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Bellying Up

by Kathleen McCulloch-Cop ​ Carmen pulled the car off the gravel road, stopping on a short patch of dirt. Her breath caught in her chest. The squat brick house had always shown its age, but it had done so with pride. Now, with the porch railings split, bricks caked in dirt, and windows cracked or altogether missing, it looked lonely. Just like the other abandoned farmhouses that she’d passed, all of them poking out of overgrown fields like holy ruins. A dull buzzing sound filtered through the closed doors, as if Carmen sat in a cloud of locusts. She’d heard for years about how loud the countryside had become, but it still unnerved her to actually sit with it for the first time. She pulled her hair up and tied it away from her face. It wasn’t locusts. Just the overlapping whispers of every weed and wildflower wondering who this new person was. Whispers turned into outright gossip as Carmen shouldered her duffel bag and started towards the front door. The dandelions didn’t bother with subtlety, turning to ask each other who this girl was; what was she doing, didn’t she know that no one lived here? Carmen ignored them. She knew she should stop and say hello. But she wasn’t in a state to make a good impression—the drive had been long and confusing, with every other highway made impassable by cracked pavement crawling with roots. Tangled rose bushes still lined the porch like they had since Carmen could remember. She used to sit on the now-sagging steps, watching Tita Sofia coax the buds into blossoms that she’d say were the biggest of anyone’s this side of the river. The roses had known Carmen, and, gasping, they recognized her now. The reaction spread over the soil, her name passed from leaf to leaf, every stalk angling for a better view of Sofia’s granddaughter. The door hung crooked, obviously broken, paint flaking onto peeling linoleum. Whether the damage was from vandals or people desperate for shelter during the farmlands' great exodus, it didn’t much matter to Carmen. Inside, there were moth-eaten curtains in every room, and the furniture was dusty and damaged from exposure. The bookshelves had been left full, though most volumes were waterlogged, their spines hanging from the binding like esoteric viscera. In the hallway, the old cedar chest was seemingly untouched, sealed from the humidity. Carmen pried the lid open, releasing the trapped scent of honey and chilli peppers. With tears in her eyes Carmen knelt and rested her head on the faded linens, breathing in the smell of her grandmother’s hands. It had taken months for her grandmother’s estate lawyers to find her. She’d felt it, somehow, had been grieving without knowing why. But when she’d heard the words and it became real, the room went off-kilter, like how it did when she was a child, spinning in circles for hours just to watch the floor tilt up towards the sky. She’d taken three deep breaths, tried to focus on the rushed monotone of the executor. “Were you aware that your grandmother still owned the property? It’s basically worthless now, but since it was once a functioning farm, the Agro Department might be interested in running soil tests. It wouldn’t be much, but they’d take it off your hands—” “No!” She’d cut him off, harsher than she’d intended. “Sorry—you said everything’s paid off? All mine, no strings attached?” “Just have to sign the deed and you’re done. Usually there’d be taxes, y'know: inheritance, property, capital gains. Since it’s registered farmland, that’s all been waived, given the, uh, circumstances.” The circumstances. That’s what people usually called it. There wasn’t really a word for what happened. What did you call swaths of farmland covered in squash that cried when you tried to pick them, tomatoes who wouldn’t flower if they didn’t like the look of you? Out of nowhere, the landscape had changed, though no one was sure why. Old farms died off as the old farmers did, their children unable to convince acres of corn to bend their ears to them. Whole crops, dying out of spite, taking with them the last vertebrae of the ag-towns. Communities were bellying up all over the country, settlements going ghost at a rapid pace, while cities were overcrowded and underfed. You couldn’t clear-cut land for new farms, not like they used to—the old forests pushed in on everything, roots erupting through concrete, growing too close together to re-enter. Even hobby gardeners struggled to get a daisy to look at them with anything but contempt. Seemingly overnight, everything flora had grown a spine. So yes. Carmen knew the circumstances. She also knew the smart move would’ve been to take the meagre government payout. Instead, she’d met with the lawyer, signed the deed, packed up her sparse belongings, and drove across the country to the farmhouse she’d left years ago without looking back. All of this she’d done in a trance, as if she was a marionette and someone else was tugging at her strings. Through all of it, she hadn’t cried. But now, kneeling in front of the cedar chest on the grimy, peeling floor, grief pulled at her stomach, and she sobbed into the cotton sheets that smelled like this house used to. Like it had when she was small, when her grandmother was alive, before this house was just another abandoned shelter along another stretch of abandoned earth. Before the world had uprooted itself.

Kathleen McCulloch-Cop is a student and writer based out of Ottawa, Canada. She holds a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Guelph, and is currently studying Teacher Education at the University of Ottawa. Her first collection of poetry, Stem to Sternum, was published in January 2022. Her other publications can be found on, along with more samples of her work.

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