I grew up on a small-town ranch in the Midwest region of the United States, on land that had been passed down in my family for several generations. It can be brutal out there, with hot dry summers that threaten to suck every last drop of moisture from you, and unforgiving winters that trap everything outdoors in a deathly freeze. Despite all that, my family worked hard to make sure that our needs were always met, and that the crops survived.
Mom and Pa were two of the hardest-working people I’ve ever known, and they were strict to keep the work going. Most rules that my mom and pa were strict about were simply a means to survival, such as stay indoors when a blizzard is coming, staying away from the rocky areas where the rattlesnakes hide, always keeping water on you during the summer months, etc.
There was one rule, however, that stood apart from the rest. If we ever so much as considered breaking that rule, there’d be hell to pay. That one rule was that we must never, under any circumstances, go anywhere near the land where nothing grows.
The land where nothing grows was a perfect circle in the southwest corner of the wheat field. The golden fields of endless wheat ended abruptly exactly where the circle started, as if the crops were scared to go a single inch over that line. The circle had a circumference of about 100 feet, with crops growing around it in a perfectly curved line.
We call it the land where nothing grows because the circle is just that. Nothing ever grows in the circle, not so much as a common weed. Instead, the barren circle consists solely of dried brown dirt with cracks forming small crevices about.
Now it may sound like just a dry patch of dirt, but there was something more than that to the land. The land where nothing grows had an ominous and tantalizing presence about it that raises the hairs on the back of your neck. It feels almost as if it somehow stares at you, gloating about its impenetrability while daring you to explore your curiosity.
Old wooden fence posts stood around the land where nothing grows, rotting away but still holding the strands of rusty barbed wire that encircle the land where nothing grows. My Granddad had built the fence some decades ago to keep the animals out, and more importantly, to make sure we could still see where the circle was when crops died off and the ground became covered in soft white snow.
We were forbidden to go anywhere near that rickety old fence. Even Pa only goes close when it’s absolutely necessary. When I was young I didn’t question why we weren’t allowed to go near the land where nothing grows. As I grew older, however, I found myself questioning why nothing grew in that circle.
I still remember the day I gave in and approached the land where nothing grows. I was 12 years old and had taken on a lot more responsibility for the farm chores than I had in previous years. I could feel a pit somewhere deep in my stomach as I approached, but I swallowed my fear to satisfy the increasing nag in my mind to understand the circle. I needed to know answers to questions I couldn’t quite formulate, and something told me that the land where nothing grows could tell me those answers.
As I approached, everything else around me seemed to fade. The sound of the breeze fidgeting with the wheat was no longer audible, and complete silence fell around me. It was just me and the circle, everything else faded into a grey blur in my peripheral. I reached out and touched the fence post, my eyes fixated on the center of the circle where the whispers seemed to come from. I didn’t hear the whispers, but I could somehow feel the whispers in my mind.
“Come to me, boy, come to me and understand. Allow me to show you, young boy.”
As I reached to put my hand on the other side of the barbed wire, I was suddenly thrown back into the wheat by a strength that I had not expected. That force pulled me backward by my collar, dragging me through the wheat and soil for several seconds until I was released.
As I scrambled to get my boots under me I looked up to see Pa standing over me. I braced at his stature, expecting a spanking at the very least. Instead, he crouched down in front of me, putting a shaking finger in my face. “Look at me son,” he said in his deep gritty voice.
I looked up at him, looked him right in the eye ready to own up to my disobedience. Only, the look in Pa’s eyes wasn’t the look of anger that I had expected, it was much worse. What I saw in his watery brown eyes was the expression of deep-rooted fear, something I had never seen from my father.
He paused as he struggled to find words and choked back tears. His hand started shaking worse as his eyes stared into mine and guilt found its way into my soul.
“Never go near that circle again, Son, you hear me? You stay away from that god damned fence,” he finally said.
He grabbed me and pulled me into a tight hug, his hand pulling me in by the back of my head. The next words he whispered I’ll never forget. “I almost lost you, boy, everything dies in that godforsaken land.”
After that day, I kept even further away from the land where nothing grows. even as the presence of the land grew more taunting with every year I aged. It stared at me, even from a half-mile away. It called to me, alluring me to visit its old rotten fence.
One day, when I was 14, a severe wind storm tore through the town. We all bunkered down in fear of a tornado. I still remember listening to the creaks and groans of the house as it stood in defiance against the winds, and I was scared it would fall over. Nonetheless, the house stood strong, and sometime late in the night, the winds subsided.
I woke the next morning, still on the sofa next to my little sister who fell asleep grasping my hand. My dad was quietly putting on his boots by the door. “Come on, son,” he said, “We gotta go check the damages.” I softly set my sister’s hand down, and after putting a blanket over her, I grabbed my boots and hat, following Pa out the door. I went around to the back of the house where an old tree had fallen, missing the house by no more than a trucks-length.
As I broke the branches away from the window, which had cracked but thankfully not shattered, I heard the moan of one of the dairy cows. It wasn’t a typical “moo” you’d hear from a cow, but a moan of pain and desperation. I ran out to follow the desperate cries of the cow, only to quickly realize where she was. She had wandered into the land where nothing grows.
The storm must have knocked over that rickety old fence because only half of the posts remained standing. Ole Dianne, a 3-year-old cow who had just given birth 6 months prior, lay inside the circle thrashing about and moaning in agony, unable to get back on her feet. Her enclosure had broken, spooking the cows every which direction, and that poor girl had walked right into the land where nothing grows.
I ran to get my Pa, I dared not go after Dianne but I knew that Pa would know what to do. I ran out to the barn where he was already at work patching a hole. As I told him what had happened, I saw sorrow come over his face and a wrinkle creased in his brow. We hopped in the old pickup and quickly drove out to the land where nothing grows.
When we got there, Dianne’s condition had grown horrifyingly worse. The flesh looked as though it was rotting off in front of our very eyes, exposing her bones and muscle. Her eyes had glazed and blackened as she still gave feeble but excruciating moans for help.
Pa wasted no time, as he jumped from the truck with his hunting rifle in hand. He took one knee and quickly found his aim. A single shot rang out across the fields as the bullet pierced straight through the ol’ cow’s skull. Her head hit the dirt and her painful cries stopped. Complete silence fell and Dianne was thankfully out of her misery, having fallen victim to the land where nothing grows.
You see, everything dies in the land where nothing grows.
Without saying a word my Pa got right back in the rusty red farm truck and we drove straight to the shed to collect new fence posts and barbed wire. That fence wasn’t about to rebuild itself after all. By the time we arrived back to the land where nothing grows, Dianne’s body was gone, completely vanished.
“Is that what happens when something enters the circle?” I asked Pa.
“I’ve only seen it happen a few times myself,” Pa said with a stone face, as he lit a cigarette, “it’s different every time, but it’s always painful. Only thing that’s sure is that everything dies in the land where nothing grows.”
I grabbed one of the wooden-handled shovels, ready to start digging holes for the new posts, but Pa grabbed the shovel from my hands before I could take a step.
“Get the hell outta here son, this is my job,” Pa said, with his cigarette hanging from the corner of his lips. I objected, but one stern look shut me right up and I set off to make sure the rest of the cows were gathered.
I watched him from a ways away, though, as he built a new fence several feet back from the old one. Every move looked painful, I could see as he struggled against some unknown force to keep focused on the job, profusely wiping sweat from his brow until a newer, stronger fence encircled the land where nothing grows.
Something changed in Pa that day, something I can’t quite explain. From that day on his face seemed more wrinkled, his shoulders slightly hunched, and his eyes became distant. Every step he took looked heavier and he smiled less.
The next four years were not kind to Pa’s mental state. He started forgetting things, not eating as much, and smoking a hell of a lot more cigarettes. He’d go to milk the cows even though he’d done that just hours before. One day he even asked us where the hell one of our dogs came from, even though we’d had that dog since it was a pup.
I’d catch him, completely zoned out and staring out in the distance, out toward the land where nothing grows. You could talk to him, and it was like he never heard it. We begged and pleaded for him to take a step back from the farm duties and get more daily rest, but the stubborn old man refused to allow us to take any of his responsibilities from him. He insisted that he was just fine, even though we all knew he wasn’t.
When I was 18, Pa disappeared. I found that old truck near the wheat field with the door open and the engine running, but he was nowhere to be found. We searched all day, worried that he’d had an accident or medical emergency, but the search was for nothing. Finally, just as the sunset cast its brilliant orange across the fields, illuminating the golden wheat, I noticed his boot prints walking away from the truck. Those prints led straight into the land where nothing grows.
Everything dies in the land where nothing grows.
Even though there was no body to bury, we held a service for him at the cemetery next to the small white church. I’ll never forget when my uncle, my dad’s younger brother, grabbed me by the arm. He had those same deep brown eyes that my dad had.
“You’re the man of the house now son, you understand?” He told me in a tone that was both stern and gentle. “But you’re gon’ be alright now, hear me? Your ol’ man taught you right. You’ll know what to do, son.
11 years later, I still managed the Moore Family farm. I proudly kept it up just as well as Pa did. My sister got the hell outta Dodge the day she turned 18 and headed to the city. Hell, I can’t blame her for leaving this aging town. I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t crossed my mind a time or two, but somebody had to keep the farm going. As Pa always said, money don’t grow on trees, it grows in the wheat fields, but only if you keep it growing.
The older I got though, the more the land where nothing grows watched me. I still heard it oftentimes, whispering to me about my father. It’s as if the circle had grown stronger, more lucrative, more manipulative.
One morning as I was walking by, something caught my attention, something laying in the land where nothing grows. As I cautiously approached, I could see what it was. An old white cowboy hat sat on the ground just a foot inside the circle. I felt my stomach turn and my heart skipped a beat just to pound back seconds later. I’d know that battered and stained hat anywhere, it was Pa’s hat that he refused to replace. Always said that the hat was part of him.
I trembled to see his old hat out there in the land where nothing grows. I knew I shouldn’t, but I had to go get that hat. As I ducked between the barbed wire I could hear Pa’s voice in those quiet whispers.
“Come on over here and give your ol’ man a hand, huh?”
I got to the edge of the circle as the silence fell and my peripherals blurred.
“You make me proud, Son.”
“Pa? That you?” I asked. I know it’s irrational, but at that moment I thought that retrieving that old hat would somehow bring my Pa back to me.
I reached out, and the second I touched that hat, darkness encompassed everything around me. Shadows danced in the circle as agonizing screams pierced my ears and incredible pain surged through every inch of my insides as if my heart was being ripped from my chest.
That’s when I heard him, Pa, his muffled yells reached me through the relentless screams penetrating my ears.
“GET THE HELL OUTTA HERE SON! RUN BOY!”
I came to my senses and with every ounce of strength I could muster, I yanked on that hat and ripped myself free from the powerful clutch of the circle. The screams stopped and daylight returned. I did exactly what Pa said and ran away from that godforsaken circle.
I didn’t stop until I reached the house, when finally I collapsed onto Pa’s old recliner, still clutching that battered hat. After all these years, I finally lost control over my emotions and let 11 years worth of bottled-up tears pour out.
After what seemed like hours, I finally pulled myself together and headed up the stairs to take a shower. My body ached, my back felt stiff and sore and my knee’s popped with a twinge of pain at every step.
It wasn’t until I looked in a mirror that I realized the truth. At first, I was shocked to see Pa staring back out at me from the mirror, but I realized seconds later that I wasn’t looking at Pa, I was looking at myself. That graying hair atop that wrinkly face in the mirror was mine, as were the darkening bags underneath my eyes. I looked old and haggard. I don’t know how long my hand was inside that circle, nor what exactly it did to me, but I must have aged 20 years in those seconds inside the land where nothing grows.
I’m still doing what I can on the farm, but I can feel my mind slipping the same way Pa’s did. I find myself zoning out into nothingness, my thoughts stuck on the land where nothing grows. By the time I come to my senses, My coffee has gone cold.
The land where nothing grows whispers to me, promising me peace, promising rest and relief from my painful body and slipping mind. Most importantly, it promises that I can see Pa again.
Now, I know that the whispers are lies, but every day they get just a little louder, a little more persistent, and I often find myself confused and believing the whispers, even whispering back.
When I’m gone, I’m not sure what will come of this land. But if you ever find yourself on the edge of a circle of land where nothing grows, you’d best run and never look back.
You see, everything dies in the land where nothing grows.
Credit : R. M. Staniforth
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