I can’t say what drew me to that particular field on that particular night. Perhaps it was an elaborate attempt to avoid any activity that could be viewed as constructive. Perhaps I couldn’t bear to listen to the endless whispered Skype conversations of my roommate and his long distance girlfriend. Perhaps I just fancied a walk. Either way, I ended up in the field.
Were I more meteorologically gifted, I might have examined the night sky as I walked out the front door of our building and taken note of the thick clouds forming overhead. As it was, I simply trotted out the door, eyes on the road ahead, thin canvas shoes flapping against the cracked concrete, oblivious to whatever the heavens were brewing up.
I passed another building, nearly identical to my own, and stopped for a moment to consider the warm lights emanating from its windows. In one room, I could see a boy, pencil gripped between his teeth, intensely focused on whatever book lay open in front of him. In another, a young woman lay propped up by pillows on her bed, laptop in front of her, the theme song from Buffy the Vampire Slayer burbling from its tiny speakers. As I turned the corner, I was confronted by a heavy bass beat from a second story window. To my left was a small hut filled with bicycles. I scanned the racks, searching for the familiar faded mustard of my trusty steed, only to recall that I’d left her propped up against a wall at a party the night before. I wondered whether I’d remembered my bike lock. It seemed as if half my life was spent tracking down my bike the day after parties, while the other half was spent attending and recovering from said parties.
Across the street from the hut, I was in town. I use the word “town” in the loosest of senses. It was barely two blocks—a small hotel, a little grocery, a coffee shop, a bar, and a post office. A thriving metropolis, it was not. Outside the market, a skinny, nervous looked kid sat on a bench, clearly hoping for someone to buy him a case of beer. Along the treelined path in the center of town, a frizzy haired girl and a tall, swimmer-looking guy walked hand in hand, the picture of collegiate bliss. I frowned slightly at them, their open affection drawing a sharp contrast to my own fraught romantic life.
Upon reaching the post office, I veered up the steps and pushed through the doors into the brightly lit interior. I adored the post office. From the organized rows of post office boxes, to the old timey mural of pioneers on horses, to the warm, echoey acoustics, it was my favorite place. My own mailbox was almost always empty, but I continued to check it at least twice a day. I’d always aspired to be a person who receives and sends a lot of letters, perhaps someone who, posthumously, has their correspondences collected and published. As it was, I occasionally received fliers for local businesses and once an evangelical DVD, but aside from a birthday card from my mother, my mailbox remained empty of personal mail.
As I left the warm interior, I became aware of the cool breeze on my cheeks, and pulled my jacket closer around me. Ohio weather was so unpredictable. Across the street, I saw pockets of people congregating outside the bar, drinks clutched close to their chests, small peals of laughter echoing against the brick of the building. I continued down the street, the town fading away as quickly as it had come, the road snaking down to a nondescript highway connecting this fragment of society to the rest of the Midwest.
I grew up three hours south, in a mid-sized city, and had dreamed of moving away from the Midwest for as long as I could remember. I’d wanted to be a pirate, an explorer, an astronaut — anything that involved adventures. Anything that meant leaving the humdrum of Ohio. It was a strange twist of fate, then, that I found myself attending school in Amish country. If I’d found my hometown to be a bore, then this was a morgue. There was nothing to do but read and drink, and the population seemed to be divided between those who primarily read and those who primarily drank. I fell into the latter category with surprising ease, considering my lack of experience in their principal activity.
As I trotted down the winding path, I thought back to who I’d been when I’d arrived on this hill. Babyfaced. Short hair. Excited for classes and meals in the dining hall. Eager to befriend my hallmates, to become someone new. I suppose I had accomplished at least that much. My hair had grown long, thin, and greasy, and my beard was longer, patchy, partially ginger. I’d taken a fall two weeks into September when trying to run from my problems in a vodka-fueled moment of love and stupidity and spent the weeks following hobbling around the hill on crutches, right foot ballooning from the bottom of my pants like some alien limb. The combination of my inability to keep track of meal times and my drinking habits caused my already slender build to drop down to gaunt, and my irregular sleeping pattern made dark half moons to grow under my eyes. I’d become a poster child for coming to college and falling apart in a matter of weeks.
As I reached the highway, I looked in either direction, unsure of which path to take. Home was one way, one hundred and sixty-two miles away. The other way was uncertain, only fifty feet of concrete visible before the road sloped downwards and disappeared from sight. I opted for the unknown route.
There is no sidewalk on rural highways, and the shoulder is a thin strip of gravel before a sharp slope down. I set off walking on this path, conscious of every car passing in the inky black night. On the opposite side of the roadway was a grassy hill leading up to the campus, an austere and stately collection of buildings from this vantage point. On my side of the road, however, was a nature preserve that gave way to private farmland as I walked further.
As is true on most week nights in this area, there were few people out on the road past sundown, and I walked on the path in silence and darkness. After walking for what seemed like at least half an hour, I reached to check the time on my phone and realized I’d left it sitting next to my bed prior to leaving my room, inadvertently cutting the last tie I had to the rest of the world as I walked off into the night. I paused for a moment, looking back to see where the faint glow of the tallest building on the hill still faintly shone. I considered turning back, but some impulse kept dragging me forward. There was nothing and no one pulling me back, and the possibilities of the road ahead drew me to keep walking along the gravel strip.
It must have been quite late by this point, and I began to imagine what everyone else was doing at this time. My mother, outside with her dogs, allowing them to relieve themselves once more before bed. My roommate, perpetually in his pajama pants, inevitably video chatting with a girl in Texas, oblivious to homework, guests, or anything else, his skin growing paler by the day in the anemic light of his computer screen. The girl who I’d fallen in love with my first week, removing her makeup in front of her cracked mirror, a George Harrison record spinning in the background. All those people on the hill, tucked in their little cubbies, the owners of the bicycles in the hut and the skinny boy outside the market. The further I walked, the more their faces danced before me.
As I rounded a bend, I came upon another farm, set closer to the road, tall stalks of corn casting ghostly shadows in the moonlight. Across the highway was a farmhouse, a buzzing blue fluorescent light above the door. I stopped and considered my options. I must have been miles from campus at this point, with no inkling as to whether I’d been missed. I stepped off the gravel, my feet sliding slightly on the grass leading down to the fenced in field. I walked up to the fence, and, carefully avoiding the chicken wire across the wooden beams, I hoisted myself up and over.
The corn came up my neck. I stood for a time, pinned between the fence and the sea of maize before me. I looked back at the farmhouse. What would happen if someone saw me from the window? Would they call the police? Would they call the school? I’d heard stories of drunken fraternity members found passed out in cornfields, but I wasn’t drunk. I was just out for a walk. In the middle of the night. On their property. The breeze began to pick up, and I shivered.
Pushing thoughts of angry farmers with pitchforks from my mind, I maneuvered my body into the rustling wall of corn. Corn had always seemed distant — something seen through the window on road trips, but never up close. Much like seeing an elephant in person for the first time, I was struck by the sheer size and quantity of the plants I was forcing myself between. They were mammoth, thick and scratchy, leaves forcing themselves between my shoes and my pants, up the sleeves of my jacket, tops of stalks dragging against the back of my neck like some unseen fingers. I kept pushing through the plants, unsure of where I was going or what I would find there, intent on continuing.
The corn grew so thick and close that I struggled to find footing between them. As I got to what I imagined to be the center of the field, I felt miniscule. I was an ant, trapped a sea of amber, an ingredient in a cosmic experiment. It was then that it began to rain.
Any amount of rain would have been problematic, stuck as I was in the center of a very dense cornfield, miles from shelter, but this was not ordinary rain. Thick, high velocity droplets came at full force, as if a shower had been turned on full blast. The plants on every side of me were instantly soaked, and the ground below me filled with water swiftly as streams ran down from the highway. Standing in my canvas shoes, my denim jacket already sodden, surrounded by at least fifty feet of corn on each side, I did the unthinkable. I sat down.
When I was in second grade, I had a strange experience with bees. On the playground, there were constantly swarms of black and yellow buzzing around, and the other children would entertain themselves by running from them, throwing mulch at them, and otherwise attempting to escape the mostly oblivious bees. One day, I was sitting beneath the giant structure of slides, monkey bars, and platforms that sat in the center of the playground when the shout came ringing from above me. “BEEEES!” There was a swarm of children fleeing from the upper regions of the play set, feet drumming against the stairs, blocking my only exits. Once the path was clear, I scrambled out and was momentarily blinded by the bright Spring sunshine. My vision came back only for me to see the entire second grade assembled in front of me, watching in horror as bees swarmed around me. In that moment, I knew I couldn’t run, couldn’t escape, couldn’t fight. I centered myself and relaxed my entire body. I stayed stock still as I felt one bee and then another land on my neck, tiny legs rubbing against the tiny hairs that stood straight on end as I submitted to this inspection from the little two-tone creatures. After they established that my neck contained no harvestable pollen, the bees continued on their way, peaceful as could be. The audience stood in awe.
Meanwhile, in the cornfield, I had given myself fully to the rain. In the darkness, there seemed to be little else. Everything in the world had been taken and replaced with endless, omnipotent, cleansing, crushing water. I imagined the field flooding, the highway overtaken with water. The waves would carry me back to the top of the hill before they swallowed that as well. I would watch, powerless, as the last yellow glow from a dormitory window was snuffed out and my world became an endless sea.
The night before, I’d pushed my torso over the sticky bar top and ordered two beers, shouting to be heard over the pulsating dance music in the dark basement. I’d clutched the foam slick cups to my chest as I navigated back to my position against the wall, away from the action. The second beer was for the girl just like me, passive, watching. In the center of the floor, surrounded by crazy-eyed fraternity brothers and a sea of thighs, shoulders, lips, the girl she loved and the girl I loved were wrapped around each over, seemingly unaware of the room around them. We tried to make small talk, to find a kinship in our similarities, but the conversation faltered, leaving us both to silently accept that we were supporting characters, second or third choices at best, easily forgotten plot points, listed last in the scrolling credits. Condensation from the piss-yellow beer dripped on my scuffed sneakers. The air in the room smelled like the inside of a stranger’s mouth.
I thought back to the night as the corn, weighed down with the rain, pummeled against my back. I imagined their bodies grasping at one another under the sallow lights. I felt the ground water seep up through my pants. It felt as though the rain was pulling away at the layers that had built up on my exhausted, broken body. Layers of spilt beer and party grime were the first to wash off, the smell of tobacco next. As I felt the water rise further and further around me, the shadow of the girl who had loved me less floated away with the dead leaves, the imprint of her head gradually lifted from my chest, the smell of her hair washed out of my jacket. In the center of the raging storm, there was stillness.
From the highway, I would have been invisible, shielded by walls of corn and sheets of rain. I was dimly aware of the occasional car passing, headlights barely permeating the seal of the tall stalks. Where were these travelers going that couldn’t wait till morning? Were they stranded far from home? Where were they coming from? I wondered if they were looking out the window, imagining me curled up amidst the corn. Probably not.
When I finally stood, my body felt heavy beneath my waterlogged clothes, but there was a strange lightness to everything. I tried in vain to push my rain-soaked bangs from my face as I forced myself back through the sodden plants. I fell over and over again, buffeted from wall of corn to wall of corn until the plants fell away, revealing the steep ascent to the roadway. There were no cars now in the eerie twilight. Jumping the fence in the opposite direction was a nonissue, but the slick incline posed a greater problem. I took it at a run and felt my thin shoes, soaked beyond recognition, sink deep into the mud before I toppled backwards. It took three tries to reach the surface of the road. I began my journey back to the hill, thankful for the faint light in the distance, as my extended tenure in the field had done away with what little sense of direction I had.
The world was silent but alive. Though the familiar sounds of automobiles had ceased, the world on either side of the road seemed to have woken up, spurred on by the rain or the darkness, or perhaps the stranger in their midst. I was nearly blind, thick clouds blocking the moonlight, leaving the double yellow line as my only guide. In the distance, I heard an owl hooting.
As the glow of the hill grew brighter, the sounds of nature disappeared, as if to make room for the buzzing bulbs above the signpost and a bright light reliably beckoning from the post office. The bar was quiet now, seats and tables stacked outside, the throngs outside long dissipated, bartender gone home. As I passed by a trashcan, I was greeted by a scurrying sound, and saw the nose of a raccoon poking up through the lid, sniffing the air to discover who or what had disrupted its midnight snack. I looked back at it, bemused, realizing this was the only animate creature I’d encountered in hours. I must have looked insane, muddy and dripping everywhere.
When I’d made my way through last block of town, I was confronted once more by the bike hut, still devoid of any sign of my bike, across from that, most of the windows were dark in the building identical to my own. Heavy bass no longer leaked from the second story window; the tenants had moved the party elsewhere or given up for the night. Gone too, was the girl on the bed and the boy at his desk. Everything was still, the rain making a light pitter patter on the shingles of the roof.
I swiped my soggy key card and walked into my building. Suddenly, I was anxious, keenly aware of my appearance in the harsh fluorescence, afraid of someone seeing me. I squelched up the stairs, a trail of cloudy, off-brown water in my wake. I passed right by my own room, and made my way directly to the communal bathroom. I stripped in front of the mirror. My clothes came off like slices from a deli counter ham, thick, damp, floppy. I became acutely aware that I was cold. In the rain, it had seemed natural, but here, inside, shedding my waterlogged clothes to bare my glistening pink skin, I was freezing.
I left my clothes on the cool tile floor, a puddled halo grew around them as my denim jacket emptied itself of hours worth of rain water. I steppe into the shower. The pipe sputtered, a red-brown jet coughing out of the faucet, a pause, and then, water. The water got hot quickly, a rarity in these communal bathrooms. The stream turned white as the temperature rose; a pungent mineral scent filled the washroom. As I stepped under the tap, I felt my tender skin burn slightly, splotches of beet red spreading across the pink and blue-white of my torso.
When I was a child, I loved to be underwater. Swimming was the only sport I ever excelled at. Bath time was always a struggle, as I’d want to linger long after the water grew tepid and the bubbles dissipated. My mother would chide me, but if I could have stayed a specimen, floating in liquid, I would have. Standing in the grimy shower, I felt like that child again, afraid to step out from the stream, towel myself off, and grow comfortable in my new skin. Finally, I turned the dial back, the flow sputtered to a stop, and the drain gurgled.
Peeling back the curtain, I surveyed the shabby bathroom. Our building was a relic from an unfortunate architectural movement in the 1970s, and the exposed mustard brick, cardboard-tinted tile, and brown accents had grown faded and cracked over the years of student occupation. As the steam cleared, the bathroom looked no less shabby than before. The pipework was all stained, and the mirrors bore scratch marks and carved inscriptions. I toweled off and trotted back to my room, my clothes still shedding water in the corner of the bathroom, I ran my hands along the exposed brick of the hallway, savoring the building I called home.
I slipped into my room as quietly as I could. My roommate was asleep, face inches from his open laptop screen. He stirred slightly as I changed from a towel into a pair of worn pajama pants. With one eye half open, he squinted in the half light and grunted an approximation of, “Where were you?”
I climbed into bed, smiling at his half-conscious form as I settle against the pillow. “I got caught in the rain. Get some sleep, Tom.” Through the window, I could just about see the post office, sparkling in the center of the darkened town.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
Beauty often is discussed in the sense of huge, glittering, illuminated objects. While this classical, gilt version of beauty is certainly valid, the sort of beauty that intrigues me is a smaller, more skittish idea. It’s something that appears in unexpected moments and disappears before it can be adequately captured. It is subtle, intangible, and easily missed.
Alex Evans is a Midwestern prose writer and musician. He is currently in the Prose program at the University of Cincinnati, where he serves as the fiction editor of Short Vine. His work has previously appeared in Persimmons Magazine.