Late in the growing season of 1904, the wind that coddled the small farming town of Frowning, Iowa, smelled of alfalfa and dry soil. Fields unrolled in peaks and troughs of cropland and grazing pastures with the odd copse of oak. Redwing blackbirds and goldfinches flitted from fencepost to sunflower stalk and back. The call of crickets overpowered even the hustle of the wind. It was, for the pioneering men and women who had that past half-century called Frowning their home, a near idyllic sight. And it would have remained idyllic if the fully matured corn standing eight feet tall in the fields hadn’t, one night early in September, walked off.
Corn did not usually walk away from five square miles of farmland. Not even in 1904. It did not travel. It did not go and see the sights. It sprouted, it lengthened, it flowered, it pollinated, it grew cobs and it died. Whether or not the corn found this a satisfying life, no farmer thought to wonder. No farmer except Jimmy Ohliger. But Jimmy was the kind of man you heard telling children about the trolls in the cistern or the sprite nests under his hay cart. At church he talked to his neighbors about darner fairies. Why church made Jimmy think of darner fairies was anyone’s guess. Anyone’s guess, that is, except Mary’s. Mary was Jimmy’s wife and she didn’t guess a single thing about that man any more. Personal policy, you might call it.
Mary had been twenty-seven when she realized she was going to marry Jimmy Ohliger. She lived alone in a brown two-story on Main Street. Her father was dead, the family farm sold, her younger sister already married in Illinois with five children. She’d chosen Jimmy because she’d hoped that a man who told children’s stories wouldn’t be as serious as the other, older farmers looking for a woman to share in their labor. But Jimmy was serious. Serious about the farm work and serious about the stories. Jimmy married her because Mary still tied her braids up with ribbons, even at her age. She refused to give up her hair ribbons and she refused to leave Frowning. Both she connected to her deceased father. Reverend Longing wedded Mary and Jimmy Ohliger with no living family present. They rented out her house on Main St, and Mary moved out to the Ohliger farm.
Five years into her marriage, Mary had heard Jimmy Ohliger’s tale about the corn so often that she could recite it from memory, had even done so in one of her regular letters to her sister Constance as evidence of the madness she endured from her husband. Magic corn, haunted barns, the lot of it. The hours alone in the fields had loosened a cog or two in that bearded head of his. That’s how she described it to her sister: cogs. Malfunctioning clockwork. No telling when he’d tick next. The legend of the corn started, as many of Jimmy’s stories did, with the darner fairies. Dragonflies. But Jimmy lashed out when Mary called them that. “Bitch!” he shouted at her. “Slut! Do you like those nasty names? Then why d’you think they like something just as nasty? Dragons. Flies. As if they’re another pest to be flicked away by a horse’s tail.”
Corn had been a gift from the darner fairies, Jimmy told her as he pushed the individual components of the noon meal into his mouth as quickly as his teeth allowed, and darner fairies never did anything that didn’t benefit themselves. Sure, today corn was a crop to be fed to the animals and ground into meal, but the grain was only edible in its hibernation phase. Hibernation? The corn was waiting, he told her. Multiplying. One year, after people grew enough acres of the crop, it wouldn’t be a grain that sprouted any more. It’d be soldiers. An army.
Stories. Fairy tales. Legends always got told in the same tone, Mary thought as Jimmy paused to chew on an old hunk of bread. They were always recounted in the same voice, as if in the years of telling, the vine-like details had died back and only the waxy gourds remained. The dryable seeds of the story. As Jimmy ate, Mary took down her mother’s tea set from the cupboard and began to pack it away in a crate. She’d been packing her belongings all day and as far as she could tell Jimmy hadn’t noticed yet. Jimmy swallowed, continued:
“What other plant you know that stands at attention for that long? What plant is that straight without a single kink in his back? No man could stand that still that long. That’s how we know they’re not from this world. That’s how we know the darner fairies gave us the corn to invade.”
“Invade?” Mary released a sort of humorless chortle. “How?” She knew his response, knew she shouldn’t encourage him, but today was different from the other days, which made the telling different from other tellings. “How?” It was a challenge. If he could convince her of this one magical delusion, she might find a reason to stay. It was late April. She’d just finished planting the vegetable garden.
“Just look at those brace roots!” her husband exclaimed. He threw a hand toward the window that looked out on their twenty acres of corn. “We call them roots because we didn’t know what other word to use, but they don’t go underground. They ain’t roots. They’re legs. Pairs and pairs of them. Like a spider. Like two spiders stitched together.”
“Legs,” Mary repeated. She buried the paper-wrapped china in wood shavings from the barn. “What’re you saying? The corn’s gonna pack up its things and walk out on you some day? Without a word?”
“March,” Jimmy corrected. “Why do you think they grow in rows? So they’re ready when the orders come. You understand, don’t you?”
Mary wasn’t a soldier. She wasn’t hard, and a crick in her back made it impossible for her to stand straight. When she left Jimmy she didn’t march out without a word. She gave him two words. And those had been them. I do. The last syllables she ever spoke to her husband. A perfect bookend to their fairy tale marriage. If only Reverend Longing had been there to officiate. A neighbor picked her up on his way into town. One carpetbag and three apple crates went into the wagon. One carpetbag and three apple crates were deposited outside of her old two-story on Main Street. It stood abandoned. The front porch sloped. The renters had left town for the promise of oil in Texas and they hadn’t been able to find someone willing to rent a house that large. It wasn’t until she’d finished unpacking that Mary realized that in her hurry, she’d left her hair ribbons on the dresser of the farmhouse. She didn’t go back for them.
The sensation Mary Ohliger felt when she left her husband was like nothing she had experienced. A tingle on the roof of her mouth, a warmth on her tongue. For five years, her right nipple had itched against her old shift and when she quit Jimmy, Mary took the tip of her breast between her thumb and her forefinger and squeezed the itch gone. Bliss. Pure bliss. Four months later and little had changed. Except, of course, for the corn, which was gone. That hot September morning, Mary woke to the clamor of Main Street packed with buggies. Dressed still in the dirt they had found barren, farmers from Frowning, Franklin and Hamilton townships surged into Frowning’s only church. Groggy townsfolk followed. Those who couldn’t fit stood in the rear and in the aisles. Parents sent the rowdiest children into the choir loft where no one but God had to look at them. Jimmy Ohliger, ashen faced but calm, took a seat alone near the front of the congregation. His wife—former wife, the whispers said, although no papers had been signed—tucked herself beside her friend Grace Somerhalder in the middle of a pew. Mary made eye contact with nobody. She kept her head bowed and her face hidden. The town had talked, her alone in that house and all, but most knew Jimmy, and knowing Jimmy was all anyone needed to understand. Why then did she look so cowed? The ever-poised Mrs. Somerhalder put an arm around her friend, frowned. “Is that my hair clip?” she asked. Mary’s hand flew to her scalp, but she managed to shake her head. Grace’s tone softened. She smiled. “You look beautiful with your hair up like that, without your ribbons.” Mary mumbled a weak thanks to her knees.
All around the church, the congregation whispered in hunched clusters. Corn. Not a stalk left. How? Corn. Gone. Slowly, the murmuring ocean of worries and thoughts solidified into opinions. Opinions grew to a grab-bag of shouts. Indistinguishable, truths and misinformation circled the crowded room while the stagnant air grew heavy with the press of too many bodies. No one could agree on the most basic of facts. Some said the corn had disappeared just before dawn, some the stroke of midnight. The boundaries of the blighted area seemed amoebic. Theories were tossed like baseballs. The milkman, Sid Jones, suggested insects. His cousin had told him about a town in Wisconsin that had been stripped bare in hours by a swarm. His grown daughter gave a laugh that had the mirth sucked right out of it. “Not even a nibble on the other plants, though.”
The town dentist, Peter Kuhne, stood. “The soil was disturbed. What if socialists dug up the plants, loaded and stole them away?”
“All in one night?”
“Five miles square?”
From his pulpit at the front of the commotion, the old Reverend John Longing peered down at the packed pews with smug satisfaction. It wasn’t even Sunday. “Perhaps,” he announced in his orator’s voice that carried through the hot, respired air all the way to the men standing at the back, “if we had spent more time praying in the Lord’s sanctuary…” The word we jumped from the peaks of his brown teeth onto the thin grey hair of Mrs. Davies in the front row. The instant it touched her head it spread like a spell until it had drawn in every moving creature inside the church. Every moving creature, that is, except Reverend Longing. There was no doubt in his mind why the divine father, blessed be his name, had chosen to punish Frowning with the smiting of its crops.
Toward the front of the sanctuary, Jimmy Ohliger stood up. “It ain’t our Savior. We know who done this.” But before he could continue he was shouted down by elderly Mrs. Edith Blunders. Mrs. Blunders sang in the church choir. She knew how to project.
“The flowers! It isn’t only the corn. Remember what happened to the flowers! They’ve been disappearing too.”
It was true and the whole town knew it, but each resident had their own theory for why and where the corn had fled. They were surface plots: cosmic visitors, chinch bugs. For the real stories you had to look a layer below, dig around in the aerated soil or even deeper in the heavy clay this region was known for. Down there in the Iowan dirt were no stories of corn or its absence. Milkman Sid Jones, for example, had drowned lightning bugs as a child. Despite a strong policy of rationality and two decades of professional experience in a dairy industry drowning in pests, he still held a secret fear that the bugs would someday seek revenge. For the German dentist, Peter Kuhne, it was important that his three daughters remain fluent in their native tongue. He let them read any book they found in the language. Which is how he found himself with three young women touting the word of Karl Marx. Socialism frightened a dentist who dealt in the monarchical trade of gold and crowns. As for Reverend Longing, one of the original founders of the town who had christened it with its appropriately Protestant name, his wants were more complex than the pious man with a portly bank account let on. The theories the townspeople shouted from pew to pew were not responses to the mystery of the corn. They were their own projected, private biographies, kernels of Frowning, miniaturized and lined up on the cob. Ready for harvest. All that was left was to shuck the whole town.
One microscopic biography: When Mrs. Edith Blunders, second soprano, mentioned the missing flowers, Mary Ohliger winced.
In the months since walking out on her husband, Mary had felt the itch that had plagued her right nipple during her marriage returning. To release the tickle, she had found here and there the odd trinket also walking out with her. They started as small things: a colored medicine bottle from Grace’s boudoir, A peppermint at the grocer’s, a dirty spoon left on a back porch. She had not meant to let the objects follow her back, yet when she shut the front door to the brown two-story, her pocket invariably contained one more item than it had left with. The pied piper of Frowning. She whistled the orphaned items up to the attic where they began to collect beside the heavy suitcase that contained her father’s hat and Sunday suit jacket. Inkwells made new homes beside prayer books and matchboxes. Flower vases beside teacups. But as the months wore on the itch grew and no amount of pinching, squeezing or rubbing could make the annoyance go away. By late July, she wasn’t bringing home little nothings anymore. She left the house at midnight with a trowel and a basket. She came home with zinnias, irises, and alyssums, chrysanthemum bushes, gooseneck and leggy lupine. She dug them out of front lawns roots and all. The attic became Mary’s floating, secret garden. She relocated her pilfered blossoms to apple crates, chamber pots, anything she could find that held more than a fistful of dirt. She stole a watering can. She opened the double-hung attic windows. Light and air poured in. The floral scents floated down into the street so that any passerby would look at the few rosebushes in her front yard and think that Mary Ohliger had bred something magical.
In the weeks before the corn walked off, Frowning had begun to notice its missing flora. Blame was placed on dogs, idle children, even Sid Jones’ daughter, who everyone agreed was sweet but odd. Mothers began to pay their sons to spend a chilly night keeping guard on the front porch. Mary had spotted a rifle across the lap of a sleeping young man just in time. Fearing death, or worse, discovery, Mary immediately halted her nighttime escapades. The itch in her chest grew.
Now there was this business with the corn. As the congregation swelled in volume around her, Mary shrunk. She waited for the accusations, for someone to call her name. Now Grace Somerhalder was adding her theory to the tumult, an idea rooted in the methods her mother had used to beat her as a girl (ass, thighs, chest, body parts easily covered, mustn’t endanger the marriage proposals). Beside her, Mary stared at her fingernails. They were ragged and bitten but clean of dirt. It wasn’t her. She’d checked the attic. She’d checked every room in her monstrous brown two-story. She’d slept through the night, but that’s what worried her the most. Not a rustle, not a peep until the crowd outside had woken her. Mary wondered ridiculous things. The sort of questions Jimmy would ask: Had she dreamed about her pilfered garden? Had the dream bled out of her head? Had it spread?
Eventually the church emptied. It had no more answers than when it was full.
In the month that followed the disappearance of the corn, the Town of Frowning found itself expecting everything and believing nothing. Smiles were tense. Irritable bowels abounded. Seven farmers’ wives on seven late afternoons reported a swarm of dragonflies over their now abandoned fields. Men remembered their duty to God. Sunday service swelled to twice the size. More fairy tales. More shucked secrets. The irreversible truth: the corn was gone and no amount of suppositions could return it.
Mary Ohliger, now afraid to even touch a growing thing for fear it might sprout legs and follow her home, was nonetheless plagued with worse and worse itches underneath both her nipples that even the jagged edges of her bitten nails couldn’t scratch. She resumed her old inanimate habits. By supper each evening the seams of her pockets strained under the weight of knickknacks she didn’t remember taking. Canning jars, handfuls of buttons, rotting newspaper, a porcelain chicken, three wedding rings. The attic transformed from a botanical garden into a dragon’s hoard. Piles climbed to the rafters. They migrated down to the second floor. The interior of the house began to mimic the farmland outside until the topography of rescued objects could be seen from the road. A full set of linens hanging out to dry found their way home under Mary’s petticoats. She covered the large attic windows. The plants died. She stopped sleeping and instead spent the black hours of the night wandering the town and staring at the last of the autumn flowers, plants that would never be hers. Sometimes it felt to Mary like her treasures followed her on her nightly escapades, stuck to her by string like the cans people tied to the back of newlyweds’ buggies. The house was filling, but with what Mary could not say. She did not know what sat in her piles. She had no memory of to whom they belonged. Only one item she was certain she still did not possess.
Her hair ribbons.
It was the first week of October and the threat of frost hung over every sunset. Families that had, until a month ago, grown corn, were scraping their coins against one another in hopes of duplication. Mary heard the distant rapport of a rifle as she headed out of town on foot in the direction of the Ohliger farmstead. Without the profit or the labor of the harvest, more men were devoting their early fall to hunting to get through the winter. The Frowning paper had reported two shooting accidents so far. It was a calm Iowa afternoon, warm for the month, and although there wasn’t a cloud above her, she could hear the plip, plip of rain in the brown alfalfa and beans. Grasshoppers jumping in the fields. There had been a lot of locusts about since the corn had vanished.
She turned up the lane to the old farmhouse that had been her home for five years. She passed the old washout then the vegetable garden she had planted before she left. The plants looked remarkably strong for a drought year. Unbelievably strong, in fact. Tomatoes as big as dinner rolls hung off caged vines. The potatoes, usually besieged with white-winged pests by this time of year, were still green and healthy. The basil hadn’t bolted. When other gardens she’d passed looked choked and tough, her old garden—Jimmy’s garden—was thriving as if by magic.
She found her husband in the kitchen blanching tomatoes for canning. He hugged her so hard she imagined she would smell like cooked vegetables for a week. She choked out a hello. He did the same. The interior of the old farmhouse was the same, but oddly unfamiliar. He had moved the furniture. The sitting couch now faced the window rather than the room. The shelves once occupied by her mother’s china were crammed with canning jars of asparagus, carrots, Iowa white peaches and stewed apples. She hadn’t realized until then how much she had expected to find her old life waiting for her exactly as she’d left it. But it had changed. Jimmy had dragged it outside into the sun. Her old life had faded in the light.
“How are you doing?” she asked Jimmy, who had to lunge to remove the peeling tomatoes from the boiling water before their innards leaked out.
“Surviving. Easier preparing for a hard winter with one mouth to feed ’stead a seven, eight. Got a little in savings. Uncle Steven said he can sell me seed corn next spring, fraction the catalogue cost. His corn didn’t go missin’. Far enough away, I guess. Don’t like the species, but what can ya do?”
Mary watched as he struggled to pull the softened tomato skins off with a fork. The limp red casing kept splitting under the pressure of his hands. Canning had used to be her job. She tried to remember teaching him the procedure but couldn’t. Giving a grunt of frustration, Jimmy threw down the fork then looked up at her. For a moment all his rough edges smiled.
“I’m sorry,” she told him. What was she apologizing for? There were too many options to know.
“Stay for supper?” he asked. She nodded.
He served her a thick, gelatinous stew of vegetables and old, tough beef and bread as hard and as dry as the backs of his hands. They ate in the silence of two people who had grown used to eating alone. For the first time in over half a year, each had company. Mary forgot not to slurp. She wiped her mouth on her arm. Jimmy ate like a raccoon, washing each hunk of bread in his soup before bringing it to his furry mouth. As he chewed he favored the left side of his mouth. A tooth had turned on him. As she looked at the lopsided face, Mary didn’t see the untrimmed beard or how tightly the man clutched his bowl. She looked at her husband and she saw the farm. This farm and her father’s farm. The memories stretched back. She looked at Jimmy Ohliger and she saw her family.
“I wondered,” she began, “if you still had my ribbons. The blue ones my father gave me.”
For the first time since her arrival, Jimmy looked uncomfortable. He attempted to tear into the broth-soaked bread with his canines and winced. The stew inside Mary’s stomach turned to mercury at the sight.
“Jimmy, dear lord. What did you? Please don’t…you didn’t give them to some child, some sixteen-year-old girl you’re courting. Those were…you damn well know…” Whole sentences fell from her mouth and smashed on the ground. She threw the shards at her idiot husband. “Where are…what did you…”
“I tied them to two ears of corn when you left. Good luck with the crop. Good luck with, you know, Like this corn, so our love shall grow.”
Mary’s face had turned the blotchy color of the stew. “Is that something from Reverend Longing?” Jimmy Ohliger nodded. It was from their wedding, but Mary didn’t remember that. Her mouth opened and closed a few times before language managed to move it right. “You tied my hair ribbons to the corn.”
“If I’d known it was gonna walk, Mary, I’d a—They didn’t exactly give me a warning.”
“They?” Mary started to say, and then when she realized the answer to her own question she threw her spoon down on the table. It landed with a dull clank on the dense wood and clattered to the floor. “Oh, for Heaven’s sake, Jimmy!”
The argued. Mary’s chest felt covered in fire ants.
Frowning entered harvest season without its main crop. Miles away in Illinois, Mary’s sister Constance was writing home with her usual letter. The baby was growing by the day. The crops were doing well. Better than well: the ears had almost doubled overnight. Wouldn’t Mary come to see? In a postscript, Constance added an anecdote: while out walking their fence line last week, her husband had spotted two stalks of corn standing straight as soldiers, each with a blue ribbon tied around its stalk. And were they or were they not the precise color of the ribbons Mary had always worn in her hair? It was too funny. She’d had to send a note.
The letter traveled by train across the Mississippi to Frowning where it and two hundred of its fellows were handed in a satchel to the postmaster for sorting and delivery. Frowning was a small enough town that the postmaster, the handsome, keen-eyed nephew of Reverend Longing, handled every aspect of the federal mail himself from arrival to delivery. He was also keen on Mary Ohliger, who he still thought of by her estranged husband’s surname despite thinking many other things about her of which her estranged husband would have hardly approved. It was unfortunate, then, that while out delivering that week’s mail on a typical, blustery, October day, the postmaster had a coughing fit and fainted dead away. The letters in his hand blew two blocks down the street before eventually lodging in a young oak tree. The next day it rained. The postmaster did not live to hear his uncle’s sermon the following Sunday. The last thing he smelled before he died was chicken manure.
By the time Constance’s letter to her sister Mary was located, the washed-out name on the envelope deciphered and the note delivered to its intended recipient it was nearly Thanksgiving. Throughout the Midwest, crops had been harvested and sold, corn and beans and wheat and sorghum shipped upriver to the markets in Chicago. In the meantime, Mary Ohliger’s sister had written once more to announce she and her husband had sold a veritable bumper crop of corn that season. They were putting the farm on the market and moving to St. Louis. George was thinking of going into the artificial sweetener industry. Christmas presents were on their way. Did her sister have any special requests? A new teakettle? Dress? Hair ribbons?