Writer in Residence · 01/30/2012

Acknowledge the Corn

I wrote this story several years ago for an short-short speculative fiction contest. I have always liked the basic concept in this piece. The plan of taking a reader’s implied expectations (that skeletons want to come back to life, which so many horror movies seem to assume) and reversing it (really, all they want is to be left alone) is still a core principle of my writing today. I’m also working here with a lot of tropes that, in retrospect, have become much more fleshed out in more recent stories: re-animation, plagues, and pop culture. This draft — and the story itself — feels very unrealized in potential, chunky in delivery, and not nearly as funny as I originally thought it to be. Currently, I still find myself combining re-animation, plagues, and pop culture, but in more extremely contrasting fashion, along with lots of other newer complicating details. I think the issue here is that the contrast (and conflict) between those tropes (as well as between the re-animated workers and the children taskmasters) isn’t as fierce as I would demand of it now. It also seems too easy that these skeletons would recite perfectly such jingles and famous quotes. I’d rather they spout more jumbled, creepier versions. This story also feels oddly sterile, even predictable. Despite my deepest inclinations to keep things clean, I’ve been trying to steer my work in a messier direction. I want to work more with unpredictability that is still sublime in nature. To me, it’s a direction that deals less with the well organized and the linearly chronological and more with the simultaneity of listing and the confluence of narratives from different times and places.

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Over the mass grave, the Wisdom Corn grows head-high and fruit-bearing. Most died fast in the prion epidemic, but we survived with compulsive complications, were treated by the immune as mental patients and violent criminals, doomed to intractable pain and shallow prairie burial. But if you hide truth underground, it will grow. So we harvest the corn for its kernels. The kernels are molars that fall through our palmbones — though some of us are growing muscle again. We are tired skeletons, once dedicated fieldworkers. And we are trying not to come back.

These teeth we drop in our lobotomized skulls. They plink inside, settle. Then we speak.

“My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.”

“We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

“Nine out of ten dentists recommend Colgate.”

Then roars come quickly to the cornfield, and we flee to our graves with the teeth of

men rattling in us: We are easy to carry. We are difficult to gather.

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Several of us have regrown our fingernails. Others their shinmeat. Others their pancreas and sciatic nerve and patellar ligament. We lie in our graveplots and pray for decay. We try flaying ourselves each day with scissors or begging the buzzards to come clean us of meat, but even their hunger has limits. By nightfall, our parts regrow in full, double in size. Several have already left in shame. We do not talk to the most fleshed of us. His name’s Wally. He now has freckles. But all of us write our worries in the soil.

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Why are we coming back?

I don’t know.

Why didn’t the others come back?

I don’t know.

I thought death was the end, like a ball dropped down a canyon.

It was. Now the ball is bouncing back.

Will it stop?

I don’t know.

This is our problem, isn’t it? That we don’t know?

Yes.

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“My boyfriend’s back and you’re going to be in trouble.”

“A shark can go through three hundred thousand teeth.”

“It’s like deja-vu all over again.”

We’re in the cornfields. Each time we drop a tooth in our foreheads, we listen for the plink and hope that our next words will solve our unwanted return. Some of us must puncture this hole daily where the scalp has grown back.

“For only twelve cents a day, you, too, can save a child’s life.”

We are getting closer. We know the answer is here somewhere. But we linger too long until the angry engines are again growling around us.

We run in circles, yelling words: “Roll that beautiful bean footage.”; “But they won’t take American Express.”; “If you’re suffering from anxiety, then try new Ativan Oral.”

The cornstalks flutter with snarls and clangs. We don’t want to go back to that sick, working life.

So we trip Wally. He falls to his new kneecaps while we flee. When we hear him scream, his voice carries easily but not his words. All we gather is that he’s finally grown a tongue.

We try to stay away for days at a time, but our bodies are horrible. Goosebumps, lymph nodes, the sticky epiglottis. Several times I have cut out my own heart and fed it to the buzzards. It’s hurt. How quickly we’d forgotten the pain. We grow unexpected things, too. Forked tails, nictating membranes, tapetum lucidum for nightvision.

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In the fields, we try to whisper our truths.

“Always Coca-Cola.”

“Now I’ll equip this bighorn with a radio transmitter.”

“It’s just a flesh wound!”

Then roars, growls. The ground shakes, our heads rattle. The stalks crash over in swathes. For those of us who can see in the dark, we are surrounded by fat fieldworkers — no, not men.

Children. Huge, beardless children on the backs of wolves and dirt bikes; the fleshed ones who left us in shame. Now all their skin has brown spots. Their eyes hold a hundred pupils. They snap their leashes and keyrings with triple-jointed wrists.

Wally steps from the circle. He grins and shows off his baby teeth and babbles, “When the axe came to the forest, the trees say, ‘the handle is one of us.’” Then they all hold out their webbed hands. “Back to life,” they say, “back to work.”

We drop the last teeth into our brainholes, our deathly hopes plinking in us. From out our mouths: “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”

“Bingo! Dino DNA.”

“What is difficult to carry, but easy to gather?”

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posted by Origin Stories