The Real Stuff

by Tara Campbell

I was headin’ out to feed the cows when I heard a zinnia ask, “You got a minute?”

I shoulda known.  When a flower asks you if you got a minute, it’s gonna take more’n a minute. But I didn’t think nothin’ of it at the time.  I looked down and all I saw was a few a my wife’s pink zinnias straggling up from a dusty patch a dirt.  Their heads were all turned in my direction, so I didn’t know at first which one had spoke to me.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

The one in the middle kinda nodded and said, “You got a cup a water or somethin’?  We’re pretty thirsty over here.”

I looked around to see who else that zinnia mighta been talkin’ to, but I don’t know why I did that.  It was just me and my bony ol’ cows out there.  Wasn’t that fulla people around here before the war, and now … I guess it’s just as well, cause we couldn’t feed that many folks now anyhow.  Can’t hardly even feed that many cows.  Not much grass since the fallout.  Don’t get me wrong, we were far enough away from the bombs so that things ain’t glowin’ around here.  Still, some things talk now that didn’t useta, like some of the plants and birds.  And then some things don’t really talk anymore that did useta, like Lizzie and Sarah, my wife and daughter.

But anyhow, these here flowers were askin’ for some water.  The weather changed, see?  Don’t rain much anymore, so we pipe most of our water in.  So I told ‘em, “Sorry folks, but I don’t really got a lotta water to spare.”  And they said, “It’s all right, Farmer, we don’t need the good stuff.  Any ol’ water’ll do.”

They meant the well water, a’course.  Accordin’ to the tests, it ain’t ready for us to drink yet.  Shame really, looks so pretty and cool, but we can’t touch it.  We don’t use it for the cows, mind you, so our milk is still good.  And they don’t get that much grass, like I said, mostly feed from up North; so we’re still within legal radiation limits for milk.

So these zinnias … Well, I started to feel a little sorry for ’em, just barely ekin’ out a life in that dusty ol’ patch a dirt.  We ain’t suppose to go near the well, really; I got it fenced off.  But I thought, what the hell, ain’t nobody else to talk to out here, so I put on my gloves and went ahead and got ‘em a bucket-full a water.

And Lord have mercy, what a joyful noise they made.  They were so happy they sang.  It was this high-pitch, tinklin’ music, like Tinkerbell, you know?  Like a little ol’ fairy opera with tiny little flutes or somethin’.  Their little stalks started swayin’ back and forth with the music.  And the color—I coulda swore that washed out pink color was gettin’ darker and richer by the minute.  I can’t describe it near as nice as it was.  I could hear my poor cows havin’ a fit waitin’ for me, but I didn’t wanna leave.  I musta stood there a good half hour listenin’ to ‘em and watchin’ ‘em sway and get pinker and pinker.  It sure was beautiful.  By the time I got to the barn, I almost thought the cows were lookin’ at me mean.  Since the fallout, you never know what’s gonna start eyein’ you back like it knows somethin’.

Anyway, those zinnias perked up right nice with that water.  Every time I went by ‘em they waved and said “Thank you, Farmer!”  That little corner started smellin’ real nice.  Not real strong and flowery, but still, somethin’ green and growin’ gives off a nice, fresh-like smell, don’t it?  Reminded me of when Lizzie kept all her flowers—zinnias for the butterflies, she would say, hollyhocks for the honeybees, marigolds for the ladybugs.  Mostly all gone now, flowers and critters both.

But these little zinnias, these little scrappers survived somehow, all those years.  They were all that was left.  I don’t know what finally made ‘em speak.  I guess they just got tired a waitin’ for Lizzie to come water ‘em again, so they started askin’ me.  It wasn’t a big chore, and they were awful polite about it.  They’d just say, “Hey, Farmer, we could use a drop when you get a chance.”  Real nice-like, not bossy or nothin’.  So I started goin’ to the well ‘bout once a week or so, give ‘em a drink, dust ‘em off a little.  Get that little breath a somethin’ good growin’, you know?

Got to so I could tell when they needed it.  They didn’t even have to ask.  If I noticed some of the leaves were a little droopy-like, I’d just put on my gloves and head on out to the well.

Sometimes we’d have a little conversation, about the weather, how the cows were doin’—though them zinnias didn’t really want them cows to get so close, if you know what I mean.  I’d tell ‘em how things useta be, before the war.  Sometimes Lizzie and Sarah would come out to take a look at ‘em.  I think it pained my wife a little, seein’ ‘em.  Kinda reminded her of everything she lost, so she didn’t come out a whole lot.  And Sarah didn’t like the idea of me dippin’ into that ol’ well, but I told her I was bein’ careful.

But I guess I shoulda known those gloves weren’t worth a lick against the water.  Against the radiation.  I was real careful not to splash any on me, but the gloves—and my hands … In the back a my mind I knew, knew to get them gloves off quick and leave ‘em outside, but I guess I wasn’t quick enough.

Now seems half the things I touch start talkin’.  Near as I can figure, it’s not things like my feed bucket or a book or a spoon that start gabbin’; it’s livin’ things like grass and plants and animals that start to talk.  I swat a fly, I have to hear it choke out its last will and testament.  Was tryin’ to breed a new strain a corn, but it sasses you back so bad now, I won’t be able to sell it to nobody.  Have to use a knife and fork to eat a apple—you try eatin’ somethin’ that’s pleadin’ for its life.

Even my cows are talkin’ now, tellin’ me when they’re ready to be milked, if one of ‘em has a hoofache, who stole whose allotment a feed.  Wishin’ they had more variety in the trough.  Well, that bellyachin’ stopped when I told ‘em what used to show up in cow feed before the war.

Turns out ain’t hardly nothin’ worth listenin’ to ‘cept the zinnias.  I can mostly tune all the other talk out, but the gals have a harder time of it.  This much noise, seems Lizzie and Sarah got even less to say now than before.  But I suppose I didn’t think on it that much, ‘cause the zinnias were just gettin’ more and more interestin’ to listen to.  Visitin’ with ‘em got to be a reg’lar part a my day, kinda like my reward after gettin’ my chores done.

Anyhow, after a while I noticed my hands were itchin’ and burnin’ a little.  I tried Epsom salts and all kindsa lotions, but even the bag balm didn’t help.  So I finally went to the doctor.  She checked me out, didn’t like what she saw.  Turns out, ain’t just my hands by now.  She’ll try as best she can, she said, but she don’t think there’s much can be done.  I could keep goin’ in for treatments or just go home and enjoy my land.  Least that much is up to me.

So I keep on tendin’ to the cows and waterin’ the zinnias.  Had been thinkin’ about gettin’ some pigs, but that’s Lizzie’s say-so now.  She and Sarah, they act like they’re mad at the flowers, don’t come out to visit ‘em anymore.  ‘Course really they’re mad at me.  They don’t understand why I did it, why I started lookin’ after ‘em, or why I still do it.  I wish Lizzie and Sarah would just come out and give ‘em another chance.  Watch ‘em grow, listen to their beautiful music.

They’re all connected, you know, the flowers.  They all talk.  You just need to get past the small talk and find out how deep their roots go, what they’re hearin’ from the dirt, how other plants around the county are doin’.  These here zinnias know what the rains are like over the pass and how much sun they’re gettin’ up north.  They know how much poison is still left in the ground, what clean air useta smell like—and how much longer we’re all gonna have to wait to smell it again.  Tendin’ to these flowers is the only way to know what’s really goin’ on in the world.

I told the zinnias I might not be around to water ‘em forever.  They wanted to know why, but…  Well, I didn’t say nothin’.  It would just kill ‘em, and there ain’t no need for everything to go to waste.  But sooner or later someone else is gonna have to start lookin’ after ‘em.  I gotta find someone for ‘em soon; someone who wants to hear the good stuff, the real stuff, even if it don’t last forever.

Notes…

Tara Campbell [www.taracampbell.com] is a Washington, D.C.-based writer of crossover sci-fi. With a BA in English and an MA in German Language and Literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power.

Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Tara has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. Her work has appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books, Potomac Review Blog, Hogglepot Journal, Lorelei Signal, Punchnel’s, GlassFire Magazine, the WiFiles, Silverthought Online, Toasted Cake Podcast, Litro Magazine and Luna Station Quarterly.

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