The clouds came bulging over the plains like smoke. Juan saddled the bundle of maize on his back and looked behind him along the trail. He thought he saw a man, or the shadow of a man, the same texture and colour as the advancing clouds, following him. Then the man was gone and there was only the rain and the mud and the cold nights without fire and the rotting crops and the sick children.
The houses shone in the mist; the women had lit candles in their windows to the Virgin. In the Great Hall the men talked about using canvas sheets to protect their crops and tried to burn wet wood. Nothing worked. The maize was going white. They saw it, like a glowing ring in the night.
Juan had a wife and six children. He was the first to go back out into the fields, desperate and weak. He bent down and cupped his hands around a fallen maize fruit, still wrapped in a mottled husk. It had the texture of a cow’s teat. He peeled away the casing. Inside, it was white. Even in the cleansing rain its stench flared up into his nostrils. His hunger conquered his disgust. He jerked it to his lips and forced it down his throat.
He snatched up the rest of the fallen fruit, even those without casings, clumps of discharge mixing with the mud. He looked up, out across the wasteland. The man was there. Vague. The colour of the clouds. Dark. Closer than before.
Juan returned to town, smiling. He carried two buckets of white maize. Trust me, he said. So they ate it. They forgot about the rain and the hunger and the cold and the crops and the sick children. Where were the children? The adults all ate and collected the white sludge. They behaved differently after eating it. They abandoned their laws punishing theft and infidelity and intemperance. But then the white maize started turning grey, and its effects were less extreme. They ate more.
On the day the fields of maize turned black, the colour of the clouds, the rain stopped. The forgotten children came out of the Great Hall. Bloated torsos. They headed towards the fields, carrying buckets. And then back to the hall. Juan followed. He saw them lined up on the edges of the walls. Hands covered in the wet, black maize.
As if signalled by a bell Juan couldn’t hear, the children began drawing on the walls with their fingers. Slowly their drawings became more distinct. Juan cried out but they paid him no notice. They drew the figure again and again, and eventually Juan fled from the many images of the man who was the same colour as the clouds.