We try to sit tall and look fit in the Work and Income office while we wait our turn. A balding, middle aged man with his pants tucked deeply into his socks is seated at a desk in the open office across from a consultant. You will have to start out filling at least three bins a day, she says to him, or else they won’t keep you on. Do you think you will be able to do that? Lyndon and I look at each other. Can we do this? Exactly how big are these bins?
We expect her to repeat the same script to us, but she doesn’t. She gives us a list of names and numbers for orchards, and tells us to come back if we don’t have any luck. She assures us we will. Back in the hostelry, I call the first number listed on the top of our contact sheets. What kind of work have you done? The woman barely leaves time for me to answer, snorting when I mention an art gallery and a cafe. You know, I’m going to have to call Work and Income and tell them to stop sending us girls. Girls always have problems going up and down the ladders. You know what? Why don’t we just leave it. Okay? Click.
This was not the kind of conversation I expected. I am discouraged. Lyndon will have to call from now on; judging from the one experience, it seems that will be our only chance at getting work picking apples. Lyndon calls the number of an orchard we previously contacted online. They tell him we should shop for enough food for the week, and they will pick us up when we give them a call the next morning. Much easier. We are at the supermarket standing in the produce section when we suddenly realize that if we have to buy food for a week, this orchard must be really far! And what do we get for a week?
Our whole lives have been spent in close proximity to supermarkets, freely picking up odds and ends. We fumble around, filling a bag with potatoes, deciding on a selection of nuts, and choosing long life juices and milk, among other things. With everything so unknown, we become kind of excited in our nervousness. We were told through email that their accommodation for us is a caravan on site. What will this caravan be like, and how big is the orchard? We know practically nothing – not our working hours, not a clue as to what kind of pickers we will be. The idea of how much we will be paid is vague too since it is based on the number of bins – bins we have never seen and have no concept of.
We have to pick fast, Lyn, I stress as we wait in the early morning for the ride to our new home. "One of this" he says, pretending to pick one apple. It’s on his shirt, it shines. He shows it to me with a mock expression of pride. None of that, I laugh, knowing his fondness for taking life slowly.
A big guy in short shorts with thick legs steps out of the green SUV. "You ready to pick some apples"? he asks with a wide smile. He introduces himself and helps us load our bags into the back. I scoot into the back seat and discover a shotgun in a case as my companion. The usual questions are tossed back and forth about where we are from and why we are here. It turns out that he has traveled to North America several times; Vancouver being his favorite city. I express that until the previous day, I had never even seen an apple growing on a tree.
Darrell speeds along the road; I try to ignore the panic I feel in fast cars. The orchard is seven kilometers from town; it will cost near $20.00 to get a taxi back. We speed by kiwi orchards and apple orchards, a river, some houses, a small school, and the nearest phone we can use, which is two kilometers from the orchard. He takes us to our caravan, perched near the edge of a stream we can hear trickling down below. It is a sound that fills our nights. We have four hours to settle in before we are to meet him outside the packing shed.
As soon as he leaves, we turn to each other with wide eyes and laugh with delight. The caravan is fitted with delicate lace curtains, looks like something from the 70s. We have a bed that needs to be shaken of leaves and given fresh sheets. We find those in a closet. There is a small pullout cooker, but we are to use a trailer not far from the caravan for cooking and showering. Lyndon and I do the best we can with the space, plumping saggy pillows and layering quilts for the cold nights. We stack most of our food on the counter and take the rest to the kitchen.
The kitchen trailer seems to have been recently used, but the same paperback on the picnic table lays open, face down and dusty for our entire stay. The magazines sprawled on the table are around five years old. The rug outside the shower is so dirty we cannot determine its original color.
At noon, we are waiting in the designated meeting spot when Darrell pulls up on a tractor. "Hop on", he barks over the engine. We do, one on each side, but awkwardly, not knowing where or how to hold on. We bumble down a dusty path; my black canvas shoes begin to turn orange. The orchard stretches out along the stream and up a hill leading to a dense forest. Everywhere, we see shades of red weighing down thin branches. Some trees are trained on lines and leave beautiful spaces between three layers of hanging apples. Other trees look wild, and their branches are thick, reaching far enough into a row to make passing through with a tractor doubtful.
"Rides over", he says. We slide off the back wheels onto the ground. We are each given a black basket with straps that slide over our heads like you would a tiny tank top – similar to a backwards backpack. When it is filled with apples, I waddle like a heavily pregnant woman. There is a proper way to pick apples, we learn. Darrel stands and watches us practice rolling the Braeburns upward in the palms of our hands until he is satisfied that we understand. He then helps me to quickly fill a basket load. We walk over to the bin. It is nearly as big as a queen sized bed! I unlatch the bag, lean over, and slowly release the apples as I stand back up. Good. Now do that about 45 more times and that bin will be full!
Forty six times? Doesn’t sound too bad. That first one was pretty fast. He comes back to check up on us after a few hours; orders me up the ladder to catch a few stray apples I have left behind. I feel like I am on punishment as I hang on with one elbow bent around the top ladder rung. I reach as far as I can for one apple. It slips out of my hand and crashes to the ground. Ruined.
We see no other people that first day. The sun slides behind the hill; it gets so dark we can no longer see apples. We are amazed at how color ceases to exist in the dimming light. We haven’t seen Darrell for hours; we are not sure when we are allowed to stop. Uh, I think, we should go. I shout to Lyndon who is picking somewhere in the row next to me. I can hear leaves rustling and the sound of a few apples crashing to the ground. "Are you sure we’re allowed?" he answers back, his voice getting closer. I can’t see! I squeal into the fading day, I’m just feeling around blindly here. It’s cold.
We trudge back to the caravan, exhausted. It is about 6:30. We only managed to pick about one bin each – in more than six hours! It was our first day, we tell ourselves. We were being too careful, we agree. We spend most of the evening in the kitchen trailer, where we discover that keeping a pot of water boiling will warm up the place. The unfortunate side effect is steam so thick, it builds up on the walls and begins to slide down in tiny rivulets. We finally step back into the night, steam pouring out of the doorway.
Lyndon grasps my arm tightly and gasps. Look up! A galaxy opens up around us. The entire sky, even directly in front of us behind the hills, is covered in stars so close, it looks like spilled sand, thickest directly above us. We stand in awe until the cold night pushes us inside to the cold caravan, to the tinkling sound of the stream, and to much needed slumber.
In the morning, pain hits us. Our shoulders and our backs ache. I take two aspirins with my breakfast of warm Milo made with goat’s milk. It is a treat we grow to love more and more, each time increasing the ratio of Milo to milk, until it is half and half. Putting on the basket seems a cruel joke, but we are still amused by the novelty of the work. What kind of work do you do? Oh, you know, we’re currently picking apples. But there is no one to share this with. There is no land line, and we know our closest source of internet access is seven kilometers away.
When Darrell rolls by on the tractor, we tell him about not knowing when to stop; he laughs as we describe picking in the dark. Most of the pickers get their four bins finished by about 4:30. Ah, so at last we have some idea of what to aim for. This goal, though, does not change anything for us. I believe I am picking as fast as I can, but I catch myself drifting off and standing there staring blankly with an apple in each hand. Once I realize that no other person is even remotely near us, I begin singing. I start with “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”.
Within seconds, someone joins in. He has a yellow breast and black wings; spends the entire day flitting around on the wires between the trees, squeaking along like a chew toy, disappearing only to say hello to Lyndon. His tail, splayed out like a deck of cards, gives away his name. Immediately, I love the fantail. Each day, I wait anxiously for him to arrive. When he is away, I sing in hopes that it will bring him back.
We think it will, but the work doesn’t get any easier. Most days, the ground is wet with cold dew. By the time we walk down the soft, muddy path to where we finished the day before, it has soaked through two (and sometimes three) layers of socks. The wetness lasts all day. I begin to sleep on my clean clothing to keep them warm for the next morning. One day, I notice a bruise the size and color of a plum on my thigh. Each day, it grows increasingly worse until I feel the pain without even touching it. Lyndon asks how I got it, and I pretend to crush apples between my legs while making a crunching sound. The laughter keeps us sane.
One afternoon I bend down to pick some low apples; the sound of my jeans splitting echoes through the orchard. I stand up in shock; cold air courses between and around my legs. I barely need to ask Lyndon how bad it is before the uncontrollable laughter begins. My pink underpants are clearly visible from the back, as are both legs down to the knee. He lends his sweater as a cover up. I run for the caravan. The only option now is wearing the one pair of jeans I have left until they are caked in mud from the ground to mid calf. We do laundry only on weekends because we need our one day off for the clothing to dry outside on the lines.
The day we decide to wash our filthy shoes, we resort to storing them in the oven’s warming drawer overnight. The rubber on Lyndon’s shoes begins to shrink back, away from the rest of the shoe. There are spider eggs lining the eyelets of my shoes, stuck to the laces. The bruise continues to grow. Our hands become so dry that cracks form. Mine are covered with purple streaks – scabs from daily branch scratches. We begin to look like workers – at least our hands do.
In the few conversations we have in the evenings with other pickers, we hear about a German man who picks for a living. Rumor has it he does seven to eight bins a day. He is a picking legend. We calculate the money he can make in one day. We realize he picks more than the both of us combined. It turns out he is the occupant of the caravan next to us. His hands are big, but they do not look rough like ours. He is picking before we wake up, and he comes home after the sun has set.
We get to know him more than anyone else, but he remains mysterious. He hates cities. Once he rode his bike from Vancouver to California and across to the east coast of the U.S. It took him six months; he slept on the side of roads. For a few years now, he leaves for Australia after the apple picking season is over. We see him in town on his bicycle and again in the supermarket buying liters of berry ice cream and boxes of beer.
The first time we walk to town, we mistakenly follow a sign that someone has bent to point the wrong way. It takes us two and a half hours to get there. When we finally figure out the shortest route, it takes us half the time. Over time, we begin to see other pickers. They are mostly Czechs and Slovakians; they yell to each other in singsong tones, filling the air with cheer and laughter. When it is quiet, we can hear the soft rumble of their apples being emptied into a bin.
Sometimes, someone recognizes us and stops to take us the rest of the journey into or out of town, usually Darrell. We even resort to carrying a sign. A young Kiwi guy stops ahead of us; music blaring, waits for us to run into his vintage Mercedes. A praying mantis clings to the car’s back door. Regretfully, when it is night, we succumb to paying the taxi fare. Every time we go to town, we indulge in ice cream and email, dreading the next morning when we will have to drag ourselves out of bed and into the cold, dewy morning.
Darrell and his brother continue to wear shorts. Their father, the lord of the orchard, occasionally pulls up in a small four wheeler with a fluffy white dog, each time either forgetting that he has ever met us, or running over a post or small tree while backing out of the row. The apple picking never gets any easier. Only once do we manage to pick four bins each. All this amuses Darrell immensely. "Not used to this kind of work, are ya? Ha ha."
When the days are warm, it is not only the fantails that keep us company. There are swarms of bees flying at the tree tops. Whenever one lands on me, I try to stay calm, but I end up throwing the basket sky high and running as fast as I can to the end of the row. When there are no bees and I am on top of the ladder, nothing else but the orchard exists. There are the hills. There are the rows, forming stripes as far as I can see. There are the shiny apples and the sweet smell of the crushed ones rotting below. There is Lyndon, fighting with a branch, or smiling from the top of his ladder.
After the first week, I realize I am in a state of hunger, and surrounded with food. I shine a big one on my shirt. I take that first juicy bite. The cold night has made it just the right temperature. I discover the tiniest red apples are edible even though you would never see one in a store. We try all varieties.
The isolation and quiet have become our reality. Seeing a group of white goats grazing on the other side of the stream, watching what the one-eyed cat will eat are some of the only things that change. We have no access to any news. One morning the news Darrell delivers to us comes as a shock. Some kid at a technical college in Virginia shot 30 people. In the orchard, where the only pain and suffering is delivered by nature and lack of fitness, it seems impossible to think of a bigger and darker world. We will have to wait for days until we can walk to town and read about it online.
In the darkness I gasp as a dark shape rushes past – the one-eyed cat. We boil water to create heat, to make tea. We can see our own breath. A moth flutters around. It swoops near my ear; we hear it crash against the walls. Shut the door, I say. I turn on the gas and the clicking sets the burner afire. We watch the blue flames of the halo lick the dark. Within a few seconds, it draws near, enchanted, and we see its short life explode in a burst of orange. We step out into the night. There is no light pollution to disrupt even the tiniest pricks of light that slide across the sky.