School was no longer a choice for her, it was harvesting season, and he needed her hands to work too. Money for his drinking, for things that he did not spend on her, he wanted as much as he could get his hands on.
Working on a meager meal for them both, she felt exhausted simply from the effort. The thought of a long day stretching out ahead of her, under the sun, away from everyone and in the bushes where anything could happen made her frightened. He went outside, where she heard him peeing in the grass, followed by his steps to the horse that stood tethered to a post. Saddle, rope, whip, sacks and more went on the horse, till it was trussed up as best as it could be.
They ate, she in stony silence, while he explained that they would be working with a bigger farmer, who needed a lot of harvesters on hand. He talked about money for maybe some material for new clothes. She knew he didn’t mean for her, because he did like to have a shirt and pants that were always pressed neatly, only to have him wear it to the bar further down the hill past the cemetery. It always came back stinking of liquor, smoke and that smell that she was left with between her legs when he was finished with her.
There was no mention of money for food, for the roof that would leak when the rains came, or anything more about school. When they finished eating, he led her to the horse, and after swinging his short legs on the beast, he pulled her up by one arm, yanking her without minding if he hurt her. She sat astride the animal, feeling it’s hairs prickling on her skinny legs. She wore the old rubber slippers that she wore all the time, stitched together when it began falling apart, to the point where it now resembled more of the thread and string she used to fix it, than the rubber it was made of originally. She curled her toes and hoped she wouldn’t lose them while bouncing astride the horse.
The long ride deep into the mountain took them through creeks and through thick jungle. The sounds and smells were different around there, and as the day lightened, the birdsong grew shriller and gayer. The sun must have been peeking out over the valley where the village nestled, but deep inside the thicket of trees whose tops she couldn’t even see, there was scarce light or direct sunshine. Onwards the horse trampled, whinnying softly in response to his gentle taps and heel digs. Eva held on tightly to the saddle, behind which she sat bareback.
Eventually they broke through to a clearing where the sun was gearing up to be fiercer and hotter. There were already a number of people standing around where a thatched hut stood. Eva saw a couple boys from school there too, but they were the older ones who were nearly done with their education. There were no little girls her age. There were about six women and they wore boots. Tucked inside their boots were long billowing skirts that allowed them to walk with ease. Everyone seemed to be dressed to stop the sun from frying them. She wore a man’s t-shirt, the sleeves hitting just past the elbow, while her skirt barely grazed her knee. She most certainly did not have on boots. He, who wore long sleeves and pants and boots, pulled her none-too-gently towards the crowd, where the boss was waiting for everyone’s arrival.
When she saw him, she was surprised. It was sister’s papa, the man who, during the party, had sat around and eaten, not saying anything. Now he stood in the middle giving orders.
When everyone had been cleared on their duties, they turned to face the lines of produce that seemed to stretch endlessly, and somehow the sun suddenly shone down fiercer and brighter.
One of the women took pity on her, and indicated that she join them, handing her a towel to put over her head to ward off some of the broiling heat while they bent down and began their toil. He walked off with the other men and boys, taking the water jug with him, already thinking that the women would take her off his hands.
A few of the women were little more than girls fresh out of school, but they had that look of hard work and a hard life about them. They were familiar, but did not live in the village. She thought they looked like the women who sometimes stopped in the village shops on their way to their homes in the community a few miles in the outskirts. Too small to be a proper village, the cluster of homes were more of a commune, and entire families shared a home. Poverty was a constant, but cruelty perhaps wasn’t. Their faces were kind, and they took her on as one of their own. Eva bent over and began her day, hardly looking up, only concerned about filling the sacks that were interspersed down the rows.
The blisters formed sometime when the sun was at its peak, but still she kept on. Her back, her scrawny legs, her shoulders and stick-like arms ached horribly. She tried standing up straight every so often, but bending back down always hurt so much more, so she squatted for relief instead. Another of the kindly girls offered her sips of water from the jugs they had with them. The water grew warmer and warmer in the sunlight, but each drink was such a relief to her parched throat. Finally, it was time to break for lunch.
He sat and dug into the small meal she had cobbled together, handing her a small portion and eating the rest in big hungry bites. The other girls brought out their meals, hearty breads stuffed with delicious smelling things, and a thermos full of coffee was passed around amongst them. The same kindly girl who had lent her the towel gave Eva a small piece of her lunch. She ate it hungrily, not daring to look at him, in case he wanted it for himself. They even shared some of their coffee, taking care of her like one of their own.
The conversation was small and quiet; they only spoke of the remaining work to be done. It seemed that the harvesting would end earlier than expected. The men talked of heading out to hunt if they were done sooner. He got all excited, and the next thing Eva knew, he was making plans to stay in the mountains to join the men in the hunting. When they were walking back to finish work, she asked him how she was to get home, and he said he would ask someone to take her back.
The thought of heading back home without him in the dark forest made her forget the blisters in her hands, and though her entire body trembled in agony, she made herself work faster, adding to the piles to finish quicker. The other women, energized by their hearty meals, also grew cheerier, and the work hummed along harmoniously.
When sister’s papa came around, they were on the last row. When they finished, he gathered the sacks, helped by a few of the men. The harvest was packed into a wooden cart that had been leaning against the thatched hut where they had eaten. Two horses were hitched to the cart, and other horses were saddled and prepared for the exodus from the mountain. All six women seemed to be sharing horses, two per horse. Sister’s papa, the boss, indicated to her that she sit atop one of the sacks on the cart, and he would take her into the village. He wasn’t staying to hunt, for his harvest needed to get home where it would be stored.
Her ride home figured out, she obediently clambered onto the cart, holding on to the various ropes that held each sack securely in the cart. She sat close to the front, near where his seat was. Her fraying slippers looked like they might fall off, so she slipped out of them and stuck them between sacks where they remained snug and secure. The women slipped away on their horses, one of the kinder girls smiling at her on her perch. She leaned against the sack and waited for the boss to finish talking to those who were staying to hunt.
She closed her eyes while she waited, and awoke when the cart shook as he clambered up and took the horses’ reigns. With hardly a word, other than “lista?” (ready), they were off. As she leaned against one of the sacks, holding on to the ropes for safety, she sniffed the air as they went into the dark, cool forest once again. The scent in the air was different. The birds were quiet, only an occasional coo joined the creaking of the cart to break the silence. She sniffed again, knowing that the scent meant something. It smelled like the bottom of a river or creek: fishy, stale, pungent. There were no creeks close by yet, so the stench was a surprise. Shrugging it off, she once again tried to get comfortable, and before she knew it, her eyes were closed and she was in a deep, dreamless sleep once again.
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