by Stefania Gomez
Alice thought of medieval times, heads of enemies mounted like flags, the day she brought her first garlic crop to market. It was the biggest turnout of Hardneck—the bigger-bulbed, shorter-lasting variety—on personal record. The possums had hardly interfered.
“No wonder he doesn’t trust her with a knife,” one Mark Seabrook said to his wide-eyed wife, Carroll, once Alice had explained her methodology, how she had incised a crescent moon through the gullet of one. She had found the possum trapped in plough teeth, knuckles maimed but alive, and finally tested something her mother, who owned the fields before her, had advised to drive rodents out. Her mother was a profitable farmer but particular, so accordingly Alice waited till it had cooled to unfurl the wire coat and pink skin from its body. Though Alice’s husband of three months, Schoch, hadn’t yet given her a child, she could recognize the form she burned on a sheet of iron siding as infantile. She finely ground the ash it shrank into and mixed it with black sand and milk sugar from her pygmy goat. She sprinkled it over her garlic rows every day in January and February when Venus hung in front of Taurus, an earthy, burrowing sort of sign.
When she brought her possum dust in each day, Alice knew Schoch always had a word to say about it. Considering that, she felt it strange that he slowly got harder and harder to hear.
“Abra-cadbra,” she knew he meant to say at her coating of ash, but all that she heard was “a---.” Stranger, the times he named her the Wicked Witch were altogether obscured, his words covered over with soil. Schoch worked for the Soil & Water department in town, and kept paperwork for the bedroom they leased. He supported the farm in receipts but his stomach wasn’t in it. His degree, from the local state university, was in soil science. To him, the methods Alice used to grow food were an appendix, a vestige from another age threatening to rupture through this one.
Alice sprinkled the stuff and her garlic grew fast and thick as blackberries. She sold it to the First Alternative Natural & Organic Foods Co-Op of Salem, Oregon in the spring, like she had squash in the winter and would strawberries in summer and fall. The co-op was located on the 99, the only street that connected the paper mill town to the college town, its traffic lights strung like exposed wires. The building was coated in stucco painted saffron yellow with orange trim, like the Mexican rice served on Taco Tuesday at Squirrel’s Tavern. Alice liked the socializing as much the fish tacos at Squirrel’s. It was her experience that farmers don’t have the opportunity get out much, and so when they drove from far south or north on the 99, they made a night of it.
“Quite a hat,” Schoch had first said of her Stetson. Alice knew the braid trailing down her back, due her cornstalk frame, was the only thing that gave her away to this kind of talk. Schoch took her by her cob hips on Squirrel’s nailed planks, spun her around and around. To Alice, men made the best sense in cycles. She took Schoch as her third at the courthouse a round or two of moons after.
Strawberries, too, worked in rotation. A fifth year crop, strawberries required Alice to grow and harvest a particular series of nutrient consumers in her fields for four years before the fruit itself: radish, and then beetroot, tomatoes, and poppies. All red, as if to condition the soil to the color. Alice felt strawberries were the magic crop in her fields, the one she’d bring to the county fair in July, a month after they began to appear in the ground. In June, it was the beginning of a season. In June, it was the end of something.
In June, Schoch brought home Glyphosate in offering, a quart of powder like shards of Mica, bleached. When she saw the carton on the kitchen table, she thought about the way RoundUp would desiccate strawberry foliage, how it pulls small things apart in order to exterminate a whole. She imagined what the spray would do to a body, how it could finish things. She thought about Schoch, and she thought about dismemberment.
Saturn hung opposite the moon mid-month, near the shaft of Aries’ horn, and she sowed them, in the heel of every bootprint, eighteen inches apart, implanted tight and precisely in the lining of dirt. Fruit, as lore goes, is planted best under fire signs: Aries, the ram, Leo, the great cat, Sagittarius, the archer. Alice knew the sun was fire, but considered the moon also always lit. She stared at it through the window as it burned the nights when Schoch, cold and amphibious, moved above her, and wished it would grow and swallow the farmhouse, her husband, herself, the fields that would sprout all the quicker next year.
He never took to livestock, really, though the Holsteins and Pygmies weren’t the areas of Alice’s fine expertise, either. When the heifer had calved out the summer before, Schoch had seen the calf’s purple tongue lolling over the emerging front hooves and gagged. Alice had no choice but to put on her gardening gloves, reach in, and pull, unearthing the bony thing inside by its ankles. A season later she was in need of cow blood, hooves, and horns in her garlic field, and she shot the same calf with a .22. Schoch cried when the calf’s knees hit the ground. Alice felt she could not explain to him how everything was always returning, always moving towards burial beneath a field, even Schoch himself.
Alice wanted the strawberries ripe, red and distended as human hearts, so after sowing them she started with the Yarrow tea. Yarrowflower is a blonde plant. Its clusters looked enough to Alice like Schoch’s thinning hair as she boiled it with ten parts water, then sprayed it over the periodic mounds where seeds lay buried. The tea served to strengthen the strawberry plants, Alice had learned from her mother and her mother before her, but she still thought about radishes, beet, tomatoes and poppy, and other things that must be reaped for descendants to take root.
Caroll Seabrook spread a moonish jelly on Alice’s abdomen, pale as lavender compared to her dark farmer’s hands, and thought, too, about planets, the ones spinning in time with the others in the solar system in every woman who came into her office, pregnant or not. Carroll had watched Alice Redfield, who lay now on the canvas-upholstered examination table, sell some of the best fruits at the co-op for a decade now. The university in town encouraged all kinds of farming techniques in their students, but still Alice’s methods and the methods of the Redfield family were infamous. Mark, at least, called her a witch every time he saw her at market, and Carroll, too, felt there were some things about Alice that were difficult for most people in town, who didn’t do what she and Alice did, to understand. Not to say she raised crops when she helped women to get pregnant, but doulas, like farmers, know a little what kind of magic it takes to stick a hand into life cycles. A sign that hung above the examination table read ALL WOMEN ARE HEALERS, and from studying the otherworldly terrain of women’s bodies she knew it was true that women were all made of something larger than this earth, something as big as the stars, maybe.
Alice had fixed three-dozen posters that read U-PICK STRAWBERRY! 2.99/POUND! CALL ALICE REDFIELD JULY 1 to the cork boards around town on the way to her appointment with Carroll, in anticipation of the ones too small to bring to market. Alice had emerged from the fog hovering above the Willamette, or so it seemed to Carroll, and after a quarter of an hour, back she went again.
“If only babies grew like your strawberries,” Carroll to Alice on her way out. “Then you might have more luck.” She offered, too, supplemental pills filled with mashed nettle leaf, dandelion, chamomile, oak, and valerian. These things were pulled from the earth and could make Alice’s insides habitable, or, at least-- as she had seen in Alice’s body and her own, too-- her husband more worthy of inhabiting it.
Compost was another old recipe. Organic material rotted layered on organic material burned, brown and green, like the body, Alice thought, of any man. His limbs, then, would do. Microbes, with their own magic, found sugar in carbon and protein in rot, spit out the rest. Alice made six holes with a stake cut from fir, all at 45-degree angles pointed towards the heart of the pile of organic matter, and in each, an organ removed, stuffed, and replaced: stomach with yarrow, stinging nettle in esophagus, kidney with dandelion, oak bark in gallbladder, chamomile in small intestine, lung with valerian flower. The heart, a kind of fruit, stayed buried when she spread the compost on her field. Alice knew from past trials in harvest that hearts are so like cosmic bodies that the stars pull them, and strawberries with, from the earth in steady rhythm. Ready, surely, by July.
In late June, Lyle Embry drove by Alice’s fields on Huckleberry Hill Road, saw a dark Stetson hat pointed towards the spirit realm and a woman underneath it, long hair hoof-brown and glinting. The rain explained the pea coat, its hem brushing the strawberry leaves, and her pointed leather boots, but not the trail of seven cats behind, one on a squash and another now leaping the distance from the ground to the figure’s shoulder. He supposed they, too, were awaiting the harvest.
In July, after Schoch was gone, Alice stood underneath the canopy, her strawberries piled around her like progeny. She stared at the fair-goers passing by, her arms outstretched, her hat turned up like a halo. She plucked a red fruit from a hemorrhaged pile, brought it to her mouth, and took a careful, wet bite. Deep, astral, she felt a tug.
Stefania Gomez is a junior at Brown University who concentrates in Literary Arts and Ethnic Studies. She is an editor at bluestockings magazine.