Photo by VIKI EAGLE
Tso?mepu / Harvest
Excerpt from Turu?ai wa?ipu (Working Woman)
We are up before dawn, the older ones fumbling into the threadbare work clothes laid out before bed. I am still sleepy and don’t want them to move. I can feel every shift of weight on the mattress we share. Every noise is too loud. They are lacing their shoes, taking turns at the bathroom sink to splash water on their faces or rinse toothpaste out of their mouths. I pull the yellow sheet with tiny daisies on it over my head to block out the light. Soon, one of them will pull the sheet back or pull me out from underneath it by my feet. This happens every day. I do not like waking up most mornings.
Dad helps me put on my shirt and shorts while Momma and Grandma finish cooking breakfast. The familiar pops and sizzles of bacon frying battle the sounds of the coffee brewing in the pot. Momma comes back in, runs a wet blue washcloth over my face, hands me the bar of soap so I can wash my hands, and then helps me buckle my sandals. Dad pulls his curly hair back into a ponytail with a thin strip of brown leather and hands Momma our comb. She combs her flat black bangs onto the top of her head and sticks them there with a green barrette. From our window, I watch Ara who’s outside by the porch light getting feed for the dogs while Momma brushes my hair. Fluffy and Rascal weave between Ara’s legs, trying to get him to drop the food before he makes it to their feed bowls. Those impatient dogs always make me smile. When Momma’s finished we go to the kitchen, where Grandma and Papa are at the table finishing their first coffee and cigarettes of the day.
Grandma gives me a little mug of coffee-flavored milk, a kiss on the forehead, and a dense biscuit. I immediately dunk the bread into the mug and let it soak up as much milk as it can, then stick it in my mouth and begin to suck. She sits back down across from me at the table to finish her coffee. Dad and Ara are standing near the sink, stacking biscuits into thin white kitchen towels to take on the road while stuffing greasy bacon strips in their mouths. Ara likes to scrape his biscuits in the cast-iron skillet used to fry the bacon. Dad pulls an extra towel out for himself. He has to wipe his face off good after he eats biscuits—he always gets honey or strawberry jelly in his beard, which is funny. Sometimes he doesn’t catch it all when he cleans up. If Momma doesn’t check, he’ll leave the house like that—obvious sticky colored streaks in his blonde beard.
Papa has finished his cigarette and now starts filling his army green metal thermos from what’s left in the coffee pot. He drinks coffee for lunch more often than he eats. He’d feel lost without that thermos. Momma is dumping the large plastic containers of ice from the freezer into our huge orange water cooler. By the time everyone’s gotten real thirsty, some of that ice will have melted. Ara made tea and begins pouring the hot liquid into two large twist top bottles already half full with cold water. No matter how much tea and water we bring, everyone always wants more.
We are silent this part of the morning, everyone going about their part of the sleepy hour in the soft yellow light of the kitchen, surrounded by the slosh of pouring liquids and the bug sounds coming in from the open windows. Everyone knows their chores and does their part. I am too small and unsteady on my legs to help with many things, so I wipe up the messes left on the dusty wooden floor with a rag and help Grandma put all the dirty dishes in the sink. The others go outside and start loading the trucks. I have tried to help put away food, pour water, make sandwiches, and carry not so heavy things to the trucks in the past. I am always too slow, which frustrates Papa and starts a flurry of angry, rapid Spanish from his tight lips. He only speaks Spanish around us when he is angry, which happens more often during harvest season.
Papa hardly ever rests during harvest, not that he’s ever all that still. He has more jobs than anyone else I know. He works as a butcher at the meat plant on the south side of town, mows the local cemeteries and a church, is a field hand for the neighbors, runs the hay trucks, does carpentry, sometimes runs a restaurant, farms, and sells our seasonals on the side of the highway. From April to August, he spends most of the day’s sun out in our field, working with the earth, planting, watering, gathering crops, and killing pests. He works after dark sometimes too—and expects us all to help out whenever he is working the ground. I think he’d have us all sleep in the rows each night if he could. Grandma is the only one who can make him come inside during harvest. He tells us he loves the smell of the plants, the fresh air, and the Oklahoma heat. That we’ll be happier we did all this work when we have all the watermelons, onions, peppers, and corn to show for it.
We spend the weekends with him out in the neighboring hay fields, hauling bales from the field into storage barns across town or down east to the cotton gin. He loves the hay fields the best—and he gets cranky whenever someone gets in the way of him getting out to work them. Everyone tries not to hold Papa back or make him impatient—the more Spanish we hear before the workday begins, the harder it will be to work with him at the fields. He’ll start working faster than anyone can keep up with and refuse to slow down or take breaks. Ara, like me, is often too slow being the second youngest. Ara and I do our part to keep the peace by finding jobs that don’t need much speed each morning and staying out of Papa’s way.
When the kitchen is clean, we gather what’s left to take outside. I get to bring a few toys and a blanket with me for the day, but there are rules.
No crayons because they’ll melt.
Nothing heavy, too big, or hard to carry.
Nothing made of metal.
Nothing too noisy or with lots of parts.
That leaves stuffed animals or my doll. It is always hard to pick.
I lay two choices out before bed each night on our brown plaid couch by the front door. Sometimes I change my mind right before we leave, which everyone balks at but Grandma. When I don’t feel good and want to stay home, I try to make everyone stay. I hide while they’re busy doing all the outside things. It never works. Someone (usually Grandma, Ara, or Momma) finds me quicker than I think they will. They come back inside and call my name. I stay quiet—try not to breathe. Then they walk through the rooms to find me hiding behind the shower curtain, under the covers of one of the beds, or in a closet. They pick me up to bring me to the trucks quickly, grabbing my things on the couch right before they shut the door—usually while I protest and shake my head no. Everyone knows I hate going out to the hay fields. They understand. We are still going to go.
I sit on Momma’s lap while we make our way out to the alfalfa along the narrow gravel roads. Papa and Dad drive the trucks. Papa and Ara are usually in the white flatbed with bucket seats. Dad, Momma, Grandma, and I ride in the in the rusty 70s model GMC with the red vinyl bench. The sun has started to show itself and turn the eastern roads golden. Most days we’re the only ones on the roads until we get into town. Sometimes other farm trucks will be out. Sometimes other farmers, welders, or semi-truck drivers are at the convenience store gassing up and buying coffee. The older ones nod and wave to the men in work uniforms, ratty overalls, and hole-infested jeans as we pass. Most of them nod back or tip their hat. Papa will stop to buy bags of ice, if we have the money, and peanuts or hard candy. We will continue our drive and stop to pick up family members (from Grandma’s side) that live along the way toward the fields.
Everyone we gather seems so loud and energetic when they come out, slamming their screen doors closed, saying hello to each of us, throwing their stuff down, and jumping into the back of the truck—the younger cousins especially. Sometimes they’re still drunk from the night before, making them even noisier and stinky too. They’ve learned not to bring any beers with them though—Grandma will not stand for it. Makes the cousins seem rude, but I know they’re not meaning to be. They’re just eager to make some extra money. Those ones in the back of the truck laugh and talk loud to be heard over the truck engine and the wind while we silent ones head south of town surrounded by noise.
The smell of tobacco grows stronger inside the truck as Dad’s spit level rises in the old soda can he sits down by his feet until his mouth is full of the dark brown juice. Usually doesn’t take long before Grandma lights up another Kent from the pack she keeps in her front pocket on field days (they stay in the side pocket of her oversized brown purse every other time we leave the house). I bury my nose in Momma’s shirt to keep out the smoke and tobacco smells as much as I can. Her shirt almost always smells like lilacs and laundry soap. She thinks this means I’m sleepy even if I’m not. I don’t have the words to explain, and she never picks up on my signals (making noises when she moves my face away from her sleeve or shoulder, covering my nose with the blanket). Maybe she just wants me to be tired. I don’t know. Eventually, I stop fighting and just let her do what she wants to try to put me to sleep. I close my eyes.
I pretend to be asleep when we make it to the field just to make her happy. She waits for everyone to get out of the truck and then has Grandma lay my blanket on the seat. She puts me down on my side facing the back of the truck bench. Then she or Grandma sets the stuffed animal next to my back so I hopefully won’t roll over and fall to the floorboard again. I can’t stay still while sleeping. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve woke up hitting my head or smashing an arm against the dirty black floor mats. Dad had left his metal toolbox and his spit can down there once when I fell. One huge cut and tobacco spit all over my legs. That was not a good day. Now everyone makes sure there’s nothing down there before they leave.
Grandma and Momma roll the windows down all the way, shut the doors, and gather their equipment from the back of the truck. I stare at the red bench and trace the patterns of the piping and the breathing holes with my index finger. I fight the urge to jump up and see what’s happening every time I hear a noise close by. I remember how they get ready from the times I’ve seen them before—pulling their braided hair or ponytail through ball caps or up into sweat-stained straw cowboy hats, donning thick work gloves, and battling over the few pairs of hay hooks we have. Momma helps Grandma make sure as much of her pale white skin is covered from the sun as possible so she’s less likely to burn. Momma and Papa don’t have to worry about getting sunburnt as much as Dad and Grandma do. Many times those two come home with huge red patches on their faces and arms after working the fields. Dad never really worries about it, but Grandma does—she’s had skin cancer before that the doctors had to cut out. She says it was bound to happen since she’s spent most of her life picking stuff and working the dirt. Still, it hurt and was expensive and she doesn’t want to do that again.
The cousins spread out and start rolling the thick square bales of hay out of the truck’s path so we’ll be able to move faster from one row to the next with the least amount of driving or stopping. Dad and Ara start stacking up all the bales nearest the entrance to the field so when the flatbed truck gets in they can start packing and squaring the bales to keep the bottom row tight and less likely to cause trouble later on. Everyone else is busy setting up the tools, extra bailing wire, the water cooler, and the biscuits left from breakfast before the first round of the day’s work.
When I hear a truck engine come really close to where we’re parked, I want to check to see if it’s Papa or the one who hired us for the job. I wait to hear the truck driver’s voice instead of looking. If someone sees that I’m awake, they’ll be cross and blame each other for being too loud. I don’t like it when they’re riled up—especially when it feels like it’s my fault. They’ll spend the rest of the day yelling at me as it is:
Don’t mess with that.
Keep away from those metal parts.
Take a nap.
Don’t you open those doors.
Stop fighting with your uncle/cousin.
That steering wheel’s gonna burn your hands.
Put those shoes back on.
No, it’s not time to go home yet.
Play with your toys.
Stay out of the sun.
Them hay hooks aren’t toys.
Leave the water/tea/coffee/cigarettes/chewing tobacco/food/tool box alone.
Don’t you touch that shifter.
Stay inside the truck.
Give daddy back his gloves. Both of them.
Show us where you put the keys.
Stop messing with the hay. It’s gonna make you all itchy again.
Unlock this door right now.
So I am quiet and move very little for as long as I can, tracing and re-tracing the patterns I find in the seat and then on my blanket. Then I roll over and find patterns in my bear’s fur or trace the lines of my doll’s hair. I try not to sneeze. It is hard work keeping grown ups happy.