“The Dandelion Man” by Jack Nicholls.
A tale of coming of age, a tale of survival; a fight to discover who is of the soil and who is of the air…
Teo and Paulus stood at the shore of the pampas, where the grass grew twice as tall as a man. They were naked, and the pampero raised goosebumps on their skin. The stalks bent against the wind’s force, green and gold ripples drawing the eye to the distant horizon. It was a good wind, people had been telling Teo all morning. Lucky.
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Drabblecast 409 – The Dandelion Man
The Dandelion Man
By Jack Nicholls
Teo and Paulus stood at the shore of the pampas, where the grass grew twice as tall as a man. They were naked, and the pampero raised goosebumps on their skin. The stalks bent against the wind’s force, green and gold ripples drawing the eye to the distant horizon.
It was a good wind, people had been telling Teo all morning. Lucky.
The sailer had been tied up by the launch ramp, which rose in a high
arch, then sloped down to meet the top of the grass. Although the
vessel’s sail was furled, the air bladders were fully inflated and the
sailer was bobbing in the gusts, mast creaking back and forth.
Mayor Aguila stood to the front of the clustered townsfolk, her face
like creased leather, and told Teo and Paulus how it would be. She was good at that sort of thing. You could almost forget she had said the same words so many times before.
“Remember boys, keep sailing until the dandelion clock marks the time and the place. And although you’ll be watched from above, the decision is yours alone. It will be a sacred bond between you both.”
Teo shivered, and glanced at Paulus. It wasn’t fair. Only a year ago,
Teo had been taller, but Paulus had grown so much recently, and filled out too. His arms were strong and wiry, his crotch matted with thick hair. He looked every part a soil man.
Mayor Aguila stooped to grab a handful of dirt, and let it trickle
from her fingers. The wind caught the grains and tumbled them out into the pampas.
“Wind and soil,” she continued. “Without both we could not survive.
You have come of age, and it is time for you to take on your roles.
Whichever you choose, we will remember, and honour you for it.”
What did she know? Teo thought. She’d never had to do it. That was
another thing not fair, but when he’d asked his Ma she’d said, “it’s
not our place to go on up. Women suffer enough without that.”
The Mayor nodded at Héctor the cordier, who had two lines of hemp
coiled around his arm. He stepped forward and began tying one to
Paulus’ waist. Paulus’ Pa came forward to observe, and clapped his boy on the shoulder. He met Teo’s eye and said something to his son, who nodded. The two of them studied Teo appraisingly.
Teo looked away, and stared resolutely into the undergrass. It grew so thickly that you couldn’t see more than a few feet, and the play of
light and shadow made it seem like there were creatures moving in
there. Probably there were.
“How are you feeling, Teo?”
It was Pa come up, standing a few steps behind. Pa had never talked
about his own ceremony, had always avoided the subject, so that now it was Teo’s day and Teo didn’t know how he was supposed to choose. He felt a surge of anger, and wheeled around.
“What am I meant to do? What did you do?”
Pa hesitated, then shook his head. “Take a deep breath, in your guts,
and hold it while Pedro ties the rope,” he said.
That was it? Pa whispered something else, but the wind was crackling
in Teo’s ears. “What?” he asked, but Pa was turning away now, wiping at his eyes. “Wait…” Teo croaked, but Ma pushed forward and grabbed his cheeks between her hands.
“Do whatever you need to do,” Ma said. “Don’t worry about what we
might want, or what other people might think. Do whatever you need to do.”
“Pampero’s pickin’ up,” drawled the cordier. He held the second rope
slack between his hands, like a noose. “You’ll need to be getting on.”
Ma kissed him on the forehead and retreated back to the crowd. Teo
reached for her hand but it was gone. Héctor stepped forward and
fussed with the rope around his waist. Not even knowing why, Teo took in a deep breath, getting a noseful of Héctor’s sweat, and held it in while the cordier deftly tied the rope above his hips. When it was
done Héctor gave him a look full of pity, and stepped back.
Teo released the breath and fingered the tether, managing to
surreptitiously slide two fingers between rope and spine.
“It’s time,” said the Mayor. She stooped and plucked a single
grey-headed dandelion clock from the ground at her feet.
“The tooth of the lion,” she shouted above the wind. “The guide
between soil and sky. It will take you where you need to go.”
She marched forward and slid the flower into its place at the prow of
the tethered sailer, which was rocking on its bladders as if eager to
escape. Héctor carried the trailing ends of the boys’ ropes and lashed
them to the mast. The wind was at full strength now, drowning out the final shouts of Mayor Aguila, but Teo had heard the words enough times to know. He stepped forward to rest his hands on one corner of the sailer, Paulus the other, and they maneuvered it to face the launch ramp. As one, he and Paulus pulled the sailcord. With a crack the sail inflated, and the sailer began to drag forward at the dirt.
Ma shouted something, but the wind snatched it away. Pa was crying.
Teo had never seen Pa cry before, and now he was shaking and the other soil men were gathering around, squeezing his shoulders and arms with their big gnarled hands. Teo didn’t want Pa to cry, he wanted him to smile and make him brave, but Pa kept his face hidden.
The whole village bellowed their good wishes, throwing grass-seeds
that blew into Teo’s hair and littered his shoulders like dandruff.
He’d thrown the seeds himself a hundred times, back when it had all
seemed so exciting.
“Come on!” Paulus shouted at him, and together they pushed the sailer up the ramp and leapt aboard as it began to coast down towards the grass, which lay bent and interlaced from a hundred sailers. Tethering the boomline, Teo slid his legs into the pedals as the pampero took control of their destiny.
“Up, up!” shouted Mayor Aguila. “Get it up!”
Teo pedalled madly, whirring the fan beneath them. The bow inched up, the fragile dandelion clock fluttering. They slid down onto the
surface of the grass, and for a stomach-lurching moment it seemed like they were going to plunge straight through, but the stalks held and then they were onto the pampas, and sailing, and it was just Paulus and him.
“That’s what I was most scared of,” confessed Paulus, as they skimmed out onto the plain. “That we wouldn’t get the lift. Remember Gustav and Mauro? How they fell into the undergrass at the start? That was the worst thing I ever saw. The worst.”
Teo remembered. He’d laughed at the time. Mauro had liked to laugh as well, but not then, and never since he came back. Soil men didn’t
The pampero was strong today. With every moment they surged further from the hill-shore, where the crowd had already become an indistinct smudge at the edge of a cluster of white houses. The wind bore them onwards across the plain, which whispered with the sound of a million grasses rasping together.
Disturbed by the passage of the sailer, gold-beaked drifters flitted
up from their grass-nests and flew warning circles around their
territory. The wind snatched Teo’s warmth and tossed it out into the
pampas. At the bow, the first seeds of the clock fluttered free.
Paulus was more experienced on the grass and guided them out into the shivering flatness. It didn’t matter where they went, only that they were out of sight of the town before the clock finished. Nothing
marred the waving grass ahead of them, except where a jagged mast
poking from the grass indicated the wreck of a punctured sailer.
Paulus tacked them around it while Teo pedalled.
More florets puffed free of the dandelion clock and drifted up into the sky.
Teo had known his whole life was coming to this; known from counting birthdays that it would be Paulus. That unspoken knowledge had kept them distant all this time, they’d barely spoken, avoided each other’s eyes in the field. Now Teo regretted it. If they’d made friends, Paulus might have been willing to help him.
“Paulus, listen,” said Teo. “What if we just kept sailing to the
mountains? Find somewhere else to live. We can hunt together and both be soil men.”
“You’re a coward,” said Paulus quickly. “You’re afraid of being the
“I’m not afraid!”
“So you want to be the dandelion man?”
“No…I…”, Teo opened and closed his mouth, and then dropped his face to his hands. There was no point arguing with Paulus. Of course he was going to be the dandelion man. His Pa knew it, and that’s why he had been crying. Paulus knew. Everyone knew.
To his surprise, Paulus said, “I’m sorry, Teo.”
Teo looked up.
“I won’t tell anyone,” said Paulus awkwardly. “That you cried. I’ll
say you chose it an’ that…an’ that you were really brave.”
“I’m not crying! And maybe I’ll tell them that you were brave” said Teo.
“Nah,” said Paulus. “Nah.”
They sailed on in silence a while, the shadow of the sail stretched
out before them. More tufts of the dandelion clock broke free.
“Sometimes, the sailers come back covered in blood,” said Paulus, to
break the quiet. “Sometimes, they come back empty, and blood all
“That’s not true.”
“It is. Rosa told Martin, and Martin told me. She saw one sail back all by itself.”
A particularly savage gust knocked all but one of the seeds from the
dandelion clock. Both their eyes were locked on the last floret. It
trembled in the wind, yearning to be free. Teo couldn’t bear it. He
reached forward and gently flicked the stem with his finger.
The seed broke free, and twirled up into the azure sky. Teo followed
it up until he lost it against the glare. But he could see the other
specks up there, past the birds.
The dandelion men, drifting with the wind and singing for the rain.
Paulus kept adjusting the sail, but his movements were mechanical now. He stared blankly at the horizon, his tongue flicking out to wet his lips every few moments.
He’s rehearsing it, Teo realized. He’s working out how he’s going to
do it. He had to do the same, he needed a plan, but his mind was
frozen. He had been trying not to think about this moment his whole
life, it had been tomorrow and then tomorrow and then tomorrow and now it was now, and he didn’t know what to do.
He looked down between his knees, but he didn’t want to see them
shaking so he looked up instead, at the dandelion men. Were they
watching? Did they care? They probably expected him to volunteer. If
he resisted and Paulus forced him, then the dandelion men would see.
They would know he didn’t want to be there, and they would hate him when he arrived.
“It’s the bigger honor to become a dandelion man,” said Paulus,
sounding unconvinced. “Mayor puts you in the book and all. Says your name at harvest.” He glanced sidelong at Teo.
Teo took a deep breath, and looked back challengingly. “I’m a soil
man,” he said. “Like my pa. I’m not going anywhere.”
Paulus looked aggrieved. “I thought you’d want it. I thought you’d
pick it.” He sighed. “Ah well,” he said, philosophically, and lumbered
to his feet.
Paulus took a step towards Teo, then another. The world was Paulus. He blotted out the sun.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!” Teo screamed, and cannoned into Paulus’ naked belly, knocking him down. The sailer lurched back and forth and the two of them fell sprawling against the back corner, ropes tangling.
Teo hammered his fists against Paulus’s chest, his leg, then felt a
hot explosion against the side of his head. Paulus hit him in the ear
three more times, but instead of trying to get away Teo sank his teeth
into the knobbly lumps of Paulus’ collarbone and bit as hard as he
Paulus shrieked and shoved him off, clapping a hand to his bleeding
neck. “What is wrong with you?”
“I’m sorry,” Teo said automatically, his heart vibrating like guitar strings.
Paulus retreated to the edge of the sailer, and stood by the rim,
looking over the side. His weight tilted the vessel to its side, so
the grass brushed against his toes. Teo drew his knees up beneath his
chin and watched him, wiping the blood from his lip. It tasted
horrible, like dirt.
Eventually Paulus turned around, expression contemptuous. “I’ll do it, Teo, if you’re that scared.”
“Yeah. And when you get home, everyone will know what a coward you were. And so will all them above.”
Paulus turned inwards and grabbed the rim of the sailer. He crouched down onto his knees, then lowered one leg backwards over the side so it disappeared among the stalks. Fear and wonder crossed his face. “It tickles,” he said.
He crouched awkwardly like that for a moment, then put his other leg down so they both dangled in the grass, but he kept his belly and
hands locked to the sailer.
Kick him off Teo willed himself, but he couldn’t make himself unlock
his arms from his knees.
Paulus stared at Teo from the rim, mouth twitching, then abruptly
hauled himself back up.
“Yeah, nah. It’s like swimming the dam. I want to jump in straight,
but I can’t. You have to push me.”
“Yeah. I can’t do it myself.”
Teo got slowly to his feet, rubbing his sweaty palms together. His ear
felt like it was on fire.
“Please,” said Paulus. Teo had never heard that word from him before.
Teo inched closer, shaking hands raised to give Paulus a shove. And
just as he lunged forward, Paulus sprang.
He grabbed Teo by the armpits and yanked him against the rim, kicking him in the knee so he fell. Teo screamed and pitched forward into the feathery seed heads, his knee cracking against the sailer rim. The spears buckled and snapped and he fell into another world.
The grass cushioned his fall, but immediately sprang back above him to close off the sky. The wind became something distant. It was warm and humid down here, the light washed out by the lattice of stems
overhead. Stunned, Teo stared at an iridescent peachbeetle climbing a blade of grass that sank gently beneath its weight. Beneath it, the
tracks between the stems stretched out to dapple infinity.
The air was heavy. He breathed it in but felt like he couldn’t breathe
it out. He wanted to sleep.
But there was motion in the stillness. His rope was playing out,
snaking away above him into the blue. Teo stared at it blankly for a
second, then it snapped taut around his waist, and he was being
dragged backwards through thistles and undergrowth, stones tearing at his back.
He shrieked, fingers scrabbling furrows in dry earth. Above him he
heard the whir of the fan pick up.
Do anything you can.
He reached behind his head to grab the rope and kicked his feet madly, twisting himself onto his stomach. Grass-stems slapped at his face as he tried to drag himself upright, but the jerky motion of the sailer knocked him back down again, dragged his cock agonizingly through serrated tussocks.
Another smack against the dirt drove the breath out of him, and for a
moment he went limp, letting the grass break in waves across his head. The rope twisted and burned around his waist, then slipped an inch and rode up beneath his ribs. It was still loose.
He lashed and twisted and wriggled until the rope was a burning brand around his chest. Then he just stretched his arms out before him and closed his eyes, until with a jerk the rope slipped over his shoulders and was gone.
For a moment he lay gasping, sucking in hot stale air. If he just lay
here a moment…
A swelljabber buzzed from the shadows on to Teo’s shoulder, then he
felt the sharp pain as its straw drilled into the hollow between his
neck and shoulder. He blindly punched at it and knocked it away, but
already he could feel the area going numb. He craned his head,
glimpsed the quivering, translucent bubble of skin rising around the
bite, pressing his neck away on an uncomfortable angle.
Teo scrambled to his feet. He wasn’t going to stay here. He was going
to be a soil man. He grabbed a handful of dirt and cupped it to his face, breathing in its heat. Then he plunged forwards after the sailer, fist clenched around the precious substance.
The trailing end of the rope had vanished into the thickets, but he
could hear the sound of the fan in the distance ahead. It was slowing;
perhaps Paulus had felt the loss of drag, and was looking back for
Teo slipped between stalks, arms outstretched to part the grass ahead of him. A krook was shadowing him, its tapered body flickering between stems a few feet away. He ignored it and put on another burst of speed until he fell into the shadow of the sailer’s passage. The rope flapped away from him, tangling among the stalks. Teo crammed the dirt into his mouth, sucked air through his nose, and leapt – grabbing the rope half-way between soil and surface.
The krook pounced as the rope lifted him up and away, and its jaws
snapped close just shy of his feet. One, two, three arm lengths was
all it took; rope twisted between his ankles, he hauled himself up
towards sun and sky and breath until his head broke the surface and
the life-giving wind filled his nose with fresh air.
Teo clung to the rear of the sailer, grazed hands resting on the rim.
He felt the sailer starting to pivot into the wind, swung his leg up
onto the bladder and peeked his head up. Paulus was huddled at the bow staring out at the horizon and hauling the lines to tack towards home.
Teo dragged himself over the side and stood unsteadily at the stern.
He spat wet clumps back out onto his palm – they tasted of blood – and the remnants coated the inside of his mouth. “Paulus,” he called.
Paulus was whispering to himself now, and didn’t seem to hear.
Paulus twisted around, his face white as cotton.
“Paulus, I’m the dandelion man now. I have the soil for you.” Teo
showed Paulus the handful of mud.
Paulus blinked uncertainly, taking in Teo’s swaying body, the cuts and bruises and rope burns. Teo stared back, and knew that Paulus didn’t know what was supposed to happen either, that he never had. That nobody knew anything at all.
“It’s how it works,” Teo said. “You have to take it before I go up.”
Paulus, very slowly, stood up, eyes flicking from Teo’s face to the
soil he offered in his outstretched hand. “I’m sorry for knockin’ ya,
Teo,” Paulus said, as he took a step forward.
“Wind and soil,” replied Teo, and threw the dirt as hard as he could
at Paulus’ face.
The wind took the dirt and scattered it into a spray that battered
Paulus’ eyes, filled his gaping, fleshy, mouth. But he wasn’t a soil
man. He spluttered and clapped his hands to his eyes, trying to blink
the grit from them. In that moment, Teo unclipped the boomline and the pampero did the rest, catching the sail and yanking it savagely
Paulus didn’t see the boom coming. It smacked into the side of his
head. He reeled across the tilting deck, arms flapping for balance,
and then he was gone.
That was what made a soil man. Doing everything you could.
Paulus’ tether plunged into the undergrass after him, rasping over the splintered side. Teo jumped aside before it snapped taut against his legs and swept him off too. The dandelion men watched, and kept their silence.
Teo released the sail to its fullest and let the wind carry him where
it would. The sailer roamed jerkily across the pampas, stern dragging. Beneath and behind, Paulus was bellowing and shrieking. But the cries came from a long way away, and Teo thought he would be able to bottle them up and bury them somewhere deep in his mind where they wouldn’t bother him any more.
He lay spreadeagled on the boards, face up, and let the sailer chase
the clouds across the sky. Gradually the cries died away. Gradually
the drag lessened.
When the sun had passed its peak, Teo drew up the rope. He had to tug to get Paulus up through the tangled surface, but then he came easily, squirming things dropping away from his body as he rose. He floated peacefully, body swelled like a woman pregnant all over, half-closed eyes lost in his ballooned face. Drool dripped from his swollen lips and splashed wet circles in the dust coating the sailer’s floor.
Like a kite he caught the wind and rose, his shadow dancing across the plain. Perhaps he tried to speak one last time, or perhaps it was the wind. Teo didn’t listen. He plucked at the knots around the mast for long minutes, Paulus turning slow somersaults above, until at last
they came loose and Teo held him tethered to the soil. He waited for a strong gust, then released Paulus into the sky.
Paulus drifted up to join the dandelion men, face fixed on the sailer.
Teo tried to imagine how he must look from above, his upturned face
diminishing to a speck, the little sailer scudding across the great
plain. He watched until Paulus dwindled to an indistinct blur, until
he was just another dot among the crowd.
The wind had changed, and Teo turned the sailer for home. It would be okay, now. He had a dandelion man to watch over him.