Mentioned in Alisdair’s commentary: KT Tunstall “Black Horse”
by Lara Elena Donnelly
When I pick Louisa up from school, All Things Considered is on the radio, playing a round table discussion about the virus. One person believes that the disease ravaging the corn belt is a government experiment gone awry. The reporter reminds the audience: botanists speculate it was brought to the U.S. by an invasive species of beetle. I recognize a few of the interviewees—I studied their research back when I was still pursuing my doctorate. Before I met Ann, before we had Louisa. It’s strange, thinking I could have been on NPR some day, if I had finished my degree.
I turn the radio off before Louisa is buckled in. The virus has been the only thing on the news for a week. Louisa’s teacher talked about it with her class a little bit, but I don’t want Louisa to get worried, so Ann and I don’t mention it much at home.
“Daddy,” she says, buckling herself in. “Can we plant my tomatoes when we get home?”
Louisa’s tomatoes started out as a kindergarten project last spring, but quickly escalated into a backyard plot sized right for a small-town farmers’ market. Ann and I thought she would forget about them this year, but in February she asked if we could plant tomatoes again.
“Sure, cookie. But you have to do your homework first.”
She shakes her head. “Mommy said she would help with my homework.”
I sigh. Ann won’t be home until Louisa is in bed. She called at lunch today and said her boss wanted a story on the virus before she left the office—it’s starting to appear outside the Midwest now, affecting fields in New England. There are signs that it might be spreading to wheat and other grasses.
“Mommy’s going to be late,” I say. “I can help you.” Like I’ve been helping Ann on and off. Half the reason she’s on the stupid story to begin with is my half-finished PhD.
Louisa doesn’t say anything. She used to cry every night Ann was away. Now she hardly complains, but I worry about what’s going on in her head. We try to make her understand that mommy’s work is very important because daddy doesn’t have an office job—his job is to pick Louisa up from school and make her healthy snacks, to watch her favorite TV shows and play with Legos.
Now, Louisa stares out the window, picking at the edge of a band-aid on her knee. I hope she knows we both love her.
When we get home, Louisa drops her backpack and runs straight to the dining room. There is a row of pots in the south-facing window and the tomato seedlings have grown large and leafy. There was still snow on the ground when we planted them. We did it in the evening, because Louisa wanted to wait for mommy. Ann called at five thirty from the office and said she would be a little late. When she finally walked through the door, Louisa was asleep on the sofa. She refused to go to bed until she could plant her seeds with Ann. I woke her up and we all knelt on the dining room floor, poking knuckle-deep holes in the potting soil.
Until last year, Ann and I had to coax Louisa to put just a spoonful of sauce onto her pasta. But when the tomatoes were hers—magically appearing from a packet of seeds she had planted with her own hands—it was hard to get her to eat anything else.
When Louisa dashes off the last math problem on her worksheet, she announces she’s ready to plant her tomatoes. I don’t ask if she wants to wait for mommy; there’s no way Ann will make it home before eight o’clock.
I’ve been doing a good job not thinking about the corn withering in the fields, about the steadily rising food prices and how it will only get worse from here. I know if I turn on the news, I will see stories of people hoarding canned goods and frozen produce. I will see mentors and colleagues and idols interviewed about GMOs and disease vectors. I will feel useless, and envious, and then I will feel guilty. I’m not on CNN, but I still have an important job to do.
So I don’t turn on the news. Instead, Louisa and I carry pots of bobbing tomato plants into the backyard. The green smell of nightshade fills my lungs. I get the spade from the garage and let Louisa direct me, digging holes at her imperious command.
We pull the tomatoes from their pots and break up the clumps of white roots, and Louisa packs them snugly into the dirt. We fill two watering cans and soak the soil before the seedlings go into transplant shock.
Dinner is salad and grilled cheese sandwiches. I briefly think of making something more complicated, to keep my mind busy, but when I find myself throwing leaves in the compost and stems in the salad spinner, I know anything that requires focus is off the table. Louisa eats and then asks to watch TV.
“Why don’t we watch a movie instead?” I am afraid of what we will see if we turn on the television. But she says, “please,” which is something we’ve been working on, so I click through looking for cartoons or movies. She stops me on the six o’clock news.
“Mr. Drake talked about the corn today and said it was sick.”
“Really?” Mr. Drake is very current issues-oriented. I don’t remember what I studied in first grade, but I don’t think we talked about Bosnia or Timothy McVeigh.
“Daddy, are there doctors for plants?”
“Yes,” I say, thinking about my dissertation. “There are.”
“So they can make the corn better?”
“It’s complicated.” I don’t want to lie to her. “They’re going to try.”
Ann’s alarm clock goes off at six and the radio is nothing but stories about the virus, about theories and anger and imminent doom. She shuts it off when she gets up, but I hear enough to sour my sleep. I lie awake until she gets out of the shower, then grab her hand as she walks past the bed. I give her arm a gentle pull. She bends down and kisses me, her wet hair dripping on my chest. I reach for the knot in her towel, tugging the fabric away from her breasts, but she shakes her head.
“I can’t,” she says. “I need to get going.”
I sigh and climb from beneath the covers. I brush my teeth and watch Ann put on her makeup. There are dark circles under her eyes. I spit toothpaste and catch her gaze in the mirror.
“Are you going to be working late again?” I ask.
She sags. “Michael…”
I lay my toothbrush down, very carefully. “I know.” I touch her freckled shoulder. “Be careful,” I say.
She wrinkles her nose. “What?”
It’s irrational fear. She’s not a journalist traveling to a war zone. She’s just going thirty minutes up the highway. “I’m just worried people will get crazy,” I say.
She smiles at me, her face half-made up. “We can handle it.”
Louisa’s tomatoes bear and bear: an infinite supply of fat, juicy beefsteaks for slicing; cherry varieties that spill like red and yellow fountains over the tops of their cages. The plants lean heavily on one another, their suckers twining into an impassable thicket. It’s hard to pick the fruit from the middle of the patch. Louisa takes a bulging grocery bag around and gives our surplus to the neighbors. I walk behind her snapping pictures, my chest tight and my cheeks aching with smiles. These moments remind me that I made the right choice.
But when sweet corn time comes around, the news shows farmers stripping back green husks to show shriveled cobs, the kernels pale and grublike, tangled in sterile silk. And every other type of corn, from heirloom popcorn to generic feedlot yellow, is the same. Wheatberries never plump. The tickling tops of grass stems stay flat and green. The plants’ reproductive capacity has been destroyed.
Our grocery bills creep up. One day while we are shopping, Louisa asks me why juice and candy are more expensive, if it’s wheat and corn people are worried about. I freeze up, in awe of her precocious question and terrified of answering it. I could try to explain to her about panic buying, about supply and demand, about the proliferation of corn syrup in our food. But I don’t. I don’t want to watch her soak it in, don’t want to wonder what she’s thinking, if she’s afraid.
When I don’t answer, she shrugs and wanders away, distracted by the live lobster tank in the seafood section.
On a rare evening when Ann is home before seven and Louisa is at a friend’s house, I decide to cook a fancy dinner. We have the radio on in the kitchen. I would be listening to Horowitz or Clapton Unplugged, but Ann is addicted to the news cycle. She sips a glass of white wine at the island I slice some of Louisa’s Hillbilly Potato Leafs. Seeds splurt across the cutting board, splashing my hand. We hit the hour and the news refreshes.
The virus has mutated. It’s starting to appear in fruiting plants—melons and cucumbers—and its range is growing daily. It’s been reported in Virginia and southern Pennsylvania. We live outside of D.C. The anchor says the federal government is mandating farmers—even small time growers—destroy their plants, hoping to prevent the disease’s spread.
They interview a researcher from Cornell’s agriculture program. It was the pollen, she says. The pollen from the corn. Her lab is working on genetic modifications to grass crops to check the contagion. Now they’re also researching the unprecedented mutation of the disease.
Ann sighs. “They’re going to assign this one to me,” she says. “I’m our resident expert. Who would’ve thought? Copy-editing all your sloppy student papers is actually doing me some good.”
“Am I going to get a byline?” I ask, half-joking.
She lays her hand on top mine, on top the knife. The tomato juice drips from the cutting board onto the counter top.
I slip the knife free and continue cutting, too roughly for the tomato’s delicate skin. “You know Louisa wanted to go to the beach.”
Glass nips at the granite counter top, and I hear Ann pour another glass of wine. Her voice is tight when she finally speaks. “I’ll see if I can get a few days off in August.”
Louisa and I go to the farmers’ market on Friday evening. Louisa wants to buy a watermelon from our favorite stand. There are no watermelons. No cantaloupe, no honeydew, no cucumbers, no sweet corn… There are plenty of tomatoes, but we have an embarrassment of riches in that department.
“We’ll have to get a melon at the grocery,” I say. The watermelons there are imported from Turkey and China, picked before they’re ripe. The flesh is pale and tasteless.
Louisa takes the five dollars I gave her to buy our dessert and goes to the beekeeper’s booth. Leaning against a rusted truck, I watch her haggle mercilessly, then hand over three dollars for raw honeycomb.
A farmer is selling eggplants out of the truck bed. He is talking to a customer as he bags up her purchase.
“The leaves have little yellow spots all over them,” he says. “Damndest thing. Looked just like what the cucumbers got. The fruit’s still coming out all right, but it doesn’t have any seeds.”
My stomach flips. I push off the truck and gather Louisa and her bottle of honey, pulling them towards the car.
“Daddy, what’s wrong?” she asks.
My hand hovers over the radio dial for half a second, but I change my mind and put in one of the CDs Ann and I keep in the car for long rides with Louisa—she gets carsick sometimes and audio books distract her. We listen to…something. Louisa giggles every few minutes, so it must be funny.
My phone rings as we pull into the driveway. It’s Ann.
“Have you been listening to the news at all?” she says. She sounds out of breath.
“No,” I say.
“It’s gotten into the nightshades,” she says.
The eggplants. Peppers too. And tomatoes. I think of Louisa’s sprawling patch and wonder how many yellow spots and seedless fruits are hidden by the thick foliage.
Louisa jumps out of the car and slams the door behind her. I watch her unlatch the backyard gate and I know she’s going to check her garden before I can corral her for dessert, a bath, and bed.
“When are you coming home?” I ask Ann. I wish she were here now.
“I’m just leaving the office,” she says.
In half an hour, I am reading to Louisa while she sloshes behind the floral shower curtain. I might as well be reading the phone book—I barely hear myself speak. I do hear the garage door, then Ann’s tread on the stairs. She pokes her head into the bathroom.
“Are you at a good stopping place?” she asks.
Louisa splashes. “Mommy!”
“Hey, cookie. How was your day?”
I pull the plug on Louisa’s bath and hand her a towel. She emerges wrapped up like a burrito and snuggles against Ann’s belly, her wet hair leaving splotches on Ann’s blouse.
Ann looks at me over Louisa’s head. “We need to talk,” she mouths.
I nod. “Bed time, cookie.” I hand Louisa her folded pajamas. “Meet you for a good night kiss in five minutes.”
Louisa waddles off with her towel wrapped tight. Ann sits heavily on the toilet seat lid. “We have to tell her,” she says.
I pick up the frog-shaped soap bottle and look it in the eyes, like it can help me out of this situation. I don’t want to tell my daughter the truth. It will hurt her.
“It’s just one little patch of tomatoes,” I say. “It can’t possibly matter.”
“Michael, don’t be a child.”
I don’t want to be a child. I just want to protect mine. I put the soap down and rub my hand across my face. I smell like Louisa’s shampoo.
“Not tonight,” I say.
“She won’t be able to sleep,” I say. “Not tonight.”
At breakfast, we ask Louisa if there are any speckles on her tomato leaves.
“Some,” she says. “Are they sick?”
“I don’t know. Can you show mommy and me?”
We go out to the tomato patch in our pajamas and bare feet. The dew slicks my skin and I pick up a coating of grass clippings. Louisa pushes past the first layer of cages and into the thicket where the fruit is unreachable. She points and I press in behind her.
There are blotchy yellow spots on the leaves, like spattered paint, and the stems are crooked. The fruits look fine, but when I pick one and bite into it, the juice is thin and seedless. A month ago, seeds covered my cutting board like stars. Amazing how quickly things change.
I start inspecting each plant. The vines on the outside of the patch seem fine, but when I look closely at the new foliage I can see the deformity of the stems.
“They all have it,” I say, “Or they will soon.”
“Have what?” Louisa asks. “Are they sick? Are they?”
I meet Ann’s eyes. She stares back at me, hard. I want her to do this, and I hate myself for it. She already beats herself up about working long hours, about how little time she spends with Louisa. I wonder if she feels as guilty about my unfinished dissertation.
But I realize I don’t want her to. I don’t want her hanging onto something that was my decision. I love the time I spend with Louisa—I love to watch her figure out the little puzzles that make up life. I love it when she scares me. I love to see her learn. Keeping my fear from her has been a big mistake.
“Louisa,” I say, kneeling so we’re on a level. “Remember when the corn was sick, and how there weren’t any melons at the market?”
“Okay. Your tomatoes are sick now too.”
She looks over at the garden. “Do they need a plant doctor?”
“Oh, cookie.” I hug her. “I don’t think the plant doctors know how to help them.”
She wriggles out of my arms and goes over to her garden. “But they’re still good!” She wraps one fist around a tomato cage.
“We can pick all the fruit off of them,” I tell her. “It’s still good to eat. But we can’t let them keep growing or they’ll hurt lots of other plants.”
I watch her face crumple. Tears leak out of the corners of her eyes.
“Louisa,” I say, but I’m at a loss for words. I lay my hand against the leaves of the nearest plant and smell the tang of nightshade sap. Ann gets a bucket from the garage. She starts pulling ripe tomatoes from the plants, and when all the red ones are gone she moves on to the green, denuding each vine totally. She tries to get Louisa to help, her voice falsely cheerful, but Louisa only cries.
“We can plant more tomatoes next year,” I say, but I’m unsure. Will the virus still be a problem next year? Will there be genetically modified seeds? Do I want to feed my daughter something created in a lab?
Ann drops the last of the tomatoes into the bucket and wraps her hands around the stem of the first plant. Her shoulders tense and she pulls it from the earth, scattering beetles and earthworms. She looks at me over the top of the plant, a ladder of small yellow flowers brushing her cheek. “Michael,” she says. “Don’t make me do this on my own.”
Breathing deep, I plunge my hand into the fragrant forest of green and tear and tear. I imagine farmers and gardeners everywhere doing the same. I picture piles of tomatoes and eggplants, melon vines, stunted corn plants, their bare roots pale and thread-like in the sun. I think of the fields of grain bare of kernels, the rising price of food and fuel, the future that our country and our children have to look forward to.
Louisa sobs into the blemished leaves of her tomato patch, wrapping her arms around the slippery green stems. She has realized she cannot save them, no matter how tightly she holds on.
About the Author
Lara Elena Donnelly is the author of the Nebula, Lambda, and Locus-nominated trilogy The Amberlough Dossier, as well as short fiction and poetry appearing in venues including Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Nightmare, and Uncanny.
She is a graduate of the Clarion and Alpha writers’ workshops, and has served as on-site staff at the latter, mentoring amazing teens who will someday take over the world of SFF. Lara is currently a teacher at the Catapult Classes in New York City and a thesis adviser in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College.
About the Narrator
David D. Levine is the Hugo- and Nebula-winning author of three novels, including the Andre Norton Award winner Arabella of Mars, and over fifty short stories. If you enjoy his reading of this story, his short story collection Space Magic, read by the author, is available on Audible.com.