The Beginning of an End
by Max Johansson-Pugh
After returning the pamphlet to where it had lain, Johan shouldered on his jacket, slumped down onto the porch and pulled on his leather shoes – tying the final knot, muddied water wrung out onto the tongue. “What does it mean by ‘verdant’?” He wondered, thinking on the pamphlet.
Johan looked out onto his land, where his red, rotten wheat stood, spoiled by the year’s heavy rains. The low light picked up this red hue and painted the rest of the homestead a similarly dismal colour. He hated this shade of red.
Johan grabbed his digging pole and stepped off the porch. In all directions mounds of stone stuck out of the land; the soil, too, was riddled with stones. Walking through the spoiled wheat, onto the rest of his acreage, he thrust the pole into the ground with each third or fourth step. The sound of iron striking rock rung out – four steps later, ringing out again. The land was poor for growing crops. It seemed as if every season Johan tilled the land more rocks would avail themselves – this hard truth in constant reminder by the harsh din of iron meeting stone.
His wife’s voice filled his mind: “You know we can’t, Johan. We just cannot afford another one, we can’t risk it.”
Johan turned, facing the sun. In the pale light the bags beneath Johan’s eyes could be seen, each bag indicative of mortgage repayments he’d been late paying. He continued lifting and striking, walking several paces, lifting and striking, steam now rising off his shoulders like cold water on hot stone. “Verdant fields,” he said, “ – an ocean passage away.”
Johan pulled up the heavy pole and walked a few paces, slower than he had initially. He thrust the pole into the dirt and it abruptly stopped. He had struck a large immovable rock; a reverberating shock jolted through his arm and a piercing crack rung in his ears – the pole fell heavily to the ground.
“Does God have no mercy for us who till stone country!” He squatted, holding his hand which throbbed with a smarting pain, waiting for composure. It took a while before he continued.
After the ringing receded, his father’s voice entered his mind: “Son, we must have faith that God will raise crops as they once were, and even greater. We must believe.”
“Believe! If belief is all it takes, we should have crops from the door to the horizon. Faith,”– this word he remembered with disdain – “faith is not the issue here.”
His father had picked up their strewn copy of A Prayer for the Fruit of the Earth and placed it back on the table. “Do not lose sight son, the Lord is almighty, we shall harvest and sow and till as He pleases. No man, however cocksure he may be, will challenge that.”
The wind changed direction and the musty smell of the farm passed over Johan. Again, he raised the pole and struck the ground. “Maybe it means fruitful,” the motion of lifting and striking, straining his thoughts, as it would were he speaking aloud. He walked past the byre, considered selling his remaining cattle and, as he always did, reserved the decision until tomorrow.
Johan turned around, back toward the homestead, for the final round of striking.
Parallel to his line were his potato crops. Rot had blighted the patch – every second potato had to be tossed – it was hardly good enough for animal fodder. Johan bent down to pick out a rancid stalk; the black stalk was slimy to the touch, lingering on his fingers. He returned his shocked, sticky hand to the digging pole and finished the round. “Acres of verdant fields, just an ocean passage away.”
Johan walked back onto the porch, relieving himself of his digging pole and draggled shoes. Beyond the acreage he turned his back on, knolls of tussock reached for the heavens and low, mossy swamp lands brought them down; swathes of sandy soil, strewn with juniper and pine root, stretched across the land and spruce woods and maples trees dotted it – the rest was cursed with stone. Johan took off his jacket and didn’t look back, his day was done.
Inside, the fireplace sent billows of smoke up the chimney – embers crackled on the hearth. Kids’ laughter could be heard from the other room.
In front of him lay the worn pamphlet underneath the prayer book; his wife stood by the table, her hand pulling away furtively from the literature, her winsome face smiling at him. Johan kissed her full, childlike cheeks and they held one another. His wife could not help noticing Johan’s strong body and the effect it had on her.
Johan’s eyes were fixed, burning a hole into the worn pamphlet that lay on the table, topped in bold by the name of a distant land.
Max was born in London and raised in New Zealand. He gained an English scholarship out of school, attended the University of Auckland, and has since worked many jobs, from construction and bar tending to tennis coaching and running a landscaping business. He now travels in a bohemian fashion, writing, reading, gathering experience and stretching each dollar until he must find work to fill up the coffers. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Published in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Birmingham Arts Journal, Scars’ CC&R Magazine, The Courtship of the Winds, Hypophora Magazine, Backchannels Journal, Canyon Voices Literary Magazine, Free Lit Magazine, Brasilia Review, The Contemporary Literary Review India and Pif Magazine.