Hi folks! I'm back again with the promised update! Sorry it took a few more days than I anticipated...I was working on a big order in one of my other areas of skill which involved a lantern, paint, and A LOT of origami irises. XD
Anyway, I will be very happy if you review! Reviews give inspiration to my writing eagerness. However they are NOT my kryptonite, since I have been informed that kryptonite is actually bad for Superman. (Should have watched those old movies, lol.) Anyway, please review! :3
The Onceler breathed a quiet sigh of relief as the yellowed strawberry fields dropped out of sight behind the hill he and Audrey were currently descending. It had been rather depressing to pass along the meridian of those fields and see the once-healthy strawberry rows now lying sick and flat against the ground, the strawberries turned into black smudges against the dirt. Now that they were up and out of the valley, however, he felt marginally better, even though he knew the fields would still be there when they came back. The tall, lanky man was swinging the picnic basket and walking along beside Audrey, who was holding Pipsqueak and cooing to him in the voice that women used when talking to babies or soft animals. They were heading down the hill to the river which he had once used to irrigate his crops. The Onceler could just make out a tiny footbridge at the bottom, probably built by some former field hands. He had not been out here in what seemed like a long time, but Audrey seemed to know where she was going perfectly well, even though she was only half-paying attention to the route. He smiled at the motherly look upon her face as she cradled Pipsqueak, who was entertaining himself by batting at her strands of copper hair. "He's adorable, isn't he?"
"I think he's one of the cutest things I've ever seen in my life," Audrey agreed, tickling Pipsqueak's furry belly. "If I had children-which I don't, but I mean, I will, someday- he's exactly the kind of pet I'd want to have to play with them. Where'd you get him?"
"Found him," the Onceler said, indicating over his shoulder. "In the berry fields. I usually wasn't out in the fields very much, but one day I needed a break from my office and I decided to take a walk out there where no one was harvesting, so I wouldn't get in the way. And what do you know but this little guy comes running out of the plants and bumps right into my leg! I jumped so far back I almost fell into a ditch! I thought he was an odd cat at first, but then I picked him up to get a look at him- and the rest is history. His mouth was all stained from eating berries and he looked a little tired and scared. So I took him inside and made him up a place to sleep in my bedroom. Ever since then this little furball's got the idea that he owns the entire manor." The Onceler shrugged good-naturedly, reaching out to rub Pipsqueak on the head. "There's not much I can do. He's really grown on me."
"Of course he has. I can tell he really likes you," Audrey smiled and looked ahead, and the Onceler realized they can come to the footbridge which led across the river. It was not very wide, but it was appropriately long and looked secure. He started to walk forward, but Audrey held out her arm. "Just a minute, let me check…." She lithely descended the bank and peered at the underside of the bridge as it stretched across the river. A moment later, she had scrambled back up. "All right, everything's in place. Let's head for the hills!"
The Onceler glanced upward as he and Audrey began the trek across the footbridge. The land beyond the river was not so much a series of hills and valleys, like the one they had just left behind. Rather, it was more like a gradual slope upward, made of barren, flat dirt. However, although the incline was gentle, the land soon reached heights greater than those achieved by the hills on the other side of the river. All of this was his, and he owned pieces of land upriver and downriver as well, but those purchases had been made simply to ensure his monopoly on water access for his berry farm. After all, it wouldn't do to have someone else across the river trying to use the water for some other venture which might not be compatible with his own. The Onceler did not truly understand why they were taking this trip out to his buffer lands, but Audrey seemed to have something in mind, and he was starting to get the feeling that she knew more than she was letting on about- well- everything. Besides, she had been so nice to him before that he just couldn't help but trust her. And lastly, Pipsqueak liked her. That sealed the deal for her overall goodness in his mind.
The two of them let their conversation peter out as they became more focused on the physical rigor of the climb. As his breathing became heavier, the Onceler glanced around at the stretches of bare dirt surrounding them. He couldn't tell from here whether the soil was good or not, but at first glance it did not appear to bear the bleached, dried-out look of the soil across the river. Almost thoughtlessly, the Onceler began to map out possibilities in his mind; if strawberry plants were to be planted here, they ought to arrange the rows running parallel to the river so it would be easier on the harvesters. Irrigation would be more difficult, since the land was basically one huge slope and gravity would cause the water to run downward into the river. They would have to install a sprinkler system, perhaps one which could be gradually rolled down the incline throughout the course of a typical harvesting day. They could use the spare materials from the old system….
The Onceler shook his head sharply, feeling a slice of pain go through his heart as he realized where his hopeless thoughts were taking him. It was not that simple. It could not be done so easily. What about the company's lack of investors, the absence of new, factory-farm-ready plants, and besides that, the fact that all of the harvesters had gone? As desperate as the Onceler was to believe that something could be salvaged, he knew that nothing could possibly go forward without these critical pieces of the puzzle. As it was, his puzzle wasn't even halfway complete, and he would be a fool to dream otherwise. He had been a fool. But he could not afford to be one any longer.
Suddenly the Onceler realized that he was walking up the hill alone. He swung around in surprise and saw that Audrey and Pipsqueak had stopped several steps behind him, and were watching him patiently from beside a singular, gnarled tree which he hadn't even noticed. The tips of his ears turned red as he tripped back over to them, mumbling something about "Lost in thought…." Audrey smiled and set Pipsqueak down, reaching into the basket on his arm and drawing out the old, faded blanket she had packed. The Onceler placed the basket on the ground and helped her spread the blanket within the perimeters of the tree's shadow. Although it was twisted on the bottom, it wore a coat of green leaves across its top which provided its trunk with protection from the sun. The Onceler smiled as Pipsqueak attempted to tackle the picnic basket, pulling the little bear up to sit on his shoulder. "Not yet, Pip. In a second."
In a rush of copper-gold, Audrey swung herself to the ground and propped her back up against the trunk, digging into the basket and arranging things around the blanket. The Onceler sat down beside her and commenced to search for the marshmallows. "Well, it's not exactly a traditional pastoral view, but you were right- it is much better to be outside the manor. I hadn't even realized it until now…."
Audrey smiled and leaned gently over the blanket, scooping up some of the tilled earth at the edge of its folds. She let it crumble in her fingers and brought it closer to her face, first examining its intricacies and then breathing in its scent. "The earth is good," she announced, pouring it back onto the ground.
"Yes…." The Onceler bit his lip as he finally found the marshmallows, not sure what he was supposed to say in reply to this. The earth may be good, but it wasn't just the earth…. The next second, this was driven from his mind as he looked up and noticed Audrey staring off across the slope with a strange, tremulous look upon her face. "Audrey….?" he asked, abandoning the marshmallows to Pipsqueak and moving a bit closer to the red-haired girl. "Are you all right?"
"What? Oh yes, fine, I'm fine. Let's have some food." The young woman said all of this entirely too quickly to be believable.
The Onceler furrowed his brow and shook his head. "Audrey, what's the matter? You looked….very sad just now."
"Oh no, I didn't. I'm not. It's just that I….well…." Audrey paused and swept a piece of hair behind her ears, curling her knees up to her chest. "The last night I was out here was when I was turning over the soil in Springtime….with everyone."
"By everyone, you mean….the other harvesters?"
"My community." Audrey nodded, pursing her lips quietly. "I miss them. They were like my family, and it's just so strange, being here without them….and knowing that they'll never come back. We're never going to live out there again, like we did before. Now that it's over, I can't help but feel like….like I should have appreciated those times with them more, while they lasted." She sighed and stared down at the tips of her shoes. "But, you know. There's nothing I can do about that."
The Onceler bit his lip, his stomache giving an unpleasant lurch. Once again, she spoke without anger in her voice or accusation in her eyes, but even so, he knew that this was a situation directly caused by his carelessness. Audrey must have felt exactly the way he had at first when she had still been living down in the field houses; the last living resident inside an abandoned and forsaken place. Which made him wonder all the more exactly why she had stayed. Why hadn't she moved on with the rest of the harvesters? They were migrant workers, after all. Moving on was what they did to survive. "It must've been….really nice to live out there. Beautiful scenery…." he mumbled, unsure of why he was even talking. He knew that he couldn't relate to Audrey's experiences.
Audrey gave him a swift look from underneath her raised eyebrow. "I'm not going to sugar-coat it, Mr. Onceler. Migrant life is hard. It's a hard way to live. In fact, it barely permits you to "live." We do some of the most back-breaking work in the country, and we don't even get paid minimum wage. Nobody has health insurance. It's hard for us to keep up in school when we don't live in the same place year-round. The work is unstable and relies entirely too much upon the fluctuations of the economy. And if that's not enough, everybody overlooks us. Migrant life is not really nice. But, even so….the people were. That's why I miss them. I wish I could have met them in different circumstances, but as fate goes, I suppose I'm just glad to have met them at all." Audrey sighed and leaned further back against the tree trunk, smiling at Pipsqueak as he ran up to her side and chirped obliviously.
The Onceler sat up straighter, aware that he was being mildly told off. Sheepishly, he murmured, "What….what were they like? Your friends. Your community."
Audrey smiled in that same tremulous, nostalgic way. "They were good people," she said in a voice which left no room for doubt. "We only really came together as a community within the last three years or so. Before that, we were just a bunch of people wandering around, passing through, trying to hang onto what little we had. But when we became El Valle de las Fresas, I tell you, we really started getting things done. We still had next to nothing in terms of wealth, but we managed to do together what we couldn't have done on our own. We got our own secondhand bus to take our children to school, and we set up intergenerational mentoring programs and continuing education and community funds. We helped people with special skills set up small businesses, mostly online, and we had our own little economy going on between here and the town. And we-"
"Wait, wait. What's….that thing you said. El Valle….?"
"Valle de las Fresas. That's what we called ourselves, the field workers' housing area. It means Valley of the Strawberries in English. We were more than fifty percent Hispanic, you know, so we had a community vote and decided that the name sounded better in Spanish than in English. We had a sign and everything."
"And you had all this….all this stuff going on? Because I had no idea about any of this," the Onceler stated, looking over at Audrey a bit incredulously. He had never been informed that they had established their own community out in the berry fields. The few moments of thought which he had ever spent on his harvesters back when Onceler Fields had been running, he had never seen them as anything other than….harvesters. Picking strawberries, that was what they did. He had never imagined them doing other things, being other people. At least not until he had met Audrey. He suddenly wondered if they'd had a covert painting club out there as well.
"Well, it was all informal. Nothing official was ever filed on any sort of record. We just made these agreements amongst ourselves, and kept to them every Spring and summer. In the fall and winter we would go our separate ways, and come next Spring we'd return again. Even though we spent half the year away from here, this-" Audrey patted the ground, "this was where home was."
The Onceler blinked in confusion. It felt so strange to learn about everything that had been happening right under his nose after it was already over, already ended. How had he not seen any of this? Had he really been that submerged in his work? "But, I don't understand…." he pressed forward. "Why didn't you establish the community publically? Officially? It would have gained you more recognition, for sure, and I just might have liked to know that there was this- this Valle de Fresas thing set up on my land."
Audrey smiled placatingly at him. "We would have been pretty hard to miss for anyone who was outside the manor regularly," she stated, inclining her head toward the hills behind them. "All of the people who worked in the packing plant knew. And so did most of the servants in your manor. But you know, you were….never really around. We knew of you, of course. We had a name for you, too." She brought her hand up to her mouth to hide another freckled smile. "We called you Capitán Abstraído. Captain Oblivious."
The Onceler choked on his breath. "You did-but- really?" he asked, not sure how he ought to feel about this. He had been called much worse things within the course of the past few weeks, but he hadn't even been aware of this particular epithet until now.
"It wasn't that we disliked you or anything," Audrey explained, beginning to fish an apple out of the forgotten picnic basket. "We didn't know you at all. And we called you Captain Oblivious because….well, you didn't bother to know us. Who we were, how we lived, why we did what we did….you really weren't plugged in to that part of your company at all. You didn't know anything about what went on in the fields. We'd just get these random orders from time to time, Mr. Onceler says to do this, or Mr. Onceler wants that. O'Hare was the man who we had to deal with on a face-to-face basis. Don't even get me started on him," Audrey declared, pulling her sun hat down over her face with a flourish.
The Onceler felt like pulling his own hat over his head as well. He flushed, drawing in a deep breath of soil-tasting air. "I'm….I'm sorry about that. All of it. I know it's too late now, and I know talk is cheap, but looking back on everything….I realize that I should have paid far more attention to my land and to the people working it. If I had, maybe this complete disaster could have been avoided." He bit his lip and glanced over at the copper-haired girl looking gently up at him. "But Audrey, why didn't you guys ever form an official community out there? I'm sure I would have noticed you if I had known that you were, you know, organizing yourselves." Whether or not I would have allowed it, that we won't discuss, he thought privately, thinking back regretfully on the person he had been.
Audrey shook her head matter-of-factly. "We couldn't have gone the official route. It would have been too dangerous for our stability. Almost all of our Hispanic workers were from outside the country, and most were not here legally. If they fell, we all fell. That's why-"
If the Onceler had been standing, he would have tripped and fallen over at this point. He yanked his hat back up and gawked at Audrey. "Just a- wait, wait a- what? You can't be serious."
"I am completely serious," Audrey replied, bringing her legs back down and crossing them meditative-style in front of her body. "Statistically speaking, this shouldn't surprise you. Illegal immigrants, people without documentation of citizenship in this country, tend to congregate in the lowest-paying jobs with the least amount of oversight involved. It's the only way for them to work and be safe. Surely you must have realized that migrant work would attract them."
"But you knew?" the Onceler demanded, driving straight at the central point burning in his mind. "You all knew that about half of you didn't have papers? And nobody said anything?"
"Well, to put it bluntly, no." Audrey stated calmly. "We didn't really care. We were a community, and-"
"But you can't just do that. You can't!" the Onceler insisted, scooting closer to the unashamed redhead. "You're not allowed to just let them in like that. I'm not allowed to employ illegal workers here! Do you have any idea what the public would say if they found out that about half my harvesters were non-citizens? I'll give you a hint! It would sound a lot like blah, blah, unpatriotic, blah, blah, xenophobia, blah, blah, taxes! As if I haven't already had enough bad publicity! And I'll tell you another thing-!"
"Mr. Onceler! Mr. Onceler, calm down," Audrey demanded, gripping his shoulder steadily with her rough, tanned hand. "Your fears are unfounded. No one is going to find out. First of all, we're certainly not going to tell. And secondly, the law states only that you are not allowed to knowingly employ undocumented workers. Which you haven't. You had no idea about any of this. Captain Oblivious, remember? Your….general aloofness has had its uses over all these years."
Without knowing he was going to do it, the Onceler closed his eyes and groaned, letting his bones go slack and lowering himself down onto his back. He lay on top of the blanket, mind spinning like a carved top. Could not even one thing remain the way he'd thought it had been? O'Hare had not been honest, his family had not been loyal, the pesticides had not been safe, and now his workers had not even been citizens! What was next? The Onceler could not decide whether he should be angry with Audrey or not. Apparently she and the entire fresas community had defied the law in order to keep themselves together, which was definitely a bad business practice. However, it had had absolutely nothing to do with the company's ultimate demise. He was to blame for that, at the expense of everyone else. Still undecided, he opened his eyes and stared curiously up into Audrey's green orbs. The young girl was looking patiently down at him, and it occurred to the Onceler that she must have not only planned this conversation but anticipated his reaction. And right now, her eyes knew what his next question would be.
"Why did you do it? All of you….what made you decide to live that way? You're a citizen, aren't you?" he asked Audrey, and she nodded. "Wasn't it awfully risky for half of you to just ignore the laws of your country? What if you'd been found out?"
Audrey shook her head, reaching out her hand to pat the head of Pipsqueak as he trundled across the Onceler's line of vision. The little bear seemed to sense the more serious atmosphere around the two humans, for he curled up silently in the crook of the Onceler's arm and proceeded to gaze intently at Audrey, as though he could understand her. She stared thoughtfully out the across the fields before continuing. "First of all, it wasn't nearly as risky for us. You want to talk about risky, you ought to have seen how the undocumented families had to live their lives. And secondly….we all chose to ignore the law together, because it was the only way that we could live in peace. We were so tired of fighting and being terrorized, and we just-."
"Terrorized? What?" the Onceler blurted out, sitting up again automatically. "What are you talking about? Who was terrorizing you?"
Audrey sighed. "Back before we became a cohesive community, we went through somewhat of a….trial by fire, shall we say. Literal fire, actually. At its culmination, Onceler Fields was almost destroyed over the course of just one night, and all because we couldn't figure out a way to trust each other across race and nationality. In the end, we had to make a decision, and we decided to start completely over. Everything new. If we hadn't done that, then you wouldn't be here today, Mr. Onceler, and neither would I. Onceler Fields wouldn't have had a chance to even get off the ground. Of course, you didn't know about any of this at the time it was happening, since you were always working up at the manor…."
"Will you tell me now?" the Onceler questioned, staring into Audrey's concern-filled eyes. "I want to know. I should have known back then, but I was….irresponsible. I couldn't see past my own nose, and it was always buried in my bank book, anyway."
Audrey snorted in assent, and Pipsqueak hooted and poked the tall, lanky man in his side. Even so, the Onceler sat up straighter. For some reason he felt comfortable with admitting his failures to Audrey, especially now that she was admitting this long, deep secret to him. He wanted to know more about it, her choice, her friends, valle de las fresas, everything. He realized now that although he had never seen her, she had always been there, living this vibrant, tenacious, incredible life right outside his own front door. "I mean….I know that it's kind of stupid to be finding out all of these things after the end has already come. But I can't turn back time. This is the best I can do. So….I want to hear the story." Slowly he moved closer to Audrey, coming to rest his back against the tree's gnarled trunk beside her. "Please?"
Audrey nodded slowly, her copper hair washed by the patches of sun that had slipped through the leaves above, glimmering. She turned her head to look up at him. "All right. I suppose somebody might as well know….exactly why el valle was so important to us all. It began for me when I first came here to work, back when you were just a young entrepreneur, about to harvest your first crop…."
Next chapter: What happened to Audrey's community in the past while the Onceler was off being Captain Oblivious, and how will it affect the present? Is there hope for a new beginning? Find out next time! And thanks for reading!