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Hélène was sick of losing chickens at night. She swore in French, cursing Alabama’s coyotes and stray dogs. Mariana stood beside her in the tall grass and listened as Hélène listed the farm’s losses.
“Enough,” she declared, “We’re building a fence. Una cerca eléctrica.”
“Okay,” Mariana agreed.
“Sounds good,” I said.
Hélène reviewed the scrap of paper in her hand where she had drawn a rectangle split into neat sections. It represented the pasture around us and the wire we would string across it. Awaiting instructions, I avoided eye contact with Mariana, Hélène’s sole employee on the farm who spoke Spanish and limited English. I didn’t want to make small talk, but the silence between us made me feel guilty, so I flicked grasshoppers off my socks instead. After years of Spanish classes, I couldn’t remember a word. Mariana’s long black hair was tucked beneath a sweat-stained baseball cap. I judged her to be about thirty. I didn’t know yet that she was nearly fifty and married, with children in their twenties, the same age as me.
Fence stakes sat piled at our feet, beside rubber mallets and coiled wire. I assessed the materials with apprehension and excitement. I’d met Hélène for the first time the night before, arriving to her big white farmhouse after a two day drive from my hometown in Wisconsin, where I grew up surrounded by farms but never worked on one. I wanted to make a good impression on her—to be the kind of worker I had told her I was and imagined I could be. But I had no idea how to construct a fence.
“Obviously, it’s going to be solar powered,” Hélène qualified. I nodded in agreement—obviously—but her attention had returned to the paper.
Months earlier I had hatched the plan to spend the January break from my senior year of college volunteering on a farm. I contacted dozens of farmers across the country, asking to work for free. I explained that I had no relevant experience, but would try to be helpful just the same. A farm run by Buddhist monks in Arizona seemed promising, but the long list of forbidden items, divided by subtitles like “food” and “fabric,” made me nervous. A woman in Northern California invited me to her sheep farm, but with endless disclaimers about knee-deep mud. “Research January temperatures in Northern California before you get any ideas,” she wrote back, “Volunteers sleep in unheated trailers. We do provide a hot water kettle and oatmeal.” I nearly ended up in Nevada, where a man claimed to run an intentional living community guided by Quaker values. He followed up with a ten-page manifesto and a questionable amount of photographs showing cats in bathroom sinks and barbell weights strewn across the desert. That was the end of that.
Of the dozens of farms I contacted, most never responded; Hélène did. We agreed that I should plan to stay for a month, assuming everything went well in the first few days. I wasn’t about to give her doubts on day one.
While Hélène scrutinized the scribbled blueprint, I studied her. She was in her early sixties and originally from Switzerland. Her red hair was pulled back by a headband, and she wore knee-high rubber boots with a cashmere sweater. I simply cannot tolerate synthetic fabric against my skin, she’d announced that morning while we carried buckets of chicken feed to the coops. Corn is a lost cause, she said, You can’t find non-GMO corn anymore. Monsanto’s made sure of that. She let the chickens out to roam for the day and wished them a good morning in French, her native language. The night before she had welcomed me inside the farmhouse she lived in alone and showed me to the spare bedroom. Sage dried on paper towels in the corner and wallpaper with basketballs covered the walls. The previous owners. Hélène said, So tacky. I didn’t know anyone like Hélène. Talking to her came easily; the story of her life was a lesson in adventure I wanted to follow like a map. After pumpkin curry and rice we chatted over a bottle of wine, breaking off pieces from a bar of Swiss chocolate she’d brought back from her last trip to Europe long after our plates were clean.
Hélène condensed her history, summarizing decades into sentences, but I asked questions until a timeline of her life emerged. Decades earlier, in her early thirties, she came to Miami for a week of water skiing. She had an engineering job in Brussels, but at the end of her vacation she didn’t want to go back, so she didn’t. She barely spoke English. To learn she translated biographies of American presidents. After walking by an advertisement for real estate licensing classes, she enrolled. She started her own business in South Beach, learned to scuba dive, and water skied on weekdays. Then, a year before I unleashed a slew of emails on farmers across the country, she traded condos with ocean views for 96 acres of pasture, forest, and swamp in Alabama. She planned to raise everything, plant, animal, or otherwise, but so far the operation consisted of hens that had yet to lay eggs and a grove of citrus trees, a mucky pond where the previous owners swore an alligator lived and fields wild with grass. And now, for the month of January, me.
Hélène crunched the numbers one last time, “Ninety chickens, three coops, one per pasture,” she muttered.
“Okay,” she announced, “let’s get started.” She handed Mariana a mallet and me a tape measure, firing off instructions, as though they were written in a list on the crumpled piece of paper:
Stakes first: One every ten feet.
Keep the line straight.
“So you two take care of the stakes while I deal with the wiring, alright?” Hélène asked.
“That’ll work,” I said. I wanted to seem capable.
“You two can handle it?” she asked.
“We’ll figure it out,” I reassured, speaking for Mariana and me. Across the field, I could imagine the meticulous row of stakes rising upwards, a clean line to stretch the electric wiring across. In truth I was nervous to be alone with Mariana. The night before Hélène had told me about the unreliable employees she’d gone through in her first months of farming.
You need a family, locals told her, a Mexican family. Then you’re set. If you pay cash, they don’t need papers. That’s when she found Mariana.
“So she’s undocumented?” I’d said. Naively, I had separated undocumented workers into a world separate from organic farms.
“She is,” Hélène said.
“Does she speak English?” I asked.
“So you speak Spanish?”
“Not exactly,” Hélène said. “I speak French, Italian, and English. Mariana speaks Spanish. We meet in the middle. It’s a language of our own.”
I liked the idea of three women working on a farm together, each from a different country and native language. But actually being in this intercultural crew made me wish I could just work alone. I looked at Mariana and felt a wave of dread.
“Hi,” I said, clearing my throat, “Um, hola.”
Mariana laughed at my unease, pointed to the fence posts, and explained her plan. I didn’t follow and I opened my mouth dumbly only to close it again. We contemplated each other, both uncertain how to proceed. Hélène was unraveling wire and connecting it to the solar-powered generator. I didn’t want her to look over and see our clear lack of progress, so I grabbed a stake, resolved to take charge. I propped it up while Mariana stood aside, held out my hand for the mallet, then drove the point into the dirt. I took one end of the tape measure, placed the other in Mariana’s palm, and walked forward ten feet. I looked back to see if she understood what we were supposed to do. I didn’t take the time to reason out what I later learned to be true: None of this was new for Mariana, who’d worked on farms for decades.
“Entiendes?” I asked. Mariana shook her head, so I took another stake, grabbed one end of the tape measure, and repeated the process, turning my back.
She spoke again and I couldn’t grasp a word, so forward I walked, slamming the mallet onto stake after stake until each one was immobile in the cracked red dirt. Finally, Mariana caught up with me and helped. She looked resigned. We kept going until the rectangle had three sides. As we turned the corner to complete the fourth, Hélène yelled from across the field, waving her arms.
“What the hell is this?” she hollered.
I peered down the file of stakes I’d left behind. The precise row I thought I’d created looked like a jagged scar, wild and unpredictable. Fence posts pointed out in all directions.
Hélène released a stream of expletives in French, but Mariana just smiled. She slipped on work gloves and knelt to brace her hands low on the stake. Her arms shook and the ground loosened. Yanking the stake out, she threw it to the side. That one settled, she walked to the next. I followed behind, and we started again.
The sun sagged heavy in the sky. It would set in an hour. I learned that was our cue to begin the long process of herding the chickens into their coops for the night. We stood a few feet from each other and extended our arms wide in an attempt to create a human wall, walking forward slowly to nudge groups of chickens towards their coops. Hélène and Mariana cajoled them in reassuring voices.
“A la maison,” Hélène said in French. To your home.
“A la mesa,” Mariana said in Spanish, holding a big stick to broaden her reach. To the table. I tried out both phrases, but decided to stick with Mariana’s. It seemed more honest.
“A la mesa, a la mesa, a la mesa,” I chanted, until it strung together like a song with a single word.
Chickens are not easily herded. They scattered in all directions—onto the porch, into tree branches, beneath the overhanging foliage of thorny bushes. A hen raced by Hélène, squawking with panic and bobbing its head. She bent down and scooped it up in her arms. Carrying the single bird to the coop, she thrust it inside, then closed the door and cast out in search of more holdouts. I had never touched a chicken, but tried to replicate her maneuvers. I trailed a bird to the spiny bushes, then reached underneath to pick it up. The hen was having none of that. She retreated further into the heart-shaped leaves, and five of her coop-mates filed past to join her. Scratches crisscrossed my arms as the thorns did their job. Mariana walked past, asking if I was alright. Ten chickens calmly hung upside down from her hands.
“¿Cómo hiciste eso?” I asked, my Spanish loosening roughly like packed gravel in the rain. What was her secret?
“Práctica,” Mariana said.
We chased the chickens for two hours. Safe in their coops, we wished the chickens good night and Hélène turned on the electricity in the new solar-powered fence to ward off predators. With a barely audible whirr a charge surged through the wires we had hung on the re-planted stakes. Hélène licked her pointer finger and thumb, touched the wire for a moment, then pulled her hand away.
“It works,” she said.
Later Hélène realized we never needed to herd chickens in the first place. Birds instinctively roost. Hélène’s chickens would’ve naturally sought shelter with the sunset. I’m sure Mariana knew this. In Mexico, she left school to work her first harvest as a young child. But she never protested when Hélène decided it was time to chase chickens in circles for hours on end. Over time I understood this to be one of Mariana’s learned survival skills, suppressing the instinct to share what she knew to be true. She had lived in Alabama for years and many bosses came before Hélène. I saw the subtle tools she used for working with someone who had less expertise than her. She withheld knowledge to affirm Hélène’s sense of authority and independence, even though it was undeniable; she owned the land and everything on it. Yet there was a fragility to Hélène’s identity that surfaced when she reminded us of the hierarchy and was hostile to advice she had not asked to hear. So Mariana offered guidance with caution, careful it would not cause anger or doubt.
Hélène demanded more space for herself than I did, but I recognized the impulse in myself to take charge of situations, whether I was the best person for it or not. Usually that served me well; even if I screwed up at the task at had, I had shown leadership. Hélène and I were both middle-class, white women. Over dinners we shared long conversations deconstructing how sexism had impacted our lives, the harassment we recognized as gendered, the assumptions people made. Still, we were accustomed to being rewarded for our ideas and appreciated for our audacity. We felt fiery and empowered by our understanding of structural discrimination and everyday mysogyny. We saw how we fell into those dynamics, too. Just as I had presumed I should take the lead in building the fence, Hélène expected her relationship with Mariana should be as benevolent superior. Neither of us were oblivious of that dynamic, but we spoke of it less, mining our own experiences for meaning.
Once they abandoned the nightly chicken round-up, Marianna could go home to dinner with her family and Hélène could sit on her tractor reading the New Yorker until dusk darkened the sky and she could close the coop doors. Later Hélène asked why Mariana hadn’t said anything about the chickens and Mariana shrugged rather than explain. I suspect if she had, Hélène wouldn’t have heard it.
Two weeks after I arrived, Mariana invited us to dinner with her family. Hélène and I arrived at the double-wide trailer she kept impeccably clean, with family photos covering the walls. I found Mariana frying meat from the goats they raised. She remained in the kitchen most of the night, rolling corn tortillas between her palms, drizzling crema over tostados before sending them to the table, spreading Cool Whip over a pineapple cake. I was surprised when Mariana invited me to dinner. I knew money was tight and feared being intrusive. Giving me a tour of the house and introducing me to her kids, Mariana was proud to show the life and home she had managed to build, despite terrible circumstances. Rather than quietly bask in guilt, I enjoyed the food and talked with her daughters, who wondered why I would ever want to work on a farm for free. They invited me to hang out with their friends.
Mariana’s third daughter, Eva, was nineteen. She sat beside Ryan, a gangly guy who had been her on-again, off-again boyfriend throughout high school. During her senior year of high school they conceived twins and by the time she delivered her girls, Ryan left the relationship. He had never met his daughters. Then, a few weeks earlier, when the twins were nearly two, he declared his intentions to be a father. Now Ryan watched TV on the couch. Mariana had told me she didn’t trust him. He was immature and had no idea how to treat children. He played with his daughters like toys. No longer entertained, he passed them off to one of the women in the house. At the end of the night I thanked Mariana for the evening. I wasn’t sure I belonged there, but I couldn’t stand to see Ryan eat her food then ask for more.
Around three in the morning that night, the farm house phone rang. Eva was calling. She was desperate.
“We need a lawyer,” she told Hélène. “Don’t you have an immigration lawyer?”
“Slow down,” Hélène said, finding the number for the lawyer who was preparing her citizenship application, “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
After dinner, Ryan left the house and got drunk with friends. He called Mariana’s daughter, ready to pick a fight. He became agitated and lashed out with threats.
“I’m calling immigration,” he said. “I’m calling them tonight and you’ll all be deported. Just wait, they’ll come for you.”
That night the family packed small bags and slept on the floor of a friend’s home. By morning, Mariana decided they were done hiding.
“If they come, they come,” she said, and went home to wait.
They never came, and once sober he admitted he had never called.
When Mariana crossed the border, she did it on foot. She waited with her husband for the sun to set and the sky to darken. That’s when the guide they hired would lead them the rest of the way. She waited to grab her daughter’s hands and walk the last steps out of Mexico and into the United States. Her oldest daughters had walked night after night with her. Her youngest hadn’t. Weeks before, Mariana and her husband had a couple with all the right documents to drive their smallest children across the border and claim them as daughters. She’d heard that the officers didn’t ask many questions when it came to toddlers.
I left the farm at the end of January and finished my last year of college. I spent the next two years working overseas, emulating Hélène’s travels. But I never stopped thinking of Mariana with her daughters, waiting in silence for the dusky light to fade across the long desert.
Or at least that’s how I thought the story went. Two years after I left the farm, I returned, this time for the month of June. The farm looked just as I remembered it from that winter three years earlier, but more alive. The pear trees lining the long driveway bloomed with summer, their branches riotous with white petals. When I got out of my car Hélène wrapped me in a hug with her sun-freckled arms.
“You look just the same,” she said, and handed me a box of kumquat preserves from the back of her van. We quickly unloaded the goods left from the Sunday farmers market that morning so she could show me how the farm had grown. Filling buckets with feed as we had on my first morning years earlier, Hélène rode the small tractor and I walked behind through pastures I’d last seen overgrown with wildflowers and sharp thistles. Now the grass was trimmed for hay bales and the farm population had grown to include ducks and geese, donkeys and sheep, honey bees and farm cats, hens for eggs and fat broilers for meat. But Hélène’s staff hadn’t grown. Mariana remained her only employee. She had the day off and called that night, as she did each week, to see how the market had gone.
“She’s so excited to see you,” Hélène said. “She asks about you every freaking week. I started telling her about things I saw on Facebook, just to shut her up.”
Now it was the monthly slaughter day, and I stood beside Mariana at an outdoor sink piled with headless chickens. She plucked the last stubborn feathers off with tweezers. While we worked, she recounted the story of her arrival in the US.
“Espera,” I said, “Didn’t your youngest kids go in someone’s car?” I reviewed my question, looking for mis-conjugated verbs and forgotten articles. I rarely spoke a perfect Spanish sentence, and even when I did, I mangled the pronunciation, a fact Mariana pretended not to notice. My Spanish was rusty, but had improved since my first trip to the farm, along with my willingness to sound inarticulate.
“Coche?” she asked with a snort of laughter. “No. We walked.”
“You all walked? “Nobody drove in a car? I thought someone drove in a car.” I was on head and foot duty, rubbing the scaly skin off the chicken legs and carefully ignoring the heads. The crunching sound the beak made when I chopped it off made me queasy.
“No, we went together. We walked at night and hid in trees during the day.” Mariana worked faster than I did and her side of the sink was empty. She grabbed a head from my growing pile and sliced through the stringy fat in its neck. “You don’t like the heads?” she asked.
“Wasn’t there a coyote leading you?” I responded.
“Coyote?” she said, slicing of the gullet, with its remnants of undigested food, and disposing it into a bucket at her feet. “No, no coyote.”
“Seguro?” I asked skeptically.
Mariana laughed. “Sí sí. Por supuesto. I’m sure.” I looked back on our conversation, running the words through my head. I was sure I had understood this part of her history, but I had not. This uncertainty was a daily reality for Mariana, who constantly had to wonder if she had been understood, if she had comprehended those around her.
“So everyone walked? I was way off.”
“You’re not trying with the heads,” she said, nodding to my growing pile.
“I can’t seem to get it it. It’s too hard.”
“You can,” she insisted, “You’re not trying. It’s possible, but you have to choose to try.” I picked up my knife and the beak cracked. She was right.
There’s no comfortable way to cut and clean eighty pounds of strawberries. I tried standing up, but the soles of my feet began to burn after two strainers of quartered berries. So I sat on a stool, but my back started to throb. And whether my butt was in a chair or not, my wrist ached and pain ticked through it. My technique needed work. Beside me, Mariana sliced in a metallic blur that surpassed me, of course, pushing piles of fruit from her cutting board and into a strainer before grabbing another handful of berries. As we worked ratatouille bubbled in a massive pot on the stove.
Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to avoid taking off too much edible fruit when I lopped off the stem. On the weekends, Mariana and her husband picked berries for a local farmer everyone in town called Ms. Baker. It was blueberry season, and at Ms. Baker’s, Mariana received six dollars a pound.
“If I’m fast, I pick two pounds every hour,” Mariana explained. She sometimes brought her seven year old son, but he always ended up with a sticky face and a paltry haul in his bucket.
“Will you get married in a church?” she asked in Spanish.
“No lo sé, problamente no,” I had a boyfriend but I wasn’t engaged, “Eras tú” ?”
“Me? No. We went to the courthouse. It was easier.”
“And your parents? Did they go to a church.”
“Sure,” she said. She nodded to the pot, “I think it needs more tomatoes.”
True exchanges were hard for us and my Spanish fluency came in fits and starts. Usually our conversations were more like monologues, where one party listened while the other answered questions. But sometimes we stumbled on moments where the struggle of understanding each other fell away and we were just two people sharing the stories of our lives with a confidante who was interested to hear more. It stunned me how much of a relationship two people with a lot of patience could manage to have.
“Your mother’s in Texas. And your father?” I asked.
“He died,” Mariana said.
“He died? How?”
“Murder. He was shot.” She followed with a flurry of words I didn’t know. Just like that, our moment of mutual understanding had passed. Mariana repeated the sentence again, slower this time, and I heard that word again, the one that had been vaguely familiar but I couldn’t quite place.
“Su amante?” I repeated, confused. Then I remembered coming across it in a Borges story about betrayal. “Ah, su amante,” I said. His lover. “Your dad died after his lover’s husband shot him?” I asked.
“Sí,” she said, splitting a strawberry down the middle and slipping half into her mouth.
“Cierto?” I asked.
“That’s what they say.”
Hélène popped her head into the room, pausing her phone conversation with a woman selling a herd of sheep to ask Mariana to turn off the oven when the bread baking inside it was done. A few minutes later, at the sound of it beeping, she wiped off her hands and walked away.
“Daniela…” I heard her say. Her voice sounded strangely hesitant.
She had taken the bread out, but couldn’t read how to turn off the oven. “I left school before I could learn to read,” she’d told me once before. Her eyes were downcast as she asked me for help, a request she had to repeat because I didn’t understand the first time. We stared at the panel together, but she stood slightly back. There were a dozen or so buttons, one set for the lower oven, another for the upper. I found the red one that said Off and pushed it.
“See, the red is for stop,” I said. I wanted to offer more, to do something or say something that would make her expression change from the timid one I had never seen. That was more complexity than I could manage, so instead we walked back into the kitchen and chopped strawberries. She wore socks that said “USA” across the top. I’m not sure if she could read the letters, or had come to knows what those characters meant because they’d become a recognizable image. But there they were, sagging under her rolled up jeans. With each slice, I thought about how terrifying the world would be if you couldn’t interpret the messages around you, how many steps must be taken to get through the day, how exhausting the uncertainty must be. I wondered if she felt seen—by me, by Mariana, by the cashier at the grocery story—or if she felt like a different person around English speakers, as I had when I lived overseas and felt like a stripped down version of myself, unknown to those around me. Our silence turned companionable as Mariana filled another strainer with bright red berries and I tried to keep up.
The day before I left the farm for the second time, it took a dozen attempts before I understood Mariana’s simple question: What time will you go? Some exchanges remained a struggle. I planned to leave at six. Hélène had left before dawn to get fingerprinted at the state capitol. After thirty years with a green card, she was in the last steps to become a citizen.
Mariana was left to work alone that day, with a freezer full of eggs to wash for the market. I’d once helped with the task, but Hélène banned me from the job after I cracked too many. That’s my livelihood! I couldn’t find the right balance of force and caution. Mariana washed hundreds each week. As I put the last of my things in the car, she walked into the kitchen where we’d sliced strawberries with a huge box in her arms.
“Para ti,” she said, opening it to reveal a heap of blueberries. She ran her fingers over the mound of fruit, pulling off stray green stems. Watching her tend to the berries she’d spent hours picking, only to give them to me, my eyes watered. I chewed my lip, not wanting her to see me cry and hesitated. I wasn’t sure how to say what I wanted her to know. Mariana grazed the blueberries a final time, then opened her arms and gave me a hug.
“You tell your mother she has a special daughter,” she said. I understood every word.
“Tell your daughters they have a special mother,” I said. I hugged her back, one last time.
Mariana watched as I carried the blue-stained box out to my car, buckled the seatbelt around it, and pulled out of the driveway. She waved, then walked into the house. I knew her every step: She would emerge from the the walk-in freezer with flats of eggs and let them sit in buckets on the floor until they warmed enough to handle. She would sprinkle them with baking soda then scrub them with vinegar and water. She would hold them under the sink until they were clean then rest them carefully in cartons. Driving under the silver moss and off the gravel road, the box of blueberries beside me, I wondered how she managed it, holding something so easily broken all day long.
Danielle Harms is a writer from Denver, Colorado and has called Wisconsin, D.C., Hungary, and South Korea home. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Offing, Cleaver, and New South Journal. She works in higher education and earned her MFA at George Mason University, where she was the editor-in-chief of Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art. You can find her online at Danielle.HarmsBoone.org or on Twitter @danielleharms