I’m the corn girl. That’s because I make our corn field grow.
If I take my shoes off and curl my toes deep into the dirt when I walk around the field—although that tears up my feet something bad—I can raise the corn a quarter inch a day, so long as I make sure to touch all stalks I pass. You’d think that’s an amazing talent, especially in a place where the other fields around our farm lie dead. But ain’t nobody noticing a lick of what I do—not when my sister can travel into the ahead and tell us how to keep the stretch away.
Cassie. She ain’t no corn girl. Pa, old Jeremiah, the Howell sisters across the corn field—they all just care about what Cassie has to say when she comes back from the ahead side. What will end up slipping away, what knickknacks will vanish: Pa’s wagon wheels or Jeremiah’s clod-hoppers or the wooden cross under the knotted oak where Ma’s buried. Cassie used to be able to tell us what farms the stretch would take, too, but there are just the lot of us and our farm left now. So now all that vanishes are things here and there: socks and the scythes in the barn and tiles off the Howells’ roof.
Except one day, Cassie ain’t telling me what will vanish. She tells me something’s coming.
“A man and a boy,” she says as she steps out of the mirror. “They got cows. Cows, Jo, can you believe that?”
The mirror shimmers behind her. I catch a glimpse of what all lies ahead of our farm six days from now. I hope to catch sight of cows down the dirt road but I ain’t got Cassie’s magic and all I see’s the corn field and the outline of Jeremiah’s little shack behind it. Then the mirror goes flat and there’s just the reflection of me and Cassie: round and curly-haired and freckled Cassie because she gets away from the stretch sometimes, and tall and lanky with sore feet and hair straight as a horse’s mane Jo, because I never go nowhere.
“How you know they’re cows?” I ask. “You ain’t never even seen one.”
“They’re cows. I just know. At least two dozen of them.” Cassie puts the tattered sheet back over the mirror, making a looming ghost out of it in the corner of the room. “I seen it, Jo. Spent all day seeing it. You’re gonna catch them down at the crossroads and bring them back here.”
“At the crossroads?” I shudder. “Why’d I be down at the crossroads?”
The crossroads is where you notice the stretch the most. There ain’t nothing out there but empty plains in all directions and black crows flapping in the wind like a bunch of screeching scabby marks in the sky. Ain’t none of us been out by the crossroads since Pa and I went out to put up a sign. We did it in case anybody was still alive out there to need shelter, since we got corn to eat and crows to shoot with Pa’s rifle—but that was before the stretch ate his last few bullets and left only me and my corn, so if someone came now we couldn’t let them stay, nohow. We ain’t been back to the crossroads since.
“You’re gonna be down at the crossroads because I tell you to,” Cassie says. “You know how it works by now, Jo.”
This part is what never makes no sense: how Cassie can see something I ain’t gone and done yet—or wouldn’t even do to begin with unless she’d seen me do it in the ahead and told me to do it now. You can go crazy trying to figure it out. But then, the stretch’s a strange thing—it groans everything thin until there’s nothing left, and screaming at the stretch how it don’t make no sense don’t make it stretch things any less.
“Guess we’d better tell Pa, then, so he can fix the buggy,” I say. “Who knows how far away the crossroads have stretched by now. I sure ain’t walking all the way there.”
We go outside. We can’t see the sun no more: it’s just a tired disc behind corpse-pale clouds too thick for anything to shine through. Nothing casts shadows in the yard—not the sundial, not the fence with its peeling paint, not Cassie or me. It’s as if the thin sunlight goes straight through us, like we’re spirits that God forgot to claim.
We find Pa and Jeremiah in the field. They’re stomping snake eggs to a slimy crunch beneath their boots. Makes no sense what the snakes are doing in that field, because we don’t have no mice or critters in it, but there are always nests popping up all over the place. One time Cassie came back through the mirror, her face all scrunched up and crying because a snake bit me in the ahead, six days before it was gonna bite me here. Pa wouldn’t let me go raising the corn for two weeks until he’d checked every corner of the field. He said if the stretch hadn’t managed to get me in five years, he sure wasn’t gonna give me up to no damn snake on something as common as a Wednesday afternoon.
Jeremiah shovels the snake mess over the fence while Cassie tells them about the man with the boy and cows. Sometimes Cassie’s words have a way of making the wrinkles smooth out of Pa’s face, but today she makes him lick his lips, too.
“Steak,” he says, ruffling Cassie’s already unruly hair with thin fingers. “Aren’t you the bearer of good news.”
“I sure didn’t think there was anyone else left out there,” Jeremiah mumbles, his gray eyes fixed on the horizon yawning wide beneath the twilight. “And with cattle, too.”
“You think maybe things are changing, Mister Jeremiah?” I ask. “Maybe the stretch is getting tired and things are pulling themselves together. Maybe the corn can grow on its own again.”
Jeremiah smiles, but it’s a rueful smile. “I think the world’s too stretched out to ever pull itself back again, Jo. I don’t think things are gonna change much, except we might get a few good meals and give you a bit of rest.”
“That’s change enough,” Pa replies. “I think we’re all tired of corn.”
Mister Jeremiah mumbles something else, about God having given up on us and for Pa to not give us girls false hope, but there’s a gleam in his eyes that ain’t been there before. He says goodbye and goes off to tell the Howell sisters about the visitors. Cassie and Pa head back home, the cornstalks swooshing around them like brittle ghosts in the evening breeze.
I raise those cornstalks half an inch before I go inside. And wouldn’t you know it, nobody notices a lick.
A few days later I ain’t raised the corn for more than a few hours when Cassie rustles through the field. Her bonnet flops around her neck and blotches of red dance on her cheeks like someone smacked her around, but her bright eyes are wide in exhilaration.
“Linus likes you,” she says.
I stop walking—which is nice, because my feet are already burning. “Who’s Linus?”
“The boy with the cattle. He’s our age. Maybe a year older. He likes you.”
The last boy I remember was Jimmy Dixon, a little white stick of a boy with wheat-colored hair. We used to catch silver-bellied fish down in the creek behind the shed where Jeremiah lives now and he had a laughter you could hear for miles. Him and his family vanished with the stretch a few years ago, and I ain’t really thought about boys at all since then. Boys, courting, getting married—all of that went away with the stretch. When I started to bleed and Cassie told me what it was all for, I cried. I’d be going through all that trouble for nothing because there’s no boys to make babies with, not in the whole wide world.
But three days from now, there’s gonna be a boy at the farm, and he’s gonna like me. If Cassie says so, it’s gonna happen, because Cassie’s never wrong.
“What’s he like?” I continue to walk, trying to not sound too excited and trying to concentrate on the raising, but my mind’s already painting pictures in my head of this boy named Linus.
Cassie follows behind me as I walk. “Tall, like you. Kinda handsome, I guess. He has a rifle with him all the time. Says the crows out there in the stretch are mean and will peck at you in the night.”
“The stretch ain’t a nice place,” I say. “Jeremiah and the Howells always told us it’s bad. Much worse than here.”
Mister Jeremiah and the Howell sisters came the week Ma died from blood poisoning. By then that strange magic had been eating the plains for three years already, and the town we used to go to for supplies was gone along with all the people in it. Mister Jeremiah wandered off a cotton farm in the next county over, and he came across the Howell sisters who lost their village and took a wagon and a scrawny old horse and rode out with just the clothes on their back to not end up the same way.
Together the three of them came down our dirt road in their wagon, sunburned and bony and rickety as scarecrows, the same morning when we’d put up Ma’s cross. Jeremiah claimed he’d smelled the corn cooking from miles away and that’s how they’d found our farm.
The Howell sisters weren’t really sisters at all but that’s what Pa said, anyway. I reckon maybe he thought we’d be shocked at the idea of two old white ladies sleeping in the same bed and touching each other’s hands when they thought nobody was looking, but we have weirder things happening around us and it don’t bother me any.
So the sisters took the larger shack on the hill and Jeremiah stayed in one of the field sheds. And that’s how there are six of us in one little spot, eating what corn I can raise up from the ground, and hardly anyone else in the rest of the world. But soon there’s gonna be two more, and a whole bunch of cows.
Cassie tip-toes down the rows behind me, telling me how I’m gonna show Linus the creek and how Pa and Jeremiah will help slaughter a cow and how Cassie herself is gonna be watching it from the porch and gag at how red the blood will be against the bone-white ground. She spends almost all day on the other side, but when she gets back she remembers mostly glimpses like that. Makes me wonder what she remembers of this side when she crosses over to the future. Or maybe this is the past, and we’re the ones six days behind. Shoot, I try to not think about it too much.
“They’re gonna cook the meat over the fire,” Cassie says. “Big slabs of it. I tried some, but I didn’t like it. Tastes burnt and wrong. Even worse than crow.”
“I won’t mind trying,” I say, still walking down the field, still brushing the plants with my fingers, teasing the dry stalks to cut me, feeling lightheaded and giddy.
“Jo, stop your damn raising for a second.”
Cassie’s cussing stops me in my tracks. When I turn around, all the seriousness I’m trying to keep out of my face is aching in Cassie’s. There’s no shadow cast from the cornstalks to hide the tears in her eyes, neither.
“They need a girl,” she says. “I think they’re gonna ask Pa to let you leave with them, Jo.”
“Leave? I gotta raise the corn. You know I can’t leave.”
“Well, you’re gonna want to go.”
Then my sister begins to sob, and I can’t tell her not to, because she’s always right.
There’s an old photo of Ma and Cassie and I on a wood shelf in the kitchen. It’s faded a bit round the edges and half of Cassie’s face is bleached out. I can see Ma’s face just fine, but as terrible as it sounds it’s not her face I look at. It the way she’s holding me—a tiny bundle with a head shock-full of hair, all snug in her arms like she’d rather die than put me down. I wonder if that’s how I’d feel too, if I ever had a baby of my own. Something alive and warm and soft to the touch I could raise, instead of a crackle-dry corn field. Something that would grow along with me.
Although when I start to think that way I feel my cheeks heat up with shame and I turn back to the stove and the corn stew I’m making.
“It hurts, you know,” Cassie says, putting down our chipped blue-rosed china on the dining table behind me with angry, clacking noises.
“What hurts?” I ask, grateful that Pa’s still outside because even though I ask, I kinda already know what she means.
“Having a baby. Even making them hurts. Much worse than your bleed.”
I blush harder. “How do you know that?”
“The Howell sisters told me. They say men are nothing but trouble. They’re probably right.”
I turn to my sister, and she meets me with a defiant gaze, clutching the plates in her hand so hard her knuckles turn white. She looks a little scary, even—like she’s facing some beast and ain’t afraid to go at it, and that beast is me.
“Cassie, you gotta stop,” I say. “We don’t know what’s gonna happen for sure when those folks get here. Maybe you ain’t seeing things right. Maybe it’s all hat and no cattle. And if there’s a boy, who says I’ll even like him at all.”
“I ain’t never been wrong,” Cassie says. “The only way I’m ever wrong is if we decide to change something before it happens, like when Pa went to kill the snake.”
“Well, this ain’t no snake,” I say, feeling my cheeks burn hotter. “So nothing’s gonna need changing, Cassie. We’ll just have to see tomorrow, is all.”
Pa comes in then, stomping dust off his boots and we don’t talk of it no more. We just eat the corn stew, and drink water from greasy glass cups, and Pa tells me the buggy’s oiled and ready for me to take it to the crossroads. He doesn’t notice that Cassie’s eyes are brimful of tears. But I notice.
So after I’ve washed up I find her out on the porch. It’s chilly out there and it makes my arm prickle like the skin of a plucked chicken. Cassie has her bonnet off and twists its ribbons around her fingers, but she don’t seem to notice the cold.
“He kissed you today,” she says. “Behind the corner of the old chicken coop.”
My heart beats once, hard.
“Maybe they’ll stay,” I whisper. “We’ll have corn and cows.”
“They ain’t coming to stay, Jo.”
I draw my shawl tighter around my shoulders. My first kiss, just six days away, and tomorrow I’ll meet the boy who will give it to me. I want to smile about it, but it feels wrong to smile when my sister looks as though I have betrayed her. So I just stand there, watching the daylight drain out of the glum sky, until she’s gone to bed, and Pa’s gone to bed, and all’s quiet.
For some reason I’d expected the sixth day to look different when I walked outside. Maybe I imagined that would be the day the sun would tear through the clouds, or there’d be no crows cawing at me from the barn roof, or there’d be a smell of something new in the air. But there isn’t. And that’s why I get this creeping feeling that something isn’t quite right.
When I see the buggy gone from the barn, and Jeremiah’s horse isn’t in its paddock, and Pa and Cassie are nowhere to be found, that’s when I know something isn’t right. Not right at all.
My feet burn, as they usually do, but I take off barefoot down the dirt road toward the crossroads anyway.
I don’t know how long I run. There’s that saying how the road seems to stretch for miles, but in my case, it’s actually happening—the road twists and turns across the gray-withered plain, but for each twist and turn there’s another one up ahead. I run past field after field of bristly, dead wheat and petrified cotton bushes and all the while my breath scorches my throat almost as much as the gritty road cuts into my feet. The stretch watches me as I go, I just know it. For each step I take I know, just know, not right is turning into awful wrong.
Pa’s at the crossroads with the buggy. Jeremiah’s horse is doing its best to browse on the dried grass on the side of the road, but there ain’t much browsing to be had. Pa stares far away, his eyes fixed on some mark beyond the horizon I can’t see.
“Pa?” I exhale, too out of breath to sound as angry as I wanna sound. “Why’d you leave without me? You knew I had to come along.”
“I know, Jo.”
He won’t look at me. I follow his gaze. Far away, against the colorless sky, there’s a wispy cloud of dust from a wagon.
A wagon that’s come, and gone.
“We gotta eat, Jo,” Pa says. “You do understand that, don’t you?”
At first, I don’t understand at all.
Then I see the bonnet in his hand, its ribbons fluttering goodbye in the wind, and my knees begin to quiver, and I understand everything.
All night I stare at the mirror, hoping to see something. A glimpse of my sister, maybe, of whatever’s happening to her out there in the stretch, or what will come to happen to me. But I was never the one who traveled ahead and saw things, so no matter how hard I try, all I ever see is myself—that lanky girl with tired eyes and bleeding feet.
I wonder all the time if those tears Cassie shed was because she was jealous of the future I was about to have, or because she knew all along she had to rob me of it to save Pa, Jeremiah, and the Howell sisters. Sometimes, when my feet hurt more than usual, I’ll just stop in the field and reach out for the cornstalks and listen, hoping they’ll whisper the answer to me. But no answer comes.
And I’m the corn girl. So what can I do but keep raising.