Bicycle's Ballast


Chapter 1 - Sunday: The Contracts


The sunlight stopped at the nocturnal lake. They called it the nocturnal lake because it flowed feverishly across the landscape, avoiding the sun. It would circle round and round, keeping in the dark patches and moving with the night, and the corn field moved with it.

In the corn field, it was sometimes night and sometimes dawn. Jasper's family hadn't always lived in the corn field, so Jasper knew first-hand that it was dawn light they were getting, not proper day light. There were some kids in the cornfield that had been born there, and they thought this was as bright as the sky could get. Jasper's mother worried about their eyes. What would happen if they stepped into proper sunlight for the first time? She also worried about Jasper's eyes, should they move again. Jasper did miss the sun a little bit. But he didn't mind the light they got. It was a pleasant sort of light, with the sky turning purplish and red before it went dark blue again and back to black.

The corn grew in white. It was not very sweet, but it was filling. Jasper did not mind the lack of sweetness either. The pitfalls of living in the cornfield were compensated for by the gods.

These were Jasper's tasks every day: watch the corn; feed the hens; search for truffles; wash the dishes; prepare the tribute for the gods.

This was how the tribute was prepared: an egg was cracked in half. The yolk was allowed to spill out to the ground, where it left a mess but was usually licked up by one of the dogs before long. The larger half of the egg shell was rinsed with water; the smaller half was broken up into little bits and given to the hens, who loved eating rocks and snail shells and bits of discarded egg shells for the calcium. The rinsed half of the egg shell was halfway filled with a flower paste his mother made, out of rose petals ground up in a bowl and left to ferment. She had to go, along with the other heads of families, to the edge of the gods' domain to pick the roses that grew where the sunlight was brightest. It was dangerous work, because the land of the ungods began right where the land of the gods ended. They gathered roses in groups for safety.

The other half of the egg shell was filled with a starchy glaze made from the corn, and when it was almost set and of a gelatinous quality, Jasper would sift corn flour over it, place several seeds on top, wrap the offering in a corn husk, and toss it as far as he could into the depths of the really tall part of the corn fields.

Jasper's family and the rest of the families only took corn from the short part of the corn fields and, when the short corn stalks were almost all empty of corn, they would make selections from the middle part of the corn fields. When the middle corn fields were empty, people ate sparingly and waited for the small corn stalks to grow back. No one touched the tall part of the corn fields, which were the wildest and most untamed of the corn. That was where the gods lived. The gods took care of the corn fields for them, and in exchange, they received the daily offering and the promise of privacy.

Jasper and the other children liked to climb up on Frances Marlboro's roof, because it was the tallest roof in the village and offered the best view of the tallest corn fields. No one doubted the existence of the gods. They didn't climb to look for the gods. Jasper and the other children liked to climb so that they could stare, fascinated, at the spikes standing at odd ends among the tallest of the corn. There was one spike for each person who had wandered into the tall part of the corn fields. Each spike had a polished skull perched on its top. When the dawn came, the skulls gleamed in the light, rosy hues mixed with a deep purple. No one knew what had happened to the rest of the bodies.

So when the cyclist rolled into town, Jasper and Eric and Sarah and Barry and Maude were on the roof, and they were the first to know he had arrived.

Maude spotted him before the others. They were trying to catch a glimpse of movement from the cornfields, but Maude, whose eyes got tired easily, had been looking out towards the lake.

"Hey," she shouted, pushing at her hair with her hand to keep the wind from blowing it into her mouth, "he's early!"

"Who's early?" said Jasper, not looking. He thought he had just seen a corn stalk twitch, and he stared hard at the spot.

"The cyclist, what's-his-name, you know, that guy who Eric borrowed the bird manual from—"

"Shit!" yelled Eric and scrambled down from the roof, all thoughts of gods and corn forgotten.

"What's your rush?" called Jasper, still staring at the corn.

"My trap! Shit-shit-shit, he wasn't supposed to be back this early… I don't think I'll be able to get it set up in time. Shit-shit-shit-shit—"

Sarah flashed a grin at Eric. "Want us to distract him for you?"

"Yes, please!" Eric was already racing for his father's cottage, but he turned around for a second to flash Sarah a grateful look. Sarah grinned back.

Once Eric was safely out of hearing-distance, Jasper grumbled at Sarah, "Just because some of us happen to have crushes on certain somebodies…"

Sarah blushed. "Come on, Jasper. Don't be like that. You've been looking forward to this, too. He does need time to set up the trap. You don't want the whole thing to fall through just because we didn't buy him enough time, do you?"

Jasper sighed and looked away from the corn. He pulled on his sweater and began climbing down from the roof. "It's odd that Arcady's come here so early. I've been marking the days on my calendar. He usually doesn't stop by for at least another two months."

Barry, who still sitting on the roof, groaned. "You're looking at it the wrong way. He usually doesn't escape for at least another two months. What's odd is that he managed to get out so fast. Or maybe they let him go."

Jasper blinked. "You don't really believe his stories, do you?"

Barry rolled his eyes and carefully began edging towards the edge of the roof. He was the heaviest of them all and was nervous about the roof's capability of supporting his weight. "Look, Jasp. You're not an early riser. I am an early riser, and so is Arcady. So, besides seeing the things he only does in the morning, I've also seen him leave and go through the ungods' field. And if you saw him do it, you'd believe him, too."

Jasper scoffed. "The ungods don't bother ungodly people. Everyone knows that."

Barry shook his head, ponderously slow. "Well, I think maybe you're looking at it the wrong way again. And, I think, well, I think maybe Arcady…" He sighed and made a heavy leap for the ground. Jasper could feel the impact through the soles of his feet.

"What do you think?"

"I think," interrupted Maude tartly, "that we're wasting time. The cyclist is almost here."

"What do you think, Barry?" repeated Jasper, but Barry rolled his shoulders in a shrug, disposing of Jasper's question like a horse flicking a fly, and broke into a jog catch up with Sarah's brisk walk towards the lake.

Maude cracked her knuckles and grinned at Jasper. "Ready to be distracting?"

Jasper winced at the sound of joints popping against each other. "I really wish you didn't do that."

Maude popped her thumb at him in retort and set off after the others. Brian shook his head and stared at the cornfield. From his current perspective, he could barely see the tops of the tallest part of the corn field. The middle and the short parts took up all the view.

"How am I looking at it the wrong way?" murmured Jasper to the corn. When it didn't answer, he jammed his hands into his pocket, kicked at a rock that was lying in his way, and began the stroll to the lake.