(Even my alter-ego liked this one. [It didn’t make me hurl or give me the runs.] High praise indeed)
(This is copyrighted material. Please contact the author for permission before commercial publication.)
A STRANGER COMES
By Walter Guest
Farmer spotted the stranger coming across the brown plain while he was still hours away. He stopped work now and then to gauge the stranger’s progress. The stranger never stopped or wavered in his course. He bore straight for Farmer’s plateau.
While he worked, Farmer gave thanks to The Provider. It had been eighteen years since anyone had come to the plateau. Farmer saw an occasional traveler, one only the year before, but they always bypassed his plateau in favor of others farther on.
It was mid-afternoon when the stranger started the climb up to the plateau. Farmer had already worked out what he would do and it had been a tough decision. Leaving two hours of work that would have to be caught up the next day, he put the long-bladed cutting tool on his shoulder and went to greet the stranger.
Just as the stranger reached the top of the slope, Farmer came on him from the side. “Hello,” he said when the stranger was in speaking distance.
The stranger hadn’t seen Farmer approach and started at the sound. He appeared to be startled more at the sight of the long-bladed tool on Farmer’s shoulder. “Hello,” the stranger replied.
Farmer studied the stranger’s build. He was on the slim side but fairly tall. “This is my plateau.” Farmer gestured to the fields of stalks behind him.
“I meant no harm,” the stranger said. “I will pass on to the next place.” He turned as if to start back down the slope.
“Wait,” Farmer said. “Why do you leave?”
The stranger turned back to Farmer. “I thought it was your wish.”
Farmer appeared puzzled. “Why would you think that? I wish you to stay.”
The stranger studied the big man with the long blade on his shoulder. “Then I will stay.”
“Fine,” Farmer said, not moving.
The stranger looked around nervously. “I knew someone would be here.”
This plateau is so… so… neat.”
A hint of a smile formed at the corners of Farmer’s mouth. “Not like that one over there, huh?” He indicated the nearest plateau, a few days walk away, across the brown plain.
“No… No… That one is… It looks… wild.”
“Yes.” Farmer nodded, still looking across the plain. “Wild.” He savored the word a moment.
“Not like here.”
“I’ll say not.” Farmer looked back at the stranger. “But this didn’t just happen, you know. It’s taken a lot of work to get this plateau like this.”
“It looks it.”
Farmer studied him some more, making the stranger look away. “Come,” he said, turning around abruptly and starting off. “I’ll show you.”
The stranger didn’t follow him immediately. Farmer stopped about twelve strides away and looked back. “Come, I said.”
He waited until the stranger was nearly to him before turning again and leading the way through the field.
“I have been traveling a long time,” the stranger said as they walked. “I have seen many strange lands and many strange people.”
Farmer stopped walking and gestured to the surrounding land. “This is the lower field,” he said. “I trimmed these stalks today.”
The stranger hesitated a moment before stepping over to examine the black stalks. The stubble in the ground had been left about knee high. They were about the width of a man’s leg. The recently cut stalks lay where they had fallen, on top of other stalks rotting on the ground.
“It looks like a lot of work,” the stranger said.
“Yes,” Farmer said. “Come, I’ll show you.” He started off again the same way he’d been going. The stranger followed close behind.
When they neared the place where Farmer had left off working, the stranger said, “These plateaus don’t go on and on. Three days walk back that way the land is quite different.”
Farmer stopped again. “Notice anything unusual about the way I cut those stalks?”
The stranger examined the nearest stalk. “No,” he said.
“I mean the shape of the cut.”
“Oh yes,” the stranger said. “It’s V-shaped. That is unusual.”
“Come here. I’ll show you how I do it.” Farmer walked to where he’d stopped work. The uncut stalks were about level with his eyes. The stranger noticed that the tall stalks also had a V-shaped cut on top.
“Watch this,” Farmer said. He angled his cutting tool down and easily cut halfway through the stalk at about the level of his knee. He withdrew the cutting tool and made the same cut on the other side of the stalk. The upper portion of the black stalk toppled over on the remains of other stalks of about the same length.
Farmer went on to the next stalk and cut it the same way. “Are you watching?”
“Yes.” The stranger followed him along the row of stalks.
After Farmer had cut twenty or more he said, “Here, you try one.”
The stranger looked at the cutting tool uncertainly.
“Go ahead,” Farmer said, “it won’t bite you.”
He took the tool. The handle was long so he was able to grip it with both hands.
“That’s all right,” Farmer said, “use two hands. You’ll be able to control it better at first.”
The stranger hacked awkwardly at the side of a stalk..
Farmer laughed loudly. “No, no, no. Slice,” he said, “don’t chop at it.”
“I’m afraid I wasn’t watching you very closely. My mind was on other things.”
“Here, let me show you again. See. One motion. A clean slice. Then the same thing of the other side. You try this one… That’s it. That’s it. But the slicing motion should be away from you. Start the blade near the end. Push it away from you, down and in at the same time. All one motion… See… Then you get a nice, clean cut. Try it again… Now, see, you cut way past center. Look what happens when you cut in from the other side. See? That’s sloppy.”
They worked on until the stranger came to a stalk that was only about chest high.
“Don’t cut that one,” Farmer said. “It’s too short.”
The stranger looked around. Only a few of the taller stalks were left.
When those were cut Farmer said, “That’s it. That finishes the lower field.”
“What are these then?”
“That’s the beginning of the middle field. Those stalks will be tall enough to cut tomorrow.”
The stranger looked at the cut field behind them, then at the field ahead.
“Don’t believe it, eh?” Farmer asked. “You’ll see tomorrow. There are many wonders around here. Come with me. I’ll show you more.” Farmer started off, leaving the cutting tool for the stranger to carry.
“There were people on several plateaus back the way I came.” The stranger hurried to keep up.
“I have four fields,” Farmer said without stopping or turning. “The lower field, the middle field, the upper field and the side field. Each takes a day to cut and each is cut after four days growth. You see how it all works out?”
They followed the path that separated the fields. Soon they came to a mound of earth.
“This is my burrow,” Farmer said. He watched the stranger’s face.
“Very nice,” the stranger said. His expression didn’t change.
Farmer nodded. “It’s built up a little here to keep out the runoff when it rains.”
“Come on down.”
The stranger followed him into the burrow. Farmer turned around in the center of the chamber and studied the stranger’s face as he saw the place for the first time.
The stranger looked around the dark chamber without expression.
“What do you think?”
The stranger nodded. “Very nice.”
The only light came from the opening.
“There’s more,” Farmer told him. “Much more.” He went to the back of the burrow.
The stranger squinted to see what was there.
Farmer reached into a niche dug into the dirt. “Ah,” he said, “The Provider is pleased.” He turned around with a white cube in his hand. “You see?”
“What is it?”
Farmer brought it closer. “Why it’s food of course. Haven’t you ever seen food before?”
“Yes. Of course. It looks like the insides of those stalks.”
“You are wrong. Once it was but now The Provider has made it into food.”
The stranger chose his words carefully. “How did he do that?”
“By taking the evil out. In the stalks it is filled with evil. Eat it then at your peril. Bring it in here and, after a few days, The Provider turns it into food.”
“It dries out?”
“The evil is removed,” Farmer said firmly. “The Provider removes the evil.” He stared at the stranger.
“Here, try this.” Farmer handed him the white cube. Dirt from Farmer’s hand was on it.
The stranger nibbled at a clean edge. It was a little spongy, slightly bitter and doughy tasting but not unpleasant.
“Go ahead. Eat. You must be hungry.”
The stranger ate the cube, dirt and all. “It’s good,” he said.
Farmer smiled. “Thank The Provider. With His help I could feed an army up here.”
“I can see that.”
Farmer brought more white cubes from the niche. “Here. Eat your fill. Tonight there is plenty.” He took a bite from a cube and enjoyed it loudly.
The stranger took a small bite. “Why do you make it in cubes?”
Farmer looked at him strangely. “It’s food,” he said. “Food always comes in cubes.”
“Oh, yes,” the stranger said. He ate on but so slowly that Farmer had eaten four cubes before he had finished one.
“Good, isn’t it?” Farmer reached for a fifth cube.
“Yes.” The stranger picked up another cube. “There are different foods back there, the way I came.”
“We have different foods here.’
“Sure. We’re eating the white. Sometimes the cubes are yellow.”
“I mean different in other ways.”
“I have more than that. Sometimes The Provider leaves gray food. That’s not so good. It’s my fault he does it. That’s a sign I’m not working as I should.”
“Cutting the stalks?”
They continued eating. Farmer finished his cube first.
“There’s only one left,” Farmer said.
“Go ahead, take it.”
“You sure you won’t want another?”
“This’ll be plenty.”
They ate in silence and finished at the same time.
“Now then,” Farmer said, “that’s what I call good food.”
“Yes,” the stranger replied. “You know, on some plateaus, they don’t cut the stalks.”
“You have any idea how long it took me to discover that V-cut I showed you today?”
“No, I don’t.”
“A long time, I can tell you that.”
“I’ll bet it did.”
“If you cut the stalks flat across they don’t grow very fast. If you cut them at an angle,” he gestured with his hands, “all the way across, they grow too fast. Only the V-cut keeps them growing at the right speed, so they reach to my eyes in four days.”
“Yes,” Farmer said. “And that’s not all. The height at which you make the cut is very important too. Can’t be too low or too high. Cut them too low and you kill them.”
“Oh, another grows in its place, right alongside. But it’ll be thin and scrawny for a long time.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes. For a long time. So you see the result of your mistake for a long time. It’s there to remind you.”
The stranger nodded. “You’ve learned a lot.”
“Yes. You can thank that for the food we’ve had here tonight. The Provider rewards good work.”
It had become very dark in the burrow. The stranger could barely make out the opening. “Always?” he asked.
“Does The Provider always reward good work?”
“You question that?”
“No,” the stranger said quickly. “It is just that I am not familiar with many things here. Just as I knew nothing about cutting the stalks.”
“The Provider always rewards god work.”
“It’s dark now. It’s time to sleep.”
“Have you nothing to give us light in here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Something we can burn to give us heat and light.”
“Darkness is for sleeping. Why else does it get dark?”
“It’s plenty warm enough in here to sleep.”
“I’ve never had need for heat or light in here.”
“There is probably no need.”
“Of course not. Let’s sleep now. We have a busy day tomorrow. I have a big surprise for you.”
Farmer was already up when the opening in the burrow first began to show light. He was bustling in the back of the chamber when the stranger awoke.
“Hello,” the stranger said.
“Ah, you’re awake. Good. This is a big day for both of us. Let’s get an early start. Come on.”
Farmer was carrying a big load as he walked by the stranger and up to the entrance of the burrow. The stranger followed him out. Farmer waited just outside.
“Look what I have here.” There was a bundle at Farmer’s feet and he held a cutting tool in each hand. “This one is for you.” He held one of the tools out. “Go ahead, take it.’
The stranger took the tool.
“They are both alike,” Farmer said, “so it makes no difference.”
The stranger nodded.
“That’s quite a surprise, huh? I’ll bet you never expected that.”
“No,” the stranger said.
“Come on then. Come along. Follow me.” Farmer picked up the bundle and started up the same path that they’d come back on the previous evening. The stranger followed in silence.
“You see here,” Farmer gestured as he walked, “this is the middle field. Now the stalks are tall enough to cut.”
“They grew that much overnight?”
“You’ll get the hang of it. You’ll soon be able to know how much the stalks will grow. Look how much the ones we cut yesterday grew.”
“I told you. There are many wonders here.”
“Yes, you told me. And you intend to cut the entire middle field in one day?”
“It’s not hard. You’ll see.”
“Where will you start?”
”The south corner. Here it is.” Farmer stopped where the path ended at the edge of the plateau.
The stranger looked at the brown plain below.
“Now I have another surprise for you.”
The stranger was silent.
“All of this.” Farmer waved an arm to include the entire plateau. “I’m giving it all to you.”
“Yes. To you. All of it.” Farmer smiled and looked from the stranger to the fields and back again. “Some surprise, huh?”
“Yes it is. What will you do?”
“That plateau over there,” Farmer nodded to the nearest plateau.
“The wild one?”
“Yes..The wild one. I want to tidy it up. I’ve wanted to for some time.”
The stranger studied the plateau. “Have you been there?”
“Been there? How could I have been there? It would take days to get there and back.”
“I suppose so.”
“I never had the time. I couldn’t leave my fields,” Farmer said, “until now. Until you got here.”
“Oh, yes. I suppose so.”
“So that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve got enough food in this bundle to last long enough until I can please The Provider over there. There’s more food in the burrow in case you don’t please The Provider right off here.”
The stranger nodded.
“You’ll do just fine here,” Farmer assured him. “Don’t worry about it. Wall, I have to get moving if I want to cover some distance before dark.”
Farmer waved and started down the slope, the bundle over his shoulder and the cutting tool in his hand.
The stranger watched him move all the way down the slope. He watched him start across the brown plain. He watched him until he was a little speck in the distance. Then the stranger turned and looked at the stalks in the middle field.