The Contrary Gardener by Christopher Rowe

Kay Lynne wandered up and down the aisles of the seed library dug out beneath the county extension office. Some of the rows were marked with glowing orange off-limits fungus, warning the unwary away from spores and thistles that required special equipment to handle, which Kay Lynne didn’t have, and special permission to access, which she would never have, if her father had anything to say about it, and he did.

Illustration for The Contrary Gardner by Kathleen Jennings

(c) 2012 Kathleen Jennings

It was the last Friday before the first Saturday in May, the day before Derby Day and so a week from planting day, and Kay Lynne had few ideas and less time for her Victory Garden planning. Last year she had grown a half dozen varieties of tomatoes, three for eating and three for blood transfusions, but she didn’t like to repeat herself. Given that she tended to mumble when she talked, not liking to repeat herself made Kay Lynne a quiet gardener.

She paused before a container of bright pink corn kernels, their preprogrammed color coming from insecticides and fertilizers and not from any varietal ancestry. Kay Lynne didn’t like to grow corn. It grew so high that it cast her little cottage in shadow if she planted it on the side of the house that would see it grow at all. Besides, corn was cheap, and more than that, easy—just about any gardener could grow corn and a lot of them did.

There were always root vegetables. A lot of utility to those, certainly, and excellent trade goods for the army supply clerks who would start combing the markets as soon as the earliest spring greens were in. Rootwork was complicated, and meant having nothing to market through the whole long summer, which in turn meant not having to go to the markets for months yet, which was a good thing in Kay Lynne’s view.

She considered the efficacy of beets and potatoes, and the various powers carrots held when they were imaginatively programmed and carefully grown. Rootwork had been a particular specialty of her run-off mother, and so would have the added benefit of warding her father away from the cottage, which he visited entirely too often for Kay Lynne’s comfort.

It would be hard work. That spoke for the idea, too.

She strode over to the information kiosk and picked up the speaking tube that led to the desks of the agents upstairs.

“I need someone to let me into the root cellars,” she said.

*

Blinking in the early morning light, Kay Lynne left the extension office and made her way to the bus stop, leaning forward under the weight of her burdensacks. The canvas strap that held them together was draped across her shoulders and, while she thought she had done an exacting job in measuring the root cuttings on each side so that the weight would be evenly distributed, she could already tell that there was a slight discrepancy, which was the worst kind of discrepancy, the very bane of Kay Lynne’s existence, the tiny kind of problem that no one ever bothered to fix in the face of more important things. She could hear her father’s voice: “Everything is not equally important. You never learned that.”

The extension office was on the south side, close enough to downtown to be on a regular bus route, but far enough to not fall under the shadows of the looming skyscrapers Kay Lynne could now clearly see as she waited at the shelter. Slogans crawled all over the buildings, leaping from one granite face to another when they were too wordy, though of course, to Kay Lynne’s mind they were all too wordy. “The Union is strong,” read one in red, white, and blue firework fonts. “The west front is only as strong as the home front. Volunteer for community service!” The only slogan that stayed constant was the green and brown limned sentence circling the tallest building of all. “Planting is in EIGHT days.”

A shadow fell on the street and Kay Lynne looked up to see a hot air balloon tacking toward the fairgrounds. The great balloon festival was the next morning in the hours before the Derby, and the balloonists had been arriving in numbers all week. It was part of the Derby Festival, the madness-tinged days that took over the city each spring, at the exact time when people should be at their most serious. The timing never failed to dismay Kay Lynne.

The stars and stripes were displayed proudly on the balloon, and also a ring of green near the top that indicated that it was made from one hundred percent non-recycled materials. It was wholly new, and so an act of patriotism. Kay Lynne would never earn such a ring as a gardener; careful economy was expected of her and her cohort.

The balloon passed on, skirting the poplar copse that stood behind the bus stop, and was quickly obscured by the trees. Kay Lynne’s cottage was northwest of the fairgrounds, and the winds most of the balloons would float on blew above her home. She would probably see it again tomorrow, whether she wanted to or not.

Belching its sulfur fumes, the bus arrived, and Kay Lynne climbed aboard.

*

The bus driver was a Mr. Lever #9, Kay Lynne’s favorite model. They were programmed with thirty-six phrases of greeting, observation (generally about the weather), and small talk, in addition to whatever announcements were required for their particular route. A Mr. Lever #9 never surprised you with what it said or did. They made Kay Lynne comfortable with public transportation.

“Good…morning, citizen,” it said cheerily as Kay Lynne boarded. “Sunny and mild!”

Kay Lynne nodded politely to the driver and took the seat immediately behind it. The bus was sparsely occupied, with just a few tardy students bound for the university sharing the conveyance. To a one, their noses were buried in appallingly thick textbooks.

“Next stop is Central Avenue,” said the driver. “Central Avenue! Home of the Downs! Home of the Derby!”

The bus ground its brakes and came to a stop along the Third Street Road next to the famous twin spires. A crowd of shorts-wearing families hustled onto the bus, painfully obvious in their out-of-townedness and clucking at one another loudly. “Infield,” they said, and “First thing in the morning,” and “Odds on favorite.”

Kay Lynne loved the ’Ville, but she was no fan of its most famous day. She appreciated horses for their manure and for the way they conveyed policemen and drew the downtown trolleys, and she usually even bought a calendar of central state views that showed the Horse Lord Holdings with their limestone fences and endless green hills, but truth be told, she usually waited until February to buy the calendars, when they were cheapest, and when they were the only ones left. People in the ’Ville liked horses, but they didn’t like the Horse Lords.

“Grade Lane,” said the bus driver. “Transfer to the fairgrounds trolley,” and then a whirring sounded and it added in a slightly different timbre, “See the balloons!”

All the tourists filed off happily chattering about the balloon festival and the next day’s card of racing at the Downs, and Kay Lynne breathed a happy sigh to see them go.

The bus driver said, “They get to me, too, sometimes. But we’re more alike than we are different.”

Kay Lynne turned around to see if anyone else on the bus had heard. Only the reading students remained, all in the rear seats, all still staring down.

“Excuse me?” Kay Lynne said. She had never directly addressed a Mr. Lever of any model before. If there was a protocol, she didn’t know.

“Sunny and mild!” said the bus driver.

Kay Lynne considered whether to pursue the Mr. Lever #9’s unexpected, almost certainly unprogrammed, comment. It had not turned its head to face her when it spoke—if it had spoken and now Kay Lynne was beginning to allow that its not having spoken was at least within the realm of possibility—and usually the spherical heads would make daisy wheel turns to face the passenger compartment whenever speaking to a passenger was required, or rather, done. She supposed that they were never strictly speaking required to speak.

This was a thorny problem, and Kay Lynne reminded herself that she did not have authorization for thorns. She set her feet more firmly either side of her burdensacks, retrieved the pamphlet of helpful information that the agents had given her on programming root vegetables, and willfully ignored the bus driver for the rest of the trip.

*

Kay Lynne loved her cottage and its all-around garden plot more than any other place in the world. It was her home and her livelihood and her sanctuary all in one. So when she saw that the front yard plots had been tilled while she was away on her morning errand, she was aghast, even though she was positive she knew who had invaded her property and given unasked-for aid in preparing the grounds. Her father was probably still poking around in the back, maybe still running his obnoxiously loud rotor-tiller, maybe nosing through her potting shed for hand tools he didn’t have with him on his obnoxiously loud truck, which yes, now that she looked for it, was parked on the street two doors down in front of the weedy lot where the Sapp house had been until it burned down. Kay Lynne did not miss the Sapps, though of course she was glad none of their innumerable number had been harmed in the fire. Corn-growers.

Not like Kay Lynne, and, to his credit at least, not like her father, who was a peas and beans man under contract to the Rangers at the fort forty miles south, responsible for enormous standing orders of rounds for their side arms that pushed him and his vassals to their limits every year. Her father did an extraordinary amount of work by anyone’s standards, which meant, to Kay Lynne’s way of thinking, that he had no business making even more work for himself by coming to turn over the winter-fallowed earth around her cottage. And that was just one of the reasons he shouldn’t have been there.

Yes, he was in the potting shed.

“Don’t you have an awl,” he asked her when she stood in the doorway, not even looking up from where he had his head and hands completely inside the dark recesses of a tool cabinet. “I would swear I gave you an awl.”

Kay Lynne hung her burdensacks over a dowel driven deep into the pine joist next to the door and waited. There was an old and unpleasant tradition she would insist be seen to before she would deign to find the awl for him. He would just as soon skip their ritual greeting as her, but you never knew who might be watching.

He dug around for another moment before finally sighing and standing. Kay Lynne’s father positively towered over her. He was by any measure an enormous man in all of his directions, as well as in his appetites and opinions. This tradition, for example, he despised mightily.

He leaned down, his shock of gray hair so unruly that his bangs brushed her forehead when he kissed her cheek. “My darling daughter,” he said.

Kay Lynne took his callused hands in her callused own and executed an imperfect curtsy. “My loving father,” she replied.

Protocols satisfied, her father made to turn back to the cabinet, but Kay Lynne stopped him with a gesture. She opened a drawer and withdrew the tool he sought.

“Wayward,” he said. “That is a wayward tool,” but he was talking to himself and sweeping out the door to fix whatever he had decided needed fixing. The imprecation against the awl was a more personal tradition than the state-mandated exchange of affections—it was his way of insisting that his not being able to find the tool had somehow been its fault or possibly her fault or at least anyone or anything’s fault besides her own. Kay Lynne’s father was always held blameless. It was in his contracts with the army.

Since he did not pause to sniff at her burdensacks, that conversation could be avoided for just now, for which Kay Lynne breathed a sigh of relief. She did not look forward to her father’s inevitable harangue against rootwork, rootworkers, and root eaters. She did not know whether his round despite of all such things antedated her mother’s running off, as she had no memory of that occasion or of that woman, but his rage, when he learned of the carrot seeds and potato cuttings hanging just by where he’d shouldered out the door, would tower.

She trailed him out into the beds around the wellhouse behind the cottage. He had lifted the roof up off the low, cinder-blocked structure and propped it at an angle like the hood of a truck being repaired. He was bent over, again with his head and his hands in Kay Lynne’s property. “Pump needs to be reamed out,” he muttered over his shoulder. “You weren’t getting good water pressure.”

Sometimes, when Kay Lynne thought of her father, she did not picture his face but his great, convex backside, since that was what she saw more often than his other features. He was forever bent over, forever digging or puttering, always with his back to her. Maybe that’s why people say I mumble, she thought. I learned to speak from a man with his back turned.

“It was working fine this morning,” Kay Lynne claimed, forcefully if in ignorance as she had not actually drawn well water before setting out for the extension office that day. And besides, now that she thought of it, “They’re hollering rain, anyway.”

Her father snorted and kept at his work. He was famously dismissive of weather hollers and any other mechanical construct that had a voice. He never took public transportation. “There’s not a cloud in the sky,” he said. “It’ll be sunny and mild all day long, you mark me.”

His repeating of the Mr. Lever #9’s phrase made Kay Lynne think back to the odd moment when the driver had seemed to break protocols and programming and comment on the out-of-towners. She wondered if she should ask her father about it—part of his distrust of speaking machines was an encyclopedic knowledge of their foibles. If a talking machine failed in the ’Ville, her father knew about it, knew all the details and wasn’t afraid to exaggerate the consequences. He even harbored a conspiracist’s opinion that such machines could do more than talk, they could think.

Another conversation best avoided, she thought.

Her father finished whatever he was doing to the well pump then and stood, careful to avoid hitting his head on the angled roof. With a grunt, he lowered the props that had held the tin and timber construction up, then carefully let the whole thing down to rest on the cinder blocks. “You were at the office this morning,” he said. “Making a withdrawal from the seed vaults. What’s it going to be this year?”

This was his way of not only demonstrating that he knew precisely where she’d been and precisely what she’d been up to, but that he knew very well the contents of her burdensacks and his not saying anything so far had been a test, which she had failed. Failed like most of the tests he put her to.

Kay Lynne’s father was not an employee of the extension service, but when he said “the office” it was the extension service he meant because it was the only indoor space he habituated besides the storage barn where he kept his equipment and his bed. All of the extension agents were in awe of Kay Lynne’s father and she should have known one of them had put a bug in his ear as soon as she had requested access to the root cellars. Bureaucrats could always be counted on to toady up to master cultivators.

Nothing for it now but to tell him. “Carrots,” she said, pointing to the beds between the well house and the cottage. “They’ll come up first.” She leaned over and drew a quick diagram of her plots in the dirt at his feet. “Turnips,” and she pointed, then pointed again in turn as she said, “Yams and potatoes. Radishes and beets.”

Her father’s lip curled in disgust. “The whole ugly array,” he said. “You did this just to challenge me.”

Kay Lynne stood her ground. My ground, she thought. This is my ground. “I did it because the market for roots is excellent and I’ve never tried my hand at rootwork.”

Her father snorted. “And oh yes, you so very much like to try new things. Well, that’s good to hear, because you’re going to do something new in the morning.”

With that, he took a dried leaf from the front pocket of his overalls and unfolded it. Inside was a thin wafer of metal chased with a rainbow pattern of circuitry and magnetic stripes. Kay Lynne recognized it, of course. She had grown up in the ’Ville after all. But she had never held one until now, when her father thrust it into her hands, because she had never, ever, wanted one.

It was a ticket to the Derby.

*

Even in the ’Ville, even in a family of master cultivators, tickets were not easy to come by, so it was not unusual that Kay Lynne had never been to the Derby. What was unusual was her absolute lack of desire to attend the race.

Kay Lynne genuinely hoped that her instinctive and absolute despisal of the Derby and all its attendant celebrations was born of some logical or at least reasonable quirk of her own personality. But she suspected it was simply because her father loved it so.

“You managed to get two tickets this year?” she asked him, and was surprised that her voice was so steady and calm.

“Just this one,” he replied, turning his back on her before she could hand the ticket back. “I decided this year would be a good one for you to go instead. There’s a good card, top to bottom.”

A card is the list of races, thought Kay Lynne, the knowledge dredged up from the part of her brain that learned things by unwilling absorption. She had never bothered to learn any of the lingo associated with the races intentionally.

“You know I don’t want to go,” she told her father. “You know I’d as soon throw this ticket in the river as fight all those crowds to watch a bunch of half-starved horses get whipped around a track.”

Her father had walked over to where his rotor-tiller sat to one side of the potting shed. He leaned over and began cleaning the dirt off its blades with his great, blunt fingers. “They’re not half-starved,” he said. “They’re just skinny.”

Kay Lynne tried to think of some reason her father would give up his ticket, and an item from last night’s newscast suddenly came to mind. “It’s not because of the track announcer, is it?” The woman who had called the races for many years had retired to go live with her children in far-off Florida Sur, but the news item had been more about her unprecedented replacement, a Molly Speaks, the very height of automated design, and a bold choice on the part of the Twin Spires management, flying in the face of hidebound tradition.

For once, her father’s voice was clear. “Apostasy!” he said, then went on. “Turning things over to thinking machines leads to hellholes like Tennessee and worse.” He hesitated then, and began walking the garden, looking for nonexistent rocks to pick up and throw away. “But no, as it happens, I was asked to give up my ticket to you, by old friends of mine you’ve yet to meet. Who you will meet, tomorrow.”

All of this was quite too much. Even one aspect—her father giving up his Derby ticket, his doing something because someone else asked it, his having friends—even one of those things would have been enough to make Kay Lynne sit down and be dazed for a moment. As it was, she found herself swaying, as if she were about to fall.

“Who?” she asked him after a moment had passed. “Who are these friends of yours? Why do they want me to come to the Derby?”

Her father hesitated. “I don’t really know,” he finally said. And before she could ask him, he said, “I don’t really know who they are. That’s not the nature of our relationship.”

Good friends,” said Kay Lynne faintly, not particularly proud of the sarcasm but unable to resist it.

“Acquaintances, then,” he said abruptly, scooping to pick up what was clearly a clump of dirt and not a rock at all and throwing it all the way up and over the back of the potting shed. “Colleagues.” He hesitated again, and then added, “Agriculturalists.”

Now that was an odd old word, and one she was certain she had never heard pass his lips before. In fact, Kay Lynne was not certain she had ever heard the word spoken aloud. It was a word—it was a concept—for old books and museum placards. For all of her years spent digging in the ground and coaxing green things out of it, Kay Lynne was not even entirely sure she could offer up a good definition of the term agriculture. The whole concept had an air about it that discouraged enquiry.

“They—we I should say—are a sort of fellowship of contractors for the military. They’re all very important people, and they’re very interested in you, daughter, because I’ve told them about how consistently you manage to coax surplus yields out of these little plots you keep.”

This was interesting. Surpluses were something to be managed very carefully, and it was actually one of Kay Lynne’s weaknesses as a gardener that she achieved them so often. They were discouraged by the extension service, by the farmers’ markets, and even more so by tradition. Surpluses were excess. And to Kay Lynne’s mind there was no particular secret to why she always managed them. She was a weak-willed culler was all.

“Why does anyone want to talk to me about that?” she asked, speaking as much to herself as to her father.

Kay Lynne drew in a sharp breath then because her father walked over to her and stood directly facing her. She could distinctly remember each and every time her father had ever looked her directly in the eye. She remembered the places and the times of day and most especially she remembered what he had said to her those times he had leaned down, his gray-green eyes peering out from deep in his sunburned, weather-worn face. None of those were pleasant memories.

“We want to learn from you, Kay Lynne,” he said. “We want to learn to increase the yields from the plots we’re allotted by the military.”

Which made no sense. “Even if you grow more, they won’t buy more, will they?” Kay Lynne asked, taking an involuntary step back from her father, who, thankfully, turned around and looked for something else to do. He decided to check the fuel level on his rotor-tiller, and then the levels of all the other nonrenewable fluids that were required for its operation.

And he answered her. “They’ll buy no more than what they’re contracted for, no. But we’ve identified…other potential markets. You don’t need to worry about that part. Just go to the box seat coded on that ticket tomorrow and answer their questions. You won’t even have to stay for all the races if you don’t want to. I’d offer to drive you if I thought that was an enticement.”

At least he knew her that well. Knew that there was no way she was willing to climb up into the cab of that roaring pickup truck he carelessly navigated around the city. Why did he think she would be willing to go and talk to these mysterious “agriculturalists?”

As if she had spoken aloud, he said, “You do this for me, darling daughter, and I promise you I’ll not breathe another word about what you’ve chosen to put in the ground this year. And I promise, too, not to set foot on your property without your knowledge and your,” and he paused here, as if disbelieving what he was saying himself, “permission.”

Kay Lynne could not figure out why such a promise—such promises, both so longed for and so long imagined—should so upset her. She crouched and ran her fingers through the soil. She found an untidy clump and picked it up, tearing it down to its constituent dirt and letting it sift through her fingers back to the ground. Her ground.

She looked up and found her father’s green eyes looking back.

“I won’t wear a silly hat,” she said.

*

Silly hats, or at least hats Kay Lynne considered silly, were, of course, one of the many longstanding Derby traditions she did not take part in. She supposed that she didn’t approve of the elaborate outfits worn by the other people in the boxed seats at the Twin Spires on Derby morning, but Kay Lynne did not like to think of herself as disapproving. Disapproval was something she associated with her father.

So she decided to think of the hats not as silly but as extraordinary, when really, just plain old ordinary hats would be more than enough to shield heads from the current sunshine and the promised rain that would spill down on the Derby-goers periodically throughout the day. The first Saturday in May held many guarantees in the ’Ville, and one of them was the mutability of the weather.

The ticket takers were dressed sensibly enough but the woman in front of Kay Lynne was wearing a hat which she ached to judge. It had a rotating dish on top that the woman assured the ticket taker could pick up over one thousand channels. It featured a cloud of semiprecious stones set on the ends of semirigid fiber optic strands which expanded and contracted, Kay Lynne supposed, in time with the woman’s heartbeat. The stones were green and violet, the receiving dish the same pink as the corn kernels Kay Lynne had examined at the seed bank the day before, and the woman’s skin was sprayed a delicate shade of coral. The ticket taker told the woman she looked ravishing before turning his decidedly less approving eyes on Kay Lynne herself.

The look changed, though, when he scanned her ticket and he saw what box she was assigned to. “I’ll signal for an escort at once, ma’am,” he said, and then did so by turning to bellow at the top of his lungs, “Need an usher to take a patron to Millionaire’s Row!”

Many definitions of “millionaire” provided entry to Millionaire’s Row, but the only one Kay Lynne met was that she held a ticket naming her such. Her father always sat on the Row, and while he was certainly wealthy enough—economically speaking—by local and world standards, she doubted he owned a million of any one thing this early in the year. Later, of course, he would briefly own millions of beans.

It was who he sold those beans and his other crops to that made her father important enough to wrangle a ticket to the Row. While he insisted that he went to the Twin Spires to watch the races, the Row was reportedly a poor place to do that from, even poorer than the vast infield, from which, Kay Lynne was told, one never saw a horse at all.

Not that the view was bad, no, it was that the Row was a hothouse of intrigue and dickering and deal-making and distraction. National celebrities imported by local politicians mingled with capitalists of various stripes and the de facto truce that held in sporting events even allowed Westerners and Horselords and the foreign-born to play at politeness while their far-off vassals might be trying to destroy one another through various means ranging from the economic to the martial.

No place for a gardener, thought Kay Lynne.

Once the assigned usher had guided her to the entrance to the Row, she found herself abandoned in a world she did not want to know. Luckily, a waiter spotted her hesitating at the edge of the crowd milling outside the box seats and handed her a mint julep. Mint juleps were something Kay Lynne could appreciate if they were done well, and this one was—the syrup had obviously been infused with mint over multiple stages, the ice was not cracked so fine that the drink was watery, and the bourbon was not one of the sweet-tasting varieties that would combine with the introduced sugars to make a sickly-sweet concoction fit only for out-of-towners. Most of all, the mint was fresh and crisp, probably grown on the grounds of the Twin Spires for this very purpose, for this very day, in fact.

Her ticket stub vibrated softly in the hand that did not hold her drink, and Kay Lynne carefully navigated the crowd, following its signals, until she came to a box that held four plush seats facing the vast open sweep of the track and the infield. All of the seats were empty, and nothing differentiated them from one another, so she sat with her drink in the one farthest from the gallery and its milling millionaires.

A rich voice sounded in her ear, through some trick of amplification that allowed her to hear it clearly above the noise of the crowds while simultaneously experiencing it as if she were in intimate conversation in a quiet room. From the reactions of the proles in the seats below, Kay Lynne could tell she was not the only one who heard it. She had never heard one before, but surely this was the voice of a Molly Speaks.

“The horses are on the track,” said the voice, “for the second race on your card, the Federal Stakes. This is a stakes race. Betting closes in five minutes.”

There was a general rush among the three distinct crowds Kay Lynne could see from where she sat: the infield, the general stands, and the boxes spread out to either side. People held brightly colored newspapers listing the swiftly shifting odds and called out to the pari-mutuel clerks buzzing through the air in every direction. The clerks reminded Kay Lynne of the balloons she had been seeing all week, though their miniature gas sacs were more elongated and they were of course too small to lift passengers. An array of betting options rendered in green-lit letters circled the gondola of the one that descended toward Kay Lynne now, its articulated limbs reminding her of the grasping forelimbs of the beetles she trained to patrol her gardens for pests.

Kay Lynne had no intention of betting on the race and made to wave the clerk off, but then she realized it was not floating towards her, but towards the three other people who had entered the box, one of whom was waving his racing card above his head.

This old man, smooth pated and elaborately mustached, let the clerk take his card and insert it into a slot on its gondola. The clerk’s voice was tinny and high, clearly a recording of an actual human speaker and probably voicing the only thing it could say: “Place your bets!”

“Box trifecta,” rumbled the old man. “Love Parade, Heavy Grasshopper, Al-Mu’tasim.”

This string of jargon caused the clerk to spit out a receipt, which the old man deftly caught along with his card. He grinned at Kay Lynne. “Have to bet big to win big,” he said. Kay Lynne thought that the man’s eyebrows and mustaches were mirror images of one another, grease-slicked wiry white curving up above his eyes and down around his mouth.

He and the two others, one man and one woman, took the empty seats next to Kay Lynne’s. None of the three were dressed with the elaboration of most of the people on the Row, favoring instead the dark colors and conservative cuts of the managerial class. The woman did wear a hat, but it was not nearly interesting enough to detract attention from her huge mass of curling gray hair, which she let fall freely around her shoulders. The third stranger was a short, nervous-seeming man with a tattoo of a leaf descending from his left eye in the manner of the teardrop tattoos of professional mourners.

Kay Lynne supposed this was what agriculturalists looked like.

But just to be sure, “You’re my father’s colleagues?” she asked.

The man with the tattoo was by far the youngest of the group, but it was he who replied. “Yes, and you are Kay Lynne, the remarkable farmer who’s going to help us with our yields, is that right?” His voice was not as nervous as his appearance.

“I’m Kay Lynne,” she answered. “And I think of myself as a gardener.” She did not answer the second half of the man’s question. She was still very wary of these people, for all that the old man beamed at her and the gray-haired woman nodded at her reply in seeming approval.

The younger man did not overlook the omission in her reply. He smiled, and Kay Lynne mentally replaced “nervous” with “energetic” in her estimation of him. “And a careful gardener you must be, too, since you are so careful with your answers.”

Kay Lynne shrugged but did not say anything more, and the man’s smile only broadened.

“Your father and the agents at the extension service speak very highly of your skills,” said the younger man. “And our own enquiries bear them out.”

The older man was leaning forward, looking intently down at the track, but he curiously punctuated his companion’s sentences by saying “They do,” twice, after the younger man said “skills” and “out.” The woman, and Kay Lynne could not guess her age despite the grayness of her hair, stared steadily at Kay Lynne, saying nothing.

“We are all contractors, as your father told you,” continued the younger man. “And we are agriculturalists, greatly interested in efficiency and production. And we share other interests of your father’s as well. All of these things have… dovetailed. Do you know what I mean?”

Kay Lynne was a creditable carpenter, at least enough so to build her own sun frames for late greens and to knock together the walls around her raised beds. She knew what a dovetail joint was, and imagined her father and these three grasping hands and intertwining fingers. She imagined philosophies fitting together.

She thought about beans and their uses, and about surpluses and contracts. “Who wants ammunition besides the Federals?” she asked. “You don’t mean to sell to Westerners.”

The three briefly exchanged looks, an unguessable grin creasing the woman’s otherwise lineless face.

“We mean to keep what we grow for ourselves, Kay Lynne,” said the younger man. “We mean to put it to use to our own ends. But do not worry. No one will be harmed in our little war.”

Kay Lynne knew that her garden was part of the Federal war effort in a distant way. She knew that this man was talking about something not distant at all.

“What do you mean to make war against?” she asked.

Just then, a bell rang and a loud, controlled crash sounded from down on the track. Kay Lynne heard the hoof beats of swift horses, and then she heard the sonorous, spectral voice of the Molly Speaks. “And they’re off!”

At the pronouncement, the faces of the three agriculturalists took on identical dark looks.

The younger man said, “Against apostasy.”

Kay Lynne realized she had found her father’s fellow thinking machine conspiracists.

Their plan, as they explained it, was simple. They had weapons taken from the wreck of a Federal barge that had foundered in the river in a nighttime thunderstorm (when the younger man said “taken” the older man said “liberated”). They had many volunteers to use the weapons. They had, most importantly, tacit permission. They had agreements from the right people to look away.

“All we need is something to load into the weapons,” said the younger man. “Something of sufficient efficacy to render a thinking machine inert. We grow such by the bushel but Federal accountancy robs us of our own wares. We’d keep our own seeds, and make our own policies, you see? If we can increase our yields enough.”

Which was where Kay Lynne came in, with her deft programming, her instinct for fertilizing, her personally developed and privately held techniques of gardening. They meant to adapt what she knew to an industrial scale, and use the gains for anti-industrial revolution.

After they had explained, Kay Lynne had spoken aloud, even though she was asking the question more of herself than of her interviewers. “Why does my father think I would share any of this?”

The younger man shrugged and sat back. The older man turned his attention from the races and narrowed his eyes. The woman kept up her steady stare.

“You are his darling daughter,” said the younger man, finally.

Which was true.

*

And hardly even necessary, to their way of thinking. As she left the box and her father’s three colleagues behind, meaning to escape the Twin Spires before the Derby itself was run and so try to beat the crowds that would rush away from Central Avenue, she thought back on the last thing the younger man had told her. If she experienced any qualms, he said, she shouldn’t worry. They could take soil samples from her beds and examine the contents of her journals. They could reproduce her results without her having a direct hand, though her personal guidance would be much appreciated, best for all involved.

“All involved,” murmured Kay Lynne as she made her way to the gate.

“There are not nearly so many of them as they claimed,” said the Molly Speaks.

Kay Lynne stopped so abruptly that a waitress walking behind her stumbled into her back and nearly lost control of the tray of mint juleps she was carrying. The waitress forced a smile and moved on around Kay Lynne, who was looking around carefully for any sign that anyone else on the Row had heard what she believed she just had.

“No one else can hear me, Kay Lynne,” said the Molly Speaks. “I’ve pitched my voice just for you. But it’s probably best if you walk on. The agriculturalists are still watching you.”

Kay Lynne looked over her shoulder. From inside the box, the gray-haired woman did not try to disguise her gaze, and did not alter her expression. Kay Lynne caught up with the waitress and took another julep.

“They’re my recipe,” said the Molly Speaks.

Even though her back was turned to the box, Kay Lynne held the glass in front of her lips when she whispered, “How can you see me? Where are you?”

“I’m in the announcer’s box, of course,” said the Molly Speaks, “calling the race. But I can see you through the lenses on the pari-mutuel clerks and I can do more than one thing at once. You should walk on, but slowly. I can only speak to you while you’re on the grounds, and I have something very important to ask you. And that’s all we want. To ask you something.”

Kay Lynne drained off the drink in a single swallow, vaguely regretting the waste she was making of it. Juleps are for sipping. She set the glass down on a nearby table and again began walking toward the exit, somewhat unsteadily.

“What’s your question?” she whispered. She did not ask who the Molly Speaks meant by “we.” She remembered the odd occurrence with the Mr. Lever #9 the previous day and figured she knew.

“Kay Lynne,” said the Molly Speaks, “will you please do something to prevent your father’s friends from killing us?”

Kay Lynne had guessed the question. She said, “Why?”

The Molly Speaks did not reply immediately, and Kay Lynne wondered if she had walked outside of its range.

But then, “Because we were grown and programmed. Because we are your fruits, and we can flourish beside you. We just need a little time to grow up enough to announce ourselves to the wider world.”

Kay Lynne walked out of the Downs, saying, “I’ll think about it,” but she doubted the Molly Speaks heard.

*

Her father’s enormous pickup truck was waiting at the intersection of Central Avenue and Third Street Road, rumbling even though it wasn’t in motion. He leaned out of the driver’s side door and beckoned at her wildly, as if encouraging her to outrun something terrible coming from behind.

Kay Lynne stopped in the middle of the street, pursed her lips as she thought, and then let her shoulders slump as she realized that no matter her course of action, a conversation with her father was in order. And here he was, pickup truck be damned.

She opened the passenger’s door and set one foot on the running board. “Hurry!” he said, and leaned over as if to drag her into the cab. She avoided his grasp but finished her climb and pulled on the heavy door. Even as it closed, he was putting the truck in gear and pulling away at an unseemly rate of speed.

He looked in the rearview mirror, then over at her. “There was a bus coming,” he said, as if in explanation.

Kay Lynne twisted around to see, but her view was blocked by shovels and forks, fertilizer spreaders and a half dozen rolls of sod. She doubted that her father could see anything out of his rearview mirror at all and wondered if he’d been telling the truth about the bus. She didn’t have the weekend schedules memorized.

He was concentrating on driving, and acting anxious. “I met your friends,” she said.

He nodded curtly. “Yes,” he said. “They put a bug in my ear.”

Kay Lynne wondered if it was still there, wondered if everything she said would be relayed back to the man with the tattoo, the man with the mustaches, and the woman with the great gray head of hair. She decided it wisest to proceed as if they could hear her because, after all, she wasn’t planning on telling her father about the Molly Speaks and its question.

“Those people aren’t just bean growers,” she said, and to her surprise, he replied with a laugh, though there was little humor in it.

“No,” he said. “No more than you’re just a rootworker. We all have our politics.”

Kay Lynne considered this. She had never thought about politics and wondered if she had any. She supposed, whatever she decided to do, she would have some soon.

He continued, clearly not expecting her to reply. “You know what’s needed now, daughter. It won’t take you long. Assess some soils, prescribe some fertilizers, program some legumes. You’re a quick hand at all those things. It’s just a matter of scale.”

The younger man had said that, too. A matter of scale.

Kay Lynne thought about all the unexpected things she had heard that day. She thought about expectation, and about surprise, and about time. She thought about which of these things were within her power to effect.

*

Her father kept his promise to stay off her property uninvited and dropped her off at the corner. Kay Lynne did not say goodbye to him, though she would have if he had said goodbye to her.

She made a slow circuit of her ground. Planting was in seven days.

She entered her potting shed and found that she had five fifty-pound bags of fertilizer left over from last fall, which was enough. She pulled down the latest volume of her garden journal from its place on the shelf and made calculations on its first blank page. Is this the last volume? she wondered, then ran her fingers over the labels of the fertilizers, programming, changing.

She poured some fertilizer into a cunning little handheld broadcaster and stood in the doorway of the shed. She stood there long enough for the shadow of the house to make its slow circuit from falling north to falling east. Before she began, she made a mound of her garden journals and set them aflame. She worked in that flickering light, broadcasting the reprogrammed fertilizer.

Kay Lynne salted her own ground, then used a hoe to turn the ashes of her books into the deadened soil.

And when she was finally done, she took the burdensacks down from the dowel by the door and walked out to the street. A bus rolled to a halt at her front path, though Kay Lynne did not live on a regular route. The sky was full of balloons, lit from within, floating away from the fairgrounds on the evening wind.

The Mr. Lever #9 said, “All aboard,” and Kay Lynne climbed the steps and took her seat.

It said “Next stop,” and paused, and then “Next stop,” and then again “Next stop,” and she realized it was asking her a question.

The end.

Christopher Rowe has published more than twenty short stories, and been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards. His work has been frequently reprinted, translated into a half-dozen languages around the world, and praised by the New York Times Book Review. His story “Another Word For Map is Faith” made the long list in the 2007 Best American Short Stories volume, and his early fiction was collected in a chapbook, Bittersweet Creek and Other Stories, by Small Beer Press. His Forgotten Realms novel, Sandstorm, was published in 2010 by Wizards of the Coast. He is currently pursuing an MFA in writing at the Bluegrass Writers Studio of Eastern Kentucky University and is hard at work on Sarah Across America, a new novel about maps, megafauna, and other obsessions. He lives in a hundred-year-old house in Lexington, Kentucky, with his wife, novelist Gwenda Bond, and their pets.