TITLE: California Grass
DISCLAIMER: Willow, Tara and any other BtVS characters, as well as some random dialog, belong to Mutant Enemy. ALL other original characters belong to me!
SUMMARY: Totally AU! Which means it has no Sunnydale, no Hellmouth, etc. Set during The Great Depression in California.
FEEDBACK: Yes! Any glaring issues…please send me a PM!
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Hello All! This is a short I wrote as part of a challenge over on The Kittenboard. I hope you like it:) This fic is loosely based on the life of depression era photographer, Dorthea Lange. For the record, she was not gay…hince the fiction part! If you're not sure who she is, look her up because she was pretty awesome. An all time favorite of mine…enjoy!
Ira turned his head to glance at his daughter as the old Ford Woody bounced down the road, kicking up billows of dust in its wake. He chuckled lightly when he noticed the small green shamrock pinned to the lapel of her navy blue button down, even though St. Patrick's Day had passed several weeks ago. Ira wondered if she'd forgotten to take it off or if she was just trying to make some sort of fashion statement, although he doubted it.
Ira's daughter was definitely unconventional, from the blue bandana tied around her bright red hair to her yellow Mary Jane's. She always seemed to be ahead of her time, opting to wear pants rather than the traditional form fitting dresses that were popular in the 1930's; Willow Rosenberg was far too into her work to care what anyone thought of how she dressed. In her life as a documentary photographer, she wanted to be comfortable, and dresses or skirts just wouldn't do. Ira understood and neither he, nor his wife, had ever done anything to push Willow towards conventionality. They allowed her to be herself and raised her as a strong and independent woman.
Today, like so many others, father and daughter were working together. They were driving south on highway 101 and heading towards Gilroy. Since the start of the depression, Willow's studio business had fallen off dramatically and she had taken a job with the Resettlement Administration, photographing sharecroppers, displaced families and migrant workers across the state of California. She often traveled with her father, a Professor of Economics at UC Berkley. Ira gathered economic data on the poor and forgotten families and Willow photographed their plight. The trips were sometimes hard on Willow, both mentally and physically. She would often curl up in the back seat on the drive back to San Francisco and cry herself to sleep.
"Dad?" Willow said.
Ira was suddenly snapped from his reverie by the sound of his daughter's voice, "Hmm?"
Willow smiled, amused by her father's reaction, "Where are we going again?"
"Just south of Salinas, we got word there's a pea-pickers camp down there."
Willow nodded, pulling her feet up on the seat and wrapping her arms securely around her knees. "Why won't the government help them? Do you think it will ever get better?"
Ira sighed deeply, "It's complicated honey, but what you and I are doing, bringing awareness to their situation…it'll help. It may not seem like it right now, but I believe that in the long run, it will. You've just got to keep your chin up!"
"Always the optimist, eh Dad?"
"What else is there?" He answered with a question. "Your Great Grandparents came to this country with nothing but the clothes on their backs and things were much worse than this. When you've got nothing but a positive attitude and perseverance, it's bound to get better."
"For making things better," Willow grinned and their conversation lapsed into much lighter subjects as they continued their hot and dusty drive south.
It was noon before they arrived at the pea-pickers camp. It was everything Willow expected it to be, and worse. The makeshift campsite was full of homeless migrant workers and their families. Their clothes were tattered and torn, their children shoeless and dirty. There was no running water and sanitary conditions were dismal at best. The reality of seeing people living in these conditions and the gravity of their situation never ceased to shock the redhead. It always took her several moments to get her emotions under control before she could begin working.
While Ira gathered his questionnaires, Willow limped to the back of the Woody to unpack her equipment. The 4x5 Graflex Series D was a large, bulky camera that appeared to be almost as big as Willow herself, even though it was the smallest available at the time. The lithe redhead never complained. Not only was she happy to have a job, but she had a passion for her profession; it wasn't just a job for Willow, it was her life. She grabbed a satchel and began loading 4x5 negative cartridges inside, along with a journal, several pencils, and a canteen full of water. Willow kept copious field notes on the subjects in every image she captured and kept personal notes in her journal. Finally having gathered all the necessary items, father and daughter set out on their respective missions.
Several hours had passed and Willow had talked with and photographed over a dozen families. All of their stories were similar and all were heart breaking. The majority of people Willow interviewed came from the dust bowl in the mid-west, they were hungry and desperate. The last woman Willow photographed was new to the camp. Their car had broken down and her husband, along with two of her seven children, had taken the radiator into town in hopes of getting it repaired. She was sitting in a lean-to tent, with her daughters huddled around her and a baby suckling at her breast. As Willow photographed the family, the frail woman explained how they had no money and were living off vegetables from nearby fields and birds the children had killed. The migrant woman appeared to be in her mid to late forties and Willow was shocked to discover that she was only thirty-two. Once she finished photographing the family, Willow realized that she needed a break, and decided to take a walk down to the river.
Willow had been walking for quite sometime on the unkempt trail, with still no river in sight. The path was rocky, littered with tumbleweeds and the weight of her camera was causing her to frequently lose her balance and stumble. After nearly dropping the expensive camera, she decided to turn back; making it about a hundred yards before succumbing to the ache in her right leg. Willow looked around and found a patch of shade under a bushy tree and decided to take a much-needed rest. She leaned her tired body against the thick trunk of the tree, closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Several moments later, Willow was awakened by a soft giggle and the sound of someone clearing their throat. She opened her eyes to see the figure of a woman; her delicate curves backlit by the afternoon sun. Willow squinted and held a hand over her eyes in an unsuccessful attempt to cut through the glare.
"You um, you d-d-dropped this a l-little ways back on th-the path." The woman stuttered, holding out her hand.
"Oh, thank you," Willow said as she reached for the item, her fingers sliding across the mystery woman's soft hand.
"You're w-welcome," The woman answered politely.
Willow tried to stand too quickly and nearly toppled over.
"Woah, are y-you ok?" The woman asked as she reached to steady the redhead.
"Yeah, just lost my balance," Willow said, slightly embarrassed as the woman giggled once again.
"What?" Willow asked as she brushed off her pants.
The woman ducked her head and quirked her lips into a half smile, "You um, you h-have a little drool…" She said as she pointed to Willow's face; twirling her out stretched finger in a circle.
"Oh geez," Willow laughed as she wiped her face on the sleeve of her shirt, "Thanks for picking this up and returning it to me. Most people would have just kept on walking or kept it for themselves so, thank you…again." Willow grinned as she tucked the negative cartridge back into her saddlebag; it was the close up and the last picture she'd taken of the 'migrant mother' and her daughters.
"My name is Willow. What's yours?" Willow asked. An awkward silence fell over them as the woman hesitated before answering.
"T-Tara, my n-name is Tara," She said finally, as she nervously tucked some hair behind her ear and lifted her gaze to meet Willow's.
To say that Willow was awestruck was putting it mildly; the woman was simply beautiful. Her dark blonde hair shone bright in the warm California sun, as it cast an almost ethereal glow around her body. But it wasn't her hair that Willow was staring at, it was her eyes, they were the bluest eyes Willow had ever seen, and she was becoming weak in the knees at the intensity in which those eyes were staring at her.
"Wow," Willow breathed as she thrust her hand forward, "It's nice to meet you Tara."
Tara hesitantly reached her own hand forward and gently clasped Willow's hand in return. She giggled nervously and grinned from ear to ear, feeling oddly comforted from the contact.
Willow grinned in return, unable to take her eyes off the wonderful creature standing before her. As Tara shyly cast her eyes downward, Willow took the brief moment to study Tara's delicate features. She immediately noticed the dimple on her right cheek and her perfectly chiseled cheekbones. Willow soon realized that she was still holding Tara's hand and gave her a reassuring squeeze before letting go.
"Tara, may I photograph you?" Willow asked.
Tara shrunk back briefly and her eyes darted from side to side as she pondered Willow's question.
Willow could see that the woman looked scared and began to babble. Desperately wanting to put her at ease, "It's ok Tara, i-if you don't want me to, it's just you look very photogenic and I'm a photographer so I notice these things and you're real pretty, maybe the prettiest person I've ever seen and I just want to remember you always and what better way to do that than with a picture, you know?"
Tara just stood there staring dumbfounded at the redhead. "What?" Willow asked, squirming slightly.
"You s-sure do talk f-fast."
"Oh," Willow blushed, "Sorry, I tend to do that when I get nervous or excited."
"It's ok, I tend to st-stutter, but I g-guess you n-noticed that…" Tara said as she ducked her head once again.
"Tara," Willow whispered, craning her neck to trying to make eye contact, "I didn't…notice, that is." She said honestly, so taken by Tara's beauty that everything else was completely lost on her.
Tara raised her gaze to meet Willow's and began to nervously giggle again.
Willow raised her camera, "May I?"
Tara nodded and Willow set about the task of photographing her new friend. She was entranced with the woman. Willow's heart ached at the thought of never seeing her new friend again or getting to know the beautiful woman, and she tried to push it out of her mind. After all, they'd just met and Willow knew nothing at all about Tara, but she knew that this was someone she'd never forget. After taking several pictures, they sat in the grass as Willow diligently wrote in her journal.
Tara cocked her head curiously, "W-what are you writing?"
"Just some notes, your name, the date and stuff."
"W-What kind of stuff?" Tara pressed.
Willow began to blush furiously, "Just stuff," She mumbled, shrugging her shoulders.
Suddenly Tara reached forward and grabbed the book out of Willow's hands, laughing as she rolled on to her stomach and began reading the journal entry.
"Hey!" Willow cried out, stunned by the woman's swift and playful actions, but smiling from ear to ear. She decided to join in and dove forward, ending up half on top of Tara, who clutched the journal tightly to her chest.
Knowing there was no way Tara would release the book willingly; Willow decided tickling would be the best course of action, not to mention fun. As Willow began her assault, Tara started to squeal with laughter. "Do ya give!" Willow exclaimed.
"Never!" Tara replied as she bucked her hips to the side, catching Willow off balance and knocking her into the grass with a yelp.
"Willow!" Tara shouted with concern. The redhead was holding her face in her hands and Tara was terrified that she hurt her new friend. She scooted closer. Willow quickly grabbed Tara's wrists and pulled her to the ground.
"Gotcha!" Willow said, lying on her side next to Tara, their faces mere inches apart. Both women froze, panting heavily and gazing intently into each other's eyes.
"Did y-you mean w-what you wrote?" Tara said, no louder than a whisper.
"Yes, you are so beautiful Tara," Willow whispered in return; letting go of Tara's wrists and gently brushing the blonde locks out of the woman's face. They were so close that Willow could feel Tara's warm breath cascading across her cheek.
"N-No one has ever t-told me that before." Tara said, returning Willow's gesture and tucking some red hair back under Willow's blue bandana.
"Well, people should tell you more often, because it's true."
"I l-like you Willow, you're a g-good person."
Willow was suddenly overcome and merely smiled in return. Had she not already been lying down, she was sure she would have fainted. Tara's touch was like fire on her skin and her heart had responded by nearly beating out of her chest. Never in her life had someone affected her in the way Tara was at this moment and she was sure no one ever would again.
Tara trailed her fingers down Willow's cheek to her lapel and gently rubbed the shamrock pin between her fingers. "I'm Irish, my last n-name is Maclay."
"Tara, tell me your story," Willow said, finally finding her voice.
Tara agreed, sighing deeply she began to recount her history. She was from a small Kansas town, born and raised, until the drought hit three years ago. With no water for their crops and no way to feed the livestock, the bank took back the farm and they were forced to leave. Tara, along with her mother, father and younger brother, packed up their belongings and headed south towards Texas; her father looking for work in the oil fields. Tara's father and brother took on small jobs to keep them fed and provide gas for the car. They lived hand to mouth, with their car as their only permanent shelter. As the depression worsened, the jobs became fewer and farther between, and they headed west towards California. Not long after that, Tara's mother became ill; she'd contracted Typhus and died in New Mexico. They had no money for a proper burial, so they buried her themselves in the desert.
Tara began to sob as she recalled this particularly painful part of her story, her eyes full of sadness. Willow wanted to hold Tara and kiss away all of the pain, but they hardly knew each other. So instead, Willow held Tara's hand tightly and cried right along with her.
After several moments, Tara continued. Not long after her mother passed, Tara's father found steady work as a carpenter's apprentice and they lived in Albuquerque for the next six months. Things looked promising, until her father was fired for drinking on the job and fighting with the other workers. That was two years ago, and since then they'd been traveling throughout California working the fields.
Tara's story was brutal and unfortunately typical of the times when the depression and the dust storms ravaged the heartland. Willow had heard it all before. Only this time it was Tara's story; sweet, gentle Tara.
Willow swallowed hard and forced down her bubbling emotions, "Tara, what can I do?" Tara pushed herself up to a sitting position and Willow followed. "Please, tell me Tara, I…I want to help."
Tara's deep blue eyes met Willow's and she smiled, "You already have."
Tara glanced at the sun that was starting to dip below the trees and suddenly jumped to her feet, startling Willow.
"Hey, what's wrong?"
"I n-need to go. I have to get back, before my father returns from the f-fields. He'll be r-really mad if I'm n-not there."
"Ok, I'll walk with you, if that's alright?"
Tara nodded, handing Willow the journal. She picked up some clothing and slung it over her shoulder as she grabbed two pails full of water.
Willow gathered her things as well and they began the trek back to the campsite
"Willow, w-why do you limp?" Tara asked shyly.
"Oh, I um…I had Polio when I was seven and it left me with a weakened right leg and a permanent limp."
"I'm sorry," Tara said, her eyes filled with concern.
Willow smiled and felt her tummy flutter at the look she was getting from Tara. The redhead shrugged, "I'm ok, sometimes I just get sore if I'm on my feet for a long time. That's kinda why I stopped to rest under the tree. I was going to the river, but it was just too far to walk, so I started back and well, you know the rest of the story." Willow smiled goofily and poked her tongue out between her teeth.
Tara could do nothing but smile. Willow was just too adorable for words. There was something endearing about the photographer, something that made Tara's heart skip a beat every time their eyes met.
As they exited the trail and re-entered the encampment, Tara's face fell. She knew her time with the kind and beautiful redhead was coming to an end and that she would probably never see the girl again. Then something came over the shy blonde and she suddenly stopped, setting her things on the ground.
Willow stared quizzically and started to speak, but was nearly knocked to the ground as Tara flung herself into the redhead; embracing her tightly. Willow returned the hug with one arm as she leaned to set her camera down and then wrapped her other arm around Tara's waist. They held each other for several minutes, just out of view of the camp occupants. Neither said a word as they silently acknowledged their shared connection.
Tara finally broke the embrace and pressed a kiss to Willow's cheek, "Thank you," She whispered as she gently cupped the freckled cheek, "Goodbye Willow." Tara dropped her hand, retrieved her things and disappeared over a small hill and into the camp.
Willow wanted to scream. She wanted to stop Tara, but she knew it wasn't her place. Tara had a family to get back to, and Willow had a job to do. The sky was turning purple and Willow knew her father would worry if she weren't waiting at the car. She knelt to pick up her camera when she heard a rustling noise coming from the wood-line; squinting towards the noise, she saw a figure in the bushes. Someone was watching her.
Tara walked determinedly up the hill willing herself not to look back at the beautiful redhead who had stolen her heart. The tears stung the back of her eyes as she bit her bottom lip, desperately trying to keep them at bay. She hurried through the campsite and prayed that her father had yet to return, however, today those prayers would not be answered.
"Tara! Girl, where the hell have you been?" Donald admonished as he stood over his cowering daughter; staring down with cold gray eyes, so close Tara could smell his rancid alcohol tinged breath. "Answer me!" He shouted.
The girl stood before her father, quaking in fear and trying not to spill any of the water in the nearly overflowing pails. Tara's knuckles had turned white and the thin handles of the buckets were burning into the soft skin on the palms of her hands as she desperately tried to hang on without dropping them, "I'm s-s-s-sorry s-sir. The b-buckets were h-heavy and th-the rocks h-hurt my feet."
Her father scrunched his face, "The b-b-b-buckets were heavy, the rocks hurt my feet, waah," He whined, cruelly mocking his daughter. "Empty those into the tub and bring up two more."
"B-But s-sir, it's a-almost dark," Tara mumbled, setting both buckets on the floor. She stood for a brief moment to flex her stiff and sore fingers. It was a brief pause and one that Tara would soon regret. She turned, to pick up a bucket when she felt her father violently grabbed a fist full of her hair and threw her hard to the ground. Tara yelped as she fell forward; her face smashing into one of the pails and splitting her bottom lip wide open.
"Get up God damn it! Don't you ever back talk me! You will do as I say without question," The man drunkenly stumbled as he raised his boot, kicking at the back of Tara's thigh. "Now move it!"
Tara didn't bother answering this time, not wanting to anger her drunken father anymore than he already was. She scurried to her feet and quickly emptied both buckets into the tub before exiting the tent to make the mile round trip for more water.
Tara was scared as she reached the trailhead. Alone on a dark trail was no place for a young girl. With many of the men returning drunk, not to mention the local wild animals that lurked in the darkness, Tara knew her safety was at risk, but she feared her father's wrath even more. Tara continued to move forward hesitantly, knowing that this time, a pretty redhead would not be distracting her.
Tara's head was aching and her punctured lip throbbing as she tried to navigate the rocky trail on bare feet. With no light to guide her, she'd fallen several times, scrapping her hands and knees. She stopped to wipe the tears from her eyes when she heard something in the woods. What started as a gentle rustling of bushes became louder, and before she could run, someone grabbed her from behind.
Willow sat on the running board of the old Woody while she patiently waited for her father to return. As night began to fall and the men returned from the fields, the camp bustled with activity. Willow stared into the throng of people searching for those unforgettable blue eyes, but her efforts proved fruitless. It was becoming quite crowded and dark, making it impossible for her to find the enchanting woman.
"Hey kiddo, all packed up and ready to go?" Ira asked.
Willow had been staring so intently; she didn't even notice her father had returned. "Huh? Oh, Hi Dad. Yeah, I'm ready."
Ira held out his hand and pulled Willow to her feet. The photographer paused, turning to make one last sweep of the camp before opening the door and sliding into the front seat. Ira followed, starting the old wagon, stepping on the clutch and shifting into first gear. As the car lurched forward, Ira popped on the headlights and immediately slammed on the brakes; throwing Willow forward.
"Look out!" Willow shouted simultaneously, seeing a young man standing defiantly in front of the car.
"What the heck?" Ira said as he shifted into neutral and released the clutch, his heart pounding in his chest.
The young sandy haired man reached to his right and pulled a woman into the light cast by the headlights. She was clutching a burlap sack to her chest, her face hidden behind a curtain of dirty blonde hair.
Willow recognized her immediately, "Tara," She whispered. Willow leapt from the car and hobbled quickly towards Tara. "Wha…what happened?" She asked as she lifted Tara's chin with her finger.
As Tara slowly lifted her head, Willow gasped in horror at the woman's bloodied and bruised face; a face that only hours before had sparkled with laughter. "Oh God," She mumbled; her eyes narrowing as she instantly grew angry. She turned and set her sights on the man grasping Tara's arm, "You, you did this!" She snarled.
"No! No, our father he…take her, please." He desperately plead, pushing Tara forward.
"D-Donny no, I c-can't l-l-leave you here," Tara exclaimed.
"Tara, you listen to me and you listen good. This is no place for you. He's getting worse and one day he's gonna kill you. I can take care of myself and I can handle Daddy. He won't hurt me."
"No!" He said to his sister. Donny turned towards Willow; pulling Tara forward, "Please, go now, before he realizes she's gone."
Tears were streaming down Tara's face, "Donny…"
"I'll find you Tare, this is not forever." The siblings hugged and Donny kissed Tara on the forehead as he began to back away, "I love you sis." Then he turned and disappeared into the darkness.
Willow gently placed a hand on Tara's elbow and led her to the back seat of the car, sliding in next to her and closing the door behind them. Ira turned and met Willow's eyes with concern, "Dad, just drive, ok?" He nodded and slowly drove away.
In the backseat, Tara was near hysteria and sobbed uncontrollably. "Hey, it's ok Tara…I've got you, it's ok." Willow comforted as she wrapped Tara in a hug and pulled her close. "He'll never hurt you again, I promise. I'll take care of you…always."
Several years would pass before Tara was to see her brother again, but he was never far from her thoughts. He'd saved her life that night by pulling her off the trail, and Willow had saved her soul.
Not long after her return to San Francisco, Willow delivered her photographs taken in the pea-pickers camp to the Resettlement Administration and simultaneously to the newspaper; making her somewhat of an overnight sensation. Her image of the 'Migrant Mother' became a symbol of the depression era and one of the most widely recognized photographs of all time. Willow never accepted any monetary compensation for the image, and instead was rewarded with the knowledge that she had made a difference. Several days after the image was released on the national wire, the government delivered over twenty thousand pounds of food and fresh water to the camp, greatly improving their conditions. Ira had been right, they were bringing awareness to the plight of thousands of people and making their lives better.
Not long after Tara moved in with Willow, they came to realize the depth of their feelings for each other. One night as they lay on the roof, gazing up at the stars, Willow took a chance and confessed her love for Tara. She'd feared rejection, but was rewarded with the best kiss of her life. From that moment on, the women were inseparable.
Life wouldn't always be easy for them, but they had each other, and that was all they really needed.