Walking the Dust
9: Dry Season
If the people of Wetblack Point were fighting every day with seawater that threatened to swallow up their land and hemp crop, the folks who lived around the Suntop Peaks had the exact opposite problem.
It was springtime, and I came to a town called Dry Flats. You have to hand it to these people; it was a flat-bottomed valley floor, surrounded by high mountains, and boy was it dry.
The head farmer was an old man, at least forty if he was a day, called Brode. His skin was a deep, burnt red from a life working under the sun — apart from his hands, which were black as night. He told me it was a good location because the mountains gave some shade from the sun, which meant they could grow crops.
There were even large patches of grass — nothing unusual there, but this stuff was green. Once you get away from the sea the only thing you expect to see is the dry bush grass that grows wild in the desert. But this was a rich green colour that ate up the sunlight. When I asked Brode about it, he told me the other reason it was a good location.
Before the Big Wet, the valley was filled with riverwater. Somewhere under the ground there was still water, keeping the soil moist. The town only had one well, though. Besides, how would he know what the place was like before the Big Wet?
Whatever the reason, stuff really did grow out there. The town only had a couple of goat farmers, which didn't seem enough to feed the whole town... And it wasn't, because these people actually ate more plant food than meat. Incredible.
The seeding had already started when I arrived, and some of the farmers weren't too happy about me watching them continue. They didn't want to give up their secrets, and I understood that. So Brode explained to them what I did, and asked them to carry on. They took a vote, and I was allowed to stay and watch so long as I never left Brode's sight.
While they were voting, I realised Brode wasn't the only one who had black hands — it seemed like half the town did. See, before the farmers started planting, a different group took the seeds and covered them in some kind of grease. I have no idea what it was, and not even Brode would tell me the recipe, but it was black, stirred up real thick, and stuck to anything. I put my finger in the stirring pot to feel it, and my finger was still black three months later. (It felt like some kind of liquid sand.)
Once the seeds were coated, they were left overnight. Next daybreak, the farmers put them all into big hemp bags hung over their shoulders, and headed out to the valley floor.
Another group was already out there, breaking the ground. Using thin sticks sharpened to a point they stabbed holes into the valley floor, a foot or two deep. The farmers dropped a couple of the coated seeds into each hole, then backfilled the hole with dirt. But not all the way — they left a dip in the ground to catch morning water from the air, the same way some people put blankets outside their houses for drinking water.
I was concerned they were planting way too deep, but Brode said it was just another way of keeping the seeds moist. Out here, nothing mattered more to the crop than keeping as much water on it as you could.
After I'd watched them seed a couple of patches, I realised they were doing it in spiral patterns. They'd start in the middle and work their way out in ever wider rings until they made about four circles. Then they'd move on to another patch. Brode said it was their honour to Mother Sun, and I kicked myself for forgetting I was deep in Sunner country.
Two days before I was due to leave, a foot caravan came through town. I didn't think Dry Flats would have anything to trade, but I was wrong.
There were a couple of huts no-one ever seemed to go in, with no windows. I'd been wondering what they were for since I arrived, and when the traders started talking I found out. They were storehouses, built halfway down into the ground, and bursting with what remained of last year's crops. Which, to my surprise, was a lot.
Corn, redsticks, whiteballs, marrows, pods, beans, leaves and more... I didn't even recognise half of what was in there. The caravan filled up with it, and I reckon they probably got a damn good price for it all on the other side of the Peaks.
One thing nobody tried to sell them was the sticky seed-coating stuff. In fact, nobody even mentioned it. When I asked Brode about that, he just smiled.
They may only be farmers out there in Dry Flats, but they're pretty smart.