Wheat, wheat. My driver turned the corner into the farmhouse lane, lined on both sides by the last of the fields. On Earth, they call it wheat. Here, going on for miles, wheat was called something that sounded like “loofa,” according to my taciturn driver, mumbling Gates through the brownish chaw that stretched his cheek.

My first impression, from the look of the farm — Currier and Ives, with the motion of titanium. If you ignored the guide units tucked discretely into everything. Deere-compatible units, the file on Gates had said. But if you focused your attention on the wonderful fit-together feel of the place, the guide units disappeared. Instead, a deep contentment. Gates was actually nothing like the file I had read.

As we pulled up to the house, a large man with broad shoulders and a huge head stepped onto the porch. Several children playing on a small manicured patch of grass stopped their game and stood respectfully.

“Welcome, John Deere,” the man said in accented, but understandable Neutral, in one of those baritones associated with authority. He wiped his left hand on a muddy pants leg and extended it. I didn’t correct him. From his greying Mennonite beard to his astonishingly big feet, he didn’t look like he would relish the experience.

“I am Corbenc Tsanctisec.” the farmer said. “We enjoy the fact that you are here.” A lithe, tanned and much younger woman stepped out from behind him. “This is my wife, Estina,” he said. “You have come a long way, Mr. Deere. Estina will take you to a room where you can clean yourself. I have some machinery to attend to — John Deere should understand about that, no? I will finish and clean myself and come for you.”

Estina led me carefully over a thick threshold and down an entryway with hooks holding smocks, aprons and many, many hats.

We made our way through a living room overfilled with couches and chairs. Estina indicated a hallway. She gave me a winning smile. She uttered a string of syllables and three or four small tow-headed children scattered safely out of the way. We had to step over one child, napping in a doorway.

Stopping at the next room, “Welcome to Gates,” Estina said, in halting Neutral.

“Nice to be here,” I answered, more chattily than I intended, making her blush. “Excuse — I have to speak not much Neutral often,” she said prettily, then did something very like a curtsey and left.

A bed mostly filled one corner of the good-sized room, a thick quilt folded on top. Embroidered into the panels were fields like I saw outside, four in a group. Three golden, one covered with a dark hue.

There was a writing table with a green-shaded lamp and a Mid-Galactic Corp. Standard Interface. On the wall, a needlepoint of what looked like a chicken standing proudly over an egg, with symbols sewn in beneath. I stroked a row of six crossed lines that looked religious. Beneath the hanging stood a small table with a basin of water and fresh towels.

Being new to the district I didn’t speak Gates. I hadn’t even heard it spoken on this junket, except by my big driver, who’d muttered a few words when he scooped me out of the surface transport. Still the language didn’t sound as I expected. Can phonemes be both musical and guttural at once? And why would anybody bother to learn Gates? The only people who spoke Gates, lived on Gates. A hot planet, Gates. Too close too often to a too hot sun. And humid. Good for growing, was Gates’ reputation. The “loofa” had seemed thick and lush and, come to think of it, so had Estina. Tanned and thick, like a hot cappuccino shake. Estina’s bush, I thought wickedly. I opened my workcase and downloaded a few brochures, a John Deere universal calendar and some proprietary games for the kids. For Estina, the first half of the Deere Young Wife’s Series for Traditional Planets — “Solvents to Remove Engine Grease.” “Whether you fix or wash the clothes of the fixer, you’ll need these tips” said the cartoon balloon coming out of the mouth of a perky mulatto.

What had Phelps said about Gates? Why did the language seem different from what she’d had me study? Why did I feel so unprepared? Phelps! The bitch left the district a mess, the backorders overflowing. Now she screwed up the Cultural Sensitivity File for Gates? Some accident.

I knocked data and discovered everything Phelps had given me about Gates (2.765.439) was actually applicable to Getz (2.765.493) — only about 60 light years off, Phelps! A quick check of the network told me the real file for Gates 2.765.439 had been trashed.

“Friggin’ nephew of whosis-whatsis — eat shit!” were Phelps’ last words to me at the sector station where she scattered the password disks and (I thought) salient files onto the floor of my transport cabin before heading back to headquarters to be fired.

A floorboard creaked and I looked over to see a boy of about two leaning on the jamb. As blonde and blue-eyed as Estina was dark, he sucked on an index finger and then stuck it in his nose. I laughed and he toddled into the room, jabbering in the guttural Gates. “Loofa,” I said, the only Gates word I was sure of. The wheat growing outside.

He pointed to his rear.

“Loofa, Loofa,” he answered, ending in a string of monosyllables I couldn’t understand. So I switched on the workcase microphone and asked to translate. “Big (colloquialism; unable to decipher; retry) coming. Everyone talks about it. Father and Mother gone all day. Everybody busy.”

I aimed the case camera at the saying on the needlepoint. “From the Portal nearest Center of Gates comes the Greatest of that which is Holy.”

Religious. I was right. The boy seemed interested in the buttons on my shirt. His own smock fastened with little ties. I studied him: almost classically Terran, except for the double earlobe. He yawned.

“Do you have (a personal/sexual relationship with; colloquialism unclear; retry),” the boy evidently was asking.

“I’m here to sell your father farm machinery to make the `loofa’ grow better,” I said to him in Neutral, though I was sure he wouldn’t understand.

“Loofa,” he said happily and plied his hand into the sensitive innards of my workcase.

`No!” I said and leaped forward to grab his hand — a little too hard. He looked at me and I thought he would cry — opening his mouth into what at first looked like a scream but gravitated into an enormous yawn. His eyes closed and he slumped to the floor.

I knelt down next to the boy and laid him out flat. He was breathing deeply and steadily, I could see that. But he appeared to be totally unconscious, totally unaware of anything happening. Comatose. Was I not supposed to have physical contact with Gates children? Wasn’t there that group on New Amman that went crazy if you touched their food with your left hand?

“John Deere,” came the deep voice of Corbenc Tsanctisec, as I looked up from the supine body of his young son.

“Do not worry. You have not erred,” he said in Neutral. “Levi is in –” he used a Gates word — “tantos. Like your sleep, but… periodically often.”

Tantos, I thought. Death, sleep. That word I recognized from deep within the roots of Neutral.

Tsanctisec continued,”I just awakened from my tantos. Before you come. I am older, so my tantos are shorter. Only 15 cycles of the sixty. When I can get it. When I am old, my tantos will again grow long, John Deere.” He indicated the sleeping boy.

“I should tell you that my name is not John Deere,” I said.

“That is my company name.”

“What is your name?”

“Actually… Milton Bradley,” I said, which is true. Corbenc Tsanctisec didn’t even crack a smile. There are some advantages to working the outplanets after all.


I saw my hairy driver again as Tsanctisec and I toured his spread — as impressive up close as from a distance. Fences, lanes, well pumps — everything shiny, in perfect order. The last time Tsanctisec’s machines had been the latest thing off the assembly line was 100 years ago, but the relics were so well maintained they looked nearly good as new.

The animals were calm and fat, torpid, slowly basting themselves with sweat. Something basically like a half-sized ox prowled free. Like I said, the chickens looked identical to those at home.

Home, where? When? Eight weeks my time home, if I paid premium. So far to be away.

Here I was on an outplanet for the very first time and, settled planet or not, I would show my Uncle Chalmer and “friggin'” Phelps just what I could do. Because I like selling.

It’s these times — when I get epiphanies — that I most love my job. Sales is sales and it has its sleazy side. But, ah, the opportunity to travel. “To get by on a shoeshine and smile,” as somebody once said — that’s worth a lot to me.

Because you really do try to make people like you so they will buy from you. And when they buy from you, then you do like them. It’s a kind of relationship whose boundaries are very neat and clear, like the fenced borders of Tsanctisec’s farm.

So I vowed, despite the mess-up (intentional, Senorita Phelps?), that I would do my best to understand these Gates folk, to get inside their skins. Not try to change them. The new creed of the Deere salesman: “We will design our goods to fit their lives — they need not change for us,” said Uncle Chal, my mother’s brother and the regional vice president for communications, on the Deere commercials playing all over the quadrant.

To understand my customers was my goal. I would start with my big driver, who was sweating in his sleep, sitting upright, his back against a fence post, with his broad-brimmed hat propped on his face to ward off the sun.

The big guy began to stir and wipe the sweat off his brow into his hair. He smiled at Tsanctisec, scowled at me, got unsteadily to his feet and dusted off his boot tops.

“Good Tantos,” said Tsanctisec in Neutral.

“Good Tantos,” my driver answered and looked at me.

“Good… tantos?” I said and they both nodded gravely. I took an opportunity to try using more complicated Neutral. “Mr. Tsanctisec, you have a lovely farm, I really cannot imagine a finer one. But I think I can offer you an easier one to run. Science has changed machinery a lot since your equipment was manufactured.” Here I nodded at the driver. “And your employees can be made happier and more productive.”

The driver looked at Tsantisec questioningly and the older man quickly translated. They both broke into guffaws. “John…Milton Bradley,” Tsantisec said. “You think we can be made happier and more productive with science? Has your home no history?”

The driver spoke in Gates.

“Torghe says Milton Bradley is a man with many fantasies.”

“Really,” I insisted. “Tilling, planting, harvesting, we can help with all that. The loofa.”

Now Tsanctisec was amazed. “You can help me with my loofa?” He spoke quickly to the driver and this time, he and Tsanctisec had to hold each other up. They were laughing so hard they didn’t notice Estina waving and calling in the distance.

A young girl ran down the lane toward us, kicking up dust. Behind her, behind the house, I saw the dark cloud for the first time. Like brown smoke rising. Torghe and Tsanctisec continued laughing. As the girl got closer, Estina’s cries became more urgent.

“Rebbe, Rebbe,” said the panting girl, pointing toward the nearing cloud and jumping up and down.

Both men’s heads jerked and they stopped laughing.

And then, as the last of Gates’ sun was shut out by the growing darkness, they, too, muttered “Rebbe.”

And then the “storm ” hit us. A million parts of it, living, hiving things, covering me, weaving instantly inside my clothes. My mouth tasted suddenly bitter, my skin tingled. Gulping for air, I swallowed my bile and God knows what else. Insects of some type, a storm of insects, thick as night, fulsome as dried oatmeal, filling the space between me and Torghe and the girl and soon — Jesus, Moses, Muhammad Ali — the very air itself, as the insect bodies seemed to stuff themselves into my mouth, my ears, the tear ducts of my eyes. I tried to study them — one was actually crawling on my eye — tried not to panic. Tried to see through the cloud to where Corbenc Tsanctisec and company danced with glee.

Glee? I wiped the bugs off my face and lurched closer. “Rebbe!” shouted an exuberant Tsanctisec, spreading his arms into the storm, “Our harvest… harvest holiday… like… you have… Thanksgiving!”

Grandma and the turkey and Pilgrims? Actually, my family did celebrate Yankee Thanksgiving, one of the culturals we brought with us from old Terra when we moved when I was a baby.

“Rebbe…” said Corbenc Tsanctisec, plucking a fat insect off my hairline and holding it up for me to see. “Thanksgiving…”

Torghe was already running off with the girl. “Sorry, Milton Bradley,” Tsanctisec said. “Harvest… rebbe.”

In a second he, too, was gone.

So I pressed into the swarm rolling over the road between me and the house. The closer I got to the fields, the less interested the insects seemed in me and the more in the stalks of grain. Every stalk, every seed pod became a living shroud of insect bodies. Here I could breathe and look over the fields, the immense blanket of insects. The “loofa” must somehow attract them, I thought.

Scores of farmhands, friends and neighbors were arriving in trucks with great piles of what looked like old-time animal travel kennels. These the men and women carried into the chest high fields and ran through the thickest part of the insects, as though they were scooping floating sand. For their part, the insects were too busy feasting to notice. Without a word to each other, the Gates folk soon formed neat lines, a bucket brigade of sorts, that smoothed transport of the filled kennels from the fields to the trucks.

It was then that I saw Estina, hair piled dark on her head, skirt tied into Turkish pants, fists full of wriggling creatures, lean over to kiss Torghe on his muscular neck.

I felt a hand on my arm. Tsanctisec. “They are young and strong,” he said. Wasn’t he going to stop them?

“The beauty of the rebbe…,” Tsanctisec said. Then, mid-sentence, he walked off to help straighten a motorized cart that had upended from the weight of its insect load.


I don’t know how many hours passed before I saw Tsanctisec again. The adults I did see played their old machinery like musical instruments, labored in a sweet harmony. Soon, adults carrying water joined those in the fields and the harvesters let the cool water wash over their faces and soak their tunics. Seeing so much done by hand was like an old Terran motion picture, the world before drones when people still played the biggest part.

As the hours wore on, the harvesters began to tire and several actually slipped into tantos. Loving hands pulled them off to the side. Two women carried a sleeping young man out of the fields and set him by me. I watched him slowly become decorated with rebbe. Strange to see him sleep so peacefully. Rebbe might munch on the odd dead hair or piece of loose skin, but they were interested mainly in the cultivated grain and picked any bits of it completely off him. He would awake looking groomed. The littlest children danced their own version of the saraband of the fields, filling their small buckets full of insects and emptying them over each other. When the youngsters fell into Tantos, adults carried them to a manger of straw.

As I watched a dark-skinned girl of about nine being gently removed from the field, I felt an arm go around my shoulder and I found myself half-slumping against the broad chest of Corbenc Tsanctisec.

The smile on Tsantisec’s face, I could almost describe as intoxicated. Work, no doubt. Then he straightened up and strode into the house while I staggered after.

“Milton Bradley,” said Tsanctisec from the doorway of my room, “you are prepared, I hope, to have tantos here, with me and Estina and my children. After the rebbe are harvested and after our… Thanksgiving… we can talk about the mechanical needs of my farm. Then, we will drive you to the station in time for your trip. I hope this is not an error.”

Wasn’t there an old Earth joke that started this way?

“You have acted well with the rebbe,” continued Tsanctisec, almost tearfully. “You are almost a true son of Gates now.”

Picking yet another undiscovered carcass from inside my clothes, I wondered what more there could be.

“We have much to do and little time,” he said. “Please forgive your poor host.”

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“I am afraid your best help would be to stay away from the work. The way we tantos… our people will be working without stopping. I hope you can have your tant… sleep.”

“You do your work,” I assured him. “I will be fine.”

At least the inside of the house wasn’t swarming with rebbe. Besides, Tsantisec was right about my “tantos” — I was bushed.

I told the workcase to check in with the office and said I’d follow up in a few days. I guess it was Thanksgiving or something back there, too, because a lot of the mailboxes were empty. Those district office clowns take a million holidays. The longer civilization goes on, it seems, the more things there are to commemorate with a day off. But then they do a lot of things at the office that we salesman don’t get to do. Like stand at the water purifier, discussing politics and sports.

But as Uncle Chal said, if I wanted to rise in the company I had to put in my time in distant sales.

“John Deere takes its multiculturality seriously,” he’d said to me when we met halfway home for my birthday. I missed him. He always knew what I should do.

The bed in my room actually looked pretty good. I wolfed the energy bars and a self-heating miso I’d brought with me — in distant sales, you never know where you’re going to end up — and I undressed. As I stripped off each layer of clothes, I found parts of insect bodies. Naked, suddenly cold in the room, I rubbed myself down with my hands to make sure nothing was clinging onto me, then slipped into the bed.

I awoke when the door creaked open. A touch of perfume, but strong, almost musk. Estina? A few drops of water fell onto me from her freshly washed hair. She put a hand on my hip and leaned into me.

“We can work, yes?” Estina said in Neutral, and then added something sultry under her breath in Gates.

I turned around to face her.  She was nude.

“Gates girls are good?” she asked.

“God you are lovely,” I said in English, and she seemed to understand enough to kiss me coyly.

Her lips having found mine, found me. Drove me over the edge more than once. Gasping, I pulled her close, made her stop to let me catch my breath. From our sides we entwined and I rocked her until her voice grew quick and hoarse.

So engaged were we, that I didn’t notice the other body slip into the bed until a strong hand cupped my buttock. A male hand.

“Torghe,” breathed Estina over my shoulder and I felt him press against me.  His fingers grasped my butt.

I tried to wrestle free, but he was too strong. With sure measure, he pressed my chest into the mattress and drew my legs apart with his.

“Estina,” I whimpered, but she only nodded with large, puppy eyes and muttered in Gates.

“Torghe,” I tried, but he also spokes Gates, soothingly, while all the time he forced me deeper and deeper into the mattress. His body was wet, like Estina’s, but by this time, so was mine. I could feel his fur and it made my own down stand on end.

All of Torghe’s weight pressed onto me at once, then he grew lighter and seemed to release me. He let out a long yawn. I pried myself up on my arms to see that the big man slept.

“Tantos,” said an obviously disappointed Estina. Then in Neutral, “Much work today. Tomorrow, we happy…”

“Loofa,” she added in Gates. She kissed me on the left buttock and the sleeping Torghe on the arm and left the room.

Just me and Torghe in the bed now. I pulled as many pillows as I could out from under him, got hold of the spread and lay down on the floor, trying to stay awake until Torghe woke from his tantos in case he started in again. But I couldn’t trust myself not to sleep. I partially dressed, wrapped the blanket around me and left Torghe snoring in my room. I wandered around the house, finally finding a spot in the corner of the kitchen, where I was able to stretch out on some sacks of grain.

I felt miserable. This last year in the field had gotten worse and worse. Some of the Fifth Quadrant planets were getting heavily into export now, so the frontiers were being served by a whole new raft of competitors. I loved Uncle Chal, but he did he really know the situations he was putting me into? Covered with insects. Nearly molested. And trapped until at least the next day.

Why didn’t they have taxis on Gates? was the last thing I remember thinking before I fell asleep. The last thing I remember seeing was Corbenc Tsanctisec beaming in the lamplight amid murmuring Gates, bearing in his arms, like a lamb, the largest and ugliest insect I had ever seen.


I awoke to giggles. Two children — one the pig-tailed youngster who’d warned us of the rebbe — pressed a mug into my hands. A cup of thick, hot nectar that smelled enough like coffee to force down. “Milton,” I said, unsticking my eyes and pointing to myself.

“Leenann,” the warner answered and put an arm around the other girl’s shoulder. “Roblinda,” she indicated the younger girl.

“Tantos,” said the little one and made a wide motion with her arms.

“Yes, I have big tantos,” I chuckled.

When they had left, I tried walking while holding the mug and keeping the blanket wrapped around me, but it didn’t work. So I took one last long draught, then put the mug down and tried to slip through the living room to the guest room and my clothes.

I saw Estina, guilelessly grinning at me.

When I was 15 or so, living in the colony at Muir, I walked in on my sister and some of her friends trying on dresses in her room. Several were in their underwear and I was titillated. The girls stiffened and began to yell at me, but then one said, “It’s only Milton,” and they relaxed and let me see their bodies. I felt now much the same way, relieved that I had not done something so bad, but disappointed that I’d hadn’t done something bad.

Torghe was gone. I dressed quickly and came back to the kitchen just in time to see Estina open the cast-iron and porcelain oven. Inside was the enormous insect.

Tsanctisec and Torghe came in through the red-and-white curtained back door. Torghe looked at me like something had happened between us, even though it hadn’t. I would have remembered.

“Happy Thanksgiving on Earth,” Tsanctisec said, approaching me and shaking my right hand in Terran fashion. He quickly translated himself into Gates, causing Estina and Torghe to laugh.

“Our neighbors went to their homes to clean up. They will be back to eat,” said Torghe. Tsantisec translated for me.

“Our children are already a hard place to hold,” Estina tried in Neutral, then smiled at me. “Food — soon.”

My God, I thought, as she indicated the oven.

“Come,” said Tsanctisec and led me into a dining room with a half dozen men and women milling around a large table. He got us both glasses of a heathery, greenish liqueur.

“Unlike Thanksgiving, we have no name for our holiday,” Tsanctisec said. “But it is the same.”

“Children say `loofa-rit,’ said Estina, looking flushed and lovely as she joined us for a moment and took a sip from Tsanctisec’s glass, sat in his lap and pulled at his beard. “Go,” he said, and playfully swatted her.

“`Loofa-rit’ just means `loofa time,”‘ confided Tsanctisec.

“That’s because loofa is the grain, right? The grain that attracts the insects, the rebbe?” I asked, but then the room grew cacophonous as six young children tumbled in.

Torghe followed a moment later, nearly as covered in children as he had been the day before in rebbe. Then came a young woman carrying an infant. With grunts of expectation, a dozen people took the seats surrounding Tsantisec at the head of the table. I became aware of a pungency, a tartness to the air. Tsanctisec cleared his throat and Estina brought in what I was afraid of.

Tsanctisec nodded with male punctiliousness at the sight of the dog-sized roasted insect on the silver platter that his lovely wife placed before him. Other women and one man set down a score of smaller dishes, each containing rebbe prepared in various ways. The bespectacled boy next to me started to talk in Gates and I bade him hold for a second while I grabbed my workcase.

“Largest insect — adult Queen rebbe,” the signal through the earphones said. “We that have been chosen to be placed (colloquialism; retry). We show respect for those who preceded us.”

Those were big words for a 10-year old.

Tsantisec began to speak in Gates so I switched the workcase mike to cardioid.

“When Ky Phin Planetary Real Estate of Ho Chi Minh City sold this world to our ancestors, we attempted (colloquialism unclear; retry) many times before we reached despair,” the workcase translated. I was amazed. Ky Phin had been at the very heart of the planetary real estate scandal of the late 80’s.

“The land was dead for us,” Tsanctisec continued. “The century was ending with our death.”

“Our seeds grew only poison when planted in these lands,” he went on. “But this we did not discover until harvest, when all we had brought was nearly eaten. In all the Galaxy, we were forgotten.”

“No plants could we eat. Our beasts of the land, of the sea, even those of the air were also filled with the poison.

“We grew weak as (term unclear; some variety of land mammal; retry), so weak we could not even clean our children, or ourselves. The offal grew around the houses, adding to the stench of death.

“Then, there came a new sound from the sky, a vibration rather than a sound. Do you know what I say — Leenann, who first saw the rebbe this year?” he said, smiling at my pig-tailed friend.

Leenann, flustered by the attention, responded with a comical sound, slightly reminiscent of something small caught in a paper shade.

The other children made a loud drone and laughed.

“Very good,” Tsanctisec answered. “And do you know what made that wonderful sound?”

“REBBE!” yelled the children.

“But do not be too happy yet, before (colloquialism unclear; retry),” chided Tsanctisec with mock seriousness.

“The first Gates who ate rebbe didn’t like them and refused to eat more. But rebbe and the offal were to be in the Marriage of Life.

“One sickly orphan girl was near to death. She fainted in the street and no one moved her. Too weak even to crawl, the girl ate the rebbe she could scoop from the loofa, the offal in the street. And it was good.

“She healed, and healed her family. And the word spread, and the people lived and Gates prospered.”

The bouncing, squealing children could hardly wait for Tsanctisec to finish. Almost before his last word, they piled into the dishes before them, six of the children begging Estina for a leg of the large insect in the center of the table.

“Children, children, you can each have a leg,” laughed Estina, doling them out to the brood.

I would stick to the rebbe in the smaller bowls. I tried one. Crunchy. Not too bad. A little bitter. But sweet, too. Some that were emersed in a garlic-type sauce evoked chicken.

Next to me, the boy adjusted his glasses. “Wheat that we now grow in the fields takes the place of loofa to make the rebbe safe to eat,” the workcase translated.

“You like rebbe, Milton Bradley?” asked a beaming Tsanctisec. “You like our holiday.”

“It’s a beautiful ceremony and you have a lovely home and family,” I said sincerely.

Roblinda, sitting next to Estina, whispered in her mother’s ear.

“Loofa,” cried Estina happily and pointed to the front door. “Already… she is ready,” Estina said proudly to me in Neutral.

Everyone at the table rose and followed Estina and Roblinda outside. Torghe grabbed me by the arm. “Loofa,” he said.

By the time we all got outside, the girl was already squatting on a small section of grass, beautifully tended, in the midst of the courtyard. She deposited three small turds of equal size and a roar of approval arose from the assemblage. An even tinier child opened a kennel of rebbe, which immediately flew out and settled on the turds, to another delighted crowing from the group.

Estina bent down. Gathering the rebbe-covered turds in cupped hands, she turned toward her family and lovers.

One of the children stepped forward and eagerly plucked a rebbe off the wriggling mass and nibbled. Then Tsanctisec did the same, the look he exchanged with Estina as love-filled as any I have ever conjured in my imagination.

Torghe stepped forward, then paused.

“Now, Milton,” said Tsanctisec, nodding paternally in my direction. Estina raised her cupped hands to me.

The End (1996)