They had to wait a long time for the harvest to begin. Gerard talked to Kate of nothing else for weeks. He imagined the two of them working their way across Canada, then down the West Coast of the U.S., picking fruit and living like gypsies. But it had been a cold, rainy spring that year in Quebec, and when summer solstice arrived, there was still snow on the Laurentian Mountains. Now it was the end of June, and the strawberries were not yet ripe.
Gerard and Kate had hitchhiked out to Île d’Orléans, a little island off the coast of Quebec famous for its berries, and Gerard was angry to find there the same people he had tried to leave behind in his Brittany boyhood in France: storm-beaten, hardscrabble farmers, too tangled up in their difficult existence to look up at the sky and wonder. He had gone to Paris to escape these people, and there he’d found himself hustling to make a living among poor plumbers and roofers and tilers, Frenchmen and Arabs who would scramble along the treacherous, narrow ledges of apartment buildings, or work up to their elbows in other people’s shit, doing the jobs no one else would take. They were full of pride and shame and tobacco and stories, these men, and he became a member of their brotherhood — it showed in the squint lines already making inroads down his young cheeks, in the cock of his head as he rolled a cigarette, in the careless brown beard he let straggle over his chin in an attempt to look older and tougher than he was.
Kate had met him last year, when she was an American exchange student in Paris studying French literature. He’d approached her at a student cafe, trying to recruit her for the Communist Youth League. They had corresponded after she left Paris, breathless exchanges in pidgin English and misspelled French. He’d always dreamed of coming to the U.S., despite his disdain for its government, but had been refused a visa because of his membership in the Communist Party. She’d agreed to fly up to Canada to meet him. They’d been traveling around together for weeks now, but were still getting used to each other.
“What are you thinking of?” Gerard asked Kate abruptly as they trudged along the side of the road, thumbs out in case anyone might decide to pick them up. It had been a long day with few rides and no prospects of work. The sky threatened rain.
“Sex,” she answered, surprised he had asked. “I was wondering if you would want it the next time I wanted it, and if it would be any better.”
He laughed. “Do you ever think about anything else?”
“Oh, look — strawberries!” She had spotted the tiny, wild kind, too small for sale, growing in a ditch by the side of the road. They climbed down and fed each other these first berries of the season.
“Mmm . . . taste them. These are what we came here for,” Gerard told her happily, his face flushed and the vein in his forehead bulging with excitement. He’s forgotten everything else now, she thought. That was the beauty and the frustration of him. The first drops of rain, fat and wet, splashed on her scalp as she stood knee-deep in runners and tendrils by the side of the road.
Later, an hour before sundown, the rain was still falling lightly. “Any other woman would be crying by now,” Gerard remarked out of the blue. He took her hand and squeezed it as they hiked up a long driveway, like a road in itself, toward the distant farmhouse perched at the top of a hill and surrounded by fields. They would ask the farmer if there was work, and of course he would say no, because the strawberries — the big, placid, commercial ones, like sleeping toads under their wet leaves — were green, as anyone could see. But maybe he would let them stay in his barn for the night. Then again, maybe he would look at their dirty backpacks, and hear Gerard’s Parisian accent and Kate’s American one, and send them on their way.
“It seems I only cry over things that other people don’t,” Kate said, “and what makes them cry doesn’t bother me. A little rain never hurt anyone.” As if in response, it came down harder now, making her uneasy. They labored up the hill, past the glistening green strawberry fields and the hayfields that glowed pink in the late-afternoon sun shining through a crack in the clouds. Clumps of wild daisies grew in profusion on the edges of the fields, and she picked a few, decorating his pack with them. She stuck one in her hair, but it slipped out. When the rain became even more serious, they stopped to put on their ponchos, then started up again, two mud-colored donkeys.
Kate thought of all they had been through together in the last week — the confusing arguments and midnight attempts to make a wordless language they both might understand — and said, “You’re like these strawberries: sweet someday, but not yet ripe.”
“Not yet ready for picking!” Gerard hooted. “I love it! How do I taste?”
They kissed, staggering a bit under the weight of their packs. She licked a drop of runoff from his mustache, which smelled of the tobacco-and-dried-mint cigarettes they rolled themselves.
“So I’m not ripe yet, eh?” he said with satisfaction.
“You know what I mean. You’re not ripe because you don’t want to be ripe.”
“That’s right — because if I were ripe, someone would pick me and sell me to be eaten! For a profit! Hah!” He hitched up his pack savagely and began plowing up the hill. “And that I won’t have! Maudit capitalistes!” he shouted at the main road far below.
“Shh, we’re getting close to the house.”
The pale-eyed farmer stood at the door with his equally pale-eyed wife beside him, their four runny-nosed children clustered around her. “Nothing is ripe yet,” the farmer said wearily, “but you can stay a night in the school bus back of the barn. Come back in a week or two when they’re ready.” His wife said nothing. She looked as flat and white as a freshly ironed sheet. Kate wondered how old she was.
There were a couple of old, abandoned school buses shipwrecked behind the barn. Gerard and Kate entered one and found the seats ripped out to make room for two dirty mattresses piled one on top of the other. Everything sloped to the front because of two missing wheels. They piled their packs on the driver’s seat, sat down on the edge of the stacked mattresses, which were dirty but didn’t smell too bad, and began laughing like maniacs. Gerard threw his arms around Kate’s neck and kissed and bit her fiercely. “Alors! Welcome home! The little bear and the little rabbit have arrived in their new hutch,” he said, using their pet names for each other.
Kate laughed, too, her relief tinged with hysteria. Before long they were kissing extravagantly, rolling in their wet clothes over the old mattress while rain pounded its voodoo dance on the roof.
Later, the rain let up, and she walked the fields at sunset: purple hills and the blue-green St. Lawrence River far below, lit by the pink and peach-colored clouds, like a brush fire. The wind softened until all she could hear was the gentle flap of her poncho on her tired shoulders and the squelch of her wet sneakers in the mud. Although most of the strawberries were huge and green, looking down she could see here and there, brilliantly outlined in the last unearthly rays, one, two, a cluster that were ripe. Stooping, she began to pick, with raw fingers, the wet red berries, juicy as a bruise when she bit into them. Their fresh taste made her forget everything, and for a few minutes she was lost in a frenzy of picking and eating, as if she would never get enough. Finally, she slowed and began to set aside the more perfect ones for Gerard. When she straightened up, she saw the farmer half a field away, watching, expressionless.
Back at the bus, her stomach still cold with shame, she told Gerard what had happened, but he only laughed.
“A handful of berries! That’s what he gets for inviting a little rabbit onto his property. Don’t worry, he’ll still make money this summer — hey, don’t worry, I said.” He saw now that she was on the verge of tears.
“But it’s so hard to live here, Gerard. The winters are nine months long! How do they live?”
“Everyone lives,” he said, “only most people don’t spend as much time worrying about it as you do. Come on — eat. While you were out I met our neighbors in the other bus and they invited us over for coffee after dinner.”
He cut slices of bread and cheese for her, and even produced from his pocket a crumpled wrapper with a piece of chocolate inside. She ate vaguely, her sketchbook open on her knees. She flipped to a picture she had tried to draw of Gerard; it had come out looking improbably like Jesus. (“It’s the beard,” she’d protested.) Then she turned the page to the picture he had drawn of her in return — owl eyes burning underneath a mess of uncombed hair. Gerard was getting impatient, so she closed the book and they went to visit their new neighbors: an out-of-work woodcutter, his young, round wife, and three of their relatives, all staying in a single bus.
“C’est la crise économique,” the woodcutter’s wife said cheerfully, passing around cups of instant coffee. Her name was Marie-Thérèse, and she had blond sausage curls and a droll accent that made everything seem funny, even “the economic crisis.” Kate couldn’t help laughing, and Marie-Thérèse laughed along with her. “It’s because of my accent, yes? Well, the way you talk sounds funny to us!” And she and her husband imitated a Parisian saying, “Please pass the butter.” Gerard laughed and poured himself a second cup of coffee and Kate thought that this was how she liked him best: relaxed, among his own kind of people, working people, of whatever nation. They talked about regionalisms, “our ways,” as Marie-Thérèse put it, but mostly about “la crise.”
The woodcutter, Jean, explained their predicament simply: “If the economy is bad, people have no money to build houses; if they don’t build houses, there is no need for wood.”
“So we come to pick strawberries,” Marie-Thérèse finished for him, laughing.
“Only there are no strawberries either!” someone burst out.
“Have another cup,” Marie-Thérèse urged Kate. “Sugar? Oh, yes, I remember now; they say the Americans never take sugar. Have some biscuits?” Out of their meager stores, little cans stacked neatly on a folding plastic shelf, she pressed food on them. The back half of the bus was curtained off for sleeping, and they sat clustered together, shoulder to shoulder, knee to knee. There were improvised curtains on whittled rods over the windows.
It was late when Kate and Gerard stumbled back across the field to their own dark bus and laid out the damp sleeping bags on the bare mattress and listened to the bus creak as it settled more deeply into the mud. She reached for him, and he pressed himself against her; then, without warning, he fell asleep.
Two weeks later, they returned again to the island, to a larger farm this time. At last the berries were ripe.
“OK, here’s your card. For every basket you fill we stamp it once. At the end of the day you bring it down to Louise at the stand, and she’ll pay you. Here are some baskets to start.”
Marcel, the foreman, handed Kate eight stacked baskets from the truck, and Gerard twelve. It was midday and hot. Men who’d worked all morning staggered up with full baskets, presented their index cards for stamping, and hurried back to the fields. Skinny adolescent boys, stripped to the waist, came and went like flies. Middle-aged women with swollen ankles sighed and mopped their faces before returning to the rows. Kate was delighted to recognize Marie-Thérèse among them.
“You go here, and you go over there,” Marcel directed. Short and powerful, he clambered over the open truck bed, stacking full baskets and jumping down to stamp someone’s card from his rubber pad: the imprint, a strawberry in purple ink on a grimy, red-stained index card.
Fingering her own smooth, blank card, Kate went to the top of her row, set down her baskets, and began picking. In the next row, Gerard grinned conspiratorially. They had pulled it off, had outlasted the rain and the suspicious Quebecois farmers. Now they were free to pick their way across Canada.
The rain-swollen strawberries fell off into Kate’s hands at a touch. They were shaped like pincushions, or vulvae, or hearts; no two were alike. Every once in a while, she came upon an odd shape and held it up for Gerard to admire: a totally round strawberry, its floweret top like a button hat; or a Siamese-twin strawberry, two heart shapes fused together like a Victorian valentine. These special berries seemed too unique to waste on anonymous customers, so she saved them to feed Gerard, or she ate them herself, feeling excited and slightly guilty as she bit into them. Gerard worked faster than she did. Although she tried to speed up, he increased his lead — first by a few feet, then a quarter of a row, then half a row, then more.
The rows stretched out in dizzying green and brown lines. As Kate knelt in the dirt to pick, overripe berries were crushed beneath her knees, leaving purple stains on her pants legs. She alternated putting her weight first on one knee, then the other. Occasionally, she scrambled to her feet and stretched her legs, looking out over the fields. There were children out there — ten- and twelve-year-olds picking alongside their mothers. When she had four baskets full, Kate carried them, arms straining, to the truck and stood in line to have her card stamped four times.
As the day wore on, fewer of the berries seemed special to her. She carelessly mashed stray ones as she crawled forward, searching the low plants for clusters of red. She was in the midst of a painful trance, a dream of green and red, when a droning sound chilled the hairs on the back of her neck. A cone of bees, like a miniature, humming tornado, was passing over the field. She saw the boys’ bare, glistening backs crouched frozen over their baskets. Nobody spoke or moved. There was only the terrifying roar of the swarm. Then it passed overhead a few rows to her left, crossed the field, and was gone. Kate let out her breath and buried her face in her bandanna.
“It’s only bees,” said Marie-Thérèse in the next row. “Makes your skin crawl, but unless you run into them they won’t hurt you.”
Farther down the field, Gerard thumbed his nose at the departing swarm.
When Kate brought her final load to the foreman, he was yelling at a thin woman with leathery brown skin:
“It’s half full! How do you expect him to sell that basket? Take it back and fill it up.”
“Half full — in a pig’s eye, half full!”
As he was turning away, she spat on the ground two feet to the right of him, but he pretended not to see.
Her last load delivered and her card stamped, Kate climbed on the truck for the ride back to the pickers’ camp. The teenage boys were jostling each other, counting out loud the totals on their cards. She was amazed by how many baskets they’d picked; some had filled three cards with stamps. In a long, sweaty afternoon, she’d picked sixteen baskets at fifty cents apiece: eight dollars.
Gerard sat near the head of the truck, smiling at the insults the boys tossed around. The truck jounced along the dirt roads, from field to field — how many fields did this man own? Kate wondered — and finally arrived at the encampment, which had sprung up overnight: the water pump, the outhouse, the buses, some big tents, and a few trailer homes. Kate and Gerard had been assigned a bus to themselves.
As Kate stood on line at the water pump, Gerard came up and offered her a cigarette.
“Thanks, bear. I only picked sixteen baskets. How many did you do?”
“Thirty-three,” he said.
“How did you do that?”
“Simple: I just took all the berries I saw — green, overripe, half rotten, whatever — and filled the basket most of the way with those. Then a layer of perfect berries across the top. I watched you: picking each berry like it was for your wedding day. I told you, little rabbit, about alienated labor. These are not your strawberries. You don’t have to worry about them. Just get as much out of the bloodsuckers as you can. Here, give me your card. I’ll go cash them in.”
Too tired to argue, Kate handed over her card with its sixteen hard-earned stamps and wondered if they all did what Gerard had done. They couldn’t afford to, she decided — not the ones who came back year after year, if they wanted to be hired again. Strawberries were too delicate to be picked by machine. The perfectly ripe ones bruised at even too heavy a human touch. It hit her then that every strawberry she had ever eaten — every piece of fruit — had been picked by callused human hands. Every piece of toast with jelly represented someone’s knees, someone’s aching back and hips, someone with a bandanna on her wrist to wipe away the sweat. Why had no one told her about this before? All food is won by someone’s labor, down to the little tubs of jam that came with breakfast at the truck stops, even the fillings of the strawberry Pop-Tarts she had eaten as a child. She let this knowledge settle in her gut, where a surfeit of berries churned in their acids.
Gerard was in a good mood tonight. He came back, not only with money stuffed in his pockets, but with a paper sack full of groceries: a half dozen eggs, a box of preserved milk, a small bag of salt, some crackers, tobacco, brown bread, a stick of margarine, a can of sardines, an onion. He quickly built a small fire and had just set the pot over it, three eggs covered with water, when Marcel appeared.
“No fires here,” he told them.
“But how do you expect us to cook?” Kate said. “We have no stove!” She heard in her own voice, as she stumbled over the simple words, the same desperation as that of the skinny woman who had spit on the ground.
“He won’t have fires here. It’s against regulations. Camp might burn down.” Marcel left to continue his patrol, saying over his shoulder, “Make sure you put it all the way out — sand and water — before I see it again.”
“Your mother’s a whore,” Gerard muttered, kicking the tiny campfire apart.
“I didn’t want eggs anyway,” Kate said. “I’m not hungry. All those strawberries made me sick.”
“We’re eating eggs for dinner tonight,” Gerard said, “whether Son of Ape-man likes it or not!”
“Where are you going?”
“To ask those guys over there if we can use their camp stove.”
Ten minutes later, he was back. “They ran out of fuel. You wouldn’t think it would take so much to boil half a liter of water. Well, there’s only one thing to do.”
“Eat them raw. We can’t let them spoil and they won’t keep on the bus if it’s hot again tomorrow. I’ll show you an old Breton recipe.” He cracked the eggs into the pot, chopped up the onion, and added salt. They dipped in their bread and ate.
“How does it taste?” Gerard asked.
“Like raw egg.”
“Good, that’s exactly how it should taste. Mmm.”
Kate finished hers to please him, then rolled herself a cigarette and smoked it slowly, enjoying the sight of the young boys showing off for a few girls. The kids were actually having a good time. They lived in their own immediate, sweaty world, not worrying about the economy or the future. She envied them. She envied herself in memory.
Gerard, at her elbow, was plotting their next move.
“This is no good. I can see that now. You know how much they sell those baskets for? Six bucks! Figure it out: that’s 1,200 percent profit they’re making off our backs. And we’ll lose even more changing our pay into American dollars when we cross over into the States.”
“If you get your visa,” she reminded him.
“I’ll be married to an American citizen — what more could they want?” he said with a grin. “I’ll stand on my head and salute the flag and swear I never heard of the Communist Party.”
“Dear God,” she murmured, imagining them being questioned at the border. “You’d do better just to keep your mouth shut for once.”
“And another thing I don’t like here,” he continued, ignoring her. “That Marcel guy gets on my nerves. I bet he set those bees on us, to keep us scared. It all reminds me of that film.”
“You know the one I mean. It’s an American film with Henry Fonda. I don’t know how you say it in English . . .” He hesitated a moment, translating the words in his head. “Ze Grapefruit Juice of ze Angry. Why are you laughing like that?”
Gerard had written his mother that he and Kate were to be married, because he needed his birth certificate and the name of the hospital where he was born. He now shared her reply with Kate, laughing as he read the tiny script aloud, and inserting his commentary:
“‘Gerard, have you thought about what you’re doing? Marriage is a very serious step, as you should know by now.’ So should she, but did it stop her? ‘And be careful of those foreign women. Life in America may seem very exciting, but everyone knows Americans take whatever they can get, without thinking about tomorrow.’”
“If she only knew!” Kate interjected.
“She doesn’t know anything; she just worries.” He continued: “‘Gerard, there are so many things I never discussed with you, but now that you announce to me your intentions of marriage, I wish I could talk to you face to face, not as mother to son, but as a friend.’”
“Gerard, you never told me she was so caring!”
“She’s not. She’s just putting this on because she’s afraid I’m going to marry an American tramp and never come back to France. Who knows? Maybe I won’t.”
“But you have to go back sometime, at least to see her.”
“I don’t have to do anything, at least not until my visa runs out.”
“What else does the letter say?”
“‘Are you sure what you’re feeling is love, and not just a fascination with what may seem to be an easier life than the one I offered you? You know, Gerard, love is not a game.’ Oh, merde!” He threw the letter down. “She doesn’t even know what she’s talking about; she insists on confusing marriage with love, despite her experience! Do you see how a woman like that is hopeless? You can argue and explain until you’re sick of your own voice, and she’ll never hear a thing.”
“Finish the letter,” Kate urged. “I think it’s beautiful — even if it doesn’t apply to us. To you,” she amended.
“Oh, it bores me, all this love stuff. . . . Where was I? ‘Love grows not only in talking and laughing and feeling excited, but also in that moment of silence which can crystallize the bond between two people.’”
“Now, that is beautiful.”
“I don’t understand it at all. ‘Crystallize.’ Why does she use the word crystallize? When honey crystallizes, it’s ruined. That must be what she means. Silence certainly ruined a lot of her relationships! Quelle merde!” He balled up the letter and tossed it away.
“You’re deliberately misinterpreting her!” Kate said. “Crystallize doesn’t have to mean ruin.”
“Oh no? Are you going to teach me to speak French now, too?” She was trying to teach him English by insisting they speak it for one hour a day. But he always slipped back into French after five minutes, telling her to stop making him feel as if he were back in school.
“To you it means ruin, but she did not mean ruin. She may not have been able to express affection for you, Gerard, but she loves you very much. It’s obvious.”
“You don’t even know her and you’re taking her side! What would you say if you’d seen the way she cut me to ribbons every time I opened my mouth while I was growing up? And you’re just as bad. Stay out of this. It’s none of your business!”
She punished him with silence until he mended fences with a cigarette and half a chocolate bar.
That night, they took off all their clothes and lay next to each other in silence, feeling the sweat collect on the back of their aching legs. There was the sound of a radio from the teenagers’ tent. The tin walls of the bus seemed to close in on them in the heat. Gerard reached for Kate’s hand and she explored his palm: the rough places, the calluses, the cuts, the long, curious fingers. He stroked the inner skin of her forearm. She felt the familiar heavy excitement gathering in her, and a familiar apprehension. He ran his hand down her hips and up her back, caught one of her legs between his and began moving his pelvis against it. She kissed his shoulder, feeling his breath hot and harsh in her ear.
They rolled together and she spread her knees for him, rested her feet on the small of his back. As his penis went into her she ran her hands over his shoulder blades, his backbone, his tight, unforgiving buttocks, searching for a place to hold on to. She waited for his orgasm, which came as a wave that crested and broke over her. Again she felt herself like a stubborn black rock that the sea invaded and abandoned at intervals.
The first time it had happened like this, she’d cried from frustration.
“My girlfriend in Paris complained, too,” he’d told her. “She said I never gave her enough time. But after a while she learned to adapt herself.”
“How? What did she do?” Kate had asked through her tears.
“I don’t know — positioned herself differently, or learned to need less time. Ask her.”
Now he withdrew his penis gingerly from her tight muscles; she felt it as a heaviness, passing. He sighed and fell asleep. The moonlight lit up his thin, dented chest, the hard curves of his biceps, his outflung thighs, his limp, glistening penis. He turned and slept like a little boy, hand tucked between his legs. She watched him while the night air cooled her sweaty body; then she touched her hard clitoris like the tip of a juicy strawberry. Inside the soft folds, her vagina opened hungrily. Her orgasm sucked her headlong into its tiny darkness, but she had learned to be quiet about it.
They were awakened at 5:30 by a bell clanging loudly in the center of camp, and then by Marcel, who went around shouting into each bus, camper, and tent, “Truck leaves for the field in twenty minutes!”
The stench in the outhouse was overpowering: dirty diapers and bloody tampons and vomit and diarrhea all dumped down the same hole.
“One toilet for sixty people — don’t they have laws against that here?” Kate whispered to Gerard as they stood on line for the water pump.
“Why don’t you write your congressman?” Gerard teased her.
“I just thought Canada was clean.”
The men splashed cold water over their bare necks and torsos, slicked down their hair, and drank from the spigot. The women just washed their hands and faces. Kate took a long drink of water and refilled her and Gerard’s canteen. They climbed on the truck and sat silently with the other dazed pickers as it jounced them upward, through blue mists, to sunrise and peaceful fields.
Each flat leaf seemed gilded green and gold with dew and the first light. From a little distance the beds looked untouched. Then the workers organized themselves into groups and attacked the still fruit. Kate’s legs protested, her back complained, her knees and hips moaned, Never again, oh, God.
In the field next to Kate, Marie-Thérèse groaned aloud. “Oh, my back! Believe me, cherie, this isn’t the greatest once you get beyond a certain age. My mother’s still picking berries, chasing those dollars. I hope I get out before I’m as old as she is.” She pressed her hands to her lower back. “There’s no place to pee up here, have you noticed? I’d go behind those bushes, but I’m afraid someone will see me. Times like this, you wish you were a man.”
Half an hour after sunrise, it was hot enough to make Kate take off her overshirt and tie it around her waist. An hour more and the sweat was collecting on her upper lip, her forehead, and between her breasts. She looked to see how Gerard was doing. He was reclining among the strawberries, his knees up, as though in a bathtub. He winked and lowered a handful of berries into his mouth luxuriously, like a Roman at an orgy.
From five rows over, Marcel shouted, “Up on your knees! You’re ruining the beds like that!”
Gerard rolled his eyes. “It said nothing in the contract about what position you had to pick from.”
There was no contract, of course. Marcel strode over to where Gerard lay. Pickers in neighboring rows stopped to watch. Gerard remained defiantly reclining, so that he could lean back and look up at Marcel in mock submission. There was a long pause as each waited for the other to move. Then Gerard languorously shifted his position until he was on hands and knees — but as soon as Marcel turned his back he lifted a leg, like a dog peeing. Watching, Kate felt her sympathy divide into two sluggishly flowing streams, like trails of honey.
“Well, I would hate to be your boss,” she told Gerard at noon as they undressed and lay in their bus, too tired to eat. “Hell, it’s hard enough being your traveling companion.”
“I can’t believe you’re taking that monkey’s side against me. I don’t understand the way you think at all.”
But it was too hot to have a serious argument. His hand traveled up to where her breasts flopped whitely on her chest. He gave one of them a soft, absent-minded squeeze.
“Just ease off a little, if you want us to stay here,” she persisted, then asked, “Do you?”
“Want us to stay here?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“I’m not making much money: sixteen baskets again this morning, and I was picking as fast as I could. I just can’t pick any faster.”
“Little rabbit, I have a secret to tell you: it’s set up so you won’t make money, no matter how fast you pick.”
“I know, but if I could at least do as many as you . . .” Gerard had forty stamps on his card already.
“Forget it. Why do you always turn on yourself instead of the real enemy? It’s that tendency in you that bothers me the most, you know.”
“Yes. Once you know who your enemies really are, it’s not necessary to constantly protect them.”
“And what about you?”
“What about me?”
“When you’re my enemy?”
Without warning, Marcel stuck his head inside their bus and said, “Back to work in ten minutes.”
Kate clutched her T-shirt to her breasts and stared at him. He didn’t look away, but gazed impassively at her and Gerard, as if they weren’t naked. Gerard sat forward to shield Kate. “We’re tired. We’re not going back up there this afternoon.”
“The truck leaves in ten minutes. Be on it, or you’re fired. Understand?”
As soon as Marcel left, Gerard said, “Put on your clothes. We’re leaving.” Then he doubled over, holding his belly.
“I got the shits from eating too many strawberries. Oh, God. I’ll be right back.”
“Put your pants on before you go out there.”
“Oh, Christ. ‘Put your pants on!’ Can’t a man even be sick in this fucking country?”
He returned a few minutes later, looking pale and chastened.
“Marcel’s revenge,” she said, laughing.
“Phew, that outhouse is disgusting.”
“Capitalist outhouse. I’m sure communist ones smell better.”
“Please, let’s not go into it. Have we got any cigarettes left?”
Marcel reappeared at the doorway of their bus, his face red. “Cheater!”
“What do you mean?” Kate asked.
“He knows what I mean! Those baskets you picked for us are no damn good!”
Gerard laughed. “Oh, that’s a good one! Baskets for us!”
Marcel charged into the small bus like an angry bull, knocking their knapsacks sideways and upsetting their little stash of food. Kate flattened herself against the wall as the two men butted chests.
“You do their dirty work, eh?” Gerard jeered in Marcel’s face. “‘Baskets for us.’ They’re not for you, you idiot. Who owns those fields? Who owns those fucking berries?”
Speechless with fury, Marcel dragged Gerard from the bus. Kate screamed. A small group of pickers began to gather, the men standing with arms folded across their chests, ready to witness whatever was about to happen. By now, Gerard and Marcel were writhing in the dirt. For a moment it looked as if they were making love, their strong young bodies pressed together, not an ounce of extra fat on either of them. Then Marcel pinned Gerard to the ground and held him there, making him squirm.
“Let him go!” Kate screamed, in English.
Marcel looked up at her, and Gerard took the opportunity to throw a sharp elbow into Marcel’s eye and scramble away into the crowd of onlookers. Half blind, Marcel rose and lunged after him, then tripped over someone’s outstretched boot. (Whose was it? Kate would wonder later. No one in the circle of men had given any sign of taking sides.) Marcel pitched forward and crashed face-first into a large rock. There was a collective gasp as his head flopped grotesquely to the side. Marie-Thérèse stepped forward from the crowd and rolled him over. His eyelids fluttered beneath a flow of blood from his forehead.
“He’s alive,” she said. Then, fiercely, “Someone go get help!” A boy sprinted away.
“Marie-Thérèse —” Kate moved closer.
“Haven’t any of you idiots got a handkerchief?” Marie-Thérèse yelled.
Kate knelt next to her as someone came with a clean T-shirt and held it against the wound, where blood gushed rhythmically. Gerard was nowhere to be seen. Marie-Thérèse relinquished her grip on Marcel as her husband slid in beside her, his wiry woodcutter’s arms gently cradling the wounded man’s head.
Marie-Thérèse reached for Kate, and Kate buried her face in the older woman’s soft neck and began to cry. Marie-Thérèse rocked her and stroked her hair and said nothing at all. They were just this way, two women squatting together in the dirt, when the farmer who owned the field strode over to see what all the fuss was about.