Lost in the Woods


I was 15 when I started to suspect I might be black. I’d left my home in Belize after spending all of my childhood in seclusion. For 14 years the only people I knew were my immediate family. I was home schooled in the rainforest. All the stories and books I’d read, like Cinderella, Treasure Island, and Lord of the Rings featured only white people. I had no reason to believe that I was any different.

When I decided to leave my family and go to school in the USA, my mom’s best friend Cathy took me in. She was a warm, generous woman, and, like my mom, was white. She lived in a predominantly white suburb of Detroit. Back home in the jungle, we never talked about race in a meaningful way. I didn’t talk much about race with Cathy, either. She’d always say, “everyone is created equal” and leave it at that.

With so many other societal rules to learn, race was lost in the mix at first. I was exhausted just trying to learn vital social cues like small talk.

If someone said, “Your binder stickers are cool”, I’d say, “I know”. Let’s just say I wasn’t a social butterfly.

But little clues began to appear the more I settled in. Dots started becoming patterns and I started drawing the connecting lines. Kids would say things like, “ You’re black, but you’re classy”.

They were meant as compliments, and at the time I was eager to hear a kind word, but I couldn’t shake this feeling that whatever it meant to be “black” wasn’t good.

One day, my social studies teacher gave each of us a blank piece of paper and a box of crayons. His only instruction was to draw a human, no one specific.

Everyone instinctively used the “peach” crayon when it was time to color the skin.

I, too, automatically reached for the peach crayon, but something stopped me. It didn’t match my skin. Then again, if I used the brown crayon, it would be admitting that I was different, which no one else, including myself, seemed willing to do. I took a green crayon and drew a stick figure to avoid the issue altogether.

The teacher looked at everyone’s drawing. Then he took my drawing, held it up and said, “Everyone in here drew a white human except Minni. Can you see how our race shapes our viewpoint?

My stomach lurched and my mouth got dry. I felt naked in front of the class.

The class erupted in protest to the teacher’s words. “We just drew a human, you didn’t tell us to draw a black human,” one student said.

“In the 80s that same “peach” crayon you used was called ‘flesh’. They changed it.” The Teacher said. “Do you know why?” The Teacher was a white man in his 30s. Before him, no one in my life had addressed race so directly in that way. Or maybe they did and I wasn’t exposed enough to recognize it.

But in that moment I felt so uncomfortable. I felt an uncontrollable urge to hide. I didn’t want to hear the answer.

I dashed to grab the bathroom pass, and without asking permission, took refuge in a bathroom stall until the bell rang for lunch. On my way out of the bathroom, I looked in the mirror and was sickened to see that I was, in fact, not white. It was then that I felt the crushing weight of what that meant. Sub-human.

All my life I’d been socialized to see humans as white by default. Even as a young child secluded in the jungle, I was reading default kids stories like Goldie Locks and the Snow White. There were people, and then there were “other” kinds of people. I’d always put myself in the default “people” category until that day.

After realizing I was black, I did everything I could to disassociate myself from blackness. I was quick to tell people that my mom was white, that I liked folk music, that I wasn’t, technically, actually, black, because, see, my great grandmother was East Indian. TV, magazines, advertisements all propelled this black-loathing. I grew quiet, passive and depressed. I spent the next ten years lost in the dangerous woods of self-hatred. Abandoning my personal worth and boundaries in the name of being in the no-prefix “people” category.

I thought not talking about race and highlighting my whiteness would make racism magically go away. But it was always there, bubbling under the surface, choosing its victims.

Humans of Belize

I was awakened by wind and noise. When I looked out, I saw roofs blowing off the houses, zinc flying in the sky like leaves, whole trees flying like kites. It was loud. We couldn’t go anywhere. It was too dangerous.”

On October 31, 1961, category 5 hurricane “Hattie” made landfall on the central coast of Belize (then British Honduras), becoming the most deadly and devastating hurricane in the country’s recorded history. The storm and its aftermath would change the nation forever. There may be lessons to learn from hurricane Hattie survivors about endurance, resilience, and unity in the face of adversity.

Hurricane Survivor: Yola Robateau

Once you passed our house in Dangriga, there was nothing but bush and then the sea. Right before hurricane Hattie, a woman, Ms. VG, built a house in front of us and then that became the last house before the sea.

I was nine years old and my brother Joel was maybe 8 months old. Our parents were out of town and we had a nanny with us, Mrs. Coleman. We knew the hurricane was out there but it was headed away from us on that night before Halloween, so we went to sleep.

I remember Ms. Coleman asked Ms. VG across the yard, “If the hurricane turns around could you wake us up so we can go to the shelter?” And Ms. VG said she would. That’s the last we heard before we went to sleep.

I was awakened by wind and noise. When I looked out, I saw roofs blowing off the houses, zinc flying in the sky like leaves, whole trees flying like kites. It was loud. Everyone woke up. We couldn’t go anywhere. It was too dangerous.

Our roof started creaking and lifting just before the wind stopped. It was lifting and I thought it would blow off, too. But my father was a builder and he built our house with all posts in concrete and a solid foundation with reinforced roof.

Soon, some of the nearby houses started blowing apart. People began knocking on our doors and we started letting in our neighbors. We took in a lot of people, it was too hard to close the door on people in need.

The last time I looked out, I saw this big wave coming and coming, higher and closer and it broke on Ms. VG’s house—the one closest to the sea. And then it took the whole house! I saw the entire house floating out. I don’t know if she was in it but it was breaking up as it flowed in the current down to the jetty.

The wind stopped eventually, but the water wouldn’t recede for days. We couldn’t even go out. Chickens and ducks, all animals were drowned. It took two weeks for the water to go down. We continued to shelter people whose homes were blown away until they could find a safe place. That’s when new communities formed like Silk Grass and Hattieville. It was for survivors of hurricane Hattie with no place to go.

When the water receded just enough, I went out to look for food. I was on one of those streets going to Bluefield. There was a house on the corner there where there used to be a parrot that always talked. Before the storm I had a friend there so I went there first. I hadn’t got that close before I saw the body of a young girl, her eyes were all white in her head. I ran back home so fast, I did not go out looking for food again.

We shared food and ate drowned chicken and drowned ducks until the Red Cross come in and supplied food for us by the clinic right by the sea. I don’t remember being hungry.

When I was in line for breakfast at the Red Cross clinic, from there I could see men throwing bodies in big holes they dug. These trucks drove around and collected dead bodies and dumped them into two or three pits.

After a while, I stopped remembering things. Your mind just blocks certain things. But what I will always remember is that the people came together. There was no pushing, no shoving in the food lines, people shared. The family that stayed with us, they cooked and kept things together. We became closer.

Right now, as Belize faces times that could become hard again, people must remember our history and strength. We should come together instead of attacking each other. We depended on each other to survive then, in those days after the hurricane, just as we will now as we face a different kind of storm. Belizeans have seen other hard times and always find a way to recover and thrive. I survived Hattie; I know what Belizeans are capable of.

Subjective Wealth & Success

One of the first things I did when I moved back home was to visit my dad’s old friend, Mr. Roy Williams. Ever since I could remember, Mr. Roy stood behind the bar at his small saloon drinking and serving beer and soft drinks to anyone who was buying. On the speakers of an aged radio was the constant drawl of old country music and on the walls, paint from decades past peeled away in curling flakes.

Going into Roy’s bar was like a time capsule. In the 16 years I had been away, nothing had changed. The leak above the bar still dripped when it rained hard, the peeling paint, the sad country music; even Roy himself with his plump face, round belly, faded Hawaiian shirt only halfway buttoned and his smiling half moon eyes seemed unchanged by time. It was a comforting place to go after my dad passed away, my mom moved, the highway was built, and so many other things had changed.

I leaned over the counter and ordered a beer, and Roy, an east Indian man in his late 60s, beamed when he saw me and spoke so fast that one word blended into the other, as was his usual way.

“So when you going back?” Roy asked after some time.

“I’m not.” I said. “I moved back home. I live here now.”

The jovial look on his face melted away. His eyes, once pushed into crescents from smiling, rounded.

“Everything okay?” He asked.

I assured him it was, and that I had even found a good job at the cacao processing company up the road.

“You can tell me if you’re in trouble,” he said, still in a sober, fatherly tone. He turned down the country music and I could hear the chickens clucking in the yard, the occasional bark of a dog, and smell the smoke from someone’s fire hearth in the air from cooking lunch.

“ No, it’s not that, I just missed the clean rain and the fresh fruit and the waterfalls and —“

He leaned on the bar looking me in the eye trying to scan for something between my words. There was no one else in the bar.

“People nuh gone da states an’ come back ‘less they have problem. Everyting you want up there why you come back here? Nothing d happen in this village! If you get a chance, you leave.” He paused. “But it look like you wah d try come back so I just wa ask— Wha happen?”

I didn’t know how to respond. There was nothing I could say to convince him that I was not running from anything personal, rather the impersonal blanket of vulgar capitalism and unchecked racism—concepts that although a smart man, after years of unquestioned colonization and isolation any man would find hard to understand.

I was more running TO something rather than from it. But to old Mr. Roy, who has spent the past 45 years standing behind a bar in a rural village in southern Belize, listening to chickens and dogs and country music day in, day out, that concept was a difficult one to explain.

I left the bar, my stomach feeling heavy and my head throbbing. I was suddenly aware be being alone, and completely misunderstood. I was just at the beginning of unveiling the mindset of those around me in my old home, which made me feel even smaller and even more alone.

I have always been attracted to a certain scramble of chaos: The beautiful but broken, the ravaged but joyful. Because, as so well put by Kahlil Gibran, pain carves out room for joy, and so one can only feel joy to the extent that one has felt pain.

I made my decision long ago to choose my own path, to navigate life on my own terms. I made the decision without even realizing it was a decision to be made. I don’t question this any more. Once I owned my choices, it was a lot less agonizing. I was relieved of a shackle of self-doubt.

When I left Detroit and moved to the jungle of Belize to my old home, I wrote something of a manifesto, a mission statement to which I would live by. That was, loosely, to reduce my cost of living so low that I could have access to more freedom and autonomy and cut free of at least some of the grip of the capitalist empire that was cannibalizing its own planet. I could enjoy life doing the things that make me, me instead of spending 80% of my waking adult life pushing for someone else’s agenda.

It all started with a theory I had about the definition of wealth—that access to natural resources subsidizes cost of living in a way that translates to sustainable wealth in the sense of a certain quality of life. To flip the paradigm of “poor rural villager” to “wealthy person emancipated from the chain of modern living and technology or the rat race that constantly makes you feel “not enough.”

I have, over the last 2 years, given a lot of thought to this and studied it closely first hand. I have been and still am, testing this theory. It comes up to a balance of complex paradoxes. Life on earth is hard. There is no escape to that. But how do you want it served to you: On your own terms or at the will of another’s? It involves larger systems, not individuals—because we are cogs in a machine. We can choose not to be as big cogs as some others. We are never alone or fully offshoots. But we can wind it down, limit our consumerism immensely and live a sincere wholehearted life.

So, essentially, that’s what I am going for. Winding down. I had concluded that small farming only works if you wind way down: subsistence farming is the term.

People use subsistence farming as an example of poverty or being “poor”.

But what is poverty? It’s a sensitive question. How many things are we told that we need or made to need after the rain becomes undrinkable and the rivers are poisoned?

Is poverty not having enough resources for a healthy, safe, good life? Food to eat? Place to shelter yourself? Safety? Access to entertainment?

In my view, poverty is being stripped of your natural resources and thus being made reliant on the hand that feeds you, forced into selling minutes, hours, days years, decades of your life in order to survive. But in Southern Belize, the rain is still drinkable, people still build houses out of wild palm leaves, creeks and rivers web and pulse through the forest with fresh, unpolluted water were people bathe, drink and wash their clothes. Chickens and pigs run freely until a wedding or an event calls for their body’s nutrition. And most of all, people have autonomy—a certain self-freedom. Men go to work in the scathing sun and do grueling labor from 7am to noon. Then they go home and lay in the hammock for the rest of the day. It’s a freedom not granted to even the highest earning wage slave. Either way, the life and work is hard. But the difference is autonomy.

I want to write a series of essays that show money is not the answer. My audience would be people caught in the rat race, wondering when they will “make it” and what making it even looks like.

By any stretch of the conventional social climber’s imagination, I have not made it: I live in a 19’x20’ house and I have no appliances like a washing machine, dryer, refrigerator, or oven. I have very limited solar electricity and no running water. Half the time my clothes smell like mold because it rains all the time. On any given night, I wake up to scorpions clicking across the walls.

If I write about redefining success and wealth as it relates to myself and my own goals, what would people learn? What would I learn? Who would care? I need practice. What questions am I seeking to ask and/or answer?

People do ask me a lot of questions: they ask why I decided to move back to rural Belize and live in the bush, off the grid: Was it hard? How did I do it? Did I feel like I made the right choice?

In a series, it will show that living your own myth is a way to build a different kind of wealth. Your own is one hardest paths to follow; It means rigorous questioning of yourself and the surrounding world to the point of exhaustion, reaching into thin air for answers that, ultimately, you must mine from within. Nothing is pre-cut or laid out. Every infinitesimal gesture is pure work.

It is terrifying and painful and it is often lonely. But it is equally rewarding and through pain is the deliverance of deep pools of joy. As mentioned before, life is a constant balance: Happiness is pain, bad is good, love is hate—just different ends of the same spectrum, one unable to exist without the other.IMG_0134

Hotboys

“You know you hot when you gotta dodge pussy.” He leaned back in the Monte Carlo until the leather seat was so low it was more like a lounge chair. A woman walked by. Slowly, he adjusted his seat back up but only halfway.

He wore baggy Enyce pants tucked loosely into untied Tims and an oversized Ecko T-shirt that concealed his gun. He had three cell phones: the Motorola Razor (it had just come out), and two little Nokias that stayed vibrating and lighting up.

His cars always changed. This time it was a Monte Carlo. Last week it was a Chrysler Sebring convertible and two weeks ago it was something else. When I asked him about all the cars he just shrugged and said, “I hit up the auction.”

He was tall, sturdy, and unbothered, almost bored at any given moment. He only smiled when he looked at me and even then it was faint, like a fleeting reminder of something that once gave him joy. His eyes were large and clear like pools, his eyelashes were long, and his beard was so thick that you could almost see it growing from the last shave. He was beautiful on the outside and even though I never got to see too far in, I could feel that his understanding of the world was captivatingly tragic: a barren landscape of survival.

One day he picked me up and I could tell he wasn’t ok. He talked even less than usual and instead of his usual intent listening,  his mind was far away. When I asked what was wrong at first he said nothing. And so we sat in the car and smoked a blunt in silence until finally, he said, “This muthafuckin’ kid tried to break up in my spot. I shot ‘im.”

My heart raced but I didn’t react. “Is he dead?”

“I heard someone tryna break in so I just posted by the door and when he came through, blam! I shot. Man, I ain’t know know it was a kid tho. Still blood on the floor an shit.”

He shook his head, staring blankly out the windshield. “He must’ve been watching the place, he ain’t seen my boy drop me back this morning an’ take the car.”

“Survivors kill,” I said, trying to calmly absorb his words into the place in my mind that understood the steely laws of the natural world. Growing up in the bush, I was exposed to this coldness from an early age. Watch a snake eat a songbird whole and alive you will understand.

“Fuck nah,” He snapped out of his mist for a moment and turned to face me, his eyes were bright and deep. He put his hand gently on the side of my face and looked me in the eyes, speaking slowly and firmly. “Don’t say shit like that. This ain’t shit. This shit ain’t even the least of it, a’ight?”

But we both knew it was true: That survival of the species depends on that hot fierceness. It’s why the shiny roosters stay sitting at the top rung in the chicken coops; it’s why the hot boys stay leaning back in their Monte Carlos tryna dodge pussy.

We never had sex. We never even kissed. I was a virgin back then and I knew he was way too hot for me. He knew it, too. He didn’t even try. It was an unspoken understanding. But I was drawn around him like a moth to a flame and we spent afternoons in his hot cars driving around talking lone shit.  I could tell by the way he looked at me that he cared, but I wasn’t sure why. Maybe I was a place he could go to cool off for a little; a place to escape all the heat, just for a moment. He’d pick me up by my school’s dining hall and we’d drive around with no destination or we’d walk through the nature trails way at the back of campus and talk about life.

One time we were walking in the woods behind campus and we passed a pond. There were ducks in it, swimming around.

“You ever seen ducks when you feed ’em bread?” He asked me. “They just smash that shit, like ’til they can’t even swallow it; they just stand there struggling and choking and still tryna get at the next piece.”

“Okay, your point?”

“That how these niggas be out here. Always tryna get some shit from you, and when you do break ‘em off they come with they greedy ass an’ take more than they can even handle.”

“You can learn a lot about human behavior by watching nature,” I said.

“It’s like that song,” he said. “What’s that one talkin’ ‘bout, ‘We ain’t nothin’ but mammals?’”

I knew the song and I giggled. “I was trying to be deep and here you come with that.”

“So was I,” he said. “But I ain’t neva been to no college so I can’t talk smart like you. I’m straight hood.”

It was quiet for a while and then we looked at each other and laughed. I’d never seen him laugh before.

One evening, I called him and tried really hard to convince him to come up to my dorm room. He didn’t. Instead, he threw a fit.

“This ain’t how it go,” he said, raising his voice. “You can’t just have me over an’ shit, don’t you know that? Look, you catchin’ feelings an’ fuck, I jus’ gotta tell you straight: You and me? We’ nothin’,  a’ight? And stop callin’ my fuckin’ phone ‘cause from me, you ain’t gone’ hear shit else!”

And he hung up.

It was mean. It was cold. It was over. And I never did hear shit else from him. I don’t know why the sudden turn, but I have my theories. Either way,  looking back, it was obviously for the best. But in the moments after he hung up, I felt the sting. I lay on the floor and listened to Evanescence, stunned. I drank some straight Mohawk vodka that I kept in my desk for impromptu campus parties. Hours later, my roommate came home and found me there with the bottle on the floor in the dark. She turned on the lights and shouted, “WHAT THE FUCK?”

I got up and told her what happened and she laughed and eventually, she got me to. From then on we referred to him as, “Shit Else.” We played some Ludacris and jumped around the room and the shadow passed. It was my first brushing with a hotboy and I was dazzled.

Back then I didn’t know how deep it got, how that shadow can creep in and curl around the edges of your life and grip down. It was a warning. A warning that I did not heed. Years later, I was neck deep with a hotboy from the West side, selling dope and who knows what else and traveling around the continent spending money. I flew right into the flame. Only just in time did I drag myself out,  and barely. I lived with the shadow for two years afterwards wondering, thinking, and sifting through the rubble.

I’m 31 now, grown as fuck and a boss in my own right. In an act of swearing off hotboys, I thought I found one who was reformed. In theory, it was the perfect scenario–you get all the hotness and the swag without the messy lessons. But I was wrong. It took a couple years before I learned first hand that true hotboys never fully reform. If they do, it’s because they are broken; It’s because the game broke them and they’ve spontaneously combusted in the heat; It’s because their soul, blown to dust, is floating around in the air looking for somewhere to land.

I’d like to say I know better than to be chasing these hotboys. I’d like to say I’ll never again fly too close to the flames. I’d like to say that I’ve learned how to harness the shadows. But after all these years, all I can say is that the biggest wars we’ll ever wage will be between what we know and what we feel.

 

 

Hot Bikes

 Martin walked up the street back to the flea market place he had seen earlier. It was a beleaguered storefront with boarded up windows and people milling about outside, eyeing items arranged in haphazard fashion on the sidewalk. There was an odd assortment of things—toys, watches, mirrors, and at least two fire extinguishers.

The bikes lured him back. There were four of them out when he walked by the first time. Two had kickstands and the other two were pitched against opposite sides of a fire hydrant. He needed a bike. The day before, he missed a job interview after baking in a polyester suit waiting for a bus that never came.

As he walked, Martin kneaded a wad of cash in his pocket. The sweat from his hands made it soft and more ball-like with each step. Without thinking, he started squeezing it like a stress ball, feeling the paper sink and expand. There was a feeling, a fear that he would drop it. It was eighty dollars, his weekly earnings from clearing brush from the five vacant city lots that John insisted on calling a farm.

When he reached the storefront, he saw there were fewer people outside than when he first passed, and a lot of the items were gone. An old man leaned against the doorway of the storefront. His hair was gray, thinning and combed straight back into thin ripples over his scalp. He wore a dark brown T-shirt that almost matched his skin tone; the shirt hung loose around him.

There was a thin woman in shorts pacing near the fire hydrant moving her hands as if in conversation. As Martin drew closer, he saw that she was, in fact, talking to herself. He hesitated in front of the store, glancing quickly through the items for a bike.

The bikes were gone. He felt the gaze of the man in the door, but didn’t look up. There was nothing there that he wanted. Martin turned and started walking away when the man called to him.

“Ay, you ain’t seen nothin’ you like?”

Martin looked back and didn’t speak. He gripped the money in his pocket, thinking. The woman had stopped pacing and was looking at him now, too.

The man motioned him back. He had a cigarette in his hand now, unlit.

“What you need?”

“Any more bikes?” Martin asked, but it seemed like his voice was swallowed in the space between the abandoned buildings.

The man held up his finger in a gesture for Martin to wait and went into the cavernous doorway of the decaying storefront. Martin walked back towards the store taking time between steps. There was a stench in the air as a breeze picked up but it cooled the sweaty skin around his neck and face.

A car, loud and sputtering, and slowed down at the store. The driver shouted out the window at the woman. The woman walked up to the window of the car, and after a quick exchange, got in. The car sputtered up the street, still at a slow pace, and turned into an overgrown alley between two rows of abandoned houses before the engine cut off and all retuned to the vacuum-like silence.

Martin was still standing there looking towards the alley when the man reappeared in the doorway with two bikes. He set them out against the building in the light.

“What you think?”

They were both fairly new and had sleek, light frames, unlike the mountain bikes Martin was used to riding on the country roads.

“How much for the red one?” he asked.

“A hunnit’.”

Martin squeezed his money again and looked from one bike to the other. “And the other one?”

“That one, well, I’d take a hunnit for that one, too.” His voice was gravelly and hollow.

The sputtering turn of the car engine in the alley broke the silence. Martin took the kneaded wad of cash from his palm and started un-balling it with jittery, slick fingers.

The man ushered him closer to the building. “Ay, man, you ain’t gotta let the world know…” His voice trailed off into a mumble as he went in close to the wall of the store and Martin followed.

“Eighty.” Martin counted the bills out loud, uneasy with the man looking over his shoulder. “It’s all I got.”

“Shiiiit.” The man turned and walked away from the wall muttering to himself. “Broke ass niggas…”

A hot wave of air hit Martin as the car chugged off and the young woman re-appeared from the alley, still in a conversation with herself.

The man turned back to Martin, “Ai’ght.”

Martin parted with the whole damp wad, which the man re-counted.

“You spit on this or some shit?” Then the man suddenly stopped, as if an urgent idea stuck him. “You a cop?”

Martin didn’t reply. He got on the red bike, despite the seat being set too low for his long legs, and pedaled back down the route he came. He couldn’t help but notice the ease of the petals as they worked under his feet; the way the bike propelled him forward faster and faster until he felt weightless on the frame, the only sound was the wind as it rushed past his ear.

He was moving so fast, by the time he got back onto his street, he didn’t see Silas out on the porch, only heard a voice calling him back.

He had to crunch the brakes and skid to a halt almost three houses down. He circled back and dropped the bike on the front lawn before starting up the steps. He missed having a kickstand.

“Man, when you start ridin’ them white kid bikes.” Silas was leaning over the railing picking his teeth with a toothpick. He was a little older than Martin, somewhere in his mid-30s. He had a thick well trimmed beard and his hair breaded back into neat rows. He wore a bright plain white T-shirt and jeans shorts that fell just below his knees.

Martin did notice that there was something different about the bike, something he couldn’t put a finger on just yet. He wasn’t even out of breath for the speed he was going.

“Never had a bike like that before!” he blurted, overtaken by a rush of enthusiasm. “Did you see how fast I was going? It moves like a damn car.”

Silas came down to get a closer look. Examining the bike, he rubbed his chin and his brow creased. A half smile spread over his face. “Martin, where you get this thing, man?”

“Just down the way, by the store front on the corner,” Martin said. “It was this guy, he had a bunch of stuff out there; said it was a hundred but I only paid eighty. That a deal or what?”

Silas broke out laughing. He laughed so hard he turned and took three breathless steps away then turned back. Martin stood there looking at him.

“That bike hot as fuck dawg, you better put that shit up before they come lookin’ for yo black ass.” Still laughing, he leaned over and looked under crawl space under his porch.

“Look, I just paid a man cash for this bike,” Martin said, but even as the words left his mouth they seemed thin in the air.

By now everyone there—Blogo and Swish, even Silas’s grandmother—was out looking at the bike.

Silas shook his head controlling his laughter for a moment. “Dawg, I knew you was country but damn, I ain’t know how bad it was.”

He picked the bike off the grass and pushed it under the crawl space so it was hidden from sight in the yard.

For a moment, no one said anything. They all went up on the porch and Martin followed, finding a seat on an overturned bucket. Blogo started split a cigarillo with his long fingernails and dumped its contents over the railing.

A warm breeze blew up again and Martin could see it moving through the grass in the abandoned lots on the far side of the house. In the distance he heard the whistle of the freight train, then, much closer, he heard the hollow call of a pheasant.

Blogo passed the blunt and when it came to Martin, he declined.

“I can’t smoke, it’s for work,” he told them.

“Martin, you ain’t got no job!” Silas said, and they all laughed at something Martin could tell was a reference he didn’t recognize. He smiled to fain familiarity.

After some coercion, Martin inhaled and after a few minutes, everything seemed clearer, sounds and colors. He’d smoked once before with Daniel back in Otton. They were in the barn and Mason was away at a cattle-branding conference. It didn’t have much effect then so he decided it was overrated. But this time was different. He seemed to be picked up and carried further into his brain while simultaneously seeing everything outside clearer than ever.

It took him by surprise when he saw Cheeto, the young bleach blonde guy from Brooklyn, walking up the sidewalk. Martin didn’t know him well, except for rumors from John’s circle. Apparently Cheeto bid on a vacant lot in the city land auction last summer. The lot in question was one that John was cultivating chickpeas on when Cheeto won the bid. Cheeto got the lot, chickpeas and all, which Martin learned was an especially sore spot for John.

Cheeto called from the sidewalk. “Martin! Is that you?”

Martin jumped up and looked around calling back, a little bit too loudly, “Cheeto, how the hell are ya?”

Cheeto came up the steps, his jeans cut off at an awkward place between his knees and his ankles. He wore a second hand cap with a pheasant feather in it and a weathered t-shirt that read, “Got scrapbooks?” He was wiry and thin, medium height, his blonde hair cut asymmetrically with the left side longer than the right.

“Smells good up here that’s for sure,” he said, stopping just at the edge of the porch. “Mind if I partake?”

There was an awkward pause in conversation. “It’s cool, it’s just that white boy that stay down the street.” Silas mumbled to Blogo who was making a direct move to go inside.

Cheeto was more jerky and nervy than usual: Hands in and out of pockets, weight shifting from one foot to another in irregular movements.

“Sorry to crash like this,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe it but my bike was stolen this morning. We went into the park at sunrise to forage for mushrooms and when we came out, my bike was gone.

Martin and Silas exchanged glances.

“It was a Look Cycle. I painted it red ’cause I’m not a walking billboard. I mean that thing is worth more than some cars.”

Martin looked at the ground, thinking, hoping it was a coincidence. “What color was it again?”

“It had a red frame, it has a Brewmasters sticker on it.” Cheeto dragged his hand over his face in distress. Silas offered him the blunt.

“I think I remember it,” Martin said. He put his hands in his pocket. “I bought a bi—-“

He was interrupted by a crash behind him and it was Blogo knocking over some bottles that didn’t seem necessarily in the way.

“Tell him look at the place on the corner,” Silas said, smashing out the blunt. “They sell hot bikes there.”

“Oh, that place by the burnt store front with all those people out all the time?” Cheeto asked.

“That’s the one,” Martin said, almost too quickly. He suffered the silence that followed for a few seconds before breaking it. “So, did you find any mushrooms?”

The topic seemed to ignite something inside of Cheeto. His eyes widened and his posture straightened.

“We found a morel, but not a big one,” he said. “ Anyway, I think Drew got some chicory root he’s gonna to cook up later for the potluck.”

He hesitated as if contemplating something before continuing with enthusiasm. “You should come over, bring a dish. It’s a wild nature theme. All weeds. We went on a foraging medicine walk and came back with some great stuff. I mean, right now I could show you some great edibles growing right in your yard, wanna take a look with me?”

Silas looked at his front yard and then slowly back at Cheeto. “I’m good,” he said.

Cheeto continued like he didn’t hear. “We’ve got some representatives from the Kroft Foundation coming for dinner. We’re trying to get a grant to do some education around foraging for low income families.”

It got so quiet that when Blogo coughed, it seemed like thunder.

“Well…I guess I’ll let you guys get back to …” Cheeto backed up a step. “But if you do decide to come, there’s one thing missing for the dinner and it’s a wild meat. There’s no wild game around here is there?”

“Well this place is crawling with pheasants,” Martin said. “I could catch one right now if I tried.”

“Catch?” Cheeto eyes got wider and he leaned in lowering his voice. “How much? I mean, what could I do to make this worth your while?”

It almost seemed like insult to injury, Martin thought. Here was this guy, oblivious that his stolen bike lay under the porch and here Martin was, about to charge him for something he could get for free. He shrugged, trying to think of the appropriate response.

Cheeto took it for hard ball. “Look, I’ll give you fifty bucks if you can get one of those in my hands before three o’clock today.”

Something occurred to Martin. “I’ll do it for eighty,” he said. “Not dressed or nothin’ like that.”

“Deal,” Cheeto said, almost before the words were out. “So, should I meet you back here at three?”

Martin nodded, his brain still spinning from the smoke; the bright fields seemed to shine around the house like endless summer.

Cheeto took his leave with an ill-timed fist bump to Silas and a hearty handshake to Martin. He disappeared up the street by the lot behind John’s.

Silas leaned back in the plastic yard chair on the porch and chuckled in amusement. “Dawg, you gone need that country magic or whateva it is y’all be doin’ ‘cause dem birds move quick and last time I checked you ain’t had no gun.”

Runaway-Chapter II

The air hung thick and still, an invisible curtain between the world and me. Voices from pickers in nearby rows looped in and out: laughter, cussing, echoes of a life I used to live before I realized I was trapped in a nowhere town full of rusty machines, drowsy streets, and haunted by the smell of livestock.

Endless flats of peaches, red and orange in the sun, sat like two-toned marbles waiting to be scattered. I wanted to overturn all the crates and then whip Jacques to the ground.

The farm truck chugged up. Mason backed in to hitch up the trailer and cart it off to the packing plant. Then I saw it: Mason was wearing my missing long sleeve shirt.

A lightness fizzed in my blood. I was overcome by a feeling of superpower, of limitless ability. What happened next melts into a multicolored blur: I see the farm truck backing up to the trailer full of peaches. Then Mason, a plaid streak, dashing behind the truck and cranking down the trailer hitch; a flash of Jacques stepping backwards, his round eyes bulging.

With a speed and agility I never knew I possessed, I dashed across the row and lunged into the open truck. The keys dangled motionless from the ignition, a still frame lodged in a nauseating rush. Without so much as a slam of the door, I yanked the truck into drive and crashed forward, granite foot to the gas. Rising voices, confused and angry, clamored in the growing distance.

 

My eyes rolled over to the cloudless sky, down the long row, past the ladders and brown-skinned pickers as they flickered by. The truck, a rusted 1996 Ford Bronco, creaked at the ill-connected trailer hitch. It felt like the weight of the peaches was tugging the truck back. For some time I felt like I was moving but getting nowhere, or that the orchard suddenly expanded for miles. The truck hit an uneven patch and rocked violently from side to side slamming the door shut. It began wheezing louder with the growing speed. Just then the gravel driveway, opening like a mouth into the road, jumped out of nowhere. I jerked the steering wheel to the left to follow it. The turn dislodged the hitch on the trailer and the truck veered followed by an awful metallic screech raking over my eardrums.

Before I realized what had happened, the truck kicked forward like its namesake. With the weight of the trailer torn off, the engine power lurched the truck to jump forward so hard it nearly pitched my body through the back of the cab then in the next instant towards the windshield. The bumps and dips of the uneven orchard floor launched Mason’s water jug over the center console towards the back. Loose change ran along the bottom on the cup holders and a loose peach shot from the dashboard to the passenger seat.

I looked in the rearview mirror for the first time. The torque sent the trailer spinning off the truck and onto its side. A warm explosion of peaches blossomed over grass and gravel. I was at the edge of the orchard and Mason, a long-sleeved speck waving his arms like a broken windmill, was running forward as fast as his stiff legs would allow. I couldn’t hear him, but I almost felt the stream of damnation gushing from his lungs.

I turned the wheel, this time to the right, and zoomed out onto the rolling country road that ran through Otton like an artery.

It was Semwick Road; the road Mason told me Mother died on in a car crash. I was four. I don’t remember much about her except what Mason told me and the little, random clips that sometimes flashed into my mind. For instance, I remember her hands. Long fingers, dark skin, soft. I thought about that a lot. No one I knew had soft hands except the guy Mason invited over around come tax season.

My mother’s name was Philipa and she was from Jamaica. She worked as a farm hand until she and Mason got married. I’d wrestled that much out of him. She was the only topic that was off limits, aside from new farm equipment. I’d bring her up and he’d damn near hurl something at me. How she ended up in Otton is a mystery to me. How she ended up with Mason must just be tougher than the mystery of life.

The scene I saw in the rearview is an image I’d store in my head forever: the scramble of peaches, the splintered creates, the wooden trailer leaning broken and helpless on its side. At the time it seemed surreal, like it was happening to someone else. It never occurred to me to stop or to turn back. I felt I could go anywhere. A primal part of my brain told me to keep moving, and fast, toward the expressway.

The town was a four-mile stretch and it was even longer to the nearest interstate. Four miles of Otton, four miles of Mason, of familiar faces and mailboxes, welcome mats and tractors; four miles, too, of local police.

The peach-inflicted burning was now a distant throb behind a roar in my head and slushiness in my stomach. As I drove, I saw plumes of dust billowing from the grain fields in harvest; amber clouds rising from combines back ends. I could smell the seasonal sweetness in the air like fresh-cut grass. The whirr of farm equipment buzzed by; Cornfields fanned out before me, each row ticking past like the second hand on a watch. I couldn’t outdrive them; they seemed to run tirelessly alongside the truck.

The closer I got to the highway, the traffic thickened and at the sight of a state trooper two cars ahead I started sweating to the point were I had to blink the salty stuff out of my eyes. Heat waves tadpoled upward from the road, rhythmic wiggles of the air. I inched forward until the traffic had me hovering right up behind the state trooper. In a nervous flare my eyes started dashing about. How fast would Mason call me in? How long would it take this trooper to find out I was committing grand theft auto? The trooper turned her head towards me. She was a frowning woman with small eyes. For a flash, our eyes met. I quickly looked at the passenger seat.

She knows, I thought. The lonely peach resting on the seat suddenly became interesting. I noticed there was a scar on it scabbed over with a clear dried sap. We never got every worm with the pesticide.

I stared at that peach until a blast from a truck’s horn made me look up. The traffic had moved on, more than a football field ahead.

 

Runaway-Chapter 1

(7/14/14) - (Quicksburg) ----- Turkey Knob Grower's employees Jabet Rivera, (top) and Luis Cepeda, harvest peaches at an orchard near Quicksburg, Va. in Shenandoah County Monday July 14, 2014. A late frost in May has reduced yeilds at some area orchards in the Shenandaoh Valley but spared the blooms at Turkey Knob. ({Michael Reilly/Daily News-Record})

I remember the morning I lost my mind. I sat in the cluttered kitchen of the farmhouse engulfed by a feeling of bleakness; the dirty dishes piled in the sink, the sound of the truck sputtering outside—it was so familiar that it was desolate.

A thought nagged from the bleak: Where was my long sleeve shirt? I hung it on the back of the kitchen chair last night, now it was gone. It was the only one that was remotely clean.

That’s how I ended up in the middle of peach harvest in a T-shirt, arms ablaze from the fuzzy chafe of peaches. A coating of sweat slicked over my arms and reminded me of the time when I was a little kid and I crawled through a patch of stinging nettles in the rain, chasing after a chicken.

Part of the problem was that Mason, my stepfather, refused to update the farm equipment. Sometimes, when the creaky old combine was leaned up in the field waiting on repairs, he’d strut into the rows with the walk-behind corn picker he won at a small farm expo. just to prove a point.

When August peach harvest came around, he had the same mentality: Pick ‘em the old fashioned way. That meant climbing a ladder and getting the fruit into the basket and then personally emptying that basket into a crate.

Once, I spent all night poring over farm catalogs, circling tools and modest machines that had the power to ease our summer days. Our thirty-acre sliver of Otton farmland barely passed as a proper farm compared to the Lasky’s ocean of corn, yet somehow we were working harder than them to keep the land producing.

I left my selections on the table next to Mason’s newspaper and every time the catalogue ended up in the black plastic bin by the door.

“You wanna spend all our cash so you can plop our ass in an air conditioned hole and call it a harvest?” He said. His squinted glare sent wrinkles through the skin around his blue eyes. His cheeks sunk in further than usual and I could almost see the contours of his skull. “You ain’t no farm boy.”

I agreed with him.

“You’re right,” I said. “I was meant to be a professional.” I sat up straight at the kitchen table. For the first time realized I was actually taller than him.

Mason got to his feet.

“’The hell you think this is, some kinda fuckin’ doodle?” His voice was hoarse and his fist fell to the table like a gavel. “You’re a farmer, you’re a goddamn professional. An’ if for some horseshit reason you don’t think you are, then I don’t know what the hell you’ve been doin’ all your life.”

The room got quiet and he returned to his seat with the slow jerkiness of an old man, still fixing his glare on my face. I turned my head and stared at the wall.

“I don’t understand what the hell’s wrong with you, Martin. Would’ya rather be stuck in some dipshit college in the cornfields with your thumb up you ass waiting for someone to tell you how to wipe it?”

There was stillness before he tore into his egg sandwich.

There were other roadblocks to my daydreams. When my high school counselor asked me what I wanted be when I grew up, she didn’t wait to hear my reply.

“Farmer Martin,” she said smiling.

Otton, a speck of a Midwestern town, was only significant for the amount of grain it produced on an annual basis.

It was when my best friend Daniel took off to college that I felt the full stagnancy of my life. He got a football scholarship to Boise State University and I got a reality check—I looked around as all my daydreams vaporized: there I was standing in a mucky chicken coop ankle deep in ripe shit.

Here’s the gist of my summertime life in Otton: Bent over from the first peep of spring until the last stand of fall, lifting, stinking, and grunting through each day sunup, sundown.

With no time to cook, Mason and I lived on cold lunchmeat slapped on white bread that was on sale at Wal-Mart. Or sometimes, if Mason was in a good mood, we’d mix hot dogs with canned chili and eat it with corn chips mashed up in it, topped with maybe some grade B sour cream from Lasky’s Dairy. As long as it wasn’t a peach or another egg looking back at me I was happy, and it kept me full.

My favorite, though, was Chinese. Sometimes I would sneak downtown to the China Buffet with ten dollars pocketed from the farm stand and gulp down all the sweet n’ sour goodness I could fit in before wobbling home, top heavy.

Mason never approved of spending money on food unless it was on the ten-for-ten rack at Wal-Mart or Meijer, Grade B dairy products, or the better part of a large animal. The rest we got from our farm.

In the summer we mostly ate crap out of a can because we were just too tired to cook. Actually, it didn’t bother me. Even on the slowest days in the middle of winter Mason and I had a very limited idea of cooking and it involved throwing a chunk of meat in a pot with water and onions and boiling the shit out of it. Come March I would kill for a slice of cold ten-for-ten lunchmeat.

So there I stood, sleeveless and baking in the orchard. It was a Friday and I was sure that I hated my stepfather, roommate, boss–Mason Specter.

On a midmorning break, Jacques, the sporadic and unpaid university intern, propped his picker stick against a tree and eyed me up and down. A bee buzzed by. There was a stiff silence. He jutted his chin at my arms.

“Should’ve worn long sleeves,” he said. His words broke something inside of me.

First, I felt a fiery lump expanding inside of my chest. Then I felt my muscles tightening and my jaw gripped down on itself like a vice.

I’d felt these anger spells boil up before; sudden volcanic fury that hit the nearest person on the way out. After an unfortunate incident involving a sheep shearer, I dedicated myself to learning to contain them: I’d seal up, Tupperware style. But that day, there was no sealing.

The Fall

Kidpix

When I was eight years old, I fell out of a tree and my face smashed into the rosewood beams that lay beneath it. I still wonder how I’m alive today, or at least not incredibly deformed.

It was a dry day, and I was taking a break between math problems. Way was talking to a visitor halfway down the hill, and, overcome with a sudden curiosity, I climbed a tree to see who it was. Perched at my usual branch about four feet off the ground, I couldn’t see far enough down the hillside.

I climbed higher and higher, grabbing into unfamiliar branches, checking to see if I could get a better view at each branch. I was at least 12 feet up when I got a glimpse of the visitor in the driveway. It was a thin man with dreadlocks who I didn’t recognize.

I reached up and shifted all my weight to a branch above me and hung there, letting my feet unwrap from the trunk as I peered down the hillside. Suddenly, there was a crack and a spray of rotted wood dust hit my face. Before I could grab another branch, I felt myself falling. The bottom fell out of my stomach, and everything was blurred. My heart raced and the warm summer air felt cold. Everything was a frantic swirl: a life-flashing past, and then evaporating. I flailed my arms in blind search for a branch to grab onto on the way down. The skin on my right arm was torn by something sharp, and then I saw it: the pile of rosewood logs that I was to hit in seconds. My muscles wrapped tight around my bones as I braced for impact. There were no more branches to grasp at. It was over.

My face hit the logs first and the rest of my body came crashing after it. It felt like the time I accidentally inhaled water at the river—a sharp sting high up in my nose from liquid in my sinuses and then a burning in my throat. But it came and went in a flash. Soon I didn’t feel anything but a warmth in my fingers and toes, everything else was numb. I didn’t move right away. It felt like I was standing outside of my body looking at myself, a calming warmth radiating through me. There was no pain. I didn’t move, I felt like I was falling asleep. I was brought back by the sound of Jah’s voice breaking into a long bawl. I sat up to see what was the matter. He was staring at me and screaming and I felt confused. I stood up and felt a wash of warm liquid run down my face and the front of my flowered rag dress, I my head felt so light on my shoulders, I almost fell over. I looked down and thought the red liquid looked pretty as it soaked into the fabric leaving behind the thick clumps of tissue that didn’t soak through the cloth.

The warm feeling spread from my fingers and toes to all of my skin. A dull metallic taste filled my mouth. I felt like laying back down and continuing my nap but I thought I should at least walk to the bed in the house.

Jah’s cries had alerted Na and she was standing at the end of the path by the house looking down the driveway that was the entrance to our hilltop home. When she saw me her fists clenched. Her face got red and she looked angry and terrorized at the same time. A warm trickle still flowed from my face, the blood soaked fabric of my dress stuck to my stomach and it felt like a warm blanket. I saw red dots of blood start to drip on my feet. I walked right up to her, looked up, and I smiled.

“I’m fine,” I said. “It doesn’t even hurt.”

Na grabbed at a nearby water drum to catch her balance. Her face went from red to pale. I felt a sweeping calm, like I did after eating a large hot meal. Sleep seemed so close, now. The ground looked soft, like a bed.
“Can I take a nap?” I asked.

Na let out a primal scream. The world got blurry. I felt her grab my arm. “I’m so angry with you. I’ll never forgive you.” She said lowered herself to my level and looked me in the eyes. “I will never forgive you for this.”

Moments later, I felt cold water hit my face and it disrupted my euphoric feeling. I felt a deep, distant throb inside my skull. I felt Na’s hands on the back of my neck and a cold cloth dabbing my face. I heard voices. At my core, I just wanted everyone to know I was all right. I tried a smile but my muscles slackened. I just needed a nap. Everything would be fine. Why didn’t everyone know?

When my face was wiped off, Na led me to the hammock in the kitchen. I sat in it and laid back. The warm stream down my face had been replaced with the cool dampness of a cloth. My nostrils were full of something thick and wet. I had to breath out of my mouth.

“We need a doctor,” I heard Na say. Then I heard Way and saw his face appear over me. He returned to his discussion with Na. “We can do it ourself!” He said. Then  they lowered their voices but I heard snippets of the conversation all ending in “her nose.”

I reached up to feel my face and Na slapped my hand. “Don’t touch it! We have to tape it on. We’ll just tape it in place. That’s what we’ll do.” She was talking fast and frantic and pacing. Jah was staring at me with red, watery eyes and quivering.

An idea was floating around in my head. Something bad happened. Something very bad happened to my face. My nose. Where was it? I couldn’t feel a thing, or at least no pain; just a cool breeze on my skin.

“I’m fine.” I repeated, and I was surprised at the gurgled, nasal sound that was my voice.

“Don’t talk!” Na shouted at me. “Just be quiet!”

She ran into the wooden house. Way turned to me and bent over the hammock, examining my face closely. “Yeah, Min,” he said smiling,“You bus’ up your face, but don’t worry. We a fix it, okay? Just relax.”

Na returned with a roll of duct tape, some cotton balls we used to wrap around sticks and use as Q-tips, and a pair of scissors. She set them on the kitchen table and she and Way discussed antibiotic cream, namely that we didn’t have any.

Way went into the garden near the kitchen and came back with four fat aloe vera leaves. He slit one open with a knife and dug its inner clear jelly into a bowl. Na mashed the cotton in it until it was wet and sticky. She then took the cotton and wiped my face with long gentle strokes in one direction. It felt slimy and cold, faintly itchy. Globs of it dripped down into the creases of my lips and an intense bitterness invaded my mouth. Na tore off pieces of duct tape, one after another, and stuck them over the aloe soaked cotton onto my face. It didn’t hurt. It felt like my face was not mine at all, like my being had shrunk inside of my body making it a shell.

When she was done, she asked if I could open my mouth. I could, but only halfway. She said it was fine. “Just enough to get a spoon in.” I breathed through my mouth, shut my eyes. The world went quiet.

Almost instantly, Na shook me. “You can’t sleep right away, you’ve had a concussion.” She said. “Jah, find her a book, I don’t want her to go into a coma.”

I opened my eyes and three pairs of eyes blinked back at me. Na had pulled up stools around the hammock for her and Jah and she held Chaka in her lap.

“She’s alive!” Jah jumped off the stool, a wild look on his face. “Now can I ask her which books?”

I wasn’t sure if he was happier that I was alive or that it meant that Na would read us story.

“Get the one with the story about the man who pulls the thread.” I gurgled.

 

Jah jumped as if he had heard a ghost. He looked at me for a second and then ran to the wooden house to find the book of Russian fairy tales that was my favorite.

The first story I requested was the one about a man who was going through a hard time. He encountered a witch in the forest who gave him a magical ball of thread. He could pull on the thread and time would fast forward, a perfect tool to skip over life’s worst moments. The man ended up pulling through all the hard parts of his life and so he aged and died fast–something like a matter of days.

“If you had that thread would you pull it ’til your face was fixed?” Jah asked.

I tried to open my mouth to answer but the duct tape pinched me. I would, I thought to myself. I’d pull the thread.

As Na read, Jah was tasked with keeping me awake. It was a duty he cherished, poking and pinching me whenever my eyes lowered. We sat there listening to stories until the evening birds could be heard in the surrounding jungle and Na had to boil the beans to preserve them for the next day. Jah helped me out of the hammock to the wooden house. By nightfall my face had swollen so far that my eyes were reduced to slits that I could barely see out of. Na had held her hand in front of my face at different points during the day to make sure I could see, and I could until my face swelled shut which set her at ease knowing that I had’t gone blind. Now, I saw slivers of light in front of me but the swelling made it hard to see far enough to walk.

We all packed onto our sponge mattress as usual. Na and Chaka at the bottom and Jah and I laying diagonally so out feet didn’t touch her.  I got Jah’s pillow and mine to prop my head up on to help me breathe. Na said I could fall asleep, since I seemed pretty alert and out of the the woods for a possible coma. No sooner than I laid down, I fell asleep.

When I woke up I was alarmed that my eyes had sealed shut with a crusty dried fluid and I couldn’t open them. It stayed like that for about a week. Na changed the duct tape and cotton balls on my face every morning and evening and put more aloe on. A few days in, after I got my sense of smell back, I started to hate the smell of aloe. I laid in the hammock during the day and Na would check on my when she had time between chores. Most of the time my only company was Jah circling the hammock and telling me how horrible my face looked. “You look like a lizard,” He said one day, then he hesitated. “Well, a lizard who got beat up a pulp.”

I threw the cup I was holding in the direction of his voice.

“You look like a garrobo,” He said at length. “But without the tail I guess.”

I sat up. “Go get me a wet rag.”‘

“Why?”

“Just get me one, okay!”

He went to the kitchen and returned with a wet dish cloth. It smelled like rancid cooking grease. Still, I used it to rub my eyes until the dried mucus let go of my eyelashes and lids and I forced my eyes open, even to slits. The first thing I saw was Jah running to tell Na what I was doing.

I put the rag down and laid back in the hammock like nothing happened.

Na came from in from the kitchen and I felt her grip my arm and examine my face. “Do you want to go blind?”

“I want to see how bad it is.” I said.

She asked if I was sure. I nodded. She went to the house and got the one mirror and handed it to me. I held it close to my face so I could see. My heart jumped when I saw my face. It felt like little splinters fell in my stomach and my tongue got dry. It didn’t look like me at all. I was overcome by a terrifying feeling that it was how I would look for the rest of my life. I didn’t say anything, just handed the mirror back and tried to fight back tears.

“Maybe you don’t look like a garrobo so much,” Jah said once he saw my condition, and in a strange show of consolation, he  poked me in the shoulder with a stick.

The swelling went down gradually, and after a couple weeks I was moving around and doing chores again.

The first chore i did was collect firewood. Jah and I took our machetes into the ravine on the outskirts of the bush to collect firewood. I was chopping dried branches and Jah was stacking them. My sight was fine now, and I could see everything that moved in the bush. I stopped chopping and sat down next to the pile of branches.

“What is it?” Jah asked.

“I’m so happy I can still see.” I said. I was looking at the leaves flickering in the canopy above. There were birds up there feeding on the luciana seeds. I finished all my chores that day like they were not chores at all. I decided that my biggest fear was going blind.

For weeks I avoided the mirror. I was still a sight with duct tape stretched over the middle of my face and the whites of my eyes blood red. I wondered if they would ever go back to normal. Na said not to worry, that it was “just broken blood vessels”.

I don’t remember the day it went away. I was a slow healing and one day Na didn’t put the duct tape back on, she just slathered the scar under my nose with Vaseline. My nose started itching and it took everything in me not to scratch it. And one day, I don’t remember the exact moment, but one day it was gone. My face was back to normal except for a raised scar right under my nose where the flesh had healed back.  The fall became a bizarre memory.

The first tree I climbed after the fall was the guava tree. Guava season was just coming in and I wanted to get one before the piam piams pecked into them or before they were crawling with fruit worms. Jah went up the the tree first and I, after. It was like normal. I wasn’t afraid, instead I felt security in my new practice of checking the end of each branch to make sure there were green leaves on it. Na and Way saw me go up the tree in quiet approval. Looking back, they must have known I had suffered the best lesson of all, better then any scolding could carry.

In college, to my peer’s astonishment, I would scale the crab apple tree on campus on my way to class, eat as many as the tart fruit I could take, and then descend like a cat back onto the sidewalk with twigs lodged in my curls.

Over the years I’ve learned the  art of climbing: examine the tree, know the durability of the wood type, know your limits, be flexible, always check the end of the branch before leaning your weight into to, and never put all your weight on a branch without making sure there is another within reach that can hold your weight. These are the principles of climbing.

 

Local Hardware

IMG_0134

There’s a hardware store conveniently situated on the road heading out of town. Every Saturday on the way to the farm, the contractor usually asks to stop there to pick up odds and ends. We go in and are greeted with a nod by the bored clerk, a young man leaning on the counter and scrolling on his smart phone. He stands up as we draw near.

The contractor asks him for something common and mundane, like a pound of 3-inch nails, or a steel brush.

And, without fail, the young man’s eyes open wide so that you can see the whites around his eyeballs. “Bwoi!!!” He booms loudly as if we’ve asked for something bizarre, like moon rocks. “Bwoi!” He repeats at a slightly lower volume, and then starts shaking his head and mutters, “Well, I no know if we have DAT!”

To that I usually say, “Well, can you look?”

“Right now,” he says, and shuffles off somewhere to the back of the store.

Without fail, he comes back with the requested item. “Da dis u d look fa?”

And we agree that, yes, that is what we had been looking for, and take it. A week later, it’s the same routine. WITHOUT FAIL. I’m not complaining, I just find this incredibly amusing. Like, why does he act so alarmed when we ask for hardware at a hardware store?

Beginnings

I landed in Belize in the afternoon, a half hour earlier than scheduled. I had plenty of time at the baggage claim and waltzed through customs with a bored nod from the officer who barely looked up from his smartphone.

On the curbside waiting for my ride, I checked Facebook and suddenly was struck by a gripping melancholy. My eyes blurred with a mixture of tears and sweat. It was 96 degrees and so humid it felt like swallowing the air was a source of hydration. Of course, that’s not how things work. When I finally got to my family’s house, I chugged two liters of water gasping for breath in between gulps.

It took two days of rest to recover from the sleepless nights of packing and farewell get-togethers that preceded my departure from Michigan. When I woke up on the second day, I lost no time stuffing my face with mangoes. No picked green and shipped halfway across the world business; just the elbow-dripping sweet-tart goodness you can only get in the tropics. Mango season hadn’t officially started but some trees (especially the hairy common mango) got an early start. Mangos are like tomatoes in that there are so many varieties, it’s hard to keep track.

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The next day I headed into downtown Belize City for a two-day QuickBooks training for my new job.

It was a Tuesday morning and I saw the city coming to life. Kids in their white, pressed school uniforms were shuffling to school; cars rocked in and out of potholes as they traversed the narrow streets, and a haphazard web of power lines zigzagged overhead. Some traditional Mennonite men were walking about in their signature straw hats and hand-sewn blue shirts and suspenders.

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I walked up and down Albert Street looking for my workshop like a kid lost on the first day of school. The new flats I’d bought a half size too small (it seemed like an ok idea at the time) began cutting into the back of my heel. I hadn’t gone far, but by the time I found the class I was limping.

In the following two days, I learned QuickBooks basics while inundated with a delicious variety of food—Belize’s famous Dario’s meat pies, boiled milk cake, Indian butter chicken (makhani)— all sorts of meals that, on the schedule, were listed as snacks.

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When I got home I told my family I wasn’t sure if I was there to learn QuickBooks, to be fattened up for the kill, or both. They assured me that food is a big part of Belizean professional culture especially in trainings and workshops. Until that day, my experience in Belize had been either as a youngster living isolated in the bush or as a visitor escaping the brutal Michigan winters.

By Thursday I found myself standing at the old cacao processing facility on Belize’s old Hershey cacao plantation, one of the sites that I would be managing soon. What was once as 1,200-acre cacao farm owned by Hershey in the early 80s is now in the rehab phase as a new owner acquired the space a few years ago.

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The structure of the old Hershey facility had the eerie feeling of a ghost town—a chocolate research lab abandoned in the 80s with computers to prove it.  An old basketball magazine from the late 90s further instated the time warp as it was the newest thing in the place. As for the farm, much of the cacao there was chopped down in the 90s to make way for the booming citrus industry.

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Today, just 400-acres of those Hershey-planted cacao trees remain on the estate. Even though they are being rehabbed after years of neglect, the acreage is still producing 150,000 pounds of wet cacao beans annually.

It took a while to soak it all in. I had just spent five years working on urban farms that were considered big if they were over an acre. Now, I was high in the mountains with my boss, an energetic and commanding woman who quickly earned my respect, an Agronomist who was so passionate about cacao you could see it in his retinas, the facility manager who was a soft-spoken man with long thick dreadlocks and a braided goatee, and a tall French intern with a blond man-bun from one of the world’s best known fine chocolate makers, Valrhona.

A lush green faded into a milky blue as the mountains rolled out around us on all sides. The familiar scent of fermenting cacao beans hit my nose. Huge drying decks fanned out in every direction, full of fermented beans drying out in the sun. I was led to the fermentation boxes where the company’s agronomist, facility manager and French intern all hovered over a large box of wet beans. The agronomist was deep in industry jargon—putrification, cut tests, surface mold, humidity, pod index, anaerobic—I did my best to keep up.

Like anything, cacao bean processing is a whole art form that determines the quality and flavor of the bean well before any chocolate maker sees the product. Remember, cacao is not chocolate. Chocolate is cacao processed (exquisitely roasted and pulverized) with sugar, or milk, or sometimes other additives.

I spent the day furiously taking notes on cacao processing. There’s a whole science to it that I still haven’t gotten down. But it wasn’t hard to grasp the basics; much of that I’d learned from growing cacao on my farm when I was a kid.

Cacao, which is the seeds of the cacao theobroma tree, is harvested by cutting the pods the from the trees, cracking them open, and extracting the white-filmy seeds. The seeds are them aggregated into fermentation boxes and set on a strict rotation schedule. After six or seven days (depending on the fermentation box size and post-harvest handling), the cacao is spread one layer deep on what are called drying decks (see photo). There they will stay for another one or two weeks depending on the weather, drying out. The drying process is tedious, and just like the fermentation process it determines the quality of the bean.   On rainy days, and with the high temperatures and humidity, the seeds sometime grow what is called surface mold, which is polished off with the friction of repetitive sweeps with a push broom.

After a rigorous lecture from the Agronomist, the Intern eventually sunk a thermometer into the box of wet beans and they covered the seeds with de-spined banana leaves and began the fermentation process for a new batch. Then we went and took a closer look at the drying decks.

The Agronomist performed a cut test to determine the quality of the beans being produced. The cut test is done by cutting 50 beans in half and inspecting the color inside and finding the percentage of good ferments. If they are a purple-ish hue, the beans are under fermented. If they are a dark brown or crumbly, they are over fermented. But if they are a chocolaty brown with deep furrows inside then they are just right. The Agronomist shook his head at the results and explained in many words why he believed that the beans were overall under fermented. So we decided to move from a 6-day fermentation cycle to a 7-8 day cycle.

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The next day we toured the farm and the Agronomist checked on trees marked for clonal selection, that is, trees with good production records that would be good candidates for use in grafting. I learned so much about grafting from the Agronomist, for instance, that grafting is a form of asexual propagation and a method of selecting the best genetic material for production. In grafting, contrary to my prior belief, the rootstock has nothing to do with the characteristics of the scion. The root stock only serves as an anchor for the clone. The clone is genetic material or “budwood” collected from select trees that outperform others. The Agronomist told me that all ruby red grapefruits are clones originating with one mother tree in Florida.

After we left the old Hershey’s plantation, we drove 3 hours south to the southernmost town in Belize, my hometown, Punta Gorda. It was the weekend of the Cacao Festival and my company invited me to probably one of the swankiest events of the year for the sleepy seaside town of PG. That night I had wine and chocolate for dinner.

The next morning at 4:30am, I made a dash to the bus terminal for a 6-hour ride up to the city to retrieve luggage that I had left at my family’s house while I had got an apartment. I returned to PG on Monday (memorial day in the U.S. and commonwealth day here in Belize). I secured an apartment in Punta Gorda at a lovely and quirky art gallery. Very fitting after coming from an artistic community in Detroit. One evening I sat with my landlords, (lifelong Belizeans that were friends with my dad), and we discussed the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. I knew I was home.

As I write this it’s 9PM and I am getting ready for bed. At 6:30am I will take a ride out into some remote Mayan villages to buy wet cacao beans from farmers. I’m enjoying the crickets outside, the banana leaves fluttering in the breeze. I can hear the sea crashing into the rocks at the shoreline. The sea has been rough for three weeks and there is no fish at the market. A well-known fisherman came into our office last week selling baked goods and offering to fix our printer. It took some restraint not to bow in respect for his hustle.