ACELDAMA (An Allegory)
In the rainy afternoon light, a figure stoops to the ground, checking the progress of his planting; tiny sprouts of green wave fragiley in rows that stretch flat and unbroken for a mile before hitting the next road, every field and road square to the other. Last fall’s corn stubble like a mound of hair parts and yields; under the man’s palm the earth, engorged and spongy, yields. Land like his costs three thousand dollars an acre, and he plans to pass on more to his sons than his father had to him, and his grandfather to his father before that; his great-grandfather’s thirty Civil War silver dollars were fruitful seeds.
The farmer stands up and moves to the barn, both sway-backed and with red skin peeling from age; a hex symbol hangs above the barn’s broad double doors, just under “Neuhaus 1902.” Inside sit several massive modern machines. He tinkers on a much smaller 1937 Allis Chalmers tractor, his first, built the year she was born. His wife is dead. They were married young, even for the times, and though he’d felt old at twenty after their third child was born, he can see now he was a child himself with a steward’s responsibility much older than the deed to his land.
She died at thirty giving birth to their seventh child. There were whispers about what really killed her, but they died with the surrounding community. Sometimes, though, the farmer still hears them, stirring moldy grain, old harnesses, and dust in the barn. It reminds him of a sermon he once heard—the Acts of the Apostles, sacrifice, a strange foreign name on the preacher’s tongue—though his memory blanks after that.
The farmer gingerly touches his abdomen. His stomach is lacerated with ulcers bought with his labors: harvesting by the light of the combine long after late summer nights’ deep purple left the sky, plowing axle-deep in mud, laying miles of new plastic tile to drain that mud, replacing the broken clay tiles his grandfather had formed in a kiln behind the barn. A pond now shares part of that space, along with soybeans and a shady woodlot. On a small sand ridge sits a cholera cemetery, filled in a week more than a century ago with mass graves and nameless tombstones.
What other strangers lie buried there?
The farmer’s field had been secured with the blood of Indian wars, malarial “shakes,” and the death of canal workers—German and Scotch immigrants, the only ones who wanted his sodden corner of Ohio because it was all they could have. Soldiers more than farmers, they slashed and burned the timber, bled the swampy land of its miasmatic life. But the land resisted, swallowing the first railroad through as it had the first log road—wholly, inexorably; years later, workers building the state highway unearthed pristine timbers buried twenty-five feet deep.
Like a womb, the earth accepts intrusions and nurtures them.
The farmer walks through the field where the kiln once stood; shards of clay tile litter the ground, turned up by the churning wheels of tractors and trucks, the iron and later steel of plows and discs. Industry had won, but it couldn’t keep his children from leaving for places with greater industry—Toledo, Lima, Youngstown—places where the land was no longer recognizable, where they could no longer recognize themselves and their home. Where they could not hear their mother. A virgin.
If a man should bow to the earth and his bowels burst, would it be for his wickedness or hunger, a hunger for his old habitation now that it’s become desolate?
And when a farmer digs his hands into the succulent edge of a field in fading light, grinds the grains of dirt between his fingers—clutching, squeezing—he could be raping a fourteen-year-old girl in the dusk of a barn. He could, if the earth weren’t so old.
Jeff Fearnside is a writer whose work focuses strongly on place, culture, and the natural environment. Born and raised in Rust Belt Ohio, Fearnside has also lived in Idaho, Washington state, Kentucky, Arizona, and—for four years—in Central Asia, where he was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan and later manager of the Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
His fiction has appeared in many U.S. journals and been honored with several national awards. Most recently, he won the 2009 Mary Mackey Short Story Prize. His short-story manuscript MAKING LOVE WHILE LEVITATING THREE FEET IN THE AIR: AND OTHER STORIES OF FLIGHT was named a finalist (Top 7) in the New Rivers Press 2009 MVP Competition. Stories in this collection have appeared in THE PINCH, ROSEBUD, MANY MOUNTAINS MOVING, LAKE EFFECT, and CONTROLLED BURN, among others. For more information, please visit his website at www.Jeff-Fearnside.com.