The floodwaters receded months ago leaving carcasses drying beneath an unrelenting sun. A burning eye that baked cracks in the mud-pan flats, deep crevices where even the tadpoles became stuck, rigid in their slow desiccation. While they could, magpies gorged themselves. Within a week the birds moved on, their black and white feathers kiting east with the wind. The rain had come in a torrent. The land, unprepared to receive it—parched to cake flour dust, sloughed off the water like it hated the touch.
“We won’t see rain again ’till fall.” Cory Townsend kicked at the hexagonal mud tiles. “If we’re lucky. Sure, we can pump wells for a while but, crops won’t get big enough to harvest by the time they run dry. And they will run dry.”
“And what of the drought resistant seeds we loaned you?” The brown khaki shirt of the service man showed dark stains beneath his armpits, a chocolate stripe of sweat ran down his back. “Could you…”
“Forget it.” Cory lifted the skeleton of a three-foot snake, flung it away. “Thieves broke into my barn. Took every sack I had.”
“Those seeds were on loan. You’re liable for those, you know.” The service man fanned himself with his hat. “We expected a return crop, metrics tallied. Why didn’t you let us…”
Cory pinched his own hat down from his head and poked the man in the chest with the stiff rim. “Your concern for my family is touching.”
Service-man’s jaw hung open. “What?”
“You and this land has gone and killed them. Not directly, no. But assuredly they’ll die from hardship.”
The man covered his head, tilting his hat low. “What happens to your family is up to you. You were supposed to keep your farm secure.” Service-man quoted from the contract, “Gene-Mod seeds must be planted on premises. Unused seeds must be returned to Gene-Mod, intact.”
“I’ll need a fresh set.”
“Not gonna happen. Those seeds are in the wind, now. Whoever plants them, they’re going to taint the whole area. Gene-Mod’s got a patent on those seeds, you know. A legal patent.” The man spoke the last three words like he was ordering Chinese food.
“Then I’m dead. My family is dead. Your seeds were our only hope.”
“Your only hope is to sell.”
Cory, fifty-three, so thin scarecrows could dance him to shame, cursed out loud, an infrequent break in his taciturn nature. “Five, goddamned generations.” He swept his hand in a circle. “Sell this desert? What fool would…”
“I hear there’s a company, got new-fangled tech, suck moisture from the air. Runs on solar.”
“Moisture? In this air?” Townsend waved his hands about. He bent and scooped up a handful of dust, let it sprinkle to drift like broken promises. “What’s this company called?”
“Eco-Mod, I believe.”
“Eco-Mod? Any relation?”
Service-man walked back to his pickup. When he open the door, Cory reached around and slammed it shut. “Any relation to this company of yours?”
“Mr. Townsend, don’t touch my vehicle again.”
“You stole those seeds, didn’t you? You or some o’ your lackeys. Gene-Mod owns that water-sucking company, don’t it? Don’t it?” Cory fiddled with the Barlow in his pocket. He stood close enough to smell the man’s hesitation.
“My advice is to sell this godforsaken land, Mr. Townsend. Take your family to the coast. The Valley is no longer a place for a family farmer.”
Service-man drove off. Cory pulled the sturdy pocketknife out to clean his nails, admiring the wear patterns and resilience the knife possessed. He kicked one more mud-tile and began the half-mile walk back to the turquoise colored house that he’d painted only a year ago. Along the way he came across a milkweed plant, the only green thing in sight. Upon it rested a single orange and black monarch butterfly. Life in the desert. It lifted and bobbed around his head before meandering, sporadic toward the distant hills. He watched until it vanished at the horizon’s edge.