Updated: Feb 26, 2019
A Short Story by Emma Wenninger
(Jump to divider to pick up where this week's zine left off)
I set my daughter out in the sun because she loved it when she was alive. I was afraid someone would steal her, but her brushed gold surface has tarnished and aged, and she looks like an old statue now. When she was a baby her skin was soft and dry. When she was a little girl and I went into town, she would walk beside my horse as far as she could go, and I would reach down for her and she would wrap her whole, wet hand around my two fingers, and I would know she was still there.
We lived in a high, clear plain of bending wheat. We raised four daughters, and then one day, some years after they had all grown, my wife’s body had no energy left to walk from room to room. I took the scythe and pony out by myself, tended to by my daughter, who was still at home with me and would not marry, even after her sisters had begged her to come to the city and stay with them and be governess to their children. “What would I do with children?” she would say, rolling her hair into a bun and the nape of her neck and beating bread dough into smooth white balls.
We kept horses to work the fields and every year we slaughtered one beef cow and hung its carcass in our smokehouse for the winter. My daughter was good at skinning and carving up the cows, laying out their steaks and ribs, slicing the red sweetness of their bodies away from their spines. Her knife was slim and sharp and she worked quickly, and then she would ride a horse down to the river and wash her hands up to the elbows and run water over the skin of her face.
It was there at the river that she found the young man lying face down in the silt and mud. She heaved him ashore and pumped his chest, blew breath into his mouth and nose. The young man coughed up mucus and vomited buckets of river water, and out with his vomit came small black fish still alive, wriggling and flopping in the dirt. His eyes looked wildly about until they focused on my daughter’s face. He was tall and his hair curled across his forehead. He would give us no name, and my daughter did not trust him. “We should be wary of this,” she said.
The young man thanked her and me profusely. I told him he could rest, but he insisted he work the fields with me and earn his keep. The bread he baked was warm and golden and brown. The horses ate sugar cubes and apples from between his teeth. He would sit in the evenings with a strange flute and play, and the cows would low in the evening heat.
He asked me for paper and a pen and he wrote a letter, which he took into town to mail. After ten days, he said the letter had been received, and asked me to ride back with him to see him off. I packed a bag with cheese curds and figs and olives and told my daughter I would return, and she folded her arms and nodded.
“You are the kindest woman I have known,” the young man said. She only frowned at him.
He said he would go to the train station and I took him there. I grew nervous and full of foreboding as we approached. His feet made a noise like hooves on the wooden train platform. He stopped and leaned against the wall, and I shuffled beside him.
“My love! My love!” The young man turned. Another man burst from the train car. He was fat and pink. Stains of sweat darkened his armpits and kneecaps. He had wide blue eyes and long gold eyelashes, and he smiled and threw his arms around the young man and I could see that he was crying. “I have looked all over for you! How happy I was to receive your message. Is this your friend?” Still with his arms around the young man’s waist, the man turned to me and looked me up and down. “Oh, thank you, you kind and generous man.” He drew himself up, and even though he was small I thought for a moment he towered over me. “For your help with my beloved, I will grant you whatever you want.”
I shuffled and hummed and felt odd and uncomfortable under this man’s gaze, old and out of breath. Finally I laughed. “I need nothing,” I said.
“Nonsense, nonsense!” this one flapped his hand at me. I squirmed more. I felt every hole in the seams of my shirt, my patched elbows. I must have smelled like sweat in the sun. I looked down and saw flour on my pants. The wheat, the terrible wheat, I wanted to burn it all right then and there. The fat young man’s eyes were bright and they were laughing, and I was angry at his taunting, at his riches and the awful roundness of his face. I said, “Have everything I touch turn to gold.”
I did not mean it. I even laughed at my joke, but the fat man did not relent. His smile faltered a little, and he looked at the boards of the train platform. Then he looked back up at me. “Consider it done.” He turned swiftly then, pulled the handsome young man onto the train, circled his body with his arms and kissed his shoulders and face as he tried to pull away. The young man threw a look back at me, and his eyes and face were unreadable, and his mouth was open. The train soon steamed out of the station, and the fat man stuck a round hand out the window and waved a white handkerchief at me, and then the train was gone.
Odd, I thought. I had left my bag leaning against the wall of the platform and went to reach for it, but as soon as my fingers brushed its leather strap it leapt way from me, and then froze solid as stone. I stepped back, and then reached for it again and found it impossible to move. I brushed at the strap, and the solidness transformed into smooth, brushed gold.
I took me a few moments to comprehend what I saw, and then I laughed, and laughed and laughed. I ran down the platform, bag abandoned. It was nearly a half a day’s walk home, but I ran, I ran like I was flying, I felt the world slip beneath my feet. I came to the farm as the sun was setting, and brushed a hand along the tops of a few stalks of wheat, this wheat, this beautiful, troublesome, wonderful wheat, and watched as the stalks became gold. They clinked and clanged against each other. I ran up the path to the house. My daughter sat on the porch, and she startled to see me, eyes wide, her sleeves rolled to her elbows.
“Look, look at this!” I took her hand in mine and reached for the apple she held. It became as solid and heavy as stone. I laughed again and spun in a circle and grabbed her hand again, but found that she would not move.
“Pa,” she said, and her breath was labored. She clutched at her throat and I could see that her left hand, the one I had snatched at, was curled and frozen, was turning slowly to gold. I grabbed at her dress, her hair. I put my hand on her left one again, thinking madly that maybe my touch would stop what it had started. I held onto her hand that way as she stopped moving, her voice gurgling in her throat, her eyes wide and blue.
I starved in that house for five days. I could eat no food and drink no water. I could pick up no pen to write to my daughter’s sisters. I could plow no field and feed no pony. I lay shocked and alone, mouth open, curled at my daughter’s golden feet.
Delirious with hunger, I had a mad idea. I wandered away from the farm. I followed the train tracks, intent on finding that young man. I watched the birds circling in the hot sun. I felt my skin blister and boil. I thought of my daughter’s hand around my fingers. I would never look back for her, just reach down, and if I did not feel her then I knew she was not there. My wife used to comb her hair back into a braid when she was small, before sending her out into the fields. I collapsed, finally, overtaken by the heat, by the endless train, by the open sky.
I do not know how long I lay there. I felt ants crawling across my wrist. Flies landed on my cheeks and hair. I lay there until a shadow blocked out the sun, and I heard a voice say, “What did you think of my master’s gift?”
The young man my daughter fished from the river stood over me. He squatted down, and brushed my cheek with the back of his two fingers. “Don’t,” I said.
“It won’t harm me,” he said, and he said it absentmindedly, as if I were not the first body he’d seen that day. We stayed that way, him and I, for a while. He brought a cool cloth to my forehead, and told me to suck the water away from it, to drink.
“I touched my daughter,” I said after a while.
“Oh,” the young man said. His fingers traced my jawline. “She was beautiful.” He sat next to me, and I wept, finally, curled in the dirt. He looked away, and I was grateful to him for it. “I can’t undo it,” he said. “My master has a funny sense of humor. But here is what I will do.”
I looked up at him. He took my hand in his, and fished from his bag a white knife. It looked like a piece of bone. The edge of it was paper thin, and he brought it to my palm. “If you agree, then this is what I can give you,” he said, “I will tell you that no object you touch will be gold. Only flesh. You must never touch a man or woman again.” He studied my face. “But all of your wheat will be gold. You will be a very rich man.”
“My daughter,” I said. I whispered her name, a prayer. He shook his head. My throat tightened, and I leaned my head into my other hand and wept again. He did not let go of me. I heaved once, twice, and then I met his eyes, and nodded. He cut the fatty connection between my thumb and palm, and lifted it to his mouth to drink. He stood and left me there, and I stayed there for a day and a night. I did not move. When the moon was high in the sky, I finally, slowly, crawled up onto my shaking legs and made my way home.
I sell the wheat in the market now, wearing gloves to prevent an accidental touch. I am called an artist, a magician. Women wear my wheat in their hair and hats. Men hang bundles of it in their homes, above their doorways. I turn my daughter’s face to the sun and polish her skirt. I have told her sisters she slipped and fell into the river, that her body floated out into the ocean, that I was not there to see it.
Once, I tried to make a flute like the one the young man played. When I brought it to my lips, I could not make the high, clear notes he did, and I tossed it in frustration to the ground. In the yellow evening, a cow, sniffing the ground for grass, found it with its hoof and crushed it. The little pieces of it scattered. And the cow, indifferent, turned away to find a soft place to lay its bony body down to sleep.