Monday, August 8, 2016

Short Story: Wendig's Flash Fiction challenge

Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds blog issues a flash fiction challenge. I was reading and laughing over his blog (he wants us to laugh, so that's a good thing), and I decided to spend an hour (okay, 90 minutes) writing to order for him. So here's my genre mash-up of Climate Change fiction (a lucky roll for me because I have a far future world built that I can fit this into easily) and Fable (a not-so-lucky roll for me because I don't typically write fables, but then maybe lucky too because it's always good to stretch one's writing muscles.)

The Careless Brothers

In The Book that is kept behind glass in the roundhouse is a picture of two men in big white costumes, a funny blue and white moon in the sky behind them, standing on a pitted wasteland at night.

And here is the tale old Hazus tells the young ones when he shows them the picture:

In the Long-ago, people were less wise than us, it is said. I am not certain I believe this, for they were able to make The Book and much else that is a mystery to us now.

But they were careless, that we do know. This is a tale of carelessness and two brothers.

The elder brother, Ahann, had waited all his life to claim his parents’ land for farming. The old man had left fields fallow every year. He had learned over a long life of farming to guess well at what would be a rainy season and what would not be, and he planted seeds that matched the pattern he saw coming in the weather. The mother had stopped her childbearing with two boys because any more would have eaten up the crops and left little for them to trade at market or to the traders. And so the four of them lived a good life, comfortable but not rich, and they farmed their happy piece of land.

When then old man died, and the old woman was so old she was tired of arguing, Ahann thought he had an idea of how to make them rich. He planted all the lands the first year he was in charge, leaving none fallow. 

The younger brother, Onder, was doubtful, and remembered what his father used to say: “So much, and no more.” But he was younger, and so he went along for now. And they did have a better crop and made more in trade. They made so much they were able to pay for the fifth daughter of a large neighbor family to come and help with the housework and cooking, so their mother could rest her weary body more hours and do nothing more than care for the chickens and cow.

The second year, Onder said, “I think this year may be dry. We should plant the dry-grains Father always did. So much, and no more.”

Ahann said, “Brother, I am going to dig a new well so deep that if it is a dry year, we can still water crops. Sweet peppers, tomatoes and peas trade for more. We will plant those.”

Onder said, “But they are thirsty crops. What if we use too much water?”

“Then we dig deeper,” said Ahann, with a big grin.

Onder wasn’t as certain, and he thought their father would say, “Take so much, and no more.” But as he was younger, he went along.

And that year, they made more in trade then ever before. They all were able to purchase a third set of clothes, made by the best tailor in town, a man who happened to love tomatoes. These clothes were only good for wearing to town, for meetings and dances, but they were hung with pride on new hooks set into the walls of their little home, even the hooks ordered new from the smithy.

The third year, Ahann said, a month before planting would begin, “We are going to cut down both the woodlots now.”

Onder was shocked. “But how will we keep the house warm, or the barn? Mother feels the cold more with every year, and if we want milk and cheese and butter, the cow must be kept warm. If we want to plow and reap, we can’t let the horses freeze.”

Ahann said, “No matter. We can trade for wood next year. Many people have a second woodlot and will trade with us. I want those fields planted with fruit--redberries and blueberries and bearberries.”

Onder was not so sure, and he remembered his father’s words again: so much, and no more. But Ahann sounded so very enthusiastic, he went along. And, Onder had to admit, his new set of clothes had turned the heads of more than one girl in town. So again, he deferred to his older brother, and with the trade of extra canned tomatoes, they got the helper-girl’s older brother out there and in two weeks took down two hundred trees. The good work horses helped them pull out half the stumps before they had to stop for planting.

That year, the crops were even larger, and trade was better still. The helper girl moved in, and they added a small room onto the house for her, so she was happier than she had been at her crowded home and was a cheerful helper for their aging mother, taking over most of the animal care, as well.

The next winter, just the two of them finished clearing the last woodlot and splitting the wood for the stoves. They hadn’t had to trade for heating wood yet, as Ahann pointed out. “So everything we plant is clear profit for now,” he said. “We can even try to buy more land from someone else.”

And that year, the harvest was the best ever.

But the next winter, their mother had an apoplexy and could no longer speak.

And the year while their mother lingered, her right arm useless, the harvest was good--still good enough to buy a new plow and two more horses and add stalls for them in the barn. They were so wealthy now that Ahann had no trouble finding himself a wife, and a pretty one, too, the daughter of a merchant.

But the wife did not like working in the house and she had not been trained to farm. After he got used to her beauty, as far as Onder could see, she was as useless as a leaky trough.

And so it went, for many years. The old lady soon died, but they kept the girl, who Onder finally married not because she was more beautiful than most but because he appreciated how hard she worked. The two of them expanded the girl’s room on the home, but kept it small and cozy, and they spent many happy nights there. The girl--his wife now--kept the animals and kept the house and worked like the brothers at harvest.

The fields, though, began to bear less soon after the old lady died. Onder said, “Ahann, they are tired. We should let them rest. So much, and no more.”

“Nonsense. They need more water. They need more manure. We only need work harder, and the fields will work harder, too.”

Onder was the younger, and though he was fully a man now, he still said nothing more.

The year after that, the fields bore less. And the next year, and the next. Ten years after their father died, insects attacked the tomato crops and ate them to the ground. Without as many green crops to nibble at, the rabbits ate many of the berries and for the first time seemed a pest. They had a harvest that year, but it was no better than the years the father and mother had run the farm. And it put Ahann’s wife in a sour mood, for none of the trinkets and treats she had grown used to were available that year.

From then on, they could not plant tomatoes but that the insects came back. They couldn’t plant potatoes or peppers or eggplant, either. They had to plant less profitable crops. Their fortunes had turned because of their greed.

But it didn’t stop there. Ahann had children by the lazy spoiled woman who learned from their parents to be greedy, too. They continued to work the land hard, as if it were a slave in a mine in the Long-ago, when there was still metal to be found in mines.

Onder still expressed his concern, and often he quoted their father: “So much, and no more,” but he still backed down from every argument.

He found his courage only when his wife became large with child. He asked his brother to divide the family farm with him so each could farm as he wished. Ahann was loathe to do it, and there were some bitter words between the brothers, but he finally agreed to give Onder a third part, if Onder would give him one day a week to help work Ahann’s farm. Onder agreed. The other six days, he worked his own farm.

And so it went, until both were old men themselves, ready to pass their farms to their grown children. And do you know what this is a picture of in The Book? Of the two brothers, whose farm do you think it is?

That’s right. It is a picture of Ahann’s farm, in his last days of life. The farm had turned to nothing but sand and rock, and the air over the worn-out fields was so bad, it turned the moon blue, and the insects were so bad, Ahann and Onder have to wear suits to keep the insects from chewing on them, too. This picture? It looks like night, but it was painted during the day. They hurt the land so badly that some days looked like night.

In the Long-ago, there were many Ahanns. Their carelessness and greed burned through many woodlots, and through magical fuels better than wood that were available then and are no longer. They dug up all the metal that was once in the ground and then let it rust at the side of the road. They worked their land until it was a wasteland, and it has taken many generations for the land and sky to become pure again.

Remember, children, and tell your children the wise father’s words: So much, and no more.


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