We had chickens, mostly. I didn’t think I could milk a cow. Brett said “Sure you can,” so there was Sadie who let me duck under her. After, when I held the bucket in my arms, it was warm. Brett mended fences. He was good with soil, figuring out the chemistry of it and planting things in the right places. He took care of the goats because I didn’t like the way they looked at me all together.
When the atoms started moving too fast they said people should leave the densely populated areas, but Brett and I had moved to the farm two years before.
There were supposed to be six of us. We’d schemed things through. We spent Thursdays around a plastic table in someone’s backyard, smoking and stubbing out the butts in a heart-shaped ashtray. We were dreaming of getting out of the city, moving upstate, having a farm, yeah, a farm. Someone knew someone at a Community Sponsored Agriculture project that would buy our stuff. Our crops, we meant. Our crops. We could cover our rent more than easy. Right around the time of night when we were working out the details, a neighbor would stick his head out the window and tell us to shut up. We’d all shout back at him, and then get on our bikes and go home.
When the election results came in, that cinched it.
“Inauguration day or bust,” Alex said on our ride that night. He called it loudly, over his shoulder, as I tried to keep up behind him. My bike was pale blue and had bristles of tinsel on the handles where I’d cut the streamers. Alex rode with a chain slung across his shoulders. He wore a green helmet. He took me upstairs to his place. Afterward, he stroked my hair and told me about all the things we wouldn’t have to worry about anymore, once we were living off the land.
It wasn’t so hard to do. Finding the place. Renting it. I drove up in my dad’s rusted Bronco. I sped through the small town and the nothing beyond it. Just an orchard. A run-down ironworks. Our house.
I was good at working hard but never knew what to work hard at. I asked people what they thought I should do, but they looked at me like this is not the sort of thing you can ask people. I thought maybe I was too dumb to see what they saw that made them stay at their desks figuring sums of money, or studying cadavers, or matching colors on glossy pages.
I said, Don’t you ever want to stay busy just keeping yourself alive?
Totally, Alex said. He brought me to the backyard roundtable the next night and introduced me as Lillian, even though I was Lily and it wasn’t short for anything.
I climbed from the Bronco and slammed the door. When I saw the old gray place, its empty paddocks, its weedy acres, I thought: Yes. Here we are.
I heard a thump and it was Brett jumping from the hayloft, appearing in the doorframe. I couldn’t believe he’d actually come. He was younger than the rest of us. He was wearing distressed jeans and a flannel shirt that still had a plastic sticker M on the pocket. ”There’s mad vermin up there,” he said. “We need a cat.”
Brett and I drove to town. We got a splotchy cat who looked too thin. “Hungry for vermin,” Brett said. We got groceries in paper sacks. We made dinner: an enormous pot of noodles. We sat in the kitchen eating from our bowls. We waited. We watched the cat clean herself. Brett named her Ratkilla. I complimented his shirt. At midnight we staked our bedrooms. I picked the biggest one for Alex and me. Brett found a room down the hall.
It was still just us in the morning.
I called Alex. He said sure he was coming. He just had to tie up a few things first.
Brett was in the kitchen eating toast with butter and honey on it. I told him Alex would be here in a week or so, should we call the others? Brett looked into the cloudy honey jar. “We should get some bees,” he said.
When the rest of them never showed up I could have left, but when I looked around there was just so much work to do.
We worked hard. Breaking up the dirt. Getting all the rocks out from where we wanted to plant. Fixing the roof of the barn and the fences. Hauling rotted wood and junk away from the house and burning it in a fire taller than we were. Our bodies changed. Brett gave me a belt to hitch my pants up. We were ugly-lean and muscled. “Check this out,” Brett said and crooked his arm. He had always been pale and skinny, a city kid from Queens. His arms were browner now, and you could see the muscles flickering beneath the skin, just dying to do something. I held my arm aside his. “Damn!” he said, because mine flexed the same way. “We’re gonna take you to the bars,” he said. “You’re gonna arm wrestle, and you better believe I’ll be placing bets.” He threw his arm around my neck and squeezed me to him. “You and me, kid. We could hustle them good.”
I squeezed my fist, watched the muscles jump.
At night we were exhausted. We played cards. We had a TV but we also had a sweat lodge. Brett built it. Carried rocks from god knows where and made a box for a fire beneath them. We usually went to bed early, but sometimes, after I’d shut my door, I’d hear Brett get up again. He’d pace around the kitchen till late, but he always beat me to the kitchen in the mornings. Six o’clock, most days. We drank goat’s milk. We ate eggs a lot. We cooked vegetables every way you could imagine.
That first season, it was warm. We could roll the car windows down on the way to Main Street and the light fell through the trees. I stuck my hand out the window and let it coast on the currents outside. Brett reached over and laid his hand on my knee. “You’re still here,” he said. “You ever notice that?”
I said, “Yeah,” because I knew I was.
“I think I was always heading here,” Brett said. “Even in Queens. I just know I was already on my way.”
We were not good at farming. We did things the hard way, always inefficiently. Our specialty was reinventing wheels. We lost many plants and some animals. I tried to take the eggs from the chickens, and the rooster chased me across the yard. He was fast, drew blood from my ankles. Brett got stepped on by Sadie. His foot turned terrible colors, some of it broken.
For a week he moved like a gimp. I’d see him in the yard thrusting himself from one side to the other as he carried flakes of hay to Sadie and the goats, grimacing when he landed on that foot. But he didn’t stop landing on it. I was supposed to be working, but I watched him do that all day.
I kept a birdfeeder that Brett was firmly against. Fat squirrels would clamber up and straddle the cylinder, shake loose the seeds, eat everything. Brett stood at the window, a mug of coffee in his hand, watching them. “Greedy motherfuckers,” he said. “Taking what’s not yours. I moved up here to get away from motherfuckers like you.” He pointed and the squirrel looked at him, clutching the feeder as it swayed like a pendulum.
I hung a plastic soda bottle of hummingbird sugar-syrup by the pigpen, because I liked watching them. Tiny machines, their wings a blur, just hovering.
Brett was better at cards but I was better at everything else. We mostly played cards. One night he was sitting on our saggy plaid couch, and I was across from him. He sprawled, laying his head back and looking up at the ceiling. “I can’t believe how tired I am,” he said. “It’s phenomenal. Have you ever been this tired before, kid?”
I said, “I have never before been this goddamn tired.” I was contemplating my hand, taking forever, trying to find a way to win. I laid three spades down and saw he had fallen asleep, cards still in hand, head slumped onto his shoulder. I went and sat next to him.
“Hello,” he said, like he’d been waiting for me.
“You can sleep,” I said, and he put his head in my lap. I ran my hands through his hair. I looked at the freckle next to his left eye, just to the side of it. “Tell me something,” he said. So I told him about all the things we didn’t have to do anymore now that we were living off the land. The wheely chairs at computers. The vacuum-sealed food. The people scowling and rushing to do everything. He was basically sleeping, but he said, “The small talk.” And I said, “Yeah, the small talk.”
By the time of The Instability we had a cow, four goats, two pigs, a number of chickens, and one beehive. We grew tomatoes, beans, berries, turnips, everything in the summer. I canned it in large Ball Mason jars, teaching myself how from a YouTube video. Then there was squash and kale in the winter. We brought everything to the CSA. They paid us at the beginning of the season, and then we’d drag our stuff down there once a week for people to collect. When the atoms started hustling around, the city people seemed to want food from up north even more.
They called it a climate of portmanteau. When the atoms got loose and wily they jumped around. It took time for this to happen. The first incidents were objects that had been lying next to each other forever. The first time it was a toolbox. Someone’s hammer and wrench. One day it was just one unusable object. “It’s a goddamn wrammer,” the man said when he was interviewed by the National Inquirer. “Queerest thing I ever saw.”
No one paid attention really, but there were a few other incidents like this and who knows how many more that didn’t make it into the paper. That season the people at the CSA kept complaining that our beets tasted of garlic. “Dumbfucks,” Brett said. “Don’t know a real beet when they taste it.” But they made faces at our garlic too, the cloves a pinkish blood color when you peeled back the skin. We should have thought more of it, the crops planted side by side, but Brett tested the soil and he still couldn’t figure it out.
They didn’t really understand what was happening until the Susie Blankenship incident. A two-year-old girl and a blanket she’d clutched since she was born suddenly fused. The mother appeared on television saying she’d tried to tug it away from her daughter, only to hear her cry out in pain. The New York Times had pictures of SusieBlanket on the front page, the blue blanket strands integrated into her back in a pretty basket-weave pattern. The blanket corners reaching to her fingertips, fused there, her fingers also soft and blue. It was as if she had pterodactyl wings. That was when they set the time corollary. They said it was two years.
They started evacuating people from the cities a few weeks later. There were maps with Density Zones. They said they had no idea what the effect would be between living organisms and other living organisms. Our farm was in one of the sparsest zones. There was no one for miles except for the Cranstons, who owned the apple orchard behind the ironworks.
We ran into Mrs. Cranston in town. She was buying the newspaper. She asked about our crops, like she always did. We told her about our beets. She said, “Our McIntosh had a metallic bite to them all season.” She gestured toward the ironworks, snapped the paper straight in her hands. The front-page photo was of traffic, lines of cars leaving New York City. “We just thought it was a bad year for apples,” she said.
That night, Brett fired up the sweat lodge. We stripped down. Him in his boxers. Me in an old tank top and a pair of his boxers. Our legs were tight and muscled. Our arms were wiry. We sat in there in the heat and flushed red. It was a creeping sort of hot and the room smelled like the smooth wood it was made of. Brett took the ladle from the bucket of water and doused the hot rocks. They hissed and steamed. He came and sat next to me, our backs against the warm wall.
“This is probably bad for us,” I said.
“People have been doing it for years,” he said. “The Indians. It’s great for you.”
“I mean the molecules,” I said. Was that the right word? Molecules, atoms, particles, whatever. I said, “Don’t the molecules move faster when it’s hot?”
I could see the sweat starting at his temples. A drop rolled down. “We’ve been here more than two years,” he said. “It might happen no matter what.”
“Unless one of us leaves.”
“Yes,” he said. “I guess that’s true.”
“I don’t want to,” I said. “I’ve worked too hard”
“We both have,” Brett said. “We’ll figure something out.”
Later, for the first time, I climbed into bed with him. He didn’t say anything, just moved over and made room for me. We lay there, not sleeping. I wanted to reach out and touch him. I almost did. But then I wondered if it was just because of the heat and speed of our atoms, them getting all mixed up. I wondered if that was the thing that confused me and made me want to do it. I fell asleep thinking it was too warm in that bed with two people.
One morning I heard a terrible squealing from the pigs. Brett was still sleeping. I pulled on jeans and boots.
The hummingbird feeder was crushed on the ground. The plastic had split and the pink syrup was spilled in a muddy puddle.
Lapping at it was one of the sows, the largest one. She kept falling over. Her legs were dark, black almost, and looked more knobby than they should. They kept giving out beneath her weight and she would tumble in the mud and then frantically start lapping again. There was mud and syrup on her snout. She turned, and I saw that behind her ears were greenish patches of shiny feathers. They stuck from her skin like a pincushion, lay sparsely down her spine, and at her rear haunches there were two tiny hummingbird wings, furiously buzzing, doing nothing. They were far too small to lift her.
I stood there. When the nectar on the ground was gone the sow set off, trotting toward the gardens. I followed, not wanting her to trample anything. The Rose of Sharon was blooming, low to the ground, and she rammed her snout into the blossoms. Her snout was too large. It shattered the petals, scattering them everywhere. She tried the honeysuckle next but could not fit her nose into any of the trumpets.
She squealed and smashed her body into the bushes again and again.
When Brett woke up, it was because I had led her indoors with a rope. I was sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor, feeding her red hummingbird nectar from a baby bottle. She sucked, and I stroked her. She was grunting, desperate and pleased. Brett came from the bedroom in his soft pajama pants and T-shirt, stretching his arms above his head. When he saw us his arms froze there in mid-stretch. He looked the sow over. He looked at me, his face asking questions, his expression like he thought she was so ugly and wrong, this sow. I just readjusted the bottle of sloshing red fluid so she could suck more. He knelt and pet the pig’s feathers. He said, “Can she at least fly?” I shook my head. “What a bum deal,” he said.
In the next weeks it happened to more of the animals. The chickens created an enormous matrix of wax. They filled it with something that could have been honey or egg yolk. They wandered blindly through the structure, doing incredible senseless dances. The bees were gone; in the hives each sticky hexagon was vacant.
Sadie seemed fine. The only change was that her milk tasted of honey. I could smell it, clover and sweet, when I milked her. We sold bottles of it in town. People said it was the best thing they’d tasted in years.
The sowbird just kept getting thinner. We fed her nectar constantly but it wasn’t enough. We tried to interest her in slop, grain, the things she should like, but she rolled her eyes wildly and butted her enormous head against our legs until we offered the bottle. The knobs of her spine and haunches showed. She could only use her black bird’s legs to stand for a moment before she collapsed.
“She’s starving,” Brett said. “It’s not right to keep her like this.”
I knew he was right, but I couldn’t stand it. “We’ll figure something out,” I said. I patted her dappled pink and brown stomach. She sounded hollow as a drum.
A week later, when all my experiments had failed and all the sowbird could do was wheeze and cry, I told Brett OK. We took her out behind the pen and he shot her in the temple. She slumped and that was it. “It was the only humane thing to do,” Brett said, and I nodded. But what about everything else?
We were filthy, both of us. From the sowbird, and from trying to move everything on the farm as far apart as possible. I followed Brett to the bathroom. He turned on the shower and the pipes moaned as hot water came through. He took off all of his clothes, and as the water warmed it filled the bathroom with steam. I just stood there, so he undressed me too. He pulled my shirt over my head. He unbuttoned my pants. He unhitched my bra, easily for a man who’d been celibate for almost three years. He brought me into the shower with him and we passed a bar of soap between us, lathered each other, tried not to notice how our bodies seemed the same from all the years of work. Even when the soap was gone we still rubbed each other’s limbs, and when we finally got out we went to the bed, the big one in my room, which I had staked for Alex and me years ago. We had sex quickly, more quickly than either of us would have liked, because we were afraid of what would happen, I think, our bodies being so close, the atoms speeding up and heating up and having this chance to jump and mix together.
In the morning, in a ratty tank top and no bra, in the mirror, I saw the freckle. His freckle. Right next to my eye. Where his was. Wasn’t. I went to the bedroom, woke him. “Look,” I said. I pointed to it. “This is yours.” He sat up. Blinked some. I looked at his face. His freckle was gone.
“Yours now,” he said. “It’s happening.”
The reports from the city were disastrous. We thought maybe we could get emergency funding to isolate the animals and keep the crops and seeds from hybridizing, but things were so bad there, for people, there was just no way. There were people who’d fused with coffee mugs, pets, televisions. There was an epidemic of peophones. They lay blinking on the sidewalks, faces glassy, limbs stunted, bleating in ascending tones until they exhausted themselves. There were even people who’d fused together. Merged, really, to become one confused person. Employees and bosses. Commuters who’d sat next to each other on the subway for years. Lovers. They were alive, but confused.
We cleaned the honeyolk from the chicken coop. It took them half a week to make more and get sticky. So we’d do it again, feathers everywhere, the hens screaming as they watched us undo their work. The goats’ fur, which had always been matted, started growing upward into small seedlings, then tall green stalks. The plants connected, rootlike, to their backs. Green beans we thought, based on the proximity, but we weren’t sure. “We’ll just have to wait till summer to know,” Brett said, because that’s when the beans would start to show. After a week the goats became sickly, weak, like the plants were sucking the nutrients from their bodies. We tried to weed them, but their hair and the dark plant tendrils were one and the same.
At night, Brett and I sat on the porch. The tree where the barn owl used to live was mottled gray, and its uppermost branches were a dense thicket of wings. The tree chortled, a deep hooting that seemed to come from inside its trunk. In the dark, the meadow grasses behind the house swayed from side to side, rustling and blinking the gentle green of firefly bulbs, one stalk at a time.
The order was put out in the cities first, but soon they started recommending it everywhere. Isolation Measures. Everyone was recommended to implement a zone ten feet in diameter around themselves. The time corollary remained at two years, but the hope was that this would slow the effects of the atom instability and buy the scientists time to figure out a solution.
Things became violent in the city. People stood outside, screaming at anyone who came within ten feet of them. There were bloody fights for space in Central Park. People staked empty areas and barricaded themselves in. They defended their borders mercilessly. The subways shut down. Try not to touch anyone, the authorities said, and await word.
Brett got into bed with me late at night. He rubbed my back. “You’re inside my diameter,” I said into the pillow. “You are not taking appropriate Isolation Measures.”
Brett said, "When you think about it we’re basically immune to everything off the farm. We’re in pretty good shape, you and me.”
I nodded. “You could go,” I said. “You could safely go anywhere for two years at least.”
“We both could,” I said. “But not together.”
“That’s about right,” he said. “Us two peas in a pod are bad fuckin’ news.”
We talked about this. We did not talk about my freckle.
We pruned the goats. We washed the chickens. We drank cold honeymilk with our dinner, which we ate with sporks, because the cutlery had fused not long after the sowbird. When Brett made soup I screamed at him. What were you thinking? I said. What a shitty idea that was! Because the soup dribbled through the stunted tines. Because I hated the way a spork poked your cheeks when you sucked from it. And couldn’t he see how bad it was? I missed spoons. I missed the clarity of knowing something was just that one distinct thing and not another. Nothing was just a goat. Just a spoon. Just my decision. It was Brett and me, together.
We decided to start the bees again. We ordered a new queen and hive from over the border in Canada, some farm even remoter than ours. We figured if all the bees and pollinators got too mixed up there would be no chance of growing crops after The Instability, and it wouldn’t matter if they’d found a way to stop it anyway. Brett was already thinking about after.
He was gone three days driving up there and back. A long trip.
When he pulled into the driveway and opened the Bronco way-back, I saw he’d bought a whole new keeper getup. The suit, the mask, the smoker, everything.
“Help me carry the frame,” Brett said. We put the hive far away from everything else in a patch of wild lavender. “See, some mixes are good,” he said. “Infused honey is fancy merchandise. It’s never been so easy.”
“But who’re we going to sell honey to?” I said.
Brett said, “Hey, no need for crying, kid,” because I guess I was. “Did you miss me while I was gone?”
“It’s my atoms!” I said. “It’s just my molecules!”
“If no one wants it we’ll eat the honey ourselves,” Brett said.
They played it on all the news channels. The footage showed two monkeys, three years old and together since birth. They’d only fused at the hand. It was the drug, the Secerno company scientists said; it drastically slowed the speed of their merging. Hands could be surgically separated. The monkeys chattered and pumped their joined hand up and down in the background while the scientists smiled. They looked too young in their lab coats. They held out bright violet pills. Orders could be placed with the Secerno company starting tomorrow, they said. One thousand dollars a pill. A recommended dose of two. The FDA waived the safety trial period because of the urgency of the situation.
I never liked taking medicine. Brett had refused to take ibuprofen when Sadie stepped on his foot. Because we hated pills. Hated drug companies and the FDA and the politicians who protected the whole system. So after I’d bought the Secerno medicine, I thought maybe I would just crush it up in Brett’s food. Take mine in secret. I thought I’d explain to him about the farm’s decimated bank account later.
I lined up the four pills on the kitchen table. They were violet and round, and when the sun fell on them they looked incredibly bright. I leaned on my elbows and tried to think of what meal they could disappear into.
I heard a strange and garbled sound from the yard. My chest lurched and I started resigning myself to whatever had happened out there before I even stood up. Brett. I grabbed the pills and ran into the yard.
He was monstrous, I thought briefly, before realizing that he was only in his beekeeper’s suit. That the terrible garbled sound was him singing, underneath the mask, to the bees.
It was hot outside and bright. Brett had the smoker in his hand. He stuck it in the hive, poofed smoke. He raised it up, pumped again, and the bees crawling outside slowed. He turned, “You can come over,” he said. “They’re sleepy now.”
I recognized the song. He’d been singing them a lullaby.
I leaned against him in his giant suit. The bees moved over the hive halfheartedly, fuzzy yellow with shiny black bald spots.
I held out my hand to him.
Brett looked at them. “But we hate pills,” he said.
“I know we do,” I said.
“And they’re not even tested yet. What if they do something terrible?” He removed his gloves and took a pill from me. Held it up and examined it. “Nothing real is this shade of purple,” he said. “Nothing I can think of.” He took his mask off too. Held the pill closer to his face.
“I’ll do it if you want to,” he said. “Really. We can do it.”
I could see that he meant it.
“So, kid,” he said, “the question is, do you want us to?”
We use an old mortar and pestle to crush the violet pills. Once they are a fine powder we stir it with water and bran in a steaming pot. When all the violet is gone, we are ready.
In the barn, we scrape the mash into Sadie’s red plastic bucket and lower it into her stall. We say “Good girl” as she softly lows and bows her head to the bucket.
We prepare the sweat lodge. We stack wood in the box beneath the coals. We stack a whole lot of wood. The rocks pulse orange. We strip off all our clothes and ladle water onto the rocks. The steam is good to breathe. The fire is just getting started. We can hear veins of sap catch and pop in the logs, which have been seasoned, drying all summer. The air is close and warm and we have shut the door, closed it tight, so we won’t leave until it is over. We sweat, and our eyes water, and now it is beginning. We clasp hands. We touch our freckle. We wait.