Once, in May, a tractor near where the teacher lived in Western New York vanished beneath the earth when a farmer drove too early into the onion fields. The teacher, a month from finishing his first year of instructing teenagers, drove twenty miles to stare at what he had read was a John Deere, large and green, as it rose from the mud, heaved up by pulleys. Someone in the crowd that was watching said that the farmer, as his tractor sank, had stood, riding until his shoes had touched the soil. Someone standing near the teacher laughed. “A temporary Jesus, that fool was,” he said, “believing he wouldn’t drown that tractor.”
One of the teacher’s home room students, fifteen that spring, had lost an eye in a farm accident several years earlier. The empty socket had been stitched closed. Her hair always hung across the nearby scars like a veil. None of the other teachers knew whether or not she would receive an artificial eye or plastic surgery, but the teacher heard stories. The one he heard most often claimed the girl was piggyback riding her father like a model for the joy of family farming. The detail included each time said the girl had been wearing shorts and a t‑shirt because the early May weather, that year, had been warm, the soil supporting the weight of the tractor. Only once did someone, a colleague in the faculty lounge, say that the father’s black Harvester tractor had flushed birds and turned over two nests of mice before it bucked and tossed the girl. The teacher didn’t ask how that woman could possibly know that.
That summer, the younger brother of one of the teacher’s students tumbled under the harrow that trailed what the newspaper described as his father’s red New Holland. Before the service, the boy who had been in one of the teacher’s English classes looked at the floor, not speaking, when the teacher reached his spot in the receiving line. The father sat beside the minister in a pew apart from the family. During the funeral, the minister said, “Remember the eight years of joy that child has brought,” as if, the teacher thought, the dead boy had been that farmer’s pet. After the service, the father rushed from the church, his shoulders so hunched it appeared as if he was being dragged.
In September, the girl with one eye was in the teacher’s first-period class. For a month, her head always tilted down toward her opened book, she never answered when he called on her. In October, he asked her to read aloud a story’s important paragraph. When she began at once, the class listened closely. Several hands went up before the teacher even asked a question. Each week, as fall drifted into winter, she flawlessly read what he asked for. Always, the teacher’s first question brought an outburst of raised hands.
In March, the boy whose brother had been killed quit school. In May, before she began reading, the girl, without looking up, said she loved the story’s unhappy ending because everyone kept secrets about themselves that deserved punishment. Instead of the passage that the teacher had asked for, she read the last page, her voice tuned so perfectly to the despair of the characters that no one spoke when she finished, even when the teacher did not ask a question until the girl, after several seconds went by, looked up, her hair parting to expose her damaged eye.
The teacher, after school, silenced his car radio and drove into the country, choosing back roads with little traffic. He drove slowly, as if he was looking for an unmarked address. He rolled his window down as he passed a field where a tractor was being driven. He listened closely as he passed two more busy tractors. At last, he turned onto a rutted, gravel road, slowing further. He passed an expanse of what would become onion fields before he saw a deep-blue tractor. Though it was a dozen rows deep in the level field, it stood still. The teacher could not identify its make, but he could clearly see that the farmer was crouched beside it. Not as if he were examining it. The teacher could hear that the tractor was smoothly idling. Moreover, the farmer faced away from the tractor, his eyes fixed on the plowed earth between the road and where he crouched. As if he was lost in thought. As if, like the teacher, he felt ghost-like, and was waiting to re-enter his body.
Gary Fincke’s collection of flash fiction The Corridors of Longing was published in 2022 by Pelekinesis Press. The title story was reprinted in Best Small Fictions 2020. He is co-editor of the annual anthology series Best Microfiction.