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They Took Me In, With Open Arms

By: Katherine Hernandez

There she stood, the morning horizon looking over me as she stretched her way past the tall dry mountains of Creston, California. The air is cool. A song carries its way through the farm as the hoots of a near owl and the cockling of the roosters waking up, finds its way as a melody to my ears. I knew I was somewhere else. A place where the air is clean, mountains only whisper lullabies, and your thoughts are the easiest thing to listen to.

It was a fair trade. In exchange for my labor I was to be fed and sheltered. Both parties had agreed and understood the exchange. Trading, I’ve always preferred. Rather more fun and interesting than the exchange of currency. My sweater in exchange for your shoes? A pound of flour for some sugar perhaps?

I was to work 7 hours a day on the farm. Three hours as the sun began to rise…I then took a break after 10 am for the sun became too hot for any sort of labor. After 10 the sun began feeding off of me, consuming any energy I possibly have had for the rest of the day. From 10 am- 5pm I rested, a nap perhaps on the hammock covered by the shade of two trees, or some reading until lunch was served. By 5pm the sun was slowly setting so the air was cool again and back to work I went.

Weeding was one of my main duties. Oh weeds! And how they cultivate the soil, so selfish they leave the basil no room to grow. The damage—the damage it can do to the edible herbs and vegetation. Oh, the labor, the tedious labor that goes into pulling and removing these fellows from rows and rows of edible plants. Damn you! Crabgrass, Nutsedge, Pig Weed, and Lamb’s-Quarter, but most of all damn you, Purslane!

Pesto angel hair pasta, tomato-cilantro salad, hot green peppers, and crisp iced water for lunch—Three servings in my stomach.

“We do two things here, we eat and we work,” says Dolores.

The hens and chickens are on a timely schedule. As the sun seeps into their eyes hormones begin to rage. Ovulation then takes place. Eggs everywhere you go! In the coops, in the nest, on the floor, and in the hens’ food. I push and shove my hands into the hens’ bottoms collecting multi-colored eggs. Some were white, brown, green, and blue. Motherly qualities begin to reveal themselves as they nip, pick, and scream, “ Get away from my eggs, please!” Ring around the rosy I play with the golden ones as they mischievously sneak out of their cage. Ring around the rosy I go chasing chickens around the rows of planted carrots. I know they like to play.

Before the night sets the sky fills itself with a burst of lavender, so calm, and serene as the cool breeze seeps into the night. Chickens huddle into one at night knowing they themselves are their only heat source. Pasta bean stew for dinner; a splash of hearty potato, peppers, and summer squash. Raindrops of hot sauce for a little heat fills my belly making me ready for sleep.

I peek open my eyes as the cool morning air begins to sneak in through the cracks in the window. The coffee brewing in the kitchen awakens your spirit; it drags you out of your bed and into the kitchen. Whisk three freshly laid eggs into a bowl. Add a bit of olive oil into a cast iron skillet. Pour the eggs and stir. Stir until the edges begin to form a crust. Eggs like no other, so fluffy and flavorful. Eggs like no other, will I be sneaking a dozen into my suitcase when I depart back home?

It will be a hard day of work again. So much weeding! So much weeding! Rows and rows of basil await my rescue. What is it with mankind’s obsession with the satisfaction of starting and finishing a task? I weed a row of plants. I finish a row of plants. Nothing will satisfy me until then!

Rows and rows of lemon basil, Thai basil, Italian basil, spicy bush basil and sweet purple basil. Pull and tug, pull and tug I go as weeds in the soil declare a war. I run my fingers through the sandy soil as I moisturize my hands for another round of weeding. I feed the hens. I feed the chickens crumble, scratch, and sometimes oyster shells. The day is young, the day is bright, so much to do, barely any sleep at night. I am humbled. I dream of home, I dream of food and soil. Italian basil, oh so young as it comes to life with nature’s touch. As I cultivate the soil the scent of basil runs into my soul. I want pesto, I want a caprese sandwich, I want pasta, and I want basil lemonade. Can I have it all? Lemon basil tall and strong. I long for licks of homemade lemon basil buttercream, I long for lemon basil blueberry scones fresh out of the oven with a side spoonful of crème fraiche.

Chilean Caldito for lunch made with grandma’s love. Fish fillet, green peppers, red peppers, and potatoes all in a light broth, so generous with nutrients. Apricot, plum, and blueberry galette egg washed then sprinkled with cinnamon and granulated sugar. Flavors speak for themselves on the tongue. Flaky buttery crust crackles as the knife hits the pan. Whipped cream on the side… no better treat for lunch than this.

The morning arrives again and I don’t want to get out of my bed, huddled under 2 blankets missing home I am. Small butternut squash plants are placed into the moist soil. Place two fingers into the watered soil making the plant a nice little home. As time takes its toll we watch them slowly grow. Butternut squash blossoms bright mustard-yellow, coated in egg wash and lightly dusted with flour then fried until crisp, a perfect little snack. The sun is now so hot wearing me down; so much to do, so little time.

Six black spotted lady bugs crawling over the basil plants so gentle and harmless. Nothing goes to waste for the pigweed is fed to the chickens as they will nibble and play. Keep them occupied, for they also get bored and impatient as we humans do. Lunch has now arrived. Day old rice means perfect crisp rice for tomorrow’s Chinese stir fried lunch. Fried rice, scrambled eggs, scallions, carrots, corn, and soyaki all go into a wok pan.

I thrust my tool hard into the soil as if buried treasure awaited me deep down below. I begin wandering into a world of fantasy. I dream of being an Irrigation Goddess. My hands possessing the power to help plants breathe, a power that allows roots to find moisture within the soil. I, Almighty Healer of basil roots.

Endurance, perseverance, and patience: three words that now leaving, I truly understand. Long days in the sun while your back, hands, and legs ached, and no one to talk to but oneself.

So much I have learned, ate, and so many people I have met. Every morning is always a breath of fresh air. Land is so vividly full of life, caressing a spirit of its own. It channels you in as the breeze sets in and the sun goes down. At night the weeds begin to grow; it is like a magic trick, now you see me, now you don’t. Laughter and hard work fills my soul for I have made a new friend and she is nothing but a treasure. We come from two different lands bordered by enormous bodies of water; nonetheless we laugh, we chat, we work with the same kindred spirit.

The sun was falling and so were my tears. I was saying goodbye to it all and it was more than bittersweet. Goodbye lemon basil, goodbye purple basil, goodbye summer squash, goodbye eggplants, goodbye chickens, hens, and farewell honey.

Hemorrhoids caught one of the hens the day before I left. Poor fellow will soon see his death, so helpless and unknowing. I wanted to say my last goodbyes but he ran and ducked every time I tried. I grew attached to them all. Nameless they were, but somehow they grew to carry a place in my heart.

I didn’t turn back once. I said goodbye to the dry weeded mountains, I said goodbye to the crisp clean mountain air, I said goodbye to the new friends I had made, for everything comes to an end whether for the better or not.

They took me in with open arms. It was a fair trade. Trading, I’ve always preferred. Rather more fun and interesting than the exchange of currency. My carrots in exchange for your pears? A pound of coffee for some honey perhaps?

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