I want you to think about drugs. I want you to think about how significant the smallest change in a person, in yourself, really is. A pill to calm you down, calms you down. You experience the world differently for the duration of that pill. Your reality, what bothers you, what doesn’t, what you care about, changes. So you see? It’s not like Oliver had to change my friends into slobbering lunatics for him to have done something horribly wrong. Any change at all, no matter how big or small, made by him, was the most egregious violation possible. If there were a pill to give you more confidence, forever, would you swallow it? Would you willingly eat the crops at Carpenter’s Farm? And if you would, and if you did, that would be by your own volition. Your choice: the you you’ve always known would have decided to open those jars, to eat those crops, to change.
While it’s true that we change, and change each other with every interaction we have, change without consent is evil. Whether Oliver made Karen happier with herself or not, it’s evil. Whether the farm he’d inherited was powerful enough a revelation to rid the world of its shared reality, it was evil. Whether Carpenter’s Farm is only a fact and therefore beyond good and evil, what Oliver did was not.
The farm may not be right or wrong, but Oliver is.
“Come on,” Tracy says, stepping into the kitchen.
I’m between the pantry and the French doors. It’s dark outside. But the oven clock tells me its very early morning, not late night.
“What happened to Oliver?” Connie asks.
Does she not know? And if not, why? What did she eat out here that would make her so?
“Whatever you’re thinking,” Tracy says to me, “the answer is no.”
She reaches for my hand, to pull me away from the pantry.
“I need to grab a few things,” I say. “I’ll hurry.”
She looks to the pantry, too.
“What’s going on?” Rodney asks, entering the kitchen. “Why are we leaving?”
“No,” Tracy says to me.
But I open the pantry door.
Because even a small change, unasked for, is criminal.
And I know Tracy better than anybody else in the world knows Tracy.
“What are you doing?” Karen asks. She’s behind me. She’s asking Tracy what’s going on, where are we going, why are we acting like this place is bad?
I don’t have time to sort out the change in Karen, the changes in Connie and Rodney.
Beneath the bottom shelf is a gray bag. Ironed to its side, in bold black letters, is a name:
“What’s he doing?” Rodney asks.
We hear a thud upstairs. Or maybe it’s a pipe. Water running, a faucet on somewhere in the house.
“Jesus,” Tracy says. “Come the fuck on.”
There’s a touch of hysteria in her voice but I don’t care. If we’re leaving, we’re leaving with the means of putting her back together again.
I reach for a jar of stubbornness.
“I know you,” I say. I’m trembling as I grab jars, Tracy in pieces.
From above, steps on a creaking ceiling.
“Where are the cars?” I ask Tracy, shakily putting a jar of self-consciousness in the bag.
“Bookman’s General,” she says. “Come on.”
“Will somebody help me move Oliver?” Connie asks.
“We’re going for a walk,” Tracy is telling her, telling the others. “All of us. Outside. Let’s go.”
Yes, hysteria in her voice. Ice cold, almost painful electricity in mine.
I’ve got jars of consternation and indecision, intelligence and pity. I’m piecing Tracy together, putting her in a bag.
A thunderous sound from upstairs and I’m reaching for the last jar, wisdom, when Tracy reaches into the pantry and grabs my shoulder.
I look to her.
“I love you,” she says.
Steps thunder upstairs.
Then we’re moving. Through the kitchen. A glance back and I see Morris crossing the living room. Tracy is already out the back door. I’m following, as Connie remains to ask Morris what’s going on, as Morris shoves her aside, calls out to stop us, says I tried to hurt The Farmer, says The Farmer is moving again, The Farmer is coming.
Karen is outside with us but she’s not moving as fast as we are.
“Seriously,” she says. “What is going on?”
“Donna,” I say to Tracy.
“Too late,” she says.
She’s heading to the side of the house, toward the gravel drive.
“We can’t leave her,” I say.
“Too late,” she says, moving faster.
Beyond her, at the very edge of the house, I see the brim of The Farmer’s hat in the moonlight.
I’m running to her, grabbing her, my fingers around her wrist, just as the old man steps around the side of the house.
Tracy skids to a stop, almost falls. I’m helping her balance as the old man’s bare feet squash the grass on his way toward us.
The farmhouse, no. The barn, no. The road, no.
I look to where the willows have been cut down. To the path of red bricks that splits the abhorrent land beyond.
“There,” I say. Because Morris is on the deck now, Connie is pointing to us, and I can hear The Farmer crushing the weeds as he comes.
“There they are!” Connie says, excitement in her voice. And I imagine her swallowing the same.
Does she know what will happen if The Farmer catches us? Does she think she’s still playing a game?
“No,” Tracy says, looking to the fields. “Not out there.”
But she’s moving toward the path, too, both of us, Karen close by, still asking what’s going on, what are we doing, why?
I’m looking to the other side of the farmhouse but there’s too much in the way, bushes and shadows, and I’m struck with a vision of Tracy and I immobilized as two dirty hands reach through the brush to drag us back into this house.
“Go,” Tracy says, on board now, because Morris and Rodney are coming down the deck steps.
And The Farmer is halfway across the yard.
“What is going on?” Karen asks and then Tracy has her by the wrist and the three of us are stepping onto the bricks and Morris is calling out for us to stop and Connie is saying The Farmer is gonna get us and I think she’s right, the man is at the head of the path and we’re not much farther. To the right and to the left of us the fields glow, just enough. Ahead, a peak of the sun, and I think I do see an end to this path, though it’s so far I can’t trust we’ll ever reach it. And we’re moving fast, running, the three of us, and it feels like we’re literally running away from death, the death Oliver told us can be found in a billion pieces, threads, traits, on either side. I can hear The Farmer’s bare feet and I look back to see Morris and Rodney off the path, bounding through the unlabeled stuff. Rodney falls to his belly, burrows his face in the dirt just as I turn ahead again, thinking no, please no, Baum, Rodney, Morris, Donna, all lost to the crops out here.
Bare feet like drums behind us.
Tracy’s trying to calm Karen while moving, still, going, as the sun gets higher, a little bit, bringing to life the red in the bricks we run across. The bag of jars bangs against my back, my leg, the threads of the Tracy I know.
Ahead, do the bricks end? Can they? Is there an end to this path or will it bring us all the way around again, back to the farmhouse, just like the crops that grow here, traits, used in various combinations, billions of combinations, all the people who have ever walked this earth and had, within them, a persona, a personality, character, reincarnated, they all come back again, used, again, to make us up, to make us, no soul but this, these, endless characteristics so small so delicate so individual that how can you ever really know someone how can you ever really know yourself?
Connie’s voice cracks the sky behind us, gleefully screeching The Farmer is getting closer, and I, fool, look back, and see that he is, his form like living dirt now, the thud of his feet the thud of Ever hitting the sidewalk, a thousand Ever’s in a succession, falling from open windows, The Farmer gaining ground on us and I know, I know!, that this does not lead back to the farm or he would not be chasing us, coming for us, there must be an end to this path, the farmhouse only a toy behind us, only a model farm, not a real farm at all, small enough to fit in my hand, my hand still gripping the strings of a bag labeled Donna.
The Farmer is close.
But ahead, trees.
Trees I recognize, yes, the same willows that grew at Oliver’s and I’m momentarily cold, thinking we have come all the way back after all, until I see, beyond those trees, no house, no barn, but…
“Road,” Tracy says.
And we’re moving fast, breathless, haunted by the images of our friends no longer themselves, Oliver speaking with candor and confidence, Morris and Rodney dancing amongst rows of personality that they will never return from, Connie screaming in favor of our doom, Oliver on the floor in the farmhouse, back there, his protector, the protector of the farm, The Farmer, like earth thunder on the red bricks, his bare feet the sound of dirt falling, yes, to the top of a casket, yes, a sound I’ve heard before, the first few shovelfuls as earth meets box, the finite, the finality, the end at hand, before the person within the box dissipates, separates, breaks into a billion fractals, becomes the crops at Carpenter’s Farm.
And we’re there, at the trees, me and Tracy, I can touch one, I reach, I’m off the path, Tracy is off the path, OFF THE PATH, just as The Farmer reaches Karen, Karen so lost, confused, grabbed by the shoulder and whipped back into the arms of a horror.
I continue through the trees but Tracy remains, sees something I don’t, sees The Farmer isn’t stepping past the cessation of red bricks. She reaches for her friend’s hand, finds one, flailing, the one The Farmer does not already have hold of, takes it, as the sun gets higher and Karen is pulled hard between the two. Karen screams and I imagine her torn, rent, untwisted like the process of peeling opposing traits from one another, each of us always on the precipice of being forever frozen by the warring traits within us all.
I see Tracy and I see Tracy in her eyes.
I look to the bag.
And what was I planning to do with it? And who am I to say I know her?
I come back to the edge of the bricks and I swing the bag at The Farmer and the jars strike the side of his head. Dirt explodes in a cloud, his fingers give, just enough for Tracy to pull Karen off the bricks and with us under the trees.
I don’t look back as we move, the three of us, on someone else’s land, under the branches, until we are deep enough into the trees that we can no longer see those fleshy fields, can no longer see the path or the thing we left upon it.
We back up, slowly.
The branches rattle, the leaves shake. As if The Farmer is trying, yet, to reach us.
And just as the sun reaches a height that is indisputably day, the branches of the willows go still.
We step back.
“Come on,” Tracy says.
She’s got an arm around Karen and then so do I, the two of us helping her across a stranger’s grassy field, toward the road we spotted from the middle of the middle of it all.
“The road,” Tracy says.
And, breathless, we reach it.
Cornfields fan out forever ahead. We regroup on the gravel shoulder.
From the front porch of the home behind us, the owner of the land we trespassed upon calls to us:
“What are you three doing?”
We don’t answer the woman. We just stare back at her. None of us sure how to respond.
“This isn’t Carpenter’s Farm,” she says. “You don’t run up and touch the side of this house. This isn’t that one.”
She’s got her hands on her hips, her head cocked to the side.
Then, “Are you three okay?”
Tracy says, “Do you know the way to Bookman’s General?”
The woman hesitates before responding. Then she nods.
“Up that way a full two miles and a quarter, then a left on Pearson. That’s all there is to it.” Then, “I don’t need to call the police now do I?”
“No,” I say. “We’re just looking for the store.”
She shakes her head.
“Well you’re a long ways away and not so far, too.”
We begin walking the way she told us to go. Tracy, Karen, and I, like survivors of a shipwreck. Karen huddles inside her cardigan like it’s cold. But it’s not.
“That was the best performance I’ve ever seen from you,” I tell Tracy.
She smiles. She knows.
We walk. Until the woman who watches us is out of view. As the sun gets higher and the sense of having made it out gets bigger.
But not much.
Ahead, on the same road, walking towards us, a figure.
I squint into the sun. It’s a man, I think.
Karen talks about needing her things. Tracy tells her we’re going back to New York. She can get new things.
As they talk, and as our shoes crush the small stones of this country road, my heart picks up speed.
It’s a man, yes, and while it’s not The Farmer, doesn’t move like The Farmer, his motion is familiar to me.
Like seeing a photo of someone you used to know.
I try to make small talk, ask about Tracy’s car, attempt to help assuage Karen’s confusion. Karen doesn’t understand what went wrong, why we ran. We tell her there was a bad man at the farm. Do you remember him, Karen? We ask. Do you remember the man in the hat?
But I think I recognize an even worse one ahead.
“Is that…” I say, thinking out loud.
We come to a stop.
Despite a new walk, new posture, and very little that resembles the friend we had in New York City, we know who this is.
I look for places to hide, for something we might use as a weapon, thinking, if Oliver, The Farmer might not be far behind. Maybe he can leave his land, after all. Maybe he can do anything he wants.
“Wait,” Tracy says.
I look to her. Does she have a plan?
Oliver moves like a man who has had a hard night of drinking, arguments with a lover until the sun came up.
When he’s close enough to yell to, Tracy takes a few steps toward him.
I think: showdown.
A duel, Oliver and Tracy, drawing truth and true persona from their holsters.
I brace myself for a fight, I make fists.
Here we go.
Yet, as he gets close enough to fully distinguish, as the dust rises around his shoes and pants, as he’s close enough to recognize us, I don’t see his expression change at all.
Tracy doesn’t move when Oliver steps level with her.
“Have you seen my friends?”
Still, Tracy doesn’t flinch.
“What do they look like?” she asks.
I grip Karen’s wrist. She doesn’t speak.
“Well,” Oliver says, seemingly searching his head for an answer. “I suppose they’re about the same age as you three. Same build. They wouldn’t look like they’re from around here.”
Tracy holds his gaze. Then says:
“No. I haven’t seen anybody like that at all.”
Oliver looks to me. Looks to Karen. Then back to Tracy.
“Okay. Thank you. Wish me luck.”
But she doesn’t wish him luck. And I don’t either, as he passes me and nods the way one does to a stranger on a big city street.
We watch him grow smaller, his form slowly swallowed by the heat and dust of the country.
I step to Tracy.
“Prosopagnosia,” she says. “In his drink. I found it in the barn after I called you.”
“And what does that do?”
We’re still watching him. He still grows smaller, surrounded by endless farm and fields, as if the land, the entire world, is growing wider, taller, more daunting, around him.
“It’s when you can’t recognize a face,” Tracy says. “Not even the faces of your friends.”
Then she winks.
We watch Oliver walk until he is swallowed by the open space of everything that is not him.
“Come on,” Tracy says. “The car.”
As our boots crunch gravel and the sky gets hotter, I think:
Does Tracy wink?
I can’t remember her ever having done it before, the expression, from her, so new to me. And I think of the bag I swung at the old man, the bag I let fall to the bricks, and I think it doesn’t matter. It can’t. Tracy, this Tracy, may not be exactly the woman I fell in love with, she may not be the exact person she was when she started worrying about a friend on a farm in Michigan, but she is Tracy. She has been changed by the experience, yes, in ways both big and small, yes, ways I’ll never fully comprehend or be able to pinpoint, but ways that I know she’ll sense, when she recalls the Old Her and compares that woman to the one she is now.
And I hope, and I believe, that she’ll think: