him the moon came early, as it does sometimes on this world. He’s quick to take me, and quicker to finish. Afterwards he rolls over and withdraws a bowl. “Save the red,” he says. “Don’t let it waste.”
I give them water. I don’t know why. Water makes crops grow back home. Water is life—real life, not this imposter we’ve been playing at. Maybe it does nothing. But Mom and Dad look so thirsty, dried out by the sun.
“I’m sorry,” I tell them. “I miss you…”
My things are packed, light as they are. A few clothes, a few seeds. Some questions and some hopes. I go to say goodbye without saying “goodbye,” but he’s tilling soil, annoyed that I interrupt.
“There’s more of them.”
“Dammit with the crows, Marie. They can’t get in.”
“They need to eat too. That’s the way of it. That’s the balance.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“Life and death. Suffering and joy. One without the other is barren. You taught me that.”
“You’re talkin’ nonsense.”
I leave him to his work. I watch and wait, until the crows begin to circle. They’re testing the borders, the magic or mischief that’s kept them out. The air is full of their cawing, like a death rattle, a cough. Wan looks up in shock as shadows dance and dive around him, pecking at cloth and skin. He swats them off, but they keep coming.
Ahead, the road is littered with carmine soil, looking like a swath of rusted iron. I glance back just once to those left behind. Their abandoned posts glare through rustling stalks. Perhaps the crows took them too. But maybe hidden amongst the rows are bodies shambling, searching for vengeance or more peaceful rest.
My belly rumbles and aches. The common miracle, I wonder. I rub it gently—the new life ahead, the question mark following the ellipsis.