The monarchs arrive late this year to lay their young upon the milkweed. If you had been sitting out on the porch that day at noontime, you would have been able to hear the village’s collective sigh of relief as its residents left their homes to gather outside the cemetery beneath the sweltering August sun. The palms of the children are pinched and wrinkled from pool water. Already their skin has begun to freckle, soon to spot like the skin of their parents, who come bearing brimmed hats and woven baskets. There is a rush of excited chatter when a councilwoman unlocks the rain-beaten gate. Families are permitted to gaze upon the fruits of their labor for the first time since the spring planting. Mothers lead their toddlers into the walled plot of land and the eldest members follow closely behind the rest. The last woman closes the gate tight behind her to keep the barn cats from trailing inside.
Every bed in the dark orchard spills over with ripened squash. The turned soil cradles green tatumes and tromboncinos, swollen magdas and bush marrows, glows alight with the yellow of scallops and crooknecks that peer through the length of dappled vines. A short speech has been prepared by the mayor, but the youngest members of the audience attempt to dart forward into the florae while he is still unfolding the page tucked into his trousers. They are caught only by a pair of pockmarked adolescents who guide them back into the crowd with apologetic faces. Unfazed, the mayor begins to speak praise upon the bounty of the crop. Partway through he says something that cannot be heard from the back row but which makes the men laugh, elbowing each other as they had done when they were boys.
The organizer of that year’s solstice festival steps forward upon the speech’s conclusion. She wipes sweat from her brow as she kneels before the unmarked stretch of earth that stood as her grandfather’s grave, having prepared for this moment since the folding of the first seeds into the soil months before. Her hand finds a crookneck and cradles its weight in her palm, careful not to pull it from its stem too early. She drags her thumb down the length to judge the firmness of its taut custard skin. Parents hold their young ones close against their chests and elders clutch at the shoulders of their children who had long since grown more vital than themselves. All eyes watch as the woman’s thumbnail stabs forward and punctures through the peel. The ripe flesh begins to ooze. A smattering of eager applause rises up behind her.
She stands with her round face glowing, clutching with both hands the plucked squash tight about the neck like a scythe. Its shape casts a long shadow across the earth as she raises it high above her head and cracks it in the same breath over one raised knee. The hollow gourd bursts cleanly, spilling dozens of uncut gems across the feet of those standing closest, rough and red and wet in the sun like chicken hearts. The crowd’s applause rises into a cheer that sets the dogs barking beyond the graveyard walls. Children rush forward to stuff their pockets to bursting. Their wrinkled fingers are stained like cranberries, pink with wealth. Council members shake hands in congratulations before beckoning for their citizens to join them amongst the flowerbeds. They will harvest the lot by sunfall and prepare to sell at market.