The dust swirled around the soles of my shoes before gaining momentum and climbing its way up my legs. The cloud of soil and dirt surrounding me appeared to be the only cloud in the forecast, I thought as I squinted into the sky. My glasses, hat, and makeshift bandana face mask weren’t enough to keep the dry earth from settling into the creases of my skin and creating new cracks where there were none before. With a cough, I straightened my spine to stand up as I surveyed my surroundings. Rows of bodies worked diligently in the distance, the silhouettes of their hunched over backs illuminated by the glare of the sun. Their mouths were silent, most hidden by masks, their eyes were focused, and their hands were busy.
I felt a sense of communion with these workers as if the rows of raised soil were pews, our sermon preached work, and our god was a ball of fire in the sky. In the same thought, I felt isolated from them as well. This was only my second week ever working on a farm and from the silent voices of their gait telling the same story as their weathered skin, I knew this was not their first experience with work. Not just work, but work.
Sucking in a breath and quickly exhaling the dust that accompanied it, I bent over once more, bowing to the work before me. It could have been another few minutes gone by or even an hour, as time begins to not be measured by a clock but by the dipping of the sun, before I rose again to my full length. The silence of the day had been broken by a persistent, growing bird call coming from one of the rows. A few workers planting nearby had noticed, raising their heads for a moment, before tucking them back down to their chest with eyes on their hands. One of the louder men said something in Spanish to another worker and they laughed as he kicked up dirt with his boots. The gesture was meant for the source of the bird call- a light brown bird with two rings of black around its neck intermingled with white feathers. In response to the kick, it spread its tail feathers in a wide, defensive fan revealing a reddish orange canvas framed by black dots. It was beautiful, I thought. The man seemed encouraged by this show and sent another wave of dust cascading over the bird, accompanied by a short bark of laughter.
“It’s a Killdeer,” I said clearing my voice of dust as I stood straight to look at the bird. A smile crept onto my face beneath the paisley material covering most of it and I continued on to no one in particular, “They lay their eggs either in the dirt or gravel typically because they blend into the ground and it protects their eggs from predators.”
Maybe it was one of those moments where you feel as if the time to utilize the useless information in your head has come, so you do. Or maybe I just wanted to hear the sound of a voice after hours of silence, even if it was my own. The worker appeared to listen before returning his attention to the ground and I considered the matter settled until another exclamation was heard.
“ ¡Aquí!” The man who had shared in the laughter at the other man’s kick exclaimed and pointed to the ground. His call was echoed by the bird and its female counterpart, a smaller Killdeer. The calls had grown louder and gained attention from a few other workers who were close by. The mans finger was in the direction of a small cluster of eggs, nestled in between two hemp plants in the ground. The birds feathers were all but burnt orange at this point, spread wide, bristling at the man’s discovery. A spare few came over to look but soon everyone, myself included, quickly returned to the business of planting and weeding.
As the sun reclined further into the sky, no more was said and soon the call of the Killdeer could no longer be heard by anyone. It was only when we had finished a row and turned to make our way up the next one, I saw why. The bird lay still on its back, its head turned to one side, face up in the dirt. A lifeless guard to its eggs, it lay alongside the nest, silent. A few murmurs of acknowledgement came from cloth covered faces as they passed by and when the man I had spoken to earlier walked by, he made no remark but left the ground unscathed by his boot. I stood looking at the small form lying in the soil my hands had sifted through all day. There was no obvious sign of why the bird had died and I wandered at the absoluteness of its death, marked by its silence.
The solemnity of the moment was broken by its once mirrored call from the female who remained at a distance, watching. Without thinking, I scooped the bird up in my soft hands, which were covered by the thick material of gloves, preventing the hardening that was professed on the palms of my fellow workers. Its body was surprisingly sturdy, still warm, and the half closed eye I could see was wet with moisture. I carried it back to our makeshift camp at the base of the field, not sure what I was planning on doing with the stillness I cupped between my gloves.
A man stood drinking water in the shade, the newest addition to our crew, and his eyes met mine. His face was marked throughout the surface with tattoos, a tear drop on one cheek, an indistinguishable symbol on the other, and many more. We had never shared words, only work, and his body resembled the others who had done field work for years. I asked if he would help me bury the bird, as I couldn’t bring myself to throw it in our trash can littered with dead plants and cigarette butts. He finished his drink of water, set the bottle down, and joined me next to a tree, with a small trowel in hand. Our wordless relationship continued as his hands pushed into the dirt, creating space for the weight I held.
There is something about standing next to a man crouched on his knees, digging a hole for the dead bird you are holding that forges this sense of intimacy. Or maybe that is something only someone who would pick up a bird and carry it to a makeshift grave would feel. Either way, I opened my mouth and broke the silence while he dug.
“When I was little, we had a birds nest in our mailbox in Texas. I remembered checking on them every day until they hatched. And then one day one of the birds fell out since there was no cover on the front and it died. So I brought it to my brothers and we buried it in the backyard.”
My statement hung in the air for a moment before the man brushed the dirt off his pants and stood up, satisfied with the hole he had created. I bent down and gently placed it in the hole, its wings cradled by the sides of the earth.
“Tamaño perfecto,” was all he said. Perfect size. As I turned to thank him, he was already walking away, back to the field, and back to his work.
Slowly, I covered the Killdeer’s body with dirt until it was again just a spot in the ground, the grave deep enough that the wind would leave it undisturbed. The experience had taken less than ten minutes and I stretched my arms to the sky before resigning them to the soil that lay waiting for me in the field. I walked back to my row, casting one glance back at the nest, and returned my focus to the pulling and pressing of the land.
“Kill-deeer,” the female called nearby but my mouth remained silent, my eyes focused, and my hands busy.