Nur-Viktoria Ellen Frings
Growing Canon Fodder
Of course, there is no way of telling whether I’m lying or not. I am notoriously unreliable, and since the incident on the hill I’m a bit of a vegetable myself. Besides, I have told the story so often and from so many different angles that any random version of those memorable events we’d all rather forget seems true enough, any ending you prefer as plausible as an interactive TV show, any character as real as you and I, and could indeed be a figment of my imagination. Even the dog.
Oh, no! Not the dog! Leave the poor dog out of it! What has the dog ever done to you? Nothing, but I can’t promise I’ll omit the canine’s part in this.
The day D.N. told me about his concession from the MOD, waving what I assumed was the official document like an ecstatic football fan a crumpled flag, all that came to my mind was what kind of safety measures they stipulated, visualizing a new species of protective overalls. Or at least some prophylactic tablets, or jabs.
“Hey, man!” he exclaimed as if I had lost a screw or two. “It’s not radioactive, man, it’s not contagious – it’s genetic! No nukes! It’s in the genes!” he beamed, proud of the new motto: “Genes, they are, like everywhere, except you can’t really see them.”
“So is radioactivity, or most germs I ever heard of.” I remained totally unconvinced of the proven safety of his proposed plantation, but D.N. passed over my objection which clearly showed I was stuck in the previous century: “Genes, man, they’re natural. They’re like, the computer program of every cell. Except, of course, they’re not made of silicon chips, they’re, well, amino acids. Enzymes and stuff. And in the labs they take the genes from one plant, add a few clever genes from a different plant, you know, basically reprogram the system and create a super new plant. Like, high performance. No side-effects, no radioactive waste, no messing about. No trial-and-error. It’s all biological, really!”
It is always disconcerting to see an ageing hippie get all hot and flustered over other people’s pig ignorance, so I took his word for it and asked instead: “So, what has the Ministry of Defence to do with your turnip crops, then?”
To date, I had not been aware of the strategic application of my favourite root-vegetables, which somehow didn’t strike me as the most obvious choice of combat weapon, even if you hurled them with great force at your enemy – unless I guess you were aiming for sparrows…
I am quite partial of a good turnip stew, not to mention that turnips simply are a must in any proper Cornish pasty, but they are not everybody’s veg of choice either: “I didn’t think turnips, natural or not, were all that popular in army barracks. Surely, they cook more interesting fare to keep up the troops’ morale,” I mused, but D.N. interrupted impatiently:
“Technically they are swedes,” he frowned, “it’s just down here you insist on calling them turnips…” – “Well, that’s disputable,” I shrugged off his little Emmet dig at West Country linguistic preferences, and probed instead:
“What I really want to know is what extra special features are these turnips going to get then? Do they come pre-cooked, or in different colours? Did they cross them with anything interesting? Like beetroot? Or spinach?” I felt a bout of horticultural creativity coming on, but D.N. wasn’t playing along.
“Man! You must realize that’s all top secret!” With a stern face he proceeded like the schoolmaster he had been before discovering the joys of organic farming: “You don’t seriously expect me to divulge classified information like that! It be treason.”
In other words, he didn’t know.
“Good job then your land isn’t in Penwith,” I reminded him: “The council there just declared the whole district a GM-free zone.”
“Ah, that’s why I’ve been looking for support from high up,” D.N. pulled a conspiratorial face with his eyes squinting upwards to the sky, where I assumed the Defence Secretary was residing. “Seeing the fields earmarked for this great scientific venture are on Brow Hill, on the border with Penwith. They’d be protesting and all, and probably get away with it. But with the Big Guns behind me, they won’t have a leg to stand on, not when it involves a matter of National Security!”
I was impressed by his painless conversion from Pacifist to fervent supporter of military rule. Two years of growing market produce had obviously shown him the light.
“I find all this genetic interfering totally scary,” Hayley, our florist, trembled visibly at the notion of her bridal bouquets being tampered with, while she arranged some blue nasturtiums in a vase. “We just don’t know enough about it.”
“That’s just it,” D.N. agreed. “We simply don’t know enough about it.” It occurred to us that he was actually contradicting Hayley, but he wouldn’t elaborate on his statement.
Instead, Hayley’s partner Mel, a convicted hacker, was all in favour of the technology in question: “There is so much scope there!” he enthused, obviously au fait with the subject. “Bye-bye bugs! These crops are totally virus-resistant! No more weeds, no more scrawny little cabbages or leeks or what have you that shrivel at the first sign of bad weather. Once you cracked the code, you modify the system… it’s so much faster than letting nature run its course eventually. It’s like skipping a few generations in the evolution.”
“I thought it was about making things taste better,” Hayley interrupted. “Or smell better, or have a different colour. I don’t know why though. Nature is perfect just as it is!” she lamented. “Why do humans have to mess around with everything?”
“That’s a man-thing, sweetie!” her feminist brother declared by way of explanation. “They’re control freaks, these scientists, nothing else. I won’t eat tofu anymore since you can’t tell if it’s made from mutant soya beans. I mean I don’t want to grow webbed feet or scales on my back, just because they crossed a soya plant with a fish or a frog to make it rain resistant, do I?”
I didn’t like to say that the mutations he mentioned might render him more interesting to look at, but it was worth pointing out that tofu based on piscatorial genetic material could not strictly be called vegetarian food either.
“Exactly!” Hayley exclaimed. “It’s like that tomato, which had something or other from a sheep. I forget. But anyway, it put me right off tomatoes!”
“Why? Did they suddenly make sheep’s eyes at you?” the publican joked. “Oh, I can see it! Them tomatoes opening their little red mouth and going ‘Baa! baa! Don’t eat us! We’re only little! Baa! baa!’”
As usual, he laughed loudest at his silly joke, but was outdone in bad taste by Mel who pointed to Hayley’s the near-empty glass on the bar: “Why do you think they call this a Bloody Mary? It’s the sheep’s blood in the tomatoes that gives it the lovely colour!” And the poor woman was promptly sick on the carpet.
All through our banter, D.N. kept quiet and neither commented nor tried to educate us about the subject we suspected he had studied in depth. There could be no doubt about it: He knew more than he was letting on.
The seed parcels were delivered in the dead of night, just as you would expect from an undercover operation, although the convoy of armoured vehicles escorted by an armada of blue-light flashing police cars did draw quite a bit of attention in our otherwise quiet village. I was more fascinated by the sight of D.N. in battle fatigues, newly acquired at the local surplus store, standing to attention when a person emerged from one of the army vehicles and handed him a metal briefcase, then got back into the van, and within seconds the whole spook was over. God knows what else D.N. had been expecting, because he was lingering on the threshold to his cottage as if in disbelief at the size of the delivery. I wondered how much he actually had to pay for the seeds, and how much had been subsidized by a bio-engineering company, in which one of the cabinet ministers had a stake, or whether indeed the project wasn’t funded by those bureaucrats in Brussels in a devious ploy to impose EU regulations to level out all regional differences in taste, texture or size of our basic, indigenous foods.
We all went back to bed and decided that the whole spectacle was as ridiculous as a scene from a very bad sci-fi movie. We’d seen scarier things spilling out of the local pub after a night of Snakebite-drinking competition. And D.N.’s turnips-accused-of-being-swedes were assigned to oblivion.
Until the green-grocer dropped the bombshell: “They’re growing in circles!” – “Yeah, pull the other one!” – “That’s wheat or some other cereal, that! Anyway, it’s old news, Mark, you need to go out more. Crop circles went out of fashion with the nineteen-nineties!” – “And they explained them, too,” the florist piped in. “On the telly,” she added, but didn’t let on what explanation had been offered at the time.
“I saw them myself!” Mark insisted. “I kid you not! D.N. took me up to his fields to show me how well them turnips are coming on – you know how he likes to show off what he learned from all them books he always reads – and there they were – all growing in neat, perfectly round circles. Hundreds of them. Like drawn with a compass. All over Brow Hill…” –“It’s probably the ley-lines,” Hayley suggested, but we all failed to see the geometrical connection.
“It’s the wrong time of year for planting turnips,” one of the farmers commented. “They go all hollow, like a Swiss cheese. And I told him so, but would he listen…?” – “Well, there you are, then,” the green-grocer looked around triumphantly, as if his claim had just been confirmed. “I told you they was special turnips.”
“Oh, come on, Mark,” the landlord of the Unicorn reprimanded him. “Growing turnips all year round is not really a magic trick, not in this climate like. But make them grow in circles – that would be something else alright!”
“There’s nine of them in each bloody circle, an’ all!” a solemn voice from the far end of the bar declared: Crick, a sheep-farmer, grazed his flocks on land bordering with D.N.’s fields. “Sal, she used to love playing in them fields, chasing rabbits. Now, she won’t go near. There’s something not right about turnips growing in perfect circles of nine!” He patted the dog he referred to on its head, while his words hang in the bar like an ominous cloud. Nine! Why nine? What was the significance of that number? Witchcraft? I never thought D.N. was the type to dabble in that sort of thing. He was a vegetarian after all.
“It’s been bloody awful weather an’ all, this past month!” Crick went on. “Most of my sheep got foot-rot. I never known so much rain in a month!”
“Now, Crick!” the landlord frowned. “You can’t blame that on them turnips D.N. is growing! He may be doing something outlandish to them plants that he won’t tell us about, but I don’t think he’s got any influence on the weather yet.”
I hadn’t seen D.N. for a few months or so, and when I next saw him I was shocked how gaunt and exhausted he looked. As the silly rumours about his mystery vegetable patch were rife, I resisted asking him about his crop, and merely enquired about his health. With a feeble smile and a dismissive wave of his hand he indicated he was alright, yet a blind person would have realized that he was a haunted man. His inner peace, carefully honed over the years with meditation and yoga classes at the well-being centre, was definitely disturbed.
“He talks to them,” was the butcher’s contribution to the subject. “He goes up there every night, and sits with them, and talks to them like they were humans! He calls them his children.” How he had come by such intelligence he wouldn’t say. In living memory he had never ventured out onto the fields. He positively hated nature, unless it was lying lifeless in front of him on the beech block. He also disliked D.N. enough – on account of his refusal to buy any meat – to stay well clear of ‘that nutter’s’ land.
The butcher’s wife did not nourish such unreasonable hatred in her plentiful bosom, but by now was sharing her husband’s assessment of D.N.’s mental state: “He sings and dances around them circles!” she panted, full of dismay that the free and single farmer in question had never asked her to dance, for which she ought to thank her lucky stars. We knew D.N. was a lousy dancer and I couldn’t even begin to imagine him doing the what – Conga, Tango, Salsa? Perhaps he was experimenting with drugs up there on his wind-swept field. Or indeed was growing drugs and all that genetic talk was just a ruse to throw us off scent.
“Why, they are like them Merry Maidens, aren’t they!” the publican barked with laughter at the notion of D.N. entertaining the turnips-in-the-guise-of-swedes with a spot of Morris dancing. “There’s stiff competition for you, Lowena, my lovely!” He enjoyed needling the butcher’s frustrated wife. “And nine of them, an’all! They went out to dance on a Sunday, and were turned to stone, as a punishment,” he reminded us quite unnecessarily of the legend attached to the nearby ancient stone circle.
The next thing I heard was that D.N. was building a six-foot fence around his fields. He must have had quite substantial help in this, because the two and a half miles or so of solid wooden fencing – obviously meant to prevent anyone from peeking – went up in a matter of two days. Unless of course it was a genetically-modified, self-erecting fence. I chuckled to myself, but truth be told by now I was dying with curiosity.
News from Brow Hill was getting ever more incredible and bizarre. In order to find out anything at all, one now had to stray off the muddy footpath on purpose: The absurd fence, topped with barbed and – we were led to believe – electrified wire, ruled out any ‘oops! Sorry!’, ‘accidental’ detour into the precious fields.
Mark claimed he had hired a micro-light and flown across Brow Hill, which demonstrated unheard-of enterprise spirit on his part, and from his vantage point he saw that the turnips were absolutely ginormous. “As big as pumpkins!” he insisted. “As big as bloody pumpkins!”
We all knew he was afraid of flying, and suffered from vertigo, and anyway, didn’t turnips grow under the soil? How could he possibly assess their size if they were buried in the earth, with only the green tops showing?
“That’s just it!” he exclaimed, exasperation in his voice. “The green tops are as thick as babes’ arms! I could see their little green fingers! They were waving at me!” – “You should lay off the whacky backy, Mark!” was the landlord’s verdict, and we all agreed, half relieved, half disappointed that the green-grocer was such an unreliable source of information.
The butcher’s wife confirmed that the turnips had surpassed all known dimensions, and their green tops – as thick as horses’ legs – were indeed swaying to and fro, while D.N. performed his song-and-dance routine, which she witnessed through a pair of binoculars, she just happen to have with her, from the top of Carn Brea – but wouldn’t let on what she was doing up there.
The next to have a close encounter with the demon turnips was Sal, the dog. Sadly, she didn’t live to tell her tale.
Crick had insisted on taking her up along the path leading past Brow Hill, overruling his best friend’s obvious, instinctive aversion of the place, and thus sending her to her untimely death: An unexpected gap in the otherwise impenetrable fence tempted the dog enough to push her muzzle through. She took one look – of what we may never know – turned around and hared back home across the meadows and fields as if pursued by the devil. When Crick finally caught up with her, she had keeled over and was about to breathe her last breath. She had had a heart attack.
We tried to comfort Crick by reminding him that his trusted Border Collie had already clocked up fifteen years, which by all accounts was a good age for her breed. But he kept shaking his head in disbelief saying the thing that got to him was that the vet insisted Sal was pregnant with puppies at the time, and we all remembered the day when Crick got absolutely legless because he had had her done as he used to put it. Now, he was mighty shaken at the thought that his long-term companion had been unfaithful – unbeknown to him – in her latter years.
Hayley comforted him with the notion that the poor dog had been hexed by some monstrous spirit residing on Brow Hill, while the publican declared the vet ought to be put down – if not sued – for his blatantly obvious carelessness. The rest of us were far more concerned what on earth could be so scary about a field full of turnips that it would send a feisty sheepdog into a fatal panic attack.
The next casualty was Watson. Well, strictly speaking he didn’t die, he vanished. And although he was spotted in Exeter – not exactly the capital of sin – with a blonde bimbo on his arm, which confirmed his wife’s suspicion that he had deserted her leaving a mountain of debts, the rest of us couldn’t help thinking that it had something to do with those turnips up on Brow Hill. Because ever since that day that he had drilled a hole in the perimeter fence and stole a glimpse of the goings-on amongst the mysterious vegetation, Watson was no longer himself.
We all agreed it had changed him. For starters, Watson, a self-confessed voyeur and braggart, wouldn’t talk about what he had spied. He just went funny, quiet like. So, when he eventually disappeared, it didn’t come as much of a surprise.
Old Parky however, did die. But try as she might, his widow could not establish a connection with D.N.’s turnips. We all knew that Old Parky had suffered for years from liver cirrhosis and possibly lung cancer owing to his excessive love of booze and fags. The fact that he had claimed to have heard eerie music coming from behind D.N.’s demarcation fence was more likely to be DT-related as he staggered across the fields and meadows with Scrumpy Jack for company.
Whether it was imaginary music or the neglected state of the footpaths on Brow Hill that eventually caused him to lose his balance – he slipped and fell some ten feet into a ditch, where he was found dead the following morning. In any case, we managed to dissuade his widow from suing D.N. for luring a silly old man into his death with some kind of siren song, pointing out that for years she had been complaining that Old Parky was virtually deaf.
Accused of being implicated in the deaths of at least one man and a dog, the suspect turnips continued to thrive. Unfazed by their bad reputation, they collected more victims.
Crick claimed he lost several of his sheep on Saturday to the criminal turnips. The sheep found their way through the fence onto the forbidden fields, where they had a jolly good nibble at the succulent and by all accounts obscenely fleshy turnip greens, and only hours later died, writhing in agony, blood streaming from their mouths.
“They been poisoned,” the bereaved sheep farmer was understandable seething with rage. “First he gets Sal, and now my flock! He’s trying to ruin me. I’ll show him! I’ll go up there and pull out them bloody turnips one by one, and then I set fire to the lot!”
“Now, now, Crick,” we tried to calm him down, “don’t you be hasty. You can’t prove it had anything to do with D.N.’s crops. And even if it does, it’s not his fault your sheep forayed into his land.”
“They were led astray by the pixies,” Hayley informed us. She was an expert in these matters.
“Wait and see what the vet says,” Mark suggested, but Crick wouldn’t hear of it: “I don’t need no bloody vet to tell me nine of my sheep are dead! Poisoned by them killer turnips, and it’s all down to that vegetarian moron!”
Of course! That was the master plan behind D.N.’s mystery farm: to establish a veggie-only society by killing off everything on four feet, or two, come to think of it. Far-fetched as it seemed, we began to realize that the oft-scorned root vegetables were indeed becoming a menace to our way of life.
We decided to go looking for D.N. and talk sense into him, before Crick in his grief carried out his threat of setting light to the hill, and most likely the surrounding fields.
He wasn’t at home, so we went to find him up on his cursed hill. As we approached the fields with some trepidation, we heard strange noises on the other side of the fence. It did indeed sound a bit like music.
“Why – it’s like Glastonbury Festival!” the publican pronounced. He was right. Apart from various, not always tuneful musical renditions, there was shouting and brawling, not to mention thumping and rhythmical stomping of marching feet on the ground. “He’s having an illegal rave party, and he didn’t apply for a drinks license!” the innkeeper was appalled by such cheek.
“There he is! There’s D.N.!” Mark pointed to a figure huddled up on the ground, only a few feet away from where we were standing. “What’s up, mate? You alright?”
D.N. was only a shadow of his former self: emaciated and worn out, he looked around him in terror: “They’re out of control. They’re after me! They’re after all of us now!”
“Who? What are you on about? Pull yourself together, man!” His confused ramblings made us all uneasy. Especially so with the constant banging on the fence, which seemed to come from the field inside. “Who’s in there?” we demanded to know. “They’re making an awful racket!”
“It’s them!” D.N. burst out, trembling with fear. “It’s those turnips, they’re not really turnips at all! They’re like, like, androids… Oh, they kill me if they find out I told you! I swore I wouldn’t talk about it to no-one!”
“Well, I’ll kill you if you don’t start talking soon, man!” the publican looked determined to keep his threat. “What is going on?”
“Those secret service people!” D.N. bawled. “The SAS! I don’t know! It’s top secret! They implanted human genes into those swedes – or turnips. Seeing that turnips grow so well down here. And they did! Except they didn’t grow into turnips. They grew into some kind of humans, like, with arms and legs, and heads and all. Except a brain like a turnip. And now they are on the rampage in my field!” He nearly choked on his tears.
“But why? Whatever for?” – “Cannon fodder, of course!” D.N. managed. “They’ll be sent off as foot-soldiers into war-zones, any place where you and I wouldn’t volunteer to go. They don’t mind. They’re just like cabbages, really… only more active. They’re the people of the future. They’re taking over. They’re programmed to spread their genes. Ordinary humans are being phased out. They mate with us or they kill us! One way or another they get rid of the rest of us! Just listen to them now! They’re tearing the fence down! They’re coming after us!”
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Nur-Viktoria Ellen Frings.
Published on e-Stories.org on 20.09.2014.