I emerged from my car, into air so foggy and so thick with moisture that it drenched my clothes in minutes. With each step, my foot sank into the soft, damp earth, making even this short walk tiring. I knew I would have to make this inspection quick, before my lungs were corrupted by the foul air, so I quickened my pace as much as I could, until my leg muscles ached from the effort. In no time I was breathless, staggering from the exertion. This was typical. Another farm, another muddy, stinking farm. At least this was the last one for today.
Up ahead, the greenhouses rose out of the dirt. Standing thirty feet tall, these edifices of cracked glass were so clouded with condensation on the inside, that seeing through it was impossible. I knew though, even without seeing, that something was off. I could smell it in the air. Ten years of doing this job imbued you with a sort of six-sense about these things. It also imbued you with an awful, pounding headache.
“Alllrightttt there, what can I do for you.” The voice came out of nowhere.
I didn’t answer right away, because I didn’t feel right speaking to no one. Instead I stood my ground and scanned the area, trying to maintain my composure. I didn’t see anything, but another voice boomed out of the fog, ” Don’t be shy, fella, what can I do you for?” The voice was followed by a looming figure with a foul grimacing face.
I jumped, instinctively, as any man who values his skin does, when faced with a ghoul in the fog. I tried to retreat a few steps, to evaluate the moment, but my boots wouldn’t comply. So, I just stood there, shaking… from the chill in the air.
As the figure came closer, he lost some of his menace. He was tall, no doubt, but a hunch prevented him from being taller. He wore huge mud-covered wellington boots and a long grey coat, tied at the waist with hairy string. His face, quite the opposite of a grimace, hung in a slack-jawed sort of way, with that vacant, country-glaze in his eyes.
I pulled myself together. “Good morning. Would you be the proprietor of this farm?”
“Sure.” He said, nodding curtly. He stood there with his hands in his pockets, staring at me with beady, expectant eyes.
“I’m here to inspect your farm, Mr. Foster. I’m from The Bureau.”
“Sure.” He repeated with a shrug. Then he turned his back on me and started striding towards the nearest greenhouse. His massive boots seemed to glide over the soft earth, barely sinking, despite his obvious weight.
I tried to followed, leaning forward with a great heave to pull my left foot free. I succeeded in freeing my foot, though the boot remained behind. I stood there, wobbling on one leg, trying to keep my sock from touching the mud. For a second or two I hung there, but my forward motion would not be denied. I toppled, hitting the mud with my foot, then my knee, then my body. My right ankle twisted, the foot coming free but only after it felt the rip of something delicate and necessary.
Gritting my teeth, I pushed up from the mud, abandoning all hope of staying clean. I hobbled after farmer Foster, my socks soon soaked. I followed him into the greenhouse, feeling the weight of the air increase as I stepped in through the door. The air inside made the air outside feel light and crisp.
Foster turned and looked me up and down. A saw the slight twitch at the corner of his mouth as he noticed my state, but he didn’t comment. I brushed myself down, as much as I could with fingers caked in mud, and I put on my business face.
I pulled out my clip-pad tucked inside my jacket; mercifully it had been spared the fate of my suit. I tapped the screen and swiped along to the correct inspection.
Foster Farm – Alta Three – Production Unknown
I tapped the report sheet to ready it for my notes and then turned my attention to the empty rows of dirt that lined the greenhouse.
“So, what exactly are you producing here these days?”
“Weeeeell. We grow lots a things here, boy. We grow whatsoever’s needed, see.”
“But I don’t see. The dirt here is empty.”
“Of course it isn’t. Look here son. You might know some things, such as how to dress in a fancy suit, or how to drive one of them flighty cars. You might even know how to upload to that there Intronets. But I can guarantee that you do not know more than a hair-scratching flea about how to grow anything.” He knelt down with a pop and a thump, as if his knee gave up halfway, then he gently stroked the dirt with one hand.
I stared at the dirt, in the dim light of what I could only assume by its inadequacy and stench was a primitive gas lamp. As his bare fingers touched the dirt, it seemed to shiver.
“Look, Mr. Foster. I was paid a lot of money to come here and inspect this farm. I need to get some answers.”
“I know, I know. It was me who hired you.”
“I hired you, to come by here an’ ‘spect my farm, make sure all was good.” He stood and started to walk down the rows of empty dirt.
“You realize, if you fail a bureau inspection we can revoke your license. We can take everything.” I said, trailing after him.
“Oh.. yeah, I know just how it works Mr.”
“And that doesn’t worry you?”
He didn’t respond, but he stopped, mid-step, and stared at a particularly uninteresting row of dirt.
“Mr. Foster, if this inspection is to progress, and it must, then I will need you to start cooperating.”
Again he gave no response. He scratched his bristled chin, nodded as if something had been decided, then turned to look at me.
“Would you consider yourself… a selfish man?” He asked.
“What are you talking about?”
Farmer Foster leaned in close, his beady eyes boring right through me. I leaned back, trying to avoid the smell of his earthy breath, but he he continued to stare.
“Hmmm… nope, that’s not you, come along.” He muttered, then turned again to walk down the empty rows of dirt.
“Look, Mr. Foster, I really must insist on some answers, or your farm will fail this inspection.” I marched after him, determined not to let him evade me.
“Right. Well, what you want to know?”
“I want to know what you’re growing here? Why are all these plots empty?”
“Hummphhh. Empty he says. Come on.” He strode at a brisk pace, to the far end of the greenhouse, parted a flap of thick plastic sheeting, and led me through the the next adjoining greenhouse.
“These plots are far from empty my boy. Just look, and listen.” He stopped and motioned at the rows of dirt.
I looked. I squinted in the dim light to see what he was motioning at. “I don’t think I quite understand.”
“Listen.” He said, softly.
I felt a slight chill go down my spine, despite the heat and humidity inside the greenhouse. I held me breath, and I listened.
I heard his breathing, slow and raspy. I heard the drip, drip, drip of condensation rolling off the curved glass above, hitting the plastic sheeting behind us. “I don’t…” I started to speak, but then I heard it, a quiet, mournful, wail. I couldn’t place it at first, but as I stood still, holding my breath, I heard it rising from the dirt.
The wail was barely audible, but it was there. What followed was a chill that seemed to smother me in misery. I jumped back, bumping into Farmer Foster. He didn’t move. I spun away from him and backed up to the plastic sheet that led to the first greenhouse. My ankle twinged and gave way, sending me sprawling into the sheeting. I grabbed at it for balance, but succeeded only in twisting myself up in it. The plastic gave way, ripping as I fell into it, and I ended up on the ground, wrapped in plastic from the shoulders down.
Farmer Foster smiled. He didn’t move or speak, but just that slight smile, in that moment, was the creepiest thing I ever experienced… until he spoke.
“Son, are you happy with your job? Are you miserable with your life?”
My heart hammered in my chest. Sweat poured down my face, stinging my eyes. I tried to speak, but my mouth was suddenly so dry I couldn’t move my tongue.
“Hmmmm… no, not misery or woe for you is it, just a bit discontent with life in general, aren’t you. Good, you’ll do nicely over in greenhouse three.”
Farmer Foster picked me up, lifting me with ease. “It was awful nice of you to wrap yourself up for me. You’re ever such a polite fella. We’ll get you settled in.”
I wriggled and writhed on his shoulder, but between the plastic sheeting and the thick arm wrapped around me, I couldn’t get loose. I managed to get enough moisture in my mouth to wiggle my tongue around a bit, and I tried for a wail. It came out more like a whimper, but it was enough to get his attention, as he pushed aside another curtain of plastic sheeting, with my face, and stepped into the next greenhouse.
“What is it fella?”
“Ohhh, you still don’t get it do you. Well, as I said, I grow what’s needed, see. I grow selfishness. I cultivate misery and woe. I sprout hatred, and I foster discontentment… just down here, on the right.”
He set me down for a moment, propped against the wall, and began to uncover a hole in the dirt.
“Thing is, I can’t grow this stuff with plant food, or water and sunshine. It needs something more. That, my boy, is where you come in.”
Foster picked me up and popped me in the hole, until only my head was free. He knelt down, gently pressed the dirt around me, then stood back to admire his handy work.
“Now, don’t try to get out, or you’ll just muck it all up. Try to focus on work, and how you don’t find your life satisfying. The more discontent you are, the faster it’ll feed the crop.”
I stared up at him, tears running down my face. I didn’t have anything left for a yell, or even a whimper. I thought about the day, the time I’d wasted, the things I would have done, if I’d known this was going to be my last day. Farmer Foster turned to walk away.
“Ppplease. Don’t kill me.” I said.
He stopped. At first he didn’t respond, but I saw his shoulders moving and his body shaking. Then, as he turned, I realized, he was laughing, a long, silent, belly laugh. “No, no…” He managed, wiping away tears of his own. “You don’t understand at all. Barry, why don’t you explain it to him, while I go make us all a cup of tea.” He motioned to someone I couldn’t quite see, and then walked away.
From behind a stack of mulch bags, a mop of messy red hair appeared.
“Hello friend. I’m Barry. Nice to meet you. I’d shake your hand, but…”
He was buried, the same as I was, but his face was beaming, like it was the best thing that ever happened to him.
“Barry, what, in the worlds is going on?”
“It’s quite a thing, isn’t it. I know it seems odd, and scary, but let me set you straight. Farmer Foster is growing all the things that society needs, but doesn’t like to talk about. The things that make us what we are.”
“You aren’t making any sense Barry. Quick, tell me how to get out of here before he comes back.”
“Sorry, can’t do it, you’re stuck he, same as me. Don’t worry though, soon as he brings you some blankets and a nice cup of tea, you’ll start to see the up side.”
“Up side? I’m buried up the my neck in mulch.”
“Well, yes, there is that, but think of all the good you’re doing. You are helping to grow discontent. And, the best part is, after a few days, you won’t have any left. You’ll feel much better, like me.”
“Days? I can’t be here for days. I have things… a life, people to…” I felt something flooding out of me, as I thought about the life I lived. There really wasn’t much of anything to miss. There was no family, no friends who would care. My boss might notice, but would he call to check on me? Would he report me missing? The more I thought about my life the stronger the feeling of discontentment became. I felt the soil around me absorbing it, and saw the dirt shimmer and move a little.
The heavy footfalls of Farmer Foster returning pulled my thoughts back to my current situation. I look up to see him standing over me with an armful of blankets, and a tray of tea and biscuits.
“Here we go son. You’ll feel better, after a cup of tea, and a few days to let it all go. Then you’ll be back in the world, right as rain.”
“But.. who… why?”
“It ain’t complicated really. The power’s that be, need balance. So I grow what they need, and then they distribute it as needed. It wouldn’t do for everyone to be happy now, would it. Just like it wouldn’t do for everyone to be miserable.”
“Yeah… well, I work for the man, just like you. Only I don’t go round shutting down people’s farms for no reason now, do I?”
I felt another shudder as the reality of what I did for a living settled, and the discontentment was drawn out of me by the soil.
“Sorry,” Farmer Foster chuckled, “I know I was laying it on a bit thick there, but it will help the process.”
I nodded, trying to wrap my head around it.
“It’s okay,” Came the chirpy voice from over behind the mulch bags, “He helps people too.”
“Helps them? By burying them in mulch?” I asked.
Farmer Foster finished up making the tea and offered me a cup, which, I couldn’t accept due to the fact that my arms were under the dirt.
“Ah, yes, here… allow me.” Foster brought the cup closer and tipped it up, just enough for me to strain forward and get my lips on the cup. The tea was hot, rich and had a sort of herb taste that I couldn’t quite place.
“Do you know where Barry was, when I found him?” Foster said.
“Was he minding his own business and going about his normal life?” I asked.
“Not exactly.” Barry said, his perkiness dropping off for a moment, “I was about to jump off a bridge.”
“Oh. Right.” I said, not really sure how else to respond.
Farmer Foster stood up and nodded at me. “Yup. See, it ain’t all bad. We keep things in a sort of balance.”
He packed up the tea tray and the biscuits and started to walk away. “Well, I’ll leave you be for now.”
“Err, what about the biscuits? I could murder a jaffa cake or a nice shortbread right about now.”
“Maybe tomorrow. Wouldn’t do for me to make you too comfortable. I do need your discontentment after all. G’night, I’ll see you both in the morning for breakfast.”
With that, Farmer Foster turned out the lights, and headed off into the darkness.