“You don’t come back from the unlabeled stuff,” Oliver says. “So stay on the path.”
The path is wide. But I don’t want to be here another second. I wanna grab Tracy and run. I want us all to just go, get out of here, come on.
If you could see these crops. If you could see for yourself what grows out there on Carpenter’s Farm in Gibbons, Michigan. It’s absolutely… breathtaking. Impossible not to look at, not to study, not to consider. Any time you see something you never have before it does something to you, right? No matter how good or bad the scenario is? On the one hand, how could I just run from this? Here are my friends, and it’s a different kind of danger they are in. Nobody is holding a knife to Tracy’s neck. Whatever is wrong with them isn’t going to be solved by moving faster.
Is it really so terrible to just… take a look? Take it in?
“Baum,” Connie says, pointing to our friend way out in the multicolored fields, face buried in what looked like flesh.
I look to Karen, thinking she must show some sign of sorrow, some recognition that her soul-mate is out in the “unlabeled stuff” and might not, as Oliver warned, be coming back.
But there’s nothing.
“What’s wrong with Baum?” I ask Oliver. I’m overwhelmed. Scared. Confused. But I wonder if the reason I’m asking about Baum is because I feel like I have to. That I’d be ignoring the whole purpose of my being here if I didn’t.
“We’ll get to that,” Oliver says. “But first… look. You see that cluster of violets and grays over there? It’s an excellent example of how no trait is singular in and of itself. They’re all contradictory out here, all strange bedfellows, until The Farmer pulls them apart.”
“I don’t care what this is,” I say. “I just need to know my friends are okay. Oliver, talk to me. What happened out here?”
It’s like talking to an entity I know nothing about.
He doesn’t answer my question.
“Out there,” he says, “incompatible traits are woven together. Empathy and narcissism, for example. Extreme strains of both. And if you eat one of those stalks, well, your brain doesn’t know what to do, you freeze up, not sure how to behave, you repeat things, standing up, sitting down, only because your body needs to move, you know? So, like I said, it’s dangerous out there. Thank God The Farmer taught me before I tried anything on my own.”
Beyond his work shirt and blond hair, so many colors, rows upon rows of mismatched hues, it’s enough to make me feel a little sick. The fields rise, I think, and lower again. But I don’t ask Oliver if it breathes.
Don’t try to understand it. Get in and get out.
“Those early days were incredible,” Oliver says. I look back and see the others are following. I can’t make up my mind. What do I do? Listen and learn about this place?
Or shove Oliver into the unlabeled stuff?
Do I need him?
“Scary,” he says. “The first time The Farmer cut down the trees was downright scary. I couldn’t help but see it all as mine, you know? I’d inherited the farm and the land, all this. I wouldn’t say it was anything like coming in to a fixer upper, it was more like…”
He turns to look me in the eye.
“This is reincarnation out here,” he says. “All this? This is the dead.”
I know he’s either wrong or lying or just doesn’t know.
Nothing looks dead out here.
“But in order to understand these fields,” he says, “we have to shift our understanding of soul. For starters, there is none. But there’s something close: personality.”
I look to Tracy, looking for the right moment to grab her by the wrist, to pull her close. We can’t go any farther up this path. The farmhouse behind us is already smaller than I’d like it to be and the horizon ahead blends into a blur that scares me.
“It’s insane to think we’d have one unified soul,” Oliver says, still walking, slowly, his shoes scraping against the red bricks. “We’re made up of parts. Pieces. Let me ask you… what do you relate to more? A singular idea of yourself, or many?”
He stops. He’s waiting for an answer.
“We need to go,” I say.
“The answer is many.” He’s walking again and suddenly I feel like we’re being led somewhere, that what we’re really doing is walking a brick path through the dirt of The Farmer’s head. “There are so many sides to us, some really great, some not so much. I mean, we’ve seen this in each other, as friends. Right?”
He cocks an ear my way. Waiting for me to say, yes, friends. But I’m not giving him what he wants.
What did he do to them? Look at Karen. Oblivious to Baum. Look at Rodney. A stranger to me. Look at Tracy.
Exactly what did Oliver do?
“Friends,” he says. “And those sides are not singular in and of themselves! All the faces we wear aren’t wholly correlated to the good and the bad within us. Oh, man, no. We’re made up of traits. Hundreds of traits. Colors that, as you can see, don’t always go well together. And these,” he fans his hands to both sides, underscoring the vastness of the fresh forever abounding. “These are them, buddy. This is where our traits come from. Like a woman born with only so many eggs…”
But I’m not listening. I’m staring off into the fields, sweating, worrying sick about Baum and the others. I’m thinking I can just run to him. To Baum. That I could make it quick, pick him up or drag him back. Maybe Rodney could help me. I can’t just stand here, can’t let Oliver play host as one of my best friends is stuck out there, unable to pry himself from the fields, his mind frozen by root contradictions. And is that even true? I don’t care what Oliver is saying. I can’t care. Here’s me. There’s Baum. There’s the distance between us. If I run my hardest I could get to him in–
“Hey woa,” Oliver says.
I feel a tug. He’s gripping the back of my shirt. One of my legs is held forward, boot hanging over that flesh.
Oliver caught me just as I was stepping out there. Without having decided to do so.
“I’m serious,” Oliver says. “You don’t come back from the unlabeled stuff.”
The axe is in his other hand. Not in mine anymore.
I turn and reach for it but he backs up to the other edge of the brick path and holds the thing over the fields.
“What do you really need this for anyway?” he says.
He tosses it and I see a billion colors reflecting off the blade as it rotates, forever, before falling flat to the earth.
My only thought is: I didn’t use it. I had the chance to take the axe to his back, but I didn’t do it.
And now? Now I’m out here with no advantage over Oliver.
I look to my friends. See they’re all looking back at me.
“Come on,” Morris says. “This is fascinating stuff.”
He holds his hand out to me and, despite this being a kind gesture, I’m chilled by it. This isn’t the Morris I know. The Connie. The Rodney. The Karen. The Oliver.
She’s looking at me, too, her form and face framed by all those colors, and that flesh, expanding so far in every direction.
I failed her, I’m thinking. I came out here to help her. As a friend. As a lover. As a–
“There is no such thing as a soul-mate,” Oliver says, eyeing the crops. He looks so calm. So at peace. A man observing the habits of, say, a whale. An entity so naturally mystic it manifests serenity without any aid. “There is only what fits together and what does not.” He looks at Tracy, then back to me. “How many traits do you have? And how many are compatible with themselves? And then how many are compatible with someone else’s? You know how people say you’ve gotta love yourself before you can love someone else?” He smiles and shakes his head. I’m thinking of the axe off the path. Tracy. Baum. “What they mean to say is that you gotta have as few contradictions as possible in your personality before you can attempt to twine yours with someone else’s and then, then, that person has to have too few as well. There are scenarios, you know, terribly dark scenarios, in which the contradictions in one person weave with those in another, like spider legs, wrapping each other in two webs. And it’s very hard to pull yourself out of something like that.”
His eyes are glassed over, the overwhelming colors reflected therein, and I see the sun is a little lower than it was when we stepped on the path.
“The Farmer explains it better than I do,” Oliver says. “But, really, there’s no getting used to it. No getting over it. It’s just… this is us out here, man.”
“You changed yourself,” I say, not knowing if this is true or even possible.
He smiles, proud, and nods.
“I sure did. Who wouldn’t? Look.”
I look. I see the crops, his crops, the crops he inherited when we were all still living in New York, when he was still the troubled Oliver I knew so well, already in possession of this, a twister we all suggested he run to, for solitude, for healing, for peace.
It’s not that I can hear the traits calling to me, that wouldn’t be the right way of explaining it, but, for moments, bright almost ticklish beats, I can tell what certain ones are. There’s openness, despite its dark gray, and I know the colors don’t mean what I think they do, and that if I were ever to understand what’s going on out here it would take a perceptual adjustment of a lifetime before even ingesting anything that grows.
There is no soul, Oliver said. Only traits. And each one grows with another that negates it, so that, really, in a way, nothing grows out here at all. Except, the gray of openness, throbbing, it seems, has been somewhere before has it not? The openness of a father who lived far from here, who encouraged his daughter to become the photographer she became. And before him, that openness, that very trait!, was buried within another man who, because of other, meaner, more powerful ones, hardly used it at all.
“You see one that speaks to you?” Oliver says.
He’s standing beside me and I’m scared because, for a second there, I forgot where I was.
“No,” I say. But I’m not just answering him; I’m saying no to the farm, to these fields, to what he’s done to my friends, to this path, to the dinner he served them, to the colors spread before me, to the fear I heard in Tracy’s voice, to Donna in the barn, to the fact that the fields do rise and lower, just enough, to give the impression of life.
“No,” I repeat, this time to staying any longer.
But it’s hard. It really is. And I don’t mean to describe uncanny threads pulling me toward those fields, implausible magic, unseen ropes, black yarn, wrapping itself around my ankles and wrists, luring me out into the unlabeled stuff, meeting a fate like Baum’s.
The fields are not attempting to persuade me.
It’s Oliver who teases like a siren.
“Anything you’d like to change about yourself? Anything at all?”
I keep my mind fastened to Donna and Baum.
I turn to face Oliver.
The others are farther up the path, each observing the fields like they would if we were walking through one of poppies, marveling at the small, powerful visions, nature displayed mere feet beyond signs that read: DO NOT CROSS.
Oliver is facing them. My friends. His back to me.
I raise both my hands with a mind to shove him off the path. I have to do it. I can’t stand this anymore and I won’t. He begins talking about how incredible it felt to discover he’d inherited not only a farm, but anybody he wanted to be! He raises his arms to the sky to thank Nature for delivering this farm to his family and, therefore, to him. He’s going on about separating strains and the difference between who he was and who he wanted to be. He’s talking, fast, about experimenting, testing crops on a young man named Matt who works at Bookman’s General. He’s talking about crops, about discovering the bad ones by way of a poor neighbor, a girl who, now, just sits and stands, sits and stands, in the living room of the next farmhouse up the road.
And it’s just me and him. Oliver and I. The others are farther up the path and he’s facing the fields and I move toward him, ready to hurt him, hoping he dies out there, hoping the fleshy dirt parts and swallows him whole.
The last thing I hear him say is that he knew exactly who he wanted to be and it strikes me, as I’m stepping toward him, that he’s talking with rhythm, aggrandizing to a beat, like there’s an unseen drummer out there in the colors, in the fields, playing the toms, building, getting louder, until it sounds like feet, bare feet slapping brick. I turn to see The Farmer, his face mostly hidden under the brim of his hat, but his chin and mouth like the fields, yes, flesh corded with multicolored strings, and he’s already halfway up the path to me.
“Hey,” I say, shaking my head no.
But The Farmer isn’t stopping. And Oliver isn’t done talking. Not even when the old man is upon me and his dirty fingers, with earth beneath his nails, dig into my mouth, my eyes, my nose, pulling me toward him, pulling me by my face, away from this, away from Oliver’s voice, back to where the willows once stood, back to the farmhouse and the barn.