imageDiane McKnight
Mulching Tomatoes

Joy's father wants to take me for a tractor ride later when it's cooler, on an old road that winds through the flatwoods. But I wish he'd use the tractor to move the pine needles from the edge of the woods to the top of the terraced field instead of Joy and me having to carry them. There's way too many tomato plants to count, row after row, and we have to dump buckets of needles around each silvery grizzled stalk thick as my thumb, make a circle of mulch four feet wide and a foot and a half high in the middle.

The job is more than I bargained for when I said I'd help, but I don't say anything. At least I'm getting a tan, peeled down to a tube top and my cut-offs. I should have known mulch is easier to carry than water. Joy's father is frail since his heart surgery. He rocks in a rocking chair in the shade by the barn, smiles and watches us. Because of our work he won't need to water his garden once this summer, even though it's planted in full North Carolina sun.

As we make our trips, we pass by the whitewashed crosses at each end of the clothesline. Joy's mother has been hanging laundry. The homemade dresses all look the same, pale print calicos with short sleeves, round collars, and matching belts. She is a stout woman and her right leg is noticeably larger than her left from years of pumping a treadle sewing machine.

Joy is a quiet person, like some of the other kids I know who live on farms. There's not much conversation to help the hours pass and it's almost suppertime before we're done, but still enough light left for my ride.

I really just want to go home. I don't want to go into those woods, even on a tractor. Joy has told me about the snakes there, the cottonmouth moccasins and rattlers. She said they know how poisonous they are and they aren't afraid. She said they will look you right in the eye.

I see her father go to the shed, hear the tractor start. It rolls over to us, stops alongside me. I climb up on his lap like he tells me to, wave to Joy as we pull off and she looks away. I'll think of that later. How different people are. Different from snakes.