The Scent of Corn
by Loren Hall
Cornfields smell like honey. They’re even sweeter when they’re ripe. A touch of floral, wet earth. Can’t you taste it on your tongue?
These were my father’s words to me the first time we drove down this street, yelling them over the rush of wind coming through the rolled-down windows. He reminded me; he has the nose. He always smells it first, and best.
The cornfield runs along the main road. It’s so long that I was surprised to still find it next to us as we finally turned onto my new street.
The house is farther in from the main road than I thought it would be. I’ll have to walk this in the night, in the dark.
I said this to my father as he parked the car. That I’m nervous. He didn’t seem to hear me. He went to the door, assuming I’d follow.
The landlady is kind and unassuming. She showed us to the room, and then apologized for the recent change in the neighborhood. There was a bus stop just outside her house, but it’s been taken away. She’s already told me this, but she wants to say sorry again.
She leaves. I could tell my father was itching to go home.
I began to sob. It startled him just as much as it did me. He didn’t ask me to explain because he wouldn’t have cared to hear it. He hugged me for a moment longer than he usually would and left.
My father hasn’t visited since.
I’ve cried countless times since then, three months ago now. This place makes me feel sick. I am scared of change and the dark. The shadows of a new, unfamiliar house. The black of the street I have to walk at night, and the cornfield I have to pass. The darkness that exists in fields is different from regular night. It is denser, thicker than the black your eyes can adjust to. Sounds come from it you can never account for.
I smell the cornfield before I see it. I watch it blur in the window as it moves alongside me. We’re close.
I am on the bus I take home every day, driving that same route I had with my father. It’s the end of the semester, and I can no longer make it home before dark falls. In the early days I used the time for reading, but now I use it to calm my fears of the walk to come. When that doesn’t work, I pick at my cuticles and sit in the anxiety.
The bus rumbles, coming to a stop. I step off.
The stalks are inches from my feet. I distance myself from them immediately, walking to the opposite side of the road. I can’t stand to be near them. I won’t even turn my eye to the field. No matter the sounds that always rise from it, I will not look.
The houses here are unbearably plain and exhaustingly repetitive, even on the main road. I pass them quickly. Their uniformity always scares me for my own future, that I might end up in one. A house you wouldn’t slow down for. A life of the same disinterest.
At the corner of my street is the farmhouse, the only house in this neighborhood I like, and the one that my father said has ‘character’. It is old but well kept. I sometimes wish I lived there, but then I remember the cornfield, and how it would look through my windows at night.
The farmhouse has a flood light, perched high on a tree in its backyard, so bright it mimics a full moon. It’s become my lighthouse; it shines on the black road.
I turn the corner. Something is wrong.
The light is off.
My heartbeat rings in my ears, and I am frozen in the middle of the street. It is dark until about halfway down, where the first streetlamp is. I could just walk forward, let my feet take me. I could go ahead, eyes closed, and keep them shut until I see the glow of light behind my lids.
A yelp comes from the cornfield behind me. It sounds too human to be an animal. My pulse flutters. I do not turn towards it. I wait for another, the silence reverberating. It does not come.
I can’t move. I’m too scared of the dark ahead, the field behind. I remember to breathe. The sound of it startles me.
The relief of a solution washes over me. There is another way home: one street over. I walked it one morning, early on into my moving here. There were more houses, it stands to reason there’d be more streetlamps. I admonish myself for never thinking of it before.
The stalks are swaying, creating a chorus as they softly bump each other. I can see the movement in the corner of my eye. I’ll be away from them soon enough.
I walk the block, eyes down, until I reach the next road over.
This street is just as dark as mine, with a streetlight in the same place. It flickers, or my eyes flutter closed too fast. I can’t tell. Disappointment washes over me, my stomach feels sick. I am frozen again.
I can go over one more street. Maybe it wasn’t this one at all, but the next? These streets all tend to lead into each other, and I don’t mind the walk, if I have light. I make the move, quickly.
There is no light from the next road; every lamp is off. A sharp snap comes from it, somewhere ahead in the blackness. Like a heavy boot on a fallen branch.
I’m going back. I know my road - I’d rather its familiar bends. And at least the lamps are on. The stalks pick up their rustling. The collective sound of them reminds me of cicadas. Their scent is sweet tonight, and sharp.
I glance up and make out the lines of the farmhouse. A farmhouse. A different one.
But it looks just the same, from what I can see in the dark. I try to remember a distinguishing feature, but the image in my mind looks too much like the house in front of me now.
It occurs to me that I may have never moved. Maybe I have been standing here, at the end of my road, imagining the act of moving so intently that I’ve tricked my brain into believing I’ve done so.
Or maybe I went left last time instead of right and turned myself around in the dark.
The next road, then. I ignore the sounds coming from the cornstalks; the wind is picking up; I can see their leaves animating wildly.
I reach the first road — no, the second, and another sound rings out. A caw, or a shriek. I can’t tell where it’s coming from. To my right is a farmhouse and a street behind it devoid of any light.
I look both ways, down the main road. In the deep dusk, both sides mirror each other. A farmhouse on the corner. I realize I am shaking. I search my head for any memory of this symmetry, begging for an explanation.
I hear the clatter of the cornfield, the sound of the blood pounding in my ears nearly drowning them out. I must have gone right, not left. This is the third street then. No, the fourth.
Four streets back up. Or three more now?
The pitch of the cornstalks is getting higher. Two roads now. I look down the barrel of this street, for the flickering streetlamp.
It is out. The same as the street before.
I suck in a breath and taste the honey. The scent is stronger than it’s even been.
I am panting. Have I been running? I touch my forehead, my sweat cold against my warm skin. There is bile rising up. It meets with the honey on my tongue, mixing in the back of my throat.
One more road. I am sprinting.
The stalks are clashing hard, but the wind has died down.
This is my street. It must be. I look up.
The streetlamp is on, but dim. I almost smile. I slow to a walk and enter the darkness, forgetting my fear and focusing on the light ahead.
There is something there, waiting just beyond the streetlamps glow. It blends into the rest of the darkness, but I can make out a faint figure.
And then, with a pop, the light goes out.
I scream, but I can’t hear myself. The stalks are cacophonous. They feel so close, as though the road that separated us is gone, and they’re in my ear. I can no longer tell if they are coming from in front of me, or behind.
A different darkness takes over the street ahead, all the way down. It is eating the street, in large swallows. It pauses for a moment before it takes more, moving in sheets like rain. I would think it was a trick of the night, my brain creating patterns that don’t exist.
But there is a sound with it. A buzzing. Or is it coming from behind?
It’s halfway down the street.
A sudden movement behind me, a rush of air, startles me. The sound that comes out of my throat isn’t one I’ve ever made before.
I look at it. Into it. I’ve been tricked. The cornfield got my attention. The stalks are banging aggressively, moving alternatively from each other, their leaves thrashing.
They are thrilled.
Another sound, the buzzing. I swing back around, the blackness cresting, the wave about to break upon me.
My feet start to bring me backwards. The walk home isn’t far. But it’s too late.
They’re calling me now.
I turn, facing them again. There is a warmth that washes over me. The blackness is so complete I cannot see how close I am, but their excitement is growing. Their movement is feral, their actions disjointed. The strength of their uproar is shaking me. The noise is of an army, preparing. Of a swarm, ready to eat.
I hear something behind me, a new sound, and I turn with a gasp. I remember myself, for a moment, and my fear. My father. But it is too late.
I am in the first row of stalks. The leaves are at my ears. Their blurred shapes fall in front of my eyes, too close for me to focus.
I feel it first on my shoulder, so slight through the knit of my coat. I fight the urge to lean my cheek into it, to know it against my skin. Then it is around my wrist, my hip, my ankle, my thigh. I see the sliver of green as it snakes down from my scalp. I take in one last breath before the leaf covers my mouth. I release it just before it covers my nose. I try to push forward, out, but it is everywhere.
Then I feel it, burying me up to my ankles. The soil, damp and cold.
I am collapsing inward. It is crushing me, compacting me. My insides don’t feel right. They contract until I am upright and entirely contained. I am stretching. My arms and legs hang from me, gently drooping. I have more of them now than I did moments ago. The roots from my feet take hold, snaking into the ground. I am growing.
I can no longer see. But the world is just as black as it was before. My hearing has not left me though, and the cries are deafening now.
I feel myself move into all of those beside me.
We are screaming.
Loren Hall plans on living in a spooky Victorian mansion, but for now you can find her in a dimly lit NYC apartment. She loves writing, and is usually too busy starting new stories to finish any. She hopes you enjoy her exception.
Fiction by Loren Hall:
"The Scent of Corn" October 2020