The wheat died three days after Elin’s skin began to itch.
The itching started as a rash on the backs of her hands, little round bumps standing out from her skin. She ignored it at first, went to work at the diner as always. But by the third day it had spread up her arms and started on her feet. She came downstairs early in the morning after a sleepless night, knowing her parents would already be up. “Mama, do you have any. . .” Elin trailed off when she saw her mother’s red-rimmed eyes.
“It’s here,” her mother sniffed. “Donnelly’s fields started turning black yesterday afternoon.”
Elin didn’t need to ask what that meant. She’d been following the news same as everyone else in town. The reports had been coming in for months, sober journalists and distraught farmers talking about the blight jumping from one field to the next in less than a day. By the end of the week it would have spread through the rest of the county.
Still her father put on his cap and went out to tend the fields. She wanted to tell him to stop, that there was no point. And sure enough, two days later she stood with her parents between the two main fields and gagged at the stench of the wheat disintegrating into black sludge. Something about it made her skin itch worse than ever, drove her running back into the house to smear lotion all over her body.
When Elin came out of the bathroom, she saw her mother standing silently at the kitchen sink. “Mama,” Elin said, touching her mother’s arm. “It’s. . .” All the things she’d been about to say—it’s gonna be OK, I’ll figure something out, we’ll find a way to fix it—died on her lips when she saw the bleak look in her mother’s eyes. Instead, she gave her mother a quick kiss on the cheek and headed out to her truck. She looked for “Help Wanted” signs on her way to the diner, felt her chest tighten a little more with each mile she passed without seeing one.
Elin’s father was the one to break the silence at the dinner table that night. “We’ll switch crops next season. It’s only the wheat that’s dying, we’ll start on cotton or corn,” he said, smiling as though that was that.
“And I’m gonna start looking for a second job. One that pays better,” Elin added.
“Thank you, sweetie,” her father said, shame and guilt creeping into his voice.
Elin’s mother looked down at her plate, mouth twisted. Elin knew what was going through her head; it wouldn’t matter, the bank wouldn’t care what had happened to them, the credit card companies wouldn’t care, the insurance company wouldn’t care, no job Elin could get would ever make a dent in the bills. . .
Elin clenched her fists to keep from scratching at herself. She wore long sleeves despite the summer heat, long sleeves to cover the welts on her arms. Her mother would insist on taking her to the hospital if she knew, bills be damned. So she dug her fingernails into her burning palms and excused herself from the table.
The next morning, Elin arrived at the diner in a turtleneck and big sunglasses. Her face burned worse than the rest of her, the pancake makeup she’d slathered on making her itch so bad she couldn’t stop from grinding her teeth together. She’d barely managed to get out of the house without her mother seeing her.
Hazel’s eyes widened as soon as she went in the back for her apron. “Elin, what on Earth—”
Elin avoided her gaze. “It’s nothing. Just left a window open last night, and the mosquitoes got in.”
Hazel marched across the kitchen, her permed blond bubble of hair bouncing with every step. “Jesus, those aren’t mosquito bites! Let me see.”
“No! It’s fine—”
But then Hazel’s hand closed around her wrist, and she couldn’t stop herself from shrieking in pain. Tears burned in lines down her face as Hazel slowly rolled up her sleeve and stared in horror at her arm.
“Elin,” Hazel said after a moment, voice gone soft. “I don’t know what this is, but it looks serious. You need to see a doctor. I’ll call your Momma.”
The entire week seemed to crash down around Elin. “I can’t be sick now,” she sobbed. “We’re going to need the money. The harvest is all gone. . .”
Hazel started to hug her, stopping when Elin flinched. She stroked her hair instead. “I know, honey. It’s awful. But you can’t help your folks if you’re. . . Like this. Listen,” she said, fishing her cell phone out of her pocket. “I’ll call Dr. Horsted. He’s good people and he owes me a favor, so it won’t cost an arm and a leg.”
Elin perched on Dr. Horsted’s exam table and tried not to pull away every time he touched her skin. He was a small man, a few inches shorter than her, with thinning hair and laugh lines around his eyes. He clucked and shook his head as he examined her arm. “Well, young lady, this is one heckuva rash you got here.”
“It’s disgusting,” Elin said, staring down at herself. The bright-red bumps stood up a quarter inch from her skin, hot to the touch. Wherever there was pressure on one of them, it felt like something hard was inside, a splinter or a sliver of glass.
Dr. Horsted scribbled something on her chart. “I’m prescribing you a steroid cream and an anti-inflammatory until we know what it is. I’ll take a skin scraping and send it in to see if it’s an infection of some kind. I suspect not, though. I think it’s an unusual allergic reaction, maybe something with the fields and that damn blight.”
“Why do you think that?” Elin asked, frowning.
“Oh, you’re not the only one I’ve seen who’s got this. Started getting cases as soon as the blight hit.”
Dr. Horsted gave her an admonishing look. “Oh, now, you know I can’t say. But this is a small town. I’m sure you can find out.” He paused. “Lord knows you can spot it a mile away.”
Elin started calling the neighbors as soon as she convinced her mother to quit fussing over her. She stood in her attic room, shifting from one foot to the other. She wore her lightest clothing, a cotton nightgown her Aunt Cheryl had given her for Christmas. Even the thin cotton itched like mad everywhere it touched. The steroid cream didn’t help at all.
“Hi, Mrs. Alston, this is Elin Rogers,” she said, shifting to her right foot and staring out at the dead wheat field. “This might sound like an odd question, but I’ve been having some weird allergy to something, and I was wondering—”
Mrs. Alston cut in. “Is it a rash? All over?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Oh, it’s terrible,” Mrs. Alston said. Her voice sounded tired, strained. “Dennis started getting that a few days ago. I thought maybe it was stress-related, because of the blight, but it seems too bad to be that. You haven’t found a good way to treat it, have you?” she asked, a touch of hope in her voice.
Elin sighed. “No, I was hoping someone else had. I need to get back to work, and I want to try to get a job that pays better than the diner, but right now I’m. . . No one would hire me like this.”
Mrs. Alston said how sorry she was and promised to call if she figured something out. Mr. Alston’s voice echoed in the background, and she hurriedly hung up.
Around sunset, Elin’s mother brought her some soup. “Did you find any others besides Dennis Alston?” she asked.
Elin forced herself to sit down and sip a spoonful of the soup. “Three. Jenna Foster, Danny Innes, and Olive Olson.”
Her mother’s eyes widened. “Oh my God. Olive must be 85.”
“86,” Elin corrected. “Marie took her to the clinic in the city.” She paused. “And Jenna’s only seven.”
Her mother sagged to the bed as though her strings had been cut. “They’re all next to fields, aren’t they?” She grimaced and shook her head. “I remember back when we all started buying seeds from the company. Old Margie Taylor kept going on and on about how if a disease came and we all had the same seeds, it’d take everything. She kept saying what a mistake it was, that any disease would spread like wildfire, but none of us listened. And now she’s right and with the wheat dying we’ve got people getting sick, to boot. If someone decided to string up the people who run that seed company, I tell you, I’d be holding the rope.”
Her mother looked up as though realizing what she’d said. “I’m sorry, sweetie.” She got up and kissed the top of Elin’s head. “Goodnight. Wake me up if you feel worse.”
Elin writhed on her bed, silent tears of pain soaking her pillow. She knocked away her comforter, pulled off her nightgown and underwear, but it made no difference. The only thing that helped was the cool night air coming in from the window. Her father and the hands had spent most of the last three days clearing the blighted sludge out of the fields, so the stench was gone. Now the air smelled as it should again, sweet and earthy. She bit back sobs, closed her eyes, and took deep gulping breaths of the night air.
Even after Elin dozed off, even after she began to dream, she remained aware of her burning skin. Through the pain she saw herself as though from above, her naked pale body studded with red sores. It wasn’t just the flesh she knew, though; she saw deeper, under the skin, where delicate green tendrils glowed and pulsed. Elin wondered how long they had been growing, how long they had taken to make their way up to the surface of her skin; her muscles and bones were completely honeycombed with the pale green threads, like veins in a leaf.
Elin opened her eyes. She stood ankle-deep in the tilled dirt of the fields, at least 300 yards from the house. She was still naked, the night breeze bathing her burning skin. She stared down at herself and tried to understand why she wasn’t embarrassed, why she felt only calm even though anyone could come along and see.
She walked slowly around the edge of the field. Her skin felt different from before; it still itched and burned, but now it seemed as though something moved within the sores. Elin gradually realized that she could hear little whispers, too quiet for her to know exactly what was being said. Still she found herself moving toward the edge of the field as though following directions.
When she reached the right place, things began to fall from her skin. They pushed their way from the sores on her arms legs face back, breaking free with a sharp little sting but leaving relief in their wake. Elin tipped her head back and walked with her eyes closed, going where her feet took her. Different kinds of things began to fall from the sores when she reached the opposite end of the field, slightly different shapes. This was as it should be, she understood. There had to be different kinds.
Finally, the last of them fell from the bottoms of her feet. The burning stopped. She collapsed into the cool dirt of the fields, asleep at last.
Elin awoke to grey predawn light, her mother’s voice, a hand shaking her. “Elin! Elin! What happened? Wake up!”
As she opened her eyes, her father rushed out of the house with a blanket. He covered her and helped her to her feet over her mother’s protests. “No, don’t move her! We should call the ambulance.”
“No, Mama, I’m fine,” she said, voice soft but steady. “Look.”
Her parents followed her gaze to the ground. Seedlings lay in untidy rows across the field, leaves already stretching up to grasp the morning light. “What are these?” her father asked, crouching to get a closer look.
“Wheat, beans, squash. Some watermelon and flax over on the other side.”
“When did you do this?” he asked, squinting at one of the seedlings.
“Ron, it doesn’t matter right now,” her mother snapped. “We have to get her inside.”
Elin gently pulled her arm away from her mother and walked inside on her own. She savored the sensation of skin that didn’t burn, didn’t itch. Even so, she could feel something starting deep under the skin again, something that would soon push up in search of light.
The next night, Elin still had seeds left after she’d finished her family’s fields. The rest wouldn’t pop, knowing the ground was already full. She slipped through a gap in the wire fence that separated their land from the Alstons’. The seeds began to emerge again as she walked, each leaping as they spotted the perfect patch of soil.
She found Mr. and Mrs. Alston across their east pasture, in a little strip of recently tilled land. He walked as she did, naked under the moonlight. Mrs. Alston followed, weeping and begging. “Elin!” she shrieked when she saw her. “What’s going on? What’s happening?”
Elin placed a gentle hand on Mrs. Alston’s shoulder. Some part of her remembered how she would have felt in the past, standing naked in the fields. But that seemed like a very long time ago. “It’s all going to be OK, Mrs. Alston. We’re making it all better. It’s making us better.”
Mrs. Alston sniffed and nodded. “But—”
Elin gripped her by the shoulders. “You have to get Olive out of the clinic. She’ll die there. Tell Marie to bring her to the fields. I told Mama and Daddy but they won’t listen. Someone has to.”
She turned away without waiting for an answer, following Mr. Alston down the field. She caught up to him at the edge. He frowned as if trying to hear something. “It needs more. . .”
“Here.” Elin reached out to touch his hand. Something passed between them, the things that made up a plant with a name she couldn’t recall. Sunflowers, she remembered at last. Mr. Alston nodded; Elin could almost hear the seeds reshaping under his skin. He passed something back to her just before breaking contact, a new strand. Seeds changed shape and swelled within her. Then they leapt from her skin, falling gently to their resting place.
Elin stopped wearing clothes during the day. She stopped going back inside the house. Her parents tried to drag her back a few times, but she always wandered out again. They tried to stop her from leaving their property, but she patiently explained that they didn’t need any more seeds. The other fields did.
The words to explain things didn’t come easy; it all seemed so obvious to Elin now. She couldn’t quite remember why Mama and Dad couldn’t grasp these things. It was too much effort, so she stopped trying.
Other people were the same. For the first few days, neighbors either yelled at her or tried to talk with big concerned eyes. She ignored them. Once they saw how fast the plants grew, and how much the harvest would be, they stopped yelling at her or Dennis Alston or any of the others who joined her in the fields. Her parents stopped trying to keep her from going. They still begged her to go back, though, every time they tracked her down and brought her lunch.
“I feel like I’m losing you,” her mother sobbed one day. “I don’t understand what’s happening.”
Elin touched her mother’s cheek. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here for the rest of my life. I’m needed.” For some reason, that made her mother cry even harder.
The next day they still brought her lunch, but they didn’t ask her to come back. Just before they left, Elin found out why: “I talked to Marie,” her father said. “Olive died in the hospital. At the end she was begging to be taken outside, somewhere with soil, but they didn’t listen. By the end, her skin. . . ” He stopped and hugged Elin to him. “You do what you have to.”
Her mother nodded but kept crying. Elin tried to remember what her father used to do when that happened. There had been a kind of flower, a color. . .
The seed dropped from the back of her hand and sprouted as soon as it touched the soil. Her mother’s eyes widened as she watched the seedling stretch up into the light, its leaves unfurling. Elin reached down and plucked the red flower whose name she’d forgotten. She handed it to her mother and walked away without another word.
One day, Elin stood with Dennis and Jenna and Danny on the edge of a field. They waited to see what it needed. None of the seeds she carried felt quite right, Elin decided. She reached out to touch the others. Together, they sifted through the pieces they carried. Jenna had something from a desert plant, something that would make it strong and tough in the heat. Dennis held the chemical that would drive the aphids away, Danny the speedy tangled growth of kudzu. Elin saw the taste of the fruit in her own blood, the thing that would make it sweet and tangy to the human tongue.
The pieces flowed and connected where their palms touched. Right away, Elin felt the seeds under her skin reshape. They pushed out and into the ground, taproots already seeking moisture. Elin smelled and tasted the plants the seeds would become: vines clinging to the ground like strawberry plants, fragrant white flowers turning into a hard-shelled fruit with light pink flesh inside.
Wordlessly, they moved away from the field and toward a patch of scrubby trees across the road, new seeds already forming beneath their skin.
One evening, they sat on a brick wall overlooking Johansen’s field. The wheat now stood at hip height, the rest of the plants starting to bear fruit. Lacey Johansen came out of the house with a picnic basket. Elin had noticed that some farmer or another was always bringing them food now, usually too much. She couldn’t quite remember why people did that. “Thought you all might be hungry,” Lacey said, spreading out a blanket and unpacking a salad and roast chicken. “There’s a key lime pie in there, too, if you want dessert,” she said. She kept her gaze at face level, resolutely avoiding their nakedness. “I just can’t thank you enough for all this. My daddy would have turned over in his grave if I’d had to sell.”
“You’re welcome,” Elin said at last, when none of the others spoke.
“Been meaning to ask,” Lacey said, hooking her thumbs in the belt of her jeans. “What strain is the wheat? Because it sure doesn’t look like that stuff we got from the company.”
“Not one strain,” Jenna piped up, gnawing on a chicken leg.
“There’s different ones,” Elin clarified, trying to remember how to put these things into spoken language. There weren’t any words for the way the genes danced and split and reconnected in her blood. “They’ll. . . They’ll cross. And make new ones. One disease won’t get them all. And their seeds won’t die after one generation.”
Lacey let out a sigh of relief. “I was hoping you’d say that. It’s hard to believe we put up with that horseshit for so long.” She grinned. “Well, they ain’t got us by the balls now.”
One morning, Officer Eddie pulled up in his squad car and waved from the road as they passed through the trees on the edge of Wasilewski’s fields. “Hey there,” he said. Elin noticed vaguely that he took his hat off when he spoke to them. She remembered a month or so ago, when he’d tried to make them stop walking around naked. Something must have changed his mind.
“Whatchya working on?” he asked, face flushing with some kind of embarrassment.
“Soil. . . Soil washing away. Stop,” Dennis slurred. Elin felt a pang of sympathy. Dennis seemed to be losing language faster than the rest of them.
“Making new wildflower seeds,” she added. “Stop soil from. . . Eroding.”
Eddie nodded. She could see he didn’t really understand or care. “Listen,” he said, stepping forward. “I need to talk to you all about something. I guess you’re spending most of your time outside these days, right? Haven’t been on the internet lately?”
They stared back at him in silence. “Right, well,” he rushed on, “this thing that’s happening to all of you, it’s happening all over. Not just the US, either, China and Russia and all kinds of other places. And. . . Well, I won’t get into what’s happening over there, but here, here in the US, there’s rumors.” He paused. “The big seed companies, the ones everyone around here used to buy from, they keep trying to get, you know. . . People like you to let them study them. And they all been saying no, every one. But some Seeders, that’s what people are calling you, some of them are going missing, and there was one where a van was seen driving away. The FBI says it’s nothing, but there’s people on forums think it’s Monsanto and some of the other big agro companies. See, no one’s gonna buy their seeds anymore, and so—”
“We understand,” Elin said, feeling the attention of the others drift away from his words.
“Anyway,” Eddie said, clearing his throat. “I got the whole town on the lookout, but you be careful. Maybe one of you could carry a cell phone or something, just in case? No? Well, that’s OK. Just be careful.”
Three days after Eddie spoke to them, the first showed up. “Excuse me, Miss? Sir? Could I have a quick word?”
He was a tall, slender man wearing khakis and small wire-rimmed glasses. He called from the side of the road, where a small black car was parked. Elin turned and stared at him but didn’t get any closer. She felt the rest gather behind her.
The man seemed to realize that they weren’t going to come near him. “Hi Miss, Rogers, is it? Miss Rogers, I represent an agricultural research institute. We’re very interested in finding ways to help farmers like the good people of this town, especially after this terrible blight. We—”
“Nnn. . . Our seeds. Our seeds, n-not your ssseeeeds,” Dennis gurgled.
“You aren’t welcome here,” Elin said. “Not needed.”
The man paused, then smiled wider. “Miss, I don’t think you understand. We want to work with you—”
Lacey Johansen marched up the road between her fields, a shotgun held against her shoulder. “You just move the fuck on, mister. Leave these people alone.”
The man took two steps back. “This is a public road,” he said weakly.
“I’ve already called the sheriff. He can decide if you’re trespassing.” The shotgun didn’t waver.
The man stared at Lacey, opened his mouth as if to speak again, and finally climbed back into the car. Lacy didn’t lower the shotgun until he disappeared around the bend. “Everyone OK?”
Elin nodded. “Thank you, Lacey. But not. . . Not necessary. We,” she said gesturing to the others. “We can take care.”
Night. The rest of the Seeders rested by the creek. In the morning when they rose there would be beds of a spongy new moss in the shape of their bodies. But Elin didn’t feel like sleeping. She wandered the dirt road winding past all those farms, all those acres. All of them were rich and green now, bending under the weight of fruits that people had always known and others they had never tasted. Elin couldn’t remember the name of any of them anymore, even the ones she’d seen and eaten all her life.
Elin stopped to shed a single large seed from the palm of her hand. It landed in a hollow by the side of the road. It would be a tree thirty feet in diameter when it was grown, solid and tall and happy to subsist on the small amount of water in the sandy soil. She felt, like a vibration in the ground, these same trees being planted far, far away, everywhere people like her walked. When she closed her eyes, she could see the homes people would build of these trees, the new plants she would seed on their branches, ones that could eat waste, make light, heal.
A van pulled slowly from the shoulder of the road, lights off. It halted beside her, kicking up a puff of dust. The door flew open, and the barrel of a gun glinted under the moon. “Get in.”
Elin watched the man with the gun. She could feel one more behind him and one in the driver’s seat, all smelling of oil and gunmetal. Wordlessly, she shuffled to the open van door. Her skin burned.
“Put your hands in the air, palms facing me,” the man said.
She smiled and obeyed.
The seeds stung as they shot from the skin of her hands, spattering the three men in the van. They screamed as the seeds rooted in their skin, drawing nutrients from their blood and exploding into barbed thorns that shredded through their muscle and bone. One of them managed to fire his gun, but he didn’t know what to aim at and the bullet thudded harmlessly into the dirt roadside. Within thirty seconds, the screams had stopped. Within sixty seconds, roots had consumed the last of their blood and flesh. The van now contained nothing but a dense thicket of barbs and thorns filling the cab and bursting out of the doors and windows.
Elin turned her back on the van and moved on, already forgetting about the men with the guns. She felt a stretch of earth on the side of the road where the soil needed more plants to keep it from blowing away. Pausing, she thought about what kind they should be; some faint memory flitted through her mind, someone who felt better when she saw red flowers. Elin smiled, continuing on her slow walk; everywhere she stepped, the ground bloomed with deep crimson petals.