I entered a flash fiction contest.
The prompt was “future food.”
The winner wrote about mystery meat.
I wrote this:
Pop heard bandits out in the corn field last night. That makes three times this month alone. It seems every time the government redefines “organics,” a dozen people take a notion to come steal ours.
“Damn river pirates’ll stab you over a cob,” Pop says. “You kids ever hear them, you come in the house quick and send out the droids.”
We don’t always run to the house, but we remember to release the Brutes. In the shadow of the corn it’s hard to see the pirates, but their footsteps are as loud as ice cracking between your molars. The moment between hearing them and finding them passes before I catch my breath.
When you’re standing in the middle of the field, you should only hear two sounds: the whisper of the stalks and the laugh of the river. The stalks have the sense to be quiet because they don’t want to attract undue attention. The river is loud and brash because it is wide and deep and floats makeshift rafts of thieves. The droids are silent as they harvest, and even more so when they attack. I once saw a Brute my sister built tear a man’s thumb clean off his hand. That kind of retribution stops them picking both today and tomorrow. Chastised pirates sometimes return, but maimed pirates never do.
When my sister and I sit in the corncrib husking the ears, we like to pretend we’re at a fancy restaurant eating heaping plates full of smooth textured G-Os and G-MOs, washed down with tall iced glasses of bubbly drinks and bowls of ice cream; she always chooses strawberry, and I imagine black walnut. Ma thinks she’s giving us a treat when she fixes us mint water and blueberries, but we want that fatty creaminess, and the nearest unmodded cow is a week’s walk away. Clean cows are becoming as rare as clean corn in this province.
Some nights, I have dreams where folks’ heads are made out of kernels, bumpy faces that are tooth-white and dandelion-yellow and all those colors between. I don’t know if these are fantasies or nightmares—I suppose it depends on the day and the circumstances. Once, while wide awake, I saw a girl river pirate, not much older than me, whose skin looked like Indian corn. She stared me dead in the eye from where she squatted in the brace roots, and I felt right sorry for her face, with all the compounds and unpronounceable muck that was bubbling away under there, and I think my face must have looked pretty sorry, too, when I called our fastest Brute over to catch her.
In the dark of the evening, with the river breeze combing the hair on your arms and the river water brushing your feet, it’s easy to envision the current full of steamboats as it must’ve looked centuries ago, the paddlewheels churning the brown water, the barges bearing crates of bourbon to the thirsty and the sober. There’s daguerreotypes in the attic, blue-black and white and sepia toned, like weak tea, showing those beasts negotiating the water like breeching whales. Now, Pop and I, we brew our own moonshine in the passageway under the barn. It’s my job to stir the mash, cut the hooch and sample the batches after tossing the foreshot.
“You drink them first drips,” Pop says, “and you’re just asking for a world of hurt.”
Ma bootlegs the shine down the river at night. I like to watch as her boat cuts the moon’s reflection, turning it into a glowing, slithering thing. Sometimes Tallex joins me by the river. It’s our oldest droid, the smartest, the only original, the one after which my sister and I have modeled all the others. Each spring, the equipment and tools that didn’t make it through winter get converted into parts for another droid harvester. I’m pretty good at converting, but my sister’s better; either way, we both have to do it, since ordering droids from the city would only draw attention to our land and raise questions about what we’re growing on it.
Tallex asks a lot of questions about the river pirates and the G-Os and G-MOs. Its questions usually start with ‘why’ and end with some version of wonder at people’s desire to make and construct food. Why did people start developing food, instead of growing it? Why did people buy foodstuffs in boxes instead of produce with leaves? Why did factories become farms? I tell it I don’t know the answers, because all these things, all these decisions, all these non-decisions, happened generations before my time. Sometimes Tallex asks why we don’t share with the pirates. I try to teach it about supply and demand and self-preservation. It doesn’t understand, and I’m tired of explaining.
Uncle Joe’s farm was raided last year by the FDA, and the province snatched the land under eminent domain. Now government farmers are walking his rows, sowing his seeds, reaping his harvest, and selling his organics to the highest commercial bidder. Uncle Joe is free to go to the winner’s local grocery outlet and buy his own crops at whatever marked-up price per pound they’re being sold. Pop keeps a shotgun under the breakfront just in case the FDA ever comes knocking on our door, and my sister and I have programmed the droids to bypass the Three Laws for the sake and safety of the crops. The Brutes don’t bother worrying about all that allocation stuff like Tallex does—they follow orders blindly and perfectly.
Tomorrow’s my eleventh birthday. I’m hoping Ma will surprise me with ice cream, but I know my bowl will likely be full of popped corn instead. Sometimes I wonder what the revolutionaries in the other provinces eat. Here, corn is the beginning, the middle, and the end.
“These kernels been in our family since corn was the only thing that would grow along this river,” Pop says, “and our stalks will be the last damn thing growing here, too.”