I'm puzzled. I look at Mary for help and she answers for me.
"She twenty-three, Mr. Ohno. Just the right age for a girl, don't you think?"
Mr. Ohno smiles and nods some more. The skin around his eyes folds into tiny crinkles. I would like to touch them. Mr. Ohno is the first Japanese I have ever met. He is small but there is something complete about him. He has been with us for two tours -- nearly a whole year. He is a world-famous chicken sexer. His record of five hundred white leghorns in forty-five minutes with 99 percent accuracy and no deaths or injuries has never been bettered.
The soil and cropping wagon is a relief. It has been newly added to the train for our tour into the wheat-growing districts of Victoria. The wagon is glass-roofed -- all sunlight and air and swaying plants, a greenhouse on rails. We walk down the aisle as if down the middle of a field parted by God. The wheat in the good field on the left is tall and vigorous, the stems reaching out to touch our skirts; on the right just a few dry sticks poke from the soil.
the soil is hungry for phosphate -- use SUPERPHOSPHATE, says the sign. There can be no doubting the magic of it.
Mary Maloney explained superphosphate to me like this: "It's an earth mineral, a powdered earth mineral, the best ever discovered, and it makes you light up."
"How do you mean?"
"Well..." Mary's words were unsteady. "I'm just telling what I heard, not what I've seen, but when you touch it in the sack or on the ground it makes you glow like there's a light inside you. Dad heard of a bloke down at Drouin who spread it in the morning and woke up in the night with his hands all alight. They found him in the dam next morning, stiff with cold."
Sister Crock said his death was clearly a case of poor farm hygiene. But I rolled the strange new word around on my tongue -- superphosphate, superphosphate, superphosphate. If you drank the water from around the lit-up farmer, or perhaps just a little of the powder in a clean cup mixed with water, would you glow all over? If it lit up your body, would it light up your mind?
Sister Crock slides the door of the sitting car. It is another tunnel of smell. The smell of men. We smile and nod our greetings and take our places on the plush leather seats. A dozen men sit smoking, cross-legged, some still in their white demonstrator's coats. The superintendent is working at his desk.
There are two types of men on the Better-Farming Train -- agricultural and railways. Each is then divided again. In railways there are stokers and drivers whom we never see, guards and officials that we do. In agricultural there are stock hands, demonstrators, and experts. Only the demonstrators and experts make it to the sitting car, except for Mr. Ohno, who prefers the company of his chickens, and the new soil and cropping expert, who prefers the company of himself. The stock hands travel in the hay stall, where they play serious card games on the uneven bales.
We have an effect on the men. But not like we have on the animals. The men shut down for a time when we arrive. Their talk drops to a murmur and they draw themselves in, hugging their arms to their bodies, closing off their smell.
"How are your numbers, Sister?" An innocent but foolish question from Mr. Plattfuss.
Sister Crock takes a deep breath, then she's off. Attendances for lecturettes at Marnoo, average weight of babies presented, numbers of primary- and secondary-school girls, quantities of pamphlets and recipes handed out. She quizzes a few of the lingerers after each lecturette and from this has compiled another set of statistics -- miles traveled & mode. Sister Crock says we can judge the wealth and health of our country by the increasing number of motor cars. But when the heat is rising in our demonstration car the smell is still of warm pony and wet leather. Many children wear the stain of horse sweat between their thighs.
Copyright © 2005 by Carrie Tiffany
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