Barrick's Farm (fiction)

¶ilcrow & Dagger Literary Journal, January 2016

Listen to the podcast recording here

Screen shot 2016 04 06 at 8.28.40 am

This story was recently recorded as a podcast by ¶ilcrow & Dagger Literary Journal literary journal, as well as being published in the magazine

He gazes through the glass wall of the farmhouse, afternoon sun etching ridges and troughs of golden light and deep shadow on his furrowed brow. He’s watching. His eyes drift slowly across his acres of corn, drinking them in like a thirsty root in the heat of summer. He hears his wife bustling around behind him, setting the dinner table for later then programming something into the oven. Seconds later, the earthy smell of a freshly printed apple pie fills his nostrils.
“Well,” he says, turning, “don’t that just smell — ” She’s standing, hands on hips, wearing a floral floor-length dress and tightly pursed lips. Oh Lord, he thinks.
“Don’t ya reckon,” fingers drum her thick waist, “you were a touch hard on her just then?”
He draws in a breath, scanning the kitchen for a safe place to rest his eyes. They come to a stop on the wall-sized screen, the price of electricity showing in a graph. His stomach feels heavy.
He lets his breath out and, “No,” he says. “No, I don’t believe I was. She needed to hear it. She’s old enough to —”
“Morris. You made her cry!”
He keeps staring at the screen, pretending to be distracted by the numbers although he’s seen them three times today. She walks over and steps in front of him, just close enough to block his view. He meets her stare and sighs. They look just the same, his girls: wise eyes a misty blue, pale freckles crowded on little pinched noses.
“Now Sophia,” he says, reaching a hand to rub his neck. “That thing’s no good for her. She’s spent all summer out there. And now she’s talkin’ ‘bout how she don’t wanna change schools cause she don’t wanna leave the farm and I just don’t think —”
“Oh, she’s just nervous, love. She’s just worried about startin’ school in the city. She’s worried the other girls will all be so fancy and pretty — ”
“Well there ain’t nothin’ prettier than being smart. She doesn’t need me to tell her that. And how could I? She stopped talkin’ to me about that stuff ages ago,” he crossed his arms. “Anyway that thing ain’t gonna teach her nothin’ smart …” he watches her eyes narrow. “That thing,” she huffs, “is named Barrick and who are you ta say he’s no good for her? She was almost chewed up in one of those damn machines! And who sent out the alarm, hmm? Even though that’s not his job,” she sharpens her voice and leans forward. “That thing saved your little girl’s life.”
He sighs. “I know, darlin’,” he rubs her arm, soft as cotton wool. “Yer right, I know.”
The oven rings, a melody like wind chimes, and she shuffles away. He turns back to the transparent farmhouse wall. Beyond it, a solid mass of plants run in hundreds of rows, lines of vivid green, straighter than any man’s hand could sew. Each stalk and leaf, each fibrous cob capsule identical in colour and shape and size. In the distance, a coding machine slides along, effortless and sleek on the cornfield’s smooth plastic ground. Slightly closer he sees some stalks rustling, leaves shivering like children in the cold.
“There!” he says, finger right up against the smudge-proof glass. “I knew it! She’s gone out there ta see it now. When I told her ta go and check the meters in the control shed! The corn’s almost finished bein’ coded and harvest is ‘round the corner and the boys are back at school already and the meters need to be checked all the time right now —”
He spins back around to his wife, who’s humming loudly to herself as she pulls the pie out of the oven.
“Look Sophia. You see what I’m sayin’ don’t ya?”
She turns back to him and continues humming, examining the pie’s golden crust with a smile. “Well, these new recipe ovens just work a treat,” she says then looks up and her lips purse once more. “Yer sayin’,” she says. “That yer surprised a kid doesn’t wanna do her chores after fightin’ with her Pa.”
He frowns. “I’m sayin’ we shoulda got the basic model, not this one that moves and talks and… and learns,” he runs a hand through his thinning hair. “It’s not healthy for kids, this kinda technology. It’s just not…” he hesitates. “It’s not real!”
“Real?” she says, placing the pie gently on the stainless steel island bench and sliding off her pink rubber oven mitts. “Well ain’t that a bit rich comin’ from someone in the corn codin’ business? There was a time you wouldna said what we’re growin’ is re —”
“Oh!” he strides across the room, thick arms swinging, to the pile of freshly picked test corn by the door. He picks up a cob, hand wrapped around the faded green and yellow husk, and holds it up to her. “This is real, Sophia. This feeds people. This makes us a livin’,” he peels back the papery layers and points a finger at the glossy yellow kernels, swollen with their sweet and savoury juices. “That’s real,” he says.
He drops the corn back on the pile and walks over to the bench, standing opposite her. “You know what else is real?” He rubs his eyes with unblemished hands. “What’s real, Sophia, is the price of electricity. And she,” one hand flies towards the cornfield beyond the glass wall,” she is always leavin’ her screen on like she don’t know the value of it even though I told her and told her.” He places his hands down flat in front of him, either side of the pie. “What’s real,” he says in something close to a whisper. “Are these electronic bugs, this plague goin’ ‘round, sweepin’ across the country and sendin’ families broke —”
“That’s why we got Barrick. That’s why we got the more advanced model. The whatdoyacallit,” she’s gesturing in circles with her mitts, “the more intuitive interface and all. You can teach it more. Smarter against the bugs, right? Isn’t that what it’s for?”
“Yeah, that’s right, he’s here to guard the corn not to stand there yackin’ all day with my daughter when she should be —”
“Oh Morris,” she slaps her oven mitts down on the bench. “She’s got to have a friend, on this farm. Who else has she got ta have some fun with ‘round here with her brothers gone?” She puffs out her chest. “Come to think of it, maybe I should go out there and make friends so I have someone to talk ta that ain’t just yellin’ all the time lately!”
He opens his mouth, and closes it again. His brow knits together slightly. He wasn’t always yelling, was he? It’s just that he was the only one expected to lift their damn weight around here. Oh god. Isn’t that just the same justification his own Pa used to use for yelling? And didn’t he swear, swear to himself, that he would never be that kind of man? Sophia’s eyes flicker across his face and it’s her turn to sigh.
“It’s okay. Yer okay,” she reaches across the bench and places a small hand on the front of his clean checked shirt. “I know we’re hurtin’ this year. I know we’re strugglin’. But don’t take it out on her. She’s just a kid and she’ll learn what’s real in life and what ain’t in her own time.” Her head tilts and her face softens further. “She loves you so much Morris. Much more than you know, it seems.” He wonders briefly what that’s suppose to mean then she lowers her hands and grips his and she smiles. “We’ll be alright,” she says. “We always are.”
“Yer right,” he says. “I know, yer right. As always.” He looks out through the glass wall. “I’ll go and talk to her.”
“You mean apologise.”
He winces. “Apologise.”
Before he leaves he picks up his straw hat from the side bench and glances back at the screen again and there’s that line in the graph, heading straight for the sky.

She stomps her bare feet along the floor of the cornfield, smacking the floppy leaves with her hands as she passes causing the stalks to rustle and whisper. She usually loves the way the freshly coded plants that grow from circuits and up through portals in the plastic make her hair stand on end, the electricity tingling her lips. But today it feels like she’s probably just going to get in trouble for all the knots it’s making.
She comes to a slight gap in the corn and she stops and stands, hands on hips, waiting. He materialises in a pixilated shimmer: a scraggly nest of golden light projecting upwards from the ground, two bedraggled arms and two bedraggled legs, with eyes like the buttons on her denim overalls and a broad-brimmed green hat upon his broom head of hair.
The scarecrow looks down at her.
“Well, hullo there li’l darlin’.” His voice is kind and warm and musical. “What can I do ya for?” He kneels down to her height but when he sees her face, the golden light above his eyes knits together slightly. “Well now Abbey, you do look glum. Yer alight?”
She puffs out her boyish chest and tries to channel her mother’s authority. “Barrick, we’ve been friends an awful long time. My whole life and that’s a fact! And I want you to be truthful with me when I ask you summin’.”
The scarecrow leans a little closer and she can hear a soft crackling like stepping on sunburnt husks. “What is it Abbey? You know you can ask me anythin’.”
She looks down at her feet and brings a hand up to twist some flyaway strands of short, orange-tinged hair. She doesn’t want to offend him, her best friend. But, well, she had a right to know. She raises her eyes again and cocks her head to one side. “Barrick, are you…” the question lingers on her lips then tumbles out in a rush, “Are you real?”
He furrows his brow. “Hmmmm, well. Now, what do you mean by real, li’l darlin’?”
“Well, I dunno,” she says, wrinkling her freckled nose. “You know, reeeeal.”
The scarecrow says nothing. She looks down at her feet again and wiggles her toes.
“My pa says,” she lets out a puff of air and a soggy hiccup. “My pa says you’re not real. And that I should grow up and stop acting like ya are.”
She raises her eyes even though she doesn’t want to say this looking at him.
“He says yer just coded to seem real, ya learn from people to seem real, but that ya ain’t.”
The scarecrow raises a scruffy flickering hand and pushes his hat back. “I see now,” he says, but he doesn’t seem offended. “That’s what yer pa says does he?” then he tilts his head back to look up at the sky, a fading pastel blue fringed by summer storm clouds. “Well, in my humble opinion li’l one, pas are usually right about all kinds of stuff. He’s been doin’ this farmin’ business for a lot longer than you and me.” He looks back down at her with a gentle expression and his hat flickers and fades for a moment. Has it done that before? “But, what do you think?” he continues.
She sticks one hip out to the side and pouts. “What do I think?”
“That’s what I asked. What do you think?” the scarecrow stretches both longs arms outwards like bare tree limbs then lowers and raises them as if weighing the muggy summer air. “About what’s real and what ain’t?”
She hesitates. A lazy breeze plays in the corn tassels far above her head. She takes a hand off her hip and waves it through the scarecrow and she feels nothing but a tingle on her arm hair. If it weren’t for that she’d swear Barrick was real. He knew all of her Pa’s old jokes and riddles and just when to tell them. And he knew skipping like her Pa had taught her, even though it doesn’t matter if Barrick makes it over the rope or not. And he listened to her about stuff that was a worry, like city school. That made him seem pretty real as far as she was concerned.
“Maybe,” she starts hopefully, “maybe yer real but yer not… yer not as real as me and ma and pa are real. I mean cause yer a hologram and all.”
The scarecrow nods slowly, thoughtfully, and rubs his neck. For a second his whole body freezes and flickers, which she’s never seen before, but then he continues normally. “Do you remember that time,” he says, “that you came runnin’ through here face all streaked with tears after yer brother called ya ugly and tripped ya up over on the porch stairs and ya hit yer lip and I cheered you up?”
Her eyes grow bright and glossy. “You sang me that dumb song, Barrick,” and she lets out a snort.
“Now, it wasn’t mean to be funny I’ll have ya know Missy but there ya were just rollin’ around on the ground — ”
“You sounded just like my Pa when he used to sing to me in the control shed!” She tries to stifle a giggle but her face contorts, “Terrible!” And Barrick chuckles too and says, “Well, where else am I suppose ta learn how to sing?”
She hiccups again then settles down. In the distance, thunder rumbles. “And that’s when you said that there ain’t nothing prettier than bein’ smart.”
“That’s right l’il one and smart you are. As smart as yer Pa an’ that’s sayin’ somethin’.”
She smiles, then sighs. “Then why’s he always yellin’ at me Barrick?” she slumps down onto the cool, smooth ground and shakes her head slowly. “Why don’t he ever talk to me nice like he used to?” She looks up. “I gotta do my chores cause if Pa — ”
She stops short at the look on Barrick’s face. His eyes have narrowed as if sensing something. Then he freezes and his mouth falls open.
“Barrick?” she stands. “Barrick?”
“Abbey,” he says. His eyes are wide and his voice distant, slowed down somehow. “Abbey darlin’, somethin’s got into the corn. You need ta get up and start ru — ”
Suddenly she feels the electrical charge vanish from the air and her stomach drops. Barrick and the corn have disappeared, leaving only the clear plastic ground revealing acres of glowing green and black circuit boards stretching over the land. Then, a microsecond later, CRACK, like an electric whip, and the plants reappear. Barrick looks down at her, button eyes wide in his bedraggled face. He opens his mouth again and nothing comes out but a low buzzing. She blinks then spins around towards the farmhouse and starts running.
“Pa!” she calls. “Pa! There’s summin’ wrong with the corn!”

Dread hangs like moisture in the humid air as he races between two rows of corn, arms out in front to stop the leaves slapping his face. Shafts of fading light slice through the stalks. Abigail, he thinks, Abigail, Abigail. Nearby, clouds growl like guard dogs.
A shape comes flying out from another row of plants right in front of him and they collide with an oof! and his straw hat goes flying.
“Pa!” she cries out. “Pa the corn — ”
“Abbey,” he says. “Abbey, thank god yer okay!” He bends down and places his hands on her bare shoulders and says in what he hopes is a calm voice, “What happened darlin’? Tell me the truth now. What did you do?”
Her wide eyes narrow.
“Nothin’!” she yells. “I didn’t do nothin’! I was just talkin’ to… just goin’ to check on the meters when —”
CRACK! Again the stalks around them vanish and they’re left alone in the field then CRACK! They reappear.
Morris stands up, turns and starts running back towards the control shed, boots beating the shatterproof ground, his daughter’s feet slapping behind him. He bursts through the last row of corn and turns left, sprinting down the plastic path by the farmhouse. He races past the picking and sorting machines — on buttons illuminated like all-seeing eyes, cooling fans panting like a dog’s hot breath.
CRACK! Another electric pulse in the air.
He reaches the shed, a looming structure of thick metal, and heaves open the door revealing a cosmos of blinking lights. Screen and control panels line the walls like an electronic patchwork quilt. He looks at the electricity meter. Low. Damn it! But he knew this might happen, didn’t he? It’s way too low. Low enough to let in a —
“Pa look!” Abigail squeals, and his gaze follows her finger to a flashing red light on a panel on the far side of the room.
“No!” His hands fly up to his head. “No.”
“What is it pa?” His fear is mirrored in her voice. He turns to his daughter. She’s old enough to hear it.
“We’ve got a bug Abbey,” he says. “We got a virus in the corn.”
“No… no…” understanding dawning on her face. “It ain’t Barrick’s fault Pa!” she yells. “I was distractin’ him! And I shoulda been checkin’ the — ”
He shakes his head. He feels sick.
“It ain’t Barrick’s fault. Or yours. It’s mine.” He sighs. “I let the electricity get too low. We were left vulnerable and he wouldna had enough power to scan for it properly. I was hopin’… I was hopin’ we’d get through the season with some luck… we just couldn’t afford any more right now.” He swallows hard.
He bends down to his daughter and puts his hands back on her shivering shoulders and grips them tightly.
CRACK! they hear from outside.
“Abbey darlin’” he says. “We gotta reboot the farm.” He looks around the shed then, thinking fast, and says more to himself than to her. “We can tap into the backup store. We’ll borrow from the back up and if we reboot before it gets too bad…”
Save the crop, that’s all he’s thinking, and deal with their debt later… first, I gotta save the corn…
But she’s looking at him, eyes wide with horror and he realises what’s coming. “Pa,” she says, slowly. “What about…?”
His brow furrows. He feels her read his face. “He’ll be uninstalled darl — ”
She sways like the ground is moving beneath her. “NOOO!” she screams. “You can’t!”
“I’m sorry darlin’. But Abbey, he’s not re— ” but then he sees her expression and stops himself short. It’s her mother’s expression on the day they thought Abigail had been hurt by the coding machine. Like her own family is being hurt. And he realises, too late, why Barrick means so much to her. Because he’s learned how to act from him, the him that was a better father than he is now.
He clasps her shoulders tighter. “God, I’m so sorry Abbey. But there ain’t nothin’ I can do. I can’t chose what to reboot and what not — ” She wrenches her shoulders back and forth and bends her knees, trying to wriggle free from his grip. “GET OFF ME!”
“Don’t!” he’s trying to hold on to her. “It’s not safe out there!”
“I want to be with HIM!” and she slips free and starts running towards the darkening afternoon outside the shed.
He hesitates, torn in two, then turns and runs further into the shed.

No no no no no no no no! She’s running. And running. The sky is deepening above her as thick swirls of purple cloud close in. She reaches the corn in record time, almost toppling over her nobly knees with the speed of her sprinting feet. She tears down a narrow row. Whack, whack, whack, the leaves against her skin.
“BARRICK!,” she screams, she pants, she lets out a cry that catches at her breath and makes her have to stop running but she’s reached one of the gaps in the corn. He has to be here! “BARRICK, WHERE ARE YOU?”
CRACK! The corn vanishes again and rematerialises a second later. But this time it looks very different.
She gasps.
Black. Spreading from leaf to leaf, stalk to stalk. Leaves like crow’s wings but matte, not glossy, and husks curling inward like burning paper in a crackling fire. The plastic below her feet is getting hot.
“BARRICK!” she chokes.
His pixels shimmer into existence before her. Not gold. Barely even a colour at all. Just a knot of flickering light. But it’s him. It’s Barrick. “Oh, Barrick,” she says in a whisper. He’s so faint that she’s scared she might blow him away with her panting breath. “Barrick, listen ta me.” She steps closer to his crackling form. “Barrick, we’ve got a bug. A bug’s got in the corn. But it ain’t yer fault, ya hear me? Dad says it ain’t yer fault.”
She doesn’t know if he can hear her, but she wants him to know.
Sparks like lightening shoot between the blackening stalks around them. Rot. The plants begin to rot and mold before her eyes, eaten away by invisible mouths. An old smell, like decaying food, fills her nostrils. An electric shock zaps her side. She screams out in pain and falls, cowering on the hot ground.
She scrunches her eyes shut.
Pa, she thinks, help me Pa!

He’s at the control panel and he’s typing furiously and he’s thinking, what have I done and he only half means the electricity.
Numbers are flying down the screen in front of him but they’re all out of order, nothing like he’s seen before. The bug’s getting worse. Taking hold.
He needs to reboot now before… before…

It’s all heat and crackling and electricity and then, suddenly, silence. The corn has fallen quiet. Then a slow, low hum growing louder like cicadas in the summer heat. She opens her eyes.
The corn. It’s reappearing. Flickering back to life. Some stalks broken, others still black and rotting, others gone for good, but mostly the corn is back. She glances around wildly, but Barrick’s nowhere to be seen.
The heavens rumble.
Pat. Pat. Pat pat pat. Pat pat pat pat pat pat.
Her hot tears accompany the rain now falling onto the green leaves and cooling the plastic, resurrecting as steam around her. She begins to shiver under the barrage of thick droplets.
Then, a warm body crouches next to her. She braces for his anger but it doesn’t come. Her father wraps both arms around her and squeezes. “Abigail,” he says. “Oh god Abigail. Yer okay.”
She hears the relief in his voice, his gentle voice, warm and musical, and she turns her head and sobs into the fold of his shirt. “Shhhhh shhhh.” He rubs her wet arm with a large soft hand. He breathes into her knotted hair. “I’m so sorry, Abbey. I’ve made a big mistake.”
And he doesn’t sound like he’s talking about the electricity.
She looks up into his face, her father’s face. “He was real to me, Pa. He was… he was like yo — ” and then the sun comes through a dark cloud and lights his brow a familiar golden glow.
“I know darlin’,” he says as he rocks her back and forth. “I know.”