There was a full moon over the cornfield, lightening the night sky to a dark blue. Yet, the trees and houses and fields and valleys all lay in utter blackness. The headlights from two utility trucks pooled together in the center of a cornfield, cutting through the darkness as they met like a handshake. Two shadows fumbled in the cabs of their trucks, getting their equipment ready.
“Hell of a storm last night,” Earl said.
“What?” Henry asked, unable to hear him.
“I said it was a hell of a storm!” Earl said, raising his voice. “Imagine if Farmer Joe-Schmoe here hadn’t already cut his corn. It’d be a goddamn mess. Probably would have lost the Conduit in all of the shit.”
Henry had not heard half of what Earl said, but did afford the field a cursory glance, seeing the jagged remains of cornstalks in the haloed pool of the headlights. He pulled on his thick rubber safety gloves and walked toward Earl. To avoid looking at the Conduit in the pool of light, Henry stared up at the two power poles on either side of the field, barely discernible from the dark knobs rimming the horizon.
“Maybe if we had a stabler source of electricity…” he began to say.
“Don’t start that shit again,” Earl said, pulling on his own pair of safety mitts. His bald head gleamed in the light from his utility truck’s cab. “You know the boss hates hearing that shit.”
“It would not be so unreliable…”
“And I hate hearing it, too,” Earl put in forcefully.
Henry fell silent, helping Earl with the rolls of iron wire as he hauled them out of the truck. A lazy fog curled slowly up from a nearby creek, lounging over the field; glimpsed only where the headlights shone. Moonlight glossed the silver domes of the twin silos near the blackened house, burnishing them just enough to clean them of shadows and separate them from the sea of darkness all around.
The rolls of iron were heavy. Earl grunted, groaned, and let his end of the spool fall to the ground. Henry kept his end lifted, though the sudden imbalance jerked his arms and upper torso toward the ground, stooping him like an old man. He was eighteen years younger than Earl, but a hundred years ahead of him in other ways.
“Goddamn,” Earl swore, “I hate working out here in these bum-fuck boondock hick places. Can’t see shit, and everything smells like shit! And they are so goddamn pissy out here about their power! As if nobody else didn’t lose their power last night! Fuck, I pissed myself because I couldn’t see in the dark when I went to use the bathroom. So it wasn’t exactly paradise for me!”
Henry waited, still holding his end of the spool of iron wire, bent over and hoping that the sudden ache in his shoulder was not a pulled muscle.
“And they should know by now,” Earl went on, “that we get the city’s power back on first, then, eventually, if they are lucky and we feel like it, we get theirs back on. They should be grateful we don’t just let them live in the Dark Ages. Self-sufficient farmers, my ass!”
Henry did not say anything, but Earl gave him an outraged look as if he had.
“And don’t you start with your ‘Solar power and wind power is the solution to all of our problems’,” he said in an unflattering voice that was nowhere near accurate to Henry’s voice. “If we went to those, we would be out of a job!” Earl frowned, considering. “Probably.”
Henry waited patiently until Earl remembered what it was they were doing. With another grunt and groan and grumble, Earl squatted down and lifted up his end of the heavy coil of iron wire. They carried it— huffing and puffing—to the pool of conjoined headlights and set it near the Conduit. Earl squinted at the Conduit, a sour look on his face.
“Goddamn it,” he growled. “This one’s more than half-used up. It will need to be replaced soon, which means we have to come back out here again to stomp through cow shit. Probably in the Winter, by the look of it. Fucking hate this goddamn hick county…”
Henry did not like looking at Conduits, even if he had to install them everyday.
“We’ll have to order another one,” Earl continued, griping. “But for now we gotta use this one.”
The two utility men both knelt down beside the Conduit, the headlights at their back while they worked, readying the wire. Earl grumbled off instructions to Henry, even though Henry had been working for the company for more than two months now and knew the job as well as any of the old-timers. He was sharp to the uptake, even if Earl did not like to admit it.
“Don’t cut the old iron off until we attach the new iron,” Earl said. His wrinkled face was demonized by the headlights.
“I know how to do this,” Henry said, his blue eyes baffled by the white glare of the headlights. He kept his gaze to the side as he worked.
“Ouch!” Earl exclaimed, putting his finger in his mouth. It had been pinched between the iron coils as Henry unwound them. “Pay attention to what you’re doin’, dummy! What the hell’s the matter with you?”
Henry shrugged halfheartedly. “I don’t like to look at Conduits like this one,” he admitted.
Earl was apoplectic with disbelief. “Why the hell not?”
“They look like Cassie,” Henry said. “It just…just bothers me, is all.”
Earl raised his eyes to the heavens, shaking his head. “This Conduit’s a hundred years old. Likely even older! She ain’t some spoiled eight year old brat too mollycoddled by her momma to wipe her own ass. It’s just a goddamn Conduit. Jesus, man, try to be professional.”
Henry sighed heavily, then looked at the Conduit as he worked the wire. They unrolled the coil until they had enough, then cut it with a portable laser torch. Looming above them, the power poles stood tall, the old power line sagging between, snapped in two and laying in the cornfield like wet noodles. After a few moments, Henry sighed again.
“It’s just…it’s just she looks just like a little girl,” he said. “It doesn’t seem right.”
Earl was all utter slack-jawed disbelief.
“It is not a little girl,” he said firmly. It is not a she. It is a goddamn fairy. All right? They’re not fucking human. I mean, she’s got goddamn wings. Have you ever seen a human with wings?”
“But they have feelings,” Henry said. “They are alive and sentient.”
“Whoa-ho!” Earl said. “Big word for a repairman to use. Don’t hurt yourself with it, now.”
“They can think, is what I mean,” Henry said. “Look at her! She’s scared!”
“I know what ‘sentient’ means, smart-ass,” Earl shot back. He shook his bald head like a dog breaking a rabbit’s neck. “But I can’t see that she thinks at all. Or that she’s scared. The goddamn breaker helm is covering her glitter-spitter face! Fuck, man, she’s barely alive anyway. She doesn’t even glow no more. Not like those that are used in the movies and shit.”
“I know she’s scared,” Henry said resolutely. He had stopped working the iron wire around the fairy’s willowy body. “I can hear her sobbing. There are tears on her cheeks! Look!”
“That’s dew,” Earl said. “This fucking fog is all clammy as three-day old piss.”
“They can sing songs, you know,” Henry said, rallying. “Beautiful songs, like a choir of children.”
Earl snorted. “Never cared much for songs.”
“But you watch the movies with them. You just said so.”
“Sometimes I do,” Earl said gruffly. “So what? I also masturbate to porn with them in it. Doesn’t mean nothing. Doesn’t mean I want to marry one and let it vote.”
A silence fell between them. The silence subsumed the entire county and its dark neighborhood. In the nearby house, on the other side of the field, the sound of fumbling and cussing could be heard. A flashlight split the darkness in the house, glimpsed through the lightning flash of an illuminated window. A fat face appeared through the pane, and a flash of fire as a candle was lit. The face was porcine and disgruntled, like a beady-eyed boar ready to charge with its teeth gnashing and its tusks aimed to gore. It disappeared into the darkness once again.
“Maybe we should just let it all stay dark,” Henry said. “All of it. Everything. Leave it dark for everyone so we don’t have to do this anymore.”
Earl laughed wryly— humorlessly. “And for little Cassie, too?” he said. “What if she needs surgery? What if she needs to have her appendix out? Use the old ways? No modern tools and anesthetic and all of that shit that saves eighty percent of the population from dying slow, miserable deaths by age forty?”
Henry wavered, not saying anything. He could only stare down at the fairy. He knew the wetness streaming from under the breaker helm was not dew.
“Not to mention,” Earl added with a rogue’s relish, “all those people that would start burning other people at the stake just to stay warm, or to ease their hearts, or just for a single fucking laugh in an otherwise joyless grind of existence. People do fucked up things in the dark when they don’t have electric toys to distract them.”
“It doesn’t have to the Dark Ages,” Henry said. “Just the 1700’s. Or the 1800’s. Before industrialization began to poison the earth…”
Earl rolled his eyes, and continued rolling iron around the fairy. “And how exactly is Farmer Joe-Schmoe over there going to process enough food to feed everybody? It takes a lot of electricity to plant a cob of corn, harvest it, and bring it to precious little Cassie’s belly. Power for grocery stores and trucks and processing plants. Fairies power it all. If they didn’t, we’d have to use Brown people again.” Earl grinned like the Cheshire Cat about to pounce on the White Rabbit. “But that’s a big No-No nowadays. We can’t have Colored people out in the fields, picking cotton. I guess we could use White people to do it. You and me, I mean. Why not? Every color’s been used throughout history. I’m a little biased in favor of the fairies, though, because I wouldn’t make a good slave, myself. I’m too ornery.”
Henry shook his head. “There has to be another way…”
“And Winter’s on its way,” Earl said thoughtfully. “How many people would freeze to death without power? Or die of pneumonia? Lot of lives on your hands, Mr. Crusader.”
Henry could say nothing else. The immensity of the dilemma overwhelmed him. The argument was too big for a single man to grasp, and the problem enormous beyond comprehension. After a few moments, he took up the iron wire and continued binding the fairy. When she squirmed or whimpered, he paused, exchanging glances with Earl— the former distraught, the latter sardonically resolute—and then hurried to entwine her in accordance to OSHA safety standards. After a while, Henry spoke.
“I guess fairies are kind of backwards,” he said. “Like Neanderthals. And they all died out because of it.”
“That’s right,” Earl said with a sly smile. “They’re not even Stone Age. It’s almost a favor to them, really. What would they be doing otherwise? Just playing around like stupid fucking kids forever. Totally meaningless. At least now they’ve got a purpose to their backward lives.”
“Yeah,” Henry said. “It’s…it’s a necessary evil.”
“Not even an evil,” Earl said. “Just necessary.”
The two utility men finished binding the new wire around the Conduit, then cut off the rusted and snapped strands of the old wire. They spread the Conduit’s arms out at its sides, spiraling the new wire there, too, then Henry climbed into the lift on the back on his utility truck and they began to string the new wire—and the fading Conduit— up between the poles. They worked efficiently and had no problems following protocols. Henry was proving himself a very competent utility repairman. Even Earl was impressed.
The sun rose hesitantly above the foggy horizon, as if averting its gaze. Inevitably it spilled its light over the knobs and farms and fields and sins and guilt. Before leaving, Earl and Henry glanced up at their work one final time—the fairy T-posed in the center of the power line—and Henry was reminded of someone. Who it reminded him of, he dared not say.