Where You Step

Illustrated by Emily Cai

I woke up at 5:30 a.m., put on my jeans, and biked to my car by the hospital. It was a cool morning in New Haven, with the promise of spring. 

My bike is a rickety red Fuji, with yellow tires and down-tube gear shifters. I bought it last fall off of Craigslist. I picked the bike up in a cookie-cutter neighborhood in Attleboro, Massachusetts from a middle-aged, tired-looking man wearing a big T-shirt. A baby screamed inside his house. The guy handed me the bike after I handed him a crisp hundred-dollar-bill which I made doing yard work in the summer back home in Durham. The clean transaction made me feel good. For a piece of paper from a sweaty day moving lumber, I got a machine of steel and rubber that could take me places. 

As I’m biking to my car, I’m thinking about that hundred-dollar-bill and that crying baby, about going to see Thanh, the tubers, the doctors going to work (what do I look like to them?), that intersection where the Yale Law student died in a hit-and-run last fall and how sorry I’d be for Mom if I got hit by a car; I’m thinking about how my mask makes my face itch, the way my underwear bunches up, the cold air on my chest (should I have brought another coat?), and something wise I can tell my dad about the Parmenides verses I read last night, but most of all, I’m thinking about the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through and the sweet taste of strong coffee and a corn muffin. 

In COVID fall, I lived with three of my friends in Providence, Rhode Island, where I made linoleum prints and worked at Petals Farm, a flower farm in southern Rhode Island. It’s almost embarrassing to work on a farm during the COVID era. Fulfilling the urge to work the earth, to sweat, to practice something ancient and “real” in a time of uncertainty and alienation feels a bit on the nose, doesn’t it? Nonetheless, for those very reasons the work called to me. Printmaking fulfilled that same desire for physical routine and presence: the gentle give of linoleum to the blade, the weight of your body pressing into the baren, the whirl of the brayer, the peel of the paper off the block, the black ink on your clothes and hands, the calluses from where you held the chisel, and the blood from where you slipped and cut into your hand. 

I had spent the summer working at a flower farm back home in North Carolina, so I felt pretty confident about finding farm work in Rhode Island. As I reached out to different farms in the area it became clear that this was going to be difficult: fall was coming, flower season was coming to a close, and many of these farms had been struggling financially through the pandemic. In August, I sent an email and left a voicemail for a woman named Thanh, who owns Petals Farm. I found her farm online and thought her mission statement, which combined sustainability, meditation, and flowers was pretty cool, but she never returned my messages, so I forgot about it. In early September, a month after I reached out, I got a call from her while I was eating Raisin Bran on the porch. 

“Hello?” 

“Hello, Leo?” she asked. 

“Yes…?” 

“Want to work?”

“Uh, who is this?” 

“Thanh, from Petals Farm. You left me a message—” 

“Oh, sorry. Um, sure, yeah? I’d love to work. When?” 

“Okay, see you tomorrow then. Eight a.m.,” she said and hung up the phone before I could ask any other questions. 

It’s an hourlong drive from Providence to the farm down in Richmond. Stretching all the way from the northern border with Massachusetts to the southern border with Connecticut, it’s about the longest drive you can make while staying within Rhode Island. Southern Rhode Island, now known for its craggy cliffs and expensive handbag-laden WASPs, was once the homeland of the Narragansett Native Americans. In fact, in colonial times, Southern Rhode Island was considered the most fertile land in New England. Naturally it became a center of war and conquest. Before there was blood and burning, the Narragansett tribe grew fields of maize to live off of in the fall and winter and then would move to the coastline for the spring and summer to fish with their canoes and live off the water. Now the land is peaceful, but different hands are in the dirt. 

Anyways, I loved that drive. Sometimes, as I drove early in the morning, the light of day barely peeking out and the air crisp and cold, I would listen to my brother’s Bob Dylan playlist and feel like it was the first autumn of my life. Because my life was small and often lonely I took comfort in being able to pay attention to something as steady as the descent of nature. In the South, we don’t have autumn like they have up in Rhode Island. In Durham, fall is marked only by the occasional cool breeze which blows through on late-night dog walks, by the viney forests becoming airier, and the ground turning to mud. In the North, nature shouts before it dies. 

The first time I drove up to the farm, Thanh wasn’t there yet. I walked around with my hands sunk deep in my overalls. The farm has one wind tunnel and is no more than one-and-a-half acres large. When I arrived that September morning the dahlias, which make up most of the flowers on the farm, were in full bloom. I was struck by their beauty. 

To the left of Thanh’s farm is a vegetable and hemp farm. On all other sides are sod fields, great swaths of flat green. I find sod discomforting. The endless expanses of too-perfect grass that are ripped up like buildings, rolled up like pastries, driven in big trucks, and re-rolled out in people’s lawns like fresh sheets freaks me out a little bit. It all just seems like too much work and too much water to tame something that demands to be wild. Thanh taught me that farming is about listening, not control. 

Soon Thanh showed up, wearing a pair of green waterproof dungarees, and introduced herself to me. Thanh is a youngish Vietnamese woman. She stands no more than five feet tall, but she is not short in my memory. Our introduction was business-like and, like all hellos in COVIDtimes, there was an awkward distance and a confusion about what to do with our bodies. Before long, we went into the field. Our bodies worked. The job was simple and physical: we were clear-cutting rows of dahlias, raking the beds, and then pulling out, cleaning, and separating the tubers. Thanh yelled at me when I dropped a shovel on the ground (like I always had at the farm back in North Carolina) or when I kneeled instead of bending over when I weeded. I learned quickly that Thanh expected careful, hard work and that her eyes were on me. 

The sun came out and I began to sweat as I cut stems and filled wheelbarrows with the bodies of flowers and weeds. Often, when I cut a stem, water would spurt out. I forgot my gardening gloves, but I didn’t mind. It felt good to have my hands get cut up a little bit, get caked with dark soil and feel the occasional sharpness of cold water from those dismembered flowers. 

I love the silence of labor. Of hands moving and lifting. Listening to your body and attending to the pain of bending. To gentle hunger and aching.. A couple hours in, after having cleared the beds, removed the landscaping fabric, and raked, we began to uproot the tubers. 

Let me tell you what I learned about dahlia tubers. Tubers are roots (and seeds?), and when you pull them up (gently, but firmly, after loosening the earth) you see a spindly conglomeration of what look like brown misshapen radishes which expand from beneath the stem like a drop of water. As you separate the individual tubers from their mass, you find some as small as cigarettes and others as big as your hand. All of them are very dirty and very alive, like miniature organs. In areas where there is consistent frost in the winter, the tubers must be removed from the soil, separated, cleaned, and stored in a warm area until the following spring when they are planted once again. In the South, the tubers stay in the soil all winter. I loved the chutzpah of dahlia farmers in the Northeast, who put in triple the work to get the same thing. 

Thanh taught me how to find the mother tuber, which was planted the previous year and is thrown away in the compost. The mother tuber is fatter and darker from living two cycles in the dirt. Every other tuber separated from the mass must have an “eye” and an unbroken “neck” to be saved. (The necks are the skinner parts of the tuber which connect to the stem and the eyes are barely visible bumps, closed like eyelids, on the tubers, from which will sprout next year’s flowers.) Thanh could find the little eyes and delicately free each tuber in a matter of seconds. Usually I would dig up the tubers and she would sort. Thanh didn’t let me sort the tubers myself until my last couple of weeks on the job because she didn’t trust me to find the eyes. 

On that first day as we moved along the beds pulling and sorting, among the loose petals of the dahlias we had just cut down, Thanh and I began chatting. I wish I could tell you I remember more details from our first conversation. I mostly remember it was strange and meaningful. I remember that after a small stilted getting-to-know-each-other where I told her where I went to school, where I was from, and a little about my printmaking she asked me bluntly: 

“Do you drink?” 

“Do I- drink? Like alcohol…?” I replied, uncomfortable. 

“Yeah.” 

“Uh, well, I…” I laughed to myself, “I mean sometimes; I mean I have a drink sometimes you know.” To recover my dignity I said, “You know, I’m Jewish so I have a glass of wine on Shabbat, and during the seder.” 

She told me about drinking in college, and going to Australia on a year abroad where they drink a lot, and how she no longer drinks. I wished I wasn’t talking to anyone. I didn’t want to talk to a strange woman about drinking or drugs, and I didn’t want to be reminded of college. I didn’t want to tell her about the many Southern summer nights my twin Oliver and I spent sitting on the swinging bench, drinking whiskey and playing guitar till the whole world sank into a whirl of street lamps and bedtime. I didn’t want to tell her about hazy nights of smoke and thumping where I ran around with other children, usually unhappy and exhausted beneath stone turrets and mausoleums. I didn’t wanna tell her about the first time I got drunk, about how my buddy Zack, Oliver, and I passed around warm stolen gin in the heat around a fire pit after a Durham Bulls game. I didn’t want to tell her about the ten plagues of Egypt, which we mark each seder—a Passover ritual meal known by the Hebrew word for order—by dipping our fingers in wine and leaving bloody puddles on our plates, and how the first time I tasted wine as a child was when I licked my finger. I wanted to think my own thoughts. 

Soon enough, I got Thanh talking about herself. She told me that her parents escaped from Vietnam, that she was raised poor in Boston, and that she was the first person in her family to graduate from college. I learned that she’s had this land for seven years and that, on top of running the farm, she works for the Department of Agriculture going around the Northeast helping farmers practice sustainability and take better care of their soil. I was interested in her. She then asked me why I wanted to work at a flower farm. 

“Because it’s not useful,” I said. 

She seemed offended. “But it is!” she replied, “it sets a mood and it’s—” 

“Oh, of course they’re useful in that way. They’re useful as a form of gift-giving. They’re useful because flowers are beautiful and… abundant. Or at least they’re symbols of abundance. But they are not sustenance. I guess I wanted to work at a flower farm because flowers aren’t pragmatic… but are still necessary. Very necessary. It’s the same reason I make prints.” 

“I get that.” 

We silently uprooted tubers for a moment. I thought about my mom filling our house with flowers every Saturday after the farmers’ market. I thought about her back facing me in the kitchen as she leaned over the sink, cutting and arranging poppies and tulips and lilies and zinnias and marigolds as she listened to a crime novel on audiobook. Then the sound of a highway fell on top of me. I jumped. 

“What is that?!” 

Thanh laughed and laughed and laughed until she didn’t and pointed across a sod field to a passing train. I took a deep breath, relieved as I watched a burly train pulling steel and coal rattle across the green. How had I not noticed the train tracks that sat beside us? Why was it so much quieter now that I knew what it was? 

As my heart rate slowed to normal, I asked her why she started a flower farm. She told me about the energy she senses within all things, the energy that exists within all things. She said we all have the power to get in touch with our sixth sense that allows us to feel-see-love this energy. She told me about Reiki, which is a form of energy healing, where a Reiki master passes energy through their palms to engage your chakras. She told me that her heart chakra was broken open suddenly and that she cried, overwhelmed by a feeling of love and safety. She told me about the earth calling to her. She told me that spiritually she was a mother, that the soil is the closest thing she can get to the maternal forces which heal and bear everything—the energy from the warm core of the earth. She explained to me that she was brought to this earth to grow and nurture beautiful things; to work the land; to work in the dirt. 

We talked about this for a while and I asked questions and I heard her. I had just read a translation of the Egyptian Pyramid Texts in a book called the Dawning Moon of the Mind by Susan Marrow, which led me down a rabbit hole of mysticism, Kundalini, tantra and spiritual experiences, so I felt ready to receive her experiences wholly, to listen without pervading skepticism. I told her about what I’d learned from studying this text and how in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics ta-ntr (tantra) translates to “holy earth;” that tantric practices, as described by the oldest surviving poetic text, has alway been about connecting the human body with the sanctity of earth. 

We had been talking for a couple hours now, sweating and digging and pulling out fleshy, dirty tubers. 

“Thank you for sharing,” I said. “This has all been inspiring.” 

“Where did you come from?” she replied laughing. 

“…Durham, North Carolina.” “No, you know that’s not what I meant… you’re wise for your age.” 

“I don’t think that’s true.”

“You’re just a special person, you know that?” 

“Oh. Thank you.” 

We washed the tubers with cold well-water and I scrubbed away the dirt until my fingers turned blue and the sun began to set. With a big bouquet of red dahlias stuffed in my water bottle and sitting in my cup holder, I talked to my father on the long drive up I-95 back to my temporary home in Providence. 

The next time I was at the farm I noticed, beside the shed, one of those cruelty-free traps with something dark within it. 

“Is there something in there? In the trap?” I asked. 

“Oh yeah, there was this pesky groundhog screwing up the beds. so I set a trap for it,” Thanh responded. 

“Oh… did you not let it go?” 

“Well, yeah, I meant to trap it and drive it somewhere away from the farm, but I forgot I’d set the trap, so it died.” 

“And the body is still in there?” I asked, horrified. “Why didn’t you take the body out?”

“I don’t know, it freaked me out a little bit. Okay, Leo! Back to work!” Thanh said (a turn of phrase she loved). 

She grabbed the wheelbarrow and headed back to the field. Alone now, I looked closer into the trap and sure enough I was face-to-face with the decomposing body of a starved woodchuck. The bones poked through the flesh and glinted like teeth. 

Weeks later, when we were pulling and dividing tubers in the dirt like we always did, it began to rain. A heavy, windy rain. I grabbed the tools and we ran inside the wind tunnel. As I ran in I stepped on an irrigation valve. It snapped beneath my foot. Thanh knew exactly what I’d done. She snapped at me: 

“Leo! Watch where you step! My god.” 

I always put my feet in the wrong places on the farm. The spaces between the flower beds felt too small for my feet all laced up in their muddy boots. (It seemed to me that Thanh saw every time I misstepped.) 

I was sorry for breaking the valve, but I’d bought a couple of valves in Pittsboro last summer and I knew there were only about two bucks each, so I didn’t feel too terrible. Mostly, I was thinking about how grateful I was for the warmth inside the wind tunnel. Thanh announced that we were gonna have a quick lunch so I grabbed my water bottle and a PB&J out of my backpack. I was hungry. 

Thanh and I sat next to each other in between two flower beds without flowers and ate. We listened and watched the cold blue wind and water whip the plastic sheet. The air smelled like iron; the air smelled like winter. My body felt tired in a good way; my hands felt rough in a good way. I ate my sandwich. Thanh ate some wide noodles. She looked at me, “Is that another—” 

“Yeah, it’s a PB&J,” I laughed a little. 

“Leo! I thought you said you cooked? Why don’t you bring some real food to work?” “I don’t know, Thanh, it’s early when I get up. I just don’t have the energy, I guess.” A strong gust of wind blew. 

“If the rain clears up a bit, I’m happy to go back out there and keep working. I don’t mind if it’s drizzling a little,” I said.

“No, Leo! You can’t do that. If the soil is wet you can’t be moving dirt around. It spreads infection among the plants.” She told me the name of the infection, which I forget now. She said sternly, “Remember that, Leo.” 

“Oh, sorry. I didn’t know.” 

“We’ll work inside here instead. There’s plenty to do.” 

The sound of plastic walls in the wind is like an old washing machine. We sat there in sweatshirt-warm, wet-knee-denim silence for a moment. 

“What are you eating?” I asked. 

“It’s pasta with bolognese sauce I made last night. It’s good. I got the beef from a friend who runs a cattle farm down the road. And the tomatoes and peppers I grew right here. Better than a PB&J.” 

“Wow, that’s cool,” I said truthfully. 

“You want some?” she asked. 

“No. no,” I lied. “Thanks so much though.” 

“You sure?” 

“Okay, sure, yeah. I’ll have some.” 

She put some pasta on the lid of her Tupperware and handed it to me. I ate the noodles with my dirty fingers and felt good. We sat for a while, dry and full and present and tired and listening to the slapping sound of the plastic that separated us from the outside. Two bodies sitting apart in the smell of soil, we stared at the wall and watched it wrinkle and protect us. 

When we got up to get back to work I immediately stepped on another irrigation valve, breaking the piece and the moment. Thanh looked at me, bewildered by my inability to listen, to walk. “Leo. Are you kidding me?” she asked, shaking her head at me. 

I Venmoed her five dollars after work. Four to pay for the new valves and one for the hassle. One day on the farm I heard music. Across the street in the sod field I saw a high school band practicing outside because of COVID. I stared at the surreal scene: distanced chairs, the dissonant music of beginners, and the brass tubas and horns shining in the expanse of green. “Leo! Stop dozing off,” Thanh yelled. “Back to work!” I pulled out another tuber. Day after day we pulled, sorted, and cleaned tubers. Pulling, sorting, and cleaning tubers until they were all snuggled up warmly in Thanh’s basement. We lay frost blankets. We weeded. We dug deep pits in the high tunnel and planted tulip bulbs. We sweat, we lifted, and we worked. We prepared the land for winter. 

The week before I drove up to Thanh’s this spring, drinking coffee and covered in corn muffin crumbs, I hosted an in-person seder with some of my friends in New Haven and attended my family’s over Zoom. It was the first Passover I hadn’t been home for, and it was hard. It was the second Zoom Passover. Last year the event was marked by fear and the excitement that comes with fear. This year it was marked by dreariness. 

I had my father mail me our family’s Haggadah so I could lead the seder for my friends. Our Haggadah was illustrated and compiled by my father’s mother Ellen, who died many years before I was born. In fact, when she died, my father was about the same age I am now. For me, the only way I knew Ellen was through her drawings of misshapen stars, of Moses and his tablets, of parting seas, of camels, and of wicked children, wise children, simple children, and children unable to ask questions.

My dad has always led our seders. When I was little, watching him light candles, ceremonially wash his hands, and guide us all through the service, became my paragon of adult agency. It represented all of what it meant to be a man. 

I called my dad before the seder and he told me about the people from his childhood Passover who are depicted on the cover of our Haggadah. He pointed to and told me about the man standing in the painting, the rabbi who led their seders. 

“He died when he was 59 of a heart attack. Just like that, boom, dead,” my Dad said to me. (My father has had open heart surgery and multiple heart attacks over the last couple years.) 

“I’m that age now, which is hard to believe. When I was growing up our rabbi felt so old to me. So old. He had a big white beard and everything. I don’t feel that old now.” (My father has a big white beard.) 

Then, we talked about tradition and the way songs and stories and images of Jewish men fall onto the heads of the next generation and through time, speak to us.

Thanh was arranging tulips into bouquets when I arrived at the farm this spring. As I hopped out of the car she waved at me. 

“Thanh! It’s great to see you! How are you?” I yelled. 

“It’s good to see you too, Leo. I’m… busy, with the greenhouse. Very very busy. How are you? Where are your overalls?” 

I stood beside her and helped arrange the tulips. It was cold. 

“Good–you know I’m back in school. It’s still online, so that sucks. Oh, and I left my overalls in Durham, sadly… These are the tulips we planted last fall, right?” I asked. “Of course, yeah.” 

“Wow, that’s amazing.” 

“I’m happy that you’re getting to see the cycle.” 

Soon people arrived to pick up the tulips: lovely old couples, two old women in blouses with wispy white hair, a young family with two young girls in tutus and masks, a sad-looking young man in a Subaru, a burly old man in a trucker’s hat. 

After all the flowers were bundled in bouquets, the stems wrapped in butcher paper, we began the serious work for the day: cleaning the beds, laying out the landscape fabric, digging holes, and putting the tubers back in the earth. As I brought a pile of greenery to throw in the compost pile, I saw the cruelty-free trap right where I last saw it. I looked in and saw that it was empty. Rain and time washed away the carcass. I saw a dark stain on the steel bottom, though it may have just been a shadow. 

I dug holes for hours, getting sunburnt, sweating, feeling hungry, and feeling good. After I dug the holes we took the individual tubers from their crates, inspected them, and placed their eyes facing upward to the air so that the dahlias could sprout straight up. With firm hands, we packed the dirt around them. 

(While I dug I remembered a dream I had. In the dream, I was curled up into a fetal position, covered in boils. I looked at myself from above, but I was also in my body. Someone’s hands came into the scene and started slicing my wounds open with a delicate blade. It did not hurt. Bleeding, I unraveled.) 

As I started to dig another row, I briefly stepped on the row we had just finished. “Leo, watch where you step!” Thanh barked at me across the farm. How had she seen me?

“Yeah of course, Thanh. Sorry!” I yelled back. m

I will watch where I step. I will not tread on the flower beds. I will watch where I step. Dropping the shovel into the earth, I dug another hole.

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