Geoff Nelder

The March Editor's Pick Writer is Geoff Nelder

Please feel free to email Geoff at geoffnelder@yahoo.com


by Geoff Nelder

Stafford’s left hand let go the tractor’s steering wheel so he could press the iPod button on his dashboard. Surround sound enveloped him with Your Left, your left, Right from Eminem’s Soldier. The beat drowned out both the throbbing engine and the manic squawking from the fluttering shadows that had haunted him all day, every day, all season. There they were dive-bombing the fresh furrows he’d made in the field. Hell, he’d gone crooked that last set.

He stamped on the brake, making the Massey Furguson shake as if in an earthquake. The ABS kept it pointing east, with a late afternoon shadow stretching across wheat stubble, waiting its turn. His over-reaction didn’t bother the gulls swooping around him, unless they jeered more. The padded tractor seat swiveled to allow Stafford to grind his teeth at the dog’s leg he’d made. It shouldn’t have happened with the auto-guidance system, but the damned seagulls must have distracted him.

It wasn’t just the birds. They’d followed ploughs for millennia, though this year they crowded him. A Herring gull, the same one as yesterday, their leader, filled his view flapping impossibly slowly. Phlegm flew from its scarlet-tipped beak and splattered on the glass. The glutinous acid mass bubbled but didn’t erode through. Stafford caught his own translucent reflection; short blond hair and a slanted grimace in his own stubble.

“You don’t scare me.” Reaching for his shotgun, he knew he lied, but recognized that he was transferring his fear of something else to the bird. A button lowered the side window enough to poke out the barrel.

Just after Eminem sang: tempt me, push me, pussies, I need a good reason to give this trigger a good squeeze... the detonation filled the sky with noise and retreating birds.

Stafford didn’t used to be so wary of the birds. He’d sniggered at the Hitchcock movie, and laughed at gulls stealing sandwiches at the seaside; his unease was levered by trouble he kept on a back burner.

He’d named their leader, Anne, even though it was huge enough to be a male, to belittle its threat. It was the reason he’d taken to wear a safety helmet when out of the sanctuary of his cab. Its namesake, Anne-Lidya was once his fiancée...a Croatian Cher look-alike. He’d come to realize that she hated him.

It had taken several weeks to compile the evidence. It started with the exit of passion; the constant back turned in bed; excuses to be away. He never understood why he lost Anne-Lidya.

Anne the gull was easier to fathom. She alone circled the cab as if seeing him as food instead of the worms his plough unearthed. Alone too, because the others wouldn’t return until the big male led them in. Then all they’d do was dive into fresh furrows. Like all farmers, he’d spent this part of the season in a constant cloud of screams and wings.

He turned up the rap: And actually better ‘cause instead you murderin', you can hurt 'em and come back again and kick dirt at 'em.

An animated cloud grew in the south. He couldn’t lie to himself any more. His throat dried as they approached, a pincer movement like an army. At least he had a covered cab in his tractor. How did other farmers cope, exposed?

He was an island in this huge field, half yellow stubble, half fresh chocolate. He pressed a blue button that upped the aircon, rid the cab of his sweat. All these gadgets and not a bird scarer. He’d found that his traffic horn only moved a dozen and for mere seconds. His shotgun did the trick for a few minutes but they were returning already. He let off another shot, so he could get out and investigate why the furrows had kinked. It didn’t matter for seeding but it might have skewed at hitting something just under the surface. He turned off the engine and climbed out.

His olive-green boots hit the stubble waiting its internment. At the rear of the new MF-7400 was a gleaming steel configuration of four parallel ploughs. He patted the nearest on his ten-metre walk to the out-of-line furrow, then smiled at last.

The sky contained only fair-weather white clouds tickling the fading blueness. Anne the gull was the only dot and she was half a mile distant, silhouetted by the sinking sun. Soldier had just finished so he listened to his field. The worms and the moles were frantically digging deeper, the soil water in the metre-deep terracotta drains. The nematodes called too, he imagined. Gnome’s spaghetti.

He breathed in the warm metallic aroma of fresh earth. He refused to call it dirt, even though it was. He knew the chemical names for the enzyme compounds and bacteria that pleased his nostrils. At the start of the kinked furrows he squatted and seeing nothing unusual, grabbed a handful of the loamy clay. He’d tried to be organic over the years with this field: green compost. He’d rotated the wheat with beans and oats.

He couldn’t afford the fallow for which Anne-Lidya had begged. Was that what she had been upset about? He stood and remembered, the soil slipping through his fingers.

Stafford knew that Anne-Lidya held a holistic nature philosophy, whereas he’d stuck to his solipsism tinged with a grudging nod to fate. He overheard her say to her friend, “Seriously, Toby is a farmer. It’s not like a bible study class, more pantheism and a tinge of Wicca.” She’d breathed more than spoke the word Wicca but Stafford had never asked about it.

He was convinced she saw herself as a spiritual Earth Mother. “You are disturbing the natural order of things,” Anne-Lidya forever pointed out. She’d have all the fields fallow every year.

“Grow caravans,” she said. “It would be better for nature.”

“Somebody has to grow food,” he’d replied. Her lips trembled to increase his guilt.

Ah well, that’s the past, Stafford thought. Anne-Lidya is gone, and the farm is still here.

A cool breeze reminded him he’d left his helmet in the cab. He scanned and saw Anne the gull perched on his cab. She hello-squawked over Stafford’s head, making him turn and see them swarming above the sycamores a hundred metres away.
Abandoning further investigation of the deviant furrow, he yelled a fuck off at Anne but she merely opened her beak as if to reflect back his curse. He picked up a clot of soil and hurled it. The vertical take-off was impressive but now Stafford had a windscreen to hose down.

Before he took a step, a foul-smelling dollop fell on the back of his neck. Anne was in front of him and the sky darkened as if the sunset accelerated. His arms up to protect his face, he started for his cab but his left foot wouldn’t move.

He fell, wondering if he’d put his foot in an old trap but there was no pain. He shouted to deter the gulls. He knelt and took his hands off guard duty to pull at his left boot. He couldn’t see what was holding it down. After undoing the laces he freed his foot and stumbled to his cab, slamming the door after him.

He laughed at his stupidity to be upset at birds, and couldn’t stop laughing for several minutes until his lungs ached. They were only primitive egg laying, shrieking, mindless, fucking pterodactyls.

His neck throbbed as his pulse raced. Maybe the bird mess was eating into him. With a rag, he cleaned off the foul-smelling shit. As he opened a window enough to lob it outside he noticed his hand shaking, and he was burning up. Look at them, all they wanted was the worms. None had actually touched him and yet he quivered as if under fire.

The ploughing needed finishing and then he could get home, have a bath. Meanwhile the air conditioning would cool him. He pressed the ignition button. Nothing.

Frowning, he checked that the key was turned, and tried again...but not a click. The ammeter showed a fully-charged battery. Maybe the lurch when he stopped uncoupled a lead. After releasing the engine cowling from inside the cab, he paused.

The damn birds looked at him. Why couldn’t they get on with their feeding frenzy? There were at least five million worms in this hundred acre-field. But no, they stared at him instead...a thousand beady eyes on sideways heads. He laughed because he could look straight at them—then hushed himself.

Anne landed on the now-raised engine, bowing and squawking. The way her head tilted and the glint in the eye conveyed pity. The gesture reminded him of his fiancée just before she’d shoot a barbed comment. He glanced around and where he saw birds land they immediately took off again. What did they know that he didn’t?

A headache brewed, probably from dehydration and stress. He reached into the door pocket for his coffee flask. As he unscrewed the top the cabin tilted to the left rear and Stafford heard a hiss. The cabin’s automatic suspension couldn’t cope with the angle created by the deflation of such a large tyre. Stafford cried out as hot coffee penetrated his jeans onto his knee, but he managed to screw the lid back on just before the right rear tyre deflated.

From his hung-up-jacket pocket, he grabbed a bottle of water and emptied it on his jerking burning leg while he tried to figure what was happening. He couldn’t. It just wasn’t credible that two tyres would puncture like that. The tyres, like the tractor, were only months old.

Perhaps they were overinflated or fitted with faulty valves. More likely, he’d stopped on something jagged in the soil. Suppose whatever had caused the ploughs to zigzag was more extensive than he thought: the foundations of a building or a buried implement. That must have been it. Nothing drastic. The vehicle would easily move with its two-hundred horsepower even if all the tyres were flat; assuming he could start the engine.

He didn’t fancy going outside with those gulls acting weird but he had little choice. The shotgun was going with him. He loaded it and filled his pockets with more ammunition. All blanks. It was only for scaring wildlife, not to kill them. He wished though that for once he had live ammo.

He opened the door and fired a shot. It made little difference because they were already in the air, but Anne hovered nearby. She laughed at him.

With a canvas bag of tools over his shoulder, he placed the shotgun on the floor of the cab with the stock overhanging through the door. His left foot felt the metal mesh of the step through his sock. The sensation brought back the incongruity of his day’s experience. Maybe it was him: it was one of those egregious days he should have stayed in bed. It was too late for what ifs. He put his booted right foot on the remaining step and lowered his left to the ground. It felt as if he’d stood on spaghetti. His foot skidded but he hung on the door handle.

In-between the straw and clumps of unploughed harvested stems, the surface quivered with worms. Hundreds and hundreds of worms.

Back on the step, he tried to find a worm-free patch so he wouldn’t slide around on the buggers. It all seemed to move. Perhaps when the implement punctured his rear tyres, the soil creatures were disturbed. His nose wrinkled at a new acrid musty odour; not the usual sweet smell of earthworms. He should sit back in the cab until they crawled back underground.

It felt strange sitting in a cab that leaned back. It was like looking up a hill. Stafford considered calling Anne-Lidya. Ask her to bring out the old tractor for a tow. She’d yell at him for the punctures, even though insurance would cover them. She’d argue over the engine when he hadn’t even looked at it.

He knew he wouldn’t be able to reach Anne-Lidya, so he drank the remains of his coffee and tried to go over his other alternatives. He found a sugar sachet in a pocket, grateful for the comfort energy. At least the birds have stopped their mind-numbing racket though they continued to fly around him.

After draining the flask, he had no more excuses. He tried once more to start the engine. Nothing. A knock on the rear window. The gulls must have been getting desperate, trying to get at him before it was too dark to find roosting places. Another five minutes then he’d have to leave. With luck the birds would fly off first.

The screeching returned and the kamikaze attacks increased. At least one gull broke its neck with a head-first launch at the front windscreen. The shock sent Stafford deeper into his seat.

A sharp pain like an insect bite on his instep made him pull up his left foot. A worm dangled from his sock. It must have been trapped when he’d stepped on the ground.

Another bite nipped his ankle. It couldn’t be the worms; maybe he’d trodden on an ants nest. More stings made him stand so he could put his foot up behind him on the seat. He brushed off four worms, then one bit his hand. A spot of blood.

This was crazy. He shook the worm off his hand. Another bite, this time on his right ankle, and he felt wriggling on his left shin. That was it, he had to leave.

He put his left foot back down only to find the floor teeming with the slimy worms. How? They must have crawled up from the wheel arches and into the chassis through ducts. Stop wasting time, man. He slipped and landed on the seat, worms biting and crawling up both legs towards his crotch. He found he couldn’t react. The bites must be paralyzing him. Panic alternated with acceptance of his fate. Not from above by the gulls but from the soil. Something outside at the front caught his eye.

He was just able to flick on headlights. Why could they come on but not the engine?

Relief waved through him as the beam lit up Anne-Lidya at the edge of the field. She wore a black shirt with worms painted on the front, and the same jeans she always wore. Then he remembered: Anne-Lidya was gone, killed in a car crash at the start of the farming season.

She’d wanted him to not plow the field. She had told him to leave the ground alone; to not disturb the earthworms, phylum Annelida.

He hadn’t made the connection before. She was more earthworm spirit; a protector of Gaia, than Earth Mother...a wriggling takeover as the ancient species take back their soil. He held onto the steering wheel to stop himself falling off the seat.

Worms crawled over his hands, but he was past feeling them. One of them must have shorted the tractor’s cables.

He waited for Anne-Lidya to reach him.

Geoff Nelder is a professional liar, badass editor, and fiction competition judge. He was awarded Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society for his research into air pollution and microclimates. He taught Geography and IT to the ungrateful alive but escaped to write.

His publications include science fiction novels Exit, Pursued by Bee and the ARIA trilogy; and thrillers: Escaping Reality, and Hot Air. Many of his short stories have found homes in mags such as Ether Books, eFiction, Encounters, Jimston Journal, Delivered, Screaming Dreams and many anthologies such as Monk Punk, Science Fiction Writers’ Sampler and Zombified

ARIA: Left Luggage is the first in the ARIA trilogy.

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