Friday Night Frights: Red, Shiny, and Ripe | A short story
No tomatoes were harmed in the retelling of this story.
About this series —
Ah, 2020: The year when the everyday became horrifying, and the horrifying became everyday. As a nod to its particular brand of scary, we're publishing a new series — Friday Night Frights — which will, as its moniker ever-so-cryptically suggests, bring you a fresh horror story every week(end). We’ll find a signature spooky take on innocuous pop culture offerings and infuse dread into innocent tales, for a revisionist retelling that's the right amount of macabre.
A note on the original work —
This retelling is premised on the first story in a book called At Kindergarten, published by the Foreign Languages Press, Peking, in 1978. You can read it here now, or save it for later if you’d like to compare it to our Friday Night Frights version. The story, ‘Big Tomatoes’, was written by Pu Hung, with illustrations by Yin Chia-lang. It is meant to illuminate the benefits of learning the value of hard work early in life. No copyright infringement is intended with this retelling, nor is any disrespect meant towards children, communes, and the original’s creators. No tomatoes were harmed in the retelling of this story.
‘Red, Shiny, and Ripe’
I must have had a name once, a proper name, something other than this combination of generic sound plus title — a label appropriate for my age, gender and social worth.
But if I had such a name, I'm no longer identified by it. Now I’m only "Aunty Chang".
The children are pleasant enough, in small doses. Not so much when you have to spend days on end with 30 of them, five and six-year-olds, in this Primary Programming Centre that’s remote even by the standards of our remote rural sub-district, moulding them into state-approved junior citizens via an instruction schedule that — [pleasing brochure voice] — “rigorously balances theory with judicious practice”.
It's been a month since I was sent from the commune to the PPC. They said the change of scene would help. Help whom? My comrades in B-section were solicitous — overly solicitous. Anyway, all that’s in the past. When I complete my stint here and return to the commune, they will have forgotten. They have such short memories. I would too, if I didn’t have this journal.
The children are so excitable. When I told them we’d be planting tomatoes for our lesson module, they squealed shrilly, sounding like trapped mice.
On the first day in the PPC’s nursery, as I handed out their special shovels and spades and packets of seeds, they squabbled over who wanted what. I had to be very firm and remind them that good citizens take what they've been given and do not covet what their neighbour has. That calmed them down. No one wants to be a Bad Citizen. Even the children, young as they are, know what happens to them.
One of my charges volunteered to help me demonstrate the planting process: Hsiao Pao is a lot like I was as a girl — a precocious rule-follower, her braids as neatly wound in the late afternoon as when Nurse Lan puts them up in the morning. With her assistance, I showed the children what was to be done.
They are industrious little workers. Their flashes of high spirits and mischief have all but disappeared as we’ve settled into our routine over the past few weeks… they’ve been very well-behaved, in fact. I might even grow fond of them by the end of my four months here.
The days have been so very hot. In the nursery, the heat and humidity makes us drowsy. We keep at our planting: the children know this isn’t a game or only a lesson. Even their small harvest will count towards the PPC's quota of the sub-district’s produce collection.
The evening air is a shade cooler. My solitary corner of the staff dorm feels suffocating. Nurse Lan and Teacher Hua don’t seem bothered; they’ve been here longer… maybe they’re used to the weather. Late into the night, long after I’m in bed, they sit at the dorm table and gossip about comrades from the PPC. The people they speak of must have been before my time… their names are unfamiliar. Sometimes, I think they talk about me. (Do they know what happened at the commune?) They keep the lamp dim, and converse in low tones. But the light and their voices still reach me. I watch their shadows on the wall. They rise and twist into grotesque shapes.
Being in the nursery is exhausting. The children are as tired as me. Perhaps they too find the heat cloying, and get no rest at night? Nurse Lan assured me that there have been no complaints from the children; they’re eating and sleeping the same as they ever did… Caring for the seedlings drains us of all our energy. At least they're coming along nicely and will soon be ready to be placed outdoors.
Our little crop is growing well. Hsiao Pao reports to the plot early each morning to spread the fertiliser, exactly like I taught her. I expected some of the children to fuss about working with the state-issued mix — there are such stories about what goes into it. But they haven’t said a word. I was so moved by their selfless behaviour, I told them they’re good children who love labour and work hard. How lucky the plants are, to be tended by such caring gardeners! The children were pleased, perkier than they’ve been in a while.
A minor mishap occurred in the nursery today. I was teaching the children about the need for pruning — to cut off the branches that do not bear flowers, that suck up nourishment but do not produce. Hsiao Pao was squatting by a plant with her shears. When she leaned in and pulled a branch toward her, it snapped out of her hand and struck her across the cheek. Hsiao Pao was not hurt, only startled, but I took her in to bathe her face while Teacher Hua watched the other children. She’s got a red welt on her cheek, the poor girl. Maybe she was more shaken up too than I first thought because when I warned her to be careful while pruning in the future, she claimed that the branch didn’t slip from her hand, it wrenched free. Our little rule follower has quite the imagination.
The heat wave continues, and I was afraid our tomatoes would be affected. But so far they are flourishing! This has cheered up the children a little, easing our general dullness. I haven't spotted a single insect near the crop, even when the weather is at its driest, and it's been a while since we sprayed on the state-issued insecticide. At the commune, we’d never be rid of them!
Today, we built trellises for the plants, tying cane into lattice patterns. The lesson plan highlighted a moral about the power of the collective, so I showed the children how, in a trellis, each pole supports and is supported by the others. It’s a good thing I have my lesson plans memorised, because I’ve been so sapped by the heat and the close air near the plants. And I was distracted too, by an incident with Hsiao Jung and Hsiao Ming. I found the two children at the back of the plot, while the rest of the class worked on the front section of the trellis. They were squatting on the ground and whispering…to the plants? The soil? When I asked them what they were doing, they said “Nothing, Aunty Chang” and came up to join the others. I looked at the portion of the trellis they’d been sitting by. The plants closest to it already seemed to be bracing against the lattice. The leaves moved as if pressing against the trellis to test its strength. It must have been some slight breeze of course.
We had a storm last night; the heat wave has broken! Teacher Hua slept in the children’s dorm. She told me they were worried about their tomato plants, and she only got them to stay in their beds with the promise that I would take them to check on the crop first thing in the morning.
She kept them busy after breakfast, with a song I heard through the classroom walls:
"Sunflowers smiling in the sun
We're President Zhao's good children,
Building up good health from small,
We'll grow up able to answer our nation's call."
When they saw me, the children stopped singing. They were impatient, irritable when I told them we must wait a little longer while the grounds-keeper finished his rounds. Finally, we could go out, and they ran to their plot — even good little Hsiao Pao who always minds me — although I yelled at them to slow down. I felt sorry they'd have their hearts broken… they've nurtured their green wards so carefully.
But the tomatoes were fine. They were perfect. Not a single one had fallen off the plants. The trellis was uprooted in a few places, but is still upright... like the plants were holding it steady instead of the other way round. What a notion.
The children were overjoyed. They held hands and jumped and danced around the plot, and I couldn’t get them to quiet down at all. I called Teacher Hua to help me herd them indoors, when they insisted on staying by their plants for longer.
This evening, as I walked to the staff dorm, I felt an urge to eat one of our tomatoes. They’re green and hard, but I wanted to sample their sharp, tart flavour. I went down to the plot, and pulled at the first shiny sphere that caught my eye. It stayed put. So I tugged harder, and harder still when it didn’t give way. My wrist stung: something had scratched it… a branch, or a point of the trellis. Back in the room, examining it under the light, I see the scratch is a long one, dotted with beads of bright red.
Our crop is nearly ripe! Soon it will be time for the harvest. The children have shed the ennui of the previous weeks and have a nearly manic energy instead. It’s…overwhelming. I don’t know how Nurse Lan and Teacher Hua cope.
I’m glad to be going back to the commune soon. It'll be a relief I think, to be away from the children...and the tomatoes. There's something obnoxious about how glossily red and large they've grown. The last few times I've been at the plot, I felt them… leering at me. And the plants couldn’t be healthier, but when I'm around them, all I smell is rot.
A few days ago, when the children had gone indoors and I was taking a last look around, I found a dead caterpillar by the plants. Half its bright green body was squashed under a stone.
I've started to dream of the tomatoes: dreams pervaded by that odour of rot, dreams in which I bite into a particularly juicy orb, only to see half a caterpillar wriggling sluggishly out of the part still in my hand. Dreams in which I’m smeared then smothered in a bloody red pulp. Dreams in which I see a trail of squished tomatoes, their innards spewed where they've been smashed into the ground, leading into the PPC and I'm certain, towards some great horror. I never dream of the children, though once I hear a laugh that sounds like Hsiao Pao's, just beyond a dark corner I'm too afraid to look around.
We will be harvesting the tomatoes the day after tomorrow. The children already know the right way to pluck the tomatoes, how the fingers must be curled around the branches for the neatest job. This morning, I half-heartedly taught them a song:
"Big tomatoes a-plenty,
Red and shining and ripe,
You pick some and I will too,
Our baskets filled to the brim."
Once they learned it, the children sang the verse over and over. Hsiao Pao asked me if I thought the tomatoes would like the song. What gave her such a peculiar idea?
The children were down at the plot a long time today, they wanted to count the tomatoes before tomorrow’s picking. They wouldn’t stop chanting that song. I came to the nursery for a breather, keeping an eye on them through the glass.
The children are so odd sometimes… when they sensed me watching them, they quit bustling around the plot and lined up in front of the plants. They looked almost... protective of the tomatoes, with their shovels in one hand and shears in the other. I will scold them tomorrow, when I’m not so tired. They mustn’t take the shears out when they’re not needed. They could hurt themselves. And I’ll ask them too what they meant by staring and staring at me.
I can’t wait for this to be over.
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