Life for two rural teens is aimless and uneventful, until they're drawn together by the coincidence of their names. In each other they find joy, purpose, a cure for their loneliness, but it soon becomes apparent that the nature of their relationship comes with a hefty price. With or without each other, they must learn to grapple with the consequences of sin.
A Green and Golden Sin
I sit on the edge of a delicately engraved mahogany chair, the plainest piece of furniture in the room, worrying a little green button back and forth between my sweaty hands. The layer of dusty soil that normally coats my palms was turned to mud and wiped off on my overalls long ago. My knee bounces as fast as my heart and, once again, I’m beginning to rethink my decision.
“Do you want to talk about anything?”
Two men, two fathers, sit in the room with me, one hunched forward and nervous as I am, the other calm and straight as a board. None of us have moved for at least an hour. I can’t see them; my head is down, my eyes boring intently into the pattern of an imported rug, and I absolutely refuse to look up.
But that’s not entirely true. No, I have no wish to speak, but I am being crushed under the weight of the gut-wrenching screams coming from upstairs, and I need an escape.
Maybe I should leave.
Don’t be stupid, the button reminds me.
Well, then, I have nowhere else to turn. I fold inward, shut off everything outside of myself, and begin to confess. I’ll tell the whole story to God.
The corn, head-high, was just starting to turn a rich golden brown, and the air smelled earthy as it began to fall apart; the life cycle’s rightful end. It was a sad smell, humbling, as Nebraska would soon lose her proud stalks, but it also gave me comfort. It was the smell of a good harvest, herald of a good winter to come.
A new class of high-schoolers was about to merge from two junior highs, most of us farmers from the west of the county, the rest from a smaller, wealthier community in the east. It works like this: We grow their food; they send us water from the hills. We break our backs and burn in the fields; they sit on their front porches and drink lemonade. But I’ve never held a lick of resentment toward them, for though the easterners have always luxuriated in their sloth and looked down on us from afar, we in the west, we are honest–– or, at least, we try to be–– and that is good enough for me.
We convened for the first time in September, in a big old schoolhouse somewhere between East and West. No one looked at me; no one said to me, hey, good to see you again. Even there, in that new place, I was a ghost. I had to permit myself a little disappointment; I’d hoped that things would be different, but it was soon clear that I was in for more of the same. The oldness of school, poorly masked under the guise of a new roof. I abandoned my hope to get lost in the crowd, and then I didn’t care.
Most people think I’m stupid. I probably am. I just don’t talk much, so no one knows for sure.
I tend to look through people, right through to the great sky beyond them. But then, they tend to do the same to me. It was a good and peaceful arrangement at the time; with no friends to keep up with or bullies to dodge, I had no worries outside of chores and homework. I was alone in the palm of the wide plains and the wider sky, and I was certainly not unhappy.
But You up there, You must have said to Yourself, Hey, this kid’s peace has lasted much too long.
On my first day of high school I looked through my classmates, I looked through my teacher, I looked through the walls of the classroom and found my seat. And then the bell rang, the teacher began to take roll, and that’s when the temptation started.
I knew my place in the list, between my neighbor Toby and his friend Alexander. With a last name like Baker, I learned a long time ago to be ready from the beginning.
Too bad. Tobias?
“Here.” I raised my hand and spoke with pursed lips, matter-of-factly. But then, a dreadful current radiated out from my stomach, scorching my fingertips and zapping my eyes wide open. I clamped a heavy hand over my mouth. The other kids stuffed cruel laughter down my red-hot earholes, and, mortified, I dropped my forehead down onto the desk.
It was an honest mistake, the teacher said. Settle down. She read that name again, and then mine; in reading mine her voice was warm, but she failed to stifle the slightest hint of amusement, and I picked it up, and it hurt.
“Joseph.” It wasn’t a question, as the others had been.
I raised my hand without raising my head, and said nothing. I should have known better than to open my damn mouth.
It was green. Everything was. Her dress, her eyes, the space under my tongue where I was embarrassed to the point of nausea.
I only looked up because I was told to pay attention, but once I did I could feel her gaze all over me. I squirmed in my chair and hit my knee on the metal under the desk. Regrettably, the pain wasn’t enough to stifle the shame.
Only You must know how, but I was certain even before I looked at her that she was Josephine. She was about as focused on the lesson as I was. If she’d only chosen to forget about what I did to her name, just let it go, I’d never have fallen into this stew I’m in now. But she didn’t, Lord, please understand, she wouldn’t let me go, and that day she trapped me with her eyes.
When I turned to the girl, armed with a glare to scare her away, I expected to see anger etched into her face, or worse, disgust. But she was smiling at me, an angel with golden curls, and I just sat there with my mouth open while her smile grew and she became the sun, and I became blind.
After class the sun told me that yes, her name was Josephine, Josephine Bailey from the eastern county, and she hadn’t seen anything so funny since a turtle clamped itself to the end of her dog’s tail. I dared not open my mouth again and was wholly prepared to turn away in shame, never look directly at another soul again, but she stopped me.
“I consider it a blessing,” she said, hand on my shoulder, “to have been the butt of your joke.”
I had no words then, so I turned away after all and shrank into the crowd. After school I got in the truck and went fishing, and felt better.
Josephine must have been one of those golden children whom everyone fawns over, points to as an example of everything that is good in this world. A godly child; a cherub. Loved and cherished by all, but never too closely for fear that You, the cruel Almighty, would take her too early. She was too innocent, too beautiful for this life.
But they must have been wrong, just as I was in the beginning, for she hasn’t been taken yet, and though she wears a face lacking in sin, she herself is not. There is a deadly one, in particular, that she failed to rein in, and I’m no better; for I failed, too.
She asked me to come sit with her for lunch. When I declined, she left her friends–– just neighbors, I later found out–– and joined me on the lawn. I said I didn’t mind, and found it was true.
I had a hard time looking at her, like our eyes were magnets and mine were of the wrong pole. But then, she did more than enough looking for both of us. I felt like I’d swallowed a live fish.
She said she shouldn’t really be outside, that her parents wished her to remain a shade of white befitting her ancestry.
“Clean,” she said. “Pure, like my blood.”
I ate my sandwich and thought about the dirt under my fingernails.
“But I’ll tell you a secret,” she said, leaning so close I got goose bumps. She whispered in my ear, and my skin stayed warm long after her breath graced it. “I don’t care, at all.”
It didn’t mean much to me. I didn’t care, either. She said Joseph, hold out your hand, and I did, and hers was next to mine. Her skin was bright under the sun and hard to look at, but still easier than her face. Next to her I was a deep, baked brown, like an overdone loaf of bread dropped in the dirt. I don’t like to wash my hands.
But in spite of the grime she took my hand, and rather than take it back I let her keep it. Look at me, she said, and I strained my neck to do so, but I managed it and felt warm under her friendly eyes. It was a strange feeling. I found it was nice to be looked at, after all, by the right sort of person.
She’s one of God’s own, I thought, and I lifted a corner of my mouth for her.
But in the end, You know, Josephine turned out to be a sinner, just like the rest of us down here on this green and golden Earth.
I used to spend my free hours fishing the lake on my great uncle John’s property. John understood me better than most folks do. He didn’t talk much, either, and between us two, we never needed words. Most evenings we’d share a quiet meal and a game of cards, and then I’d take my leave in peace. But John could always tell when I didn’t want to go home–– when I needed more time alone, in the silence of my own thoughts–– and if his nephew called asking after me, he’d play ignorant.
Joseph ain’t here, he’d say, and then hang up. And then I’d bunk up in his attic for the night, or, if it was warm out, on the boardwalk under the stars.
It was October, and the cornstalks were dry. I decided I wanted to bring Josephine to the lake. My friend, Josephine–– what a funny thought.
Every day she said, come outside and eat lunch with me, and every day I did, and she told me about her life, her lonely life. School, then right home, homework, chores, bed. School. She used the term “chores” differently than I would; it sounded more like structured, enforced leisure time. Sewing, reading, and private study. She spoke French.
One day I said to her, come and eat lunch with me, and she laughed and said okay. We were carefree, cheerful, when we climbed into my truck and left the schoolhouse in a cloud of dust. It wasn’t far. We’d have half an hour at the lake and make it back in time for Arithmetic.
“My Uncle John’s,” I said.
“Won’t he mind?”
We ate lunch and dangled our feet over the boardwalk, letting the fish nip at our toes. The lake smelled of algae. Josephine crumbled a bit of bread for the fish, and they came in droves, distorting our reflections. She tried to stick her finger down into a gaping mouth, but the creature shied away and dove back to the muddy depths. I thought it would feel funny, she said.
Summers were the worst for her. She wasn’t allowed out in the strong sun, and that meant long months trapped indoors, sweltering with the windows open and suffocating under her mother’s watchful eye. She must study, according to her mother; learn women’s work and become educated in the finer arts. And that’s what she spent her summers doing. A few times she’d managed to escape and lose herself for hours in Your glorious green fields. She was surprised her keepers hadn’t noticed, or, at least, hadn’t let on that they’d noticed.
I reminded her how I spent my summers, showed her my farmer’s tan and five rows of calluses.
She’d trade me in an instant.
I noticed she was beginning to burn, and pressed a thumb against her porcelain skin to show her. The message was clear: we’d better go back.
But she didn’t seem to want to. She came closer to me, and then the heat all over my body wasn’t from the sun. We kissed each other. I thought I was confused, but really, deep in my heart and my gut, I wasn’t.
I was happy.
I returned after school, alone, and went fishing.
It snowed late last year, which was fine at the time. All through the warm November we had better things to do than eat lunch; meaning, I’d lay her down on the boardwalk and unbuckle, and she’d guide me inside her and, body and soul, we would merge.
She wanted it, she’d told me. She put her soft hand over the bulge in my overalls and said, I want what’s under here. Then she shook down her long curls and let me touch her in secret places. She let her sweet breath dance over my neck and my ears and my everything, and we shivered together, though it wasn’t yet cold. In my fever I ripped a button off her dress. She pressed it into my hand and whispered, keep it, and think of me when we’re apart.
I’d hurt her at first, and I was sorry, but she said don’t be sad, Joseph, this time it’s all for you. When it was over I sat and watched her bleed white. What a wonderful gift from this heavenly girl, I thought, fingering the button. I knew it must be sacred. It must be God’s work.
Forgive me, Lord, only later we saw that we’d fallen into Satan’s tempting trap, a pair of unwitting mice to one very deadly piece of cheese.
As the dead, brown cornstalks broke and fell, so did dear Josephine and I. Fell into each other. Broke into each other. One day we fell asleep above the water, half naked, hand in hand, and Josephine burned. She said her red skin was a mark of love, sent to her from the heavens so I could see the way she felt.
Suddenly I needed to show her, too. I touched the corner of her eye.
“I love you.”
I already knew she loved me. The burn wasn’t necessary, nor were the words. Her smile was proof enough.
Until the day she became a ghost.
Thanksgiving came, the last warm day of the year, and with the bounty of the harvest laid afore me I told You all the things I was thankful for: Josephine. The lake. Peace, and now happiness. Remember? I prayed You would hold off the white winter, battle back the snow, perhaps not let it come this year; for once the snow came and the lake froze over, I failed to see how things could stay the same.
But, of course, You knew the snow wouldn’t make any difference.
After Thanksgiving the cold set in, deep and quiet, and Josephine did not return to school until I feared she would never come back. I was empty. The school was empty; everyone but Josephine had become completely transparent. All I had left to look at was the button.
I thought I felt a holy presence when at last she reappeared, but the girl looked anything but holy. She was thin, grey, and sad. She held my hand to her dress, above the place where she’d hurt for me and then healed for me, said she’d missed something important and been going through something unpleasant, and that no one else knew yet but they soon would, and there was nothing we could do.
What does it mean? I asked, trying to pretend, but she knew that I knew. I said I didn’t believe her, deep down was too shaken in my boots to really believe her, and that was the day she became a ghost.
We drifted out of existence. I cursed myself, first once, and then again every minute of the day. I should never have opened my damned mouth.
It snowed. The lake froze over. I couldn’t go fishing.
The call came sooner than I expected, a week later as I was picking at my dinner. I’d had half a hope it wouldn’t come at all, that Josephine would save me, keep quiet even as she grew and burst. But, no. The call came, and my sister got up to answer it. She’s the only one who ever would. Dad, she yelled, it’s for you, and with a grunt my gray old father pushed forward his plate, pushed back his chair, and went to receive whatever news may have come his way.
I couldn’t have known for sure what it was, but there was no question in my gut. It was toxic with foreboding.
Back came a noise of deadly rage, and I dropped my fork. Then, an earth-rending shout: JOSEPH!
I stood, glad I hadn’t eaten anything, for if I had I’d have lost it. I thought of running, running, making a break for it, to the wastelands up north, to Canada if I had to; they could never catch me there. But my legs were lead, and my head was underwater. I stood still too long. The old man came back and snagged me by the ear, pinched it so hard I thought he’d pierce it. Let’s go, he said. To the truck. To the truck and out East, to face the demons I’d created.
I screamed, but no one heard. Except for You.
He drove me, a prisoner in the passenger seat, for miles and miles in the quiet night. Frost built up on the windshield. My body was wracked with shivers, tidal waves of dread and cold. A coat wouldn’t have done me much good, except, maybe, to smother myself so I’d never have to leave that truck, that terrible chariot of Reckoning.
The charioteer tore the collar of my shirt in his fury, dragging me to the foot of the monster door, behind which waited the one I’d stupidly thought of as an angel. I shrank before it, dwarfed and dizzy. Knock! Knock! It was hard for him not to break it down, but that would have been…inappropriate.
The door opened and suddenly I stood afore her, dumb and paralyzed. I looked past my father, through the woman who’d answered the door, around the girl’s mother and father and saw a green face, a sick and crying face. I asked myself, is she ugly or beautiful, and I didn’t know.
Inside was warm, but I’d never been anywhere more arctic.
Is this the boy?
Then the shouting truly began, harsh words all around me in a blizzard of hatchets and knives:
“How dare you? What gave you the right?”
“Answer him, Joseph!”
“When did this happen? Where?”
“He must have forced himself on her. My daughter would never stoop so low!”
“You dog, you mongrel.”
“You’ll go to Hell for this.”
“We’re all doomed to live in shame!”
“Now you must marry her. You’ll pay for this as for long as you live!”
On opposite sides Josephine and I had been silent; distraught statues, weathered and crumbling with only each other’s eyes to hang onto. At the mention of marriage Josephine broke her silence, but did not break my gaze.
“Father!” Her scream brought a hush to the whole world. “Can’t you see he doesn’t want to marry me?”
She would never keep me by force, and so, bitterly whipping my back with their tongues, they sent me away.
I wanted to go to sleep, under the ground, forever.
My father spat at me and took away my truck. My brothers looked at me from afar with a strange mix of jealousy and repulsion. But my little sister, she came close to me and looked up, and her innocent eyes burned me with rays of horror.
I spent a lot of time in church, then. You know that. Only You would have me.
Besides Josephine, and maybe John, You are the only one I’ve ever really looked at, and that’s because You’ve never shied Your own penetrating gaze from my soul. But John died in the grayness of February, and by then Josephine had long been a ghost, and I myself was feeling more transparent than usual.
I prayed with Josephine’s green button in my palm, running my thumb over the smooth edge and imagining her belly, round, round, round with the fruit of my seed. The church was always cold in winter, and I sat with my head down in the deserted pews until my nose went numb and my behind froze to the wise old wood, which is to say, I prayed until I had to go back to class.
This was my new lunchtime. I’d vowed to never go back to the lake, that living mirror who knew every detail of my sin. I gave up my meal, only fed my spirit, which I needed but certainly did not deserve.
Every day without fail I pleaded with You, Lord, for forgiveness, and every day You told me I hadn’t earned it. Instead of lifting the terrible weight off my heart, You doubled it with visions of the girl.
I knew where she was, the one who had lured me into sin. She sat outside, alone, and resented every bite of her fancy sandwich. She’d begun to balloon, and the other kids had taken notice. The golden child, no longer a child, was to them still the ghost she’d made herself to be, but now a ghost of a different kind: the kind those with futures gossip about even in her presence.
You tortured me with thoughts of Josephine, floods of memories of what I’d done and visions of black futures for us both. I already hated Them, all of Them. I began to hate You, too. I stood in rage and threw that damned relic of Josephine at the statue of Christ, wishing it would strike a hole in His head to match the holes in His hands, but it ricocheted and left a stinging mark on my own forehead. Made of storm clouds and thunder, I left Your house and I have not been back.
A shame that has been dragging stubbornly on my soul.
I left my own house, as well. In May, when the green returned and the fields I had sowed were ankle-high, my father still had not sold his uncle’s empty hovel. It was falling back to the earth, unmaintained in the years since the death of his only son, and then his wife. I slowly moved myself in.
School was about to end. I would have approached the normal trials of summer with eagerness, ready to get back to the work that mattered, if it were not for…her. The thoughts of Josephine had not stopped, nor slowed or weakened, though she herself had become a cursory figure, inhabiting the peripheries of my daily existence. I knew what awaited that girl: a heavy, breathless, eternal few months in the heat of Hell, and by the end… Well, by the end I’d have to be gone, wouldn’t I?
I looked at her one last time, when her back was turned and I could see no evidence of the child. Then the school bell rang, and it was over.
I pulled weeds. I watered and fertilized. I burned, sweated, ached and bled for the green earth, and before my eyes it grew up from under my feet. Not yet tall, not yet proud, but among the corn I was tall, and I was proud. These, I thought, these are my real children. Or maybe, I’m the child. A child of corn. If I’d said it out loud it would have been stupid, but it must have been true, for though I was alone in an empty ball of green and blue, in my heart I knew myself to be in good company.
It’ll be okay, I told the corn. I’ll get to watch you grow up, big and strong. And then I’ll have to leave you behind, but Father will take good care of you after I’m gone, you’ll see. He’s a good corn-dad.
I kneeled in the baked dirt and gathered a few stalks in for a hug. Everything smelled of sun and chlorophyll.
I’ll miss you.
Somewhat halfheartedly I had packed a bag, mostly clothes and canned things from last harvest. The North would be wide, empty, and cold; at least, that’s how it was in my dreams. The unknown is always that way, in dreams. Thoughts of crossing the border left me small and breathless, frightened like that little prairie dog over there, whose life is both dependent on and jeopardized by his leaving the nest for the wide, wide world. I had to take a break from my work, sit down and bury my head in my arms. At least the prairie dog, if he survived, could return home. I could not, and anything might be lying in wait for me, as yet unseen, on the other side of that invisible line. Anything except…what I would be leaving behind. I thought I still had another month to convince myself it was the right thing to do.
I guess You must have done it on purpose, then. Set the gears of life in motion before I was ready, just so You could watch me stumble and fall. So You could laugh.
No, that’s not true. I know why You did it.
The telephone rang, and I let it ring. I was glued to the floor, counting the intervals of sound and silence. One, nothing. Two, nothing. Three, only two left. Four, just let it go. Five––
Joseph, it’s time.
They say she’s begging for you, son.
Do as you will.
The line clicked, and I was left in a world of static. Sweat pooled into beads all over my skin. I began to gasp for breath, in, out, in, out, but it wasn’t enough, so I forgot about breathing and just brushed my bangs off my burning forehead so they wouldn’t catch fire. No, they were already singed, everything was singed, and the noise in my head was the sound of screams, billions and billions of tortured screams, all merging into one: my own. I was on fire. I ran for the sink and put it out with an ocean’s-worth of warm, rusty water.
The static cleared and my mind returned, like a TV where you miraculously happen upon the right channel, the only channel. I stood over the sink and dripped, relished the coolness of the night on my wet skin, and then there was one word in my head, a command, and I obeyed it:
The bag was in my hand, and then it was in the truck, and I was in the truck, and I was driving north to Nowhere.
But I had to make a quick stop first, to lay the past to rest. I owed it that much.
The lake was alive, bullfrogs in the reeds and fish galore beneath the rippling waters. They came up to snatch bugs, the ones weak enough and stupid enough to alight on the surface. Crickets cried and wailed from every crevice, every corner, disappearing when I got too close. They’re the smart ones, I guess.
I came to the edge of the boardwalk, treading lightly on its wealth of memories, and dug around in my pocket. There. The button. Under the moonlight it was green and silver.
Goodbye, I told it.
I froze, my arm tensed, poised and ready to flick the button into the water.
The night was pregnant with my great uncle’s presence, but as I stood still he said nothing more, so I ignored him. Deep breath. Goodbye, Josephine.
“Don’t you dare throw your life away.”
I spun around, and around, but he wasn’t there, of course he wasn’t there. He was in the lake, in the fields, out there in the wind and up in the stars. I suddenly felt like a child, not a sixteen-year-old something; a real child, standing dumb and scared at the terrible foot of adulthood.
The night had fallen eerily silent, as if every living thing in the lake was waiting for my next move. I backed away, slowly, stumbling over every knot in the weathered old wood, not daring for one second to take my eyes off the glaring moon.
Finally, weeping quietly, I made it back to the truck, John’s truck that I had taken for my own, and the dirty hunk of metal with its rust and peeling paint brought me comfort.
I pulled over and parked in front of the sign, like a boulder on a ledge. Once I crossed that border, once I threw myself off that cliff, well, You know… No going back. I supposed I could have just hauled myself back up the cliff, just driven back over the border, but…no. No going back.
I knew, once I crossed over, I’d be too different to return.
Those were the depths of the night. I switched off the headlights and as the sign went dark, the rest of the world came into focus under the white light of the moon. An empty, endless road, and then corn. Knee-high corn, all around, but something about it bothered me, and I realized, the corn on the South Dakota side was just a smidge shorter than that on the Nebraska side.
Hah, I thought. Take that, South Dakota.
But, that’s where I’m going, isn’t it? Isn’t that my future?
Then I became overwhelmed with a terrible sadness that grew, that pressed down on my chest, first with the weight of a rock and then a mountain. I couldn’t hold my head up anymore. The steering wheel caught me and cradled me, making no protest because, thank goodness, I hadn’t got around to fixing the horn yet.
My hand found its own way to that little green button, spared from the lake in my flight and returned safely to my pocket. I worried it, rubbed it clean of the grime of the fields, worked free the last of the loose threads that had once bound it to my Josephine.
I cried, and kissed it. I held it between my lips, under my tongue. I’m sorry, I whispered to it. I’m so sorry.
I turned the key in the ignition, and my headlights came back on. South Dakota. I was tired, ashamed of my tears, having shed more in one day than I should have ever. I’m weak, I thought. I’m a stupid little boy. Time to grow up, then. Time to move on.
But I couldn’t move on, couldn’t move at all. I sat like a tree, growing roots in my seat, while the engine growled impatiently. In the east the stars began to fade; the heavens turned to gold and the green returned to the fields. I pursed my lips, shaking my head and cursing myself, and shifted into reverse. I backed up John’s truck and turned it around, driving south on the empty road. Behind me it might as well have gone on forever, but in this direction, I knew where it ended.
That’s it, Lord. I wish I had more to tell You, but You know there’s nothing else. Have I earned Your forgiveness yet?
I raise my head. Nothing has changed, except my father has fallen asleep on the couch. He snores like gravel. Josephine’s father, still hunched over with worry in a velvet armchair, gives him the eye, and then gives it to me. I look back down at the floor.
I guess that means no.
But something else is different, too. Something strange, like last night on the lake. An eerie, expectant silence drifts down over the house like a blanket, sitting tight, waiting for someone to make a move.
It makes me forget to breathe. Makes my heart forget to beat.
And then, upstairs, a door is thrown open, and down comes the midwife, down the stairs, shouting: Young man, you have a daughter!
We in the room, we three fathers, we all head upstairs. Josephine’s father is the first. I trail behind, timid, not yet sure I’m really wanted. My father knows his place is last.
There’s a fuss in the bedroom, a flurry of women busying themselves over her, but she looks through them and reaches out. The room quiets. The crowd parts.
“Joseph.” She says my name with a golden smile. I return it, grimly, planted in the doorway with my hands stuffed down my pockets.
Come over here, she says, clutching a bundle at her breast.
I obey, though lifting my heels is a struggle.
I take her. I hold her. She reaches for my face, and I feel warm and wonderfully clear-headed. Her little head is covered in feathers of brown hair; my hair. Certainly not a golden child, like the woman on the bed with her yellow curls splayed, but this, my own child, this is certainly a child of God.
“What’s her name?”
“I haven’t thought of a good one yet,” says Josephine. “More importantly, tell me, Joseph, is she a Bailey or a Baker?”
Freeing an arm, I rummage around in my pocket, and when I find what I’m looking for, I smile. For real. I press the precious green button into Josephine’s palm and close her fingers around it. I won’t be needing it anymore.
She receives it like a blessing, and the blessing lifts my curse. I know that, this time, I will not regret having opened my damn mouth.