A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Harvest.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
* * *
Thanksgiving was her least favorite day of the year, but the weeks leading up to it were pretty close. It wasn’t always that way. Nancy used to love the holiday as a kid—something about the gathering of family, scarfing down her aunt’s food until she had to unbutton her pants, and knowing that just about everyone else in the country was doing the same—that just always seemed so special to her.
Nancy used to go with her cousins to the farm near their house to pick out local food for the meal. Her aunt would help her set the table just right, so that when the rest of the family came they would see her fantasy come alive—a picturesque setting of the way it all should be. Even her mother who swore off meat for 364 days a year couldn’t resist the smell of the turkey, freshly roasted with lemon and garlic on top. She’d take Nancy’s hands and cut her food for her, but before, everyone would bow their heads in unison. All of their hands clasped together, Nancy could feel the beat of her heart, alternating between paces both quick and slow, as she closed her eyes and listened to her grandfather walk around the table. It could have been her then favorite game of duck-duck-goose as she waited with anticipation, except in this routine she would feel the touch of the tips of her grandfather’s fingers on the top of her head, and she would know that she was counted as one of his blessings.
Nancy was older now, much older, and each year she awaited in angst for the day her adult children, nieces, and nephews would fly in and gather around a table together once more. But as hard as she tried, all she could see was what was not there: her aunt bustling around, setting the gravy onto the table, her father sitting across from her, laughing at his own jokes, and of course the presence of her grandfather behind her, his touch a once-a-year affirmation of her place in his world.
The generation below her would bellow and feast, but they couldn’t see what she did. They saw only what was right in front of them, but could she blame them? They didn’t know any differently. Their time hadn’t come yet.
* * *
High summer, a foolish season for graduation. Or perhaps, the Professor thought, the trappings were more foolish. His up-and-comers stood swaddled out on the quad, robes dark, severe, and contrasting with the brilliant day, the emerald at their feet. The shine on faces could just pass for excitement, instead of the sweat that it was. An amniotic look preferable today to simple perspiration. No matter. He fixed the regulation tie and crimson in place and stepped down, late as ever to social occasions.
The standard hush upon approach. Parents shrunk back from him, intimidated by legends of sent-back essays, red ink put-downs, weepy students on the college steps. When still a twentysomething starting out he’d worked hard to be feared. It hadn’t always come easy, with some charges older than him, some with families of their own. So the academic-to-be had suppressed his smile. Had slashed marks, even where high ones were deserving. Had worked above all else to avoid complacency taking root amongst those he chose to cultivate. A reputation grew. Became self-generating. And these days it did the work for him, letting strangers on the quad know that today was his day. His festival.
It was a rare, amusing bunch he’d gathered this year. The girl who’d never wanted to be a lawyer. The boy who cried every time a question was asked of him. And the young man who, thirty years ago, would have ruined his mentor for other men. A chap with unfortunate hair, whose mother’s outfit raised eyebrows in the hall. Whose father had sent back the invitation to attend.
The boy was the sort of student academia fantasises about: diligent, brilliant beyond compare, with a touch of cockiness that would be crushed in time.
“The offer stands, you know,” said the Professor. They’d found a moment, him and his protégé, between interminable photographs. “I’ve been ready to retire for fifteen years. There’d be no candidate more suited to the job.”
“Oh, I don’t think I could,” said the graduate. “On my own. I’d go mad, up here. Doing this, year on end.”
A casual remark, but a remark that lingered long after the last of the champagne was drained. It lingered even as the Professor stood at twilight, in his room, glass in hand.
How brief a season is these days, he thought. How quick they are to leave.
* * *
Hannah’s fourth-grade class has a raised bed in the school garden. It was full of lettuces and beets, carrots, and tiny pink radishes. But sometime in the night, two boys from the neighboring middle school destroyed it, ripped out, and stomped on what the smaller kids had planted. Immediately, parents were contacted and plans were put into action. Someone arranged a shopping list on a group email thread. Terri was assigned only onions and garlic, but she came back from the store with a bunch of red tulips, too.
Years before, she’d seen them being sold by children on the roadside in Kazakhstan. She was in a taxi on her way to a privately run orphanage outside Almaty. When she arrived, the woman in charge kept asking where Terri’s husband was and she tried to respond in her broken Russian that she was alone. This only caused more confusion.
“Why is he not here?” the woman asked. “Where is he now?”
But Terri had prepared for this and knew the right name to mention, a friend of a friend who worked at the consulate. So after a short time, two young women dressed in crisp white dresses arrived to take her on a tour.
There were four houses, a long dining room, a separate schoolhouse, and a doctor’s office. There were kids everywhere, doing chores at the edges or trailing a few feet behind and pretending not to, some as old as fourteen or fifteen. But the women kept asking Terri if she wanted to see the babies.
“Let us show you the babies,” they said. “That is why you are here.”
They led her down a hallway with cracked plaster, through a small door, then into a room filled with tiny metal cribs lined up in rows. Hannah was napping under a yellow-striped blanket. Her cheeks were flush, the rosy color of an apple.
Now Terri helps set the table with everything the parents have assembled from the grocery store. Fruits and veggies that are pre-diced and pre-washed, salads emptied from bags into wooden bowls. Whole sweet potatoes and heads of cabbage are spread around like objects for show and tell. In the center, the red tulips are stuffed into a mason jar.
When they see it, the kids cheer. All that is gathered is theirs, and the world’s magic is still just water and sunlight and care.
* * *
Sadie gummed an apple as Mark hovered over her. He looked wildly at his fingernails, as if he could will from them Wolverine claws to slice the fruit into neat wedges for her. Leaving my bundle of joy in her father’s care, I wandered toward the petting zoo at the Brightwood Farms Harvest Festival. In July, the earthy smell would have been rancid, but in October it was umami, like a wild mushroom you didn’t particularly want to eat, but the farm-to-table bistro charged twenty dollars for anyway.
There was no table here, only split rails dividing land. Sadie and Mark toddled over, and he angled his body to prevent her from sticking her small head between the gaps in the fence.
“What does a pig say?” he asked. She first recoiled from the pink beast, the cartoons of her coloring books come to life. Then her eyes focused and she stepped forward, ready to take in the wild creature and the muddy streaks on its nose.
“What does a pig say?” Mark insisted.
“Oink.” Sadie provided the syllables to end the inquiry, but spared no imitative zeal.
“Would you like to feed the goats?” We turned to find a man in the official orange T-shirt of the harvest festival gesturing to the pen next door, where goats bleated beneath soft-looking horns. He offered Sadie a fistful of hay, and as she grabbed for it, Mark bent down to capture the small pieces falling to the earth below. I wondered if the dust from the hay would still be on his fingers if he slid them inside me tonight while Sadie slept.
My husband looked at me encouragingly, and I knew he wanted me to ask what sound a goat makes. Instead, I hid behind my phone, angling the camera to capture the animal’s pink tongue lapping the flesh of my daughter’s hand.
In the barn that festivalgoers were forced to pass through before they exited, a maze of tables displayed farmers’ market wares. Mark picked up two gallons of cider, explaining he could brine a chicken in the juice. I nodded as he handed me the orange plastic bag sheathing his purchase. Its text read “My Brightwood Farms Harvest,” and when we reached the car, I propped it neatly next to Sadie’s car seat, its contents just out of her reach.
* * *
My mother studies me every day. I imagine how peculiar she must feel. Me, half of her, a carbon copy of her height, weight, and bone structure. But, me, different in ways that challenge her. I don’t know what she expected when she kept me, but I’m sure it wasn’t this. My mother watches the way I walk and doesn’t listen to what I say. Instead, she watches the way my mouth moves, the way my eye muscles wrinkle. That’s how she knows what I’m saying. She tells me my nose is crooked.
I am trapped in her museum of unpredictability. My sister is not in the museum. Visitors tilt their heads in curiosity and their clammy fingers streak the glass. What is she doing.
In my natural pose, I am sitting on the floor cross-legged, surrounded by paper. Me, the center of detonation and surrounding me, all of the paper I’ve harvested. Images ripped from magazines, lists I’ve made, photographs, origami stars, bar receipts, tissues from my last cold, books in piles. A photocopy of my hand with palmistry notes, self portraits on cocktail napkins, drafts of essays rippled by unknown liquids. Love letters, medical bills, police reports, straw wrappers.
She periodically examines the scrawls, the jots, the journals. She discovers the words. Fatuous. Vituperate. Calumny. Humble. Cog. Words I don’t fully know yet, words I needed to use more, words, more words. As if they are clues to who I’ve become.
There is a lamp for every mistake I make, each of different wattage. The light golden, rosy, and tender like the electric sunsets of New Mexico. When we fight, the bulbs shatter and there is glass in my hair. We have to start over. My arms become time pieces, positioned precisely at 8:02 a.m., the time of my birth. My remains dirty and unbrushed out of spite.
My mother wants to have something in common with me. She has half in common with me. We share the same smile, the same cry, the same ass. When I dye my hair, we have less in common. She sits at the edge of the living room chair and never leans back. I make her uncomfortable.
My mother follows my movements throughout her home, entering every room the same way I do, quickly and without ceremony. She licks her thumbs and presses down on the crumbs I leave behind. I taste different with every new experience, less familiar. The fruits of her labor are becoming bitter.
She touches the scars on my face and frowns. I fell on my face, but her face is my face. My mother never wanted me to get hurt, so she carries my hurt inside her, hoping this year will be different.
* * *
His dream melts into the pitter-patter tapping against his window and the leaf-covered rooftop just beyond it, smothering the distant whistle of the morning train. In the warmth of his pajama bottoms and his swirl of blankets, he turns onto his side and the breeze from the window chills his nose. Still in between worlds, he smiles. Today is his eleventh birthday. Lifting an elbow to prop himself up, he opens his eyes and presses his face into the mesh of the window screen and inhales the moist autumn air.
Moments later he is up and making his way down the hall to the bathroom, loosing an arch of yellow into the toilet bowl through the fly of his long underwear with one arm against the wall for balance. Without a flush he shuffles shirtless through the the hallway—the lone conscious being in the house—and dives back into bed, shivering and taking great care to spin his covers back into place. Finally falling onto his back, he feels a tiny patch of itchy wetness forming around his privates which in his sleepy haste he had forgotten to shake off. Reaching down, he peels off his pajamas and tosses them in a ball beside his bed. I am outgrowing them anyway, aren’t I, he thinks as he repositions himself and tucks the blankets in around his bare legs, shifting his weight from side to side to the rhythm of the rainfall, and sensing as the blankets glide across his crotch the pleasant tingle he has often felt, the mystery of which he has yet to decode.
Easing back into the remaining hours of his slumber, he imagines, between slow breaths of crisp air, the rise and fall of his mother’s warm belly as she lies asleep on the downstairs couch, the low muffle of the television barely audible over the rain. Dad will be up for work soon, he thinks, but for now, I am the only one awake, and I could do anything I wanted.
“Happy birthday,” he whispers into the darkness, and pictures himself tiptoeing down into the basement and finishing the Mario level he’d been forced to turn off at the worst moment the night before, or sneaking past his mom into the kitchen and forking himself the smallest bite of the cake he’d been banned from tasting, or snatching his father’s fishing rod from the garage and walking through the neighbors’ backyard to the woods and down to the creek…
* * *
As I pull out the blanket and place it on the bed, I realize how the temperature has changed over the last few days. I know that day is now shorter and the sun has not even risen when I get up to begin my day. I pause to think of the changes in climate and wonder how the harvest is changing here in the United States.
In many cultures, there are celebrations around the harvest, a time to bless the recent crops that will feed communities when the field are now fallow. Taking a moment to celebrate the sacredness of food and shelter, I pause because I wonder how this time is changing and how the amount and even the crops we reap in the future may be different. During this past summer, I lamented about the smaller yield of pitted fruit due to weather. I appreciate the impact that weather can have on harvest, but will our diets change dramatically in the years ahead?
As we prepare for the cooler months, some are planning to make sure they have warmer clothing for the days ahead while others are thinking about canning and freezing food that will feed their families through the winter. I hope that people honor this time of harvest and remember it is not a time to think about individuals but about community. Human history documents festivals celebrating harvests for centuries which included a communal meal. I hope this tradition continues and as many of us wonder about agriculture, including the survival of bees, that we will still expect a harvest of hope.
As Americans, my hope is that as we face cooler days, we look forward to this year’s harvest reminding us of the importance of community and we gather united to celebrate and make sure everyone, especially the most vulnerable, have what they need to survive. What a joy it would be if the upcoming harvest ushers in the traditional sense of community and we reap many crops that are shared across the community. I hold the hope that harvest dinners are not filled with dread but with celebrations bringing people together, committed to doing what is necessary to ensure that we always have harvest dinners celebrating the bounty from our fields.
* * *
He pulled the moon up by the roots, a pale bulb among a cluster of green-tipped palms, in a field in the Coachella Valley. He who is forever Young, and forever getting old, spun this spindly melody:
There’s a full moon risin’
Let’s go dancing’ in the light
We know where the music’s playin’
Let’s go out and feel the night
There was, we were, and we did, 80,000 of us.
The stage was set at sunset: helping hands in overalls symbolically tossing seeds and tipping watering cans before he appeared with a guitar. “Water is life,” his T-shirt read.
The dry ache of the land alone could have been enough to send us searching starward, the dusty wind enough to stir our hearts. After all, you don’t spend a festival fortune or drive into the heat of nowhere unless you believe there’s something there to find. Still, it was his voice that overturned our gaze. It was the quiver in his familiar tone that pointed arrows from the desert dirt into the open sky, that both grounded and lifted us, that dizzied our heavy heads.
October’s moon shone the way few earthly bodies can, in answer to the one who wrote its favorite tune. Its silver face mirrored the man on stage, reflected a bookend to the rawness of the ripened words upon his lips. It revealed a symmetry, the timelessness of time, the unyielding way we inhabit our current selves and our youthfulness, cultivating both. The way we sow the same old row, sing the same songs, and remain ever changing.
Because I’m still in love with you
On this harvest moon
Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.