MAN FARM

fiction-ssue7ManFarm1Another story that came out of a workshop assignment (Writing workshops are a great way to get you motivated to write by giving you a deadline). For “Man Farm” I wanted to write a science fiction story with a Wonder Years-like narrative. It appeared in the July 2007 issue of OG’s Speculative Fiction. OG’s was a small, semi-local magazine with a lovely design and interesting full-color cover artwork. I was happy to have appeared in it.

 

 

 

MAN FARM

by

Christopher L. DelGuercio

 

I can still remember the day I got a man farm. My father brought it home one day after work. He knew I was a curious kid and, though a little young, I was uncommonly responsible. Dad helped me set it up. We fitted together its rectangular frame, screwed it to the base, and slid the pellucid walls into place. It was pretty good sized for a man farm, almost as big as the ones my friends had. It took up the corner of my desk and I had to relocate my pencil can inside one of the drawers, but I hardly minded. We filled the farm with soft soil from the yard, plenty of water, and fresh greenery.

“Where will they live?” I asked my father.

“Anyplace–men adapt well. They have a pitifully short lifespan, but they can thrive almost anywhere, given the right environment–even on other animals, the way terramites do. Except they don’t do any harm.”

I was awestruck. My father loved to surprise me with tidbits of cool nastiness like that. He knew everything.

“In the farm, they’ll start out living in the crevices of stones, then, they’ll build their own homes. When they run out of space aboveground, they’ll start to burrow. Men are good burrowers,” he said.

The kit came with a pouch of dried organisms that could be added to the farm to create an ecosystem. Now, I’d never heard of an ecosystem, but all these critters looked to be good for decoration if nothing else. Dad had brought thousands of men home with him in a small white paper box, their pale bodies wriggling and rippling like living sand. I scooped some out and placed them on my hand, hesitantly.

“It’s okay, they won’t bite you,” he told me. “They’re far too small to even realize where they are.”

Watching through the magnifying glass, I could see them scurrying to stand on their two tiny leg stalks. I wasn’t surprised at all that they kept falling over.

“Look how funny they are, Dad.”

They were far smaller and less hairy than the men teeming in the yard during the spring and summertime. My father told me these men were smarter than those and would make for a much more interesting farm. I put some more on the back of my hand.

“They’re kinda cold,” I said.

“They’re not like us at all. They’re actually quite delicate. That farm will need a lot of attention or it’ll die out. Do you think you can care for them all?”

“Yes, I love them,” I said.

It was a good man farm.

Dad and I spent that whole day setting it up. Years later, it’s still one of the fondest memories I carry with me of my father. I decided to keep the man farm on my desk because it was nearer to the window. The next few weeks I watched in amazement as the farm grew from small groups huddled around sparks of fire to villages of men with homes and roads and vehicles. My father made sure to get some female men, too. Unless you knew what to look for, they appeared to be the same as the males. They would nest inside their dens until barely visible pink baby men would squirt out from inside them, one at a time.

It was a very good man farm.

The little men worked tirelessly and they used every speck I’d placed in their world to the advantage of the colony. They could be tender creatures but, as their numbers increased and the space inside the farm grew scarce, the men would choose sides, take up arms, and stage fierce battles. I found them to be fairly entertaining tactical affairs when viewed with the naked eye, but horrifically grisly under my magnifying lens. On a few rare occasions, when I simply could not stand the sight of the carnage, I would stop them and punish the ones I found fault with.

At bedtime, I watched over them by pale nightlight from my top bunk. If they ever needed anything, I would get it for them. I felt like they understood that, even though I knew better.

I loved the man farm. My brother Denny, however, thought it was queer, and he reminded me repeatedly. He said it was his duty as an older brother. Denny had a pet Golden Tiago spider that was the envy of every neighborhood boy and the nightmare of every neighborhood girl (and more than a few of the boys).

One wet afternoon, Denny and I got into a fight over nothing in particular while playing cards on the living room floor. I love my brother dearly but, to this day, we still can’t play a game with each other without a fracas ensuing and our mother being called eventually. Being smaller and weaker, I used the only effective weapon I had in my arsenal–unsparing fraternal razzing: I reminded him that Mom and Dad were secretly hoping for a girl when he was born; I teased him about how poorly he did in school and how much brighter I was than him when he was my age; I made fun of his crimson adolescent complexion and the cowlicks that sprouted awkwardly on top of his head and it was no wonder that Jenny Kempler didn’t like him.

Ouch!

I’d crossed a forbidden line, even for little brothers. Denny proceeded to bloody up my nose and I proceeded to hit the waterworks once I got within earshot of my parents. Mom and Dad heard me crying and saw my bloody nose. They grounded Denny for a month.

“It’s not fair–you always take the baby’s side!”

He offered up his objection with all the earnestness of someone falsely convicted trying to bring to light the injustice. It was a tactic known to every kid: When you can’t beat the rap, try to inject a hint of doubt into their minds, it may bear fruit. He stomped away to the bedroom to begin serving his time. Dead man walking! I wanted to call out, but I thought it was unbecoming of the victim.

When I went up to bed that night, the room was black. I fingered the wall for the nightlight and switched it on. Denny was in bed, pretending to be asleep. In the muted darkness, I caught sight of the man farm. It had been knocked over on the desktop and I rushed to stand it back upright. The soil had been shaken around and the landscape inside the farm had reshaped; what had once been level ground was now scattered everywhere, creating towering mounds and low gorges. Through the cross-section of the case I could see the dead men, frozen within the dirt. Not the way they buried their own, just below the surface, but lost deep beneath. I tried not to cry but found my eyes glazing. The charade now over, Denny watched me suffer with a wide, tight-lipped grin.

My brother would pay.

I promptly told my parents what Denny had done. My father shook his head. “What are we going to do with that one?” he asked my mother.

She stopped her knitting and placed it in her lap. “I told you a month is an awful long time, John, we’ve never seen fit to ground him that long before. Don’t you think three weeks would’ve been plenty?”

My father put his hands under his chin the way he always did when he was thinking hard and screwed his face into a pensive, fleshy knot.

“Maybe,” he said, “But Denny’s old enough. We should expect more out of him.”

Mom replied, “He’s still just a boy.”

My father had grown up quickly. Grampa died when he was fifteen and he had to take care of Grandma and Aunt Cass by himself. My mother had four older brothers and sometimes I think she remembered what it was like to be a boy more than my father did.

“All right, I’ll talk to Denny tomorrow,” my father said with a note of concession in his voice.

Wait, what was happening here? I wondered, watching the exchange. If I thought that telling on my brother would result in a lesser sentence, I would’ve just kept my mouth shut. For crying out loud, what do I bother coming to you people for?  

My brother now only had three weeks punishment, but it didn’t improve his mood any. I’d snitched on him twice–in one day! Let the tortures of the damned begin: the glares he’d give me from his side of the table all through dinner until my stomach started to ache as if under some voodoo curse; then, when we were shut up alone in our bedroom and I expected his worst, he would ignore me completely. He was a master of psychological warfare.

A few days later, I came home from school and Denny was sitting at the kitchen table, stuffing himself with candy vines no more than an hour before dinner. He looked right at me. He knew I couldn’t rat him out again to our parents; I had past my quota. My tattling had reached that invisible ceiling, that nebulous grey area that all astute kids recognized could push you from ‘loyal informant’ to ‘whiny nuisance’ with one too many squeals.

He made it seem like he was trying to hide his smile, but I knew he wanted me to see it. His school let out earlier than mine, Mom had to run to the store, and Dad wouldn’t be home from work until later. Denny had been left alone in the house with the farm.

I bounded up the staircase and threw open the door to my bedroom. Inspecting the man farm I found, to my great relief, nothing seemed out of sorts. Within its walls, there was evidence that the men had begun to rebuild and were adjusting well to the new topography.

Then I saw the thing.

In the corner, nestled beside a clump of forest, was Denny’s Golden Tiago spider, with its thick, striped legs curled underneath its body. It was feeding itself contentedly on a living pile of men it had netted within its web strings, dipping its incarnadine fangs down into the writhing mass, its plump abdomen engorged. The majority of the men were fighting to detach their bodies from the death thread with little success; for others, there was simply no fight left in them. They hung helpless, screaming their soundless screams while the Tiago drank their insides.

I became incensed.

I took out the sharpest pencil I could find from my drawer, unlatched the door on top of the farm, and stuck the pencil through the fat midsection of the spider. Then I lifted it and planted the impaled monster upside down in the soil, its legs still churning the air. Soon, the rest of the men came out from hiding inside their caves and underground tunnels. They hastily freed the survivors and surrounded the creature. At the base of the pencil, the men set off small fires that merged and climbed the wooden pike, engulfing the arachnid. Its lifeless carcass spit and wilted under the sway of the flames. I left it there for Denny to see knowing he wouldn’t dare tell on me for fear he would have to explain how his Tiago got in the man farm to begin with.

Without doubt, Denny would retaliate. He was still confined to our room for another two weeks and I couldn’t be there every second. I could transplant the farm to another room of the house, but Denny would find it eventually. The men needed protection; they hadn’t done anything wrong. They deserved a peaceful life where they could look up to a bright blue sky, free from my brother’s retribution. If I wanted to save the men, I had to do something. Something drastic.

I had an idea.

I wasn’t positive it would work, but if it did, it was one sure way to keep the men out of Denny’s reach. There would be no school the next day, so I decided to execute my plan that night.

I spirited a man away from off the top of the highest mound of the farm. I held it in my palm and spoke as quietly as I could so as not to damage its ears with the thunderous booming that my voice must have been to it, whispering the same instructions to the man over and over and over even though I had no reason to believe it would understand me. Finally, I placed the man back atop the mountain and waited all afternoon for it to rejoin the colony. All that was left now was the arrival of nightfall.

That evening I stayed up late, pinching myself to keep awake and praying that my brother would fall to sleep quickly. When I heard his familiar snuffling beneath me, I knew that he had. Still, I waited. It was well past midnight before I alighted from my perch, tippy-toed to my desk, and secured the farm in my hands. I brought it to the edge of my brother’s bed and opened the top, carefully lying it down on the mattress. Then I slid Denny’s covers down to his waist.

Nothing happened for a long while and I began to worry. Then, warily at first, the men of the farm came out from their homes and forged toward the opening. Their exodus, stalled briefly by the folds of the bedsheet, continued once I’d carved a pathway for them with my finger. The men acted exactly as my voice had instructed them. They faithfully left the safety of the farm and crossed the badlands, climbing to the edges of the covers, where Denny’s body and the sheets met. Some spilled over and disappeared beneath the linens, the rest fanned out over Denny’s bare back. The mass of men hung there over him like a cumulonimbus cloud, then, slowly dissipated into a thinly-spread mist. Finally, the dark patch faded into nothingness, leaving only the faint roiling of opaque, cerulean skin. A moment later, that ceased as well.

Men are good burrowers. My father’s words echoed in my head.

The next morning I slept in. The instant I awoke I plunged my head down over the side of the bunk. Denny was gone. I rushed downstairs to find my brother sitting at the kitchen table with my parents, his head buried in his breakfast.

“Good morning.” I sat down next to Denny and gave his elbow a nudge. “How do you feel?”

He lifted his face a few inches from the plate. “Leave me alone.”

“Dennis, be nice to your brother now,” Mom demanded.

“But Ma, he’s bugging—“

Denny,” Dad cautioned with a low growl.

My brother slumped in his chair, frowning.

How do you feel today?”I asked again.

Though it seemed to cause my brother actual physical anguish to address me against his will, he finally acquiesced. “I’m fine . . . except I itch.” He motioned to a spot at the very center of his back, rubbing it against the chair as he spoke.

“Let me see it,” Mom said. With her good eyes, she examined the network of large pores that covered Denny’s dorsal region. “It looks irritated–dirty, too. What have you been doing, Denny, rolling around in the yard?”

“No,” he replied quizzically (My brother clearly struggled with the notion that some questions were never meant to be answered.).

Mom completed her diagnosis. “It’s just a little raw. You might have scraped it or it could just be sunburned. Don’t scratch at it, sweetie, let it scale over.”

“Yeah, don’t scratch it,” I blurted. Everyone’s head swiveled my way and shot me funny looks, but, looking to Denny, I played it off, “It’s better if you just leave it alone, that’s all I’m saying.”

Again with the looks.

I put my arm around my brother. “What? Can’t a guy show a little concern for his big bro?” I asked.

Denny was speechless. I’m not sure if it was out of surprise, if he was still mad at me, or because he figured out it was a rhetorical question.

Whatever the reason, he turned his attention back to my mother, who was swabbing his back with a wash cloth. “I won’t touch it,” he promised. “I can’t even reach it with my tail.”

“Well, then, it’s a good thing,” my mother said.

And with that, to my great delight, the family went back to eating breakfast with no further discussion on the subject. Denny slid his forked tongue across the plate, sublimely ignorant in his role as my newest man farm, and lapped up the last uneaten portions of his meal.

“Dad, I think I’m going to get rid of that farm,” I said.

“What’s wrong? I thought you loved it.”

“I dunno. I’m getting tired of taking care of it, that’s all. It’s a big responsibility.”

Dad looked somewhat bewildered.

“All right then, I’ll get rid of it later this afternoon.”

“Oh, no, that’s okay,” I told him. “I took care of it already. I found a spot nearby where they can’t do any harm.”

I knew I had to let the men go, but knowing didn’t make it easy for me. I dropped my head and licked at my plate with a hidden dolor locked away in my gut, wondering if the men of the farm would ever remember my face, or my voice, or that I existed at all.

 

-THE END-