Twenty Acres of Taylor Swift
Down on the farm you can pick your own apples and fire a pumpkin from a cannon and dive into a tub of kernels but it’s Taylor Swift’s head, cut into twenty acres of cornfield, that everyone has come to see.
The girl who gives me my parking ticket says, did you see her yet, even though I’ve just arrived. The man behind the barbecue pit says, did you see her yet? as he loads my plate with ribs and slaw. A carpenter in the farmyard, in the middle of building what looks like a bandstand from boards bleached white by the sun, actually stops hammering for second when I walk past with my kill and says, did you see her yet? as he wipes the sweat from his brow. I reply, not yet! to each one, and they all smile, and say, don’t miss her! And I say, I won’t! By which I mean, I guess I better not.
I find myself a hay bale and settle down in the shade to eat. It has been hours since I left Atlanta and my apartment and my now ex-girlfriend. We had talked about coming here, to this farm, for at least the last three seasons, just another in the long list of plans we conceived but couldn’t carry to term. It’s why I pulled in here to eat. I still have a long way to go, but I wanted to do this one thing, to cross this at least off the list, to say we’d done it.
They cut a different maze into the corn each year, and this season it’s Taylor Swift’s turn; not the reinvented New York Taylor, but old Taylor, with long ringlets and a wide smile. There’s an aerial photo of the maze on the side of the barn and I have to admit, given the limitations of the medium, it’s a fair likeness. At least, it’s an improvement on 2015’s somewhat indistinct Garth Brooks, also on the side of the barn, together with other past designs: Harry Potter, Spongebob Squarepants, Abraham Lincoln.
The farmyard is scattered with hay bales and rough-hewn benches, an area of dusty grass dominated by a huge red barn opened up on one side to create a shaded eating area. There are piles of pumpkins, antique tractors, and sack-headed scarecrows in the yard itself, randomly scattered on the grass as though deposited by a retreating tsunami. The farm has only been open to the public for a week, and while it looks like they’re prepared for larger crowds come the fall, right now, it feels like I’m part of a dress rehearsal for the main performance. In one corner of the yard, the bandstand is slowly coming together, the sound of hammering keeping bad time to publicly-addressed country music that echoes around the yard accompanied by the sweet, fatty smell of the barbecue.
Most of the visitors are families, and clearly the entertainment had been designed with children in mind – there’s a petting zoo, a go-cart track, and a huge pit filled with dried kernels in which several children bury their hands and feet. At a far end of the yard is the pumpkin cannon, a machine that uses compressed air to fire volleys of pumpkins the length of a neighboring field. After I’ve eaten, I watch as they roll pumpkins down a barrel the size of a water main, pack them in with fistfuls of hay, and then set off what sounds like an air raid siren. When they trigger the cannon the pumpkins disappear into the sky with a loud hiss and a cloud of straw, landing in a neighboring field and exploding on impact to whoops and applause.
I look at my watch. It’s just after one, and I know I’m going to be driving all day anyway, so I decide to try my luck in the maze. I figure twenty acres of Taylor Swift will help me walk off lunch before I get back on the road.
Tickets are on sale in the farm gift shop, to one side of the dining barn. Inside, it smells like a bakery and looks like a holiday. They offer a range of farm produce – pies, baked and fried, of every conceivable filling, wooden tubs filled with popcorn of a dozen flavors, jams of every fruit – as well as decorations that embrace Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas – brightly colored gourds, festive wreaths, quilts, and ornaments. They also have a table devoted to Taylor Swift, selling CDs, posters, perfume, bath gel, and poseable dolls, though the truly discerning fan would clearly opt for the framed picture of Taylor made entirely from watch parts; a portrait in cogs, springs, screws and dials. Everything in the store, both edible and decorative, rests on some kind of doily.
A thin girl with thick eyeliner is typing something into a cell phone behind the counter when I go up to get my ticket. I imagine her at a Taylor Swift concert together with a flock of friends, all denim cut-offs and cowboy boots, sparkly halter necks and Stetsons, chugging bottles of Mad Dog and Cisco in the parking lot before the show.
When she eventually looks up from her phone she looks neither surprised nor interested to see a customer. I ask for a ticket, and once I’ve paid she hands me a metal button that reads Baxter Chevy, telling me I have to wear it when I’m in the maze. Then she offers me a map for an additional two dollars, which I refuse, but I leave the two dollars anyway as a tip.
Outside, there are signs pointing towards the start of the maze, though the cornfield itself is easy enough to find, a ten-foot wall of dusty green stalks that runs the entire length of one side of the farmyard and beyond. The entrance is marked by a white gazebo and a Chevy Pickup, all of which, as far as I can tell, is positioned at the base of Taylor Swift’s neck. A life-size cutout of Taylor Swift in cocktail dress and high heels is accompanied by a cheerful sign wishing maze walkers good luck, reminding us that there’s no drinkin’, smokin’, cussin’, or cuttin’ through the corn. Beneath the shade of the gazebo, a man in an orange tabard the colour of a pumpkin is selling bottles of water and toffee apples. I buy some water, show my badge, and after a cursory glance at a map of the maze that hangs from one edge of the gazebo, I head into the corn.
It’s quiet inside. The rows of corn seem to mute the noise from the rest of the farm, so there is only the sound of my footsteps on the hard-baked path and the rustle of leaves in the wind together with the occasional, distant wail of the pumpkin cannon. As it turns out, cutting through the corn would be next to impossible. The stalks are thick and solid and the rows have been so densely planted you could thrust your arms into the leaves and lose sight of your hands. The corn is so tall that even though the path is wide enough to walk two abreast, in places it feels more like walking through a tunnel.
Within ten minutes I am regretting not buying a map. After half an hour, I hate the corn, the farm, Baxter Chevy, and especially Taylor fucking Swift. The worn-out sneakers I’m wearing aren’t up to the distance I am evidently now obliged to walk, I’ve finished the water, and since I hadn’t thought to wear sunscreen, I can feel the back of my neck beginning to burn.
I walked a hedge maze once, but the corn maze is very different. The stretches of path that make up the waves of Taylor’s hair or the contours of her face are long and entirely featureless, apart from the occasional signpost offering directional clues, though since these rely on a knowledge of Taylor Swift’s life and times, they don’t help me at all. I start listening out for other voices, hoping to run into someone with a map so at the very least I can orient myself, but all I can hear is the pumpkin siren and the white noise of the corn.
There had been at most twenty cars parked in the field with me when I arrived, and I’d seen at least a dozen other families or couples in the farmyard while I was there, so I guess there are somewhere between ten and twenty other people along with me in the maze. Between ten and twenty people, in twenty acres of Taylor Swift. I’m prepared to humiliate myself with a phone call for help, but since my phone has no reception that’s not an option.
From my cursory glance at the map I remember there’s an observation platform somewhere in the middle of Taylor’s forehead, but until it comes into view I have only the vaguest of ideas where I am. I estimate that I’ve walked at least a mile, maybe two of Taylor and I’m at a junction somewhere in the region of her right ear when I turn a lobe and find a girl in a light blue dress kneeling on the ground, facing a wall of corn. She’s five, I guess, maybe six, though to be honest, I find it hard to tell with kids. Her hands are clasped in prayer and her head is bowed, her blonde hair falling down around her face.
I look around, sure that there will be someone else nearby, but there’s no one else in sight. My first instinct is to turn and walk in the opposite direction, not to disturb her, a baby bird, fallen from the nest. But there’s also a part of me that’s relieved that I’m not alone, so I decide to say something.
“Hello,” I say.
She looks up at me, her eyes wide, her hands still pressed together, silent. I can see she has been crying.
“Are you okay?” I say. “Are you lost?”
The girl stands up, her knees dirty from the ground where she had been kneeling, and nods slowly.
“I was praying,” she says.
“Okay,” I say. “Do you know where your mom is?”
“No,” she says. “I was running and I got lost.”
I look around again, hoping to see the mother appear along one of the pathways, wild with worry. But there’s still no sign that we’re anything other than alone.
“Do you have a map?” I say. “Do you know where you are?”
She shakes her head.
“Okay,” I say. “Do you know which way your mommy went?”
She shakes her head again. I’m torn between looking for the girl’s mother and risking moving further away from her, or staying put in the hope that someone eventually comes looking. After another glance along the path, I decide to take a chance.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Bethany,” she says.
“That’s a pretty name,” I say, because it’s the kind of thing I’ve heard people saying to small children. “Okay Bethany, shall we try and find your mommy?”
This time she nods.
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s go this way.”
I decide to walk in the same direction in which I’d been heading, and she follows close behind. My phone is still useless, and I think about shouting out for help, but I don’t want to scare Bethany and besides, I’m still expecting to find her mother any second. But after a few minutes walking and several twists and turns, I’m regretting my decision to move away from where I’d found her. I think about hacking my way through the corn, though I have no idea which direction to go in even if I can clear a path, which still looks impossible. And since dragging a five or six year old through with me will probably prove harder than walking the long way around, I abandon the thought.
“Jesus,” I say.
I hear Bethany gasp, an exaggerated intake of breath. I turn and she has stopped behind me, and is actually holding one hand over her open mouth, staring at me, her eyes wide again.
“You took the Lord’s name in vain,” she whispers.
“Oh,” I say. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“You need to ask for forgiveness,” she says, and I can see from the look on her face that she is genuinely concerned.
“Uh, well,” I say. “Forgive me.”
“No,” she says. “You gotta ask Jesus.”
“Okay,” I say and I turn my face to the sky. “Sorry, Jesus. Sorry.”
She nods, satisfied. We walk on for a while longer on shorter paths, following what I’m hoping are the inner lines of Taylor’s face, until we come to a large, oval clearing. I guess that we’re standing in one of her eyes, but it’s a dead end. I walk to where Taylor’s pupil would be to see if I can see anything with the additional clearance the cornea affords, but the corn is still too high.
“We’ll try another way,” I say, and then, in case she’s having doubts, “This is fun, right? Do you like mazes?”
“No,” Bethany says.
“Yeah,” I say. “Me neither.”
So we leave Taylor’s eye, doubling back along the path until we come to another crossroads. There’s marker in the middle of the junction, together with a directional clue. What is Taylor Swift’s middle name, it says. Leigh, Left. Alison, Right. Jessica, Straight Ahead. And there it is, my third regret of the day, never having picked up a tabloid in line at a checkout.
“Do you know Taylor Swift’s middle name?” I ask Bethany.
“Alison,” she says without hesitation.
“Really?” I say.
“Yes,” she says. “Taylor Alison Swift.”
“Well okay,” I say. “So we turn right.”
Bethany is standing beside me and holds up her hand. I stare at her for a second before understanding she wants me to hold it. So I take her hand, and we keep walking through the maze, Bethany now babbling away beside me about how much she loves Taylor Swift, her songs, her hair, her television appearances. After a few minutes, we come to another junction, with another set of clues. This time, I read the clue out loud straight away.
“What is Taylor Swift’s favorite food?” I say.
“Cheesecake,” Bethany says. “She likes cheesecake.”
“Not pizza,” I say. “Or chicken nuggets?”
“No,” Bethany says. “It’s cheesecake.”
“Great,” I say.
I kneel down and hold my hand up to her.
“High five,” I say.
She shyly touches her hand with mine and smiles.
“That’s cooperation,” I say. “Do you know what that means?”
“No,” she says.
“It means when you help each other,” I say.
“Cooperation,” she says slowly.
We start off down the cheesecake path. I’m beginning to think this isn’t so bad after all. Bethany is apparently Taylor Swift’s biggest fan, which gives us a fighting chance of getting out of the maze before sunset. I feel good. I feel like singing a song about cooperation, and if I knew one, I would. Bethany seems happy too. She has one hand in mine, while the other makes rabbit silhouettes with her fingers on the dusty path. The rabbit bounces alongside us as we walk.
“Are you married?” Bethany says, out of the blue.
“No,” I say.
“Why not,” she says.
“I don’t know,” I say.
Our hands part and the rabbit disappears into the air. There is moment of silence, as though Bethany is giving me as much time to think about this as she is. It was an answer I thought I’d left a hundred miles behind. My girlfriends had wanted to get married, have kids. I did too, but I wasn’t sure when. What are we doing? she would say. Then, at some point, she started asking, what am I doing? And I guess that was when she knew it was over.
Without thinking about it I guess I pick up the pace, and we’ve walked another few minutes when I hear a little cry behind me.
I turn around and Bethany is face forward on the ground, splayed out, legs behind, arms thrust forwards. Apart from the little cry she’d made, she is now completely silent, though she’s already making movements to stand by the time I kneel down to help her up. I brush away the hair from her face to check for damage.
“Jesus,” I say.
A delta of blood is running from her nose, and her eyes are screwed up to create the face of an old man in what is clearly the initial stages of hysterics, which happens almost immediately after she’s on her feet. Her nose is dripping with a mixture of blood and snot, making a mess of both her dress and her face. I have no tissues, and have to decide whether to use my own t-shirt or her dress to staunch the flow. Given that it’s already stained, I opt for the dress, even though this means lifting it to her nose and virtually ruining it.
“Hold still,” I say. “It’s okay. It’s just a nosebleed.”
Bethany just wails, though I figure that this will at least attract attention. I look down at her knees, on one of which is a dusty graze, welling with little pricks of blood. I brush away as much dirt as I can and dab at the cut with the hem of her dress.
“It hurts,” she says, between sobs.
“I know,” I say. “Let me just lean your head forward to make it better, okay?”
Still kneeling down beside her, I sit her on my lap and with one hand pinching her nose, and the other just above the back of her neck, gently angle her head down, hoping I’m not doing any more damage. She’s still crying and my hands are sticky. I had no idea so much blood could come from a nosebleed, let alone from a small child. I worry momentarily that she’s a hemophiliac, though I know the chances are remote.
After a few moments, her crying reduces itself to gasping sobs, and I raise her head to inspect the damage. There is still a lot of blood around her face, though none of it seems fresh as far as I can tell. Keeping hold of her nose in case the bleeding starts again, I use her dress to clean away the blood around her mouth as best I can, wiping away her tears with my thumbs as an afterthought. Still crying, she reaches out to me, holding on to my shirt and burying her face in my shoulder.
“It’s okay,” I say. “It’s okay.”
But it clearly isn’t okay. I wonder what her mother would think. And more than that, I wonder what her mother was thinking, letting her child run off like that. Who the fuck loses a five year old child in the middle of a cornfield and doesn’t notice?
But I know the answer to that. My parents lost me once when I was about Bethany’s age. I had wandered off in the crowd when I was at Disneyland, apparently looking for the Seven Dwarfs, despite having been terrified by them only minutes earlier. My mother, with my brother, had thought I was with my father, and my father, with my sister, had thought I was with my mother. The way my mother tells it I was missing for a day, but according to my father it was more like half an hour. I was found by a Disney Cast Member, and reunited with my parents at the lost children office. I have no memory of any of it at all, though my parents have a photo of me crying with Grumpy and Bashful. I wonder if Bethany will remember any of this, and I realize I’m sad to think that she might not.
Bethany is still crying, so I decide to carry her for a while. She’s clinging to me by now anyway, and I figure getting her to walk will either be a slow process or altogether impossible.
“I’m going to pick you up, okay?” I tell her. “Then I can carry you.”
She keeps crying softly into my shirt, so I scoop her into my arms and stand up, one hand beneath her legs, the other cradling her head. She’s heavier than I expected, but not enough to make walking a problem.
It feels as though I’ve been in the maze forever, though I know it’s only been about an hour. I’m thirsty, and for some reason a bar down the street from where I used to live comes to mind, one I’ve been into maybe twice in my life. It has no pretensions to being even remotely fashionable; it serves beer and liquor but not cocktails, curly fries and chicken wings and nachos and sliders. It’s just an average, no frills watering hole, and right now, I want to be sitting at the bar, drinking a beer, and talking to whoever’s sitting next to me. I tell myself I’ll do that, when I get out of here, and then a second later I remember I can’t, because I don’t live there anymore.
We walk for another several twists of Taylor’s face before I finally see the observation platform, a white wooden structure maybe twelve feet high, floating on a sea of corn a couple hundred yards off. It looks as though there are a dozen people standing on it, and several of them start waving and pointing as we come into view, shouting out Bethany’s name.
Thank fuck, I think, but “Look,” I say.
I turn my back so Bethany can see the platform above the corn over my shoulder. She has stopped crying, and looks up at the people waving. I wonder if any of them are her parents.
“Do you want to walk?” I ask her.
She nods and mumbles a yes, so I set her down on the path. She sniffs, wiping her nose with her hand, and inspects her dress. It now features a series of fractured red shapes where the fabric had folded when I’d wiped her face.
“I got blood on it,” she says.
“It’s okay,” I say. “It’ll wash out.”
She takes my hand again and we walk along the path, growing closer to the platform. I can hear voices coming closer, still shouting Bethany’s name.
“They’re coming,” I say. “You’re safe now.”
At the far end of the row, a man in shorts and a team jersey I don’t recognize appears at a light jog. Behind is a woman, who pushes past him as soon as she sees us and begins running in our direction. Bethany sees her too, and runs towards the woman, shouting out, Mommy, mommy.
Bethany’s mother is younger than I expected, younger than me by several years, maybe more. She reaches Bethany and pulls her into her arms, saying her name over and over, crying as she does so, rocking her back and forth. Bethany’s mother is wearing a white vest top and faded jeans and pink sneakers, and she looks like any other girl I’d see on the street or in a bar, and I wonder if this is what my mother looked like that day at Disneyland, her face wet with tears and tired with emotion. A second woman appears, and hovers nearby with the man. I smile at the scene. I have done this, I am thinking, imagining telling everyone back home, my friends, my parents, my ex. I got this right. I start to worry about an awkward hour with the reunited family in the farm dining area, as they treat me to pumpkin pie and pound me on the back. Photos will be taken and email addresses exchanged. Maybe it will appear in a local paper, I think, on a local news bulletin. Maybe Taylor Swift will hear about it and write a song for Bethany, called something like In Her Mother’s Arms or Angel in the Corn or Little Girl Lost. Maybe I’ll be interviewed by a checkout tabloid, and make a joke about Taylor Swift trivia.
“What happened to her?” I hear someone say.
Bethany’s mother is looking at Bethany, her mouth open as she takes in the blood on her dress, the blood caked around her nostrils, and then, as she looks over at me, the blood on my jeans, my shirt, my hands.
“Oh my God,” she says. “Oh my God.”
“She fell,” I say. “She tripped on the path.”
And then they are all talking at once, partly to Bethany and partly to me. Bethany starts to cry again.
“Are you hurt?” someone says.
“What happened?” someone says.
“Did he hurt you?” someone says.
“What did you do to her?” someone says.
“I don’t know what to say,” so I just repeat myself.
“Bethany just fell,” I say. “She’s okay.”
“How do you know her name?” says the other woman.
“She told me her name,” I say. “She was lost.”
I take a step towards them, at which the man, I guess her father, steps out in front of the group. He holds up his hand.
“Mister, you just stay right there,” he says, like he’s twice my age, though he, too, looks younger.
“Call the police, Rick,” says the other woman.
More people have arrived, another man and an older couple. I wonder if they’re someone’s parents, Bethany’s grandparents. They are all looking at me now apart from Bethany, who still has her face buried in her mother’s shoulder, as she had done mine just minutes before. I look down at my t-shirt, at the blood left behind.
“You’re kidding,” I say. “Why would you call the police?”
“I want to know what happened,” Bethany’s mother says.
“I told you,” I say. “She fell. I didn’t do anything.”
“Maybe you did and maybe you didn’t,” says the man. “Let’s all just calm down.”
“What are you talking about?” I say. “I just found her. I was trying to help. Bethany?”
I call out to her but she’s still crying, her mother rocking her in her arms once again.
“Don’t you talk to her,” her mother says, turning her body so Bethany is behind her, and Bethany’s crying picks up a notch.
“I was trying to help,” I say again.
The other woman is walking back along the path, holding her phone up in the air, as though trying to find a signal. The man still stands between us. Several more men join him. There are conversations. I am not part of them. I hear police, and doctor, and lawyer, and evidence.
“This is ridiculous,” I say. “Can we just get out of here and talk about this?”
“You just wait right here,” says the man.
He turns to Bethany’s mother and says something to her, and Bethany’s mother gathers Bethany up in her arms and walks back along the path towards the viewing platform with a number of the others. The men watch me from where they are, blocking the way forward, the way out.
My legs feel weak. I sit down on the ground and pull my knees to my chest and look up into the corridor of blue beyond the corn. Overhead, an airplane cuts a silent trail across the sky. One of the men swears. Somewhere in the distance, I hear the siren as another pumpkin is readied for launch. I wonder if anyone in the plane is looking down at the world below. From above, all they will see is Taylor Swift.
This will not be a song.
Andrew Lloyd-Jones was born in London, England and grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. He won the Fish Prize with his story “Feathers and Cigarettes,” and his writing has been featured in Blue Lake Review, Popshot Quarterly, The London Reader, Northern Colorado Writers’ Pooled Ink Anthology, and in the Canongate collection Original Sins, among others. Andrew produces and hosts Liars’ League NYC, a New York-based live literary journal and podcast, showcasing original short fiction from emerging writers.