Short Story: An Ear of Grain Reaped in Silence

She checks the mirror again. No-one’s following. Her fingers drum on the steering wheel as she waits for the suspended light to click over from red to green. She takes a right turn, then a left. Parallel now to the main artery, on a narrower street lined with 1920s stone apartment buildings. Here there are fewer behemoth malls with their attendant fields of parking, or used-car lots with fluttering flags, or drive-through liquor stores. Fewer brightly lit eateries with plastic furniture, plastic cutlery and plastic conveyor-line service. Fewer hanger-like hypermarkets with eternal aisles of frozen goods, day-glo packaging and geometrically stacked tins of fruit. There are fewer people here. Fewer cars. Fewer cameras. Yet still she checks her mirror again after crossing each intersecting road; assessing the traffic behind her and checking her precious cargo on the back seat. Her cellphone left behind on the bedside table, her other car charging in the garage, Eddy motors on in her rusty old Ford. Untracked.

 

The leg has been hanging there for 270 days. It has lost almost one third of its initial weight but inside its blanket of muslin it has been absorbing, maturing, ageing, waiting.

A beast was selected for its broad, straight back, its curvaceous buttocks and thighs. It was granted a final meal then gently led from the paddock to the wooden shed where a rope was loosely, discretely looped around a hock. A single, sudden expert bolt to the brain brought oblivion. The pulley overhead squealed as the rope tightened and the load was hoisted aloft. A swift, scooping motion with a sharp, double-bladed knife skilfully severed the main pathways to the heart. For several minutes its sanguineous sacrifice flowed while the long-dead creature twitched, final cortical disturbances triggering lifeless muscles. The drained brute was lowered into a tub of tepid water where scourers repeatedly scraped and abraded its skin until the flesh concealed below was exposed. Back overhead, and a delicate, skilled hand and knife slid inside, unzipping the carcass, allowing the entrails to spill and fall off. Meanwhile, fortifying organs were carefully stored for future use. The remaining shell was hosed clean and taken to a chilled room where it hung overnight, solitary in the darkness.

Cleavers, hammers and saws; rendered into its constituent parts. A rear leg, severed from the pelvis, was placed into a box. Gentle hands pressed on the arteries, drawing away any persistent blood, before massaging seasonings into the flesh. Inundated with curing salts, then pressed under a heavy concrete slab, where two weeks of pressure and sodium chloride drew out any moisture which remained. The plump, pink limb transformed into a shrunken, mummified stump, ready now to begin its long wait.

Eddy drives towards the city’s outskirts, senses still tingling, hyper aware of her surroundings. Cautious and ever observant. She passes industrial complexes; mazes of shiny piping and anonymous, unbranded silos. High overhead chimneys belch fumes, and she rolls up her window as the acrid smell catches in her throat. She glances anxiously in the mirror at the rear seat. A little further, where the road is now fringed by soaring concrete walls topped with savage razor wire and indiscrete cameras. Pointing inwards, they do not concern Eddy. All that rises above the barriers is a cloud of dust and, even in the closed car, the unmistakable stench of digestive waste. Eddy knows that merely a few metres away, doomed beasts wallow ankle-deep in their own mess, thousands in a grassless wasteland. Further still and the direct heat from the dipping afternoon sun forces her to roll down the window again. Now the landscape has begun to green, but not verdant; monotone. Stretching on, minute after minute, row after row on either side of the road, an endless rippling ocean of corn. Mile after mile without variation. Until, eventually, on the distant horizon, trees. She is getting close.

They have trafficked with gods and been sacrificed to them. They have been revered, feared, demonised, mythologised, castigated and domesticated.

Amalthea, mother of Zeus, was a goat nymph who fed her divine son on a diet of her milk and honey. Later, the creature was honoured at the Festival of Dionysus, where the skills of the scribe producing the supreme “he-goat song”, a tragōidia, were rewarded with a live animal. In more northerly climes, the sacred honour of drawing Thor’s chariot was bestowed upon hircine helpers. In both hemispheres, celestial systems of astrology have reserved a place for caprine beasts. Cultures separated by thousands of miles and years have revered these creatures as symbols of fruitfulness, and bones in Neolithic, Ancient Greek, Hebrew and Egyptian graves bare testament to their sacrificial past. It was such service in pagan fertility ceremonies that captured the attention of Christians though. And the Greek Satyrs, mischievous woodland men-goats with permanent erections and a lascivious reputation for lustful rutting, drew the Church’s ire. Hence, the cloven-hoofed, bearded, be-horned incarnation of the devil was born. Meanwhile, it was the Hebrew faith which provided the parable of lots cast between two of the beasts; one to be ceremonially sacrificed, the other cast out into the desert bearing the sins of humankind: a scapegoat.

For 10 millennia, a provider to millions around the globe: warm clothing, bone tools, fuel for fires, hair for calligraphy brushes, sustenance as meat and milk. And now, a bundle wrapped in cloth, stored in a warm kitchen, reaches the end of its journey from raw milk, left to curdle, drained and pressed on its way to its soft, fragrant final destination.

The narrow twisting road has an easy familiarity, each bend and turn measured by repetition. The flanking trees comforting in their concealment, each recognisable despite their apparent uniformity. The impenetrable undergrowth and towering canopy cooling. The contentment of a destination almost reached. The succour of a road travelled many times since her first visit. Since Eddy’s life morphed into one of stealth and suspicion. At one time, she had been a foot soldier, helping fight many winning frays: a proposed reduction in government subsidies to corn and soy farmers overturned; the prohibition of antibiotic use in concentrated animal feeding lots rescinded; a farmer successfully sued for saving seeds, risking contaminating the company’s patented GM grains developed to increase yields; a co-operative of producers successfully restrained from making farm-gate and outdoor market sales which were in breach of new health and safety regulations; record damages paid to a meat processing firm by a local newspaper who broke the food libel laws by publishing a photograph taken inside one of its plants. Although a soldier in their battles, she had never been fully conscious of the war that was being waged. And then everything had changed.

A fruit of love, growing millennia ago in the lush warmth of Tenochtitlan. Its skin a seductive, shining scarlet and its hidden internal cavities containing moisture and the possibility of new life. A symbol of desire and fertility presented to newlywed couples.

Then 600 years ago, its seeds were ripped from their native home and transplanted over the ocean by covetous conquistadors; the seeds, but not the name. It became an apple: of love, of gold, of paradise. To mystics who believed in its power to aid lupine transformation, it became a peach; lycopersicum, the wolf peach. And just as it was revered by many, elsewhere it was feared. Encumbered by its superficial similarity to the mythical, biblical fruits of temptation, the apple and the pomegranate, it was seen as a powerful threat to moral values. And while actually innocuous, its familial ties to the mandrake and deadly nightshade relegated it for many years to an ornamental position, with pleasure taken in its yellow five-pointed corollas and crimson orbs, but not in its taste. Then came the cases of wealthy casualties, unable to resist the lure of the luscious berry, falling victim to its acidic juices forming a deadly elixir when combined with the lead contained in their tableware. Meanwhile, those without the means for pewter plates survived unscathed.

Over the years though, acceptance grew and this creeping vine fruit finally assumed its rightful place: nestled in salads, chopped onto bread, atop pizzas, in sauces, in soups, in hangover cures, in tin cans, glass jars and bottles. And, with the fullness of time, the Aztecs’ “plump fruit with a navel” had regained its true name, tomatl.

A veil was lifted on a hidden underworld: obscured, preventable outbreaks of food poisoning; epidemic levels of childhood diabetes; sickening animal cruelty; exploitation of undocumented workers; lobbyists in positions of legislative power creating toothless regulatory agencies; the crushing of all competition and suppression of all investigation. A pastoral fantasy masking a toxic, self-serving production line. And Eddy, a blind enabler. At first there had been a sliver of doubt, then a nagging suspicion, until some gentle probing brought her into contact with the exposers of secrets; mainly farmers unable to match the legal might of the wealthy corporations and unwilling to be beholden to those who display little concern for the beasts, workers, suppliers or consumers they hold sway over. The war for complete control would wear on regardless but now, confronted with that normally buried, Eddy could play no further part. A recent divorce and a newly discovered respect for the custody courts prompted the establishment of her own family law practice. And now business is healthy, and demanding, but she still undertakes the fraught, draining journey two, sometimes three, times a week. The journey to this isolated, unsealed road through the forest, hours from the city. She briefly checks her mirror once more before pulling over. Out of the car, she approaches an unremarkable tree on the edge of the tangled undergrowth. Hidden behind the trunk is a lever which operates a simple pulley. A blockade of bushes and ferns lifts just high enough for a car to pass under, then lowers, and once again the entrance is concealed.

Buried, in the darkness, underground. Slowly gaining strength, nourished by minerals leeched from fertile soil, nurtured by the empowering moisture from above. Anchors thrust down deeper while tentacles explore skywards in search of the restorative, photosynthetic
power of the sun and air. Ever upwards until strong enough to produce a head of encased berries: bran, endosperm and germ. Crunchy packets of energy on fragile browning stems, ready for harvest.

Guillotined blades of grass, bound into bundles, stacked to dry before being brutally beaten. The freed heads then tossed between baskets until the passing breeze carried away all the feathery husks to expose the kernels enclosed inside. These crushed between two stones and ground to dust. The pulverised grains then combined with a single-cell fungus. An alchemic process activated by warm water; starch molecules broken down into sugars, metabolised and converted into carbon dioxide. The result; a bubbling, expanding, elastic putty. Pounded and rested, pounded and rested, ever swelling. And finally engorged, spilling over the edges of tins, fresh and steaming from the oven.

A process ever overseen by the watchful eye of Demeter: the goddess of the harvest who separates the grain from the chaff; a goddess honoured for her gift of fertility, and celebrated in an agrarian cult and festival of women; a goddess whose grief for a daughter taken whilst gathering flowers was capable of causing drought and famine; a goddess whose mourning and determination led Zeus himself to intervene; a goddess whose abducted girl was returned to her by deceitful Hades, but only periodically. A life lived in two worlds. Bountiful reunions followed by months of arid anxiety. The seasons and their harvests evermore dictated by a handful of pomegranate seeds and a mother’s love.

The car bumps along the rough, confined track hewn through the dense forest, headlights searching the way. And then Eddy re-emerges from the gloomy tunnel into low evening sunlight, morsels of dust caught suspended in the air. In the centre of the large grassy clearing stands a grand timber barn and several smaller outhouses. Around this focal point radiate wedge-shaped paddocks, some containing pigs, or chickens, or goats, the stacked boxes of beehives, others with ordered vegetables gardens, crawling vines or orchards with heavily laden trees. Eddy pulls up behind the large structure and lifts Dionne from her booster seat in the back of the car. Taking the girl’s hand, they start walking towards the barn when Dionne spots Terry in the berry patch. The young girl releases her mother and runs to the elderly man who greets her with a quick hug before she too begins delicately, expertly placing blueberries in the hand-woven basket that lies between them. Eddy watches for a while, her daughter instantly absorbed in the task, before continuing around to the front of the barn. Here, the overhanging roof creates a shaded veranda, and a long table is flanked by two wooden benches. Others have already laid a plaid tablecloth, plates, cutlery and glasses, and are flitting between the various outhouses and internal rooms within the barn. Eddy is greeted warmly and then joins them in ferrying goods to the table. Clear glass jugs brimming with creamy milk. Bottles of raspberry wine, stored since last year’s harvest. Small lidded clay pots holding sticky golden nectar. A dish of steaming boiled potatoes, dotted with parsley, butter beginning to dissolve down into their midsts. Sliced sausages, as black as coal, and a whole chicken, its golden skin crispy and crackling. A wheel of quiche filled with fluffy eggs and recently-picked capsicums and eggplant. A large bowl abundant with leafy greens and nutty avocado, topped with the scarlet, golden, and maroon orbs of heirloom tomatoes. On a wooden board rest three uncut loaves of fresh wheat bread, the smell drifting the length of the table. Beside them, a crumbly block of goat’s cheese and delicate tissue paper slices of cured ham. Others begin to gather from their various tasks, joining together in lively conversation, basking in the nurturing companionship, savouring the abundance their combined efforts have yielded. Terry and Dionne arrive hand-in-hand and the girl adds her basket of berries to the bounty before sitting next to her mother at the table; joining together in appreciation for all they have.

January 2017

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