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Crop Maze by Gary Fincke


In Gary Fincke’s flash fiction piece “Crop Maze,” the narrator’s twelve-year-old son is bullied by his classmates because he believes aliens live in the cornfields located on the outskirts of their hometown. In an effort to quell his son’s fears, the narrator decides to take his son to a local corn maze. Yet, the trip proves challenging and frustrating for them both.

At CRAFT, we often receive submissions which focus on familial relationships, though very few told from a father’s point of view. Coupling this unique dynamic with the corn maze’s eerie atmosphere naturally creates tension and suspense.

Fincke comments in his accompanying author’s note that filtering this autobiographical story, inspired by a similar outing with his own nine-year-old grandson, through a fictional third-person lens provides an opportunity for more complexity and depth to develop since there are no limitations placed upon the writer’s experience. At the same time, Fincke’s personal attachment to the narrative allows for a certain authenticity to shine through that enhances the resonant connection being built between the narrator and reader.  —CRAFT


 

In late August, his son began to insist aliens lived in the cornfields that stretched west from the outskirts of the town they lived in. Not playacting. Not childlike. They needed, his son solemnly said, to be ready for flight because their house was so close to where thousands of thick, stalk-filled acres allowed the aliens to gather in secrecy.

Because his son was twelve now, too old to carry that fantasy into middle school, the father said, “Keep that our secret.” When, by the second week of school, his son had voiced his fears to his seventh-grade classmates, they laughed, and called him “space boy” and “E.T.” and “dorkface.” When, in October, he ramped up his warnings, they shunned or threatened him.

At last, the father showed his son the newspaper photograph of families entering a local corn maze, children eager to be lost and found. He said they would buy pumpkins and eat hot dogs. They would walk into the untouched part of the field and find nothing but yellowed stalks. When his son resisted, he offered money.

Once they had entered the maze, they whirlpooled inward, the stalks flattened into complicated paths, each level of curves and angles marked by different colors. They were late beginning; his son having spent half an hour on fear in the parked car. Methodically, they gathered the maze contest’s hidden words to form a sentence that proved they’d mastered the ins-and-outs of searching for minor treasure. It took an hour, the late October chill arriving, the sky scoured by windswept darkness.

“Now, come take a look,” the father said, slipping beneath an orange ribbon to leave the path. He beckoned the boy under. He said, “Follow me,” meaning to show that nothing lurked where they would be alone deep in the field where the aliens would be seen if they lived there. He spread the stalks to allow his son easier passage. He walked until the field went silent except for the rattling of the stalks. “See?” he said. “See how empty?”

Then, a siren wailed, and, as if reason were unraveling, his son clutched his arm and whimpered. “It will stop,” he said, zigzagging for half a minute more. The alarm surely blared for fire in a farmhouse, a barn, or a dry field, not the invasion of saucers showing themselves to a flock of families. He took his son’s hand and began a U-turn toward where, ten minutes before, children had chattered like young birds. What he found were stalks broken in more than one direction. Thick clouds kept the sun from guiding them. The alarm kept him from hearing the Siri of family voices.

Soon he repeated, “We’re almost there,” his son tugging like a pet, but nothing ahead of them flashed the color of a cordoned off, well-worn path. When his son began to wail, even the weather seemed imagined. Lost balance lay in the soil. Facts fled. Leaves, October brittle, touched them like the elderly, reading the braille of their bared arms.

When the siren stopped, there was only widespread rustling. Somewhere, an edge existed where confusion ended. At twilight, the farmer would call out to guide people in. Before darkness, someone would notice his car in the emptied visitor’s lot and return to the field and shout, anxious to commiserate or joke or even embrace them as if they both were children emerging from a nightmare.

This is how the indigenous learned, the father thought, distinguishing which stalks they had broken from those bent by weather and weakness. He refused to call, but needing to say something to his son, the father described the pumpkins the boy had chosen, how he had selected an array of gnarled gourds that featured the colors of flags from obscure countries. “They are listening for our return,” he said, though now he imagined how they lay in the trunk of his car like an abducted family.

At last, neither a fire hall nor a farmhouse in sight, he saw the movement of headlights through a haze of stalks, a flurry of bright and dim. They were nearly, at least, to the highway, but his son refused to move. “There they are,” the boy whispered, and though the father began to plead, the boy pulled away and backed up into the corn, crouching to hide himself.

“Those are cars,” the father said, but the boy flattened himself as the siren began again, whatever aid it summoned not yet arrived.

 


GARY FINCKE’s books have won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, The Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Nonfiction Prose, and the Wheeler Poetry Prize. His latest collections are The Sorrows: Stories (Stephen F. Austin, 2020) and The Infinity Room: Poems (Michigan State, 2019). His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in such periodicals as Harper’s, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Missouri Review as well as in Best American Essays 2020 and Best Small Fictions 2020.

 

Featured image by Freestocks courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

One Key to Complexity is Point of View

“One writes out of only one thing—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.” James Baldwin’s advice has always whispered in my ear as I write, but one of the earliest admonitions I ever received about storytelling came from an editor who said he loved my story, but needed the last, climactic scene reimagined. “Just because it happened,” he said, “doesn’t make the reader believe it.”

Both Baldwin’s and that editor’s suggestions have probably been given in every fiction workshop ever conducted, and another writer, in person, gave me a keeper. Nearly forty years ago, after he read an early story of mine that began and ended during the same week, Russell Banks said, “Gary, there are more than four days in a week.” He meant me to stay in the story longer, but when I said something like nothing much happened on the other three days, he said, “It’s your story, Gary. In there, something happens on the other days.”

He meant “imagine.” He meant for me to allow my autobiographical narrator to become the character he needed to be in order to complicate and deepen the story. For that to happen, I needed to shift the point of view. Change his situation. His dreams. That imagined narrator did things on those other days. He looked for a job and was humiliated. He became belligerent with a stranger who, in turn, used his authority as a verbal fist to show him exactly how little prepared he was to enter a blue-collar world. That different lens demanded the use of those other days.

Which is how “Corn Maze” was written.

Ten years ago, our nine-year-old grandson, while my wife and I drove him to a promised cavern tour, warned us about aliens who lived in the cornfields we passed. There was no talking him out of his conviction. At the site, we rode a boat through the cavern that opened onto a lake. The ride was completed without incident. On the way home, an hour’s travel, we endured another round of his warnings.

That October, as we’d been doing since he was four, we took him to an elaborate corn maze in one of those fields where he’d told us the aliens lurked. He hesitated. He warned us. And then, because there were hundreds of visitors, many of them children, going into the maze, he gave in. Nothing to see there but ordinary behavior that, at best, might be mentioned at a family gathering.

But what if these events were combined and the story written in the third person and free to open up possibilities beyond the autobiographical? What if the boy is a bit older? Even when he was nine, I was impatient with my grandson’s fantasy. As if his childishness reflected on me. That was temporary, but what if the boy is the man’s son? Now it’s ongoing. Now it’s the adult who will be acted upon, not the boy.

That boy’s father has years of impatience built up. He’s carried it so long, it’s soured into arrogance and anger and embarrassment. Now there is tension. Now the father as well as the son is under the sort of pressure that breeds recognition. Now there is a story. Slipping under a colored ribbon is opening a forbidden door. The rest is the detail of location and weather and darkness that pulls a moment into significance. With the punch that comes from telling the story from the best angle, the one that guides the reader to the pleasure of discovery.

 


GARY FINCKE’s books have won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, The Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Nonfiction Prose, and the Wheeler Poetry Prize. His latest collections are The Sorrows: Stories (Stephen F. Austin, 2020) and The Infinity Room: Poems (Michigan State, 2019). His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in such periodicals as Harper’s, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Missouri Review as well as in Best American Essays 2020 and Best Small Fictions 2020.