by Anne-Marie Yerks
The peppers were just as tall as my ankles when Arlington got the grand idea to write his own almanac. He described it to me as we were going around the garden with compost, scattering strategically. The purpose of the compost wasn’t to grow the peppers, but to help with the hoyana, which was the whole point of us living so far out and so close to the border. I was a little bit nervous about it until the hoyana plants began to grow. We’d planted them a week behind the peppers so they’d be hidden from sight if anyone should come snooping around. We hardly thought when we started the garden that we’d be carried along by an idea that burst into Arlington’s head one day when his hand was buried inside a bag of manure. But that’s what happened.
“This is the bullesye,” he said. “I always think of these things when I’m smelling shit.” He flung a fistful without looking, dollar signs in his eyes. Nothing got Arlington going more than the thought of making money. Yet, he had none. “Like the time I was on the toilet and figured out how many gummy fish were in the bowl at High Tide’s. Remember that?”
“Five hundred and thirty seven.” I remember because we used that money to fix the van. And then we got all the way to Seattle and realized he’d lost the combination to the safe deposit box. I was still pissed off about that, and stopped composting for a second to shake it off.
Arlington was on his knees, caressing a slender hoyana stalk. He’d taken off his shirt a couple of rows back, and a pink blush had rested on the tops of his shoulders. He shrugged and met my gaze. The idea he’d just sparked seemed to vibrate around him.
“You’re still mad about that? That was ages ago.”
“How could I not be mad? It affected everything.”
He stood up and raised his arms up to the sun. “Look where you are. It’s summertime and you’re doing something some people only dream about. Something that some people don’t even know about.” He nodded toward the plants. “This,” he said, “this is God. You are God.” He pointed his finger at the space between my eyes.
I shook my head and started on a new row. “God thinks you better get to work. It’s getting late.”
Later that night, we had time to talk about the almanac, the little book that Arlington would write while I was cleaning the old house and spoiling my pregnant cat, Tilly. The book would be for people like us and for people who wanted to be like us, but didn’t know how.
“It’s a set of instructions, with a little magic thrown in,” Arlington said, speaking to himself more than me. “An inspirational book of the days, divined by me and you.”
“Can we do that?”
He pulled me to him and I breathed the smell of sweat, compost, and smoke. “Of course we can. Anything can happen out here, Madonna. Just listen to the jar flies. They agree with me.”
I closed my eyes and tuned my ears to their rattling wails. They were looking for lovers, crying for sex, tumbling through tree branches for reprieve. I thought that the jar flies probably knew better than to side with us.
I first hooked up with Arlington when we were in cooking school together. I was serious about becoming a chef, so I tried to keep my mind off him while we made shortbreads and stews and tied up roasts for the big banquets they ordered us to serve. The other girls in the class would look at Arlington with sleepy eyes and giggle at his pranks. His biggest and best was the time he propped a pig’s head in the freezer. A teacher opened the door and it fell out and rolled across the floor like something from a horror movie.
He might have gotten suspended for that if it weren’t for his kitchen skills. Arlington could make the best mushroom gravy on earth, and he was a master with chocolate and butter. I was jealous of the way the teachers would smile when he spooned his soufflés onto the sample plates. After class, he would scoop strawberries into fondue and the girls would eat from his fingers. When he tried it with me, I turned away.
“C’mon, Madonna,” he said, spreading his arms.
“My name is not Madonna. It’s Sherry.”
Arlington had picked “Madonna” as my nickname because of my good morals. This is what he told me in bed one night before we left for the border. On that same night, he told me that his name isn’t really Arlington. It’s Todd.
I don’t know why I gave in and let him slide the strawberry into my mouth. If I could go back and live it all again, I would have walked away. Because something irreversible happened when the fruit and chocolate hit my tongue and I lifted my eyes to his. It was as though my soul filled up with water and swirled into a big hole. Arlington poured a little of himself into me when I filled back up again, and that’s who I have been ever since.
The hoyana grew.
The later the harvest, the riskier, but the better for us. In the meantime, Arlington wrote the almanac and Tilley gave birth to four kittens, all males. Once their eyes opened, they stared out at us from their cardboard box in the corner, little dumplings with brindle coats. I looked back, guilty.
“They seem fine,” I said. “Like normal kittens.”
“Of course they’re normal. You’ve been worried about nothing.”
I’d been worried because Tilley had spent so much time with us in the hoyana field, and I’d seen her nibbling on the plants. She never seemed to be affected, but I wondered if I just couldn’t tell. Sometimes when we were out weeding, I’d breathe in enough of the gasses that I’d notice a shift in my awareness, something like what I’d feel after drinking a shot or two of whiskey, but not quite the same. Stronger.
The kittens were too quiet, I thought. “Shouldn’t they be making noises?”
Arlington hit the “return” key on his typewriter with too much force and it stuck. He opened the cover and adjusted something so that it would work again. We didn’t have any electricity, so a computer was impossible. He was typing the almanac on a manual and drawing the sketches by hand. “Stop worrying about them,” he said. “They’re just cats, for crying out loud.”
I stroked a kitten so fragile that I could see his heart beating inside his tiny rib cage. What would happen to the litter when we left? Tilley would come with us, of course; she’d been with me before Arlington came along. I’d gotten her when I first started school and lived in a rented flat in the industrial district. In those days, my life was strictly scheduled: breakfast at sunrise, the bus ride to campus, a study period in the library before classes, then the classes and work at the banquets. When I came back to the flat at the end of the day, Tilley would jump onto my lap and purr. She was my only companion during those dull days.
I look back now and feel a little bit sad.
The reason that Arlington was in my cooking school had nothing to do with instructions. He was there to take advantage of the industrial ovens that would reach the high temperature he needed to bake hoyana cakes to the dry, crisp state that could be ground up.
“Powder is the most valuable and potent form,” he told me. “But it’s not the only way. There’s tea, or smoke.”
I’d known nothing about hoyana before he told me. Most people didn’t. Arlington said it would fuel the revolution and give us our freedom back. I didn’t know in what ways I wasn’t free, but I’d heard about a time hundreds and hundreds of years ago when people could choose what they wanted to do in their jobs and where they wanted to live. These people raised their own children from birth to adulthood.
“Look in the mirror, Madonna,” he said one night when the kittens were just beginning to walk around. “You have a heritage. A mother and a father. Ancestors. They fought for you, but you won’t ever know them unless you look inside. That’s what the plant will do for you. Trust me.”
He put his hands on my shoulders and turned me to the mirror. He stroked my hair, which had grown past my shoulders for the first time in my life. Hours in the sun had colored it a light golden brown, the ends nearly blonde. Arlington lifted my hair and kissed the back of my neck. A breeze trickled though the open window, traveled the space between us. The jar flies had disappeared weeks before, replaced with crickets. We’d been here for months without a radio or television or telephone. I had forgotten the noises that came from electrical things. Sometimes an airplane would fly over us and leave a streak of cotton in the sky.
“When will we harvest and go home?” I asked.
His hands fell to my waist and lingered there. “Not much longer.”
The van had taken us through the country, a jagged route that Arlington had designed so that we would be harder to track if we were reported missing. We traveled over puddles and potholes, taking turns at the wheel and sleeping in the back when we had to. Tilley was locked up in her carrier. Arlington hadn’t wanted to bring her along, but I wouldn’t go without her. On some level I was thinking that he wouldn’t agree to take a cat along, and he’d leave without me. But that didn’t work, so I had to go. The fortune he promised sounded good, but I was uneasy. He promised his love as well. I was more secure about that.
In Seattle, we hid the van in a park and disguised ourselves. There was money for us in a safe deposit box, put there by the people that Arlington worked with. We were planning to use it for food and shelter and whatever else we needed when we got to the border.
During the miles we’d traveled, I’d put together a fantasy of the little house we’d live in and the simple yet comfortable furniture we would buy. I would cook our meals in a colorful kitchen and grow cooking herbs on the windowsill. There would be a dishwasher and a blender and a food processor and a grill. I’d buy some new clothes because the few garments I’d brought were stained with sweat and grease. Television wouldn’t be possible, but we could play our music on the stereo and slow dance the way we had in my flat. With all this to anticipate, the bus trip into Seattle was easy and pleasant. We stepped off downtown.
Arlington disappeared into the bank while I lounged near a water fountain and breathed in the sidewalk odors of roasted peanuts and chili dogs. He was gone much, much longer than seemed right. When he finally came out, his face was pinched under the faux beard and eyebrows he’d put on earlier.
“We’ve got to move fast,” he said, taking a firm hold on my upper arm and leading me along the street. “We’re on the missing list. I saw our pictures in the lobby. We’ve got to get back to the van and put on the other license plate.”
“But who would – ” Suddenly, everyone on the street was an enemy.
“I don’t know. Maybe a teacher.”
Later, when we were back on the road heading to California, he told me that the he’s forgotten the combination to the safe deposit box, and that the money was still inside the bank.
We would have to survive on what we had.
There were times when I wondered who called us missing, but I couldn’t think of anyone who would have. I didn’t even know if Arlington was telling me the truth. Maybe it was all a lie -- maybe there had never been a safe deposit box. But I did believe that our hoyana crop was worth enough to get us out of the country if we needed to go. At a certain point, I had begun to understand that going back home was impossible. We were criminals who had walked away from our duties. We were outlaws who had cultivated the most powerful hallucinogen on the planet. We were unmarried lovers who had fled the sacred order that we’d been raised to protect. The sum of these charges was lifelong punishment.
“You wouldn’t have come with me if you believed in it,” Arlington said one night. “I saw the revolutionary spirit in you right away.” He leaned forward and took my hand. “Your soul was crying.”
“My soul was fine.” I pulled away from him and ran out into the field, stumbling and sobbing through the rows. The kittens followed me out to a picnic table and gathered under the gloomy tree. We watched the sun set over the hoyana field. Most of the plants were blooming; their nuts – as Arlington called them -- were grooved orbs covered with a thin down. In the morning, the down was wet with nectar. And in the evenings, like now, the nuts emitted a pale gas that collected over the field in an ochre cloud.
The pepper plants we’d planted to hide the hoyana had been overtaken and were withering under the larger plant’s foliage, but I had found a fruit on one of them a few days before. The seeds seared into my fingers with a ferocious heat, and I didn’t dare taste the meat even though I longed for a fresh taste after so many months of canned food.
My thoughts turned toward the kittens, always so silent. At eight weeks, they had never purred. But they were healthy with brilliant coats and bright eyes that moved as though they craved something that might appear any second. We had seen them licking the nectar from the plants, and Arlington had pointed out that if tiny animals weren’t harmed by hoyana, then I wouldn’t be either. He didn’t say what we both knew – the kittens had been born with the hallucinogen in their blood, and they knew it like a language.
But I was a foreigner.
Arlington had eaten hoyana once years before he began cooking school. Unlike me, he hadn’t needed coaxing. He had, in fact, networked for months to find a group that would give him a dose. They made him read a few books and attend several workshops first. The books were about the people who had bred the strain long ago and established the secret fields like the one where we were now living. At the workshops, they gave instructions on how to eat the cake and explained that effects could go on for several days. He was required to make a pledge of solidarity to the group and sacrifice something valuable.
“I gave them my motorbike,” he told me. “And I went to the cabin with my guardian. That’s the person who watched over me.”
“And then what happened?” I asked.
Arlington looked down to the pages he was writing. The bundle was getting thick. We were running out of fuel for the lamps, so he was sitting near the window to make use of remaining daylight. Outside, the hoyana was heavy, ready for the harvest. People were on the way to help us.
“I don’t want to say,” he replied. “It won’t work as well for you if I do.”
Part of me didn’t want to admit that Arlington was right when he said that my soul was crying. But it hadn’t been that way when he met me. When I was growing up, I listened to my lessons carefully and always followed instructions. When the teachers said I was perfect except that I should smile more often, I listened and smiled. And when the teachers said I took too long to get places, I measured my steps so that each pace was one and half meters long. When the teachers asked what I wanted as a grown-up, I would say that I wanted only to work my profession, marry, and bear children who would grow up to be like me.
The teachers said my face was like stone. I told them had forgotten to smile more often, and I tried again.
I now understand that I didn’t smile as much as I should have because something was stirring in my dreams at night, something that I craved. It was the story I began to hear when Arlington came along with his pranks and chocolate-dunked strawberries. Out here in the secret field, I was forced to ask where it came from and where it led.
The people who’d been hired to harvest our hoyana arrived in a square blue van at noon. They were Mexicans, five men and two women and a brood of teenagers who gazed upon the field with lazy confidence. They were charmed by the kittens and set about petting them and offering bits of meat that smelled of spices that nearly made me cry for home. While the men and teenagers worked, I sat with the women and gorged on the tortillas and thick rice they heated over a campfire stove. We ate bitter tomatoes dunked in oil and I listened to them complain about the little things in their lives – stubborn children, senile parents, husbands who were bad with money and short on affection. We drank a strange wine made from corn, and I felt the bliss of civilization.
Arlington came over with a paper bag and set down next to me. He opened the bag under the table. It was packed with hoyana nuts.
“For us,” he said.
In the morning the field would be bare. Arlington would leave his almanac on the table in the old house and we would board our van and follow the Mexicans, taking Tilley with us but leaving her kittens behind. They belonged here. The new couple would host their days with our past, bring them to us. They would read the almanac under the watch of four pairs of almond eyes that understood infinity.