Short story: The marriage of the corn king


We’re all family, us fuel farmers with our suicide seedbanks from corporate wars that won’t grow after one planting.


James Nathan

I set my husband alight, and he is beautiful and his thermal yield matches the sunlight that grew him until finally he ignites one wall of my plastic-printed prison. I scream for help and my jailer comes roaring in yelling stuff like What the hell’s going on, and Goddamit, I could kneecap ya, and you won’t be running nowhere.

My husband’s blood is 100 proof ethanol and my jailer cops a bucket of the stuff as he plunges below the flaming lintel, and one of my husband’s fingers, thrown, sets him alight. Diesel farmers don’t think in terms of low-temperature vaporisation, so he doesn’t run like he should have done, and all it took from me was that tiny flame and suddenly all that sunlight and photons and C4 photosynthesis and energy dense biomass makes him hot and hot and burn and burn and burn...

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Every process has a start, a moment of ignition, and I could point to several: the Sorrow, the Deconstruction, the Scatterings and Forgetting, the Falling-Down and The Casting-Up, the Migration of Millions, the Longer March. But all of these are indirect to me, for I was not born when those things happened, so it is Kasey who is first in my mind, striding through the transgenic corn fields in a polyester dress the colour of cellulose slurry. She can call up storms, Kasey. Not the regular kind, but the secret understorms that move within people.

She stunk of sweat and burnt caramel. I was immediately on guard at her approach. She said, “Lise. You’re getting married.”

I didn’t much like Kasey, nor did she like me, and I wasn’t in the least surprised to have her dump news in my lap which should have been gradually broken to me over several days. Ideally they would have fed me a fractured distillation of an idea, a slow heating of a suggestion, such as aren’t we lucky we could train up two ingenieurs, and our own patent-breaker is not so old that she can’t train up a third before she dies, and that one day I might team up with an Alchemist and start my own biofuel farm, but before that, why not try your hand at a different production method or climate variability or see what other salvage is out there?

Only when I had reached a flashpoint of intellectual curiosity would the catalyst of marriage come.

But no, it’s You’re getting married.

“Huh, you’re such a knuckle, Kasey,” I replied, “And you’ll be in trouble for telling me this so soon.”

“You think?”

Right about then I remembered the annoying anthro-motivated complications to everything. Since the month before, Kasey has been sleeping with Dex.

Even now the cheap terminator-seed genes revert and cross pollinate with the good crop once in a while, and we lose a whole field.

A year ago Jarrod Dekko was a blow-in, a tramp refugee from the coast who knew how to fix an engine and not much else. He turned farmhand and got to work. Then he became the only witness to see the chief trip into a sulphuric acid tank by accident. It shouldn’t have happened. Hills had nothing to do with the lignocellulose pre-treaters. That’s our Alchemist’s job. No need for the Farm Chief to have been in the fermentation plant, on a high gangway not built to take the weight of anything more than a child. Kasey might be thick, but she had rat cunning and an awareness of brute biological compulsions. She hadn’t given Dex the slightest upturn of her skirt before, and all of a sudden she shared his bed and whispered suggestions into his cabbage-ear.

You’re getting married.

The social storm that surrounded us after Hill’s death had become fierce. Dex hated me, and Tam--our younger Ingenieur--and hated Violet most of all. Hated that we had the knowledge, that Andrew Gyre once said, “Not in steel or fuel shall you rebuild the world. In minds lie all your gold.”

But if Dex wanted to claim himself chief, and wanted to be chief of a farm that still produced ethanol after a season without Hills, he had to keep us all happy.

Every night since the funeral, our new chief had watched me over the diminishing corn-bread of the communal dinner table. His face grew lines of hatred, but he couldn’t do anything because Hills did admittedly do a good job in getting a bunch of urban ‘fugees with no farming ability to take over a thousand hectares of concrete dust wasteland and turn it into a viable biofuel producer.

None of this would have been possible without Violet.

Violet is the one I go to after Kasey trudges off, disappointed that I did not kick up a fuss. Violet’s old enough to remember the Three-Year Winter, old enough to remember the Fall Down and Scatter. Maybe even old enough to remember the Rumours, the fist murmurings of the whispering end of the world. She was old even when Hills found her twenty-five years ago, mute and half-dead. Hills had rat-cunning too, but in a knowing way. He knew when an older woman bears whip scars and compliance-stumps when her feet should have been, it is not for the produce of her body that she was made a thing to be goaded.

“Tell me it’s not true,” I said.

“Was not my decision, getting you married,” the tablet on the bench says.

Two hand-spans from Violet’s knees, her legs tapered into lovingly knitted blue-and-yellow socks. Hills had spent his initial seed money in getting the ragged, phantom-ends fixed. Had to start the Farm on gengineered rubbish. Even now the cheap terminator-seed genes revert and cross pollinate with the good crop once in a while, and we lose a whole field.

But Violet, ingenieur of cellular structure and hybridisation, cracker of corporate legacy copyright codes, is more than worth it.

Whomever took Violet’s legs took her voice. The tablet computer was salvage. It spoke to me like a faceless intermediary.

“Guy from up north came in two nights back. Emissary from a biodiesel farm. They want to trade, an Ingenieur for diesel. Their other one died without a replacement.”

I breathed in deep, counted to ten.

“Diesel?”

“Trade,” Dex says. “They need an ingenieur. They have plenty of farmers, but no ingenieurs. They’ve tried to grow their crop purely on written instructions from the last one, but its not working. Their seedstock doesn’t grow. They think it’s copyrighted.”

Violet’s old enough to remember the Three-Year Winter, old enough to remember the Fall Down and Scatter.

I could have just gone to them. Helped them out, stripped out the patent protection, and given them clean cultivars. Maybe trained up ingenieur of their own. I could. We’re all family, us fuel farmers with our suicide seedbanks from corporate wars that won’t grow after one planting. But that kind of rationalism doesn’t gel with the sociological pressures of the here-and-now, such as: post-apocalyptic societies—of which we are undoubtedly one--are incredibly conservative, and they’ve probably only rescued a few books and read them over and over and far too deeply and far too literally than is reasonable. The Farmers Almanac (iffy, with the climate changed against the days of the year) The Bible, (likewise, what with Kingdom of Heaven in a mustard seed, but no growing instructions) and Andrew Gyre’s Codices to The End Of The World.

Gyre theorised that human interactions would survive when all knowledge died, and would follow old patterns. Real caveman-brain stuff. No consultancy positions for me. I would be married to an agricultural architect and my technical training would be passed on through familial models of social structure and that was that.

Dex watched me with his little piggy eyes when they told me, and if he ever did punish Kasey later it was only because she had ruined the moment for him, and the fact that there was any sort of punishment at all told me, that unless I wanted to end up like Violet, I’d better be saying yes to the proposal.

“Yes,” I said, my face as expressionless as the dark surface of a molasses tank.

The emissary is pleased with the story of the righteous engine, the one that runs on goodness, an engine for the common man.

Because they lived so far away, in salty wetlands to the north, my husband would not be sent for me. A quick journey there and back exceeded the rads-per-person-per-year, and they could not afford for him to be taken the long way around, not during the harvest and the restocking, not through trade routes who might poach him the way Violet was poached.

I would be married by proxy, and him to me. I spoke to him by radio a couple of times, when the ionosphere and radioactive interference allowed it, he sounded mature for his age, which was twenty-four, and a little shy, but business-like too, which meant he would take this seriously, and in that I was content to go through the ritual.

I had still argued with Violet right up to the wedding day. I said, “Why can’t Tam go?”

“Tam’s not so smart as you, Lise.”

“Exactly,” I started, and then I knew exactly what Violet meant. She was used to the goad, would not fight Dex’s lash. The shock of ignition was his, but the expulsion of energy? That was hers to manage. And her energy expulsion would be the slightest breath of mutiny. This northern tribe with their serious, shy man would have me, and she’d make fumbling, fidgety Tam run the production lines on Dex’s misbegotten farm and watch as the terminator seedstock overtook the fertile ones, as the bacillus genes in the hybrid corn produced deleterious outcrosses, until the farm died, and Violet would be dead by then too.

Some of the women made up a proxy husband for me. A bushel for a head he had, long lean lines of corn-stalk for his arms and legs and some of Hills’ old clothes for a wedding coat. A mouse substituted a heart, and it crawled through the torso, squeaking. Most were kind enough not to laugh as the rites were given under the jasmine archway, me in a loaned dress and my husband propped up against the old brickwork.

As was proper, we were given a night in the farmhouse, in the main bed, and I lay on the straw mattress next to him, and I stared up at the canopy, heavy with damp and bird droppings.

Sometime during the night the mouse-heart found its way out through the imprisonment of woven grass, ran across my legs and escaped, and I could imagine myself shrunk down to mouse-sized, astride the furry body, lashing my mount on with a blade of switchgrass until it had taken me far and away.

Nothing could be taken with me to these people in the North, save for a few clothes. No books, no possessions. A Gyre philosophy of intellectual preservation, which meant my worth was in my life, and staying alive. Nothing of value to be stolen upon my death. I layered every bit of clothing I owned upon me so the northern emissary gave me a side-on look. Chubby with clothes and good-eating, I ascended onto the wagon with a lot of grunting. My husband I took, though, with two litres of fuel in his belly to give him a kickstart once on the nuptial bonfire.

The diesel farmers would burn him in effigy at our real marriage, with the Queen that had taken my place. I imagined her as dank and wet, bags of algae tied together to suggest femininity. Hessian breasts, dark with marine sargassum, a swollen belly ready to burst through the woven bag. My real husband would not love her at first.

The emissary started up his diesel engine, and we set off in a jostle. I was not used to this kind of engine, the loudness of it, the carbon particulates in the exhaust. He was an older man with a mouth full of tooth-pegs, pox-scars lacing his cheeks.

A day passed before he spoke to say, “What do you know about diesel?”

We make biofuel because the thirsty salvage demands it, and Farms will specialise according to climate and what they can get their hands on. We have a dual crop, rotated. A sugarcane when it’s wet, followed by a switchgrass-corn hybrid with drought resistant genes for cellulosic ethanol during the dry. It’s been dry a long time.

The molecules of ethanol are short and clean. Diesel runs long and dirty. But it’s easier to make, and the diesel engine salvages have survived the Scatttering and the Falling Down better than the gasoline equivalents. Violet used to be a diesel ingenieur, which is why I’m not limited to ethanol and eco-petroleum knowledge. She says that there is a righteousness in the diesel engine, a tool for craftsmen and the poor, an engine that will run on the waste oil and farm byproduct – that anyone can get their hands on.

The emissary is pleased with the story of the righteous engine, the one that runs on goodness, an engine for the common man. I can tell he is from the Obliterated Cities. He has seen unfairness.

He says his name is Isaac.

I asked him about my husband. My real one, not the corn one that lay at a stiff angle in the back of the cart.

Isaac hunched down into his coat. “I don’t know him so well.”

“Is he a kind man?”

“I suppose.”

“Could I fall in love with him?”

He wouldn’t look at me.

“Many have fallen in love with men like him. He is seductive, like that.”


The Geiger counter, once ticking every minute, now clattered like a cicada at sundown.

We passed through an irradiated plain, salted earth even worse than the ground where Hills had started his farm. The Geiger counter, once ticking every minute, now clattered like a cicada at sundown. Isaac gave me a foil radiation suit, very old, more patchwork than original, smelt of bad breath and multiple body odours having soaked into the seams. He didn’t have one for himself. After five hours in the sand-blasted landscape he stopped the cart and vomited blood over the side of the safety rail.

“I’ll be fine,” he said afterwards.

But he was not fine, and I could tell he was dying, and eventually he gave me a map and the keys to the ignition and showed me how to work his diesel-cart, in the eventuality he expired before we reached my husband’s farm. He didn’t die, but he did remain quite ill.

After a day the spiteful land flattened out and I could take off the suffocating hood to see fresh air and smell the ocean. Down in the coastal valley the race-lakes curved in a snake’s sinuous trail, drying pans patch-worked the salt-plains, but neither presented any evidence of a crop. This farm must have been a massive biofuel producer before it fell into fallow. When I drove into the small village, a gaggle of people came out to meet us. Their raggedy clothes hung across the racks and pinions of their shoulders, no meat left to fill them out. Their village was made of cellulose plastic, plastic houses, plastic barns, plastic-concrete polymer dwellings. A farm producing this much cellulose should have employed an army of ingenieurs, not just a lone woman who never trained a successor.

In one corner of the yard, the rusting remains of a 3D building printer leant forlornly against the plascrete side of a warehouse. Its feeder tubes had corroded, the plastic hardened in the pipes.

All the worn faces looked at me, each sunken cheek like a fist-punch into dry dough. Nobody was under forty years old. No evidence of children. I knew that my husband was not among them.

“Why did you wait so long to get him married?”

Exchanged, furtive glances. I saw the storm there. Only one thing can make a productive farm of this size fail, and that is a war played out in the social undertow. I saw it happen with Hills and Dex. All it takes is for a stranger to ride into town or a young man to go off on a journey. I wondered who among this motley group might have been the contamination in the clean colony.

“We had some disagreements. A former ingenieur was lax in her teachings, but she was loved and cosseted beyond necessity. So you see, this is where we’ve ended up.”

The man who spoke reminded me a little of Dex. Him, then. He had the same kind of mulishness, a resentment not given airing space because it’s undeserved. They are multitudinous, these kinds of people. Miraculously, a lot of them survived the Falling Down when they should have all expired from the sheer narcissistic pique of having an apocalypse bigger than their own troubles. You don’t need them on your farm. You certainly don’t need them running the place, that’s for sure.

“Where is my husband?”

NotDex maintained an affable smile, like the best sociopaths.

“He has been called away on trade business. Down the coast.”

“Oh?”

And by oh, I meant, he goes on trade but he cannot come and marry me?

NotDex says, “He should be back soon. But its time you should go to work.”

In one corner of the yard, the rusting remains of a 3D building printer leant forlornly against the plascrete side of a warehouse.

I think Isaac died in the night, for I never saw him again. My fast collection was clearly a suicide mission. I’ve traded before, because Violet can’t travel too well, so I knew of the longer route over unpassable terrain, a horseback route, made light, and the southern trade train line, dipping down towards colder waters before dog-legging up to our farm, passing by a thirsty city that demands fuel like a man in the desert might want water.

After a supper of grains and something unpalatable that looked like seaweed – and I did not miss the empty plates and hollow eyes of them that watched me eat – they showed me to my room.

I did not miss the door’s outward swing, the hasps for a bolt. I sat up all night with my corn husband and pondered my situation.

The following day their Alchemist, escorted me to a propagating nursery. His name was Paris, like the Greek or the city, but whichever one, long gone. He had a palsy from an acquired head injury, one eye at a droop, two fingers on each hand removed, leaving cavitations at the top of his left palm. No industrial accident. I thought of Violet’s legs.

The propagating rooms had long been reduced to tatters by years of coastal storms. Cracks mazed the polycarbonate roof. They no longer had a cellulose source to make translucent greenhouse covers, so the bioplastic frames to each shed spread as bare as ribcages. Across the benches, some desultory effort had been made to grow fuel crop cultivar in covered trays. I guessed by the residue they’d messed up the saline concentration and killed off their cultures.

“How long was it since you had an ingenieur?”

“Two, maybe three years,” Paris said evasively. “How soon can you get started?”

Soon? Things like these were measured in years.

“We need foundation stock for the race-lakes, first. Surely your ingenieur must have put some original aside just in case.”

“I, uh, don’t think she had the time. We have to start over.”

We went through the factory where the fuel crop is stripped of fatty acids and esterised to produce biodiesel. Or was. The lipase bioreactors and collection chambers lay cold and empty, a fine layer of salt dust blooming across the stainless steel surfaces. Nothing in the reactors, no bacterial starter to get a digestion treatment plant going again. A stack of bright blue canisters caught my eye.

“What are these?”

“Aaron and I bought some algae culture from a city-trader,” Paris said. “Last year. Trader said the big oil companies grew it in America before the Falling Down, when America was still around. We paid everything for it. But it never took. Biopatented stock, yeah? Guy must’ve stolen it, must have not had the unlock enzyme.” He scratched his dented palm. “Kept some, just in case we got an ingenieur. Aaron says maybe you could knock out the patent, get it growing.”

I shook my head, amazed that they were so foolish. “You don’t need a patent-breaker. It’s not copyright that’s killing your crop. It’s the environment.”

“Aaron says…”

“If you don’t breed your algae for the high saline, it won’t take! This place needs Sargasso-varietal. The American stuff you bought?” I kicked one of the blue canisters. “This is freshwater junk, Great Lakes cultivar.”

“But the copyright needs breaking...” Like a record. I heard another’s timbre in there, shouted enough times that it overrode what little the Alchemist knew, became fact.

“Yes, but it doesn’t matter, this is freshwater fuel crop, you could never have grown it here.” I peered at him. “You aren’t a biofuel Alchemist, are you?”

Paris turned his face away, ashamed. His hand went to his eye, his paralysed face. “We paid everything.”

I could feel my lips thinning out over my teeth. Ah now, whose idea had that been?

The lipase bioreactors and collection chambers lay cold and empty, a fine layer of salt dust blooming across the stainless steel surfaces.

That night they locked me in my plastic prison with my corn husband, and that night I set him on fire. Yes, I could have waited. Seen out the year and got the old racelakes growing again with wild seaweed collected up from the toxic beach, anything with oily biomass enough to make the diesel. But I was of an ethanol people, and our decisions are explosive, like the initial spark that drives the ethanol engine. I could tell the former ingenieur had done her best under NotDex, lived under the slow pressure, pressure, pressure that fires the diesel chamber. The diesel engine is a righteous engine, the engine of the poor. But just because biodiesel survives a lot of abuse doesn’t mean you don’t treat it with respect.

After I screamed for help, NotDex was the one to crash through. Once he got to burning, the others, they weren’t going to challenge me or the cane-knife I had liberated from my husband’s left thigh. Years of cutting sugarcane made me a thing to be feared, and I think they were just glad to be finally free of him.

The plastic buildings caught the flame one by one and I guess I should have been sad for the loss, but the fools had been long enough chained by NotDex and his promises. Seduced, Isaac had said. Many men are seductive like that. I knew whose voice I had heard on the radio last week.

Perhaps now they would not linger by the empty race-lakes, waiting for the algae to grow back. Maybe they would take to the road and a few would end up at Hill’s old farm, wiser in the ways of secret storms.

Did I forget to say I never did give back the keys to Issac’s diesel cart? His map remained wedged under my ribs all that time. On my way out I saw Paris on the road, shambolic in the night, like a broken-down machine. Well, even machines can be fixed. I pulled up alongside him, and he squinted in the lone headlight.

“It’s Lise. Want a lift?”

He thought it over. After NotDex, he would never be willing to jump feet-first into anything again. Then he climbed up, no yes-please or thank-you. We got going again. Eventually I would have to return to Hill’s farm, but I would go the long way around, like an engine finishing its combustion cycle.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” I said, “What kind of Alchemist are you?”

He sighed, rather indifferent to the skills that had proved so lacking and lost him his fingers. “Electrochemistry. Solar, mostly.”

The old, tired sun rose in the east, shining on wide fallow fields long given over to a rambunctious variety of wild corn. Land flooded with sunlight, as rich as it ever comes. I smiled at Paris, not come-hither I would hope, but more conspiratorially. I had just lost a husband, after all.

Claire McKenna is a contributor to Cosmos Magazine
James Nathan is an illustrator based in Bristol, UK.
Latest Stories
MoreMore Articles