The cold drives into me in waves. Rain and wind urge me on, as do reminders that a break will be coming soon, but not soon enough to save my hands. The grass has cut them in places. I am bleeding a little. But the weeding has to be done, and the pouring moisture helps loosen the hold that the three-foot tall plants have on the earth. I put my head down and continue to pull and toss, pull and toss. Tomorrow will be more of the same, I am sure of that, but today is all that I can think of eventually.
Since eight-thirty this morning I have been an automaton. That was when our entire crew of fifteen was dropped off to yank unwanted flora from rows of pepper plants. The rain was light at first, with less wind, but it has steadily worsened. Now the droplets make their way through the bandana that keeps the hair out of my eyes, and water runs down my cheeks. It does not matter if I can see—I feel the wet cold, soaking, as water becomes the enemy to drown in instead of a friendly drink during summer heat. After the first two muddy hours pass I am only viewing with my eyes, not looking like a sane person—viewing from the outside as a twelve-year-old boy with my name works in the fields with so many others. By ten-thirty I am convinced that heat and cold do not matter—there is only the dying green of tall grass, and my jacket failing to keep out the rain.
At last. I look up for a second, hoping that the clouds will part and someone will speak to me and let the rain pass. But instead wind catches at my shirtfront and pours bitterness down it. My eyes drop back to the soil as I trudge towards the trees that border the field. The ground passes under my gaze, there is nothing interesting though—only the stones that hold up foot after foot of cold air. Maybe if hell will open its maw I can warm up by jumping in.
We gather under the trees, and Franklin, the crew leader, begins to tell a story. In this cult-imposed workday Franklin’s stories are bright moments that let us all get away. He starts where he had left off yesterday, and props up his words with the kinds of ideas that may become science someday, but are pure imagination this morning. The trees drip their water on us, but we are already warmed by Franklin’s words; what will a few droplets do—our guttering wicks are finally burning again. A smile passes among us boys as the tale comes to a close. It is time to place our faith in knowing that the morning has to end somewhere in the future.
My brief rest from purgatory has given me enough strength to make it back to the field, and then to scream a little, inside, that I have been doing this every summer since I was nine years old, with no pay and no way to find a different path. The Church, living in its tall limestone building, demands work, and so my hands bleed.
* * *
Isn’t it enough to say that it was wrong—we were wronged, us children who could not say no. Our childhoods were stolen from us by The Church, by belief, by distancing us from the city where we wanted to live our young summers, and taking us to a farm an hour outside of Saint Paul, then forcing us into submission. That was how I learned of brainwashing and coercion. And I will never know how many others were afraid—who else wanted to be normal and make their own way by mowing lawns during the summer instead of driving tractors and spreading shit to fertilize fields.
I was as distant as the sun for those younger days, shutting myself in a plastic bubble to keep from speaking out and being hit. When the work-day was done and the bus-ride home was ended I would sit in my room in the cult’s great limestone building, their central compound, and pray that social services would find out that my dad was a church condoned abuser, and that the same church had children working forty hour weeks in the blazing sun and brutal cold, all in the name of righteousness; somehow I do not hate everything about the experience. I realized long ago that during those years I paid to be human by learning tolerance.
* * *
The ride back from the field is quiet. Most of us have blisters and cuts but there is no complaining. Getting back to the farm buildings we take off our jackets and gather around the wood fired stove in the mechanics shed, eating our lunches of meat sandwiches. Steam rises from our shoes as they get too close to the stove’s sides. We do not care. Steam means that our toes are warming, and maybe will soon be dry. Jackets are placed on the sides and top of the stove to lose their extra water burden and move towards a more tolerable dampness. Some crewmembers leave, going to other buildings and playing cards for the rest of their lunch break. Life is not so horrible; only the undercurrent of oppression reminds me that I cannot ever trust these others. They might find my faults, and then I would be punished.
* * *
Today as I talk to my counselor, and explain the things that I cannot forget, he tells me I could be worse. And he says that I am a good person after all of this.
“And do you realize that you are a big guy? You are a big guy, and no one is going to hurt you.”
But he does not know. My father’s belt still comes down on my back. I still cringe inside as I make mistakes, hoping I will not be beaten.
“I can’t stop crying!”
Then I have to keep hitting you.
Dad, you are still hitting me. The wailing haunts me, thirteen years later. My earliest memory is of being afraid, and sometimes I dream …
* * *
Franklin is not with us today to supervise—his father is. We are hoeing a pepper patch in the north fields again. I am thankful for the sun, taking off my shirt and wrapping it around my head. The white t-shirt trails down my neck and shields it from the summer rays. Others in the crew do the same.
Franklin’s dad, Ron, keeps an eye on us as we hoe through row after row of the field. One boy is lagging far behind the rest of us. He pokes at the earth instead of turning the soil. His diamond shaped hoe blade is hardly dusty, and as he walks to catch up to the rest of us Ron yells at him to stop. Ron walks over, still yelling, and takes the boy’s hoe from him, then pushes the boy. The rest of the crew stops working to watch.
Once again Ron pushes the kid; the kid, Jayden, falls to the ground and stares up. Ron says that he will hit Jayden if he stands, then Ron glowers at those of us who are watching, and yells, “Get back to work!” None of us helps Jayden to stand.
* * *
“No one is going to hit you. You are safe here.”
But I mistrust so many things, even the possibility that I can get better, or should try. What good will therapy do me if something does happen and I cannot act? For seventeen years “somethings” happened. It is so hard to overcome: the punishment, the fear. Seventeen years and I could finally leave the cult behind, running with my mother and most of my brothers and sisters. I was able to start a new life but I still can’t get rid of the overpowering feeling of panic and isolation some days.
A limestone building overlooks a hill in Saint Paul. I wonder if the sun shines brightly through the apartments now that time has passed. It is where I lived with so many others: friends and enemies. They and I disagree about whether it is a cult or not. I could show you the room I stayed in, if I could bear to step beyond the courtyard door. I wonder if The Church still prescribes beating little kids because they cry. I hope not, but will not go back to find out.