Highways to a War

Highways to a War by Christopher J. Koch Read Free Book Online

Book: Highways to a War by Christopher J. Koch Read Free Book Online
Authors: Christopher J. Koch
feathered crowd jostling hysterically about her feet.
    Come along, ladies. Don’t push. You’ll all get your turn.
    Mike was far-eyed Mrs. Langford’s chick: her youngest, the baby of the family, for whom she had a special fondness. She seldom demonstrated feeling of any kind; but once, as we watched her feed the hens, she put her hand briefly on Mike’s head, not looking at him, before reaching into the pot again; and I saw in his quick upward glance a complete and serene admiration.
    When we were fifteen, we were always hanging about the hop fields. Whenever we were free from our chores on the farm, Mike’s feet would lead us in that direction. For a time, I wondered why.
    We weren’t allowed to do any picking: that was the job of the skilled tribe of strangers with whom we were forbidden to fraternize. But in the hop fields, we could observe them at work without opposition from Mr. Langford. They seemed to be of growing interest to Mike, in that year.
    The hop fields were like nowhere else. Leaving the summer blaze outside, Mike and I wandered through infinite, ordered glades of deep cool, as though under water. It was another climate here, and a differently colored world, where the pungent, beer-like smell I’d first met in the kiln was all around us. No green in the olive and tawny-colored countryside around New Norfolk was like that of the hops, which was the green of another hemisphere, brought here and planted by Langfords of long ago. Moving down the aisles of rustic poles, under the strict, strange wires, Mike and I were walled in by green and roofed over by green: the very light was green, the glades like the emerald-glowing church of an unknown sect.
    Far off, at the end of one of the rows, in the hard, unpitying sun of day, old John Langford presided like a king, attended by Ken. Cliff drove a four-wheeled cart pulled by two draft horses called Duke and Prince, taking away load after load up to the kiln; and in among the glades, the quiet brother Marcus moved, in his gray felt hat and dark blue shirt.
    Marcus, like his father, never quite looked like a farmer to me, as Ken and Cliff did. There was something almost monk-like about him: a sort of saturnine refinement and inwardness. He supervised the pickers like a high official, carrying a long, medieval-looking pole with a sickle on the end. This was for pulling down the hopbines from the wires; and it was Marcus who supervised the weighing of the hops from the pickers’ bins on a set of scales, recording the names and bin numbers. He was followed by two acolytes: young hired men in overalls and straw hats, who loaded the bags onto the scales. When the hops were weighed, dirty picking was sometimes found out: stones and other rubbish would appear, with which dishonest pickers weighted their sacks. None of this escaped Marcus, who rummaged sternly in the piles. The pickers would go quiet then, giving him quick glances; sometimes one of them would argue, but mostly they were good-humored. There was no use their arguing with Marcus; a dark glance or a frown would still them.
    The pickers came every summer when the hops were ripe: families of itinerant workers who moved about the island like gypsies. They arrived in crazy, battered cars on whose roofs swayed bursting suitcases and kitchen utensils, and they took up residence in a row of weatherboard huts on the south side of the property, on a dry, grassy slope near the dam. The huts were little more than sheds, with no glass in the windows; but the pickers seemed satisfied with them. They had no fixed homes, Mike told me; they trapped rabbits, and picked different crops in season, doing whatever they could find. Their children hardly ever went to school, and the authorities seldom caught up with them, since the pickers were always moving on.
    Wish I could go with them, Mike would say.
    He was fascinated by the pickers, and would ignore his father’s prohibition: we’d often walk by their huts in the

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