It was a glorious day, full of brightness and warmth. The sky was deep blue, without the slightest trace of clouds or airplanes. Yanni’s bare feet stepped on the new rough grass, without feeling any scratches from the little green blades. His eyes were fixed on an invisible point somewhere in the horizon, while his mind was running freely, protected by the souvenir Mets baseball cap. Although Yanni knew nothing of baseball or the Mets, he loved the navy and white cap from the moment he saw it. It was, as the Americans would say, “Cool”.
‘Hey man’ he heard his friend Alban’s voice from three rows down. ‘How many you got so far?’Yanni checked out his plastic bucket, and saw that it was half full already. Apparently his hands had continued to pick the outrageously big blueberries, even though his mind had been miles away from the job.
‘Plenty, Alban, plenty.’ He answered his friend.
‘Did you ever think you would come to America and gather blueberries?’ His friend continued the conversation.
‘You know I’d do anything for a living, man. I just never thought I would be the one to pay to pick the produce, instead of the other way around.’
‘Don’t worry, we’re not going to pay that much, brother.’
‘Where I come from, even a dollar is too much.’ Yanni whispered and remembered something that had occurred a couple of weeks ago, two days after his arrival. Alban had gone to the video store to rent some movies, and Yanni had tagged along since everything was new and exciting to him. Alban had rented four movies and had paid 20.00 dollars for them, over the protests of a stunned Yanni. He could not understand why the movies on TV were not good enough for his friend, and why should he spend a week’s worth of food on rentals. Their conversation had been conducted in a friendly Albanian manner and language, involving a lot of backslapping, gestures and loud voices, until the manager had very forcefully requested that they leave before the police came. The manager was just a pimply teenager, with spiky hair and braces, but Alban had smiled reassuringly and left without the slightest protest. Yanni had measured the youth grimly, and had followed his friend out of the store, cursing under his breath. They had done nothing to show they were grown men, not girls for that greasy cockerel to kick them out like that. And they had left without hammering those damn brace wires to the kid’s lips, as any self-respecting Albanian would have done. No good.
He had watched his friend’s family and friends in the days afterwards, and had come to two conclusions. First: Albanian Friendly Conversation sounded as Heated American Argument, and second: all immigrants avoided confrontations whenever they could. Language barriers caused most to misunderstand and get frustrated with their surroundings, whereas inferiority made them bury their feelings deep under a forced smile, or backlash at any outward mockery or offensive behavior. Nobody liked the backlashes, since they were strangers in a strange land and without papers for the most part.
A weird little bird flew over his head and interrupted his reverie. Boy, had the sun become scorching! Yanni could feel it at the back of his neck and the tips of his parched lips. Earlier Alban had offered him SPF15 lip balm, and had left Yanni speechless. Men in lipstick? Swear to God if Alban wasn’t married, he would have been a poofter.
His bucket was getting heavier, so he put it down and estimated that there were enough blueberries to last him for a year. They still crowded in the crooked branches of the green shrubs behind him, and he did not even go that far in the row. He had never seen blueberries that big or tasted such deliciousness. He remembered another place, long ago, on a little meadow in the middle of a small forest, where he had seen blueberries for the first time.
He was very young at the time, just graduated, and transferred by the communist government to a small mountain village as a teacher. It was mandatory for young graduated intellectuals to work some years in little underdeveloped villages in order to bring about the “Creation and Education of the New Man”. It was good for the villagers who cared, but it destroyed a lot of the illusions and eagerness of the educated youth, who saw how useless the whole policy was and could do nothing about it, not even leave. He had felt terribly lonely and misunderstood. His behavior either caused sensation or anger amidst the backward villagers. He kept to himself as much as he could, trying not to draw any further suspicion or criticism to himself. It helped that the scenery was breathtaking. He made a habit of hiking and investigating the lush groves, hills and pastures.
It was during those hikes that he had stumbled upon the hidden blueberry bushes surrounding a green meadow and Rina. 14-year-old Rina, with her flaming red tresses and mauve lips from the blueberries. They had fallen into conversation with difficulty at first, since she was a grown girl and he was an awkward man. However, her immense hunger for everything city and his desperate need for companionship had won over distance and shyness. Things had progressed very quickly in the protected meadow, amidst the blueberries and late summer flowers. If the villagers even got a whiff about their meetings, they were both dead, but the danger made it more exciting.
A bird flew so close to his head that broke his reverie. It was then that he noticed the scarecrow. It was almost hidden by the shrubs, and at first it gave the impression of a spying woman. Bits of long red cotton threads stuck out of the frayed straw hat, and as he came closer, he noticed two old and crumpled newspaper balls under the torn filthy blazer, giving the impression of breasts. He had never seen a female scarecrow before. All in all, these Americans were really strange people. The scarecrow reminded him of Rina, and spooked him a little bit. It looked fierce and alert, like it would catch every little mistake made and punish accordingly. The sun made it look almost like a hag.
He was feeling a bit tired too and decided to stop. He took the bucket over to the big red Sports Dodge, where Alban was already throwing half of his produce into a plastic bag.
“Are you tired yet?” Alban asked him half mockingly.
“A little.” Yanni admitted. “I am not as young as I once was, friend. Not as brave too.”
Alban was taken aback by the wistful tone in his friend’s voice. He had not expected such a serious answer. In fact, Yanni had always treated everything as unimportantly as possible after that mysterious year in a horrible little village. Nobody knew much about that story and Yanni never mentioned anything, apart from relief at having escaped earlier than usual from the “boondocks”. Alban shook his head slowly and stole a glance at his friend, whose face was lost in thoughts again.
“I bet we’ll be home by six,” he said; just to break that weird feeling between them. He took Yanni’s bucket and emptied it into the plastic bag too. Yanni finally came into reality again. He lifted the plastic bag, which was now full with blueberries, and stashed it into the car.
“Wow, this thing must weight about 20 pounds.” He said. ”What are we going to do with all these blueberries?”
“Some we’ll eat, some we’ll make jam with, and some we’ll give away”
“We’ll pay all that money, just to give berries away.”
“Well, they are about a dollar for a quarter pound in the city, so I think we’re getting a good deal. Besides I told you we’re not going to pay that much”
With a cryptic smile on his face, Alban left his friend, dusted his cargo shorts and went to turn on the car. Yanni got on the passenger side and put the almost empty buckets in his lap. He looked at his friend’s tanned hairy knees and thought about his own pale ones, hidden under the thick jeans. He never liked shorts and could not get used to the fact that people practically lived in them here. He remembered Rina’s ivory legs, which he had seen only once, despite the fact that they had sex every time they met. Nakedness was the ultimate taboo, broken only once, when they were absolutely sure nobody was around their little blueberry refuge. That was also the day Rina’s father caught them. As Yanni learned later, one of her little brothers had been following them for a little more than a month and reported to her father. He had seen and heard everything hidden in the green shrubs they thought of as their impenetrable walls. Yanni could almost see the father’s flaming face as he flung Rina away, grabbed Yanni’s throat, and started choking him. He could feel his arteries and lungs constricting, and the pressure of the blood and air pushing around for an outlet. The convulsions, the terrible shaking! Please stop the shaking, stop the shaking! It stopped.
“Yanni, wake up and pass the buckets please!” Alban’s voice penetrated his still convulsing brain. He opened his eyes, only to find Alban’s hand in his arm, giving him another shake.
“What, what?” He asked, then understood and handed the buckets over to his friend, who handed them over to the cashier at the farm’s exit. The cashier was a pretty blonde with freckles that smiled at them both and weighted their produce. They smiled back.
“Aw man’ said Yanni ‘we forgot to give her the plastic bag.”
“Shut up’ Alban said through the smile ‘I’ll explain later.”
The cashier did not understand anything from their quick exchange since it was not in English. She kept on looking from one to the other while she packed up the blueberries and passed them to Alban through the window.
“Everything OK?” she asked.
“OH Yeah, Yeah!’ My friend was just asking about the meaning of the farm name.”
”Honest Injun Farms?”
“ Well, the owner likes it because he tries to keep everything as fair as possible. We charge less, people pay all up and everybody is happy.”
“Ok so I told my friend the right thing then. Thank you, miss.”
“Have a good drive back!” She said and smiled again.
Yanni was silent through out the conversation and kept his eyes on the road ahead. He had understood at last his friend’s comment about the not paying, and suddenly felt very uncomfortable. He waited however, until they left the farm’s exit well behind and then turned to Alban.
“Why did you do that? You did not even tell me! I was scared to death”
“Well, you fell asleep in the car. Besides come on, did you see all the blueberries there? They’ll probably leave them to rot or for the birds”
“They had a scarecrow.” Yanni retorted but he calmed down. “A female scarecrow.”
Alban only sniggered and drove on.
“What if they caught us?” Yanni asked after a little bit.
“Come on brother, you think they do not know what goes on? They don’t care as long as they make enough money. You saw how many people were back there. If the owners made it very difficult, they probably wouldn’t get half as many clients”
Some of the uneasiness went away but Yanni still felt uncomfortable. He remembered the scarecrow with its red thread hair and sagging newspaper breasts. He remembered having the same feeling just before Rina’s father had almost killed him. He had been lucky that the other village men intervened and pulled him away. Yanni knew why they had not let him get killed. Yanni’s own father had been a very high official in the communist government, and the whole village would have probably been punished if the son died like a dog. The villagers had argued for some time. Then they came back, surrounded him and beat him up within an inch of his life. They took Rina with them but left him lying in his own urine and blood, naked and unable to move. He did not remember how he had returned in his his room only that it was sometime after midnight. He’d locked his door, pushed the bed in front of it, and passed out on the floor.
He had woken up in a military ambulance, jolting through a bad road, with two stern military faces on each side. His father’s face had replaced the men’s and pronounced his fate: He was to be committed to the mental ward for a month. It would avoid prison. He tried asking after Rina but his father would not answer. They had sedated him instead. Years after his father’s notorious suicide, he finally learned the truth. Rina had died at the emergency room from multiple fractures and cerebral hemorrhage. Her family had passed the border and was never heard from again. Fair as he had been stern, Yanni’s father had arranged for that, saving them from the same persecution his own family would suffer after his apparent suicide.
Yanni had been the only family member who had not been harassed much by the regime, seeing as he was already half crazy with grief, guilt and electroshock treatments. He was given a janitorial job at the city library and a small studio apartment. He could have even married, had he wanted to. Just like today though, Rina had been the constant companion of his dreams, sometimes taunting him with her long red hair, sometimes chilling his bones with her ghostly embraces, and always making him come. Even during sex with other women, Rina had been there with him, stroking, stimulating, writhing above him as the women writhed below, spreading her moldy overripe blueberry aroma around and suffocating him in it.
Yanni was bumped of his reverie again, as the Dodge swerved on the side of the road.
“Wha… What happened?” He asked a very pale Alban.
“I think we hit something” Alban whispered and opened the door very slowly. The heat came blazing in unmercifully, adding to the dread and anguish already in the atmosphere. Yanni got off too and walked alongside the red minivan to the back. The road was empty. Alban had crossed his arms and was staring at it intently, as if waiting for something to grow out of the asphalt. “
Well” he finally spoke “I do not see anything. Not even blood”
“Maybe it had time to crawl in the bushes” Yanni answered and moved to the closest roadside, where green dusty bushes almost as tall as him stood guard. He tried to peer through their gnarly branches, but could see nothing. Turning, he discovered that Alban was doing the same thing on the other side.
“Nothing, man, nothing”
He shook his head and started walking to the car. It was then that he saw the scarecrow under the back of the car. Its head and half of the red cotton thread had rolled aside at the roots of the bushes. There were two deep wheel tracks on its blazer, and the dirty hay spilled through. A cold shiver took over his sweaty body and vision, and he almost fell over. Alban steadied him.
“How did this get here?” he asked “Who put this here? Why is she after me? I love her. I love her. I love h…”
“Yanni put yourself together man. It’s just a scarecrow”
He felt his body dragged to the car and helped in the passenger seat by a very worried Alban.
“It’s probably a slight heat stoke.” He heard Alban’s voice on the other side. “I’ll put the A/C to the max and you’ll feel much better in a couple of minutes, I promise”
He could neither move nor see, but he could feel his friend struggling with the damn car and cursing it heartily in two languages. He wanted to talk and calm his sickly worried friend down, but he could not order any of his facial muscles. Finally he managed to open his heavy eyes halfway. Because his eyelids could not open further, his vision was confined to the big bag of blueberries at his feet. He could just see the almost black spheres through the semi transparent plastic, as the fight between his friend and the stubborn Dodge was going on. Alban hit the wheel from the frustration and the bag quivered. It continued to quiver and shiver and move, until it was bumping in all directions. It looked like the blueberries were straining to come out, but that did not make any sense. It also looked like the blueberries were growing. Scared to the bone, Yanni tried to move his lips once more and make any kind of noise to warn his friend. The bag bumped into his feet and remained there. He could feel the blueberries, creeping up his legs, like worms. Then the writhing mass inside broke the resistance of the plastic bag and his unwavering vision was filled with mauve fat worms creping, and creeping up his leg, to his thighs, the side of the seat, the shift and on to the other seat where Alban was still cursing the car and dialing on his cell. Yanni whimpered helplessly, as the worms crept inside his clothes to his belly, his chest and up, up into his face. His skin was crawling with the squishy cold things that started to pour into him from the nose and ears. His mind had bolted a long time ago, and in its place was a long thin scratching scream frantically trying to come out. His muscles were still frozen into place, and his eyes were finally covered shut by more curious, little juicy bodies. Muffled screams and bumping noises told him that Alban also was being attacked and it was not only his imagination. He heard the door open and his friend jump out, still yelling and fighting to shake the creepy things off. At the same time, he felt the blueberry worms scurrying away from him. At last, his eyes were free and he could see. He watched as the worms crawled out of his nose and followed their peers through the open door of the car. Alban was screaming his heart out in the middle of the road. Yanni could see the worms covering him from head to toe. Somehow it was even more terrifying to watch them penetrate his friend’s clothes, nose, and ears.
Suddenly, the swarming mass stopped. The worms rolled down into blueberries again and fell off the still struggling Alban. Terrified, Yanni watched his friend slowly come into his senses again and head for the car door, only to find his self face to face with the scarecrow. A yelp and a feeble gesture was all Alban could muster, while the scarecrow engulfed him. There was really no other word for describing the scene. Alban disappeared inside the frayed, molding hay-spilling body in a wink. For some reason, Yanni could only focus on the fake crumpled newspaper breasts, deeply etched by the wheel tracks. As the scarecrow turned to face him through the windshield, he was startled to find they had turned into Rina’s breasts, firm, plump and white. His mouth watering, he remembered their taste in his eager mouth so many years ago, as their wonderful fresh fragrance once again filled his nose and paralyzed his brain. He could see the little sweat drops slowly sliding from in between those perfect breasts to his revering tongue, like nectar. Yanni wanted to taste heaven again. As the scarecrow beckoned, he finally got the use of his muscles back. He opened the car door and got off, still not taking his eyes from the breasts framed by heavy red curls and the frayed blazer. He went straight into the open stick arms and took what he had wanted for more than twenty years, the essence of Rina. He plunged into her, weeping from elation and gratitude. As the last of his clothes disappeared inside, his guilt also evaporated and love filled the dirty hay.
Then he was spilled out. The scarecrow jerked back like it had strings pulling it away.“NO, NO, NO!!!” he yelled. “Take me in! Rina, take me in! Do not leave me here, please take me in, please, please…”
The scarecrow just kept backing through the merciless road in the direction of the farm. Its unexpressive flannel face nevertheless expressed a gruesome and cruel satisfaction. The blueberries rolled obediently behind, while Yanni bawled his tired eyes out. His punishment had also been met.