Guidance by Ken Poyner

The new hires we pair straight away with the new corn. New corn is more energetic, more eager to prove itself, yet easier to scare. There is more leeway for the newbies to make mistakes, more ground to tolerate error.  The new herders work frantically and diligently, get frustrated, lose control of a stand of corn now and again, end up wearing the stand out with too many twists and turns and loop backs and resettlements. The new corn is young enough to bear it. Over a painful time, the novice herders learn methods and reactions, learn what works and what does not work, and grow into being ready for the next level.

We see them standing in front of the partially tamed corn, hands on hips, sweat curling on their shirts, a whiff of despair emanating from them. In moments, they get to try to do better this time. In moments, we will see if they have learned anything.

When the corn starts to silk, it is turned over to more experienced herders:  herders who know that a stand of corn can get its collective mind set, be determined to go its own randomly selected way, when the herders need it to go another. If you cannot stop it, corn will wander right through a hedge, tear itself to unproductive shreds on pyracantha, belittle itself with the grass. It takes hard herders to get a dedicated stand of corn majestically turned in time to avoid damage or fracturing or unfavorable genetic mingling.

With second tier herders, they know what they are doing, even if what they are doing is wrong. They can spot the history of their own misjudgments. Less regret than develops in the novice herders, more learning.
Good mid-life corn, when it has had a mist of purified water and a few barrels of de-shafted sunlight, in its glib satiety can get feisty, can become a bit full of itself. Competent herders have to work the pompous edge off the corn, bring it down from its fulfillment high, settle it to straightening itself out, protecting its ears, thinking of the better kernel and how briefly that prime kernel exists.

The worst of the job is dealing with angry corn. If the corn gets left out and a stray storm of the infuriating thick, oily, hybrid rain collapses over it, the first herder that comes to the bruised corn stand, exercise it, try to position it happily at optimum location, can be surrounded in a trough of the stubborn. Having been coated and pummeled by the foul falling stuff, leaves pushed and polluted, some ears bruised, the corn looks to buck anything coming by. A stand of corn is hardest to work then. An hour’s job becomes a day’s job; a plan becomes the hope for an occasional success. What once might have been a step, maybe even a skip, is then but a trudge.
Those are the times that the best herders go out, make a plan drawn from our classic corn herding lore, become a team without units, a machine that dominates the corn.

If a herder lasts long enough, without too lengthy a record of loss, he might make ring master. Ring master is the position every herder wants to eventually be promoted to. The job is not really as hard as being a journeyman herder, nor is it as full of development potential as found with a novice herder — but it is closer to the profits. The further along the money chain you work, the more for yourself you might squeeze out of that chain.

New herders live at one end of the investment and have a full line of possible losses to suffer. Ring masters exult at the other end, next to the point where the payout sits with its full gloating geometry realized.
Ring masters herd the corn into rounds, tighten all the stalks, keep the corn calm and stable for the work of the harvesters. There is a lot to keep track of, a lot of concentration and attention to detail, but not much labor. It is a dance of inches, an understanding of inflection. The corn by this point is going nowhere. It wears its produce like decoration.

But herders all along the profession ladder, at the last, are a fairly egalitarian lot. We share one union, sleep our off hours around the same fire, subsist on corn meal from the same pot. The veterans tell the gullible new hires the same story that likely has been told by herders for centuries. Once, long ago, the corn stood still, strutted out in fixed rows. It could drink the rain that fell naturally from a prospering sky. The sun was direct and unfiltered and the corn was so grateful for it that it twisted its leaves to follow the sun’s slow day wandering. No sacks of purified water to be unloaded, no barrels of packed sunlight to be rolled from the warehouse. And no herders.

For a while, the newbies believe, and the old hands laugh behind them, bending away to hide the loudest part of their glee. A myth is always more agile than the truth. At the start of a new career, perhaps any new career, everyone wants to believe in strange, strategic magics:  even if they make no sense, even if they belie the craft in the occupation one has chosen.

Ken Poyner’s latest collections of speculative poetry, “Stone the Monsters, or Dance” and “Lessons From Lingering Houses”, emerged in mid-2021, and, along with his four flash collections and two other poetry collections, are available from book websites everywhere and www.barkingmoosepress.com. He spent 33 years working in the information arts, and lives with his power lifting wife, several rescue cats, and multiple betta fish in the lower right-hand corner of Virginia. His work has appeared in spaces as diverse as “The Iowa Review”, “The Alaska Quarterly”, “Leading Edge”, “Blue Collar Review” and everything in-between.