The farmer was a proud and solitary man. Though his neighbors were nothing but kind to him, the farmer had always held them in a sort of contempt and rejected all forms of friendliness, until he gained the reputation of an unlikable hermit obsessed with his crop of corn and nothing else. The farmer was fine with the verdict; he would have described himself this way, too. He often entertained an unspoken dream of living alone on a desert island, with just his plants to keep him company. But now he was on the verge of losing his plants, his one love.
Late August had brought with it a savage and unrelenting drought, deadlier in each week it persisted. The farmer’s crop of corn, in years past bountiful and envied by all in town, had withered almost to the point of extinction. When he looked out on his blighted field, the farmer felt his own hopes of survival withering too.
The corn was his only source of income. Though the farmer lived alone, he had gotten into the unwise habit of spending all that he had earned from the fall’s harvest in the following months. Now, he feared, his wasteful behavior would be the death of him. Neighboring farmers who had once envied his impressive crops now pitied him, but he would accept aid from them no more than he would their friendship. He was slowly starving.
The farmer woke one morning to discover that he had forgotten the memory of rain. When he went to the well, the farm’s only source of water, he heard the bucket scrape stone and knew that something had to be done. Dehydration would come to him more quickly than starvation, and the farmer could already feel the spectral presences of both, looming on the horizon like two unwanted visitors.
He knelt in the dry, sandy dirt of his cornfield and prayed mindlessly to every god he had ever known and some he did not know. He pressed his head to the ground, willing it to become rich and fertile again, beseeching every mystical force in the universe until his thoughts devolved into one overwhelming desire for change. The farmer fell asleep that way, head pressed into the dirt, dreaming vaguely of a man descending from the sky whose face could not be seen. Like an angel, but with no wings.
He was awoken by the awareness of another presence in the field. Wiping his eyes clean of dirt, the farmer blearily looked up to the sight of a man standing among the afflicted cornstalks. He was dressed in a black suit. The farmer thought he was a traveling salesman until he noticed the man’s eyes. A deep, oily black that absorbed all light and gave none back, they were decidedly inhuman.
“Who…” the farmer croaked, spitting out some dirt as he did. “Who are you?”
“You called for me,” the man said in a voice as colorless as his eyes. “You are in need of help, so I have come to give it to you.”
The farmer’s prayers had been answered! He felt like rejoicing, but something in the man’s eyes made him wary. “How are you going to help me?”
“You have three wishes,” the man said. “You may wish for anything, and it will be granted.”
Isolated though he was, the farmer was no rube. He had read enough fairy tales and fables to know that he had to choose his wishes wisely, or else invite further misfortune.
“Can I have the day to decide my first wish?”
The man nodded. “You may have one day for each wish.”
“Thank you,” the farmer said, slowly getting to his feet and wiping the dirt from his clothes. He was not a hospitable man, but he felt indebted to this stranger. “Would you like to come inside?”
The man gave no indication that he had heard the question, but when the farmer moved to return to the house, the man followed. The farmer watched him discreetly as they walked. Although the man was both taller and sturdier than the half-starved farmer and the dirt was as fine as powder, his feet made no indentations in the earth.
Upon inspecting his cupboard, the farmer found that he had only a bread heel and some beans to offer the man and was relieved when the man replied tonelessly, “I require no sustenance.” Then the farmer attempted to go about his daily routine, doing what little he could to tend to his pathetic corn. He was aware that the man followed soundlessly a few paces behind him, but he tried to ignore him and focus instead on what his wishes would be.
It was late evening and the farmer was preparing for bed, the man looming stationary in a corner of the bedroom, that the farmer made his decision. “I know what my first wish is going to be,” he told the man.
The man waited, his black eyes two pits.
“I wish for my crop to begin growing again,” the farmer said. His stomach growled as though to enforce the statement.
The man nodded.
“I’m going to bed now,” the farmer said. “Can you leave me? I don’t have another bedroom, but you can stay in the living room.”
The man did not respond or move.
“Please leave,” the farmer pleaded. “I won’t be able to fall asleep if you’re here.”
But the moment he said it, the farmer felt an overwhelming fatigue. It was all he could do to stumble to his bed and lie down before he passed out.
He dreamt of things shooting from the ground with terrifying force, stalks that spiraled into the air to immense heights, past even the clouds.
When he awoke, sunlight leaking through his window, the man still stood motionless in the corner. “Did you do it?” the farmer demanded of him. “Did you even leave the room?”
The man’s silence continued, but for the first time, the farmer thought he saw something flicker in those fathomless eyes. He hurried from the room and out of his house to the cornfield.
His dream had become a reality. Towering stalks had replaced the withered, chest-high ones overnight, stretching far above the farmer’s head and casting shadows onto his house. They grew closely together, like bamboo shoots but far thicker and greener, with broad leaves that furled and unfurled in the wind like sails.
The farmer, craning his neck, quickly realized that he wouldn’t be able to reach the tops of the stalks; he could hardly see them. He grabbed the base of one, but it was like grabbing the trunk of a tree. Feeling the man’s presence once more behind him, the farmer rounded on him accusingly.
“How am I supposed to reach the corn?” No response.
The farmer raced inside and grabbed an axe. Then he ran back outside and, stringy muscles straining, began to hack through a stalk planted at a corner of the field. The effort nearly sapped him of his strength, but finally he cut through the base. It twisted away from him and fell with a crash to one side of the crop, its top dozens of feet away.
Almost fainting with exhaustion and excitement, the farmer threw down the axe and followed the stalk to its end. He found an enormous head of what looked like corn, several times as large as what he had ever been able to grow. But as he knelt and began to shuck it, greed making his fingers tremble, he saw with disgust that it was not corn at all. The green leaves hid a growth of black spikes, ordered in rows where kernels should have grown. The entire organism came alive when he tried to put a finger to it, pulsing like an angry organ, its spikes jabbing at him and slicing the skin of his hand.
With a shout, the farmer threw down the writhing, spiny mass and turned, furious and near tears, to the man who was always a few paces behind him. “I can’t eat that!” he said, pointing with a bloody hand to the alien plant. “Where’s the corn?”
“You did not specify the type of crop,” the man said quietly. His eyes, black as they were, seemed to turn an even darker, more sinister shade.
“Are they all like this?” the farmer asked.
The man did not answer, but another spark in his eyes, this one clearly of malice, gave the farmer his response. “You misled me!”
“I did not make the wish.”
The farmer spent the rest of the day resting, trying to preserve what strength he had left while plotting his next wish. He knew that he had to be wiser, to find a surer way to success that the man could not poison.
By nighttime, he thought he had it. “Make me the richest man in town,” he ordered the man. Previous harvests had taught him that wealth was the most direct route to power and security.
The man, standing again in the corner of the bedroom, nodded. The farmer, feeling even more exhausted than the night before, once more fell into a deep sleep. He dreamt this time of a fire, vast and terrible, and shuddered as he slept.
When he awoke, the farmer felt very alone, though the man was still in the room. “What did you do?” he asked, knowing he would get no response but aware that something of an awful magnitude had happened in the night.
The farmer hurried outside—and nearly fell from his front yard into nothingness. All around him, as far as he could see, the land was scorched black and utterly devoid of life. The farmer’s house and the field of inedible plants sat atop a raised plateau of dirt, with a steep drop-off on all sides. There was nothing else.
The farmer, unable to speak, turned with dismay and accusation in his eyes to the man—whose eyes, conversely, were alive and dancing in their darkness.
“You are the richest man in town,” the man said. “None can compare to your wealth.”
“I’m the only man in town!” the farmer cried.
“Do you not wish this to be the case?” the man asked. “Do you not enjoy solitude?”
The farmer could only stare in horror at the devastation of his world. He lived that day in a fog of shock and disbelief, occasionally stepping out of the shack to gape and then duck back in just as quickly, unable to comprehend what he saw.
That night, as the man stood in his corner waiting for the final request, the farmer collapsed on his bed and said, “Rain. Just bring me rain—please.” He thought now that this was what he should have wished for at the start. Maybe catastrophe could have been avoided.
The man said nothing, and when the farmer finally fell into a fitful sleep, he dreamt of nothing.
When he awoke, he was alone. The corner was empty, with no sign it had ever been inhabited. The farmer felt stiffness in his face and saw upon looking in his bureau mirror that he had twin tear tracks dried onto his cheeks.
He found excuses to remain in his bedroom, terrified of what he would find outside. His curtains were drawn. He thought he could hear the faint pattering of raindrops, but he no longer trusted his senses. His throat felt lined with sandpaper, his stomach had forgotten the sensation of being full, and his body ached with every step.
The farmer slowly opened his door, eyes nearly shut in fear. Then he stood gaping, speechless as he had been the day before. Rain fell in great torrents, in sheets so thick that it looked like a continual pouring from the heavens, an emptying of one enormous bucket.
But it did not fall on the farmer’s land. It was as though a bubble separated him from his barren surroundings. The farmer started laughing—frenzied, uncontrollable gasps of laughter that brought him to his knees. If this was the man’s last trick on him, it was a pathetic one. He could easily hold out a pitcher and it would be filled in a moment. He could even stretch out his neck and drink directly from the heavens.
So great was the farmer’s thirst that he decided to do just that. He staggered to the edge of his property, where the land dropped off, and laid on his back. He slid himself to the very edge, so that his forehead began to be pounded with the rain. Then he opened his mouth, in a sort of delirious joy—and choked on the flood of salt water that rushed into his throat.
He flipped over onto his stomach, retching emptily down the side of the incline. When he did this, he saw that the faraway, scorched black ground was all but submerged by the salt water. In an hour’s time, it would be almost to his level—and the farmer had a feeling that then, it would stop.
The farmer began to sob, but so lacking were the fluids in his body that he could not produce any more tears. The sky, however, continued to cry. Crawling backwards from the edge of the cliff, the farmer found himself among the hostile, gargantuan plants, now his only companions. His hands scrabbled for support in the ground, in dirt that no longer resembled sand but had turned into it.
The farmer leaned back against one of his plants and felt a paralyzing horror seep into him. He looked out on the sea that was gradually filling itself, knowing that his deepest, unspoken wish was coming true and that he was helpless to stop it.