The Farmer watches as the dawn backlights the mountains. He can see their undesigned, craggy shapes between the tips of his wheat and the concrete ceiling. They’re a matte painting on the backdrop, full of bounty and lush, full of rain, but ineffectual. In the morning the mountains stand purple against the sky and hold their secrets on their terms. Then they vanish as the disc of the sun rises above them and drowns them out in glare; by the time they reappear, they are gray and bare their intricacies and their textures. By evening, they’re red with fury at having been seen intricate and textured before they disappear into the darkness.
It is a cycle that travels all the moods, but travels them in a reliable path. Moods these days cycle, but at random intervals from grief to fury to hope to conviction to grief, in no particular order, and with no predicting how long each will last.
Thus there can be no planning. There can only be the routine that keeps the homestead running. The snow gathers on the mountains, stays there until the long solstice, and doesn’t come back until the short solstice.
Then the Farmer has to avert his eyes as the disc of the sun swallows up the mountains, and he and his three acres of wheat and his house of patchy metal containers on the sixth story of the pyramid and the entire outside of the pyramid is lit orange. It’s something like the alpenglow that ignites the mountains at dusk, but it’s an engineered, rectilinear imitation, one that lives above the cursed ground, relegated to the designed world, and that, as much as the brightness of the sun, is why he can’t look at the mountains at dawn.
Her whole life she’s been a sound sleeper. She sleeps with locked limbs, arms tight to her sides, feet together, hair splayed across the pillow. The whole width of her body, arm to chest to arm again, is barely half of the cot. The branches of her arms and legs, the crisp straw of her hair, the dry leaves of skin that denude from her chapped lips. She hasn’t known a time without drought, where the rivers and streams flowed full into the aqueducts and the aqueducts flowed full into the pyramids, but where still most of the water flowed back out into the sea. Where the community didn’t get smaller year after year, where the pyramid didn’t empty out one by one, where the wheat didn’t grow just a little bit shorter.
The Farmer sits on the floor and watches her shallow breathing, sees the occasional fluttering of her bony fingers, her nostrils flare and contract. He’ll wake her up eventually. She’ll feed the chickens and the goats, milk the goats, and then she’ll walk the garden and inspect the lettuce and the tomatoes and the cucumbers and the potatoes while he checks on the bees and walks the wheat and corn. And while he walks the wheat and corn he’ll feel guilty over how much he’s making her do so young, and with such thin branches of arms and legs, and such crisp straw for hair, and with such dry leaves of skin which denude from her chapped lips. He’ll dream of her spending her days lying in her bed with a tray of bacon and a gallon of cow’s milk, drinking and growing fatter and fatter and then dying fat and old. He’ll do as much as he can in the early morning before the sun because he’ll never let her know how much work there is to be done because she’d ask to do more of it.
So he’ll wake early and wash the clothes and hang them on the line, mend them if they need mending, he’ll collect the eggs and weed the garden so that her walkthrough is as simple as it needs to be, and he’ll fill the woodbox before winter. Then there’s a few moments to regard the mountains before the ancient and unknowable growlights come on and blast away the dawn with white light and it’s time at last to wake Quinta.
Galatea and Antigaius don’t want to be the only ones left on the floor. The other two homesteads left for the River last year, and their fields fallowed. (Antig, the optimist: The better for crop rotations!) Their farmhouses are empty too, but nothing to do about that. But with their only neighbor now alone, and his daughter as frail as she is, far too young and frail for the work asked of her, she probably won’t be long for this community one way or another. (Antig, the pessimist: She’s going to die. Antig, the optimist: Titus and Agrippina will come back and take her to the River.)
It isn’t officially known that Agrippina had gone to the River with Titus, but it’s a small community—and smaller all the time. And their neighbor isn’t exactly present at the nundinae. He’ll show up, get the things he needs to make it through the next seven days, and he’ll go. He doesn’t gift to anyone because his homestead has nothing to gift anymore: Agrippina was the tradesperson and Titus was her apprentice, and now with both of them gone what is he going to provide?
Romulus and Septimus were married at the last nundinum, and they came to Galatea a day or two after. Galatea knew what they wanted before they asked. Her neighbor is not exactly the most approachable lately, and with something like this… Well, Romulus and Septimus aren’t very close with him, so wouldn’t it make more sense if Galatea broached the subject?
Giving your child to the care of another homestead is not always a delicate subject. Indeed it happens all the time when a community member dies and the duties and households shuffle around to scale down. And this is fine, because the community is the real family and households are for practicality. All you need is to have a self-sufficient homestead, one tradesperson to gift for the community and one who knows how to work the land. Thus self-sufficiency of the homestead is self-sufficiency of the community. In times of plenty, you can have family homesteads as the pyramid swells, but in times of drought, you have to make due with what you have.
Meanwhile, her neighbor’s holding onto Quinta tight. But of course Quinta isn’t old enough to choose for herself.
Galatea, Antig, Romulus, and Septimus sit in quiet around the table, the small bowl of dried fruit between them untouched. Eye contact would be far too much communication. Romulus and Septimus are good people, they don’t want to hurt anyone, and they make sure to say so several times before getting up to leave.
Galatea and Antig stay at the table as the new couple shows themselves out.
Antig, the pessimist: Even if our neighbor consents to relinquish his daughter to the community, he wouldn’t be long for this floor, and then it would just be us. We’d have to move too, and then the floor is empty. The first in a hundred years.
Antig, the optimist: Well, and then there’s Gaius.
Gaius was Antig’s twin, whose husband and homestead partner died a month ago. A metalsmith, he’s stuck with a farm he can’t work, and like their neighbor, he shows up briefly at the nundinae and leaves with seven days’ worth of food to tide him over.
Galatea has known her neighbor since they were children picking tobacco in her father’s garden. He’d never give Quinta up, never give Titus and Agrippina the satisfaction of knowing they ruined him.
The pattern of wheat-and-fallow on the floor is such that Galatea and her neighbor need not actually pass each other on their inspections of the crop. And yet here they are. Galatea makes sure to make it look like a coincidence.
Her neighbor acknowledges her. She asks after Quinta—fattening I hope? She asks after his plough—has Iulia fixed that rattling? This is the small talk of a small town: The answers publicly known, and thus need not be asked after, but to jump right into the lake of the conversation is to acknowledge the state of things. Maybe there was a time a decade ago when these sorts of questions would need to be asked and answered, but the nundinae were very intimate gatherings now, not the festivals they used to be. Her neighbor asks after a goat of hers, and then Galatea holds her nose and jumps into the lake.
Gaius’s husband died a month ago, surely you’ve heard, and what a tragedy. Antig’s had trouble sleeping, and Gaius is a wreck. He’s the first one on that floor to go, you know. Anyway, he needs someone to keep the fields, and you need someone to keep the trades. And so, what if we propose to Gaius—who, in fact, we know would be very happy to move up here so that you can stay where you are settled, of course—
(Antig, the pessimist: He’ll hug her so hard she’ll suffocate.)
Titus is looking fat these days. He’s wearing a different shirt than the one he left with months ago—this one apparently new, with solid stitching and a sturdy collar—and pants made of denim. He was at the door, and it took the Farmer by surprise. People have been dropping in and out all day to wish him a happy birthday, and so the Farmer assumed this was another neighbor from another floor. He had no indication that Titus would be showing up. Titus was obviously expecting to be received, though, and so for a moment they look at each other in confusion of the other’s motives, one of those formerly-rare, now increasingly common scenarios in which two individuals’ perceptions of reality differ to such an alarming degree that any communication at all becomes impossible.
Titus is holding the most decadent cake the Farmer has ever seen, frosted liberally with cow buttercream, and at least three layers high. The sight of it makes the Farmer nauseous, but he lets Titus set it on their table anyway.
Titus lifts Quinta out of her chair with his—now the Farmer can see—incredibly powerful arms, swings her around, kisses her all over her face. She hugs him as she can, and her arms don’t meet behind his back. He could squeeze the very life out of her, and what a difference just a few months has made! The Farmer knows better than to say so, and Quinta, for her sake, doesn’t understand enough of the situation to tell Titus how healthy he looks, or ask why he’s back, or why he left in the first place. She understands that people leave the community nowadays. She also understands that people generally don’t return. In this, her understanding of people leaving the pyramid is similar to her understanding of death: She’s aware that it exists, but she, like most of the world, doesn’t understand the whys or what nows.
The Farmer goes into the kitchen and comes back with his own community’s style of cake, frosted minimally with goat buttercream and only one layer, which Caecilia dropped off that morning. He cuts a slice of this cake and puts it on a plate for Titus, and one for himself, and then he lets it sit between Titus and Quinta while he cooks dinner. Titus complements Quinta on her hair, plays with her in the parlor, eats cake with her.
Do you eat this kind of cake at the River, Titus? There’s so much frosting!
At the River, we have every kind of cake you can imagine. You open a door, and there’s just a room filled wall to wall with cakes, because the person who lives there? All he does is make cakes. That’s it. He doesn’t farm or anything, his trade is cakemaking, and whoever wants a cake can come down and buy one anytime they want.
The Farmer runs the water to drown out the sound.
After a quiet dinner, Quinta excuses herself to go wash up for bed, and for a time Titus and the Farmer stare into their plates.
She’s thin, Titus finally says.
She’ll grow. Where is your mother?
She didn’t want to come. You can understand why. Titus takes a sip of whisky, then: You can’t do this alone.
When Quinta’s old enough, she’ll take over the duties that I can’t do myself.
Titus doesn’t say that at the River, Quinta will grow fat and healthy like he, that she’ll have everything she needs and won’t have to break her back with the plough every morning. The Farmer, in turn, doesn’t tell him the old warnings about farming in the cursed ground or about the dangers of relying on trade and money for your basic food and home. They’ve had that conversation before, and they don’t need to beat the old bounds.
The Farmer asks Titus how long he intends to stay, and Titus tells him just for tonight.
I won’t be a burden on your pantry.
Gaius tries to avoid being seen as he leaves his house and heads for the ramp. He’s been getting the old looks, the “why haven’t you moved yet” looks, the “who will work your fields” looks, and he doesn’t need that right now. The community is trying, and failing, to hide the obvious convenience of Cassius’s death.
The ramp from the forth to the fifth floor has a pleasant garden, paver stone walk, and a couple of shade-hardy canyon live oaks, but from here on the ramps become increasingly bare. When times are hard—and this drought has been the hardest and longest—pyramids seem to empty out from top to bottom, and eventually no one cares enough to maintain the ramps.
Gaius isn’t really sure why it empties out this way. It’s just the way it happens. The upper levels of the pyramid have room for fewer homesteads, and maybe it really is the community that keeps you alive. But in those hard times, leaving (whether by starvation, disease, or in this case, temptation) always seems to spread like a plague from the top floor down. Maybe especially so this time, since while the plague started with hunger, what really spreads is desperation, and a person alone is easier to tempt.
So he wasn’t surprised when Titus and Agrippina left. These days the only ones who remain are the kids who don’t have the autonomy to leave, or their old parents who know the old warnings about barter and money. Gaius doesn’t think the idea was especially tempting to Agrippina, but neither was the thought of letting her and Titus starve to death. Without a doubt she wanted to take Quinta too, and would have.
A memory: When Agrippina’s father died decades ago, Gaius’s apprenticeship passed into her care as is custom. This prompted a minor reshuffle of the community—Agrippina was already an accomplished metalsmith, and thus the community didn’t have to scale down. Nobody needed to be brought of age before their time. Nobody needed to move. Agrippina could just slot into her father’s life and the community would continue as usual. And with the community, this is how it was treated. A tragedy, to be sure, but a minor tragedy, and the health of the pyramid would endure.
But it was a tragedy for Gaius and a tragedy for Agrippina. He remembers walking into the shop the day after Agrippa’s funeral, and Agrippina was working the bellows and turning the tongs, buried in her efforts. Gaius greeted her, but he didn’t expect a response and would not have been offended by silence. But she turned, and she put a thick, calloused hand on his shoulder and squeezed tightly, and held it there for a long time.
The Farmer is weeding his garden when Gaius approaches. The Farmer knows why Gaius is there, at Antig’s and Galatea’s insistence. Gaius is not in this for the charity. He’d been with Cassius for twenty years, but it wasn’t twenty hours between the fever and the funeral, and now he’s being asked (not asked—that’s much too explicit) to move into Agrippina’s old homestead with Agrippina’s old partner. To slot into her life in the way she slotted into Agrippa’s. The way Titus should have slotted into her life and Quinta will slot into her father’s unless she’s ever given a choice in the matter.
And Gaius knows what the Farmer is feeling—that dreamlike vacancy—but Agrippina is still alive. Titus is still alive. Somewhere at the River, soaking their feet in crystal stream water and drinking cow’s milk they’d traded a piston head for. Hell, Titus appeared just this past week with cakes. But Cassius is soaking his feet nowhere, and will never bring cakes and temptations of profiteering to his door. Cassius is dead and buried outside the pyramid like every dead man, dead woman, and dead child for a thousand years. For the community, what a convenience. No scaling down required.
The Farmer looks up as Gaius approaches the garden. The hinges are falling off the old gate, and, without speaking, Gaius opens his backpack and brings out a new set. They’re pewter and intricately carved with flowers, vines, and filigree that form into the Farmer’s and Agrippina’s initials. Gaius offers the hinges. Behind her father appears Quinta’s dirty head—God! She’s so thin she hid behind him completely.
Even though there’d been a fight, Titus didn’t slam the door on his way out. He closed it extra gently, actually, because despite what felt like shouting, despite what had the emotional acoustics of an earthquake, somehow Quinta had slept through it all. When it became clear that the fight was over and that Titus would be leaving by himself, he set the small bag he’d packed for Quinta by the table and closed the door softly. Throughout the fight, Agrippina’s husband had been stone-faced and standing tall, but the minute the door latched shut he collapsed onto the chair and held his palms up to his eyes.
These travelers, these travelers, he muttered, rubbing his palms in circles, fingers wide, sniffling.
Agrippina didn’t sit down. Didn’t put a hand on his shoulder.
The traveler had arrived two days before, from the River. They invited him in and treated him to dinner as is custom, and he thanked them with a decadent pie from his pushcart. Quinta’s eyes lit up at the pie the way they’d never seen before—small, frail, sweet child—and Titus and Agrippina noticed. Her husband only noticed Titus—the way Titus hung on the traveler’s words. Stories of plenty, of people whose only job is to wake up every day and bake pies or butcher cows. Nobody needs to live strategically. A vintner and a cooper? Open a shop together. Two farmers? The more food. People who go to a central store with just some small metal discs in their pocket and bring back food for weeks even though they’ve never held the handle of a plough. The traveler was beautifully and gloriously fat—of course all the travelers were fat. And that was because, he said, nobody wanted for food. There was no drought at the River.
And then he was asked the question travelers were always asked by someone in the family: Can I go there?
And the answer: Of course you can! Anyone is welcome!
It wasn’t the first traveler Titus had heard from—Agrippina had caught him listening in at a seminar one of them gave at a nundinum two months before. Agrippina saw him because she was there too. He didn’t see her.
She sat down across from her husband, unsmiling but not cold. How was she going to say what she needed to say? That Quinta was frail, that her hair was straw—and look what the travelers all look like! The cakes they eat, the pies. There’s water there, endless water. There’s a surplus of everything they need. Her husband would say that trade is not stable, that it only takes takes takes and that it makes your survival dependent on skills you don’t have, and to give to your neighbor is less you can sell for yourself. That they’ve had droughts before and the community scales down, but even if it scales down to a single homestead it will still scale back up again as soon as the rain comes.
And in the meantime, we starve, she thought.
Felix sets his pushcart just off the path and sits down on a rock to rest, wipe the sweat out of his stinging eyes, take a bite of stale bread. Half a mile ahead is a rock outcrop where he usually stops to take lunch, but today he just can’t quite get there. This is his fifth trip to the sea in as many months, and this time, as salmon season picks up, he spent extra days catching, drying, smoking, stacking the fish, and his pushcart is heavy. It’s a five-day hike in each direction; five days down the foothills towards the coast, stopping at pyramids along the way, surrendering a beautiful, decadent cake at each, saying what he will and what he must about life at the River, and then moving on, agreeing to come back on his way up and take anyone who wants to go.
Nobody came with him this time, and nobody has the last few times. The pyramids are largely empty now, with the only holdouts being the true believers. Of them, even the ones that come with are often too weak and hungry to survive the trip, especially since the dam was built.
This time of year, he spends more time at the coast catching salmon, which he can sell at a premium to tide him over for the winter when he can’t make the hike down, but it’s a tiring process. When you hike ten days out of every month, you have to overeat to survive, especially when being well-fed is what makes the River appealing. If the hiking leans you out and you show up to a pyramid as skinny as everyone else, what’s the temptation? He learned this almost immediately.
He was at the River long before the dam, when he and the other farmers who made the trip discovered that without the ancient growlights, without the ancient sprinkler systems, so much of it was luck: Could you find a place for your homestead that got sufficient sunlight in a mountain valley, could you get enough rain, was your soil too rocky? And some did get plenty lucky. Felix scraped by with enough food to eat at first, but little to sell, and eventually his tractor broke down, his doors fell off the hinges, he got sick, and he couldn’t make enough money to pay for repairs. Fishing helped, and Felix was glad to be from a community close enough to the water that he was raised on it. And then they built the dam, and more farmers could irrigate and the land bloomed again, but that meant that prices were low, and with the river blocked the salmon no longer came up to spawn, so Felix had to start traveling. On his travels, he was fed by the communities he passed through, as was their custom, and he could spend time at the shore and bring back salmon to sell. Bringing back new community members gave him a cut of their welcome pay, and things looked back up again. The walking and the hearty food made him stronger, bigger, more appealing, and that made his way of life easier to sell.
But there are few pyramids left with anyone living in them, and the dam keeps more of the water with every year. People for a hundred miles congregate at the River, and elsewhere the world becomes overgrown, paths disappear, memories are forgotten. The dam grows higher, floods its banks, trees are cut down, forges belch, languages disintegrate. Eventually the air will thicken, homesteads will spread out, more dams, more droughts, more travelers who depend on the pyramids to sustain them, more communities like the River that depend on that growth to keep alive. Eventually there won’t be any pyramids left, and Felix will be left to fend for himself again. And when there are no pyramids left to feed on, the River will die, the dam will break, and then what?
The salmon jerky in the pushcart calls to him, but he has to look away. What he eats can’t be sold, and he needs to make enough for the winter. He hasn’t had salmon in years.
A memory: Felix soaked his feet in the cold ocean water in the fall, swinging a great big salmon on a line. He was a child, and the fish was bigger than him. Mama Octavia ran to him, grabbed his arms, helped him land the beast. She lifted him, kissed him all over, and then later, after the sun set, they went back to the pyramid. It was a nundinum, and the whole community—hundreds back then, with additions being built onto every house for the new families—was celebrating on the roof. Mama Octavia led him over to the grill, and together they fried the thing. She served it around, and Mama Valentina, Uncle Cato, his sister Sabina who lived on another floor, all hugged him. The next day, his rod broke, and Salvius, the poleturner from the first floor, brought him a new one, beautifully carved with the story of him wrestling the great fish, handle inlaid with its bones. A rod he now knows would cost him a year’s worth of work at the River.
When the pyramids finally die, and when the River will have nobody else to draw in for its own survival, Felix wants to go back to the shore, built a little cabin out of pines, and just fish. He’ll eat everything he catches, and he’ll never have to walk more than a hundred feet from his door to the sand. But when his belly is full and there’s still a fifty pound salmon blackening on the grill, Mama Octavia and Mama Valentina and Sabina and Uncle Cato won’t be around to help him finish it. When his rod breaks, he won’t have Salvius to make him a new one.
He needs to spend more time at the nundinae, he knows. He’s felt guilty these past months for not doing.
The roof is a small square about half an acre across, and what remains of the entire community is there. Pax is setting up a keg of their beer while some folks from the top floor chatter around a table with cards between them. Romulus and Septimus are still wearing the green overcoats from their wedding last nundinum, which the Farmer knew about but didn’t attend. These used to be such festivals, with a hundred or more people from the community out under the night sky gifting and drinking and eating. Someone would play music. Another would bring the cakes they baked. There would be candles and a bonfire, plays, poetry. Light and smoke would drift up from every pyramid out to the horizon. Increasingly, the nundinae just make the Farmer aware of how few of his neighbors are left. Maybe thirty? Maybe less. There is no music anymore, and the beer is thin.
Septimus gives the Farmer a look from across the party, then gives Quinta a look. A warm look, but a serious look, and the Farmer knows what it means. And when would he let them raise Quinta? When her arms and legs grow so thin as to be indistinct lines tracing through the thick air? When she sleeps in until the afternoon because the weight of the thick air exhausts her from day to day? When, out of love, the Farmer takes on more and more and more of the farm work until he, too, is exhausted from day to day. When he isn’t there to wake her up in the morning, to watch her small chest inflate and deflate with the thick air? And were Quinta old enough, what would she choose?
Pax is usually the host of the nundinae; the Farmer brings them the cake Titus brought, and said, “I received this from Titus, for my birthday.” Pax gives him a vague look, and says, “Ah, yes.” They take the cake from the Farmer’s hands and turn around, set it next to three other identical cakes.
Over Pax’s shoulder, the Farmer sees Gaius holding a beer and talking with someone whose back is turned, but he recognizes her immediately, even though she looks much healthier than before. Beside him, Quinta’s sunken eyes light up. She runs.
Steven Genise is an author based in Seattle. His fiction has appeared in, Gone Lawn, Menacing Hedge, Flash Flood, and many others, and he was shortlisted for Epiphany’s 2016 Best Under 30 Award. He is also the former fiction editor for Cascadia Magazine, and has interned for McSweeney’s, The Believer, and Counterpoint Press. His deskmate is a pug named Danny DeVito, who is not a very good intern, but considering he lacks thumbs and can’t understand language, still tries his best.