She Froze When She Saw Me
“Are you telling me we’re actually in hell?” I asked.
“Depends on your definition of hell. Spend a few days working in the fields. Then you tell me what you think,” Arn said as we approached the small building, which appeared to be nothing more than a shack built from scraps of plywood and rusty corrugated metal.
“If we’re supposed to go to the fields, why are we headed for this shack?” I asked.
“For our gloves and brushes. Now pull up your collar, put your long blonde hair under your hat and keep your head down. Stay behind me and do what I do. We don’t want you attractin’ no attention.”
We stayed at least fifty feet away from the shack as several people stepped up to an opening in its wall and held out their hands. Someone inside handed them a large fuzzy brush and a pair of gloves. No one said anything.
After eight or nine people had been given their equipment, Arn stepped up to the opening. More people were heading our direction, but the nearest one was at least a hundred yards from us.
The person inside the shack handed Arn his brush and gloves. He stepped aside and I stepped up.
The woman handing out the supplies looked like an ad for sunscreen that says “If you don’t use our sunscreen you could end up looking like this.” The skin on her face and hands looked like dark, deeply wrinkled leather. She was dressed in what appeared to be worn out military fatigues.
She picked up a brush and a pair of gloves and started to hand them to me, then froze and stared at me long and hard.
Damn! She knows I don’t belong here. This doesn’t look good.
“She’s uh overnight transfer from section forty three,” Arn said. “She needs gloves and a brush and she’ll be working in my quadrant.”
Grandma prune face reluctantly handed me the gloves and brush. I quickly turned away and Arn and I walked away from the shack.
“That was close,” I said. I thought she was going to set off an alarm or something. Is she one of the goons with that outfit she’s wearing?”
“Nah, she’s not one of them. She’s one of us. They just gave her one of their old uniforms. Makes her look official or somethin’. She’s old and can’t work in the fields anymore, so she hands out gloves and brushes every morning and collects them at the end of the day. While we’re in the fields, she’ll be makin’ tonight’s stew.”
“We need to get a really big drink before we head to the fields, ’cause it’ll be a long time before the water guy shows up. Drink until you can’t hold any more.”
I followed Arn to a large barrel with a spigot and a large tin cup attached. We each drank several cups of water.
“Follow me.” Arn said.
The Sky Is Never Blue
“Where are we going, Arn?”
“To the fields. You’ll see them soon. We’re walking up a small slope. When we get to the top, it levels off and you’ll see the fields stretchin’ all the way from here to those mountains ahead of us.”
Even though it was barely light when I woke up just a few minutes earlier, now I could clearly see the landscape around me. The place was parched. The ground didn’t appear to have ever seen water. The soil was light bleached brown, mostly sand mixed with a little dirt. I saw no evidence that anything had ever grown there.
A couple of miles ahead low mountains interrupted the landscape. They too appeared barren and lifeless.
Overhead was a bright, brownish, reddish, yellowish, hazy sky. There was no blue.
“What’s with this sky? Why is it that color?” I asked.
“That’s the color it always is. Why do you ask such strange questions?”
“It’s never blue?”
“Blue?” Arn laughed. “Blue?”
Maybe I’m on Mars. Didn’t I read somewhere that it’s called the red planet? This sky is kind of red. I think Mars is supposed to be barren, just like this place.
He’s Kind of Cute!
As I walked next to Arn I turned to look at him as we talked. He looked very human. He was lean, probably about twenty years old, just a little younger than me. He had a deep tan, but no wrinkles like the old woman had. His broad-brimmed hat covered most of his long, sandy hair. He was kind of cute in a rugged sort of way.
“What ya lookin” at?” he asked.
“Somehow you look a little familiar.”
“Like someone you know?”
“Maybe. I must know people, but for some reason I can’t remember anyone.”
“Either you hit your head real hard or you’re a good liar. You got a bump on your head?”
“I didn’t feel any when I was putting my hair under my hat. I kind of feel like I fell from a high place and got the wind totally knocked out of me.”
We reached the top of the slope. Stretched ahead of us was an enormous field of plants. The field stretched between us and the base of the mountain ahead of us. To our left, it disappeared over the horizon. The field ended a couple of hundred yards to our right.
“There’s a short white pole in the ground about twenty rows to your left,” Arn said. “That marks the end of our section. You and I will be responsible for everything from that pole to the end of the field on the right all the way from here to the mountain.”
“That’s a huge area Arn. Have you been doing that all by yourself?”
The Last Guy Disappeared
“Until a few days ago I had another guy helping me. But he disappeared. Maybe you’re his replacement. Looking at your skin I’d say you haven’t been working in the fields. The only ones who don’t work in the fields are the goons and most of them stay inside most of the time. That tells me you’ve got to be one of them.”
“I really don’t think I am. If you think I’m here to spy on you, just exactly what do you think it is I’m supposed to find out? It looks to me like you spend your days out here and your nights by that tree. I can’t see that you own anything except two sets of clothes. Just what information or stuff would you have that the goons would want?
“Nuthin’ I know of. So maybe you messed up and they threw you out here as punishment.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think so. Nothing about this place looks familiar to me. I’ve never seen a sky the color of this one. I think I’d remember that.”
“Maybe,” Arn said. “But now it’s time to get to work.”
“Show me what to do. What kind of plants are these? What are they for?”
“I don’t know what they’re called. They’re something that will grow in this hellhole. Nothing else does. They’re what we eat. No plants, and the few of us that are left would die.”
“How do they survive in this hot and dry place with no water?”
“They get water. Come here, I’ll show you.”
Arn knelt down next to a plant and laid down his brush. The plants were two or three feet high, a dull grayish green in color with slightly fuzzy leaves that were about the size of my hand.
Arn dug into the sandy dirt near the base of the plant. In a few moments he uncovered a small black tube.
“This is the water line. In the middle of the night water runs through here and waters the plants. It’s buried so the water goes directly to the roots. The dirt on top doesn’t get wet. If the water was on top, it would evaporate really fast. This way the plant gets most of it. Be real careful you never mess with the water lines.”
Arn pushed the dirt back over the line. Picking up his brush, he held his right hand under a leaf and with his left hand gently brushed the top of the leaf.
“This is what we do all day. In the afternoon the wind picks up and blows dust on the plants. If we don’t brush it off, they die, then we die.”
“You do this all day? Brush dust off the leaves?”
“Yep, and now you’ll be doing it too.”
“How long does it take to do your entire section?”
“With two of us it should take about seven days. Then we start all over again.”
“Like those guys who start at one end of a bridge painting it and when they get to the other end they go back and start all over?” I asked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Arn said. “What’s a bridge?”
“It’s a road they build over a river or canyon so you can get to the other side.”
“I’ve never run across one,” Arn said. “How do you know about them? Have you seen them?”
“I must have, but I don’t know where.”
“Let’s get moving. We start where I finished yesterday, about a third of the way down toward the mountain and work toward the mountain. You work on the row next to the one I’ll be doing.”
“Do we get breaks?” I asked.
“No. Someone will come by a few times with water. When they do, drink ‘till you think you’ll pop ‘cause it’ll be a long time ‘till they come by again.”
If You’re Still Alive At the End of the Day
“How long do we work?”
”Till a little before dark.”
“Then we get to eat?”
“If you’re still alive.”
“If I’m still alive? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s gonna’ start getting real hot before long and I don’t know if someone who’s been livin’ under a rock can make it ‘till the end of the day. These are the long days,” Arn said as he wiped a trickle of sweat off his forehead.
“The long days?”
“Yep. This is the time when the days are the longest and the hottest.”
“You’re telling me it’s the middle of summer?”
“That’s what they used to call it. Now it’s summer every day. Some days are just longer and hotter than others. Welcome to hell. We hope you enjoy your stay.”