Two days after I adopted Ramses, he walked in with my stinky brother Kevin, a bag of peanuts in hand. I knew where those peanuts came from: my dad’s farm. I also knew that Kevin had given him the bag to hand over because Kevin is awesome like that. The peanuts were roasted, fresh and delicious. Of course, I shared with the others in the office, and after declaring Ramses my ‘peanut brother’ and Kevin the twin ‘Jelly”, my coworkers wanted to know where the peanuts were from. Boy, what a story that is.
It starts with a 3AM wake-up call. I remember how it always felt as though I had barely fallen asleep when my blankets were removed and I was shaken awake. It had been a year after my parents came back from the island, and they had turned back to the land for sustenance. I grumbled as I woke up, the sounds of my mother’s cooking and shuffling bringing me around. Outdoors, my father was saddling the grey horse that he rode daily up to the milpa (farm). But this was the Monday after my first weekend of summer vacation, and it was understood that I would be joining everyone at the milpa to harvest peanuts.
They had been planted a while ago, in neat rows that had seen many workers bent over for hours at a time, digging and dropping seeds, covering the holes and shuffling forth to dig and plant again. In the weeks after, as the tiny plants slowly put their tentative leaves out to the sun, my father would walk his horse around the perimeter of his acres of farmland. The mounded rows were beautiful: black dirt from one end to the other, with only shoots of green from the peanuts. My father was a stickler for weeding, and no stray weed had a chance. As the baby shoots made way to stronger packed stems of bright green leaves, underneath the soil, magic was happening. Baby peanuts were forming at the tip of the roots underground, filling up on nutrients and growing ever bigger.
His work was harder now, and often required overnight stays for weeks on end in the thatched hut that he had built a few years before. Those were my mother’s and I’s favorite weeks; weeks of respite from his harsh hands and vile words. But now, it was time to join him there.
The night before my wake-up call, Mother had packed our clothing and provisions into sacks that would be loaded up on the other horse, a rusty red mare that she would be riding alone. I made my way out of bed, and pulled on the clothes I had picked out the night before. Long sleeved shirt and acid-wash, high-waist pleated jeans - even back then I must have had the idea that such jeans only deserved to be used in the farm and thrown away after.
Milky coffee awaited me, and with a buttered tortilla in my tummy, we were ready to go. After we had locked up the house, I had to hold up my hands so my father could pull me up and over the horse’ back. He sat on the saddle, while I rode immediately behind that contraption on the horse’s bare back. My mother slowly clucked her horse, “whoa, whoa-ing” at her to stop trying to circle around the house. When we finally had them under control, we were on our way. The stars were still bright, and the village road was lit for our horses to canter down gently as we led them first down the cemetery hill, then up into the dark, heavily wooded forest immediately at the village’s edge. We actually got wet from the heavy mist that still cloaked the village, but as we had passed through, there were a few fires going, farmers already up and getting ready to head out to their farmlands as well.
Sleepiness combined with the gentle rocking of the horse always lulled me into a doze, my hands tightly clamped around my father’s waist so I would not fall off while sleeping. By the time I woke, it would be time to cross the creek that signaled our arrival to the milpa. From the valley we had climbed up a small mountain (more of a big hill really), then crossed to another mountain where his farmland lay open to the skies. The creek was low this time of the year, its gurgle quiet and its waters slowly meandering into the thicketed forest beyond the path we followed. Shortly after crossing, we stumbled into the open, where trees had been burned and cleared away to make way for his neat rows of plants.
We were the first people there, and my mother and I, after climbing off the horses, set about to cleaning under the thatched hut. My father was many things, but he was quite the decent housekeeper, and we only had to put a few things away, including our provisions and clothing on a shelf he had prepared for us using twigs, branches, rope and wire. A hammock was strung up after we had started a fire going, and my mother put a pot of beans to cook immediately, knowing that by lunchtime, that would be a major part of our meal. My father pulled his machete out of the scabbard, and whistling, set off for the endless rows, seeking one stray weed to eliminate with the sharp blade.
Together, my mother and I followed after securing the fire. Empty sacks fashioned into slings across our chests lay on our sides, ready for the peanuts that would be dropped into them.
Father pointed out the section we would be responsible for that morning, and as I looked at the rows, my heart sank. Every year, it felt as if he assigned longer rows to me. Under his fierce glare, I simply bent over and began pulling out the peanuts. Bare hands would soon lose feeling, but that first plant I grabbed was cool and slick from the morning dew that had just been burned off by the morning sun. One hand grabbed the plant and yanked, and the other waited to pluck the peanuts that hung almost immediately before, just barely covered by the black dirt. I pulled the peanuts a (small) handful at a time, the moisture making the work a slick, muddy one. One plant done, a seeming million more to go.
By the time I’d reached halfway through the first long row, the morning sun was beating down on me, I could have cared less about the mud. In fact, yanking and standing to put the nuts in the bag only emphasized how pained my back was, so I remained hunched over, occasionally bending at the knees for a little relief, but always going back to the bent over routine.
Around me, I could hear the chatter of others who had arrived to get some work done, and hopefully some money to feed their families. There were many of those people who showed up around harvest time. We never really knew where they were from, but they were hungry and needed work to eat. Sometimes I would overhear that they were from Guatemala, or even Honduras – somewhere close to the border. They never complained, and they always packed some small sort of meal that they ate quickly before bending back over and picking peanuts. Not like us, who enjoyed a good lunch break. Mother would leave the row first, and somehow, my energy would find its way back as I knew that I would soon be taking a rest.
When we made our way to eat lunch, my father, myself and sometimes my aunts and uncle if they had joined us, it would be for a veritable feast. She would have put a large pot of rice to cook alongside the thick stewed beans, and a can of lunch meat would have been opened, sliced and fried. The hut was almost a house, and like all the houses in our village, there were banana and plantain trees nearby. She would have sliced and fried a few ripe plantains, sliced and salted thick cut tomatoes and sometimes even squeezed some juice from a few stray watermelons if there were any. There would be silence all around as we hunkered down, chewing slowly and savoring every bite. By the time we finished eating, we would all be drowsy, and for a few minutes, eyes would close and we would rest.
When the afternoon sun was at its hottest, we had to amble back to our rows, our filled sacks having been emptied into their proper containers ready to transport back to the village. The empty sacks would be waiting with gaping maws, hungrily swallowing the peanuts that fell, small handfuls at a time. As the hours passed, those sacks would be filled and emptied, refilled and emptied. Until the first tinges of twilight hit, we would work. But the moment the true sunlight was gone, we would make way back to the hut to avoid a close encounter with snakes and other creatures.
Nighttime would bring utter darkness, and bucket baths with a small rag, out in the open with only the moon to guide us. Dinner was often hot tortillas and leftover beans, and it was the most delicious meal I ate for the day, because after the last swallow, when my eyes closed, they didn’t have to open ten minutes later. My mother slept with me on a bed fashioned from wood slats packed tightly on a few poles, then cushioned with sacks and thick blankets. We slept to the sounds of the night owls, and other creatures that snuffled, howled and called into the dark night, our snores adding to the symphony.
Each day of the week crept by, but Saturday afternoon always came by and we would be ready to head back home. A cart would have been brought over on Friday by the villagers who had joined us at the reaping. Saturday was spent loading up the cart, hitching it to two strong horses that would pull it into the village and back to our house. If it was raining, a big tarp was set over the peanuts to prevent their getting wet and catching mold. Every step of the peanut harvest had to ensure that the nuts themselves were kept dry after reaping. My mother and I would once again pack up what was left of the provisions into a covered bucket that we hung from the beams of the hut. We would pull down the sleeping items, packing everything to avoid ransacking by wild animals, and then we would get back on the horses, heading home.
Whereas our departure from the village was done in the wee hours of the morning, my horseback ride through the village on my return was in the glow of sunset. Children would be playing on the roadside and shrieks would fill the air as we passed by with our loaded horses. Curtains would twitch, and a few friends would call out to us as we made our way home to start preparing for our return the next Monday, until all the peanuts were harvested.
When that happened, it was time for the cleanup, and the final preparation of the nuts that we so casually eat by the handful.
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