Ezra Pilar Rodriguez Fiction Literature

Daughter of Corn

When she was eleven, Alex spent about a week out in the Missouri cornfields, crawling along the bottom of the stalks until she found a natural divot in the ground that was big enough for her lanky frame. There she burrowed down, surrounded by dirt and worms, and covered the top of the hole with the army surplus jacket her oldest brother left behind when he followed their daddy to Iraq, and then into their patch of Arlington National Cemetery. When morning broke, the outside of the jacket was soaked through with dew and splattered with manure and pesticides. It wasn’t the weirdest place she’d slept that year, although it was, perhaps, the smelliest.

On her first night among the corn, she pulled out the two stolen cans of dollar store beer that she’d stashed in her backpack and made friends with the scarecrow, whom she’d named Joe. She sat at its base, taking scrunch-faced sips of the yeasty warmth, and pouring out mouthfuls of the other can into the dirt around his pole.

“Joe,” she said, “I think we’ll be great friends.”

Joe never talked back, but that was all right. Alex could talk enough for the both of them.

“If I sacrifice a squirrel in your honor, will you come to life? I’ve read a lot of books on Wicca stuff. I could be an expert if I tried.” The scarecrow leaned to and fro in the wind and she figured it was as close to an assent as she’d get.

She planned to do it, her second day out on her own. To catch a squirrel and open its belly with a sharpened stick to clean out the guts with her hands and roast the meat over a spit. Something like a Boy Scout would do. She’d never been a Boy Scout, but Caleb from her first-grade class years ago had been a Cub Scout who got badges for things like shoe tying and not trying to pee uphill, facing the wind. Thusly, she figured that Boy Scouts, as the older and wiser life trainees, leveled up by learning to do more useful things like sewing their trousers and roasting wild squirrels. She underestimated, however, how difficult squirrels would be to find in a cornfield.

She settled for trying to catch a mouse instead, but, when the opportunity presented itself, she couldn’t bring herself to crush its skull with either her boot or a rock. Instead, she fed what grew to be a small collection of field mice, doling out the cherry pieces she hated from the cans of fruit cocktail that she’d taken from her mama’s cabinets before running away from home. The little mice nipped at her fingers as they nibbled and followed her around ever after, like she was Cinderella; like the grit on her face was just ashes. The mice made their own little burrows around the ditch she’d claimed as a bedroom and kept her company during the day.

She fell into a routine rather quickly. She woke around dawn when the sunlight grew too bright to ignore and the sound of tractors started up in the distance. During the day she often wandered, describing her movements like she was a narrator on a nature show. Sometimes, she’d slip over to where the Wheatons kept their horses out on the pasture and, if no one was around, she’d hang over the wooden fence and watch them graze, their tails flicking away the flies that tried to land on their haunches.

She’d daydream sometimes about sneaking into their barn and pulling one of the tacks off the wall. Their youngest, Kayleigh, was about Alex’s height, so she figured her gear would be the right size. Then she’d saddle one of the smaller ones—probably the roan—and climb up on its back and the two of them would jump over the fence before anyone could stop them, just like the princess Merida would do. She knew her mama probably had the bus terminal staked out and she wasn’t brave enough to try and hitchhike with a trucker. But she’d be able to get a bunch of towns over on horseback and then she’d find a different bus or a train and the whole world would be at her fingertips.

She’d spend the afternoon planning the whole thing out, including what to say to the bus man when she’d buy her ticket, “Just going to visit my grandmother in St. Louis, sir. My mama gave me money for the bus, is it enough?” And she’d dream of what it would be like to live in a city. Maybe she’d work at some grocery store until she’d saved up for a plane ticket to an even bigger place, like New York, where there were lots of people just like her, if the movies were right.

She’d tell the horses all about her dreams and work herself up into a jittery excitement, and then she’d hear voices coming from the barn and she’d run as fast as she could back into the fields. It’d be starting to get dark by then anyways, and she didn’t want to use up too much of the battery on her flashlight by traveling at night if she didn’t have to. So, she’d scurry her way back to her hiding place and get herself ready for bed by fixing up her curls.

The first time she’d sat in the divot and combed her hair out by herself she’d cried, hacking at the tangles, and clawing at where her scalp itched something fierce. Her mama’s hair was stick straight, but her daddy had curls like Alex. She used to spend an hour every night on his knee while he combed out her hair, section by section, applying all kinds of creams from the roots down until her curls were nice and smooth. When he was gone, her mama and Hannah had taken turns doing the same thing.

Alex had never really paid much attention to the order of things, so she kept using too much goop or not enough, leaving her hair feeling sticky and frizzy even after she’d done her best to scrub it clean. The most she’d figured out to do was use half the contents of a water-bottle to rinse out the mud ground into her hair, run her comb through each tangled clump, tip to the roots, and then scrunch a palm full of her carefully rationed goop from the top of her head down to the ends. It helped to imagine herself as Rapunzel, alone in her tower and waiting for her hair to set her free.

Then she’d braid it away from her face and eat her lukewarm dinner, surrounded by her mice. She held court before she fell asleep, practicing for when she was ready for her debut. She’d use her flashlight to light her path and do a little entrance sashay through the rows of corn for her mice, performing a little spin as her subjects raved over the chicness of her dirt-streaked thermal shirt and ripped jeans. The latest from France, they’d squeak, and she praised them for their good fashion sense. When the Sheriff’s men finally found her at the end of the week, thanks to the pile of cans she had foolishly left within sight of her sleeping hole, she tried to smuggle some of the mice with her in her pockets.

“Now, now, young lady. None of that,” one of the men in uniform said and made her give up all her friends. He had a scruffy beard, laugh lines around his lips, and blue eyes the color of her shoelaces. His badge said Smith, like John Smith she assumed, seeing how most of the people in her area weren’t so good at naming things. She figured he’d probably named his police car Ethel. In a fairy tale world, he looked like exactly the kind of guy who would give her hot chocolate and cookies, and maybe a ball gown if they had one at the station. Instead, he sprayed her clothes down with Febreze before he shoved her in the back of the car.

They drove her back to town in a silence only broken by both officers gagging at stop signs when the breeze blew her smell forward from the back seat to the front, and the periodic crackle of the younger cop spitting tobacco juice into an empty water bottle. She hadn’t gotten a chance to look at his badge, so she didn’t know his name, but she assumed he was younger thanks to his short stature and oversized uniform shirt. Alex held her brother’s jacket tight to her chest and stared out the window at the yellow blur of corn passing by. The Millers had a sign out next to the road advertising their yearly pumpkin patch.

It didn’t take long for the car to reach the outskirts of town, dirt roads lined with houses winding out from the main road. Alex really hadn’t gone far from where she lived, though she told herself it was ‘cause her bag was heavy with all the cans of fruit and packets of tuna fish in it, and the one roll of toilet paper. And she hadn’t had any clean socks when she left so walking on the dirt had hurt her feet too much since the bottoms of her boots were worn so thin. And, besides, walking along the road itself was asking to get caught before she’d even made it five miles away from home, so it really had been best for her to hide away until she could steal a horse.

As they drove through the town proper, some people stopped on the street and pointed at them. Alex ignored it. The car pulled up to a flat gray building and parked in a lot filled with different squad cars and beat up old town cars. The officers both opened their doors all the way and left them open. The young one stood outside breathing deep enough his shoulders jerked up and down, and Smith went inside. Probably to fetch her mama. Neither of them looked like they felt like touching her long enough to make her do a frog march of shame through the station like last time.

Sure enough, a moment later her mama came barreling out the front door, professionally bobbed hair blowing away from her ears in the breeze and the skirt of her pressed hostess uniform tangling around her thick calves as she strode forward with long steps that turned the click of her low kitten heels into a clacking stomp. The young cop scrambled to get Alex’s car door open before the one-woman steam train got there, obviously worried she might drag the kid out through the window. She yanked Alex out of the car, hand firmly fisted into the front of her mud caked shirt, ignoring the grease and manure that eagerly latched onto her hand. She shook Alex vigorously as she yelled; spit flew from her lips to slide down Alex’s cheek, leaving small pockets of pink under the general grime.

“A week. You scare me half to death for a whole week, over a fucking haircut? I oughta—”

She didn’t quite finish what she oughta do thanks to a well-timed throat clearing from both cops, who stood a few feet away from them with fists shoved deep into their pockets and their wide brimmed hats pulled low over their foreheads. While it looked bashful on the young one, Smith frankly looked uncomfortable. Alex sympathized. Her position wasn’t particularly comfortable either.

“You oughta take her home, ma’am,” Smith said.

“She really needs a bath,” the young one said. Alex looked at his badge. It read Anderson in the afternoon light. She wondered if they were like the hick version of the Matrix and had to bite back a laugh lest she get shaken again.

“Of course, Officers.” Her mama let her go and wiped her dirty hand on a white handkerchief produced from a tiny pocket that Alex hadn’t even realized the dress had. “We’ll be off now. I thank you for all your assistance in the last week.”

“I still think we woulda found her faster if we’d used the copter,” Anderson muttered.

“No need,” her mama said, drawing up to her full height, still not quite enough to tower over the young officer, no matter how short he might have been. “I did tell you she hadn’t gone far. A few men keeping an eye out and it only took a day or two.”

“A week—”

“A few days. Not a matter ya’ll should worry yourselves about.” With that she turned abruptly on her heels and started striding away in the direction of their house. Alex and the cops stood and watched her walk away for a minute. When her mama reached the end of the lot she paused and yelled, without turning around, “You better hustle, girl.”

Alex shrugged at the officers and leaned back into the police car to grab her bag and hoist it onto her shoulder and pull the jacket to her chest again before she trudged off after her mama, staying about a block behind the whole way. On the street people gave her a wide berth, which was nice. A couple of them clutched the crosses hanging around their necks. That was fine. They didn’t like her, but, really, she wasn’t a big fan of them either.

It took about an hour for them to get through town and across the small field, more of a meadow really, which bridged the gap between town proper and the land her family owned. When they got out of sight of the main road, her mama took off her heels and walked across the grass barefoot. She didn’t look back at where Alex walked, but she did slow her gait enough that Alex could keep up easily. It was kind of a nice walk. She had always liked being outside. It was why she’d gone to the fields to hide out. She liked dirt, liked the grittiness and the smell of growing.

When they reached the start of their driveway her mama stopped and sighed, her shoulders curving forwards slightly and her toes curling in the grass. Alex stopped about ten feet away from her, but her mama turned around and beckoned her to come up closer and then looked her up and down.

“You know, I’m gonna have to hose you down in the yard before you can get a real bath.”

Alex looked at her muddy boots and shuffled her feet. “I’d really rather you just took me out behind the barn and shot me,” she said.

“Too bad.”

“Can’t I just go back to living in the field?”



Alex shoved past her mama, feeling a bitter satisfaction at the streaks of mud it left on her dress. A hand came up from behind her and fisted itself in her collar again holding her up short, and a second whacked the back of her head hard enough a small plume of dust erupted into the air. When her head cleared, she was being marched forward up the driveway and into the front yard, where Hannah, Luke, and the twins, Angela and Mary, sat on the gravel and played with balding Barbie dolls that matched their own recently shaved heads.

“You’re alive,” Angela screeched, throwing herself towards Alex. Hannah plucked her out of the air with a gentle, “no hugs until after bath time.” She gathered up the little ones and shuffled them into the house, sharing a look with their mama.

“Bring out a warm towel in a minute.”

“Yes, Mama,” Hannah said and went inside, the screen door bouncing shut behind her.

Her mama gave her a slight push towards the side of the house with the hose, and Alex sighed, kicking her boots off as she went. The bag went on the ground a distance from the hose as well, but she didn’t let go of the jacket. She closed her eyes and waited, holding her breath. Her only warning was a slight hissing sound before the cold water hit her square in the chest.

“Run the jacket through the stream.”

So, Alex did, watching the water turn almost black as layers and layers of grime peeled away. Only when the water cleared to a light brown was she told to leave it on the ground, and the hose was turned to the clothes she was wearing. It was surprising how stiff fabric got when it was worn for a week straight without a rinsing.

When Alex had planned her escape from the house, she thought staying clean would be easy, assuming she could find some hidden stream or a well. The only open water source she found, however, was a pump about ten minutes’ walk away from where she liked to sleep, out on an open stretch of ground. The water was clean and tasted sweet and didn’t give her a stomachache. The only reason, really, that her attempt at running away had lasted so long.

But stripping naked in the open to wash herself felt horrifying in a way she didn’t know how to qualify, washing while dressed left her feeling moldy and chilled, and doing either at night kept her cold to the point she was afraid that her fingers might freeze off. The water from the hose was also cold, but the sun shining down made it bearable at least.

“Strip,” her mama ordered, once her clothes were cleaned enough to go into the washing machine

“I don’t want to.”

“You don’t got a choice. Strip or I do it for you.”

Alex undressed with fumbling fingers, shivering as her skin was exposed to air for the first time in days. Her shirt slapped onto the grass, revealing goose bumped skin covered in grit and peeling dead skin. The water felt nice running down her arms, parts of her chest starting to show clean, and she realized in that moment just how disgusting she had gotten.

“Pants too.”

The denim was heavy and waterlogged, resting low on her hips. She played with the button for a minute, feeling the ridges on the metal with the tip of her finger. Pushing the button out through the hole and then back in again.

“Now,” her mama said, gently this time. “You can’t go into the house this filthy.”

Alex closed her eyes and dragged the denim down her legs as quickly as she could, the soaked cotton of her underwear catching along her legs as she fumbled. She crossed her legs and held her hands low, hovering as far from her skin as she dared. She didn’t want to be seen but didn’t want to acknowledge herself either. Her mama said nothing, just blasted her with water and made her spin to clean her back and hair.

The screen door squeaked open and then slammed shut again. The water shut off and the grass squished under her mama’s feet. A towel warm from the dryer wrapped around her, along with her mama’s arms.

“Let’s get you in the bath,” she said.

The tub was already filled, the water warm and the surface covered in scented bubbles. Her mama turned her back and fussed with putting the dirty clothes in the washing machine, looking away long enough for Alex to slip into the water unseen. Her mama then knelt beside her and washed her back and arms and face with a worn washcloth and soft hands. Then she gently scrubbed Alex’s hair with lice shampoo, fingers massaging her scalp. She used a chipped jug to wash the suds out and a comb to slowly pick out the nits, one by one.

Alex found herself growing drowsy under the ministrations. Dust hung in the shafts of fading sunlight beaming through the window and rainbows reflected on the remaining bubbles. In her mind’s eye she saw herself a princess, being attended to by a handmaiden who would weave flowers through her hair as it dried and dress her in a silk nightgown for bed. She looked away from the reality of her reflection in the mirror across from the tub.

Hannah pushed open the door gently and came into the bathroom with clean clothes over one arm and set them down on the sink. She then passed the pair of kitchen shears in her other hand to their mama, who took them wordlessly.

“I want to keep it long,” Alex said, leaning away from them. “It needs to be long.”

“I can’t let you do that, sweetheart,” her mama said. “It’s the fifth round of lice from that damn daycare, and we’re not getting a sixth.”

“I don’t care.”

“Alex,” Hannah kneeled by the tub, “give it a couple months and it’ll grow back just fine.”

“I need it long,” Alex repeated, feeling her chest clench and breath begin to hiccup.

Her mama sighed, pressing a hand over her eyes for a second, her shoulders heaving up and down. Then she tilted Alex’s chin up. “Look at me.”

She reached up into her own hair and gathered a fistful without looking and chopped it off, dropping it to the floor at her feet. Hannah made a startled “Ah” that Alex felt echoed in her own chest. It wasn’t a clean cut, the shorn section falling in uneven lengths over part of her forehead.

“You’re gonna get in trouble with your boss.” Hannah whispered, as shocked as Alex felt.

Their mama shrugged. “Bald doesn’t make my work less good and it doesn’t make me different. Understand?”

Alex felt her body sag, a wave of exhaustion moving from her toes all the way up. “I want mine to stay long,” she whispered, but she didn’t know how to put force behind it anymore.

Their mama laughed like lemon pulp was clogging her throat. “Honey, I want to be a millionaire. Doesn’t change the fact that we’re three kids to a bedroom and you’re getting a haircut.”

Alex closed her eyes, feeling her cheeks wet as Hannah fixed what she could of their mama’s hair with clippers. Then gentle hands smoothed over Alex’s head in an apology as the scissors began their work, her mama humming goodnight sweet princess, goodnight as each curl fell away to stain the bathwater below.


Ezra Pilar Rodriguez is a fiction writer, playwright, and editor based in Baltimore, Maryland. Their fiction has previously been featured in Strange Horizons, and their full-length play We All Fall Down was selected for the D.C. Queer Theater Festival in 2020.