It's their legs you notice first, knobby and buckled, thick stiff supports for their sugar cane frames. They seem to stumble forward with a callous grace, their knees looming dangerously close to the ground before swinging back up - it reminds you of locomotive wheels. Their feet are covered in dirt or shoes with corn husk bottoms; they seem more like decoration than anything useful. They appear to linger behind the rest of them, a mirage in the fields.
Their arms are constantly stretching out, grasping, thin as reeds. They dangle for an instant, releasing the clumps of cotton into the trailing baskets, and then they extend once more, like clockwork. Their hands are finely tuned, their fingers deft claws of purpose. Their eyes never focus on the boll they are pulling; instead, their gaze falls on the rows ahead of them, to the vanishing point of the horizon. Where home is.
The man who inspects the day's work moves between them, mentally conjuring up their faults and credits as he passes through the brilliant white heat of summer. He revitalizes one of them with the soft droning hum of a hymnal; another he fixes with a silent stare of knowledge. You watch the routine with care, following the supervisor's path, wondering how he will address the next row of them.
You see the younger ones in the distance, washing clothes in a large tub. They scrub them with a firm intent, the taller of them hanging the finished ones on the line. Bubbly chat fills the air, with a splash of laughter throughout. Hidden away in the houses are the tiniest ones, sheltered from the oppressive sun, cared for by those who no longer have the power to work in the fields: a perfect cycle.
And then it's done. The baskets are collected, the oversized hats tossed into the cart, and they are released. They make their way across the dirt to their respite. The younger ones walk around carefully, collecting the tarnished trappings for tomorrow's wash. They march listlessly into their houses, their energy sapped, their bodies covered with stagnant sweat. Slowly but surely they are revived by sensitive hands working rich linseed oil into their weary joints. You sense it is a most grueling process, this labor of love.
Finally they are alive again, and like phoenixes rise up to join the others for a celebration. They step out of their homes as the looming sun abandons its post and the quiet, cool mystery of darkness begins to settle in. The elderly stand around a small fire, watching a boiling pot, stirring it with disinterest. The others move on to their favorite spots, leaning against trees and fence posts, squatting carefully in the tall grass, conversing with their neighbors or whistling a lively tune.
Now it is all ready, and everyone gathers around a long table. You spy a small old man sitting at the center with bandages on his wrists, both concealing and revealing the tender wounds of a thousand stings. He bows his head in silent prayer, and the group slowly joins him. The group finishes in a staggered unison, and almost sympathetically begin to pass the plates of food around, taking what they please from each. Slowly the whispered conversation rises to a roar once more, the moon casting a hallowed glow over the affair. You still have not learned what they are celebrating. Soon the dinner is over, and the eldest return to their cabins, followed in tow by young mothers and fathers. Others stay outside, helping to clear the table and stoke the fire.
And out in the beautiful black night the youngest chase lightning bugs through the fields. They squeal with glee as their glowing captives skitter across their unblemished hands. They show them off to their mothers and fathers, who admonish them to be careful with God's creatures. And the youngest nod gravely, opening their cupped hands to the heavens, watching as they soar upwards into the sky, these living machines of wonder and delight.