Danielle Harms

Creative Nonfiction

Danielle Harms writes from Denver, Colorado, where she works in higher education. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Offing, Cleaver, and in New South Journal. She has called Wisconsin, D.C., Hungary, and South Korea home. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University, where she was the editor-in-chief of Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art. Find her online at Danielle.HarmsBoone.org

 

The Tall Grass and the Long Night

Hélène was sick of losing her chickens at night. She swore in French, cursing Alabama’s coyotes and stray dogs. We stood in the pasture as she counted her farm’s latest losses—two hens had disappeared this week and three last.

“Enough!” she declared to Mariana, her sole employee on the farm. “We’re building a fence. Una cerca eléctrica.” It was my first day of work on the farm and I had only met Mariana that morning. We’d barely spoken since—after years of Spanish courses, I couldn’t remember a word.

“O.K.,” Mariana said, unfazed. She assessed the stakes piled at our feet, beside rubber mallets and coiled wire. It was winter in Alabama but the southern sun was intense; only a few hours away people were vacationing on Florida beaches. Mariana wound her long hair into a bun and tucked it under a baseball cap. I guessed she was about thirty. Later I learned she was nearly fifty, and married with children in their twenties, the same age as me. Grasshoppers collided with my socks and I flicked them away, waiting for another one to land.

“Obviously, it’s going to be solar powered,” Hélène qualified. I nodded in agreement—obviously—but she was focused on a scrap of paper where she’d drawn a rectangle split into neat sections. It represented the pasture around us and the wire fence we would string across it. I tried to sneak a casual look at her scribbled blueprint, nervous and excited.

Two days before I had left my Wisconsin hometown, where I grew up surrounded by farms but never worked on one, bound for Hélène’s farm. 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.

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.

Be precise.

“So you two can take care of the stakes while I deal with the wiring, alright?” Hélène asked.

“That’ll work,” I said, eager to seem capable, or at least undaunted.

“You two can handle it?” Across the field, I could imagine the meticulous row of stakes rising upwards, a clean line to stretch the electric wiring across.

“We’ll figure it out,” I reassured, speaking for Mariana and me without looking in her direction. 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.

“Hi,” I said, clearing my throat, “Um, hola.”

Mariana laughed at my edginess, pointed to the fence posts, and explained her plan. I didn’t understand. I opened my mouth dumbly, only to close it again, feeling a bit panicked. I hadn’t experience this much in the past; as a white, cisgender woman growing up in the Midwest, I wasn’t very familiar with the feeling of being wholly misunderstood. We contemplated each other, both uncertain how to proceed. Close by, Hélène was unraveling wire and connecting it to the solar-powered generator. I didn’t want her notice our 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. She knew what she was doing; I didn’t.

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. “What the fuck?”

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 swore angrily in French and English, 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.

~

Months earlier I had hatched a plan to take a break from my senior year of college over the month of January to volunteer 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. 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 forceful disclaimers about knee-deep mud.“Research our January temperatures before you respond,” she wrote back, “Volunteers sleep in unheated trailers. We do provide a hot water kettle and organic oatmeal.” I nearly ended up in Nevada, where a man ran an intentional living community guided by Quaker values. He sent follow-up emails with photos of cats in bathroom sinks and barbell weights strewn across the desert. It turned out he was the only member of his community. That was the end of that.

Of the dozens of farms I contacted, few responded; Hélène did. She offered few details: She was in her early sixties and grew up in Switzerland. Her farm was new and she needed help. 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.

~

When I arrived to the house, Hélène met me in the driveway. Her red hair was pulled back by aheadband, and she wore knee-high rubber boots with a cashmere sweater.

“I simply cannot tolerate synthetic fabric against my skin,” she announced. We walked inside the farmhouse where she lived alone and she showed me to the spare bedroom. Sage dried on paper towels in the corner and basketball wallpaper covered the walls.

“The previous owners,” Hélène explained, her Swiss-French accent heavy, “So tacky.”

I set the table and Hélène placed a pot of pumpkin curry in the center. We chatted over a bottle of wine long after our plates were clean, breaking off pieces from a bar of Swiss chocolate she’d brought back from her last trip to Europe. I had never met 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.

Hélène summarized decades of her history into sentences, but I pulled them apart, stitching together a timeline of her life. In her early thirties she came to Miami for a week of water skiing. She was an engineer in Brussels, but at the end of her vacation she didn’t want to return, so she didn’t. At the time she barely spoke English. To learn she translated biographies of American presidents. One day she walked by an ad for real estate classes and enrolled. She started her own business in South Beach, learned to scuba dive at night, and water skied on weekdays. A year before I unleashed a slew of emails on farmers across the country, Hélène had traded condos and ocean views for 96 acres of pasture, forest, and swamp in Alabama. In her first months of farming, she’d bought how-to books and tried to do it all alone. When that didn’t work, she hired people, going through unreliable employees by the week.

“You need a family,” a local blueberry farmer everyone called Ms. Baker told her,“A Mexican family. If you pay cash, they don’t need papers.” That’s how she found Mariana.

“So she’s undocumented?” I asked. Naively, I had separated undocumented workers into a world separate from organic farms.

“She is,” Hélène said.

“Does she speak English?” I asked.

“She doesn’t.”

“So you speak Spanish?”

“Well, Italian is pretty close. We meet in the middle. It’s our own language.” The next morning we carried buckets of organic chicken feed to the coops and Hélène delivered lessons on food security and permaculture design.

“Corn is a lost cause,” she said, “You can’t find non-GMO corn anymore. Monsanto’s made sure of that.” We opened the coops and Hélène wished the chickens a good morning in French as they pecked the ground at our feet.

The winter sun pushed over the quiet fields and Hélène described the pasture she envisioned for the future, one busy with heritage livestock, heirloom crops, bees, and an orchard. But for now this was the farm—a couple dozen hens that had yet to lay an egg, a grove of citrus trees, and a mucky pond where the previous owners swore an alligator lived. And now, for the month of January, me.

~

The sun sagged heavy in the sky. It would set in an hour. In the last week I had learned that was our cue to begin herding the chickens into their coops for the night. Hélène had not sent me home after the fence mishap and Mariana had not refused to tolerate me, but both monitored me closely. We stood a few feet from each other around the coops and extended our arms wide in an attempt to create a human wall, walking forward slowly to nudge groups of chickens towards their homes. 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 from the thorns. 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. By this point Mariana and I were able to negotiate a conversation where Mariana patiently repeated herself when I needed to catch up. While we cleaned out the coops or carried feed she told me about her daughters and young son, her only child born in the US. She did impressions of her daughter, Yecenia’s twin babies. She lambasted their absent father Ryan, a gangly, white guy who had been Yecenia’s on-again, off-again boyfriend throughout high school. During her senior year they conceived and by the time she delivered her girls, Ryan left the relationship. He had never met his daughters until a a few weeks ago, when he declared his intentions to be a father. The twins were two. It was 2009. There was no policy to protect kids like Yecenia, and certainly not Mariana. They were in limbo.

We chased the chickens for two hours. Safe in their coops, we wished the chickens sound sleep and Hélène turned on the electricity in the new solar-powered fence to ward off predators. With a 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, stung.

“It works,” she said.

~

Later Hélène realized it wasn’t necessary to herd chickens. Birds instinctively roost at night. 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. 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 if it meant someone else was wrong. She had lived in Alabama for years and many bosses preceded Hélène. I started to recognize the subtle tools she used to manage working for someone who had less expertise than her. She often 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 sense of authority that surfaced without warning. She was hostile to advice she had not asked to hear.

So during the day Mariana offered guidance with caution, careful it would not cause anger or doubt. And at night Hélène bemoaned the sexism of the local men who doubted her ability as a single, foreign, and female farmer, while I imagined Mariana was telling similar stories around her dinner table. Both women had a point.

Hélène demanded more space for herself than I did, but I recognized in myself the same impulse 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 hand, I had shown leadership. Hélène and I were both middle-class, white women. Over gourmet 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. Our personal successes were not seen as credits to our race or ethnicity. We felt fiery and empowered by our understanding of structural discrimination and everyday misogyny. 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. We buzzed with revelations we unearthed mining our own experiences for meaning. We acknowledged our privilege dutifully but without passion.

Once they abandoned the nightly chicken round-up, Marianna could get home earlier to dinner with her family and Hélène could sit on her tractor reading the New Yorker until dusk darkened the sky. Then, she could close the doors on a full coop. Later Hélène asked why Mariana hadn’t said anything about the flawed routine. Mariana shrugged but didn’t explain. I bet if she had, Hélène wouldn’t have heard.

~

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, family photos covering the walls. Mariana fried 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 built. I chatted with her daughter Yecenia, who wondered why I would ever want to work on a farm for free. She invited me to hang out with her friends.

Ryan, the father of Yecenia’s children, watched TV on the couch. We didn’t speak much, but I recognized the games he played to gauge his control over the people around him. I knew men like him. 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 farmhouse phone rang. Yecenia 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 Yecenia, aggressive and ready to pick a fight. He lashed out with threats.

“I’m calling immigration,” Ryan 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. They weren’t sure if he could do that but didn’t want to risk it. The next 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 paid 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. It was 2011. Obama hadn’t yet signed an executive order to protect kids and the hope that Congress would create a path to citizenship was fading. By now I was in graduate school and on another break from work and classes. 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 years earlier, Hélène rode the small tractor and I walked behind through a meadow 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.”

~

On the monthly slaughter day 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. My Spanish was rusty, but had improved since my first trip to the farm, along with my willingness to sound inarticulate. I had grown better at being uncomfortable.

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?”

Coyote?” she said, slicing off the gullet, full of undigested food, and tossed it into a bucket at her feet. “No, no coyote.”

Seguro?” I asked skeptically. Mariana laughed.

Sí sí. Por su puesto. I’m sure.” I looked back on our conversation, running the words through my head. I was sure I’d 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 comprehended by 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 and my technique needed work. I couldn’t seem to avoid taking off too much edible fruit when I lopped off the stem. Beside me, Mariana sliced in a metallic blur, 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. After we canned it, Hélène and I would sell it at the market that Saturday.

It was blueberry season. On the weekends, Mariana and her husband picked for Ms. Baker, who paid six dollars a pound.

“If I’m fast, I pick two pounds every hour,” Mariana explained. She sometimes brought her son, but he always ended up with a sticky face and barely full bucket.

“Will you get married in a church?” she asked in Spanish.

“No lo sé, problamente no.” Ihad 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 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 a vaguely familiar word I couldn’t 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 when his lover’s husband shot him?” I asked.

“Sí,” she said frankly, 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 was baked. 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 was confused by 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 a 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, 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 Hélène, by the cashier at the grocery story—or if she felt like a different person around English speakers, or residents, or white people. When I lived overseas by choice, I 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 I left the farm for the second time, Hélène departed 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.

“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.

It’s been five years since I left the farm with a box full of blueberries beside me. Much has changed since then, and the futures of the people in this essay have become less certain and less safe. Like most writers, I believe writing should not create unjust harm, so I altered names of people and obscured locations. But disclosing locations isn’t the only way to cause hurt. While writing this essay I wrangled with questions about what was my story to tell, what wasn’t, and how I should navigate the ethics of telling it. I still do.

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