THE INN OF THE FORMER RURAL FARM WORKERS

 

In the City, you can find anything you want, all the things we wanted on Yorn, so why is it that week after week we file into the Inn of the Former Rural Farm Workers? To eat the inky noodles, the “pig-squirrels climbing a tree,” moonflower mash stewed in its own pollen, and most dangerously, the peppery spider food? 

Beyond the rain-streaked windowpanes of the Inn, the City glows purple and orange. Pod launches break the color up into pulses, but we’re too far away from the port to feel the vibrations. The elevated ribbon slides by, spitting out passengers who kick through the debris caught at the metro steps and on the city floor. Old newspapers in the slanting Yornese script cling to the glass of the Inn and slide slowly down. The Inn is in what the real estate agents charmingly call the Yornese Ghetto. The warehouses ship around the clock, and so the crowds in the Yornese Ghetto and the Inn are constant. It’s never crowded and never empty. 

The Inn never closes, and sometimes it’s hard coming in knowing that there will be no reason to leave. We receive our first round of moonflower moonshine without having to ask. We order off of the secret Yornese menu we’ve learned by heart. 

All of the food that made us so sick those first six months, whether we took our pills or not. The food my host mother force-fed me when I was sick in bed, too weak to walk over to the capsule dinners stashed in the valise, too feverishly incoherent to ask her to do it for me. I’d stare down the end of the spoon at the peppery broth, the inky noodles curling in tendrils at the base, the ink leaking onto the spoon staining it black, but when I shook my head, she’d say I was asking for more, and when I wouldn’t open my mouth, my host father would pinch my nostrils closed. The villages were competing to see which Rural Farm Worker could be fattened up the fastest. But I vomited up everything and was a disappointment.

Fattened up for slaughter, we joke now at the Inn, as if we were nothing more than roly-poly pig-squirrels at Festival time. As if the Yornese had requested Rural Farm Workers from the City in order to eat them. As if we were the solution to Yornese agriculture not because of our knowledge of Irrigation, our knowledge of Flood and Drought and Flood-Drought Conditions, but because the Yornese needed us to add a few more strings of protein into the peppery spider food to take the Yornese cuisine up a notch. 

K says, once he’s had his first drink, I would have rather been someone’s dinner than have eaten food out of the mouths of Yornese babies, day after day after day. When the Yornese didn’t have enough to feed themselves first. Why didn’t they send us enough capsule dinners to share with our hosts? Or at least enough to last us through our stint? We were such an imposition! The Yornese should have eaten us the moment we exited our Pods.

But that’s K. There’s Former Rural Farm Workers who never really leave Yorn, even when they’re in the City. There’s Former Rural Farm Workers who didn’t leave Yorn, who died and who we mourn. And then there’s Former Rural Farm Workers who only go back to Yorn on the nights when we drink moonflower moonshine and eat peppery spider food at the Inn of the Former Rural Farm Workers. K’s the first kind, Z’s the one we lost, and M and I are the kind who can keep our nostalgia to the Inn. M, I think, isn’t even all that nostalgic. She just really likes inky noodles. 

The Innkeeper asks us if we want another round. We order and ask him to sit down with us. He’s Yornese himself, always sweating in the warmth of the City, and he drinks moonflower as if it were water. He didn’t know us on Yorn, but his village is in Z’s region. He pats my arm, marveling at my thin City sweater. But it’s not cold out yet, he says, laughing. Such a hot rain. He grabs my hand and slaps it to his clammy brow. If he had done that in my village, my host father would have taken him out to the barn and beaten him bloody, then demanded a pig-squirrel, and I always wait for K to do something, but K has never been very invested in my honor. M doesn’t even notice, her eyes on her noodles. The Innkeeper’s Wife shouts, Hands off! and the Innkeeper gracefully takes my hand and places it on K’s. We like the Innkeeper, in spite of his flirtations, maybe because of his flirtations which remind us he’s a boy only recently off of Yorn. We don’t like his wife, who like us is a Former Rural Farm Worker. We know the Inn has been designed to manipulate our nostalgia too precisely, and even though the Innkeeper is the genius behind the operation and is manipulating her nostalgia, too, we blame her. We don’t like the fact that she is the one in the kitchen, because the peppery spider food should be prepared not only by a Yornese but by an Initiate, and she is neither, in spite of all the time she put in spying in the kitchens of Yorn. She waves, scowling, from behind the stove. She doesn’t like that we know she isn’t Yornese, can see past the scarf embroidered in moonflowers and wrapped around her forehead with wings on the sides and the tail in the back, can tell that she only glows Yornese blue because of a steady diet of inky noodles. We were bluish once, too. We brought back valises of those scarves for gifts. I’ve got one in the pocket of my sweater right now. We know she’s not Yornese because she’s just B from our very own group of Former Rural Farm Workers.

B would like us to start going to Blue Earth, Yornese Kitchen, Moonflower Village or any one of the other Yornese eateries in the City, instead of coming to her Inn. When we began meeting, we used to rotate, but Blue Earth is expensive, Yornese Kitchen infested with insects, Moonflower Village a blatantly obvious Yornese gangster hangout. As we dropped eateries, we kept dropping Former Rural Farm Workers from our list, too, until it was only K, M and me who were coming regularly any more. M always asks if we could count B, too, but I don’t think we can since she wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t her Inn. 

We keep going to the Inn of Former Rural Farm Workers because M lives only one elevated stop away, K goes to other eateries on other nights in his perpetual nostalgia, and I like watching B and her Innkeeper. I don’t think they’re going to last. It’s hard for a City girl to stay on Yorn, but the Yornese boy you bring to the City seems awfully Yornese once you get him there. My host parents found me suitor after suitor from our village, and I turned each one of them down. 

The slogan for the Inn, up on their site and painted above the door in letters slanted to look like Yornese script, is “The ideal spot for the nostalgia and dreams of those who once worked in rural production teams.” K’s dreams are nightmares of being eaten, M dreams of all the noodles she wants, mine are of Z with us again. We can’t figure out why B doesn’t want our business when we are so clearly the clientele she and the Innkeeper planned for. Is it that her dream is to be Yornese, and an Initiate? And that she can’t pretend when we’re there to blow her cover? Tonight, there’s a group of Yornese teenagers furiously typing on their Devices in a corner, and two groups of Former Rural Farm Workers holding far more jovial reunions than ours. They drink round after round. They are older than us; those years were happier on Yorn. Years of snows and the crops that came from them. There is cake: not a Yornese dessert, but all the sugar the City can pour in. They beckon us over to their tables, but K waves them off. He’ll only talk to people who like their nostalgia bitter, or people he knew then, like M and me, so he doesn’t have to explain himself. Although he does. He turns to M, saying, I like my nostalgia bitter.

And you drink your moonflower tinged with tears, she says. It’s a traditional toast from her village and K’s favorite. The Innkeeper laughs and downs his drink. He pours us one more before he moves on, yelling at the Yornese teenagers to go home in Yornese. I’d almost forgotten the way the consonants blur in Z’s dialect, and the teenagers in their sullenness reduce it to an impossible mumble. When I visited Z in his village, it was almost easier to pretend I didn’t know Yornese rather than try to understand his host family, although his host mother was very sweet, plying me with moonflower tea, saying in a million years she’d never be able to warm me up.

When Z wrote me to tell me he was going to marry his host sister, I was surprised and not surprised. Even when on my visits they cuddled together under a single blanket by the family fires, two pig-squirrels up a love tree, as his host father said, even though I’d started dating K during training (although since we’d arrived on Yorn he preferred to stay in his village) and Z and I were just friends, I’d thought Z and I were going to end up together. When they assigned us our letters in training, since the Yornese would never be able to pronounce our real names, there we were at opposite ends. I’d loved Z since he’d whispered, What a hot little pig-squirrel you are, in Yornese, when we danced the scarf dance our very first night on Yorn at the welcome party. When I threw up in my hair, he used the scarf to clean me up and said, You’re still a beautiful pig-squirrel. 

I thought that after our years on Yorn, once we were back in the City, we’d decorate our apartments with Yornese scarves and cook the peppery spider food together, whether we were Initiated or not. Breaking those rules would turn us on in precisely the way that only City-dwellers who did a stint on Yorn could understand. Yorn would pepper our lives. We would continue to study Irrigation, I would paint City landscapes but with pig-squirrels going up the tree, Z would play his Yornese melodies on his guitar, maybe we’d give our children Yornese nicknames. Maybe we’d go there on holiday, our host families laughing and crying when we exited our Pods, returning against all odds. But we’d never live there again. Z’s wedding was held during Festival time. K and I took our Pods down together. Most of the group came, some we hadn’t seen since the welcome party. Everybody was eating Yornese food now, the capsule dinners long gone or frozen solid in freezer-burn blocks. The Yornese were proud of us, but proudest of M, who won the competition of the fattest Rural Farm Worker. Which is not to say that M was very big at all, just that she hadn’t lost weight and had managed to put a little on over the winter and her love of inky noodles. They took a picture of her between the bride and groom. She was a good sport about it. Z kissed M on the cheek, kissed me, kissed his host mother, but mainly kissed his host sister, who was now his wife. 

She was a classic Yornese beauty, pale, elegant blue, the color of a Yornese sky when the moon is out, her hair as wild as inky noodles, her features delicate and sculpted the way Yornese girls are before they blossom. They bloom, they’re beautiful, and then it falls apart and they’ve got the blunt faces of pig-squirrels, my host mother told me. 

Every time the villagers chanted, Life is bitter, bitter, bitter, and Z and his wife had to answer it with a kiss, Z kissed her like it was their first and they were alone under a blanket. I’d seen grooms in my village look annoyed after the first couple of hours, but not Z. Not even the three days of a Yornese wedding got him down. When I listened to him tease his wife, pull at her scarf’s tail, he sounded not just proficient at Yornese, not just fluent, but Yornese himself. The Trainers told us that Yornese humor wasn’t something that could be taught, but had to be lived. K had mocked them instantly. What’s so funny about drinking yourself to death with moonflower? Or all your babies dying of ice pox? That’s so hysterically funny, we’ve got to get them up on a City site, performing their Yorneseness. Z had laughed then. But he wasn’t just understanding Yornese humor, or performing for the Yornese, or performing for the other Rural Farm Workers. He was changing inside. The blue cast to Z’s skin started to shine like the heart of a flame. If I’d never met him before, I would have thought he was Yornese. 

When we left on the last day of the wedding, K looked cross. I teased him that he’d been in love with Z, like the rest of us. He said, abruptly, bitterly, clearly not pausing to consider whether or not I was the one in love with Z, no, that wasn’t it at all. That he wanted what Z had, to be so completely a part of Yorn. They don’t like me in my village, he said. They come to make fun of me, to mock me slurp at my inky noodles. They want to fatten me up while their own children waste away. It doesn’t make any sense. But they like K? Who steals away their daughter? Who will either take her away to the City like a prize, or eat their food and live off them for the rest of his life like he’s their prize? Why do they like him? It isn’t fair.

K wasted away in his village, skeletal, less and less blue as he tried to survive on the mash alone. He was sent home early, something he’s always considered a dishonorable discharge. He wouldn’t let me snap a photograph before he stepped into his Pod. I don’t want to remember this, he said. I don’t want to remember any of it. He swept his arms back and forth, slicing through the Yornese air around him. A storm was coming, and his Pod had a brief window to launch. I didn’t bother to ask him if we were breaking up or not. I didn’t think I would ever see him again. When he found me off the site and kept typing amusing Former Rural Farm Worker acronyms at me until I responded, I typed M and together we started gathering our group of letters to move through the Yornese eateries on the list.

But Z wasted away, too. The Yornese got him, ate him, in a way, not the people but the ice pox, the one you breathe in during the icy season when it hurts to take a breath and you wish there was a way you could stop without dying. The ice pox that the peppery spider food is designed to fight off, to build up immunity. Z must have stopped taking his pills, thought he could rely on the peppery spider food alone, but he hadn’t had a lifetime of eating it, only part of a stint as a Rural Farm Worker. Or maybe he never stopped taking his pills, and was just unlucky. They told us in training that if we kept taking our pills, we’d be fine, but we knew not to believe them. The City has all sorts of diseases all its own, ultimately the ideal incubator for exotic strains from everywhere else. Yorn mainly has the ice pox. It was all Yorn needed.

Z got sicker and sicker. He stopped typing all together. My Pod wouldn’t work in the weather, but my host parents drove me down in their sleigh. As soon as I saw him, I typed Headquarters in the City to come get him, but it was too late. The Device kept breaking up. I couldn’t follow their instructions, whether they wanted me to keep him cold or keep him hot, give him ice water or tea. His wife kept saying to me, I want to die, too, but I can’t get sick from this. Not any more. Let me take care of him, not you. She pushed me away from the sickbed. She fed him inky broth and put her scarf over his fevered brow. Z’s host mother burned moonflowers, and the cloying smell made me claustrophobic, so much so it was all I could do to keep myself in the room and not to run out through the snow. I knew him longer, but his wife knew him better. She wasn’t going to let me take him away in a Pod. She knew I wouldn’t bring him back, that I would keep him. I’d say it was because of the ice pox, but it would be because of me. 

But she had to sleep some time, and once she nodded off at the foot of the bed, I knelt down and took Z’s icy hand into mine. A, you’ve got it all wrong, he whispered. You and K. You don’t understand. They’re us. They’re not different from us. You can’t learn it in parts. It has to be swallowed whole.

You stopped taking your pills, I said. Was it some sort of experiment?

What are you talking about? It’s never been an experiment. It’s not just who I am now. It was who I always was. 

It took both Z’s wife and my host mother to pull me away. They locked me in the kitchen until Z died an hour later. It was cold in the kitchen, and it smelled like pepper. My host father tried to get me to play cards, but I wouldn’t. The Initiate wouldn’t let me prepare anything for the spider food, but she let me stir up the dough for the inky noodles. I saw her throw it away in the corner when they came to tell me Z was dead. They wouldn’t let me in the room. I could hear Z’s host mother lead the ululation. When they brought in the moonflower, through the open door I saw a flash of Z’s host sister/wife stretched across his body as if she would be his blanket. Nothing would ever warm him again. His host father took out the ax to break the ice for the grave. I slouched to the floor clutching moonflowers in my fist. My host father picked me up and carried me out to the sleigh. 

He wasn’t for you, my host mother said. See how weak he was? You’re going to beat the ice pox. She was right. I thought about going home after K left and Z died, but once it was clear the ice pox wouldn’t kill me, just leave me marked with these lacy scars like snowflakes along my cheekbones, I wanted to finish up my stint. I went around with some Yornese boys, but never from my village. I didn’t want my host family to get their hopes up. I wasn’t going to stay on Yorn and I wasn’t bringing anybody back to the City. I liked being pig-squirrels under the blanket in the winter, the flash of a blue ankle, the turn of a blue wrist, a blue ear poking out of a scarf and walking through the moonflowers in the summer, but none of it was that different from being with K or boys in the City when I was studying Irrigation. It might have been different for Z.

I kept thinking about how K and Z used to talk in training about whether we were on Yorn to help the Yornese grow food for the Yornese themselves, or whether we were there to help them build a surplus that could be sent on to the City. About whether it mattered if in the end the Yornese could eat more than their subsistence diet. If in the end more of their children could make it out of infancy. At first, K said the means justified the end, and Z cared about the means and was skeptical of the City’s agenda. Once we were on Yorn, K flipped positions and Z didn’t want to talk about it any more. I have had more than enough time to hear from K and his thoughts on food production, but I wish I could have asked Z what he thought before he died. But it might have been that he didn’t think about his part of the means, as if his trip to Yorn had no purpose behind it other than to deliver him to his waiting village, to the blanket with his host sister, to his ice pox sickbed and his Yornese shallow grave.

B calls out, no desert tonight, but then she sends over some moonflowers in aspic anyway. The Innkeeper eats most of it, sticking a moonflower on M’s fork, then mine.

Tonight, I’m going to take the Innkeeper home with me, and when I start to think of Z, I’ll have something to distract me. It will mean I can’t go back to the Inn. The Innkeeper will tell B, a knot for him to tie on to his scarf, the proof of his prowess. B won’t let me back. I’ll have to pick one of the other eateries for my nostalgia. At least I’ve finally got enough money to eat at Blue Earth, enough to treat M and K if they’ll join me. They keep bumping me up at Headquarters. Pretty soon, I’ll be leading a group of Pods to Yorn myself, and after that, Theria, Livert, who knows? There are so many places with Flood/Drought Conditions, so many chances to travel.

In the end, the City eats us all.


Carrie Messenger earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and her PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her fiction has appeared in literary magazines including Crab Orchard Review, Redivider, and Witness and her translations of Romanian poetry and prose have appeared in literary magazines including Circumference, Salmagundi, and Words Without Borders.