The first pebble bit into the back of my neck. The second hit my cheek as I turned, and the third dug a furrow between the tangled whiptree roots.
“You found me, Acco.” I stood, shaking the crouch out of my knees and brushing off dirt. “You don’t have to hurt me.”
My brother laughed, flinging another stone at my shin. It stung like an insect. I rubbed the spot, then tossed the same stone back at him. It glanced off his chest but didn’t seem to bother him.
“Are the others still hiding?” I’d seen Orex heading for one of the goat pens and Oiron for the shed behind the granary. They were too young to understand there was no place in our small village where Acco wouldn’t chase them down in a moment’s time. At least by hiding up here in the scrub trees beyond our family’s fields, I stood a chance at being the last one found and getting to play the searcher next time.
“I found them all. You’re the last.”
“That’s because I hide better than those babies. They’re afraid to go twenty feet from the village.”
“I’ll tell them you said that,” he said. “Unless you beat me back there. Come on, little sister!”
He took off, leaving me to chase. After crouching for so long, it felt good to move. I had run between the koh rows to get here, the stalks only inches above my height at this late point in the growing season, though they should have been at least an arm’s length higher.
I tried to muster some extra speed to catch him, though I doubted my chances. Acco was only a year older than me and no taller, but he did have the edge in speed. He’d tell our other siblings and cousins I had called them names, and they would fuss and call me names before letting me have my turn to find them. I might even find myself dunked in a water trough.
I was surprised to catch him on the downward slope of the one small hillock, but he had slowed and stopped abruptly. From the vantage point of this rise, we could see the whole village and beyond: the family huts and the youth huts, the granaries, the goat pens, the bakery; fields, more fields, yet more fields.
“Look, Guerre. What’s that?” He pointed toward the road on the village’s far side; no, to something churning in the road.
He shook his head. “It’s moving too quickly.”
“We’ll find out soon enough, if we get down there.” I used his distraction to my advantage and started running again. We blazed parallel tracks through the silvery koh stalks; I heard him slapping them out of the way as I did the same. My own path was more direct, but it led me toward our cropsinger, and I had to veer over a row to avoid running into her. That would have been more than embarrassing; it could be catastrophic if I interrupted her months-long trance before the growing season’s end. I cleared the field behind Acco, and we both continued past our family’s hut and into the broad common at the village center.
The strangers arrived on a machine that swam through the air just above the ground, sending ripples of heat in all directions. It looked vaguely familiar.
“Acco! Why do I think I’ve seen that thing before?”
“One came once before, a few seasons ago. We were both still small. I don’t remember why.”
As the machine drew closer, the other children struck up a race as well, each of us drawn to it from wherever we were. It settled in the common, and we crowded around to touch its mirrored flanks, but the travelers leaned out and shooed us all away as if we were goats.
“Give them room,” one of our elders shouted at us, and we reluctantly obeyed. We stood back as two strangers climbed out. The first thing that struck me was the impracticality of their long and loose clothing. A goat would have chewed that beautiful, watery fabric to shreds before the wearer even noticed.
An aunt was the first to address them, but instead of “our bread is your bread,” she said “Why are you here?”
The question surprised me. While I’d never seen anyone arrive in a machine before, new arrivals were always welcomed and offered a meal. After the meal, they might say that they had arrived to help with the harvest or find a spouse or bring news of a relative in another village. After the meal, not before.
The strangers didn’t look concerned; or rather, they looked no more concerned about my aunt’s rudeness than they had already. “Are you the mother of Aro?”
Cousin Aro, a few years older than me, gone away; I only ever heard him spoken of as “when Aro comes back...” My aunt took a step backward.
“She is.” My mother stepped up beside her sister. “What’s happened? You wouldn’t be here if nothing was wrong.”
The stranger who had addressed my aunt spoke again. “We regret to inform you that the cropsinger-to-be named Aro did not survive his training. He...”
Whatever he said next was lost to me, drowned out by my aunt’s wail and the murmurs of the other adults. I tried to make sense of what had happened. Aro had gone to learn cropsinging, since our own cropsinger was ailing. Cropsinging was difficult, everyone knew that; our cropsinger looked a decade older than her siblings. Still, I hadn’t known it could kill.
And a cousin! I’d seen elders die before, and once an infant that had taken ill, but never another child. I tried to remember anything about him—his voice, his face. Other than his name, he was nowhere in my memory.
“Thank you for telling us,” my father said. “You’ve come a long way, and our bread is your bread.”
We hadn’t yet harvested this year’s stunted crop; we were living on what was left of the previous harvest. Still, someone produced a small loaf of kohbread and someone else two cups of goat milk, and they were brought to the commons table, where we ate festival meals. The strangers expertly soaked their bread, showing me that even if I didn’t know them, they’d been raised in a village like mine, in a family like mine, with elders who would shame you if you didn’t finish every last crumb.
After they ate, the strangers talked with our elders in low voices, so we children could make out their even tone but not their words. The taller one pointed at us and made a hand motion that meant nothing to us.
“Children, step forward,” an aunt said. “Stand in a line.”
It took us several moments to translate that simple order into action and arrange ourselves shoulder to shoulder for the first and only time. I was neither the oldest nor the youngest, the tallest or the smallest. I’d never really quantified my existence relative to the other children I’d grown up with. We were cousins, friends, siblings.
The strangers walked down the row of us, the village’s other crop, assessing us for some unknown quality. When they’d inspected us all, they halted.
“Do as I do,” said one of the strangers. This one began to hum a note, making a hand motion that seemed to me to help shape the note and push it out from belly to throat. I mimicked the motion and joined my voice with the other voices. It felt good to sing; I’d always loved singing, though my voice was stronger than it was pretty. We all matched the pitch except my toneless cousin Ury. Nobody who knew better would encourage Ury to sing.
When the note stopped, we stopped singing. I lowered my hand. The strangers whispered to each other, then turned to speak with the adults again. We poked each other behind our backs and tried not to giggle; whatever was going on was interesting, but it was hard not to fidget.
“Guerre, come here,” my father called a moment later.
The other children edged away from me, except for Acco, who walked with me to the group of adults. My father separated us, nudging me forward, wrapping his long arms around my brother. The nearer of the strangers put her hand on my chest, tilted my head back, and peered into my eyes and mouth as if I were a goat at market. After a long pause, she rested her hand on my head. It was heavy, but something told me not to duck away.
The adults all murmured. I didn’t know what I had been chosen for, but I felt a momentary burst of pride. I’d never been singled out for anything before. I knew all my shortcomings in comparison with Acco, who never let me forget when I’d been slower or weaker than him; beyond that, we were called to chores or lessons as a group, and praised as a group.
My mother turned to me, and I was confused to see sadness in her expression, along with other things I didn’t recognize. She took me in her arms.
“You are going to be our next cropsinger,” she said. “They’re going to take you away and teach you how to make the plants grow, so you can come back and help us. It’s not the life I expected for you, but you’re a good choice. You’ll take care of all of us, instead of a family of your own.”
I understood that we needed a new cropsinger. Our current one, Kirren, was quite old, if not as old as she looked; her voice no longer encouraged the plants the way it once had. In recent seasons our yield had barely covered our needs. It left us little to barter at the harvest market, which in turn meant we came home with fewer milking goats than usual.
I didn’t remember the selection process from when Aro was chosen—I didn’t even remember Aro—so it must have been six or seven planting seasons past. If that was the length of the training, Kirren would have to sing that many crops up before I was ready to help. My first concern was if our village could even survive that many more bad harvests.
“Why her?” my brother demanded, breaking my father’s grasp. “Why is she special?”
The selector who had chosen me turned her appraising look on him, and I saw him deflate under her gaze.
“I want to do it too! I don’t want her to go away alone!” He looked at them with hope, and my own hopes surged that they might let him join me. I had felt pride at being selected, but now that he was voicing these things, I felt fear too. I had never been away from him before, never spent a day away from my family; I didn’t know how long I would be gone, but having Acco with me would mean I wasn’t alone.
The selector smiled sympathetically. “We only need one, so we only take one. When your sister comes back, she will have learned to be the cropsinger and you will have learned to be something else. You will be different, but you will have a common goal. You will understand then that you are both valuable and necessary. But for now, we take only her.”
My brother ran off between the huts then, and he was not there to say goodbye to me. I was given no time to prepare or pack anything, but I had nothing to prepare or pack. My mother went into our home and returned with a snack of dried fruit and bread and a flask and a stone figurine I had played with as a child, all of which she put in a small pouch for me to carry. When my mother handed me the toy I felt a pang of something I didn’t recognize.
She knelt next to me. “Be good and take every opportunity you are given, and then come back and share with us.”
My family crowded around to see me off except for Acco. As I climbed into the selectors’ machine, I looked to my brother’s favorite hiding place, the feeder in the goat pen. Nobody else would think to hide there, since it wasn’t worth getting chewed on. Sure enough, his eyes were peering out from between the slats. One of the bigger goats reached over and tore a bite from his shirt—they ate anything that wasn’t coated with hetch oil— but he didn’t even swat her away. I caught his gaze with my own and gave him a shrug and a smile. That was all I had to offer.
Riding in the selectors’ traveling machine distracted me from the shock of leaving. The abrupt decision and departure had allowed me no time to contemplate or develop fears, no time to feel sad or lonely or scared. A quick tug, no anticipation, no buildup of emotion. I had never been a child to shy from adventure, and this was adventure on a new scale.
The machine moved quickly and smoothly above the pitted roads, which I had previously traveled only by foot or wagon. Once we’d passed the empty market stalls, we’d gone as far as I’d ever been from my village. The fields blurred. I stretched out my arms and felt the wind stream across them as if it had never met an object it couldn’t move.
The journey took quite some time. I ate the snack my mother had provided without ever taking my eyes off the scenery. The place where I had come from – the only place I had ever seen – had only the gentlest rises, and was otherwise flat, flat, endlessly flat. I had never desired to go anywhere else, because as far as I had known, everywhere else was the same. Now I saw otherwise. The land began to roll, gentle and green.
Shapes loomed on the horizon, small enough still for me to crush them in my fingers but growing larger all the time. Land that climbed rather than rolled, where no koh grew. I’d heard the word ‘mountain’ but never had an image to match it. The mountains loomed like the bottom teeth of an enormous mouth, waiting for their upper half to close and snatch us. The Osa people lived there, breeding their beautiful milk goats. I’d never realized how far they traveled to trade with us.
I saw another thing across the fields, closer than the mountains, glittering like sun on a pond, but not. What was it?
“The City,” one selector told me when I shouted my question over the noise of their machine.
I knew The City, by name if not by sight. I’d heard stories of people who had gone there, before I was born, and not returned. My people had no business there, I’d been told. It looked grand and imposing, its walls and towers the only things I could make out from this distance. They shimmered in the sunset. If a city was just a large village, why did it need walls? How did its residents survive with no fields? And who lived there, anyway? I hoped we weren’t going to the city, yet I was still disappointed when we veered away.
The place we arrived at when we finally stopped reassured me. The road was lined with koh fields; just like at home, they looked more silver than green in the moonlight. The buildings were fewer and larger than our village’s, but the goats that called to me from their pens spoke the same language as the goats of home, and the faces that peeked from the doorways looked like the faces of my cousins and siblings. These were my own people, even if we’d been taken far from where we belonged.
My traveling companions pushed me from the vehicle and walked off with purpose, leaving me alone. I stood where I’d been left, waiting and watching, until eventually one boy approached. He was a little taller and older than me, and though he smiled, his eyes were serious. He reminded me of Acco.
“Welcome,” he said. “I’m Nor. We decided last year that newcomers deserved a better welcome than the one the selectors give, where you have to figure things out for yourselves. Do you know why you’re here?”
“To learn to be the new cropsinger.”
“Good.” He smiled approvingly. “Sometimes nobody bothers to tell the new kids. They just pack them off and leave us to do the explaining. Those ones always cry. Are you going to cry?”
It hadn’t occurred to me. “No. My village needs a new cropsinger. Ours is old. She needs help soon.”
“Is your cropsinger failing already? They don’t usually wait until—oh!” His smile dropped from his face. “You’re here because of Aro. That explains why you’re late.”
“The other new students have been here for weeks already. I guess you’re lucky it happened when it did; you haven’t missed so much that you can’t catch up.”
I hadn’t considered that I might be starting behind, but there was nothing to be done about it. Something else weighed heavier on my mind. “What happened to my cousin Aro?”
Nor frowned and looked away. “Are you hungry? Our bread is your bread.”
I recognized that he had changed the subject, but all I’d eaten was the snack my mother had packed me, so I let him. I happily followed him to the communal eating hall, where he scrounged me a bowl of koh porridge and a heel of bread, making sure I saw where to get them if I got hungry again.
After I ate, he showed me to a hut. “You’re the last one, so you’ll have to take whichever pallet is empty.”
There was enough moonlight for me to see that all the pallets were occupied except one just inside the door. My spot at home was toward the back, but I couldn’t count the times Acco had deliberately stepped on me on his way out to urinate. Location didn’t matter; I took the empty bed. I spent the night listening to strangers breathing, too overwhelmed to sleep.
If my siblings and I had experienced the same childhood up until now, this was where mine permanently diverged. When my class woke to find me in their hut, they wasted no time in welcoming me and telling me what I had missed, and in teaching me the games from their own villages. In between their lessons and the selectors’, I had no further trouble sleeping.
The selectors taught us history and mythology: how our people had become the land’s chosen farmers while the Osa in the mountains developed animal husbandry. They taught us nutrition, so that we might understand why our bodies withered without both koh and goat milk. We studied plants and their life cycles and the finer details of the things our families practiced every day. My grandmother had shown my mother the exact distances between planting rows, measured with outstretched arms, and when to seed according to the positions of the sun and moons. She learned, and she passed it on to us, but now I and my classmates were taught why. Once I understood the reasons behind everything to do with our crops, my education had already surpassed that of my entire family, but that was not what we had come to learn.
Only after we had a grasp on farming science was the true nature of cropsinging taught to us. We learned which notes to sing when, and how to form the notes deep in our bellies so they didn’t tear our throats as we sang them, and how to use our hands to help shape the air. We practiced recycling our breath so that we took as few breaths as possible, and using even those few breaths to encourage our crop. We trained to go long hours, then days, then weeks, without eating or drinking or sitting or relieving ourselves. We developed the skills for the season-long trance, the one part that defied mere science, that was art or magic or some combination of all three.
We were told we were now different but no better than anyone else at home. No better, though among us we compared stories of our selection, trying to figure out why it had been us and not someone else. I thought always of Acco. He could have done this just as well as me. The selector had said as much. We had not been chosen because we were special; we were now special because we had been chosen, and taught.
At every opportunity, I asked a variation on the question that haunted me: what would happen to my village if Kirren died before I returned? If we weren’t special, why didn’t they teach more of us, so there would be no risk of my family starving? They never answered.
After seven years’ schooling, I was taken to a small field that had been seeded by my teachers. “Sing,” they said, so I sang. I sang to my field, through long days and long nights, through sun and storms. I closed my eyes and envisioned the seeds as they were, and I sang them the songs that told them how to open, how to seek the light, how to build the complex structures that composed root and stalk and leaf and fruit and pod.
My mouth became so parched I could no longer swallow, and the notes that emerged from my throat cracked and shattered before they reached the air. I stood long enough that birds and voles ceased to pay attention to me and moved as they do when nobody is watching. Long enough that my field was all I had ever known, and the song I sang was all that was left of me. I was still not allowed to rest.
I woke in the spot where I’d been standing, my joints locked and my limbs rigid. My mouth still moved of its own accord, my jaw aching, my throat still dredging the notes from my deeper recesses. Around me, my plot had exploded in silver-green. My crops had heard me and pushed themselves through the topsoil to hear me better. They had reached waist high. I had been singing for sixty days.
“Sing again,” the teachers told me, more gently this time. I gathered my strength and began again. This time the trance came sooner, before I even needed a single sip of water. I woke in a field of stalks taller than my head. Even then they hummed with energy and reached for me. They wanted me to sing again, but I had done all I could for them.
Eventually, I knew it was time to sing the other song. The harvest song, mournful and celebratory, thanking the plants for their contribution to our own survival. This song had call and response parts that the farmers participated in, parts we learned as children helping our parents in the fields. This time I sang the call, but I wasn’t sure what would come of it. Who would respond? I had been standing for so long. My classmates must all have gone away. It felt like generations had lived and died in the endless moment I had been standing there.
I sang the harvest song anyway, as I had been trained.
Voices answered: my teachers and the other students. They harvested my plot, singing with me until they reached the center. When they finally arrived where I stood, they hoisted me gently onto their shoulders and carried me from the spot where I had stood long enough that I felt I might have grown roots myself. The celebration lasted for days. I had passed the test. But more than that, I knew now that I was a cropsinger, down to my core; the songs were part of me now.
Others completed the test over the days that followed, and I took part in the harvest and the sung response and the rescue and celebration for each of them. After the first six celebrations had ended, we stood at the final plot’s perimeter and strained our ears to hear singing, but we heard none. We saw nothing through the thick stalks.
We waded in with scythes, shouting Brune’s name, shouting the unbidden response to a call we did not hear him making. We found him not far from where he should have been. His flask was empty, and the stalks around him had been torn down, their fruit eaten. And still, he was dead, his skeletal form a testament to all that might have gone wrong in our own trials. His trance had not been complete but neither had his waking, and he had starved.
Though I’d worried about my village as every new season passed, I’d managed to push Aro’s death to the back of my mind. Seeing Brune’s failed trance made it more real to me than it had ever been. How had Aro failed? How had Brune? He’d been a good student, and he’d practiced and succeeded in all the earlier trials. We could only guess at what he’d done wrong.
We knew we had to master our craft, so that we would not fail as he had. Although we were now done with our schooling, we had learned one last important lesson: cropsinging was serious business, life and death for everyone involved. Now it was ours.
Finally, I was allowed to return home. I witnessed it all with new eyes. The buildings were the same, though I spotted cracks and fissures in the clay walls that I had never noticed before. My parents greeted me warmly when I arrived, but I towered over them both now. It felt strange to wrap my arms fully around someone who once enveloped me completely in her own arms.
I’d grown taller than my other siblings as well, my voice deeper. The younger and the older crowded around me, prodding and examining me, telling me about the years I had missed. They didn’t have to talk about Kirren’s cropsinging; I could see the damage in their gaunt forms, their smallness.
There was only one person missing. “Tell me,” I said. “Where is Acco?”
“He left,” said one child, a cousin so young I didn’t yet know her name.
“Where did he go?” So many faces, and I hadn’t missed his until now! I scanned the crowd.
“To the City.”
“To the City? Why? When will he be back?”
My mother answered this time, her expression pained. “He didn’t say. He left a season or two after you. We haven’t heard from him since.”
I could only guess at the emotional loss, but the physical toll was more quantifiable: each child gone was another pair of hands missing for planting and harvest and sorting. First me, then my brother. He might have left anyhow by now, as young men often did, to work in another village and meet a partner who was not a cousin, who hadn’t been there to laugh when a boy had a hole bitten in the rump of his pants by a goat, but I recognized the cost of his early departure upon my mother.
I resolved to be as helpful as possible during the time that remained. We were between harvest and planting, the dormant season. Even then chores awaited, and I could be present and participatory before I was needed for my true job. Not that they let me do much. Everywhere I went, people protested that I should be resting and spending time with my family, not working. I argued that helping them was the best way to spend time with my family.
My younger siblings were at first my easiest companions. They tried to emulate the sounds I taught them, laughing at the feel of those sounds in their throats and bellies, but they were unable to make them work, and soon they gave up asking. Worse yet, I couldn’t help but try to explain the things I had learned—the whys of what we did—only to find they were uninterested.
“Why does ‘why’ matter?” asked my younger sister Orex as I tried to explain the reason we were digging holes to plant hetch at the corners of the koh fields.
“Because it lets you fix things better when they go wrong.” I handed her a seedpod from my waistpouch.
“Our job is not to fix things,” she said. “It’s to make sure they don’t go wrong in the first place.” She placed the seedpod with precise movements and scooped soil over it. My knowledge was theoretical; her hands knew what to do.
There was another a reason we arrived home for the first time in this season. It meant we had time to talk with the old cropsingers we were to apprentice and soon replace, me sooner than my classmates, and to learn from them not only about cropsinging but also about navigating the strange space we occupied in our communities, parts set apart. Seven years is a long absence. My youngest sibling was now the same age I had been when I left. Orex was now an adult, which meant I must be one too. Her hands were calloused and her forearms strong from working the grindstone, and one of the men who had joined our village in my absence had taken to leaving intricately carved figurines by her door.
The only group I truly did not fit into was the young women’s residence, where Orex and the others of my age lived. I had assumed I was to live with them, but instead, I found myself staying with Kirren. She had so much to tell me, a lifetime of things one could only say to another cropsinger. I spent hours talking with her, studying the lines on her face that would one day be mine, listening to the advice of someone whose life had been spent seeing others age in half-year increments. The young women spoke a language that seemed entirely foreign to me, full of names I didn’t know and intrigues that felt insignificant compared to what I was about to do. Not insignificant to them; insignificant to me.
Since nobody let me touch a hoe or a grindstone, I spent time with the goats, slipping into their pen and latching it tightly behind me, so I wouldn’t be blamed for a goat eating its way through town.
The goats were gentle, curious, voracious. The mothers’ bags had begun to dry, and the daughters were near weaning now. The oldest, the ones incapable of bearing more young, would be slaughtered soon, and the young ones traded back to the Osa. The Osa, unable to cropsing, traded us female goats with female kids in exchange for koh, so that we would always need to return and trade again the following year. We, with koh but no male goats, dependent on them. An ancient system, based on two peoples’ distinct needs and the commonality of starvation without both koh and milk. It meant we never had to deal with aggressive male goats, only the playful babies and their placid, hungry mothers.
Acco returned the week before spring planting. Kirren and I had been spending the days together, planning field division. Each of us would sing up half the village’s crop. That way, we would not be relying entirely on me, in my newness, or on her fading voice. If her fields stunted, mine might compensate. If I failed due to inexperience—if I died while trying, we didn’t say— at least we’d have half a stunted crop. I took comfort in the knowledge that my family’s survival didn’t depend entirely on me for this first year.
Kirren and I were warming our voices with hot roasted kohwater and cyclical humming when we heard shouting. The children, chasing another traveling machine. For a moment I thought it was the selectors, come to relieve me of my post. Then I realized this machine was smaller than theirs. It carried a single occupant: Acco.
He landed in the common, and people came from all corners of the village and the fields. Our father reached him first, throwing him into an embrace that Acco returned. Then my mother: Acco was now a big enough man to sweep her into his arms. Everyone pelted him with questions.
“Where have you been?”
“What have you done?”
“Is that your machine?”
“Can we ride in it?”
“What makes it go?”
I hung back, watching, but it was my eyes he sought out when he began to speak.
“Guerre, you’re back,” he said, as if I, not he, had chosen this day to arrive.
“Since the start of the dormant season,” I said.
Wherever he had been, he had not experienced the lean harvests the rest of our family had. He was taller than me, broader, with long muscles. I threw myself on him in a playful hug, but he grabbed my wrist and held me away from his body.
“Brother!” I laughed and struggled against his grasp, but he did not release me.
“You’re weaker than me now.” He smiled as he said this.
“I spend my time singing. I have no idea how such a thing happened.” I tried sarcasm, but it had not been a part of our relationship. I tried to recall if I knew sarcasm before I left home, but I could not remember.
“You’re weaker and smaller, but you’re still the special one.” He frowned now, and I became uncomfortable. I was not a weakling, even if he was bigger. I freed myself but didn’t step back.
“It’s good to see you,” I said, trying to figure out what had changed. “Where have you been?”
“Solving all our problems.” He took a moment to buff dead insects from the machine’s surface with a rag he pulled from his waistpouch, then turned to the gathered crowd. “We shouldn’t have to starve because of an aging cropsinger and an archaic training program. This system is broken, but I’ve brought a solution. I’ve invented a machine to replace the cropsingers.”
There were gasps and murmurs, and all eyes turned toward Kirren and me. Acco continued as if that was his intent. His voice boomed across the crowd, but his words were aimed at me.
“It has always seemed silly to me that our entire community’s survival depended on the skills and—” he searched theatrically for a word “—vitality of our cropsinger. The selectors only choose one at a time, at random. What if they choose wrong, or if a cropsinger dies in trance? Or takes ill in a dormant season and is unable to begin the seasons of planting or growth? What if we were left without?
“It’s a terrible system, but you will be happy to know I’ve returned with a solution. A machine to sing the crops up from the ground, without any need to lose a capable worker—a loved one—for months and years of cropsinging, or to suffer a poor crop due to an aging voice.”
All around me I could hear people talking, but I was caught in Acco’s words. I’d spent seven years worried that my family would starve before I returned. Sparing others the worry they might not survive the wait for a new cropsinger could only be a good thing. But in that same harvest, a machine that replaced cropsingers would replace ME. And how was it even possible? Koh needed song.
Acco called our attention back to himself. “I’ll demonstrate for you all in the morning, but first, I’ve come a long way, and I’m weary and eager to taste a proper meal. Your bread is still my bread, I hope.”
He strode away toward our parents’ home, leaving silence behind.
Only I followed. “Acco. Acco! Turn around. You can’t say something like that and then just leave.”
He ignored me. Only when we had stepped inside did he turn and smile. “Sister! Why didn’t you tell me you were right behind me? Surely a cropsinger has enough voice to make her brother stop walking.”
“What are you doing?” I asked. “Whatever it is, you should stop. I missed you.”
“As I’ve missed you for—what is it? Seven years?”
“Where have you been?”
“Here, there. What’s the matter? Am I spoiling your big event? I didn’t mean to steal your song. I’m here to help.”
“I don’t understand.”
“And you were supposed to be the special one! Don’t worry, sister, I’ll demonstrate for you. Don’t feel so aggrieved.”
He seated himself at our parents’ table as if waiting to be served. I turned and left. Was he doing this for the village’s benefit or to spite me? Was he right that we would be better off without the variables of traditional cropsinging? Maybe I’d spent seven years training for nothing. Seven years to begin an ancient practice at the very moment it became obsolete. What impeccable timing.
I returned to the cropsinger’s cottage, but I couldn’t sleep. I kept picturing the koh seedlings reaching out for the voice singing to them, only to find out it was a machine, incapable of reaction, incapable of joy, incapable of anything but rote encouragement.
“Are you awake?” I asked Kirren after some time had passed, with her tossing and turning on her pallet.
“How could I rest? What he’s suggesting shouldn’t be possible.”
Somehow her concern reassured me, and eventually I slept.
Overnight, someone had begun preparations for the planting festival, hanging braided husk streamers from roof to roof around the common. We gathered beneath them in the morning, all drawn by the irresistible, impossible promise Acco had made.
“So, everyone asks, what does my machine do?” Acco began as if a night had not passed between his last address and this one. When he said ‘everyone,’ he used the uncommon formal term rather than the familiar.
“Has anyone a koh seed or two? I won’t take more, I promise, but we all know that no single seed is guaranteed to grow.” Here, too, the formal ‘anyone,’ as if he had honed this patter on strangers. An aunt left the square and returned with a handful of seeds.
He held out his cupped hand. “Here, you see I have a large clay pot. I gathered soil this morning. The children can attest that this pot is filled with nothing but our homegrown soil. No trickery. Into this soil, I plant these two—no, three! Thank you, generous Aunt—seeds.”
He dug holes with his fingers and placed the precious seeds in the soil, pushing them deeper, covering them over.
“He didn’t sing the farmer’s planting song,” whispered Kirren to me. “That song is traditional, not functional, but still. It’s disrespectful.”
I nodded in agreement.
He put a hand on his machine’s flank and it began to hum. It was a strange looking thing, the size and shape of a rain barrel, with koh-colored panels surrounding a large plant I didn’t recognize. The leaves were broad and thick, a dark green-black with smooth edges. We had learned to recognize many plants in our training, to enable us to encourage the ground-enriching hetch and discourage weeds from growing between our stalks. I’d never seen this plant before.
Acco uncoiled something that looked like a metal rope with a metal rock tied to it and buried the rock within the pot. “And that’s it! In five to seven days’ time, before you begin to plant the fields, at least one seed will have woken and broken through.”
“That’s it?” Kirren looked skeptical. “It’s not singing.”
Kirren had addressed that comment to me, but Acco heard and responded. “It is! Under the soil. If you lay your hand on my machine, you’ll feel the song inside.”
Kirren stepped forward and did as he bade her. “It’s humming, but I don’t hear it.”
“Under the soil, as I said. The plants hear, I promise you.”
A few others asked questions, but the spectacle had ended. The proof would be in the seedlings’ growth, and we couldn’t stand around waiting for that. There were still fields to prepare.
After the crowd dispersed, I lingered to examine the machine. The surface was metal, like the traveling machines, with wires snaking into the soil around the strange broad-leaved plant.
“You don’t have to sneak, sister. I’ll show you anything you want to see.”
“I wasn’t sneaking. Just curious. How is it powered?”
“The sun,” he began, then continued with the answer to my first question before it had even left my lips. “The sun, but it stores enough of the sun’s power during bright days that it can work through the night as well. That’s a lightracer plant, from the other side of the mountains.”
“And how does it work?”
He smiled with tight lips. “Maybe I won’t reveal everything on the first day. Maybe it’s magic, like your cropsinging.”
“You said you’d show me anything.”
“Show, yes, but perhaps not tell. What did you think of my audience? Almost as many as will sing you to your post next week, don’t you think? Not bad for the one they didn’t take.”
“Is that why you’ve done all this? You’re still offended they picked me instead of you? It’s not a glamorous life. Months standing in a field while everyone lives their lives. No chance of a family.”
“That’s not the point.”
“What is, then?”
“I don’t understand why it was you. My singing voice was as strong and clear as yours.”
I looked him straight in the eye. “Do you want to know why they chose me, out of everyone in the line that day? I know why. It didn’t have to do with how I sang. Everyone sang fine except for Ury. What was it that they asked us to do, Acco? Do you remember?”
“The selector said ‘Repeat after me,’ and then sang a note and we all sang it back.”
“No,” I said gently. “The selector said ‘Do as I do.'”
I sang the note the selector had sung and raised my hand in the gesture the selector had used; the gesture I had repeated and repeated for my teachers until I had it exactly right.
“I was the only one who used my hand as well as my voice. That’s all. That’s why they took me away.”
He opened his mouth as if he was going to say something, then closed it again. He’d developed such a slick persona; it was almost shocking to see his face mount something as vulnerable as surprise.
He laughed to cover it. “I guess you were special after all, then.”
The week passed slowly. The village began to smell like baking spices. The festival would celebrate Kirren, and celebrate me, and celebrate the seeds, but the village didn’t involve us in the planning, and we were discouraged from doing anything to help in that regard.
Instead, we spent time with the babies and toddlers, who would be months older when we saw them next. We spent time with our families, knowing that when we next came aware we would learn of new courtships and pregnancies and births and deaths. A blink of an eye to us; months to them.
I spent time with the goats. I’d always found them to be joyful presences in our midst: funny and affectionate but without lingering sentiment. I brought weeds and grasses by the fistful, in the hopes they’d spare my clothing.
Every time I passed through the common, I stole a look into the seedling pot. Nothing stirred. Once, when nobody was looking, I plunged my hand into the dirt. It was the strangest sensation, to feel the artificial song singing back at me through my bones, to be the recipient instead of the singer. I felt the seeds, too. They wanted to grow, or two of the three did, anyhow. They heard the artificial song and wanted to respond, the same way they would have responded for me. Whatever my brother’s other problems, his invention spoke the language it needed to speak.
I stood there, listening with my hand, listening to what the seeds heard. I didn’t know how it worked, but it sounded like cropsong. It felt like cropsong. Except. What was the difference? Something was slightly off. Not in the singing; in what should have been the breaths between phrases, there was silence. Nobody but a cropsinger would know the breaths were important too, so it made sense that my brother had not accounted for breathing. How might a seed react to a song that was almost right but not quite? I carried that question away.
At night, talking with Kirren, a different problem manifested.
“Has he thought this through?” I whispered in the dark.
“What do you mean?”
“Follow the whole path. Let’s say he has created a miraculous new machine that can replace us. Let’s say it’s strong enough to raise a whole field, a whole village’s worth of fields, which I doubt. What’s to stop him from selling his machines to the Osa? If the Osa can raise crops, they won’t need to trade with us anymore, and we’ll have nothing to offer them that they won’t already have.”
She finished the thought. “We’ll have fields full of crops, and yet we’ll starve.” Neither of us said anything for a moment, but then she continued. “But what if it meant we were no longer as reliant on one another? They could sell us male goats as well as milkers.”
“What would we have to offer?”
“And what if they simply kept their own seeds the next year? Or resented that we had better cropland? It’s fine to raise goats on mountainsides, but what if they wanted our land?”
Everything was based on what-ifs. What-ifs that could destroy everything. What-ifs that relied on my brother acting ethically, acting logically. When had he last done either? Even now, returning with his machine, strutting around like a hero and savior, there was no way to tell whether he was acting out of generosity or self-interest. If he wanted to make things better, why not augment our song instead of replace it?
I heard the change in Kirren’s breathing that suggested she had fallen asleep. I whispered her name, once, then twice. When she didn’t answer, I slipped from my bed and out of the hut.
In the common, the machine hummed to itself. One seedling had poked its head through the soil, right on schedule. I put my hand into the dirt and listened. The machine was still singing the song that encouraged the seeds to wake, to uncoil, to seek the sun. It hadn’t yet shifted to the next part of the song, the part that built seedling into stalk, without which they would grow as thin and useless as whiptrees.
I listened to the seedling, too, picturing it through the soil, as if I were rooted beside it. It had found its way to the air, but inside, it wasn’t right. Its structures were confused, jumbled. The two tiny leaves looked fine, but they didn’t know what they were supposed to be. They didn’t know how to become.
When my brother would gather the crowd the next morning and show off his success, how long would it take him to convince everyone that a machine was more reliable than a cropsinger? I didn’t want to know. The seedling looked normal. Why would they believe me that it was wrong? Even if it grew to look like a perfect example, and nobody knew that it was chaotic inside, that chaos might still manifest somehow in the stalk or the fruit or the seeds it produced, or even the nutrients themselves.
Everyone liked the idea of less reliance on a cropsinger, even if they wouldn’t say. I had seen that. What if I tried to explain what I had seen in the plant and they took my protest as fear of change? I didn’t have time to convince them.
I chose the smallest of the older goats, one who would neither yield much meat nor bear another kid, in case the lightracer plant was toxic. When I looped the rope around her head she followed me from the pen with placid interest. The other goats dozed or watched me, but they didn’t move. Good.
Shouts woke me in the morning. Even Kirren stirred from her heavy slumber.
“What’s that?” she asked, stretching.
I lied. “I don’t know.”
We dressed and walked toward the shouts, which got louder as we neared the common. My brother stood by his machine, though it looked different. The lightracer plant was gone, eaten down to the roots. Some of the side panels had been torn off as well; they lay in ribbons around the base.
“It worked,” he repeated. “It worked, I’m telling you.”
“I didn’t see any seedlings, Acco,” said our father, the only person who had ventured close enough to look into the clay pot. “Did anyone else?”
I kept silent.
“Acco,” my father said. “Perhaps your machine worked, and perhaps it didn’t. But how can we lay our trust in something that can be stripped clean by a goat?”
Acco stroked the damaged machine. “Your cropsinger could drop dead of old age. How do you trust them to survive the season? It worked, I’m telling you.”
My mother’s voice this time. “Maybe, but this is a good reminder that anything new must be tested before it is trusted. We have two cropsingers this year for that very reason. And maybe you can build a new machine that’s more resilient. For now, put it away until after you help us plant. Tonight we celebrate a new season.”
The words she only implied: be part of our community, if you are staying.
Those were the words my brother answered. “No,” he said. “I have to go.”
He packed the remains of his invention onto his traveling machine. Kissed our mother on the head, then our father. I might have chosen to walk away before he sought me out, but I thought that would be suspicious, so I instead came forward to say goodbye.
“We miss you when you’re not here, Acco.” That much was truthful, though the visit had not been pleasant.
“Did it work?”
He lowered his voice. “I know you put your hand in the soil. I know you listened. Did the seeds grow?”
I wanted to answer him truthfully. I wanted my brother to come back. Not this angry version, but the brother I had admired and played with, even when he was too aggressive. He had always made me stronger, in pushing to be better than me at everything.
“No,” I said.
The look he gave me then was one of disappointment, a field we could never cross again.
He left without another word. I watched his dustcloud far into the distance.
What I knew, in that moment, was that if he built the machine again, he would not bring it to us. If and when change arrived, we would not be the first. We would find out when we went to market and the Osa had raised the price of their goats or didn’t appear at the market at all, or when a young person arrived from another village and showed surprise that we still did things the old way.
In the meantime, planting season had arrived, and the seeds would need my voice. For now.